Amanda Eyre Ward, THE LIFEGUARDS

Amanda Eyre Ward, THE LIFEGUARDS

Zibby is joined by the New York Times bestselling author of The Jetsetters, Amanda Eyre Ward, to discuss her latest novel, The Lifeguards. Amanda shares her unique style of drafting which involves a number of colored index cards and a big board in her garden shed and reveals the illustrious group chat she belongs to. The two also talk about the epiphany Amanda had about her own writing after reading her friend Andrew Sean Greer’s book Less, which famous author taught her the trick to crafting a good thriller, and why having one of her books picked for Reese’s Book Club meant so much to her.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amanda. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Lifeguards: A Novel.

Amanda Eyre Ward: Thank you so much for having me. I loved being in your apartment once. Now I’m in the little cottage behind my house where I write.

Zibby: That’s so nice that you have a place like that to go to.

Amanda: Well, I have a kind of crazy story about it, actually.

Zibby: Let’s hear it.

Amanda: I used to write in the house, in a closet where I feel comfortable making things up. Then the pandemic happened. We had this garden shed, renovated it. It’s my wonderful little oasis. I said to my elderly next-door neighbor, “Oh, I renovated the garden cottage.” She said, “You mean the cat house?” I said, “Wait, sorry. What?” She said, “The people who lived there before you had thirty-five cats in that shed.” Welcome to the cat house.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, wow.

Amanda: I just try to ignore that and call it my garden cottage anytime I can, so here I am in my garden cottage.

Zibby: I love it. I love that you have a whiteboard behind you for inspiration. Is that for plotting and all that?

Amanda: Yes, and a big board over here with cards. You know what? We don’t even need to look over there because this area’s neat. I use index cards to plot, actually. They’re all up on the board over there.

Zibby: Take me through the — we are going to talk about The Lifeguards. Take me through the writing process start to finish. What do you do when you first get —

Amanda: — I love to talk about it. I can talk about The Lifeguards in my process.

Zibby: Yes, perfect.

Amanda: What I do when I start thinking about a book is I will see the characters in my mind. For The Lifeguards, it was three moms in Austin and their three fifteen-year-old sons who are lifeguards. Then I’ll just see various scenes in my mind, like the moms drinking margaritas. I saw the boys biking home after something very terrible has happened. I see all these scenes. Then I have a huge pile of index cards here. I’ll give a color to each character. Then I’ll just jot down on them. I don’t know why this says trampoline. This must be for my new book, The Peacocks, a scene on a trampoline. I’ll just jot down trampoline or scene with the moms or the underground doomsday bunkers. One of them is a real estate agent showing underground doomsday bunkers. Then I’ll lay them all out. I know the three-act structure. For any writers in the audience, there’s a wonderful book called The Weekend Novelist. It lays out the three-act structure. I’ll lay it all out. I’ll say, oh, that needs to be the midpoint or plot point one or the climatic scene. I have this illusion of a novel. In front of me, it looks so easy. I just need to write all the index cards. I actually have a little envelope. I’ll bring them with me when I go to a cheap motel to write. I’ll say, I’m writing these three index cards.

When I sit down to write, I can write any card I want out of order. George Saunders, one of my favorite writers, said it’s like holding your hand over the burner to see which one is hot. Then whichever scene is hot, I’ll sit down to write it. Say it’s a plane trip where they’re supposed to land in Paris. I’ll then go into my cat house, or as I call it, the garden cottage, and I’ll start writing that scene on the plane. Then I let the magic take over. If somebody hijacks the plane and it lands, instead of in Paris, in Morocco, then I have to throw away all the cards and figure out what the heck they’re doing in Morocco. It’s this interplay between listening to the characters do what they want and imposing some sort of structure on it. If I didn’t have this illusion of a plan, of a, “If I just write all these index cards, I’m done,” I would go insane. I have that illusion. It looks fantastic on a writer’s board. I even, behind me, put the dates that I’m going to write certain scenes so I have some structure. Then I let it take me where it will during the writing process.

Zibby: Wow.

