Alice Berman, I EAT MEN LIKE AIR

Alice Berman, I EAT MEN LIKE AIR

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Alice Berman who’s the author of the Audible Originals book I Eat Men Like Air, a mystery/thriller. She sold her book, Lost Boys and Technicolor Girls, to ABC where it is in development to become a series with Freeform. Alice cofounded the Shopfeed app, which is the BuzzFeed of shopping, and previously served as the creative director for Pop & Suki. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania where she won the Gibson Peacock Award for creative nonfiction, Alice currently lives in New York City.

Welcome, Alice. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alice Berman: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: I’m so happy you’re here. I have to say, you are the first person that I’ve interviewed who has an Audible Original, which is very cool.

Alice: I feel so special. I love it. Thank you.

Zibby: Your book, I Eat Men Like Air — by the way, every time I mention this title, people laugh. People are interested. It’s a brilliant title. Tell me, first of all, what the story’s about and also how it ended up being an Audible Original and why you went that route and the whole story.

Alice: The story starts out, it has seven main characters. You find out on page one that one of them is dead. You follow that thread back in time through what happened to bring him to that moment in time. There’s a traumatic event early on that affects all of these seven people. They are working through that while you as the reader are also trying to figure out what happened to Alex, who is dead. It’s all centered around a wedding party and a wedding, which was always something I really wanted to do because I’ve been a bridesmaid a few times. I think it’s really interesting to be in this combination of people where you’re really close friends with everyone else who’s a bridesmaid, and you don’t know any of the groomsmen. You’re thrown together over and over again for a year, year and a half. Then you never see each other again.

Zibby: They should do reunions for the wedding party.

Alice: They should. I’ve loved some of my wedding parties.

Zibby: Me too. I haven’t seen some of these people since my friends got married. Maybe we should encourage all of the anniversary parties. Now everybody’s having new parties thanks to us, which we don’t have time to go to. You thought of this idea. How did you come up with this idea, aside from being a bridesmaid?

Alice: I’d been kicking it around for a while. I knew that I wanted to focus on the wedding party. I’ve always been a huge fan of mysteries. I knew I wanted to write a mystery and make it a little more focused on the feelings and thoughts behind the characters. I love Agatha Christie, but you never really get that deeply into any of the characters thought process, except for the detectives. That’s great, but I wanted to read something that went a little more deeply into what everyone was thinking, maybe would allow you to see why someone would get to the point of murder.

Zibby: Interesting. Is there any firsthand experience with any crime anything?

Alice: Not at all.

Zibby: Anything you want to share right now?

Alice: This is my moment. I read this Robert Ressler book called, I think, Those Who Fight Monsters. He’s the man who coined the term serial killer. He worked for the FBI for years. He traveled around the country interviewing all of these very famous serial killers like Tex Walker and Charles Manson. I’m not sure if I got Tex Walker’s last name right. Anyway, I was really struck by him talking about Ted Bundy as a human and what the psychology looked like there and how easy it was to forget that these people were more than just killers. I thought that was really fascinating. He talks about this one moment where he’s alone with a very famous serial killer. I can’t remember which one it was. He’s 6’5 and very strong. He got really nervous just sitting there and remembered suddenly that he was a killer because he’d forgetting in spending three hours alone with him until these last five minutes. I was so struck by that as something that — we forget to humanize people a lot of the time.

Zibby: Although, I feel like sometimes people think there’s too much attention on the killers and not the victims.

Alice: Definitely.

Zibby: I had this woman Carolyn Murnick on. She wrote a book called The Hot One. Someone had murdered a friend of hers. She was upset by how much attention murderers get. Maybe people who are mentally unbalanced to begin with crave that attention. Then the media perpetuates it.

Alice: Completely. That’s actually a huge part of the book, of Robert Ressler’s book, not at all in my book.

Zibby: Now we’re just going to talk about other books.

