"I’m the parent who wants their kids to have sex": Mary Louise Parker talks poetry, nudity, one-night stands and her brilliant new book

Talking politics, feminism, sex and parenting -- sometimes all at once -- with the brilliant actress-turned-writer

Published December 19, 2015 11:00PM (EST)

Mary-Louise Parker   (AP/mediapunch)
Mary-Louise Parker (AP/mediapunch)

I was told I’d like Mary Louise Parker. I was inclined to. Not only because I’m a fan of her acting and like that she’s an oddball who seems allergic to bullshit, but because she too is a member of the dead dad’s club, and her first book has her dad’s fingerprints all over it. Parker’s debut, “Dear Mr. You,” is a celebration of the masculine presented in the form of letters penned to various men in Parker’s life, including the grandfather she never met, her accountant and the “future man who loves my daughter” (which appeared in a column Parker wrote for Esquire).

In person, Parker buzzes with an electric intelligence, moving at warp speed between the poetry of Philip Larkin, the life of bees, blow jobs and Yaqui Indian holy days. She is warm, pathologically charming, quick to laugh, and her trademark second-too-long stare -- which makes her appear capable of breaking down the molecular structure of a spoon -- suggests she is just dialed in deeper to the universe than the rest of us poor fools. Which you’d only need read the book to discover.

Our conversation took place in a diner in Brooklyn Heights. We began talking about how loud it is appropriate to talk in a café, given the ratio of customers on computers to just-there-for-the-brew customers, and ended nearly two hours later recalling our favorite lines from Kevin Young’s “Bereavement,” a poem about the sudden death of his father and the dogs he’d left behind. "Their grief is colossal and forgetful,” we say.

The good news -- no, the great news -- is that “Dear Mr. You” is a revelation and Ms. Parker, who I hope writes many more books, the real deal.

I’m going to be honest and say I didn’t know what to expect from “Dear Mr. You.” I’ve always been a fan of your acting, but when I heard you had written a book I was like, God, I hope it’s good. I knew you’d written for Esquire, but I had no idea you were such a gifted, natural, amazing like I’m dog-earing-pages-and-underlining-sentences good writer. I could imagine people in the literary world rolling their eyes like, Super, another Tom-Hanks-in-the-New-Yorker situation.

My agent wanted to send it out blind without my name on it. That was a very good idea.

It was a very good idea.

The tricky thing about the book is, you know, Mary Louise Parker wrote a book, but it’s hopefully not the book that you think she would write. There’s very little about acting in the book anyway. It wasn’t like a conscious omission or anything. It wasn’t one of those stories that I was compelled to tell. It’s not like I’m a hugely famous person. It’s not like I’m an icon or something -- why would you wanna read it anyway? It would be pretty audacious of me to write a book like that.

And I love books and I love reading and I love writing. I’m not interested in reading those other kind of books, either, and I completely understand that someone would think that’s what I wrote, of course they would be skeptical because why would they think otherwise? Unless they read my writing in Esquire. After a certain point I got used to people making comments, like Did you write that yourself? I didn’t really tell anyone I was writing a book. I just saw a couple of smirks, which I understand, I really do.

Plus, you are a famously private person.

I’m not interested in laying out the story of life in any way or sense. Whatever was revealed about me in this book was by default. I was telling all these stories about these men, and I took a lot of creative license with it. I wanted to write a book that was entirely about gratitude but still unflinching in the way that I depicted certain things -- and about the fact that I haven’t figured out all of this.

Some people have called it a memoir but it’s more literary non-fiction.

It was not a memoir to me. How could it be? There’s so little about acting, there’s so little about so much of my life. The term memoir -- there’s no give in that definition, that I realized.

I think also you have to write the book you want to read and the book only you can write. Someone else can write a book about you, and if you worked with them it could be a perfectly acceptable representation of your life. But no one else could write this book. Only you could write this book. I don’t know why anybody would waste their time writing something they don’t care deeply about or that they’re not really passionate about. If you really do things wholeheartedly, you wouldn’t want to compromise like that.

What inspired the book, what sparked it was my relationship with my dad. At the end of the day that’s why the book exists at all. On a number of levels, so much of it, even the cover – I wanted that oyster on the cover, you know, for my dad.

My first book — it’s a novel in short stories — is in part about my father.

Really? Some people don’t get that. They’re suspicious of it.

