Photographer, stylist, and author Alyssa Rosenheck joins Zibby to discuss her new book, The New Southern Style, which combines her personal story with her interior design and photography. Alyssa shares how her cancer diagnosis shaped her current approach to life, the ways in which creativity saved her life, and her relationship with this book (which originally came out in 2020). The two also talk about the story behind the lone chair on the cover and what Alyssa is thinking about working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alyssa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alyssa Rosenheck: Thank you for having me. Thank you for everybody making time to listen.

Zibby: That’s so sweet. When did we meet? You were a panelist. We were both in a Zoom or something. I looked up your book. I was like, oh, my gosh, I have to have this book. It looks amazing. What was that? I don’t even remember where we were.

Alyssa: I chimed in with the Jewish Book Series. You were hosting an event, Zoom virtual event. I just fell in love with everything that you were saying. You were so approachable. Who were you — Claire? Were you interviewing — I think her name was Claire.

Zibby: Claire Gibson?

Alyssa: Maybe. You guys were just having a really beautiful — no. It was a book that — it was an LA author. She is a TV producer as well. She was writing about love and loss.

Zibby: Melissa Gould? Yeah, Widowish.

Alyssa: It was a beautiful conversation, really approachable, really relatable. I chimed in. I was eating powdered donuts and wearing a black shirt. I was mortified, but it was good.

Zibby: You’re so loved by the local bookstore. I think my husband was on it, too, because I bought your book, and then he bought your book. Then you sent us your book. Describe your book for everybody listening. It is this gorgeous coffee table book with the exact design aesthetic that we wish every room in our house looked like, basically. Now I want you to come and redo our house or whatever. No, I love my house. It’s not, obviously, just the design aesthetic, but so much more. Tell us all about it.

Alyssa: Thank you. The New Southern is, essentially, it’s a movement. It’s grounded in community where I’m showing how we are humanizing our differences through the lens of creativity and building bridges. I’m sharing really important conversations that take you through life pivots, how to navigate deep curiosity and creative courage. For me, creativity is something that — I personally can tell you that it saved my life. I wrote it at the time — backing up a little bit, my career is, I’m an interiors and architectural photographer. I wanted to see more substance in an industry that celebrated style. It was really important for me to bring a new conversation to the table that I had not seen in a very niche industry. Is creativity a silver-bullet solution? No, but it certainly brings everybody to the table. It is a truth-teller. It connects us to community. If we pursue it in a really vulnerable and honest way, it’s also a companion to healing.

Zibby: How did creativity save your life?

Alyssa: Oh, my goodness.

Zibby: Just answer that the rest of the time. I’m going to settle in.

Alyssa: I know. My book pub-ed in 2020. Right now, I still feel like creativity mothers me. It roots me. It reminds me to be really present and tethered to my moment. Those are moments that are often so fleeting and lost. I was diagnosed with cancer at thirty-two years old. Up until that point, I had been living my life chasing these arbitrary levels of success, going a million miles per hour. I don’t know if I was really rooted or paying attention to what was nourishing me and filling me up. I didn’t even know what that meant. I was living from a really strong place of fear, of lack, of constantly having this fear of the rug being pulled out from underneath me, being fueled by the way I grew up in childhood. That’s not good. You’re missing the present moment when you’re making choices from past experiences. That’s what I was doing. When you hear you have cancer — I had thyroid cancer. It’s a very survivable form, but we thought it had spread to my lungs briefly at the time. That’s when it really grounded me in my stillness. That was the first time I took time to be still and really start navigating my life and taking stock in where I wanted to go, what I wanted my life to look like. Essentially, I had to break my old life and rebuild something more beautiful for myself.

Zibby: What did that look like? Tell me about that. Also, wait, go back to the moment where you thought it had spread to your lungs and then you found out it hadn’t. Tell me about that and who was around you and what that was like.

