For well over a decade, writer, editor, quilter, and erstwhile poet and performer Mary Fons has faithfully maintained her blog, PaperGirl. Though the number of posts each week fluctuates slightly from daily to thrice a week or so, Fons’s thousands of subscribers rely on Fons’s unwavering commitment to post “fresh observations.” Sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes outright strange, Fons’s blog is, at the very least, a respite for weary internet travelers, revolted by the endless news cycle and social media inferno.
But lately, possibly due to her demanding job as editor in chief of Quiltfolk magazine, or the ramping up of a major, as-yet-unannounced media project, PaperGirl posts have been sporadic. Her fans are wondering: Where is our PaperGirl? When imaginary journalist Ann Kotske called on her, Fons was at the (very real) family lake house in Wisconsin, sipping tea and wearing blue gingham check pajamas at 10 a.m. What follows is the first part of Fons’s first (imaginary) interview for Rolling Stone.
RS: It’s beautiful here. How often are you able to come up to the cottage?
PG: Not often enough. The last time I was here was in November. I came up with friends from the school newspaper.
How has your life changed since you got your master’s?
It sounds terrible to say, but I didn’t think the master’s degree would matter as much as it has. Certainly, plenty of people think an MFA in Writing doesn’t matter, that a higher education in the fine arts is too nebulous to have substance. There might have even been a part of me that thought that. But having done the work, knowing how hard it was, knowing how I was then compared to how I am now, it’s just night and day.
In what way?
I’m smarter! (Laughs.) Seriously, I can actually feel my brain working differently than it used to. I read a text or I sit down to write something and it’s like, “Oh, right. I actually know what I’m doing.” I’m also just two years older; I’ve been through more experiences and all that. But there is a kind of critical thinking I do now that I was absolutely not doing before. It feels … powerful.
I talked to a few of your blog readers —
Wait. Really? You did?
Well, no. But many of them have been surprised there have been fewer PaperGirl entries lately. Now that you’re done with school, you should ostensibly have more time to blog. Is it something else?
(Sighs.) Well, I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s been slow lately. It’s strange to me, too. With Quiltfolk and this other big project I’m working on, there’s definitely time constraints, but I didn’t have time in school, either, and I did pretty well. There are times when … (Long pause.) There are times when I think I ought to be working on essays, on longer pieces, and that my hours spent blogging should be spent working on those.
What are the essays about?
My illness. Fashion. The DIY country craft home decor women I watch on YouTube. Chicago.
Have you thought about closing the blog? Even for awhile?
Absolutely not. The number of posts may ebb now and then, but there is no threat of PaperGirl closing or drifting away.
Because it’s not a brick wall. I’ve said it for years: Even though this blog is about my life, I do not write PaperGirl for myself. It’s always been for readers. It doesn’t matter if there’s a handful of them or an army of them. Look, I write my diary for myself. Those volumes are solipsistic and scandalous and inappropriate and navel-gazey and maudlin and there’s no spellcheck. PaperGirl is not my diary. It’s a conversation. That’s why it works. It’s a two-way thing. There is a living relationship between the writer (me) and the reader (you.) And it’s a long-term relationship — the longest relationship I’ve ever had, by the way. I close the blog, I close that relationship. It means too much to me, so no way.
Right. No break-up. No divorce. We’re staying married. (Laughs.)
You mentioned in your diary —
Sweet living — you read my diary??
Just a few pages. It’s very good. You should think about publishing it.
This is unbelievable. Where is my publicist? (Calling.) Publicist!
Sorry, sorry! I didn’t really read your diary! I’m an imaginary journalist! Can we continue?
Only because you’re imaginary.
You seem to foster a kind of “woman of mystery” persona in the blog by being vague about various “big projects.” On Instagram, you redact locations. Even talking about your “scandalous” diary communicates that there’s the you we get here and the you we don’t get, a Mary that exists in other places and is doing different things. What’s that about?
It’s so funny: In this world of public pages and social media, anytime you say you’re intentionally not mentioning something, you become a “woman of mystery.” But I know what you mean. On Instagram, I’ll redact the location if I’m on a Quiltfolk shoot, since we’re not yet announcing what state is next in the lineup. That will change, by the way.
Oh, Quiltfolk is going to start sharing where you’re going next??
Yup. We’re going to start “announcing the season”, if you will. I’ll talk about that more this week.
So you’ll be posting more this week.
Every day I’m up here in Wisconsin. There’s a lot to talk about.
We can start anywhere you like.
Good. Let’s start with the second half of this interview.
Are you repeating me?
Are you repeating me?
