Alison B. Hart, THE WORK WIFE

Alison B. Hart, THE WORK WIFE

Zibby speaks to Alison B. Hart about her dazzling debut novel The Work Wife, which offers an intriguing look at a Hollywood scandal from the alternating perspectives of three fierce women. Alison describes the book’s several editorial transformations (it started with a different title!), her unconventional journey from pre-med to MFA, and the beauty of connecting with readers during book tours (even if only your friends show up!).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alison. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Work Wife.

Alison B. Hart: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I know you said you just got back from book tour. I was just in Seattle at — where was I? I think Third Place Books, Third Street Books. Anyway, your book was featured so prominently there. I hope you know. I don’t know if you ever hear or get reports from bookstores. They had a whole big thing about it.

Alison: That’s awesome. That’s wonderful. Bless them.

Zibby: Time for a thank you note. No, I’m kidding. I’m kidding. Tell listeners, please, what The Work Wife is about.

Alison: The Work Wife follows three women. It’s told from the perspectives of these three women who are in the orbit of this famous director/movie mogul in Hollywood, obviously, where you find such people. One is his personal assistant. One is his wife. One is his ex-business partner and other types of partners. It’s set in one day. It’s set in 2019 well into Me Too when we’re sort of past the optimistic fury of, we can bring the whole system down, and we’re trying to figure out what the consequences will be. There’s a producers’ conference in the morning that some of them have some business at. There’s a big fundraising party/networking party in the evening that they all have some connection to. That’s what it’s about.

Zibby: Amazing. I love the setting of this. I spend a lot of time in LA also. I know you said you grew up there. Just the day-to-day life of this family and the compound-ish place where they live and how the meetings have to happen by jumping into cars, it was so glam and escapist in terms of setting and lifestyle and everything. I just loved how you even set the whole thing up.

Alison: Thank you so much. It’s kind of an unusual property. It’s in Pacific Palisades, where a lot of famous movie stars have their homes. They’re up on a hill backed up against the Santa Monica Mountains, so they have all this natural area behind them. They have a view of the city and of the ocean. It’s this really incredible lot. In the back of it behind the showpiece mansion are all these little cottages where the personal staff does their work. They could be doing anything with this incredible piece of real estate they have. They could make wine and sell it or whatever. Instead, they have all their staffers tucked in almost like in kennels handling their business for them. The setting was fun to create but also pretty relevant to the story.

Zibby: Have you seen a place like this? Did you model it after —

Alison: — No.

Zibby: I love these little cottages. It’s almost the Beverly Hills Hotel with the little bungalows everywhere, right?

Alison: Yeah, exactly.

Zibby: Same concept.

Alison: Same concept, yep.

Zibby: I love the Palisades, so this was particularly fun to read. You also do a great job of getting us in the point of view of the assistant and what that is like — now she’s more than an assistant, angling for chief of staff and all of that — and what it means to really run the show from morning until night. I love how you had it in this discrete timeline because you feel your heart pounding. How is this all going to get done? What’s going to happen? Also, even shining a light on the multiple uses of some of these fundraising-type events and whether they’re elephants or giraffes or whatever to really make them stand out, what the role of them in society and networking and everything is too.

Alison: It’s pretty important for Holly as a — Holly is the wife and the lady of the manor. It’s pretty important for her from a hosting perspective. This is her pet charity, Bump to Pump, which raises money and resources for low-income mothers. From a mathematical standpoint, the amount of money that they are spending on this party versus what they’re going to pull in, I don’t know how that nets out. They come up with this jungle nursery style theme. You have Curious George. Then the servers are all The Man with the Yellow Hat. There’s Sophie the Giraffe. There’s Babar and all of that. Their drinks are Moscow mules, but they’re served in these custom-cast little copper baby bottles. When I was doing my research and trying to come up with some figure that I thought they were spending on that, on these copper baby bottles, you could buy a lot of strollers for your low-income mothers with that money. Just putting the party together in my mind was a lot of fun.

Zibby: I would like you to plan my next party.

Alison: Please, no.

Zibby: Yes. You don’t even have to do it. You just have to send me all the ideas. Not quite as outlandish. Baby2Baby is such a big deal out in LA. It is interesting. I took my husband to this big fundraiser in New York when he first moved to the city and hadn’t been to a charity gala before. He was just like, “What? How is this raising money? We’re at The Plaza,” or wherever we were. He’s like, “I don’t get it.”