Alyssa: I was at the kitchen table with my husband. His name is Ben. He is my best friend. He’s in health care. He’s a head and neck cancer surgeon. He actually diagnosed me. We met at a bar. We did not meet during this journey. We were at the kitchen table. We were looking at scans. We both had this moment. I had benign tumors in my lungs. We briefly had this moment of, oh, my goodness. I started weeping in his arms and saying how I wanted him to get remarried. I still get so emotional about it because life’s about connection. It’s about those pure moments that aren’t on social media and aren’t in this external world. It’s about love and who you bond with. He was my greatest supporter during that journey.

Zibby: I’m so sorry.

Alyssa: It honestly was such a gift that gave me so much more than it took away because it woke me up. At that time, I really started to heal from the inside out instead of having this external world tell me what I needed. I picked up a camera. It was a healing catharsis during this period of my life. It felt like a form of prayer for the first time. It felt like I was in a moving meditation. It brought me stillness. It brought me peace. It connected me to parts that I thought were forever lost. I rediscovered parts of myself that I never even knew existed. It was such a key to building a new life that had color and fulfillment and connection, deep connection.

Zibby: Go back to the amazing moment when you realized that the tumors were benign. Let’s just finish this out.

Alyssa: He was holding me. I was crying hysterically. I feel like it was the first point through the cancer journey, post-surgery, finally getting cleared, that I recognized that I actually had cancer. I initially treated it like a common cold. I was like, okay, fine. I heard you, but I really didn’t. I’m still going to move throughout it. Then had a surgery, had a few complications. We’re waiting for final scans. I was really grateful and didn’t have to have radiation or chemo. It was late at night. I still remember he was wearing maroon scrubs. I literally crawled into his lap. He just held me while I wept. Finally, he did more research and called. He was like, “You’re clear.” I was like, “Holy shit.” It was that moment. I remember it so vividly.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I’ll stop making you go back there. I’m watching the movie of your life in my head and just feeling it.

Alyssa: It woke me up. I feel like life speaks to us. It’s whether or not we are listening. We get so busy. We operate from our phones and our calendars and our schedules and other people’s expectations. I cleared out all of that clutter and really dove into this creative pursuit with interiors and architectural photography. It started out as this companion to healing. It developed into something really purposeful where I’m able to support female-owned small businesses, which is really important to me, and exercise my creativity every day. I had been doing that for about five, six years before I really had the courage to pursue the book. I wanted it to be filled with stories of life pivots, of taking chances, also, having a really honest view of the region of this country that I live in. I live in the South. Growing up as a young, independent Jewish woman making my way to Tennessee and working in a very homogenous industry, it just opened my eyes to see how much more progress we needed to make and we weren’t making. This book, I don’t know how this happened, but I do feel like it was a divine download for me to write during a specific time in history that was filled with so much division and tension and unrest and all of it. To me, I’m really proud of this body of work. It was a leap of faith. I never thought I could write a book of this magnitude and photograph it. That’s wild. I look back. You know when you give birth, you forget about all the pain? I feel like I’ve had that amnesia a little bit. It’s important conversations. I think the more we can teach how to explore curiosity and healthy discourse and ways to, not always agree, but come back together and use creativity as our own personal healing tool and a community builder, I just think that needs to be our way forward even in today.

Zibby: You could’ve written this book without any of your beautiful pictures. It could’ve taken many shapes and forms. How did you decide on making it look the way it did?

Alyssa: The cover of the book, it’s an empty chair. The feeling I want you to have is to sit down and stay a while with me. I wanted there to be an element of warmth. I also wanted there to be an element of shadows and light and style and substance. I liked that dichotomy because we can’t all have just hard conversations all the time. I wanted the images to be an invitation to have deeper connection. I also wanted the images that are light-filled and hopefully inspiring to where you can inspire the four walls of your home where you live in and love in and you laugh in and you grow in and you heal in and you become more intentional with the things that you’re incorporating in your home to hopefully be a reminder of where you want to be going or the change that you want to be making with your immediate family or with your community. There’s a lot of layers. There’s something for everybody. That was my intention.

Zibby: Wow. I love it. Tell the story that you told me when we were together in Nashville about having to desperately call up your friend for the chair.

