In publishing, a blend of memoir and essay collections has seen a surge in popularity in the last half-decade, particularly for women writers. Indeed, aided by the commercial success of works by Lena Dunham (Not That Kind of Girl, 2014), Mindy Kaling (Why Not Me? 2015), and Amy Schumer (The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, 2016), the genre has laid the groundwork for a fresh crop of female essayists like Samantha Irby (We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, 2017), Anne T. Donahue (Nobody Cares, 2018), and Mary Laura Philpott with her latest, Bomb Shelter. These writers understand the power of working through life’s obstacles by committing them to the page.
“I turn life into stories as a way of giving myself some illusion of control, or at least perspective, but lack of control is the very thing I’m so often writing about,” says Philpott. “I think it helps when we can look around and see that no one really knows what they’re doing — none of us is alone in flying blind.”
Philpott came to prominence with the publication of her first essay collection, I Miss You When I Blink (2019) which is comprised of some previously published essays. “It started as a lark,” she says. “Can I compile enough pieces to fill a book? Let’s find out! But it became a real intention once I realized that what I had wasn’t a pile of unrelated stuff. So much of my writing was returning to the same questions. I had something to say, a story to tell, and I needed a whole book to say it.”
That thing she had to say and the story she needed to tell became one of fervent relatability: the plight of the recovering perfectionist, one who has adhered to a strict set of rules inside their head in order to ensure everything in life goes according to plan. But as we all do, Philpott comes to learn that one of life’s best-kept deceptions is that it can be controlled through planning.
The author was an avid reader and storyteller as a child, so it only made sense that she would eventually find her passion in writing. “It honestly didn’t occur to me to make writing my life’s work until I was an adult. When I was little, I assumed I’d be a doctor like almost everyone else in my family,” she says. “My family moved around every few years because of my dad’s medical training, so we lived all over the Southeast. All that moving might be why I’m so drawn to the question of ‘What is home — a place? A person? A feeling?’”
Previously, Philpott worked as a marketing consultant, copywriter, and in corporate communications for the American Cancer Society, but it would only be when she started working freelance that her authorly aspirations would take center stage. “Once I went out on my own as a freelancer, I did a lot of speechwriting as well as ghostwriting articles and op-eds that came published under other people’s names,” she explains. “Eventually I started writing as me, about things I cared about. I was finding my way toward my own voice, step by step.”
With the publication of I Miss You When I Blink, Philpott established herself as an authoritative voice in the subgenre of millennial self-help, if you will, with the collection recently being included on Amanda Edelman’s BuzzFeed list of must-reads for the generation. Her first book can be summarized by the philosophy that we can stand by our past decisions even if they took us to a present where we don’t belong anymore. “In a way, it feels like we’re all trying to complete an endless to-do list that we format in our minds, and this collection of essays reminds us to throw that idea away and just be,” observes Edelman. That’s exactly what I Miss You When I Blink sought out to do. But lives and situations change, and those changes can be felt even more when you write about your life for a living. Enter Philpott’s Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives, which she describes as more memoir than essay collection.
“After I got home from touring for Blink and was ready to turn to a new project, I remember thinking that the one thing I knew I did not want to write was a sequel,” she says. “I wasn’t interested in I Miss You When I Blink, Part II. That book was finished. So when I sat down and started writing, I was creating personal nonfiction again, because that’s what I do. But I was starting a whole new story, not continuing the previous one.”
Bomb Shelter begins with the frightening tale of finding her teenage son in a seizure on their bathroom floor and the resulting events that prompted Philpott to reconsider the ways we convince ourselves we’ll always be able to keep each other safe, even though life makes no such promises. In this regard, she thinks of her first and second books as cousins.
A sense of yearning is a constant throughout both of her books, but especially in Bomb Shelter. “The kind of ‘home’ I craved was a feeling, not a place,“ she writes. “A sense of safety and wholeness, of good intentions and predictable outcomes, or, at the very least, the comfort of togetherness when things fall apart.“ Philpott also knows the power of hope, gratitude, and warmth, particularly in regard to the tiny pleasures we are so quick to gloss over. “I often have to really search for it, but when I see something that makes me feel joy — even just a tiny odd hardly anything — you’re damn right I applaud it.“
She knows people who’ve read both books will undoubtedly draw connections between the two works, but Philpott maintains that Bomb Shelter is completely independent of I Miss You When I Blink. She even jokingly draws connections to Taylor Swift’s music when distinguishing them. “Feel free to laugh at me,” she says, “but I was thinking about this question as it relates to her songwriting the other day. She wrote those songs about being 15, and then later she wrote songs about being 22 and then songs about being 30, and all those songs are out there together now on the radio. A song from last year may reflect a more mature perspective than a song from a decade ago, but they’re both true to the time of life they came from. That’s how I think of multiple books by the same author, including my own.”
Aside from grappling and coming to terms with life’s curveballs and grand uncertainties, Philpott’s work also explores the conundrum that is maintaining and taking care of one’s mental health, especially in our current climate. When I tell her that I, too, identify as the “detoxing perfectionist” she defines in I Miss You When I Blink, she says this is her constant struggle. “I’m so prone to the delusion that what I, personally, do and say somehow determines what happens in the world. I’m keeping all the planes in the air! Those little private bargains can be goofy. Like, ‘If I remember to take the toast out before it burns, it means my agent will call with good news today.’”
“But they can also be dark and burdensome. The best way to fight that sort of thinking, I’ve found, is simply to verbalize to myself that it’s not true. ‘I can’t control this’, and ‘This isn’t up to me’ are helpful.”
Bomb Shelter is certainly a book that, regardless of grappling with Philpott’s own experiences of family and tragedy, speaks to the 21st-century human condition. The author has dealt with her fair share of readers claiming to not be interested in reading her books since they believe them to be solely for those who can relate to motherhood, and she strongly disagrees. “I think a very well-written memoir or essay uses all the tools of storytelling to pull readers out of their own minds and allow them to immerse themselves in the world of another character (even if that character is made from a real person), just as they would in a novel. It’s so fun and satisfying to read something and feel it strike a chord within you, like an echo of a real feeling you’ve had,” she says.
“But memoirs and essays can have that effect even when they’re not, on the surface, about an experience you’ve had yourself. Memoirs, just like fiction, can help us empathize, connect with one another, and broaden our perspectives. So it shouldn’t be any harder to relate and respond emotionally to a memoir by a woman who is a mother than it is to relate to a fantasy novel narrated by a wizard.”
Philpott hopes readers will take two things away from reading Bomb Shelter: that they just had an engaging reading experience they want to tell their friends about, and that it makes people feel less alone. “I love when I finish reading a book and feel like I’ve made some human connection. That’s what I’m going for.”