Alice: I completely agree. I always think it’s interesting when you go into the victim’s family and you’re actually seeing these people who are affected by it. That was part of why I wanted to shrug away from the mystery genre of just focusing on one person, or maybe one person solving the crime, and get into everyone and their friends and their family and their background.

Zibby: You did a good job because I had no idea. In fact, I was reading it. I always involve my kids with the books I’m reading. I’m like, “This is a mystery. Let me tell you what happened. There’s this thing. There’s this watch. I don’t know.” They’re like, “What do you mean? Why would he be dead in a bathtub?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” Then I was like, maybe I shouldn’t be sharing all this. Every day they’re like, “Who did it?”

Alice: That’s amazing. I’m so glad. I’m so happy.

Zibby: I did not see it coming. It was very good.

Alice: Good, that makes me so happy.

Zibby: You wrote this book. You’ve also written another book, Lost Boys and Technicolor Girls, which you sold to ABC. That’s in development.

Alice: That’s in development now.

Zibby: But that’s also not an actual book?

Alice: No, we haven’t sold the print rights for that yet. That got sold almost accidentally through a weird series of events. I was working in fashion at the time. I’d written it and given it to a friend at UTA. It just sort of happened, which has been amazing. It was kind of similar with Audible. I was still working full time, pretty much, at the time. I knew that I wanted it to be a book. My wonderful agent found my wonderful editor at Audible, Jess. She was so understanding of the book. She grew up on the Upper East Side. She knew a lot of the places that are mentioned in it. The second we met, I was like, oh, my god, here’s the book. Take it and go with it. She was such an amazing editor and so great to work with. As much as I love Audible and audio as a medium because I do a ton of listening, she was really the reason why I went with Audible, a hundred percent. I just trusted her so much.

Zibby: Somebody was asking me this question. I had no answers, so I’m going to ask you these questions that make me seem very stupid. How did economics of publishing an audiobook versus a regular book work? If you’re an author and you have the choice of where you would want to sell things, how does it work with audiobooks?

Alice: It’s really similar. Audible makes it incredibly compelling since they’ve started their Originals program. They pay you a really generous advance. Then they pay you bonuses per download, very similar to royalties.

Zibby: So it’s similar? Same model?

Alice: It’s pretty much exactly the same.

Zibby: Except you never get a printed book.

Alice: Yeah, but you can go sell your print rights. I haven’t found the right person for this book yet. When I do, I’ll sell my print rights. Then I’ll get kind of twice as much.

Zibby: Even after they air it and you get all your downloads and blah, blah, blah, you can sell the print rights to a traditional publisher and then they go sell it at a bookstore?

Alice: Yeah.

Zibby: That’s so cool.

Alice: It’s amazing. I will also say, working with Audible, they are so kind and thoughtful and easy to work with. They’re so big on supporting authors. “Whatever we can do for you.” I’ve been amazed at how they will answer any phone call at any time or any question, any text. I know pretty much everyone there. I feel really comfortable with them. Because this was my first book that was coming out, that was really important to me. It’s very scary to put yourself out there like that. I felt like I had a really strong support system with them.

Zibby: Then they have a free distribution platform. They don’t have to get anything into stores. Once they put it up, it’s just there. Everybody can download it. It’s almost like they have no cost.

Alice: I’ve been so surprised with how many people have read or listened to the book. People reach out to me on Instagram who I don’t know. I’ll read the reviews and I’m like, I don’t know this person at all. I’ve never met anyone who lives in Kansas or whatever. It’s astounding.

Zibby: Do they help with marketing?

Alice: They definitely help with marketing. They have such a strong following that anything that’s promoted on their website, you’re immediately getting eyes onto that title, which I really appreciated and enjoyed.

Zibby: Sorry for all these questions.

Alice: No, not at all.

Zibby: Do they guarantee you that they’ll promote? Do they have so many titles that they only promote some people on the website? Is it like Apple where there’s so much content? Is part of the deal that they will promote you on the website?

