Allison Larkin, THE PEOPLE WE KEEP

Allison Larkin, THE PEOPLE WE KEEP

Bestselling author Allison Larkin joins Zibby to talk about her latest novel, The People We Keep, and its protagonist who Allison loves dearly. The two discuss the fifteen-year journey Allison went on to write this book, the reason she feels such a deep connection to the story, and why she didn’t feel the need to create a main character who everyone finds likable. Allison also shares how her eclectic life story has influenced her writing and how her next project began with crayons and butcher paper.


Zibby Owens: Welcome Allison, or Allie or whatever you want to call you, Larkin. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Allison Larkin: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s really great to get to talk with you.

Zibby: I have to say this is one my favorite covers, The People We Keep. I hold this up as an example of one of my favorites all the time. Aren’t you so happy with it?

Allison: I’m so happy with it. Gallery did the most incredible job, even the gold lines on it.

Zibby: The gold, I know. It’s amazing.

Allison: The design is just so perfect. They worked so hard to get it right. I’m constantly grateful.

Zibby: For people listening, I won’t even try to do this justice, but it’s kind of like a half of a sunshine with these big sunbeams of all different colors with actual gold lines. It’s just the coolest. Not that you’re supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I just have to say it sometimes when the covers are amazing. Ironically, I actually listened to this as opposed to reading it. Although, I have the book here. I spent lots of time on walks listening and doing the housework and all this stuff and then even trying to hide under my bed. I was like, I’ll just take a little nap and listen at the same time. Then that didn’t work, so I had to pause it. It was so great because I felt like I was inside of somebody else’s head the whole time, which was amazing. It translated great to audio.

Allison: Thank you. You heard Julia Whelan.

Zibby: What’s that?

Allison: You heard Julia Whelan, who was so amazing. It was just a joy to have her narrate this book. We have a long history, so it was really special to get her to do this.

Zibby: Awesome. Would you mind telling listeners a little more about what your book is about?

Allison: The People We Keep is about April Sawicki. She’s sixteen years old. She’s living in a dead-end town outside of Buffalo, New York, in a motorless motorhome that her dad won in a poker game. She steals a car and goes to an open mic night to play a couple songs she wrote. It’s the first moment where she realizes her life could be bigger than everything that she came from. After a pretty bad fight with her dad, she steals another car and hits the road. Then the book follows her adventures for about three years as she tries to figure out where she belongs.

Zibby: I am keeping you very far away from my car, is all I have to say about it.

Allison: I’m dangerous now with my research. I’ve never stolen a car, but I think I could steal it.

Zibby: Right? The screwdriver and this and that. I was like, how does she know all this?

Allison: Research. I think I could do it if I had the right year car. It couldn’t be a new car. It would have to be an old car. I probably shouldn’t admit that.

Zibby: I’m in the clear. There were a lot of things I found really interesting about your book, but one was this — my parents are divorced. I’m divorced. You wrote about it so interestingly when her father remarries. She has a half-brother — I always get this wrong — a half-brother, the kid, you call him, with her stepmother. She feels, often, completely ignored and displaced by this child. There was some funny line. You said something like, he might have to sneeze, or something, and they would both have to stand there and watch. Everything a new child does stops the presses. Yet her life, even though she’s so much older and has this amazing talent which goes completely unrecognized, is just an afterthought.

Allison: Her dad was really all-in on his new life and didn’t really have time for her. I think he just wanted to be a person who hadn’t made mistakes yet. He’d made so many with her, and so she was a witness to that. He kind of couldn’t manage her. He couldn’t handle it.

Zibby: That’s a lovely way to say it. Another moment that was so special is when she’s leaving town and she goes to her boyfriend’s house and just cuddles under his blankets and imagines a life if she were just to stay there. She’s like, I could have this life. I could keep working at the diner doing whatever I’m doing. This would be it. She’s like, but I can’t. Then she extracts herself from the covers and goes and cries. It was so moving.

Allison: Thank you. I really appreciate that. I actually wrote the middle of the book before I wrote the beginning of the book. I had written a scene that’s related to that. I never know how many spoilers to give in all of this. The sweater scene, I had already written later on in the book. I had a purpose for that moment, which was interesting. For me as writer, I had this moment where all of a sudden this thing that I’d written that I didn’t quite understand yet added up with that moment. It was just so exciting. Of course, that’s where it came from. Of course, that’s what’s happening. I feel like April kind of had her own book in mind. I just had to figure it out.

Zibby: That’s so cool. Wow. In the audiobook, for instance, the lyrics of her songs, which are original songs, were just said. Did you think about having somebody maybe record those songs and make them into songs?

