Every group of friends has a Jen Lancaster – the one who says out loud what everyone else is thinking.
Sometimes that makes you nervous. Sometimes that makes you proud. A lot of the time, it makes you laugh even as you roll your eyes because only Jen could get away with that.
The bestselling author has a penchant for self-improvement that is less about soulful aspiration and more about perspiration (“Such a Pretty Fat”) and cultivation (“My Fair Lazy”). Family, friends, pets, and a fair number of imperfect strangers are the fodder for her humor, but the person she zings most is herself – from what motivated her finally to buy new underwear to overserving herself with Halloween cheer (and that does not mean candy).
Her latest book, “The Tao of Martha,” is an ode to finding renewal, inner peace and a whole bunch of new skills from a year living through the wisdom of the homemaking high priestess, Martha Stewart. Lancaster will be at the Cary Barnes & Noble Friday for a discussion and book-signing.
She spoke recently from her home outside Chicago about why a bad 2011 set her on the quest for her inner Martha and helped her to discover the joy of glitter.
Q: The bio page of your website does not appear to have been updated since 2007. Anything much going on with you?
A: That’s funny. Everything in the entire universe has gone on since then. So that’s not entirely unintentional. Since 2007, every book I’ve written has hit the New York Times bestseller list in both fiction and nonfiction and I’m told that’s really hard to do. And the “The Tao of Martha” has been written into a pilot and has been optioned as a TV show. So a lot of good things since then. A lot of good things.
Q: Are you a closet Southerner? With your love of pearls and “bless your hearts”? We are relentless heart blessers down here, you know.
A: Oh God, yes. I love the South so much. The Lilly Pulitzer, the pearls, the way people are polite. The South is my spirit animal. I didn’t understand the South when I first started to tour down there. The first time I was doing a book tour there, I was going to Charlotte and everything was running late, and I was being brusque. And people kept remarking to me “Oh, you must be a Yankee,” and I didn’t realize that wasn’t a compliment. Now I know. At some point when my husband and I get closer to retirement age, I am desperately in love with the South Carolina coastline, so I could see us ending up there.
Q: About “The Tao of Martha,” I have to tell you a couple of times I thought, “Would you get out of my brain?” The things you love and the stories you tell about them that we all share some day-to-day experience with – post-it notes and rescue pets and trying to garden and Target! Do you find people’s lives overlapping in the funniest places?
A: That’s what I strive for in my writing. There are these great tools like Facebook and people are using it to drive a wedge between them and their friends and they don’t even realize it. I want to bring people together. I try to find out what the common threads are that bring people together. I look for the things we all do and don’t necessarily realize that we all do. It’s nice to see that someone feels the same things you do. I think that’s why fans take the things I write personally.
Q: Sounds like 2011 was a bad year. Want to talk about it?
A: It wasn’t anything big; it wasn’t any one thing. It was just, for example, we lost power five times that summer (while) I had a book due. Apparently everyone in town knows that up here, and we were the only ones who didn’t have a generator. These are all first-world problems. Then the pool filled with frogs, and it was frog holocaust because the chlorine killed the frogs. And I broke up with my agent. And it ended up being a million little things that made for one very frustrating year. My first novel came out, and it was well reviewed (but) it turns out my fans hated it! New fans really liked the book and old fans were annoyed. It was a good learning experience but it wasn’t well received and that was miserable.
Q: Talk about why Martha.
A: My husband has a tendency to invoke the name of Martha Stewart anytime things go wrong domestically. (Coming out of 2011) I wondered how much better my life and my year would be if I tried to adopt some of her principles. I liked the idea of doing a happiness project but I knew that I needed something concrete. Martha Stewart is the ultimate drill instructor, and I mean that in the best possible way. I need my house to be more organized. I need when I have a party that my guests don’t leave because I’m so exhausted from preparing for three days. I looked at my life and everything that was problematic were things that Martha could easily address. With this book, I also knew that at some point (while writing it) I was going to lose my dog. At that point, she had been sick for three years. I knew we were on borrowed time. I wanted to do something that would make me happy because it might make it easier to deal with this really hard time.
Q: Martha once convinced me to bead a Christmas wreath. She brings the inspiration. But were you ever worried about overreach?
A: She does it right. But she doesn’t do any steps that are extraneous just to add steps. The thing is her scope is so broad that if something seemed too convoluted or complex, I could make my projects as simple as I wanted. For instance, I wanted to embrace Halloween, and we were going to carve pumpkins, but I was getting no joy in what I was doing. My husband said you don’t have to carve these; surely Martha offers another option. And she did! She tells you how to glitter a pumpkin, and you know what? They turned out great. These were the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I put glitter on every single round surface in my house.
Q: One of the things that struck me about the nature of your book is that it’s actively aspirational – you don’t do the “imagine yourself as a sunflower in a beautiful garden.” You say, “I wanted a beautiful garden so I worked at it and this is what I got right and this is what I didn’t.”
A: Visioning isn’t actionable. I look at the effort people put into their vision boards, and at the end of it what do you have? You have a poster. You didn’t put the effort into making it happen. My dream was to be a writer so every step that I took was to become a writer, not to dream about my dream. (Visioning) doesn’t make sense for me. Maybe that works for other people, but I’m someone who takes action.
Q: Love your pet stories. Love that you acknowledge that they are expensive and messy and imperfect. That said, why do it?
A: I don’t know. If you smell my media room right now, you’d put “why” in big letters. I don’t know why. I didn’t just read Martha’s stuff, but I read what others say about Martha. In her daughter’s book, she writes that Martha’s pets crap all over Martha’s house. I am so not squeamish now. I so don’t care. If you love them, you make adjustments, and what they do is not gross. I get unconditional love and I have all these little creatures who think I hung the moon. And they’re just funny. They’re a constant source of entertainment. Q: The Tao moments and messages were a favorite for me. One example was your takeaway from the Easter party tablecloth that was flooded just as your guests were about to arrive – “Wipe it up, suck it up, you’re fine, it’s fixed, move on.” Huh. Life much?
A: Those came from reflection. In the moment (when the tablecloth was soaked by a vase overturned by a rambunctious cat), I was just mad. Martha would have had a supply of tablecloths ready so this wouldn’t be an issue. The notion of being prepared and having a back-up plan, it’s not how I lived my life, but it’s definitely something I’m looking at now to make my life easier.
The Tao from the end of the book really encapsulates my whole year: “The only way to fail is not to try.” You have to try. You have to try. There were plenty of things that didn’t work out but the things that did work? That’s transcendent. I learned to do things. I learned to make a cheesecake. That’s my favorite thing in the world.
Q: For all the humor in the book, what’s your serious hope that readers will take away from it?
A: I hope they will take away the notion that they should try. And that it’s OK to fail as long as you’re in pursuit of your dream. Don’t just think about doing it. Try. It may work. It may not work, but you won’t know until you put forth the effort.
You need to take control of your life or your life will take control of you. You are not a victim of your own circumstances. If you don’t like your circumstances, work to change them.