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Photo of Mary Elizabeth by Bill Wadman

You’re going to love today’s interviewee, for no other reason than the essay she contributed to my compilation of mom stories, “The Imperfect Mom,” was about how she allowed her infant daughter to ingest nothing other than breastmilk, yet by the time the little one was four, she was on a steady diet of M & Ms.

Mary Elizabeth Williams and I are a lot alike, I think, which is a very scary thing for her. She is the cultural critic for Public Radio International’s morning news show, The Takeaway, and is the host of Salon’s reader community, Table Talk. She has written for many publications including The New York Times, The New York Observer, and Parents. I am interviewing her because she has just come out with her first book! It’s an entertaining, delightful, and insightful memoir of a kind called “Gimme Shelter: Ugly Houses, Cruddy Neighborhoods, Fast-Talking Brokers, and Toxic Mortgages: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.”

I thought Mary Elizabeth (you can check out her website here) would be a good one to discuss the importance of setting to mood. It’s a topic Eric brings up at least twice a day, given that he’s an architect. I found it interesting, when we revisited our budget, that he said our house absolutely HAD to stay. That was a non-negotiable. I can appreciate that because your house, your setting really affect your mood.

Thanks for joining our readers today, Mary Elizabeth!!

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1) I adored your book and would like to excerpt the first half right here to give readers a feel for your funny, humble tone, not to mention that you are like us: um, not rich. But my efforts to summarize your book won’t give it justice, so can you give them the Reader’s Digest version of why you wrote the book, and what it’s about?

Mary Elizabeth: Because I’m so great with timing, I started looking for an affordable home at the height of the bubble. It very quickly became apparent that was not going to be an easy road. Every time I’d come back from a demoralizing open house, I’d think, at least I got a good story out of this. And I’d write it down. At the same time, I was hearing similar stories from my friends all across the country. I knew almost from the beginning I wanted to turn the experience into a book. When life hands you that much material on a platter, you just have to write it down.

2) In your book you describe all the candidate for a dwelling place (with hysterical commentary, by the way). Were you able to see what the Mary Elizabeth Williams would look like in each place? I mean, how far does your home affect your mood, in your assessment?

Mary Elizabeth: I think where you are is a big part of who you are. Most of us feel pretty geographically proprietary — where we come from, where we’ve overcome coming from. And home is the nerve center of that feeling; it’s ground zero for sanctuary and security — or at least the desire for it.

Look at a book like “Revolutionary Road” — the title is a location, and the story is about characters who feel out of place there. Look at “Pride and Prejudice.” Jane falls in love with Pemberly before she falls for Mr. Darcy. And Darcy is a total stiff at Netherfield — it’s only when he gets home he shows himself for who he truly is.

I lived in a dark attic apartment with slanted ceilings for two and a half years in Boston, and it was the most miserable time of my life. In contrast, I was very fond of our apartment it Brooklyn — that’s part of what made it so hard to leave.

When I looked at homes, it was completely visceral. I could either picture my family within those walls and that neighborhood or not. Your surroundings are an extension of yourself. If they’re a fit, you fit. If they’re out of whack, you’re going to be out whack.

3) You do a wonderful job of making your setting work for you within your budget. Man is that an accomplishment! What advice would you have for the person, say, who needs tons of space, but can only afford a studio apartment the size of linen closet, or (even worse!) can’t afford a place on her own, so she’s back at her folk’s place (ack!) or living with in-laws? Do you have any secrets they can apply in their circumstances?

Mary Elizabeth: This is so timely, because a friend was telling last night about someone who’s renting out her apartment and moving in with her parents. Eek!

I think wherever you go, you have to figure out some way to make it yours. In my old apartment, it meant putting a lock on the bathroom door because it was the only private spot we had. It meant painting every bookcase and my desk a glossy white to give the place harmony. Maybe for someone else it’s hanging up a picture you love opposite the bed so the first thing you see in the morning makes you happy. Maybe it’s purging the clutter. Most of us can’t have the perfect dream home, especially now. But it’s hugely important to make what we have feel comfortable and inviting. You don’t need the perfect Martha Stewart home, you just need those things that give you peace. And that’s very personal.

4) You have a fabulous sense of humor that comes across very effectively in your writing. How important is your funny bone to your staying sane (I’m assuming that you are sane because you wrote a book … that’s my only requirement)? Like many BB readers, you’re juggling quite a lot – the kids, the job, the diet … I want tips, please.

Mary Elizabeth: Well I do like to say that my Native American name is “Uses Humor Defensively.” I think it’s one of the greatest coping devices we have. It feels physically good to laugh. It gives you perspective. I’m certainly fond of the occasional therapeutic wallow, but your problems just don’t seem as huge and scary when you’re able to be entertained by them.

Yesterday my kids were making cupcakes, and by the end the kitchen was a disaster. My first instinct was to want to cry, and then I thought, it looks like Motley Crue was baking in here. And that little moment to see the absurdity in it all reminded me that having two great kids smearing my walls with chocolate is actually a blessing.

5) Finally, in three sentences (I’m obsessed with haikus lately) can you tell me what a “home” is? What does a place need in order to be bestowed with that title?

Mary Elizabeth: Home is where you feel most truly yourself. It’s not picket fences or gourmet kitchens or rec rooms or acres or property values. It’s simple — it’s wherever you want to be when you turn out the light.

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