So often, it seems that something which used to be a given — because we live in a civilized world — we are told, “I’m sorry, we no longer offer that. ” Or perhaps it’s, “That is no longer included in the price of this thing. ” Or maybe it’s, “The cost of this arguably simple and sensible thing will now be added to your total bill.”
Luggage is often no longer included in the price of your airplane ticket. You have to pay more for your checking account, but there’s really no reason given as to why. There are “service taxes” for many, many things and, if you’re in Chicago or New York, I happen to know, grocery bags (or department store bags, or any bag) is not a given. It is literally not given. You pay 10 cents a bag, because … Because they say so.
But here at this Hampton Inn, on location for Quiltfolk magazine, I have reason to bring you the good news. We have cause to rejoice. Because there is a holdout in this world of “no longer included.” Oh, but she’s a small, small thing, but she grants great gifts, and in the spirit of gratitude, I praise, praise, praise! the soulless, corporate monolith that is the hotel chain industry for leaving her be. She is the one, the only, the ubiquitous:
There she blows.
In every bathroom. In every hotel but the seediest, scariest, no-tell motel in the nation, it seems. Sometimes, she is screwed to the wall and she is ear-splittingly loud and barely effective, but she is there. Sometimes, she is very small, almost a toy. Many times, though, she is wrapped lovingly in a drawstring bag, tucked under the sink or in a nook. She may live in that bag in the closet, but she is there. In extreme circumstances, you may have to ask for one at the front desk, but you shall have one. For now.
Thank you, hairdryer for still being there. I don’t want to pack my hairdryer when I go on a trip. I don’t have room, I don’t have patience, and I just need you to be there, okay? And you are. You are always there.
Powers That Be of the hotel chain industry, please, please do not remove the hairdryers. Let the hairdryers live! I know how you’d remove them: You’d say you were protecting the environment, cutting down on energy waste. That’s what you did with the linens, you know, and you didn’t fool anyone. “Linen changes are done by request only. We’re saving the environment, one sheet at a time!”
Malarky! You’re saving your bottom line. But it’s cool, it’s cool.
Just keep it hot …
With the hairdryers.
Hilarious things happen to me.
Or maybe totally normal, definitely not-hilarious things happen to me and because I’m a dweeb, I just find them hysterically funny. Does it matter, in the end? My life strikes me as funny when it’s not devastating — and that’s how I like it.
Today, after passing through the metal detector at the airport TSA screening area, I waited at the end of the scanner conveyor belt to retrieve my purse. There, sitting atop the conveyor belt at the end of the line, orphaned and forlorn and wrapped in plastic, for the third time in my life … I found a cookie!
So I took it.
And I ate it!!
I did, I did! I found a cookie at the TSA and took it and ate it! And I’ve done it before!
Listen, listen: I need you to listen!
Can we agree that there are cookies. Yes. Some cookies get wrapped in cellophane and packed into purses and bags when people go on airplane trips. Yes, well, sometimes these airplane trip cookies — I guess one time it was a brownie — get knocked out of those bags while inside the TSA conveyer belt scanner! The bag gets bumped! The cellophane-wrapped cookie falls out!
And the person who packed the cookie doesn’t realize it!
Who gets their purse off a conveyor belt and goes, “Wait, wait; let me make sure my cookie made it through.” No one does it! Only later, halfway across the country, will the person become dimly aware that a cellophane-wrapped baked good may have been lost on the journey … But when? How? Was there a cookie in her purse, the person wonders … No, it couldn’t have been …
Yes! Yes, you had a cookie! It was wrapped in cellophane and it was in your purse! It fell out in the conveyor belt! After it got bumped around in the dark for awhile, it came out! A TSA person put it on the top of the conveyor belt! It sat there for a long time, probably an hour!
And then I came through and found it! And I took it!
And then I ate it!
The thrill of this TSA cellophane-wrapped cookie is extreme. And because it keeps happening it’s a serious game for me, now, spotting and liberating a TSA treat. The liberation moment is intense because we all know there is not to be any kind of funny business in the airport. I get that; I respect that. But let’s use our heads, people. The treats I keep finding at the TSA screening area are fine. These cookies are not involved in a scheme. No one is “planting cookies” at the “airport,” and if they were, they wouldn’t be using the TSA “screening checkpoint” as their “base of operations.” The TSA cookie — or brownie, that one time — is innocent. And abandoned.
I think the cookie I got today was homemade. Seriously, I’m eating it right now. Somebody makes a good oatmeal raisin, let me tell you. Delicious! Wish I had a glass of mil —
“Mary!” you say in a sharp voice. You purse your lips and look disapprovingly at the crumbs on my blouse. “That cookie might belong to someone! You shouldn’t take something that doesn’t belong to you. You should let a TSA agent know. What if the person comes back for their cookie and it’s gone?”