Amanda: I don’t know if you know Andrew Sean Greer who wrote Less, the greatest book ever.

Zibby: Yeah. I just got Less is Lost.

Amanda: He’s a friend of mine from graduate school.

Zibby: Oh, no way.

Amanda: I don’t have Less is Lost. You’re the second person —

Zibby: — I just got it.

Amanda: You got it before me. I’m going to call him when we’re done. I explained this to him.

Zibby: Do you want me to send it to you? You can send it back to me. I’m not going to read it quite yet anyway.

Amanda: Yes, yes, yes. Although, I can bother him.

Zibby: All right, I’ll do it after.

Amanda: Anyway, I explained my writing process to him in an interview. He said, “That is insane.” It might not be every writer’s process, with the index cards and the magical thinking, but it’s what works for me.

Zibby: I love that. How often do you actually stick to them? How many times did the plane land in Morocco, for instance?

Amanda: With The Lifeguards, I have to tell you, it was really hard. It’s my second thriller. With a thriller, you have the plot that has to happen. Then you have the characters who want to do what they want to do. Especially fully formed characters, they might want to get on a plane to Morocco. With a character-driven novel like my previous novel, The Jetsetters, they could kind of do what they wanted. One of the characters missed the ship because he got drunk in Rome. He had to figure out — that’s all okay, but with a thriller — with The Lifeguards, these boys arrive home. They found a body on the greenbelt near my house, which was another weird thing, writing a book set in my neighborhood. It’s also weird to have a book published that’s set in your neighborhood. All the time, Zibby, a hundred times, they wanted to do other things. It was really hard because if a character has to go somewhere and find a clue and then they decide that day, no, they’re leaving town, which is what happened — Liza, the character of the single mom, decides to pack her car and leave town. She can’t leave town because she has to connect with the sexy cop, Salvador. It was really hard. Especially, the climactic scene of The Lifeguards was so difficult. I wrote it so many times that in fact, your advance copy has a different ending to the eventual hardcover.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’m very sorry about that.

Amanda: Nobody loves that. I said it wasn’t quite done. It went to advance copy, and it wasn’t done. The actual hardcover has a different ending. That ending was hard. It’s exactly that issue. You can tell. All the characters had to assemble in a certain place for a certain thing to happen. I also had to call Paula McLain, who just finished a thriller, and ask her, “How do you do the denouement climax scene in a thriller?” She walked me through what Kristin Hannah had taught her to do.

Zibby: No way. No.

Amanda: Yes. I have it all written down in my notes. I don’t know what we’d do without each other, honestly. Do you want to know what she said?

Zibby: Of course. Yes, yes.

Amanda: In the end of a thriller, in the climactic scene, you obviously have to get the major players in a confined space. I don’t know if you read Paula’s thriller.

Zibby: I did.

Amanda: So fantastic. That character’s in the room with a killer. Mine is in a room also with a killer, as it turns out. Then she said to focus on the physicality. In mine, I had to have the feeling of the chair underneath her fingers, the buttery leather of the chair. Then you have to have the protagonist and the antagonist recognize that they’re actually the same. That was something I’d never thought of, which happens in both our books and really any thriller. They’re trapped in there. You see, oh, I’m really the same as this murderer, in its own way. Then they have to take action and right the wrongs, which happens in both of ours and every thriller. That was really helpful for me to have that advice from her. Of all people you’d think who would give — the author of The Paris Wife is the expert on thrillers.

Zibby: I loved — what was it? When The Stars Go Dark? Is that what it was called?

Amanda: Yes.

Zibby: That was great.

Amanda: I know.

Zibby: I remember interviewing her before it came out. She was nervous to be switching genres. I’m like, who cares if it’s a great book and you’re a great author? There’s so much pressure.

Amanda: She and I met in Kauai with Christina and just became — we have a huge text stream going with Meg Wolitzer about book titles and things like that.

Zibby: No way. Wait, I want to hear more about this. Who is on your text stream? It’s Meg.

