Most people know Mary-Louise Parker as an actress, the one who played pot-dealing mom Nancy Botwin on “Weeds” or women’s rights advocate Amy Gardner on “The West Wing.” Those whose knowledge of the famous is based more on gossip columns than Tony Awards (Parker has three nominations to her credit, including a win for her work in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof”) may remember her as the woman actor Billy Crudup left while she was pregnant with their son.
But Parker is also a writer, and she proves it beyond a doubt with her first book, “Dear Mr. You.” It’s a collection of 34 letters to men who have made an impression on her, including her father, who died in 2010; various former boyfriends, all of whom remain unidentified; the doctor who saved her life during a recent health scare; and the future guy who will try to date her 8-year-old daughter. (Parker is the mother of two: the son from her relationship with Crudup and a girl she adopted in 2007.) Her prose is often funny and revealing, but most of all, it’s evidence that Parker possesses the soul of a poet.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Did the concept for “Dear Mr. You” spring from your work with Esquire, specifically the “Thank-You Note to Men” piece you published in 2009?
I really loved that piece, but it was eclipsed a little bit by pictures of me in my underwear making a pie. Other people would say, “Oh, I saw the pictures of you in Esquire.” And I’d say, “Oh yeah, did you see the thing I wrote?” They’d either say, “No,” or sometimes people would ask me if somebody else wrote it for me, which I kind of got used to. It doesn’t really engender a whole lot of respect for your intellect when you’re covered in flour and you’re wearing lingerie. But those are the two sides of me, so what can I say?
Did you have a writing routine while working on the book?
I turn the Disney Channel up as loud as possible, and then my children jump on me. And then I have the dog jump on the computer and erase what I’ve written. And then someone spills a smoothie on me. Or a popsicle. It was challenging sometimes. I would just have to wait until they were asleep, and I’d look up, and it would be, for me, very late. Because I have to get up and take them to school, you know, so I normally like to go to sleep quite early. But I love writing so much, and when you have an idea, you don’t want to get up. The last thing you’re going to do is get up. And then I got sick, which is where [the chapter] “Dear Doctor” came from, and I couldn’t physically — well, I almost died — I couldn’t physically write. Once I was strong enough, I started again.
What was the cause of your illness?
My body went into septic shock because I was the first person in the whole New York area, apparently, to get Influenza A that year. My doctor was like, “Congratulations!” He was making a joke after I was better, because obviously it wasn’t funny at the time. I didn’t realize I’d had it for such a long time because I kept going. Then I got pneumonia on top of the influenza and went into septic shock.
What struck me about that chapter and so many others in the book was how much detail you were able to recall.
I have always written my whole life. There were some pieces, like “Dear Blue,” where I pulled out every notebook and every journal and every little notepad I could find. And I have quite a few. I mean, I have a trunkful. I have little scraps of paper that I’ve saved, where I’ve been on the bus and written poems or written down conversations. And some things I just remember because I do have a wildly accurate emotional memory. I just sometimes can’t remember who the vice president is or where I put my keys.
You quote your dad telling you, “Just write. Keep writing. Write anything.” Did your dad’s passing motivate you to write the book?
Oh, absolutely. It’s bittersweet, though, because there’s nothing on Earth I’d like now more than to be able to hand him that book. It wouldn’t be that book without him, and without him gone, it wouldn’t be that book. I know exactly what face he would make. I know how he would hold the book. I know he would walk around with it for days and just happen to drop it in front of people. And just picturing that is almost gratifying enough.
I felt like you could have written a whole book about your dad.
Yeah, I’d like to. Their love story, my parents’, is really poetic and so romantic. The problem is my mother is insanely private. He would be more apt to tell me things she just won’t even tell me.
You mentioned the word “private.” In the book, you leave out or change certain people’s names. Was that done for privacy reasons, or did you feel it was more powerful not to identify the characters?
I think both. It’s not that kind of book. I don’t consider it a memoir about myself. I consider it more a bunch of thank-you notes, you know. It really is about my telling the story of these men through my eyes and what I experienced with them. It’s not the kind of thing that’s meant to tell the story of my life.
Were you concerned that people might pick it up and say, “Oh, let me read about her relationship with so-and-so?”
Of course they will. I don’t think there will be many people who go to the bookstore and think, “Oh, I can’t wait to read these prose poems on Mary-Louise’s rumination on the male gender.” Hopefully, some people will pick it up because they think it’s a pretty cover and maybe start reading it.
Do you get why people are curious about your personal life, or is it just frustrating?
People are consistently curious about other people’s business. They always have been. They probably always will be. There are those convenient lines people say — “It comes with the job” or “You have to expect it.” Those lines are used by people who feel entitled to someone else’s life story, and no one’s entitled to anyone’s information about anyone else.
Chaney is a pop-culture critic and author of the new book “As If!: The Complete Oral History of ‘Clueless.’ ”
By Mary-Louise Parker
Scribner. 240 pp. $25