Alyssa: Oh, nightmare, total nightmare. When you are a creative with a vision or an author with a dream, when you start to pursue that path, there are a lot of opinions trying to change that vision. The biggest thing I was doing at this time, I was really focused on being an advocate for my aesthetic and my vision and to really have the visuals match the content of the character of the project. We were in a big debate with my publisher about the cover. I’d been sitting on a cover for five months, real confident. My agent and I are like, “It’s iconic. It is amazing. They’re going to love it.” We had the initial meeting, and they didn’t love it. This was a Friday afternoon. They’re like, “We need three options by Monday.” I was like, “Wow. Okay, got to go.” I called my friend who owns this great shop here in town. It’s called Eneby Home. They source beautiful antiques and treasures and weathered moments of just goodness you want to have in your home all over the world. I called him. I was like, “Hey, I need to come to your warehouse. I’m bringing my truck.” He’s like, “Come on.” I loaded up my truck, loaded up all these chairs. I had seven different antique, vintage chairs in my car. I have a studio at the house. I spent all weekend, just exhausting. I was determined that I needed this cover to be fully representative of something that I wanted and inspired my heart. I just didn’t stop until I had it. It’s a very simple cover. I love it. That’s really my style. Again, there’s symbolism in wanting you to sit and stay awhile.

Zibby: I love that.

Alyssa: They had a totally different opinion. Everybody has an opinion about what Southern style is. The book, it’s disguised as a style book. It’s not a style book. They wanted something floral and with a doily. I just couldn’t.

Zibby: No, no, no.

Alyssa: I stayed true to my roots here.

Zibby: No doilies. Not for this book. When I was in Nashville, you had the book for sale everywhere, including at the Draper James store with all the Reese Witherspoon fans swarming about. How did you get your book in there? How do you get your book into lots of places aside from just a bookstore?

Alyssa: Oh, my goodness. How do you? You’re all over the place. You are on all the Good Morning shows and CNN. Amazing. Congratulations. It’s a labor of love. It’s teamwork. It’s connections. It’s relationships. When I set out to write the book, I’m a big believer of having a plan and working the plan and cultivating my relationships and the ones that really inspire my heart. I love what Reese is doing and has done. She’s just such a pioneer with her production company. Draper James is a confident, whimsical, ethereal brand and makes women feel good from the inside out. It’s funny and fun.

Zibby: I am actually wearing a Draper James dress from five years ago right now. I swear. I’m almost positive. I’m trying to see. I’m almost positive that’s where it’s from. Anyway, it’s one of my favorites. Keep going. I just realized. I don’t usually do that, but I am today.

Alyssa: She has an incredible team of women. They work really hard. They are really supportive. It was a no-brainer to put her in this project. It wouldn’t have been complete without the brand.

Zibby: So neat. How do you now go about life? I know you’ve woken up. You’ve discovered moments of stillness. You have found your passion. You found your creative outlet. You’re getting all this industry-wide recognition and all of this great stuff. Do you ever worry in the middle of the night about the cancer returning? Do you ever worry about, what if life goes a different way? Is there something you’re not doing? What do you worry about in the middle of the night?

Alyssa: I don’t like to spend my moments in worry. Trust me, not everything —

Zibby: — That’s such a presumptive question. I worry all night, so I just assume everybody else worries in the middle of the night. That’s terrible of me. Of course, you might not worry in the middle of the night.

Alyssa: I will say, I am very fortunate. I love to sleep. I am a great sleeper at night. However, my days are certainly not glossy and perfect. We set out with the best of intentions. I try to receive the day I’m having. I may not always agree with the things that are going on. I do think that we live in this world where everything is so accessible. You’re accessible. I’m accessible. Our products are accessible. Our content is very accessible. The hardest part for me with this project specifically, there have been some traditional Southern outlets that really wanted to incorporate my brand and reached out to me. Unfortunately, they erased me as the original thought pioneer in some of their content. That worries me. That drives me insane. I’ve had to almost just return to my moment. I think if we live in this constant state of worry and trying to anticipate things that haven’t happened yet, we’re missing the gift that’s right in front of us. I try not to lose sight of that. Yesterday, to be vulnerable and honest, it was kind of a dumpster fire of a day. I carved out time. I didn’t really have it, but I went to yoga and just said no to something else and created that space for me. I woke up this morning. New day. New hope. A new set of things on my plate. I try to navigate it with kindness and humanity. That’s all we can do.