Alice: I don’t know if that was part of my deal, I’m embarrassed to say. Definitely, they promoted me on the website and in emails. I felt really supported, is the best word. Whenever I was like, “Eh, I don’t know. How’s it doing?” They were like, “Everything’s great! Yay for everything!” It was a great experience. I’ve loved working with them.

Zibby: That’s so neat. When you were writing, at what stage did Audible get involved? I know I saw the print version. Did you self-publish?

Alice: I just printed galleys. A lot of people were not willing to listen it. It was kind of a way of getting people who are book influencers or people like you to listen to the book. It’s great to listen to it, but if you’re not someone who naturally listens to audiobooks, you have to actually see and hold the galley and start reading it to be like, okay, I could listen to this. Then once you start listening to it, the woman who performs it is so talented. It becomes more like an experience rather than just reading.

Zibby: When I listened to it, I was in the car. My babysitter and I were listening while the kids were doing their own stuff in the car. We got so engrossed immediately. It’s all the tones of voice and the Lulu. Then I finished it reading it because I read faster than I listen.

Alice: Definitely. I read faster than I listen too.

Zibby: I was like, twelve more hours? What? I don’t have twelve hours. Two hours. It was great, if I was in my car more. I don’t have a car-based lifestyle, but for people who do… Even in the summertime where I’m in the car a lot more, this would’ve been perfect driving to and from.

Alice: Absolutely. When I lived in LA, that was when I got into podcasts and audiobooks because I was in the car all the time. I was always listening to something.

Zibby: Also, you had a podcast character as the central guy that you framed the story around, the investigator who runs a crime podcast, which I also found so interesting. I love now seeing podcasts pop up in books. Maybe they’re here to stay. Who knows?

Alice: They are definitely here to stay, in my opinion.

Zibby: I don’t know. It’s so new.

Alice: I was so taken by “Serial” and “S-Town” and those crime podcasts. I loved the idea that these journalists got so close to their subjects that they were questioning their own morality in the situation. I thought that it was such an interesting dilemma. That was why I decided to include a podcast narrator as the person who solves the crime. Then going back to your original question of when did Audible become involved, they became involved at the very end. I wasn’t initially thinking of this as an audiobook, but the second my agent suggested it, I was like, oh, my god. Because there’s a podcast in this, that is so perfect. I kind of get the crime podcast that I wanted. I was really excited about that. It was great.

Zibby: That’s so cool. In the galley version, you have notes on how you want people to read it. Did you go back in and add those?

Alice: I went back in and added those. That was great and also cuts down on the word count, which everyone is always trying to do. I was so happy. You have no idea. I think I ended up cutting four thousand words of just directions of voices by giving the narrator, this wonderful woman Elizabeth Evans, the directions. I was so happy with her because — well, for so many reasons. She had such a sense of humor. There were so many times when I didn’t realize I had written something that was really funny, but because she delivered the line in a funny way, I was laughing, which I loved.

Zibby: Did you get to have any input on who read it?

Alice: Yeah. They let me listen to probably six different narrators. She was the second one I listened to. I was like, oh, my god, this woman’s amazing. Let’s do her. She’s great. The section they had her reading was where they talk about Lanserhof Lans. A lot of the other narrators, not to be rude because they were all lovely and talented, but they all had these really long, complicated pronunciations of Lanserhof Lans. Oh, my god, no, no, no. Elizabeth just said Lanserhof Lans. I was like, great. She’s got it.

Zibby: That’s so funny, oh, my gosh. Tell me a little more of your backstory before you got into writing. You started an app, like a shopping…?

Alice: Yes. Zibby, you know everything.

Zibby: I went online. I was like, ooh, look at all this. Look at all this. There were two different shopping sites. I’m like, I’ve got to get off of these websites. I can’t keep doing research into this author by shopping.