Allison: I’ve thought of it. A friend wrote a little bit of music for one of the songs. Actually, one of the songs she sings — she’s writing in a hotel room in the whole actual sweater situation, actually — is a song that I wrote in my twenties. I gave it to her because it was fitting. I played a little bit of guitar in my twenties. The open mic scene in the beginning is — I did not steal a car to get there. It was in a different place. It wasn’t there. I did, not really knowing what I was doing, take my guitar and go to an open mic that ended up being kind of a big-deal open mic that I hadn’t realized and got up and played my little songs. I sort of played with that in that scene even though it’s not about me. Then I gave April one of my songs. If you dig around on my Instagram, you can find a video of me playing it, but April is a better musician. I want to make sure to give her credit because she actually plays for a living. I just mess around.

Zibby: I did go on your Instagram, but I must not have dug far enough back. Maybe later. This is your fourth novel, right?

Allison: Yes.

Zibby: I didn’t read the other ones, so I’m just making this up, but it seems like this is the more rough-and-tumble situation. This is a little more gritty and in it than the other ones which are sort of lighter in tone. I was wondering if that’s even true about that trajectory of how you pick what you’re going to write your novels about.

Allison: You’re correct about that. You guessed correctly. I actually started writing this book in 2006 before I had finished Stay, which was my first novel. It’s been a journey because it is so much grittier than my romantic comedy novel about a woman who accidentally orders a German Shepherd off the internet from Slovakia. There were serious things in my books before that. I was kind of playing with the romantic comedy form and trying to really ground it in the serious emotions that you have as a twentysomething trying to find your way in the world. This book just kind of came out of nowhere. I was writing pages of Stay for a writing exercise and listening to music, and April just showed up in my head. She’s just the way she is. She’s gritty. She’s very much a product of her environment and then her desires and survival. My journey with this book has been trying to find the right people to understand what I was trying to do because everyone kept taking me in the context of my first book and then my second book and my third book. I kept writing those books. I’m very proud of them. I love them, but this is a different side to my storytelling. It just had to be the way it was. April felt inevitable.

At one point, there was kind of a rom-com version of this book because I had gotten advice to make it fit. I felt like I’d betrayed her. I just didn’t feel good about myself. I got to the point maybe three years ago, two years ago, three years ago now, probably, where I just decided that I was going to take all my toys and go home. I wasn’t going to write this book for anybody else. If maybe someday my niece found it and was like, what was this book? then I’d be okay with that just as long as it felt okay in my soul, that I’d done a good job for April, which I know is such a weird thing to say. That’s when I doubled down on what I needed to do. That’s when I found Deborah Schneider, who’s just the most amazing agent. Hannah Braaten is my editor at Gallery. She’s a dream come true. I love working with her so much. Then everybody at Gallery has been so supportive and really understood what I was doing, I think because I was so clear and wasn’t willing to compromise. They got on board knowing that and helped me make the book my vision instead of trying to make it something else. I’m really thankful.

Zibby: I love that. That is so cool. I really love that Gallery puts out. I shouldn’t say that. I should say I love them all, all the publishers. I do. I appreciate — never mind. Anyway, it’s a great book.

Allison: Thank you so much.

Zibby: I think the real thing is how much I just wanted to be on the ride with her. I just loved her voice. It didn’t really matter what happened as long as I got to come along and see what happened next. I think that’s really the trick to drawing in a reader. I think it’s much better to — not to say better or worse. Ugh, I’m really digging all sorts of holes for myself today. I find it a lot easier to get into a book when I like the character. I know that’s a bone of contention, that you don’t have to write likable characters. Especially in a novel like this, which is so intimate and you’re following one women’s journey, you’ve got to want to go on the journey with her. I just loved how you created her voice. It sounded so authentic and at times really funny and just awesome.

Allison: Thank you so much. That’s an interesting thing with a likable character because a lot of people felt April wasn’t likable over the years. That was one of my struggles with her. I think in a post-Me Too world we kind of stopped that a little bit. I think maybe the world had to change a little bit for April to be widely considered a likable character to some extent. I never thought she wasn’t a likable character. She’s got this really strong beating heart. She has a code of ethics. She’s trying not to hurt people. It’s interesting what’s likable and what isn’t. In my mind, she always was. In my mind, she’s my dearest friend.

Zibby: I feel like you don’t always like what the character does. I wouldn’t necessarily be like, oh, I want to be best friends with somebody who steals cars and drops out of school. On paper, the actions, they’re certainly not what make me like a character. It’s who the person is underneath. I found that very likable, who she was, not necessarily what she did.