Alison: You have to spend money to make money.

Zibby: It does make money. I’ve been involved with galas. I know it seems crazy, but you do raise a fortune through the ticket sales and the tables and donations and sponsors and journal ads. Still, is there a better way to raise all that money? I don’t know. Maybe they haven’t found it. Interesting. I also loved the point of view of the three women and mystery that you lace in — what’s the relationship with this woman coming in who’s leaving her husband at home to dash off to this conference? Why is this so important? — and how you set the whole thing up. Tell me about how you came up with this whole story and also the different women. Just tell me all about the characters.

Alison: When I first told the story, I told it all from one point of view. That was Zanne, the personal assistant, because that’s something I knew a lot about having been a personal assistant in my past. Although, this is a work of fiction, completely. I made it up. I worked for very lovely people. I’ve worked with lovely people. I definitely related to her and the frenetic energy that you have to have where crazy things are being heaped on your plate throughout the day. You just have to keep spinning the plates. I wrote the whole thing from her perspective. Then pretty much as soon as I got to the end, I knew it needed to be two perspectives because there were too many things that Phoebe, who’s this woman from Ted’s past, there were too many things where I was having to pretzel myself to find a reason for Zanne to know that Phoebe would know this. I went back. I reoutlined it. I did the whole thing as a two-perspective thing. Then once my editor came on board, she said, “You know, should we have Holly in there?” Holly, of course, was always a very important character. Originally, I didn’t want to be in Holly and her husband Ted’s minds because I felt like they already have so much cultural power. Do we need to be in Holly’s mind as well? I did see the argument that it would be good to have one way of looking from inside this very crowded marriage that’s this couple and then their thirty staffers. Then I went back, and I added Holly’s perspective, which I’m really glad I did. It was actually really fun and helpful to get in her head.

Zibby: I loved her parts. I ate it up. Just curious, was this always the title? Did you change it or what?

Alison: We changed it. When I sent it out on submission, I was calling it Happy to Help.

Zibby: I like that.

Alison: Which was riffing on Zanne being this personal assistant and cheer-leasing yes to everything, but also talking about just the emotional labor that all women do, which I think is a pretty big theme in the book. My editor suggested The Work Wife. I think it’s better. I think it also covers that same territory of the emotional work that women do for men, for their families, for other women. We got a lot of labor going on.

Zibby: Was that one of the driving forces and the reason why you talked about this act of the man and the repercussions of someone’s actions on women? Did you want to explore that as a kernel and then got the story? How did it come about?

Alison: I think that came in pretty early. When I was younger writer, I don’t think I worried so much about the period of time when I was setting things. Then as I got older, I felt like, that’s really crazy. If you don’t have a pretty strong notion of when in history this is happening, you haven’t thought something through. It just didn’t feel like me anymore to do that. I knew I was going to be setting it in Me Too and still within the Trump presidency. Although, Trump is never mentioned, but in this weird time in history. There’s another character in the book who is a really vile and damaging man. Ted Stabler is not that. He’s not brutal. He’s not violent or anything. There’s a lot of stuff that, because of his money and his power, he’s able to get other people to handle for him and to make things very smooth for him so that he doesn’t have to bother with stuff. Not bothering with relationships and his impact on people, he doesn’t really have to look at the consequences of what he was doing. I was wanting to look at that more subtle thing where he really could have a big impact and a damaging impact on somebody’s life without being a Me Too monster, which he’s not.

Zibby: Interesting. Tell me about how you got here to this novel. Tell me about your life and where you grew up and your love of writing and reading and all of that stuff.

Alison: I grew up in California outside of LA, not quite as far outside of LA as Holly grew up, but that direction, for sure. I wrote when I was a kid, but I didn’t really know that I was writing with a capital W. It was just something that I did. I didn’t really have models in my own life of what being a writer could look like. I just did it because it was fun. Whenever I had an extra journal laying around, I would start to write a story, very derivative things. I think I wrote something that was Tales of the Fifth Grade Everything.

Zibby: Oh, I like that.