People are suspicious of the daddy thing. And they’re suspicious of women who like men. When a man likes women, it’s a really positive thing. If a woman says she likes men, it’s like warning bells.

I never thought about that before. I think that’s probably true.

When a man likes women, it’s seen as a positive thing. You know, “Oh, George Clooney, he really likes women,” and every one goes, “Wow, how marvelous!”

Why wouldn’t he?

I know. But if a woman who enjoys the company of men, she’s suddenly suspect. It’s, "Oh, she’s one of those women--a woman who doesn’t like women."

Oh right, right, right. “Who needs that attention?” — which is also true. What’s wrong with that? It’s lovely attention to have, and to bask in it is lovely. Why wouldn’t you want that? If you live your life at the expense of other things, obviously, that’s a different story. But the book is just about things male. Themes male and textures and smells and things like that. Like in “Man out of Time” --

The man you meet at the party with the beautiful shoes, who has cancer...

 -- the way he’s dressed, there’s something so male about him. He was really beautiful.

That reminds me, we meet his girlfriend in that piece ... Some reader-reviewers have objected to the fact that there aren’t more women in the book.

In “Dear Orderly,” I go on about my mother, but the point is, that’s not the book I wrote. I wrote a book called, “Dear Mr. You.” I didn’t write a book called, “This Is the Story of My Life and My Appreciation of Humanity.”

I don’t read comments or reviews or things like that, so it gives me the freedom to kind of imagine whatever book I wanted. I wasn’t doing something to try to please someone, except my Dad, wherever he is, and myself.

It’s really quite simple to untangle. It’s like these are some men that I found heroic, and I wanted to write my own rumination on that, and I wrote it in probably four and a half months. It might have been a different book if I had more time to write it. There are a lot of people I would have loved to have written about.

Did you write any letters that didn’t make the cut?

Oh yeah, many.

Was it because you were dissatisfied with the way they turned out, or in the end, did they not work as part of the whole?

Well, some felt like they were repeating an emotional note. Some weren’t as vivid. Then there was one about this painter that I love so much, and he had a very big effect on my life. I was actually writing it the night that I got sick -- that turned into “Dear Doctor.”

And I do like that letter, it just didn’t fit in with the rest of the book. It was tonally very different. But some of my favourite sentences were in that letter.

There is one letter, “Dear Cerberus,” that is written not to one man, but to three beastly ex-boyfriends who you say, “You were the worst of those I called darling.”

That’s a conversation that I still have with myself. I fully don’t understand those relationships, but I am grateful for them as corny as it sounds--there were sweet aspects to those relationships. In the book I say, “I could be the bad person in someone else’s story.”

You are exceptionally even-handed.

There’s one mean line in the entire book, and I just could not take it out, because I liked it so much.

I think I know what it is.

In the end, I admit that "Having sex with you was like making snow angels under a rhino" -- I couldn’t take that out.

I knew it. And no, you’re not going to kill that darling,

I didn’t say who it was! When I was writing for Esquire, I once wrote something, or maybe twice if I’m honest ... I took a shot at somebody, in some way, for a joke. It was not that funny, the piece was not better — I was so filled with shame when I saw it. I really don’t think I would ever do that again. It would take a lot. Words are so powerful to me, and now they’re so endurable and transferable, and they show up somewhere else 20 years later. There’s no reason.

I wanted to write — I have a son — something positive, something good. These are good stories about people that don’t get told. These men, they’re heroic and incredible, and Father Bob [“Dear Father Bob,” in which MLP asks the minister if there is anyone in Hell] changed the entire way I look at religion just by pausing before he answered my question at the age of nine. It had a profound effect on the way I treat other people.

Is that so?

I’m a deeply, deeply, obviously flawed person but I wanted it to be something sweet. I didn’t want it to be an indictment of anyone or a finger wagging, because I could write that book. It could be really clever, and there are a lot of things I could say that are salacious or whatever. But, that’s not what I want to show my children.

I’ve written things that, at the time, I thought were so clever, so funny, so smart, but in hindsight just seem naked and pathetic. The person who took the napalm to the face doesn’t see it as naked or pathetic, of course; they just see what I wrote as nasty.

The most injurious thing is to make someone believe something unkind about themselves. There’s nothing I can do, there’s no bubble I can put myself in, that will protect me from cynicism and disdain and aggression. I’m totally aware that that’s a world I live in, because I chose to do this with my life. Had there been cell phones and Internet when I started acting, I’d probably be a kindergarten teacher.