Allison: Yes, I did too writing her, which is kind of an interesting thing. I spent fifteen years with April. She was always my happy place to go back to, which sounds weird because she’s gone through a whole bunch of stuff. It’s not necessarily always an easy journey she’s been on, but her heart’s so good. Even when she’s making bad choices, she’s trying her hardest in a very earnest way. That has been really comforting to me to get to write.

Zibby: Do you ever feel like you project stuff in your own life and it gets — not that you include things from your life in the book, but let’s say you’re going through something really challenging, that then she runs into something challenging that presents itself in a different way? Is this all just one big therapy exercise, really?

Allison: A little bit, yeah. I think it’s more of my past, though, than what I was going through while I was writing it, to some extent. I feel like this book is not my life. I grew up in a house outside of New York City. I’m not a traveling musician and all of that. I feel like this book is kind of my life in allegory. I feel like I made sense of myself by writing it. I can kind of point to things and say, oh, I know where that feeling came from. I can remember the time when I felt like this. I can remember the time when I felt this way about that person and didn’t understand it yet or just having people who took me under their wing like Margo did, or like Ethan. I definitely have people in my life that I feel that way about. It wasn’t intentional, but I think my brain just took everything I’d ever experienced, and this is what it did. The recipe made this. There’s a quote from a Chris Pureka song at the beginning of the book that says, “Someday, someday, I’ll offer up a song I was made to play.” This is a book I was made to write. This is it. Everything in my life makes sense because I wrote about April. I can decode it. Actually, one of my friends read it and then wanted to talk to me about it. She was like, “Did you write this scene because of this thing that happened to you?” I was like, “Oh, my gosh, you’re right.” I hadn’t thought of it. She picked it out. But none of it is true.

Zibby: No, no, I understand. You referred on your website to the lost years. You have documented time for five years. I’m like, what happened then? What was that about?

Allison: That was actually probably the time that influenced this book the most. I went to Ithaca College as a theater major for two years. Then I got diagnosed with attention deficit disorder while I was there. It just completely rocked my world. I didn’t understand myself before that. I thought that I wasn’t necessarily all that bright before that. All of a sudden, I found out that, oh, you just didn’t fit in school. That’s the thing. I dropped out of school and went to bartending school and worked at a biker bar and a little Italian restaurant and had some unstable housing situations and a really bad boyfriend. I think it was the worst time in my life except that I learned more than I ever could’ve learned otherwise. I was twenty, twenty-one years old. I got to be behind a bar with grown-ups and have them share their feelings with me and be the person they came in to see every day after work. I learned so much about people in that time. My boss at the Italian restaurant where I worked took really good care of me. I had these experiences. Some of them were really good. Some of them were really bad. I saw a part of people I don’t think I would’ve if I just kept going through school and tried to find myself afterwards. I ended up going back to college eventually.

Zibby: I feel like anybody who wants to be a writer should just be a bartender for a while.

Allison: Yeah, I really think that it was —

Zibby: — Not that I have been a bartender, but it sounds like the best way to get a head start on character development and all of the rest.

Allison: You see so much of people that you just don’t expect to see and end up caring about people. I had some people who taught me so much about life, and so many optimistic people too, which I thought was really amazing. For people who come and drink their dinners every night, there was a lot of optimism. I think it made me a more compassionate person, too, to see that people are trying their hardest. We all have our vices. We all have our setbacks. You can still let your kindness shine through and still try to connect.

Zibby: Honestly, you look like you’re twenty years old now, so I can’t even imagine how young you looked when you were bartending at age twenty. You must have looked like you were twelve years old. Did you get that a lot? You must have.

Allison: I did, yeah. I think, though, I’ve somewhat always looked the same. I had an older face when I was younger. Now I’m forty-four. I think I still have somewhat the same face. I see the age on me, but a lot of times people are like, you look exactly the same.

Zibby: That’s funny.

Allison: I’ve been through everything, though.

Zibby: After writing essentially your magnum opus — this is the grand work. You fought for it. Now it’s here. It’s amazing. How do you start again? Do you want to start again? Are you like, that’s good, now I’m done?

