The Amy Krouse Rosenthal Interview

Today is the day to adapt it for Americans.

I would just like to point out that the method of picking teams went 3 for 4 last night. It's not too late to change your picks.

My favorite sketch comedy group, Schadenfreude, has a hot new website, plus, now their NPR show follows This American Life. If you listen to TAL on Saturdays, why don't you try listening online so you can catch Schad? You won't be sorry, I promise.

Today's interviewee is a fabulous writer here in Chicago, who has entertained many with her writings for Might magazine, NPR, her previous books and humor column. Now, though, you must read her current book, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, a memoir unlike any you have ever read. How many memoirs are alphabetical and are bound to have you saying "I think that too!" almost on every page? Oh, by the way, she will be reading here in Chicago on April 14 and I will totally be there.

The Amy Krouse Rosenthal Interview: The Abridged Version

There are a few sections in the book that are reader-interactive, that invite the reader to respond to the book. Was it difficult to arrange that with the publisher?
No. It was clear from the beginning, from the very first draft of this book, that I was into the idea of reader participation and that a website/online companion for this book was simply a must. I never thought of the (at the time future) website as an appendage or afterthought or just a place to flaunt reviews and plug readings. was always a very integral part of the book in my mind. I wanted the book and its cyber self to have a very natural, symbiotic, and playful but meaningful relationship. No casual sex for those two.

As you know from your own website, creating one isn't the biggest deal in the world, though it certainly took a lot of time to get it right, to get the site looking and behaving like it does now. I owe all that to Matt Maldre, a fabulous young web designer.

A lot of details and anecdotes go far back into your life. Did you rely on journals, other people, or your memory?
Oh boy. That's the million-dollar question. Did I rely on journals? Absolutely. I kept quite a few over the years. Did I rely on other people? Yep. Early on I went through a process of interviewing childhood friends, old boyfriends, my college roommate, a friend I had a falling out with..I wanted to see how their memories aligned with my own. It was a weird but mostly pleasing experience, a bit like being at your own funeral, talking about myself and my past in that sort of distanced 3rd party way. I also had the benefit of going through lots of boxes of memorabilia that my mom kept over the years. She not only saved everything, but she is compulsively organized (though I did a very nice job of messing it all up.) The trick was sifting through everything and finding the rare item that was interesting or relevant; it was like I was looking for clues but clues for what, I didn't know. A couple times there was a moment of yes, this is a clue, I can use this, like after I'd written the entry "Feel like myself," and I mention there that I hate wearing socks, I soon thereafter came across my baby book and noticed that on this one page that talked about everything I liked and wore and did, my mom had filled out every single line except the one that asked socks.

This whole notion of memory and truth and its role in a work of nonfiction like this was something I was pretty enamored with. I mean, is there even such a thing as absolute truth, one clean perfect undisputable version of an event or memory? Does "intention" count for a lot-if I believe it to be 100% true, but later find out my friend has a slightly different memory of that same experience, is my version of the story any less "true." Anyway, after I finished a complete draft, I decided that the only way to really confirm its supposed "authenticity" was to put myself through the exercise of having a polygraph test.

I tracked down a licensed polygraph examiner and explained my mission. She was a bit befuddled, I have to say, but ultimately agreed to the experiment. The questions I wrote to ask myself were, "Is what I've written here the truth as I know it?" and "Do I intend to tell the truth today?" And even "Did I write this book to the best of my ability?" So she wired me up and we did it. A couple weeks later I received the formal report: I passed! In the end, she did not want me to publish the results in my book for her own professional ethics reasons, and I had to respect that.

You call some people by name in the book, and others by the first letter. Did you contact these people and they declined having their names used, or was it your discretion?
My discretion. Sometimes it felt fine to use a name, other times not. Remember that great Woody Allen passage, I forget which book it's in, maybe Without Feathers, where he writes something like, "I'm so in love with L. I love her so much. She is the love of my life. I just wish she'd tell me her full name."

How did you come up with the encyclopedia format?
At the beginning of the book, in the prologue section titled "Evolution of this Moment," I recount what inspired the idea of this book which I'll gladly summarize here because I like to believe it's a fascinating bit of serendipity.

I had a bunch of material I knew I wanted to incorporate into a book, work I had accumulated from writing a weekly column for four years. For strictly organizational purposes, I assembled the random bits in alphabetical order, just to keep it in some easy-to-access order in my computer. But I couldn't for the life of me figure out what the book wanted to be, what shape it would take, what the hell was this mess? I knew everything it wasn't, like it wasn't a straight memoir. I knew it wasn't a collection of essays. I began fervently researching all the available forms of nonfiction, from autobiography to ancient texts to FBI reports. One day it occurred to me, what is the quintessential form of nonfiction: the encyclopedia. I knew I had to fold that into my research. I hadn't really looked at one since, like, 7th grade, working on a report about Alexander Graham Bell. I randomly grabbed a volume off the shelf in my office and threw it on my bed to read that night. When I got in bed, I saw that it was Volume E. Opened it up to Einstein's entry. Read that. Interesting. Kept reading. Came to the entry "Encyclopedia"-kinda cool, that the encyclopedia contains an entry titled Encyclopedia. Read all about the history of the encyclopedia, when first one was written, how they changed over the years, how one would define an encyclopedia. And that's when it struck me: I was creating an encyclopedia, a personal encyclopedia. Once I had that anchoring concept, I quickly assembled the limited material I did have, and then I got down to the business of writing my head off.