Zibby: I think I’m going to refer to my bad days now as dumpster fire .

Alyssa: It was a full dumpster fire. It’s just one of those things. At this point in my life, I’m becoming more discerning in terms of what I want to be saying yes to and what I’m saying no to. I’m saying more noes. I’m really incubating my second book. That’s really important to me. Ben and I may be expanding our family. That’s really important to me. I’ve had my business for eight years now. It has been nonstop for eight years managing projects and clients and dreams and all of these incredible things really intentionally. I still want those things. They’re going to happen, just at a slower rate for me while I focus on other areas of my life.

Zibby: You have enough wisdom for the both of us today, all the good perspectives. Slowing down is something that sounds like a nice idea, which I’m having trouble implementing myself.

Alyssa: When we were having coffee, I said, “Are you going to slow down?” You looked at me. You’re like, “No.”

Zibby: Let me just laugh at my craziness.

Alyssa: I just want you to sleep. I want you to get a little bit more sleep.

Zibby: I got a great night’s sleep last night. I slept eight hours, so I’m all good.

Alyssa: Oh, so no worry? Nothing keeping you ?

Zibby: No. Eight hours. I slept all the way until six. I couldn’t believe it. I fell asleep with all my lights on last night, literally, all the lights on. So tired. Anyway, tell me a little bit more about the second book. Can you say anything about it, that you’re incubating?

Alyssa: Not to throw this back at you, but to throw this back at you. I’m in this process. The creative process is really important to me. It’s something that I’m really curious about. I like to follow that curiosity. Broad level, I think it’s going to be something really related about creativity being a companion to healing and what that looks like and how, as a photographer, we can have healthy boundaries around certain elements in our life, particularly, the phone that we have in our pocket every day. I don’t know. We’ll see.

Zibby: That sounds great.

Alyssa: Hopefully, it’s a resourceful healing tool. It can inspire people to dive in deeper to their creative gifts.

Zibby: I think writing is also something so helpful as a tool, not just photography, but the writing and all of it all together.

Alyssa: Cathartic, yeah.

Zibby: Throw in a chapter about that.

Alyssa: When I say creative tools, this can be gardening and writing, music therapy and art therapy and all of those beautiful things that we have that we don’t necessarily make time for.

Zibby: Amazing. Do you have advice for aspiring authors?

Alyssa: I have advice for aspiring authors and creatives and dreamers. The biggest thing that has been grounding for me is to develop a plan and work that plan. I think that’s really important. There’s a lot of abstract ideas around creatives and authors and writers. I think it’s important to be inspired by your crises. We all have them. Let that fuel creative beginnings. Get clear. Develop a plan. Work it every day.

Zibby: Love it. Amazing. Just wondering, what are you reading right now? Anything?

Alyssa: Yes. It’s kind of triggering me. Right now, I’m reading — I’m in between two books, yours — I have a date with a girlfriend. We’re starting a little book club. I’m bringing her your book tomorrow. I’m in the middle of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. It’s good. It’s hard. Time is a construct. Observing your thoughts and not judging your thoughts and returning to that undercurrent of peace, that is a daily practice. It is a lot. When I’m having my dumpster fire of the day, I’m like, I don’t have internal peace right now.

Zibby: No one has internal peace. Come on. What is that?

Alyssa: I know.

Zibby: Alyssa, thank you. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for your beautiful book, both the messages in the writing and the visuals and all of it. I’m so glad our paths have crossed.

Alyssa: Me too. I am grateful for you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on.

Alyssa: Bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

THE NEW SOUTHERN STYLE by Alyssa Rosenheck

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