I look down at the cookie in my paw and look back up at you. You see that I am confused. “But … Who would want a cookie that has been bumped around a TSA checkpoint for an hour and then placed on the top of the conveyor belt?”
You shake your head, but secretly, you want a bite.
It’s my birthday!
I am on a plane!
I’m headed home from the long trip and I have a couple days before I go out again, but that’s okay, because I like it. If you stay at home, you have good days and bad days and stressful days and non-stressful days and birthdays and days that are not your birthday, right? Right. I have all those days but more planes in mine than other folks might. (And fewer than some others do!)
Today has been two parts fabulous and one part challenging. The two fabulous parts were that I woke up feeling vital — that’s fabulous! — and I saw my sister Hannah in New York City for lunch. Fabulous again! (Flight arrangements needed changing a few days ago and in the changing, a layover in NYC was created, thus, lunch with Hannah.)
The challenging part is that I’m not perfect and I’m in charge of people, now. I have only been in charge of myself, really, in this life. I’ve worked in ensembles a lot; I’ve been part of many teams. But like, I manage people. I ask people to do things. Worse yet, I tell them things that we will be doing. Like, “We are traveling this date and this date, so … pack, baby!”
My brilliant friend Heather — who you know from this glorious scene two years ago and from my post about my deep love of her here — is a production goddess at Quiltfolk and she books a lot of travel for the location shoots. I answered a question for her incorrectly about dates. I gave her wildly wrong dates. She was like, “Ooookay … so … that’s … new ” and did what she was supposed to do, which was talk to the photographer and the writer going on the trip about their flights.
So I feel dumb, because wow, was I wrong. And people scrambled and freaked out like they had gotten something wrong but they hadn’t at all. It looked like I don’t have my schmoo together, even though I think I mostly do, considering just exactly what is happening in all of our lives right now. Certainly, I am getting good at surrounding myself with remarkable people who can help me manage it all.
Anyway, I had spaghetti at the airport! It was remarkably good for being airport spaghetti. And there’s still one more birthday gift to go: When I get home, Nick will be there. I told him all I wanted for my birthday was a clean kitchen.
“I think I can manage that,” he said.
A quilt-world friend with a sizable internet presence told me recently, “The project I’m working on is under wraps for now, so on social media I’m not saying where I am or what I’m doing and my mom said, ‘You’re as mysterious as Mary Fons!'”
I probably don’t need to tell you how much I relished this. I hotdog relished it. Me, mysterious? A woman with a sock monkey mascot? A woman who still doesn’t have a new dishwasher? Fabulous!
I could understand the perception, though. I blog on the ol’ PG and am not always forthcoming about where I am and what I’m doing, not because I don’t want you to know; in fact, I desperately want you to know. I want you to know where I’m going for Quiltfolk magazine; I want you to know where the next Quiltfolk pattern is coming from; I want you to know about this other quilt-world project I have going that I can’t talk about, yet, but which is major.
But I can’t tell you everything because there is an order to things. I didn’t make the order. I make the content, the world makes the order. So, I tell you things as I can and hope you’ll stay until everything becomes clear.
Here’s what I can tell you:
I have come to upstate New York. I am near Syracuse. I have come here for a solid week to research and gather information from one of the most important living players in American quilt history. The reason we have set aside an entire a week is because a) I have a full-time job as editor in chief of a magazine and have many responsibilities from day to day which require my attention; b) it’s summer and everyone/everything is slow; and c) there’s so much to dive into with this person, we really need a year, not a week.
Here’s what else I can tell you:
I have been going through hundreds and hundreds of photographs, tin types, daguerrotypes, prints, and photos, all of which feature people and their quilts. That’s what this person has, among many other objects: He has photographs of people and quilts, starting in 1850, when photography became “a thing,” to around 1950. I’ve cried several times. I gasped, looking through the stacks, the boxes, the treasure. Put another way, I spent a day looking at humanity in photographs and stereoscope images and what I can tell you is that nothing has changed. We are the same. Humans are the same today as we ever were.
Sure, we have laptops now. We have polymers. We have the internet. We have blenders and vaccines but we also still have quilts. We still have families, cats, and dogs. Illness and death come to everyone and always has. Some of us have always mugged for the camera. There’s always been a person who blinked in a picture. We didn’t invent selfies in the 21st century; there are just more of them now and we can take them faster.
Being human is complicated, but today, I don’t think it’s so mysterious.