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A Christian writer, but not your garden variety

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Special to The Times

Outside it’s raining like crazy. Inside Anne Lamott is fighting a cold. Her dog drags something from the cat box into the living room. Her large cat clambers across the futon chair in which Lamott is sitting and the wood armrest clatters to the floor.

It could be grist for a typical quirky Lamott essay: the vicissitudes of daily life, first trying, then revealing some glimmer of meaning, a bit of unexpected grace like sudden sunshine on a stormy day. All that’s missing is some of Lamott’s potty talk and her zealous spirituality, a trademarked mingling of the sacred and the profane, usually in the same sentence.

Soon enough both come.

“I was raised to think that Jesus was a trailer park thing, right-wing dogma,” Lamott says after putting the dog in a different room. “But I kept feeling Jesus around me like a cat, nudging me and I kept pushing Him away. Finally, I just gave up and said ... it.”

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This confessional combination of the earthy and the divine, of a sinning single mother seeking salvation, made Lamott’s 1999 collection of essays, “Traveling Mercies,” a beloved bestseller with 257 reader reviews on Amazon.com (“The only book that truly changed my life” being a typical paean).

Lamott’s new book, “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith” charts similar territory, chronicling the author’s struggles with her teenage son being, well, a teenager; her difficult mother’s death (“I liked having a dead mother much more than having an impossible one”); the onset of menopause; and just finding a reason to get out of bed during the presidency of George W. Bush (“Believing in George Bush was so ludicrous that believing in God seems almost rational”).

Lamott can sound like a cartoon version of a Marin County left-wing liberal until she starts talking about how Jesus answers her prayers and then categorizing her becomes an exercise in futility. A mild-mannered bundle of rage? A born-again, foul-mouthed, pro-choice Jesus freak? A middle-aged white woman with dreadlocks?

To judge by her books, Lamott seems to be one of those unfortunate people who always has a friend who is critically ill.

“I don’t know why God won’t just spritz away our hardships and frustration,” Lamott writes in an essay describing the transcendence she found in cleaning dog poo off her shoes. “I don’t know why the most we can hope for on some days is to end up a little less crazy than before, less down on ourselves.”

Less crazy, of course, is relative. Lamott is a successful author, lives in a beautiful house with a view of hills rolling toward the bay, has a boyfriend, good pets and regularly enjoys hiking around nearby Mt. Tamalpais. Yet her recent essays make it sound as if she’s living in Berlin during the rise of Hitler. “Everyone I know has been devastated by Bush’s presidency,” she writes.

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Lamott comes to her politics almost genetically. Her father, Kenneth, was a Bay Area journalist who wrote a book about fascism coming to California when Ronald Reagan was elected governor and often took his children to vigils at nearby San Quentin State Prison on the eve of executions. Lamott adored her father, who was up every morning at 5 writing and encouraged his daughter to do the same, sending her postcards when he was out of town and asking her to write a story about the animal pictured on the other side. Father, and later daughter, constantly jotted notes on index cards.

“He just thought the world of me,” Lamott recalls. “We were just immersed in reading and writing.”

Lamott went to Goucher College in Maryland but dropped out at 19 and wound up back in California, cleaning houses and giving tennis lessons for a living.

“I always thought I’d wind up a professor somewhere,” she says. “I thought it would be the perfect life: reading great books and conveying that to your students.”

When her father was diagnosed with brain cancer, Lamott took care of him for a year. Father and daughter started writing about the experience. Kenneth Lamott didn’t live to finish his book. Anne ended up with her first book, a novel called “Hard Laughter,” which came out in 1980. “A moving and strangely joyful book,” novelist Anne Tyler called it in the New York Times.

Lamott’s mother was a different story. One of the essays in her new collection deals with Lamott’s tortured relationship with her mother (“a terrified, furious, clinging, sucking maw of need and arrogance”), the upshot being that after her mother was cremated Lamott put her ashes in a box in the closet with as much ceremony as she would with an old tennis racket.

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During the 1980s Lamott wrote novels that got decent reviews but sold few copies. She also drank excessively, used drugs and suffered from bulimia. One day when Lamott was hungover she heard music coming from a Presbyterian church in Marin City, an isolated enclave of poverty near where she was living on a houseboat.

She began going to the service to enjoy the singing, always leaving before the sermon.

“Something nudged me over there, the Holy Spirit,” she says.

Although her grandparents were Presbyterian missionaries in Japan, Lamott was raised in a decidedly nonreligious household.

“My father hated Christians, oh, my God,” she recalls. “Yet, I always had a secret life in me. My friends were always religious. My 6-year-old Catholic girlfriend said I would burn in hell. I thought I might not go as poorly as that if I went to church with her. But I was always ashamed about religion. I knew I believed but I didn’t know what I believed.”

In 1985 Lamott became a Christian and before too long she gave up drugs and alcohol as well. Four years later she published a novel, “All New People,” which featured a character who was a devout Christian.

“I’m alive because of my conversion,” Lamott says. “I’m a living writer not a dead or institutionalized writer because of it. Mine is not a traditional faith. I really loathe organized religion, except for these funny little churches doing good work. But I do feel a missionary zeal. Not to convert but to break through a sense of shame about God.”

In 1988 Lamott got pregnant, but her boyfriend had children by a previous relationship and didn’t want any more. They split up. Lamott, who had terminated a previous pregnancy and remains outspoken in favor of legalized abortion, decided to have the baby.

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She wrote a frank account of single motherhood and the first year of her son Sam’s life called “Operating Instructions,” which was published in 1993 and became a surprising bestseller. Since then, Sam has become a reoccurring subject of Lamott’s essays, many of which have appeared online at Salon.

One column about dragging Sam to church churned up a mess of angry letters. Salon published a string of the correspondence without notifying Lamott and she was horrified. “I started crying. I can’t take criticism.”

Lamott quit Salon in a huff, although she soon returned.

“I really preserve a huge boundary about what’s OK to write about with Sam,” Lamott says. “I clear everything with Sam. I haven’t written about the really ugly stuff.”

She has a working title for a new book: “All the People I Hate: A Christian Perspective.”

“I don’t know if it’s a novel or what,” she says. “I’ll probably be writing a lot about aggression and rage, which I’m full of.”

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Anne Lamott

Where: Dutton’s Books, 447 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Contact: (310) 281-0997

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