If that technology existed while I was in high school, I would have had to kill myself to protect my family’s honor.

No way, no way. There’s no way. There’s so many more ways of being dishonest now that didn’t exist before, in terms of, like, the way people flirt with each other on the Internet. Or the way that people behave inappropriately or things that we say about one another — it depresses me. People have been so kind to me. I’m always so grateful for that.

I really don’t care if someone takes issue with what I wrote for lack of … bitchiness. My children were at the book party last night and I really felt like they understood what was different about my book. My son especially was proud, and that’s, like, as big an achievement as my parents being proud of me. I got to have that moment for just a little second. It’s hard for me to take in things that are good sometimes. I got to feel that for a second. I’m glad that when they grow up -- if they choose to read it -- that’s the book I wrote.

The first book you wrote.

Yeah, hopefully. I can just flail around for a whole decade. It’s hard to organize me.

It’s just that I can’t decide. Obviously I haven’t had a lot of space to sit around and think, but it just isn’t clear yet. But thank you for saying my first book. I want to so deeply start writing again, because I feel good when I’m doing it. Not a lot of stuff feels this good.

I get it. Nothing in the world feels as good as writing when it’s going well. Writing is the only thing I’ve ever done outside of being a mother that when I’m doing it I don’t feel like there is something else, something else more important, that I should be doing.

I have it on stage as well. It’s hard to give to that and be a mother. So I don’t do as many plays as I used to.

And your kids are proud of you!

Well, they were for a second. But I don’t know if they are, or they should be, because I’m not the world’s most perfect mother.

Who is? Who would like her?

Right, right!

Something that I liked — this gets back to what we were talking about earlier -- what would people go for the book for? One thing a certain kind of reader is going to go to the book for is a letter to your ex. [Billy Crudup, who in an act of supreme dickishness left MLP for Claire Danes when she was seven months pregnant.] But he’s not physically there. Instead what we see in “Dear Mr. Cab Driver” is you, hugely pregnant, having an epic meltdown and screaming at a Sikh taxi driver.

I don’t know how you could have any faith in me as the narrator of that book, if I didn’t present myself honestly. There’s a moment where somebody unwittingly held up a mirror -- just by staring at me …

We all suffer in different ways.

I was so caught up in myself, and feeling persecuted. Had I reacted a different way that morning, I would’ve been heroic but I had about this much going for me. I feel like you can maybe invest in me a little bit more as the person who’s telling you the stories in this book.

If you hadn’t written about how the split affected you, that would’ve been the story. People would say, She’s dishonest. She left out this huge part of her life. Instead what we get is the overwhelming experience of him being absent in your life when he should have been there. Which is the reality. He is fully present in his absence and you do it so elegantly.

It’s funny because – and it wasn’t that conscious; I wasn’t scheming — I just remembered that moment, and that was the story that I wanted to tell.

I was terrible when I was pregnant. Completely mad. I remember a moment where my husband did something -- probably he was standing in the way of me getting to the refrigerator -- and I just flipped out. I grabbed a bottle of Windex and pointed it at his face. He said, “Are you serious?” and I was like, “I will blind you.”

A lot of women don’t wanna own that.

No, they don’t. It makes women feel bad about themselves, so we lie sometimes about what it is really like to be a woman.

Or a mother.

I wrote an essay about getting angry at my children and the president of the PTA will never let me live it down. Do you consider yourself a feminist?

What’s a feminist again? I feel like it’s an elastic term, isn’t it?

I suppose the simplest definition would be believing that women are entitled to the same rights, opportunities and protections under the law as men. Equal pay for equal work, complete sovereignty over their bodies ...

As opposed to being a sociopath? You can’t argue with those points.

But people do. In this day and age, calling yourself feminist, whether you are a man or woman, has become a political statement.

I guess I don’t examine it much. I also try to cultivate a life with as little politics and news as possible. I don’t put the news on in my house. I don’t have newspapers.

Why is that?

Because I can’t put myself on a loop about a woman in Queens who was beaten to death by her son, or her six kids. If something happens, and I can help, I will help, and I will show up. If there’s a cause that I can help or a cause that I can create, I will. Things that I can’t affect, I don’t want them to get stuck in my brain chip to the point where I can’t move on.

