An Interview with Parnassus Musing Editor Mary Laura Philpott
Photo credit: Heidi Ross
Who brought me in was Colson Whitehead, but who had my attention was the woman perched precariously atop a ladder, leaning way too far off of it, wielding what looked to be a fifteen pound camera. Convinced she was going to fall, I was hit with the realization that it was Mary Laura, the famed social media manager for Parnassus Books. I had just landed a contract for a book festival and desperately wanted to meet her. Luckily, she made it off the ladder alive, I waved her over and we became fast friends.
I love a woman who knows what she's good at and has figured out how make a job out of it. Even if, as in Mary Laura's case, it ends up being 300 jobs. I believe they call that hustle. And I can relate. If you don't know Mary Laura, you can get a glimpse of her effusive personality in both her writing and her Wildlife Coach cartoons, #bless. Meet today's bitch, one of my favorite Nashvillians, Mary Laura Philpott!
When did you first learn about this field of work? How did you know it was what you wanted to do?
Writing and drawing: When I was little, I’d sit in the bathtub and rewrite the copy on the shampoo bottles and make up jingles about the soap. I wrote and illustrated weird little stories and asked my dad to Xerox them so they’d be “printed.” I drew faces on fruit. I always knew I loved to write and make things.
But coming out of college, I didn’t grasp the variety of creative job options, so I spent some early years floating around as a lost English major in the business world before finding my way back to my literary roots. I don’t think of that as lost time, because I got a great business education from some wonderful people. My first job out of school was with Andersen Consulting (now called Accenture). My last full-time office job, in my 20s, was in corporate communications at the American Cancer Society headquarters, and after I left there, ACS became my first freelance client. For several years, I balanced writing in the voices of my clients, which paid well, and doing creative work in my own voice, which paid almost nothing but was fun. Over time, I started doing less of the former and more of the latter. Not surprisingly, I was drawn to the subjects I enjoyed most, which were (a) books, and (b) any sort of cultural or life phenomena where the absurd and the profound overlap. Once I started sending this stuff out and realized people would publish it and pay me, I knew I’d found solid ground.
As for my main day-job: I met the Parnassus gang on a visit to Nashville from Atlanta a few years ago, and shortly thereafter I quit writing about books for Barnes & Noble to build Musing. I worked on it remotely for several months, and then in 2014, we moved the whole family here. (I was born in Nashville, moved away when I was little, and now I’m back. Does that make me old Nashville or new Nashville?)
What is the best piece of business advice you’ve been given?
A looooong time ago, back in my first corporate job, my boss taught me that the first thing to say when a customer or employee complains is thank you. Thank the person for coming to you, she said. Thank them for their candor. Thank them, even if they’re objectively wrong about whatever they’re mad about, for showing you something that’s not working. Then start figuring out what issues need addressing.
Not to sound hokey, but if you can look at things that aren’t working with a sense of gratitude — like, OK, here’s a chance to try something differently or do better — it changes everything. It makes failure less scary. That advice translates pretty well from the business world to the creative world.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned or that helped improve the way you work?
Boundaries! Drawing lines around what I will/won’t and can/can’t do always makes my work-life better. I tend to forget that and take on too much and then have to winnow back down. Last year, I transferred my social media responsibilities at Parnassus to someone else so I could create more essay-writing time, and before I knew it, I’d started a new cartoon and a tinyletter. So obviously I’m still learning this lesson. Please help.
What would you do with 2 more hours a day?
Make things. Sit outside. Eat cheese.
What is your greatest success, or something you’re most proud of related to what you do?
Related to work? I’m crazy-proud of the Emmy our NPT team won for A Word on Words this year. I also get really tickled when I think about Musing’s growth — that it was built from scratch and now all these people read it and click it and use it to make choices about what they read. I think of good, smart conversation like a fire, and I imagine I’m throwing logs on it and making it burn bigger and brighter, and that makes me glad.
How do you decompress at the end of the work day?
My children and husband are pretty entertaining. It’s hard to stay compressed in the company of our two fool dogs, too. Our home life is a comedy.
What’s a fear that keeps you up at night?
I’m afraid people are losing their willingness and ability to engage in civil, informed discourse — and losing their kindness, too. I worry about my kids growing up in a time when those things are on the decline.
What is one thing everyone gets wrong about what you do?
Haa…. Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes people will come up and ask how my novel is coming along. I’ve never written a novel in my life, and I don’t plan to.
What does self-care look like in your life?
Taking nature hikes in the early mornings and looking for animals.
What helps when you’re stuck? Do you have a motto or quote that inspires/motivates you?
My mantra this year is “keep going.” It’s helpful when the world seems so full of disaster that doing good work seems pointless, but it’s also handy when you reach a milestone that feels like an ending. There’s no finish line — keep going.
Are there any women who helped pave the way for your success?
Oh, my word. So many. If you’re talking about women who have opened doors for me, there are more than I can count: Ann Patchett and Karen Hayes at Parnassus, who said, “hey, let’s make an online magazine”; Linda Wei and Beth Curley at NPT, who said, “hey, let’s make a show”; my first editor at Penguin Random House who said, “hey, let’s make a book”; the editors I work with at the New York Times and the Washington Post who keep giving me the space to write for their audiences; every good boss I’ve ever had, really. But if you mean way-pavers, as in people who set an example for me to follow, I’d say any women who defy labels — artist/essayist/internet-people like Allie Brosh and Jenny Lawson — and women with wide creative range, like Jenny Offill and the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal. My mom. These are people I can point to when pressed to define my creative endeavors as one thing or the other. They’re not doing “or” — they’re doing “and.”
Lastly, and most important, what is your favorite TV show and what is your favorite snack?
Show: I wish new episodes of Saturday Night Live aired in the summer. I need to laugh. Snack: If you ever want to kill me, just poison the supply of Palmetto Cheese. I’m done for.
All photos courtesy of Mary Laura Philpott