Alison: Bless Judy Blume. Then we moved away when I was in my teen years. I eventually went back to California for college. That’s where I took my first writing class. I was pre-med and getting close to needing to take my MCATs and thinking about applying places. I just was putting the brakes on and knew that it wasn’t right for me. I took my first writing class. It changed everything for me. Everything after that has been such a strange process of, again, still feeling my way to, what does it mean to be a writer? How do you actually do that? A few years later after college, I eventually went and got my MFA. Even so, okay, great, I have this degree, but I still need to write the book but also support myself. It was a lot of time writing, trying to believe I could finish a book. Then when you finish a book, then trying to sell it and having books that weren’t selling. I loved them, but it’s hard out there for a writer. This is not my first book. I’m so happy that I kept at it because eventually, one took.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like you have to write at least two full novels before you can — I think to be able to do it, you have to practice. I hear it over and over and over again. I think the magic number is three. This is my theory.

Alison: I’ll go with that. Let’s go with that.

Zibby: How many did you write?

Alison: It was my fourth submission. I think this book went out twice. I had worked with some of these characters. The first time that I took a crack at writing about it, I was writing about them in short stories. I was trying to put together a linked collection of stories, kind of like A Visit from the Good Squad. That was my first iteration, which I loved. It was very different. Each story was looking at the theme of a marriage and what’s happening in all these marriages. You still had Ted and Holly. You had Zanne and Gabby. Then it rippled out to all these other different characters. It wasn’t to be. We already had A Visit from the Goon Squad. my take on it.

Zibby: Shoot. She just snatched that up right out of your fingers. What are you working on now?

Alison: I’m working on another novel. It’s about four adult siblings because I’m super fascinated in that sibling relationship I have with my siblings. Again, won’t be about us. I just think that’s such an unusual relationship in your life. It’s so pivotal. You’re going to know these people your whole life, but you actually may be spending so much time with other people in your life. It’s a relationship that can get very compressed and then can get very distant and keeps doing this accordion-like thing. It’s about these four adult siblings. Their father is kidnapped. They need find him. They don’t know what’s happened. Ten years later, there’s a new clue. They have to come together and try to find out what happened to him.

Zibby: What number are you? Are you one of four?

Alison: I’m one of three. I have two big brothers. I’m the baby. In this, there’s three big sisters, and the boy is the baby just to completely break the link in my head to me thinking about I’m writing about my brothers. Let’s not do that.

Zibby: Interesting. Tell me about your recent book tour. What was that like?

Alison: It was fun.

Zibby: Where’d you go?

Alison: We went to New York first, which is where I lived before. I’m in North Carolina now. Before that, I was in Brooklyn. My husband and I were there for a long time. We went there and did a few readings. I did a virtual one and stay of virtual readings as well. A couple in person, one virtual. Then the next week, we came back down here. I did a couple readings here. It’s kind of like everywhere I’m going, I’m having another hometown launch, but from my other hometown. Then two nights ago, I went to Tulsa. I did a reading there because in high school, that’s where my family lived. That was really fun and a blast from the past too.

Zibby: What ideas do you have about book touring — I’ve been thinking a lot about this having just done a few events for my own book — and how we can mix things up? I feel like sometimes I go to these events or I travel or whatever, and not that many people show up, maybe. I’m like, is this efficient? Is this a good use of authors’ time? I don’t know. What do you think about touring?

Alison: It’s so interesting. Back in the day, people used to have these very long tours and went all over. Now my house, at least, really wants to have a tighter focus on these things. I do think it’s a lot of going places where you have connections. You can have your friends come out and support you. Tulsa was the one wild card on my tour. I added it kind of because I really wanted to just try and see what would happen. I had called the bookstore just to introduce myself and let them know I grew up out there. They said, “Oh, you should come.” I thought, gosh, is this going to be okay? Will I have enough people come out? They had told me they had some preorders for it, probably from my friends. I was like, okay. I guess I just thought of it as, let me, with my first book, start to build a relationship with this city. I will say that there is always somebody in the room that I didn’t bring there. It’s mostly a lot of people that I know from one corner of my life or another, but there’s always somebody that is coming. I used to run a reading series in Brooklyn for a really long time. In that place, we were in a bar, and so we had a lot of people that were coming not because they had relationship with that writer, just because you want to sit in that dark space and have somebody tell you a story reading. There was something really sacred about that kind of community. I don’t know. I’m interested in this too. I think these one-author events can be kind of hit or miss with who’s going to come. There’s something about being in a room and being together with other readers and hearing stories that’s still really special. I hope we keep it.