A healthier person, perhaps, can look at the news and not be affected. I can’t really. And a healthier person can have certain newspapers in their house. I just don’t want to know. I’m just not interested in politics whatsoever.

There is a lot of nudity in the book. Maybe not a lot a lot, but a fair amount.

I wrote an article for Esquire -- it was the first big article they gave me -- it’s not very good; it’s very over-written; it’s way too clever; but it’s about nudity. I think nudity is the greatest distraction.

How so?

No one is looking at what you’re saying or how you’re doing or the content. It becomes all about the shape of your nipple or this or that. People think it’s so revealing and exposing, and in some way it’s the biggest detour. I really don’t have problems with nudity or sex. I don’t find sex shocking … I told my daughter the other day, “Let’s go jump on the trampoline naked!” And my daughter literally said, “It’s much more reasonable to wear a sweater.” But I was like, “Come on! We’re going to jump; it’s going to be awesome.”

Readers will be happy to know there is a lot of sex. Good sex, bad sex, great writing about sex.

Whenever I write about sex, it comes out almost independently. It always feels very natural, in a way that was initially surprising to me. It was not that hard. You can make a point so well with sex in acting, or in writing.

I think about writing about sex is like writing about violence, less is always more. The best sex scenes are those in which somebody farts or loses a contact or cries. Nobody comes together or comes at all.

There’s such opportunity there that just gets missed, because people want sex to look and sound like “sex.” That’s why the woman is always writhing and coming and enjoying it and is in flattering positions. But sex can be really, really revealing about a character or a moment.

There is that restaurant scene in “Dear Cerberus” where one of the three abusive boyfriends drags you into the bathroom and starts fucking you from behind and then -- a woman comes out of the stall, and he just leaves you standing there with your ass out. That felt authentic. A lot of people wouldn’t write that. Or add, “That’s a swell game if you play it right, but this was not that.”

I have a pretty wide palate — there’s not a lot that I find horrifying.

Sex is free. I want my kids to love it. I’m the parent who wants their kids to have sex. Not this second — but I want them to enjoy that, and I want them to know how to treat another person.

I feel like there’s a lot of shame and a lot of misfire and a lot of misinformation, and I think people end up getting hurt more. There needs to be a conversation about sexual etiquette; that shouldn’t be limited to when you talk to your children about not getting pregnant. There is also the way that you treat someone. The way we treat people.

I have talked to my son about the importance of reciprocity and how sex is about some kind of connection.

Sometimes that connection is just, like, a consensual release. And that’s fine. But it is knowing the difference. What happened to the one-night stand? Now, you pick it. It is like FreshDirect. This week they show you mangos on FreshDirect, and suddenly I feel I need mangos. And they send them to you.

I don’t think it yields as great stories.

Different stories.

There is just so much exposure to everything all the time but not real exposure. It is a virtual exposure: to sex, to violence, friendships. It is like an approximation of, but no real immersion in, someone else’s reality. That is what books do: they immerse you in someone else’s narrative. Movies can also do that sometimes. Poetry does that for me.

But books are different because the writer and reader are collaborating. The writer supplies the language and the reader builds the world in their mind. You don’t have that kind of intimate relationship in any other art form.

And the very best to induce compassion. You are walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, at its very best.

We went to stay with some Maasai warriors for a day, and my son went over to this woman, whom they said was over 100; they didn’t know how old exactly, and then I asked him, “You don’t speak Swahili, what did you say?” He said, “I said, 'Do you feel good?'” Of course, she did. Would I think to do that? I wouldn’t think to do that. They said she lived to be that old because she drank cow’s blood, which they were able to extract from the cow without killing it. I was going to do that, but somehow the cow’s blood didn’t show up. I just felt like I had to do it.

The letter to your neighbor who keeps the bees, “Dear Neighbor,” is terrific.

Bees are unbelievable. The way they kick the male out of the hive and send these signals back and forth to each other. He taught me so much about that. He’s so interesting.

And they make art, and some can sting you over and over again without dying. My mother and sister and daughter all have the same bee tattoo. It’s the same bee that has flown between each of us, linking us together.

I love that image of your neighbor driving, holding the snake he caught on your property out the car window.