Amanda: Where’s my phone? I’ll tell you. It’s Kauai Gals. One day, Lisa Sharkey was leading a yoga class, who’s at HarperCollins. Do you know her? You probably know all the Kauai Gals. I’ll pull it up. It’s Michelle Tessler, my agent; Jonathan Franzen’s agent, Susan Golomb; Meg Wolitzer. I can’t see. I don’t know how to use my phone to look at who it is, but Christina, Paula. You should really be on there. You should be a Kauai Gal. It’s just this incredible group of women. Whitney Scharer.

Zibby: I want to have all of you for dinner. Could I invite the Kauai Gals over or something? Could we do a group dinner?

Amanda: Please. We have parties in New York all the time, actually. We had a party at Lisa Sharkey’s house.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, okay, or just invite me.

Amanda: Okay, perfect. Yes, we’d love to.

Zibby: I could do a little event. Welcome the Kauai Gals, or something.

Amanda: We actually had Hawaiian food Lisa Sharkey got. Oh, and Carrie Feron from HarperCollins is a Kauai Gal. It’s really fun. I wrote a children’s book with my daughter. We named it after a Jonathan Franzen essay called Save What You Love. It has not found a publisher, but my daughter and I wrote a book about saving everything in your own backyard as a way of feeling like you can do something to save the world. You catalog all — this is what the Franzen essay is about, cataloging every bug, every animal. Then you figure out, okay, do I plant these for butterflies? or whatever. You save your own little sanctuary. I was able to go through Susan and say, “I don’t know Jonathan Franzen. Does he mind if I use his title?” He was honored. It’s pretty neat.

Zibby: Wow. Have you tried to sell it, the children’s book?

Amanda: Yeah. I wrote it with a friend of mine who’s a fabulous children’s book author. We tried to sell it. They wanted it to be a multigenerational story, which it’s not. It’s a mom and her daughter. I don’t know. Oh, Zibby Books. You don’t do children’s books, do not?

Zibby: We do not. I can barely keep my head on straight with what we’re doing.

Amanda: I know. I know.

Zibby: I have had other people say they’re looking for great children’s books. We’ll offline.

Amanda: Good. We’ll have to keep in touch.

Zibby: Keep in touch.

Amanda: In terms of, honestly, not having time for stuff — I know you know this. I also have three kids. I try to be religious about writing in the mornings and not doing absolutely anything else. If I have a dentist appointment, that day will be certain things, but I’ll say, my brain is going to be in this space. I’ll describe the greenbelt hike that day because I know that my brain’s a little bit offline. I can do that. Then I go to motels, as I said, or fancy hotels or my friends’ empty houses when I really need to figure something out, when I really need to put that climactic scene together. I’m very, very religious about that.

Zibby: What is your time? What is the time? What is your window that you work?

Amanda: Before kids —

Zibby: — Forget before kids. No, no, forget it.

Amanda: Okay, moving on. My son is graduating from high school, so it’s been eighteen years.

Zibby: I shouldn’t say forget it. I’m sure there are people listening who do not have kids. That would probably be useful too. I was just joking. It all just seems easy when you —

Amanda: — What I was going to say is that I used to not really sleep. I’m an insomniac. I’ve had to get better about making sure I sleep. The kids get off to school. In an ideal world, my husband will do the morning. He often does. I come straight here or upstairs at my house. I write first thing, however many pages or whatever scenes I’ve assigned myself while I’m still in that sort-of dream state. Then I’m done. Then by afternoon — I read a great essay once, and I’m forgetting the name of the author, about how when she picks up her kids from school, she’s still kind of underwater with seaweed in her hair. I loved that. I actually have a hard time with the transitioning to chatting with moms after school because I am often thinking about really complex, sometimes dark topics. I’m still in that fictional world. Although, I don’t often go until three o’clock. I try to go for a walk. Another thing Andy Greer told me is to go out to lunch. As he said, it’s kind of a lonely life. I am an introvert, so that’s great.

