Mary Laura Philpott is neither a novelist nor a journalist, but she makes her living as a writer anyway. In fact, studying Philpott’s work could serve as a kind of crash course in turning a gift for words into a career: she’s been an op-ed columnist (for The New York Times no less), a ghostwriter (she’s not saying for whom), an editor (she runs Musing, the online journal at Parnassus Books in Nashville), an essayist (most recently for Proximity), a blogger (at I Miss You When I Blink), even a poet of humorous legal verse and a member of Us Weekly’s fashion police. And next week Philpott will add author to her list of writerly titles—on June 2, Penguins With People Problems officially hits stores.
The book features a charming set of hilarious cartoon penguins that Philpott draws with her finger on an iPad mini. They came to life in 2012, back when Penguin Books and Random House, two major U.S. publishers, announced plans to merge: Philpott started playing around with possible names for the new company, and in a flash the Random Penguins were born—and soon found a home on Tumblr. These penguins make mistakes, get into trouble, lose their temper, drink too much, make bad fashion choices, behave in an unprofessional way at work, inexpertly apply sunscreen, and date the wrong guys. In other words, they have a lot in common with some people you know.
In advance of her appearances at Parnassus Books in Nashville and The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis, Philpott recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email:
Chapter 16: One of the most striking things about these funny penguins is that they aren’t simply funny: often they serve as a measure of the zeitgeist (references to gluten sensitivity and hipster style, for instance), or even as a voice for social justice (“Love is love.”) How do you find the balance between hilarity and seriousness with cartoon penguins?
Mary Laura Philpott: Oh, I’m glad you think that. That balance exists in everything, right? What is life if not a mix of hilarity and seriousness? These birds are very human (except for the fact that they’re birds), and I think it’s natural for human thought processes to bounce from the absurd to the mundane to the profound and back to the absurd.
Chapter 16: You have described your work at Parnassus Books as your dream job. What’s the best part of working for the most famous bookstore in America?
Philpott: The people. I mean, the books, too. But mostly the people: the ones who work there, the ones who shop there, the authors who visit, the people I get to interview for Musing. It’s energizing to be in their presence. I love that place so much.
Chapter 16: Let’s play a game where I make up a scenario, and you draw a penguin cartoon to illustrate it. Here goes: a naughty random penguin at Parnassus Books just got into big trouble with Ann Patchett and Karen Hayes.
Philpott: Ooh, good one. OK, let me think of the first quirks that come to mind for Ann and Karen.… I think for Karen it’s got to be how passionate she is about keeping a neat, clean store. She doesn’t believe that a bookstore has to be messy and smell musty. As for Ann, I think it’s funny that one of the greatest novelists alive concerns herself with whether our candy is well-stocked. She’s diligent about making sure we have plenty of York Peppermint Patties in the bowl by the register. So I think a bad little penguin might hoard the Peppermint Patties and eat them all while getting sticky chocolate wing-prints on the books.
Chapter 16: I love it when your penguins go all Stuart Smalley and start shaking their pom-poms to inspire the worried or forlorn or insecure among us. How do you come up with these wonderful affirmations?
Philpott: Ha! Those are typically just whatever it is I need to hear myself. Sometimes, if you’re having a rough time, you have to get creative with your positive self-talk. If the best thing you can say about yourself on a given day is that your hair is clean and you smell nice, then goshdarnit, you gotta give yourself credit for that.
Chapter 16: What does it do to your traffic when a larger outlet runs a cartoon or when someone like Queen Latifah tweets about it?
Philpott: Wasn’t that awesome? Back when she had the Queen Latifah Show, they commissioned some custom penguins, and that one she tweeted was one of them. There’s always a bump in traffic when the penguins run somewhere else, and it’s fun to see what sorts of people come over to the site. I’m a religious reader of The Toast, for example—because it’s brilliant and hilarious—so I’m thrilled whenever I can connect with that audience. I still can’t believe The New York Times is doing a special mini-series leading up to the pub date. My editor there had the idea to make it a special series on parenting, which is genius. That’s not a topic I usually address, and that series helps me reach a different segment of readers. I’m so grateful whenever anyone shares this stuff, honestly. It means there’s something there that people identify with, I guess.
Chapter 16: The Tumblr penguins have been known to cuss like sailors. Did it break your heart to have to tone down the language for print?
Philpott: Well, we did have a very funny conference call about cusswords, in which my editor and I ranked their relative offensiveness. There are still a few in the book, but no f-bombs.
Chapter 16: You were born in Nashville, but you were away for a long time before you came back last year, and Music City certainly changed during that time. What do you think of Nashville so far?
Philpott: If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be moving to Nashville, I wouldn’t have believed you. I didn’t really “get” Nashville until I had spent some time here. I love the vibrancy of the creative community and how well integrated the arts are into mainstream life here. It’s not like, “Here are the normal people,” and “There are the artsy people,” and “Over there are the business people.” That, and the lack of traffic. I know people here say the traffic is getting worse, but coming from Atlanta, it feels wonderful to be able to get around so quickly.
Chapter 16: You spent several years growing up in Memphis. What will it be like to go back there for a reading?
Philpott: I can’t wait! I want to drive by St. Mary’s, my old school, while I’m there. The events team at The Booksellers at Laurelwood is doing a hysterical social media campaign with Liam—one of the penguins from the book—whom they’ve printed out and put on a stick to make “Flat Liam,” and he’s going around town showcasing “Penguins with Memphis Problems.”
Chapter 16: As a writer, you wear a lot of hats, and I’m hoping you can talk a little bit about what it means to be a working writer in the Internet age.
Philpott: I was an English major, and that’s where the roots of my writing still are; I love to dissect a good book. But I didn’t understand when I graduated that you could be a “professional writer” if you weren’t a novelist or a journalist, and I was neither. So while I knew deep-down that I was a writer, I didn’t grasp that I could write for a living until a few years later. From my mid-twenties on, every iteration of my career has been about writing in one way or another. The format and subject matter have evolved, but I’ve been practicing that craft every day for years and years. There are more jobs out there for writers than you might think. Storytelling is an essential part of almost every business. And I think you can bring literary elements—thoughtful construction and carefully chosen words and images—into all writing, even if it’s not “literature.” I can hear it when all the sounds and words snap into place, whether I’m writing a poem or an article or a crazy caption on a cartoon bird. It’s very satisfying. If I’m doing that, I’m happy.
Chapter 16: Penguins With People Problems is dedicated to Matt Damon. What’s the story there?
Philpott: We have an invisible bond. It’s so invisible that only I can see it.
Margaret Renkl, the editor of Chapter 16, has published in both literary and mainstream magazines. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Black Warrior Review, The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and Women’s Health, among others. She lives in Nashville.