Q: Okay, let's begin with the question that will no doubt be on the mind of every person who reads this book: are the stories true?
A: You're right, it's the question I'm most often asked about my work, and the Men My Mother Dated stories in particular. Ira Glass, the host of "This American Life," once told me that David Sedaris gets the same question, and I liked his answer, as Ira quoted it: "They're true enough."
That's pretty much how I feel about these stories. They were inspired by my mom's tales of her youthful romantic exploits, and beyond that I don't really think it's important to address specifics about what's true and what isn't in any given adventure.
When my siblings and I were kids, we used to ask Mom about the men she dated before marrying my father, and she had some great stories to tell. When you're ten years old, it's hard to imagine your parents having had lives before you were born. And even later, once you've begun dating, it can be difficult to picture them facing the same romantic trials and tribulations -- and triumphs, even -- that you're going through...falling hard for someone who proves to be a real jerk, being tempted by some worldly stranger, experiencing feelings for an older man or someone who's already married. Becoming obsessed with someone who doesn't return your interest in the least.
These are the kind of things that most of us go through in our lives, but we somehow don't imagine that our parents experienced them, too -- that there was a time when they weren't a matched set -- or, in some cases, a mismatched set -- but were just feeling it out, still playing the field, still trying to suss out what they wanted from life and what they were willing to settle for.
In writing the book, I had fun imagining my mom as a young woman, with the same passions and hopes and fears and dreams that we all experience. I enjoyed bringing to life these other men in her life, these mysterious, long-alluded-to figures from her past. No mom is just a mom; they've all got a sort of past life that, for the most part, remains their own little secret.
Q: What is it about your mother that made you write this book? Was it her interesting dating history, or was it more about your relationship with her? Why not write about your father's relationships?
A: I don't know if it's a sexist thing, if we sort of expect that our fathers dated other women but are somehow surprised to learn that our mothers have a romantic history that extends beyond their relationships with our fathers. Perhaps, as Ira Glass has jokingly suggested in talking about these stories, it's an Oedipal thing. I don't know. I certainly think I could write entertaining stories about my father's romantic adventures; he was -- and is -- a great-looking and very charming guy, so I'm sure he has his share of war stories. But the tales he told us when we were growing up -- or, perhaps more accurately, the questions we asked him about his youth -- tended to be about other aspects of his life. Not that Mom limited herself to tales from the dating front, either; she didn't. But those stories seemed to intrigue my siblings and me, and we returned to them again and again.
Q: How does your father feel about the book?
A: Oh, I think he's quite pleased with it. He pops up in several of the stories, you know, so he's definitely a key figure in the book's mythology. I like it that, through those several appearances, his character slowly takes shape, that the reader learns about him gradually. He's not the central figure in any of the stories, but my last name tips it off that, of all the men mom dated, he's the one she married. They celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary last year, so he clearly has staying power.
Q: Did your mother's relationships affect your relationships?
A: Not directly. I was never as active a dater as she was in her day. But I got stood up once when I was in college and was taking it kind of hard when Mom shared that she'd done the very same thing to a guy when she was that age. He was a member of a fraternity to whom Mom was some kind of official "little sister," so she was pals with most of his frat brothers. When he took something more than a platonic interest in her, she panicked and cancelled what she'd expected would be just a friendly date. It got her in dutch not only with him but with all his fraternity brothers. That story was a bit of a pick-me-up, giving me a chuckle at a time when I was blue, but it was an eye-opener, too. It had never occurred to me that Mom could do such a thing, and it convinced me to let the woman who stood me up (with whom I'm still good friends, by the way) off the hook.
Q: Do you think that the dating scene has improved or gotten worse since your mother was dating?
A: Oh, I think it's drastically different. I think men and women can be friends far more easily today than in my parents' day. My father has often admitted to being a bit mystified -- though not necessarily displeased -- that I have so many female friends. In his day, apparently, you didn't really hang out with young women; you dated them. So I guess there existed an ever-present sense of mystery, that bit of sexual tension, that's not always at play today between men and women in social situations.
In one story in the book, Mom goes to see the same movie six different times with six different men in a two week period. That was one of the most difficult stories to write, because I just don't think that would happen today. I can't imagine a young woman today not speaking up after having already seen a movie once or twice. Mom can be very gracious and accommodating, but she's no shrinking violet. I tend to think it was the time she grew up in and the fact that those were "dates," and not just evenings out in the company of a male friend, that stifled any impulse she might have had to suggest seeing another film instead.
I also don't think that most single people today, male or female, cast such a wide net that they would ever go out with six different people in a two week period.
On another occasion -- and this is in the book, too -- Mom went on five dates in one day. The most I've ever managed in one day was two dates. I'm like some light-hitting utility infielder on an expansion team trying to live up to the standards set by Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. They were giants in those days, I'm telling you.
Q: You've spent your life in two quite disparate locales: You were born and raised in Oklahoma City, but have lived for many years now in New York City. Which is more greatly reflected in your writing?
A: I would imagine they're both in the mix. I definitely consider myself a tried-and-true New Yorker, but you can't take the Oklahoma out of the boy, I'm afraid. I'll admit that I fancy myself a urbane, sophisticated observer of modern life, but, as my writing has received more review attention over the years, the word that has popped up as often as any in describing the work is "folksy." So perhaps it would be premature at this point in time for me to invest in a satin smoking jacket and silk ascot.
Q: In the stories and essays found in the back half of the book, the section entitled "Mostly True Tales," New York is a sort of recurring character.
A: Any writer could do worse than to live in New York City. Hardly a day goes by in New York that you don't experience some surprising turn of events, overhear some quotable line of dialogue, encounter some interesting character who deserves to be recorded for posterity.
Probably the most popular of my Mostly True Tales is one entitled "My Life Among the Elite." It concerns a man I encountered on a midtown subway platform some years back. He approached each and every single person there waiting for the train and, in effect, gave them a thumbs up or a thumbs down. "You're in," he'd tell them or, if they were deemed not worthy, "You're out." I was amused at my own reaction as he made his way along the platform: I found myself hoping I would make the cut.
To a non-New Yorker, that story might seem a bit dark, that self-appointed arbiter a sinister figure. But he was in no way threatening; he wasn't attempting to act upon his pronouncements. He was just an oddball of the sort you perhaps don't often encounter in other towns but which thrives in New York. New Yorkers like to think we've seen it all -- and we may have come closer to it than most people -- but one great thing about this town is that it reminds you on an almost daily basis that you haven't seen it all -- that, in fact, you ain't seen nothing yet.