Alice: I went to Penn. Then I moved to LA and worked for an interior designer and then ended up working at a friend’s shopping app that was called Shopfeed, which was great. That was really where I learned how to write concisely because I was writing all the articles. I loved that. That was an amazing experience. Then I left and went to work at a direct-to-consumer accessories company where I learned a lot more about tech packs and developing products and leather samples. That was also great, but I was basically only writing copy for the website. We didn’t need a lot of copy, so I really missed writing. That was when I started writing at work. Around three o’clock every day, things would calm down. I would just sit at my desk, and I started writing this book. Then it came to be.

Zibby: Wow. Then you also had this profile in Architectural Digest on your family’s home. You were the tour guide of it, and all the history imbued in it and how it moved from place to place. It was part of the Revolutionary War.

Alice: It’s a fascinating house. Part of the background of this — everyone’s always surprised when I tell them this. It took me about six months while I was at work to write the first third of the book. Then I came home to my parent’s house in DC, and I wrote the last two-thirds of the book in a month. It was so much faster than the first part of it because I was just so comfortable there. I felt so safe. No one really talks about that enough, but you have to have your space where you feel like anything you do is going to be okay. I really felt that way being at my parent’s house. It is a really unusual house. It’s the oldest house in Washington DC. It was moved from Danvers, Massachusetts, on a train car piece by piece and reassembled in this DC neighborhood in the 1920s that at the time had no houses. It has been a girls’ boarding school. It was a headquarters for the Revolutionary War at one point. There are so many little, hidden, amazing pieces of it. I was in my parent’s bathroom the other day. I noticed there’s one huge floorboard that is all hand etched. That probably happened when there were girls living there. Someone did that for fun at boarding school. I went to boarding school, so I know you get up to some weird stuff. It was a really amazing place to write and an amazing place to think about — I just kept thinking over and over again about all the different people who had been in this room that I was sitting in and how ephemeral everything is and how important writing is in comparison to that. It’s the only thing that really endures. I was curious, I wished that I could’ve read some of the writing of these people. It was just a really amazing experience.

Zibby: You had a picture of this green couch on which you wrote most of the book, which I was staring at longingly. I could just picture you sitting there with no one bothering you and your dog and the light streaming in in. I was like, that would be so nice. That’d be so nice if I could sit there for a month and write.

Alice: Completely. I never thought writers’ retreats were anything until I had this month. Then I realized, it makes a difference. This sounds so trivial, but not worrying about what you’re going to eat in a day, even just whether or not there is food in the fridge, makes such a difference.

Zibby: Just what I’m feeding my kids, I can’t think about dinner again. Dinner always comes back. I can never cross it off the list.

Alice: I would show up and there was orange juice. I’m like, oh, my god, I haven’t seen orange juice in six years. I go to the grocery store. I could just buy myself orange juice.

Zibby: Alice, I’m going to go check into your parent’s house.

Alice: I know. It’s so nice.

Zibby: It would be like the new Yaddo. Forget about Yaddo. People can just go to the Berman’s family home. In the book at one point, Lulu, one of your characters, says the best part of being an adult is eating cookies for dinner but that all the rest of it just exhaustion.

Alice: Just what we were talking about, completely.

Zibby: Pretty much. Do you find yourself run down by #adulthood?

Alice: Definitely. I don’t feel like an adult at all. Someone asked me how old I was the other day. I was like, “Twenty-five. Wait, I’m twenty-nine. What am I talking about?” Living in New York is also just so different from living in LA. I’ve only been here for a year and a half. In LA, because you go everywhere in your car, life felt a little more convenient there. In New York, it’s harder to figure out where your Whole Foods is and walk there and carry your groceries back. All this sounds very trivial, but it’s just a lot more thinking about life. Also because I spent so many of my formative years in LA, shifting to the New York mind-set and learning how to live in a new city as an adult is actually something that’s kind of a life skill that you have to figure out.