You come up with a lot of social experiments involving karma and goodness. Where did these originate?
My friend Charise and I (she's mentioned in the book a lot), we started doing stuff like that together in the mid 90's. These experiments and public messages sort of defined our friendship at the time. For whatever reasons, it felt right and real to us, like we weren't at all forcing something against our wills, but rather going along with this thing we were intrigued by and just plain into. We plastered weird signs in grocery stores. We set up a conceptual lemonade stand. We stood on a street corner and tried to give away a choice of a shoe, book, or dollar bill to passerbys. Certainly, these things could be considered pointless, but they felt worthwhile and super fun to us.

So you know, creating the Lost and Found Project for my book, it wasn't this whacked- out, out-of-nowhere idea. I mean, it's fair to say it is a bit whacked-out, but not in an isolated way; it's definitely part of a natural progression of
whacked-out tendencies.

About the Lost and Found Project. This literary game of hide'n'seek was born out of a phone conversation with my editor, Annik, a couple months prior. Here's the gist. I gather up 20 or so friends and family members ("book hiding specialists") to help hide/leave 150 copies of the book around the city. Taped to the front of each book is a note that says, "This book was intentionally left here for you to find. We hope you find some meaning in it. 149 other people are currently finding copies around the city. If you want to share when and where you found the book, stop by and click on Lost and Found." People emailed in some rather serendipitous stories of how they found the book; it was really cool. We always knew San Francisco was going to be one of the next Lost and Found cities, it was just a matter of when. "When" turned out to be just before a reading I did at "Book Passage" there a couple weeks ago. A reporter from the San Francisco
Weekly tagged along as my agent Amy Rennert and I hid the first 10 books. Hiding spots included: inside newspaper box; inside the cooler at a Peet's Coffee; on the seat of a trolley car; on the windshield of a car. The best though was this: we left one at a bus stop, and then watched two photographer-types (they looked more like artists than tourists) pass by the bus stop. They back-track a second later, this lone book apparently catching their eye. They're behind the glass so they walk around in front and closely examine the book. We're across the street watching as they read the note and keep looking at one another. Of course we're dying, thinking, "Take it, take it!" (I always leave after I've hidden a book so I've actually never seen someone walk away with it.) All of a sudden she opens up her fancy camera and starts taking pictures of it. After a few seconds of this, my mind catches up to the reality of it, and I quickly scramble in my bag, grab my digital camera, and take a picture of THEM taking a picture of my book. It was all very Charlie Kaufmann-esque.

A.J. Jacobs released a book about him reading the entire encyclopedia. If you had to read just one book, which letter would it be?
X. Shortest volume.

Tell me about the illustrations in the book.
The illustrations for the book were done by Jeffrey Middleton. He's the same fellow who did all the illustrations for the latest edition of the Webster's dictionary. He recently sent me a bunch of notes about the drawing process that I think are pretty interesting. This from Jeffrey:

"It was fun to draw these. I was staying out in the desert of Arizona last summer, and I'd usually start on these early in the morning. I often had a Benjamin Franklin / PBS DVD playing while I was drawing, or sometimes would have the doors open to hear the desert doves cooing. Sometimes I would draw in a coffee shop, too. Some of these took an hour or two, others took a few days. Radish-- was the first illustration drawn. For this illustration, I placed the radish on a table, and the leaves wilted quickly. It was about 116 degrees outside. It was like one of those old, fast-motion science films, watching those leaves wilt. Sandwich in the trash-- I laughed while I was drawing this. I don't know why, I don't usually do that. That is, I'm usually too concerned with composition, shapes, shading, and the idea to really think about a picture enough to laugh, chuckle, whatever. It's just the idea of the sandwich in the garbage, drawing it...anyway, I hope the sandwich looks just a little bit tasty.

"Toilet- toilets are just funny (I mean, I think they are). They are also fun to draw. See, it's things like this, drawing a toilet, that made this project fun. Honestly.

"Peppers- I guess, or I suppose, that I had never really thought about the taste difference between red and green peppers. But the two that are illustrated in the book, I ate them after drawing them, and they did indeed taste different. Or was that because I had read the entry?

"Streetlight- this feels peaceful to me. It is an illustration of born of peaceful karma, unlike the semi cab illustration."

You recently made an offer that if the book ever makes it to the New York Times Bestseller List, you'll buying everyone a round of drinks. Are you serious?
Absolutely. I'll pick a bar in town, post it on the website, and anyone who shows up with a copy of this interview, drinks on me. (or people can email me now-I am keeping an inbox folder of folks who've already requested to be alerted to such a gathering.)

How does it feel to be the 120th person interviewed for