Dusk Night Dawn: On Revival and Courage (Riverhead, 224 pages, $20) is Anne Lamott’s 19th book, her 12th faith-based essay collection, and a strong contender for her 16th bestseller. Even now, during our culture’s most fractured time, Lamott remains a paragon of seemingly irreconcilable attributes and beliefs. A devoted grandmother and recovering drug addict, Jesus-loving Sunday school teacher and Guggenheim fellow, 12-stepping TED talker and small-town writer whose book sales currently top 4 million, Lamott is that rare bird, a progressive stalwart beloved in coastal cities and flyover hamlets alike.
Her longtime publisher, Riverhead Books President Geoffrey Kloske, says, “When things in the world get dark, we beg Annie to write something that will help us through. Her humor and wisdom can set things right.”
Few writers can produce 12 advice books worth reading. But like its predecessors, Dusk Night Dawn delivers prose that satisfies literary, as well as spiritual, tastes. When the power goes out in Lamott’s cozy northern California town, she takes a walk with her new husband, Neal. “Shadow steals the show so often, when light isn’t looking,” she writes. “Light thinks it is Beyoncé, shimmying with celestial meanings, but shadow knows that without it, we ain’t got nothing to show for ourselves — no paintings, poetry, or song.”
Dispensing counsel cloaked in story, Lamott spins her self-deprecating ruminations into manna for the majority. “I have forgiven most people who have hurt me or behaved atrociously to those I love,” she writes, “although there is one family member who (I’m positive) makes Jesus sick to His stomach. Yet from time to time I forgive myself for being a bad forgiver. ... At some point you realize that we all have dual citizenship here, perfect and neurotic.”
In an animated conversation, Lamott and I spoke by phone about honing craft, reaching conservative readers, and being “late middle-aged” at 66.
Washington Post: This is your 9th book of spiritual essays in 22 years. Does it ever get old? Do you ever feel constrained by the Anne Lamott brand?
Anne Lamott: It doesn’t feel like a brand to me, although I realize it definitely is. Writing spiritual books never gets tiresome for me — certainly not as tiresome as life has gotten in the past four years, when it got to be too, um, freaking much, to use the theological term.
I would love to write another novel. I’ve been taking notes for it. But a novel takes three or four years. These books on faith and spirituality take a year, a year and a half. So I can face those.
WaPo: The quality of your writing seems to consistently improve. Are you paying more attention to craft?
Lamott: I love that you’re saying that. I’ve been over every word in this book a dozen times, and I did notice that I’ve become a pretty decent writer. Also, at my advanced age, I’ve had to throw a bunch of stuff out of the plane that’s kept me flying too low — including trying to impress New York City editors and writers, which actually made me mentally ill. Maybe what you’ve noticed is that I’m not trying so hard. A priest in L.A. told me recently that the trick in life is not to try harder but to resist less. I think I’m doing that. At least in my writing.
WaPo: Unlike most lefty writers, you have a significant fan base among White, working-class women. Any thoughts about how you might make use of that connection, healing-the-nation-wise?
Lamott: I’m stunned that there are 70 million people who thought four more years of Trump was a good idea. Still, if I had that crowd in an audience, I could speak to them — without expecting that I’d get them to see things my way. I mean, I am an unabashed, extremely left-wing Christian. What I could do is share my experience, strength, and hope without making them so enraged they’d rush out of the room. I’d seek common ground, while letting little comments slip out, like how appalled I am by the hatred and the evil of the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the ignorance and cluelessness behind that.
I might read them a Jesus-y story that isn’t political, that could help us all laugh about our common predicament, the human condition. That would forge a bond, since the bulk of my audience is middle-aged, like me.
WaPo: Middle-aged? At 66?
Lamott: Well, they’re late middle-aged. Like me.
WaPo: Do you have a favorite of your 19 books?
Lamott: Definitely. The book I wrote with my son, Some Assembly Required, wasn’t something anyone would think up or monetize. It was so organic and beautiful — a wild opportunity to do a book with my son about his son, a continuation of the first book I wrote about my son, which was also my first New York Times bestseller. It was the toughest material I’ve ever worked with, because it was an entire book about letting go — in my own way, which is to say, with clenched fists and claw marks.
WaPo: How does it feel to be everyone’s answer to everything?
Lamott: I don’t think about that. It would drive me crazy. I love the freedom success has given me, to do and write anything I want. I do get recognized, which isn’t surprising, since I really look like me. I try to use my visibility for the most good I can. And I also try to protect myself from it. I’ve seen celebrity destroy infinitely more people than it’s fulfilled.
My dad was a writer, and his entire life was about trying to get on the New York Times list. When it happened to me, I called my mom and said, “Oh my God, Mom, I hit the list!” And my mom said, “Oh, huh. Anything else?” I just wanted to hang up. That was my entire childhood. I always got A’s. I was a tennis champ. And it was always, “Anything else?” My mom’s reaction took away my good feeling. I immediately started wondering how I could get on the list the following week. That was all I could think about.
And then I did get on again, and then I went higher on the list, and then I fell off, and I wanted to die. Thereby proving the adage, “Happiness is an inside job.” That’s where I try to keep my attention, such as it is: on the inside. ◀