Zibby: My husband moved here. He grew up in Florida and then lived in Charleston and all these places in the South. Now that he’s here, he’s like, “I want to take my car and go to the grocery and put the bags in my car.” He bundles up to go to Citarella in the freezing cold. He’s like, “This is terrible. Nobody has to live in the Northeast. This is a choice. Why is everybody here?”

Alice: I completely agree. It’s so interesting. I went to boarding school in New England. I love New England. I feel as though New Yorkers have this little bit of that New England puritan, like, “I will be tough. I’ll do whatever it takes to live in this place.” You’re like, wait, why though? But then it’s amazing and magical and wonderful.

Zibby: I know, but then I can’t leave.

Alice: Exactly. I don’t even travel as much since I moved here because I love living here so much. It’s such a unique experience. Every day is something different. I don’t think you could find that anywhere else.

Zibby: No. It’s pretty awesome. You include a lot of that in your book too. You clearly are tapped in because you have all the local haunts and the food stores and every reference to basically everything that is in my day-to-day life in your book. Well done after a year and a half. What is coming next for you? Are you going to write another book? What’s next?

Alice: I have another book finished that will go out for sale in January.

Zibby: That’s so soon! Sorry, this is coming out probably after it will already be for sale.

Alice: Sorry, it’s not going out for sale. It’s going out to publishers. Sorry, confusing thing. It’s going out to publishers in January. It will probably be out in like forty years knowing this process. That is kind of like Royal Tenenbaums meets Gossip Girl. It’s also set on the Upper East Side. It’s two girls who move to New York from LA. They move back home to their childhood home. They’re kicking around in this crazy house with their three other crazy siblings and their mom. They’re navigating being adults but being back where they grew up and feeling like they’re in a state of arrested development.

Zibby: Love it.

Alice: And there’s a murder, obviously.

Zibby: And there’s a murder. Yeah, just throw that in. Do you want that to be — maybe I shouldn’t even ask. Do you want that to be an Audible? Are you going to go back to the traditional route? You’re open to anything at this point?

Alice: I’m really open to anything. I feel like everything that’s happened so far with my book career, knock on wood, it’s been really easy and lovely. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is when you relate to someone and you meet someone who you like and you feel as though they understand what you’re saying, that’s the right person to work with.

Zibby: That’s great advice. I was going to ask you for advice. What other advice do you have? Find the right editor and publisher for your work.

Alice: One thing that I completely learned from you and I’m so grateful for is to be friends with authors. I knew one other author before I came into the “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” family. It is so lovely having this community of people who can talk about what it’s like to sit and write all day, can talk about taking days off from writing, and agents and advances and print numbers and all of this stuff. It really makes a difference. It’s a very unusual group of people. It’s hard to tap into. I’ve been incredibly grateful for everyone I’ve met here. They’re so friendly and so helpful. It definitely makes a huge difference.

Zibby: Aw, I’m so glad it helped.

Alice: It does.

Zibby: Alice has been coming to the book events here because I have not gotten to this book for quite some time. I’ve had it. I’m sorry.

Alice: No, I loved coming to the book events.

Zibby: It’s so fun having you here. Awesome. I’m so excited that our paths have crossed in life.

Alice: Me too.

Zibby: I’m so looking forward to your next crime, which I will partially listen to, perhaps, in my car. The rest, I will read. I’m so impressed with all you’ve done at age twenty-nine. I’m actually insanely jealous of you.

Alice: Thank you. I feel like I’ve done nothing.

Zibby: You’ve done a lot. Are you kidding? I can’t wait to follow what happens next with all your career and everything.

Alice: Thank you so much. Thank you for all of the book recommendations. What a life changer.

Zibby: Sure. Save me a spot on the couch at your house. I’ll be crashing.

Alice: I definitely will, anytime.

Zibby: Thanks, Alice.

Alice Berman, I EAT MEN LIKE AIR