A Q&A With Prudence Mackintosh
By offering candid, funny glimpses into her world, Texas Monthly contributing editor Prudence Mackintosh will invariably leave you looking at your own world; and laughing along the way.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of feedback do you get from readers? Do you get people who feel like they know you because of the personal nature of your work?
Prudence Mackintosh: It’s incredible how many people tell me things. I think when I first started writing it was to get on paper what I thought was an extremely odd family. And the more I talk to people, the more I’m embarrassed to learn that it’s not nearly as odd as I thought, that there are people with far stranger experiences. And yet, they will tell me they feel as if I have looked into their kitchens and have seen what goes on. I generally do have a rather quick and personal relationship with readers.
texasmonthly.com: What did you feel was so odd about your family?
PM: When I first started writing, I was a new mother with no experience raising children, and I didn’t think I was doing a particularly good job of it because I kept saying I was looking over my shoulder for the real mother to take charge. One always feels that one’s own parents came with a certain competence, and when you realize you are the one that’s got to take charge, it’s a very strange experience. To this day when one [of my children] yells for help, I sort of look over myself like “Where is the mother in charge here? Surely I can’t be the one in charge.” I thought of course, with the arrogance of every new parent, that my children were different and they weren’t like anyone else’s. Of course, they were awful like everyone else’s.
texasmonthly.com: Does your family like that you share so much?
PM: Early on when I was first writing about my children, I had a wonderful experience where a woman came up to me and said “Are these your children? What really comes across in your writing is how much you love them.” I think they looked at each other like “Is that what she’s writing? Well, that’s okay.” Of course they missed the episode where someone came up to me and said “I want to shake your hand. I finally found somebody who hates their children as much as I hate mine.” I don’t think my kids have been studious readers of what I’ve written. When one was in the fifth grade, some girls in his class gave book reports on my first book, and when he came home and told me that, I said, “That may be a little close to home, would you like for me to call the teacher and request for that not to happen again?” He said, “Not yet.” So I sensed he was enjoying the notoriety.
texasmonthly.com: Did that ever change throughout the years?
PM: No, not really. I did recognize in their teenage years that they didn’t need me broadcasting, so I simply didn’t write about them very much during that time. Of course I’ve done it now. The new book that’s coming out (Sneaking Out) tells a lot about the high school years and even some of the college (what little I knew of the college experience, which really wasn’t much.) And I’m sure they will read it and will say, “Oh she was so wrong about that.”
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything that’s too personal that you wouldn’t share with a greater audience?
PM: Oh sure. There are a lot of things that are too personal that I wouldn’t share. But on the whole I think within our family there is a strong Irish sense in a way—even though we have a Scottish last name—of the ability to always see the comic in everything. It sometimes precludes great success because I think success requires utter seriousness, and we can always see the humor in things. It makes for good living and a healthy mental attitude but it sometimes means that you laugh yourself out of working very hard at something.
texasmonthly.com: Do you take notes as you go along in life?
PM: I’ve always been a journal keeper since I was about eleven years old. Particularly in the early days when I was writing for Texas Monthly and needed to come up with subjects constantly I found the journals very helpful because I would see recurring things and I would think that if I’m seeing these things, chances are somebody else is going to identify with them too. So that’s really what I mined for material. I’m sitting here looking at probably 40 volumes, journals, kept sporadically, I don’t write every day.
texasmonthly.com: Your father was a newspaperman —was reading and writing always important growing up?
PM: It really was. I always credited letter writing with much of my writing training. We just didn’t use long-distance telephoning, so any time we were away from home, we wrote letters. I dedicated my book in ‘96 to my parents because they taught me the importance of validating life by writing it down. Because when you write something down you inevitably shape it in some way. And I think that life was in some way enriched by the experience of writing it all down, and maybe the writing was too, I don’t know. I still have the feeling that I haven’t entirely lived something until I have written about it. That can be a curse and a blessing when life is so busy and you don’t have time to write things down. You go around feeling that your head is very heavy and you need to unload it.
texasmonthly.com: What made you finally take that leap into writing for a living?
PM: I was invited. That’s nice to be invited. When the first issue of Texas Monthly came out I guess the only writing I had done was a few book reviews for the Dallas Morning News. I wrote the original editor, Bill Broyles, to congratulate him on the new magazine and I said, “Whoever is writing for you here in Dallas needs to think about writing about…” and I think I outlined three or four stories. And he called me back and said there are only four or five of us working on this in Austin—there’s nobody in Dallas. Go out and write those stories. I even did restaurant reviews for a while in the early days until I could no longer afford it. The pay was $40 a month in 1973.
texasmonthly.com: Is it ever scary putting yourself out there like that?
PM: Sure. Every time. Someone came up to me once and said, “I just cannot fathom how you can continue to make a fool of yourself.” How’s that for a discouraging comment? And I thought, maybe that’s it—I always make myself the first fool, and that gives me permission to poke fun at a lot of things because I’ve done them too. I’ve never had much trouble laughing at myself.
texasmonthly.com: Do you read a lot of people who written in your genre?
PM: No, I really don’t. I met a woman who had a written about her children, and I told her that I had read her work and I just envied the fact that she had a girl. I didn’t have a girl to write about. And she said, “Oh, I don’t, I just added one because I thought it would add some interest to the story.” What a fraud, I thought. I told her I had no idea I could have just added one and learned to write fiction.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think a lot of writers do that?
PM: I don’t know, I really don’t know. I had to stop reading Judith Viorst — years ago she used to write a regular column for Redbook magazine and she had three boys. And I had to quit reading her for fear I would plagiarize or that I would feel like I would be out written and couldn’t even go to the typewriter or to the computer after reading what she’d written. But I don’t think she made anything up either. Hers always had a ring of truth about it. Erma Bombeck always had some ring of truth, but I always thought that she knew she was going for the wise crack, funny all the time, and I never did. I was trying to keep it as close to home as I could. I was not going for the laughs. If there were funny things, I was glad to find them, but I didn’t make them up.
texasmonthly.com: What are you going for?
PM: I hope I am enabling other people to laugh at themselves and not become so overwhelmed with family problems that they can’t see some sort humor in it. That’s just my disposition and my take on things. I certainly don’t offer any expert advice. I don’t have any credentials to advise people, but if I can offer them that in-the-trenches, I-know-exactly-what’s-going-on-for-you [camaraderie], I think maybe it’s healthy.