I did a poster for "Weeds" with a snake. The snake was not superimposed. That was a real snake. I think it was a boa constrictor. They kept telling me it never bites, it never bites, it never bites, until it was wrapped around my body. I was like, “Something changed.” They said, “Usually, she doesn’t bite when she’s been fed.” I said, “You said, 'never.'” I was okay with that experience. But flying cockroaches, those are rough for me. The ones you see in Texas on the shower curtain.

I have trouble with water snakes — water moccasins.

Because they are so sinister-looking!

I did a movie once and we were shooting a scene by the pond. And I said, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but there is a leech an inch from my lady town. Someone needs to come take care of this.”

I could handle a snake better than a leech. You read "Little House in the Prairie" and "On the Banks of Plum Creek," of course. Laura luring nasty Nellie Olsen out into the leech-infested waters ...

I love those books, and I’m reading them to my daughter right now. She’s African, obviously, and every once in a while, we’ll get her hair box-braided. The last time, I didn’t want her to sit there on the iPad so I started reading them to her. At first, she was really giving me the evil eye because she was like, “I have to sit through this, and you want me to listen to 'Prairie" time?'” When I went to Boston recently she made me read her the book. She likes it. And I love that she likes it.

It’s cool that your kids are so tuned into your writing.

When I was writing this, my daughter used to watch me hit word count to see how many words I had. And she asked, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Checking to see how many words I have.” “How many do you need?” And I said, “Well, I’ll probably end up with this many.” And she asked if I had to have that many words. And I said, “Yes.” And I kept writing. And an hour later, she came in. She had pieces of white paper and said, “I brought some words for you, mommy.” It was the sweetest.

See, you need to write more books.

I hope I do. I want to.

What about poetry?

I love poetry.

I know your dad wrote poetry.

We would send each other poems in the mailbox. My dad kept this Philip Levine poem in his wallet till the day he died that I’d sent him in the mail. And I have the last line of “Ask for Nothing,” stamped on the wall of my country house.

What is the last line?

“The one road/whitened in moonlight leads everywhere.”

Were their any writers who inspired you or you read and thought, “Yes, I want to do this.”

No, I don’t think so. Certainly, writing affected me so profoundly. The playwrights, the songwriters, the books, the poems affected me so much and comforted me so much. I think that’s what words do now. As Mary Karr said, she felt that poetry never left her stranded. When you’re in a story or curling up in bed with a book, you don’t feel alone. And I think that’s what it has done for me. When I am writing, I do not feel alone. It gives both ways.

Who else do you read?

I love Deborah Eisenberg. I love Wally Shawn too, because he is so goddamn smart. He loves women. The way he looks in your eyes. He loves people. He is confident. He is honest. He is real. He is one of those people, who doesn’t rush to fill a silence.

I wish I had that quality.

My nature is a quiet person, but sometimes people get freaked out by that. I’ve been around quiet people. I’ve been around chatty people. It doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. I daydream. Listening is massive.

I want to ask you about the line in the book where you say that all the good things that you are come from your father, as well as the more complicated things.

I think that put people off. As a woman, you have to be filled with passion, whether that is appetite, or joy, or temper or anything extreme. Women are meant to be temperate, I think. My friend used to say this to me: “There is not a whole lot of grey area with you except for those gaps of pure nothing.”

I wanted to be one of those people who wanted to let things roll of their back, or just didn’t have opinions, maybe. And when that happens, I find that to be a relief. But, sometimes, I feel burdened by too much –

I get that. I spend so much time making people feel comfortable.

And if I am suddenly in the company of somebody, who for whatever reason gets me --

Like the fatherly Hollywood accountant in “Dear Abraham” -- whose couch you fall asleep on.

 -- there is a little something that puts you to sleep. When I say in “Cerberus,” "Why did I never call the pound?" I am overvaluing potential, or the little good things that people do.

I like romance. I really kind of hate drama. There is nothing I hate more than a man who wants to argue in the middle of a street. I really crave the idea of being with somebody who bores the hell out of you.

It all maybe comes back to your father. I get that.

In some way, his (my father’s) was the approval that I wanted and his was the approval that I sought. And that made me a person. It was my father who made me think I could write a book, be an actress, and could do whatever I want. I don’t have that now. All I have now is what I think he would say, which is so strong that I think it was just as good.

By Elissa Schappell

Elissa Schappell is the author of, most recently, the short-story collection "Blueprints for Building Better Girls."

MORE FROM Elissa Schappell

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