Zibby: Yeah, some iteration of it, for sure. I think there’s power in getting people together.

Alison: For sure, especially now.

Zibby: Especially now. It just seems inefficient that we’re all racing around trying to capture readers. Do you know what I mean? You know those lines that used to be in old airplane magazines where you would see the flights all crisscross?

Alison: Yeah, or like in Sleepless in Seattle.

Zibby: Exactly. It just seems like there should be better ways to resources, but anyway.

Alison: You’re traveling a lot.

Zibby: Not too much. I’m mostly done. Everything else, I can drive to. I did a few trips. It’s also fun. I had never been to Nashville and Seattle. It was just fun for my husband and me to go and check it out and meet other people and connect with friends. There’s a lot of other — you can’t just go for the one event. There has to be something else behind it. For your next book, are you alternating viewpoints again with the siblings?

Alison: Yeah, I will. I like that style. That works really well for me. Not to say I’ll always do it. I know that there’s a trade-off that you make when you’re with one character the entire time. The thing that I started with, the way I started putting stories together when I was a kid was, honestly, soap operas. I was a huge soap opera nut. I loved there being this cast of characters that were around town. Each day when you would tune in, there would be a certain subset of people that you were going to be looking at. You didn’t get to choose who they were. From commercial break to commercial break, you would flip back and forth to them. Then the next day, it would be a slightly different mix of who the characters are. I think my brain kind of responds to that. For this one with the siblings, it just feels really natural that I would be spending time with each of the four siblings.

Zibby: Did you read Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You?

Alison: No.

Zibby: You should read that.

Alison: Does that do it too?

Zibby: It’s about four adult siblings who go back home. I think it was their father — I read it a long time ago. I think their father passed away. They were home for the shiva. It takes place over the shiva. It was a lot about relationships of adult siblings. It makes me think of that.

Alison: I’m reading Dava Shastri’s Last Day right now, which also has the four siblings. That one goes really in and out of people’s heads all the time. It’s almost like Mrs. Dalloway where you can go in and out of her head and then the person walking by or in the park. Then you come back to her. It’s less regimented. It’s really fun.

Zibby: Very cool. What do you do when you’re not working?

Alison: I have a daughter. I have a dog. I feel like I’m going wherever they lead me. While I was away on this last tour stop, my daughter, who’s in the doldrums of summer, got really into chores. “Give me chores. I’ll do the chores.” This morning, she set her alarm at six AM. She got up. She made everybody breakfast. She made me tea.

Zibby: How old is she?

Alison: She’s eleven. This will last for two days. She started to unpack my stuff and put my toiletries where she thought I would need them and was like, “Okay, get up. Go get dressed. Your clothes are over there. Go, go, go.” I follow the dictates of my daughter.

Zibby: I love that. Oh, my gosh, I have not had any of my kids do anything like that. I’m going to have to tell them. Here’s my suitcase. Let’s get going here.

Alison: Here’s a fun game. Let’s unpack Mama.

Zibby: Really fun. You just told me what you’re reading. Awesome. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Alison: You’ve said it too, it takes practice. It just takes time. I think that thing that Ira Glass says is really helpful to keep in mind. There’s going to be a gap when you start between the vision you have in your mind and your ability to reproduce that. Even with practice, it will always be a little bit different than how you pictured it, but that can still be wonderful. I’m somebody who, I’m up for revising all the time. If there’s a good idea, I want to try and incorporate it. I won’t revise just for revision’s sake and to do something that’s taking me away from what my goal was with the book. Just knowing there’s a certain — I can get the book so far on my own and be like, okay, I did everything that I knew how to do. Then you give it to a reader. Having that discussion with the reader about it inevitably produces more ideas and helps me realize, oh, right, I meant to do that, but I don’t think I quite did it quite right if you’re seeing this other thing. Just finding people that you can give your work to at the right time when it’s done, when you’ve done everything that you can. There’ll always be another round that you can come back to with it and make it better.

Zibby: Awesome. Alison, thank you. Thank you for The Work Wife. Really fantastic. It was so nice to meet you.

Alison: Nice to meet you too. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Alison: Bye.

Alison B. Hart, THE WORK WIFE

THE WORK WIFE by Alison B. Hart

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