Allison: Thankfully, partly because of my attention deficit disorder, my brain is just always thinking of things and then going, what happens next? What if? What if? I thought it was 2018, but I actually started working on it at a writing retreat that I did in Ithaca with a couple other writers in 2013, I think. I started writing this book that’s just been churning my head. Because I’d had the experience of April and knowing that I could go back to something, I’ve started seeding other books as I go and just collecting ideas. I have this book that I had written a bunch of stuff about. Then one weekend, I think that was in 2018, my husband went on a climbing trip. I put butcher paper up and down our hallways and just drew and wrote things with crayon like a crazy person. I think that’s going to be my next book, is the crayon book. I captured ideas. Then I started putting it in a Scrivener file. Then every time I’ve had a thought about these characters — I have about forty thousand words just from that process. They’re not necessarily in order. It’s kind of the most painless way to write a book, is to just dive in when you have an idea. We stop ourselves so much. We’re such completionists. I had to get over that and be like, it’s okay to just collect this and then go back to what you were doing. I’m so thankful to past-me for doing that because I think this would be a really hard book to look at a blank page after.

Zibby: Wow, I like that. I think it’s easier to conceptualize it as procrastination when actually, it’s just productivity in a different way.

Allison: Sometimes you just have to clear the decks too. If that idea is going to nag you, then get it done and move on.

Zibby: You’re a huge dog person, too, right?

Allison: Yes.

Zibby: I’m gathering. Do you see my dog? Can you even see her on the couch behind here?

Allison: Oh, my goodness, yes.

Zibby: You can only see her little collar. What was the essay that you wrote for the anthology about dogs? What was that about?

Allison: It was about my dog Stella who passed away in the spring. When we first got her, she would not pee on a leash. We didn’t have a fenced-in yard yet. I spent a lot of time outside squatting in my backyard pretending I was peeing to try to get her to pee. I still look back and it’s like, why’d you write an essay about that? Except it’s just kind of human. I think it’s called “Squatting with Stella by Starlight.” I would be out at two in the morning trying to get this dog to pee squatting in my backyard trying to hope that I would trick her into thinking that this is where we go. We just got another dog. Actually, my husband has her right now because she was really hyper. We just got a rescue puppy named Roxy who is adorable and fun and fascinating and is okay peeing on a leash, so I don’t have to do that.

Zibby: I had a bulldog a while ago, ten years or something. I bought her from a pet shop. It was not the smartest thing to do. She wouldn’t walk out of the pet store. I was like, oh, that’s so cute, she doesn’t like to walk. She never walked a step in her life, not one. I had to get a stroller. I was in my early thirties pushing a bulldog in a stroller, which sounds cute, but it was really annoying. She would only pee at the bottom of this garage where the cars came in and out between two avenues right on the grate. I would always have to keep my ear for a car about to . I’m like, I am going to get mowed down by a car before this dog will pee. This is so not worth it, but I don’t know what else to do. That was Mabel.

Allison: It’s amazing. They train us. They really train us well. It’s amazing.

Zibby: It was not good. This one, Nya’s amazing. It’s like having a difficult child first. Then the next child is a piece of cake. I feel like I had my really difficult dog. Now I have such an easy dog. I appreciate every minute.

Allison: That’s wonderful.

Zibby: Anyway, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Allison: I think that you kind of have to get to a point of having faith in your work before you put it out into the world, before you’re trying to get professional feedback on it or professional support on it. I went into this business a little more malleable than I wished that I had. I don’t know if it’s possible. Sometimes you look back at the journey and think, oh, I wish I were different then, but I’m different now because of the journey that I went on. How do you take that apart? I think we sometimes look to the industry to tell us if we’re doing it right or we’re doing it okay. I think that the thing I learned from this book was that I had the support of other writers and friends who understood my vision and kept nurturing and nudging me towards it and helping me not give up. That made me go into this with more confidence. Because of that confidence, I found the right people. Whereas other times in my career with this book, I was kind of questioning, is this okay? Is this all right? What do you think of this? That made the journey a little longer. I’m not sorry because it was gift to have fifteen years of growing and being able to put that perspective into this character. I just kind of want to go back to my old self and hug her and be like, you’re good at this. You can do this. It’s okay. I think that if there’s any way as a writer that you can find that strength in yourself and just try to get your vision and as clear as it possibly be and then work on getting people to help you match your vision, I think that’s probably the best advice I can give.

Zibby: Awesome. That, and learn how to steal a car. Just saying. You never know.

Allison: Yeah, exactly.

Zibby: You never know how these things will come in handy. Allie, if I’ve earned the right, thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for The People We Keep. I’m going to frame this wallpaper. I’m going to wallpaper my house with this if it were available.

Allison: Thank you, Zibby. It’s so nice to talk with you.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day.

Allison: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Allison Larkin, THE PEOPLE WE KEEP

THE PEOPLE WE KEEP by Allison Larkin

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