I’ve started making plans at least once a week for a beautiful lunch at this Italian place around the corner. I’ll even contact writers I don’t know and say, hey — Meg Gardiner is a thriller writer in town. I just said, “Hi. I’m a writer in town. Would you like to have lunch?” I have this wonderful network just from having a big pasta lunch once a week. It’s such a treat. Other than that, I’m in the world of the books. Then after school, as you know, the kids come thundering home. Everything goes crazy. I’m the mom who’s in the corner flipping through a New Yorker and eavesdropping. That’s what I’ve done. I love it. It helps to remind me — some days, the writing’s going well. Some days, it’s not. I’ve had books that were on The Times best-seller list. I’ve had books that went nowhere. All of that, I feel very lucky to be reminded by 3:05 every day that there’s a whole world that could care less about my books in my children and their friends. I love it, going to waterparks and just being Mom.

Zibby: Do you feel like the books that made the list and the ones that didn’t — do you think the ones that made the list were actually that much better, or do you feel like there’s just some unknown element that made those books succeed when the others didn’t and they’re all sort of equally the same caliber?

Amanda: Obviously, I think about this a lot. It’s really funny. As my career has gone on and we’ll see a book like mine — I published — I don’t know if it’s back there yet — Close Your Eyes — which way does my hand go? This one — a few weeks before Gone Girl. It’s a very similar book. It was just like, wow, who knew? I try not to think about that stuff anymore because it drives me insane. I will say, The Jetsetters was picked by Reese. Then it went to the best-seller list. That is why it went to the best-seller list. Also, who knows if she would’ve picked that one? It’s a dysfunctional family on a Mediterranean cruise. It was inspired by Less because both Andy and I had been writing — we were friends in graduate school. We would hang out watching Parker Posey movies trying to get a short story in a very fancy lit magazine. He succeeded. I did not. Then we just kept writing and writing. Less is hilarious. It’s very much his personal voice.

It really inspired me to say, maybe I don’t need to be writing about apartheid or children at the border, which are topics I had been taking on. I think I sort of wanted to be important. I had this idea, honestly, from a very male MFA program. I was the only woman in my class. I thought, I want to impress everybody. I went to Williams. I’m either going to be a pediatrician, a judge, or a very important author. As the years have gone by and I turned fifty, I think my internal life as a mother actually is more important, if not as important, as all the other topics we’re talking about, as war, apartheid, kids at the borders, mothers on the other side of the border. The Jetsetters really was my first book where I said, this is for me and my people. It’s a really tangled family story dealing with addiction and mental illness. They’re on a cruise ship, which is something I wanted to do with my kids. It’s actually a crazy story. I did a vision board because I saw an Oprah video that said, imagine what you want. I’m flipping through a travel magazine. There’s a cruise ship balcony. I’m sitting there in my hot kitchen in a bathroom. You know what? That’s where I belong, not in this kitchen in this “Number-one Mom” bathrobe from TJ Maxx. I belong on the cruise ship. I also thought, oh, I need a number-one Times best-seller to get there.

I had this epiphany. Wait a minute. Why? Why do I need a number-one? Money. I found a cheap cruise ship. I thought, I’ll set a novel on a cruise ship. I emailed my editor. She said she loved the idea. I told my wonderful husband, “I’m taking our savings, and I’m taking the boys on a cruise from Athens to Barcelona.” I did it. That was number one on my vision board, and I got it. Then I wrote the book. Then I got paid for it, which barely paid all the plane tickets. Then Reese picked it. Then I got to the best-seller list. It was such a great lesson to really focus on the immediate and how you can get there without waiting for the important people of the world to say that you deserve it. When I got on the best-seller list, I felt like I deserved it. That’s years of therapy. I’m proud. My crazy book about a cruise ship, I’m proud of it. It deserves it. Anyway, that’s my only answer to that question. The feeling of success is writing a book only you can write. I could only write The Lifeguards. It’s my neighborhood. It’s moms. It’s anxiety. I think it’s important. I’m really proud of it. I think if I continually focus on that and not how the book does commercially, then I can’t lose.

Zibby: That’s amazing. That is the most inspiring — I’m serious. I’m going to replay that. I don’t even know how you bookmark on a podcast. If I could bookmark on a podcast, it would be right there.

Amanda: If we just surround ourselves with people who make us feel like what we’re doing matters, like our families and our friends, and we read great books and we love great books and we try to do that and also, redefine our definition of great — I think what we’re doing as moms who are trying to write and read is just as important as anything else.

Zibby: Not to mention that there is also a school of thought that you should not be writing about kids on the border or apartheid. It’s all coming back to writing what you know or not being afraid to expose the drama of the everyday.

Amanda: Yes, exactly. I will say, I spent a year interviewing the kids, not to get into that topic. A lot of the book is a white lady reckoning with this stuff. The Lifeguards has a character, a mom, who’s Mexican American and becomes an American citizen. I have a lot of friends in that situation in Austin. I had a sensitivity reader who was incredibly helpful with making sure it was right. The boys, there were a lot of issues. When you’re tackling tough topics that matter to you, you might hit some trip wires. I am fine with doing that. I have to say, I was thrilled when my biggest book was white people on a cruise ship drinking too much chardonnay. I was like, this is my story. I have every right to this story. It was a little bit of a relief because it’s complicated now. I think it’s important to put forward all people who don’t necessarily have access easily. Not like I had easy access to the publishing machine. I worked incredibly hard too. I grew up without a ton of money. We all deserve to tell our stories, whatever they are.

Zibby: It’s so true. What was it like, the part about getting picked by Reese after that whole situation?

Amanda: Oh, my gosh. There I have this book. I had finished a chapter of The Lifeguards or something. I had something with my work where I felt like I could go down the street to the Relax Day Spa where you can get a cheap shoulder rub, thirty bucks. It’s the best thing ever. I put in my binaural beats headphones and tip a lot. It’s the best. I went and got that and turned off my phone. I turn my phone back on after my back rub treat. There were five messages from Random House, which does not happen to me. I talk to my editor, Kara Cesare, all the time. She’s wonderful, but I don’t often get five calls from her. I listened to the messages. They just kept saying, “Call us back. Call us back.” I called them back from my car. They all assembled in the room, Kim Hovey and Jennifer Hershey. I’ve been with Ballantine Random House for twenty years. They said, “Reese picked your book! She picked The Jetsetters!” We were all screaming. Then Kara told me at the sales meeting when they announced it, a guy said, “I’ve been selling Amanda for twenty years, and it’s finally her.” It’s often debut novelists. It was pretty great to be this pushing-fifty author. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone, and so I didn’t. I told my husband. I told my kids, who didn’t care or know anything about it. Then I just sat on it. I went to Kauai, actually. I was just the plus-one of my agent. I wasn’t big enough to be on the staff. I was just helping out, but we knew that mine was going to come out and be really big. It was glorious. I got to meet Reese. We had the same coffee mug from Target in our Zoom call. Reese’s whole team is incredible. I went to LA and did all of that stuff. It’s just been a dream. It’s been like I’m in a dream.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I got such chills.

Amanda: It’s amazing. I’ve been reading all her books, every pick all along the way. I’m just reading True Biz right now. Have you read that yet?

Zibby: I haven’t read that yet, no.

Amanda: It’s so wonderful. It’s set in the world of deaf Americans. It’s set at a boarding school for deaf students. You learn a lot about — there’s Black sign language that came up through history. There’s the whole divide between people who want cochlear implants and those who just want to exist in the sign language world. It’s just fascinating.

Zibby: Amazing, oh, my gosh. I am so impressed by you in every way, shape, or form. I feel like any goal you have you will achieve.

Amanda: Oh, my god. Well, here I am on Zibby Books.

Zibby: Wait, tell me your work out —

Amanda: — What’s my what? My workout?

Zibby: I’m just curious because I’m wondering if you apply all this vigor and organization for your professional life to everything else.

Amanda: Literally, I feel like I get two things. I get my writing and my family. Workouts, no. I walk the dogs a lot. I have a wonderful hot yoga studio down the street that I started going to, but I don’t do a lot of that. I do what I want to do, but I’m not good at making a plan. No, my work ethic goes towards two things. That’s really it. I have this house that I love so much in Austin, and it’s filled with Ikea furniture. My friend came over for a party and said, “Where do you put your table linens?” What? I don’t have table linens. I Instacart everything. I don’t really cook. The house is filled Instacart things that I’m like, good luck, kids. I have a beaten-up car that needs to be cleaned. I get the two things. That’s it.

Zibby: That is also fascinating. I love that.

Amanda: I should do more, to be honest.

Zibby: Oh, stop. No, no, no.

Amanda: I mean in terms of work out. I google, oh, the seven-minute — I just saw The Times seven-minute joy workout. That looks fun. That looked fun. I said, I should play that. I didn’t play it. I read a ton. Because I have a ten-year-old who doesn’t want to watch the crime shows I want to watch, I can’t really watch TV because I’m always with her. I read a ton and now started listening to books. That’s been really fun.

Zibby: I’m very into listening, especially when I’m going through seasons where I’m driving a lot more or walking across the park home or something. I’m always like, where am I going? Do I have anything downloaded? What’s in my library?

Amanda: I know. I just started doing that. The longer books that I don’t have the presence of mind — my daughter goes to bed at 8:30 or 8:31. She has some stuff about that. Then it’s my time. I often don’t want to open the new Jonathan Franzen. I love Jonathan Franzen, but I don’t want to go there. I find myself on Apple News. You do your own algorithm. There I am with, it’s either Pete Davidson or missing children. I have done that to myself, Pete Davidson and missing children and menopause. When I started listening, I can listen to the more — I just finished a book called Trust, which was fantastic. The new Julia Glass, I can’t wait to listen to. I just saw her in San Antonio.

Zibby: Me too, Vigil Harbor.

Amanda: Those sorts of books, to be honest, are going to do better with listening for me. I literally, two weeks ago, decided to do that because I was thinking that I missed that deep reading in my life. It’s really hard for me to ever get there.

Zibby: That’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll download Julia Glass’s book and make that my next.

Amanda: Then we should schedule a walk-and-talk about it. It sounds amazing.

Zibby: They should do audiobook clubs. They must have that.

Amanda: Don’t do that. We’re not doing that. No, no, no.

Zibby: Okay, I’m stopping.

Amanda: Although, it would be fun.

Zibby: I know. This is amazing. I feel like next time I have something I need solved, I am coming to you. I love it.

Amanda: Oh, my gosh. Back at you, sister. Are you kidding me?

Zibby: I’m just so impressed.

Amanda: Look what else I can’t wait to start.

Zibby: Oh, Leigh’s book. Awesome. Nobody Gets Out Alive.

Amanda: I don’t know her. I’m just a huge fan. I just went over to BookPeople because I had bought a bunch of books and never picked them up, so that gives you an idea of my life.

Zibby: I really want to get down to BookPeople. That was one of my — I’m going to come down at some point, maybe for .

Amanda: Let me know. Let’s do an event. That would be fantastic.

Zibby: I would love to. Oh, my gosh, that’d be fun.

Amanda: I have a huge writer crew here.

Zibby: Yeah? Okay.

Amanda: We would all fill up and come. That would be so fun.

Zibby: I would love it. Maybe in the fall or something.

Amanda: Yes, fantastic.

Zibby: All right, I’m in. Thank you. This was so much fun. Thank you.

Amanda: Thank you. Have a wonderful day.

Zibby: You too. I’m going to go for my —

Amanda: — We’ll talk soon, I hope.

Zibby: Yes.

Amanda: You’re going to go do what?

Zibby: I was going to say, I’m going to go get my coffee to match the giant cup that you had.

Amanda: Oh, I thought you were going to go for a run. I was like, wow.

Zibby: Oh, god, no.

Amanda: I’m going to go wipe off all this makeup and probably read about Pete Davidson. Have a great day.

Zibby: Bye.

Amanda: Bye.

Amanda Eyre Ward, THE LIFEGUARDS

THE LIFEGUARDS by Amanda Eyre Ward

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