Zibby Owens: Amy Poeppel grew up in Dallas, Texas. She graduated from Wellesley College and worked as an actress in the Boston area appearing in a corporate industrial for Polaroid, a commercial for Brooks Pharmacy — oh, gosh, I remember Brooks Pharmacy — and a truly terrible episode of America’s Most Wanted, along with other TV spots and several plays. While in Boston, she got her MA in teaching from Simmons College. She married a neuroscientist at NYU. For the past thirty years, they’ve lived in many cities all over the world from San Francisco to Berlin and had three sons. Amy taught high school English in the Washington, DC suburbs, and after moving to New York, worked as an assistant director of admissions at an independent school where she had the experience of meeting and getting to know hundreds of applicant families. She attended sessions at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit and wrote the theatrical version of Small Admissions, which is one of her novels, which was performed there as a staged reading in 2011. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, Working Mother, Points In Case, The Belladonna, and Literary Mama. Her novels include Small Admissions, Lime-light, and Musical Chairs.

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

Amy Poeppel: I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: Congratulations on your latest novel, Musical Chairs. So exciting. Can you please tell listeners what this book is about?

Amy: Absolutely. I actually just received the hardcover.

Zibby: Oh, look at it.

Amy: They’re just so pretty. That’s always exciting, I have to say, even three books in. That is such a thrill when your books arrive. This is a book about a woman who is spending the summer at her ramshackle country house in Connecticut. She’s in a piano trio, a classical piano trio, with her very best friend in the world who is a man named Will. They’ve hired a new person to be the violinist in their trio. All they have to do is survive the summer. They’re going to have a new, fresh start in the fall. Bridget goes out to her house in hopes of spending a very romantic three months with the new boyfriend that she has. It’s getting kind of serious. He breaks up with her over email, partly on the advice of his ex-wife who thinks that maybe they should just take things a little bit more slowly. That’s just a disappointing way for Bridget to start her summer. From there, her adult kids move back him. Her ninety-year-old father announces he’s getting married. It’s just a summer of everybody having to rethink and reinvent themselves and figure out how they’re going to move forward under changed circumstances.

Zibby: I didn’t really like Sterling from the beginning, though, I have to say. I was kind of not upset when they broke up. You introduce him as sending a, “Read my email right away.” I didn’t think he really cared enough when she was accidentally electrocuted right at the beginning when she first went out to her house. I don’t know. I feel like things happen for a reason even in fiction.

Amy: Probably most of us will feel like that was a good riddance situation. Even when you’re in those situations, it’s hard to see it sometimes for yourself. I’ve had a lot of friends and family and serious relationships, and in the moment, it just seems like the worst thing that could possibly happen. Then you rethink. Yeah, I think sometimes you come out better for it. I think in Bridget’s case, you’re absolutely right. I agree.

Zibby: It doesn’t make it easier for Bridget, of course. She doesn’t have the luxury of the distance from us reading about her or even of her character friends in the novel who can maybe see it for what it is. That’s one of many things that she goes through this summer. I love, by the way, how you structured the book, how you had it over a course of a summer with the prelude, and then June, July, August, and a coda in September. That’s just so perfect. I love when there are clever structures to books that echo the content, so check plus on that.

Amy: There was one other little structural element that I don’t think readers would pick up on, necessarily. It was just something that was important to me in my own brain to work it out. It’s a trio. Every series starts with Bridget. You get a chapter from Bridget. You get a chapter from Will. Then there’s the empty chair. That third chapter is filled by Gavin, who is their first-ever violinist, once in June, once in July, and once in August. Every other third chapter, you get a surprise voice. For me in my head, it was kind of representing Bridget and Will as the two stable anchors in this trio. That third seat always is rotating. I wanted to mirror that in the structure of the book. It’s not something anyone would necessarily see when they were reading, but it was really helpful for me in writing it to have that blank third chapter.

Zibby: See, I thought I was analyzing it, and I missed it. I’m sorry.

Amy: That overarching structure was exactly what I wanted. I wanted the prelude. I wanted the coda. I wanted the three months in between. Then as a little miniature structure, I put the every three chapters structure in on top of all of that. No, you got it completely.

Zibby: What is the role of music in your life? You obviously know a ton about it. Did you research it for this book? Are you a musician? How did you learn so much about it?

Amy: Zibby, I cannot read music. I don’t understand music. I can’t carry a tune, to be honest. I’m a huge appreciator of music. Somehow, I raised three children who are very musical. Two of them so far are sort of following a career in music. I got a lot of help from them. My youngest son is a classical pianist. He’s studying musicology and composition in college. He helped me so much. Every time I would have an idea and I’d sort of feel like I needed to be listening to something or I needed to be rehearing something, I would research, go to my son, get somebody to help me. It was a really fun world to dive into, but it was also nerve-wracking because I wanted to make sure that I got things right. In an early draft — I think this happens to a lot of writers. In an early draft, I sort of went too far and it was just so infused with music that my publisher and my editor said, “That’s great. Now let’s just pull back a little bit for readers who are not classically trained musicians like me.” I feel like there’s enough of it in there now to really put you in that world. If you don’t know anything about classical music, that is not hinderance to understanding or reading the book. I would say, though, that there are some nice references to pieces of music that if you have your Spotify nearby while you’re reading, it might be fun to plug in some of those titles and composers and take a listen. The stuff that I chose to put in there, the pieces that I chose, were selected carefully. They’re beautiful.

Zibby: Spotify now has playlists you can make. You can always just make a playlist.

Amy: I know. I think it’s actually a really good idea. I think I’m going to sit down and go back through the book and find every piece of music that I referred to and make a playlist. Thank you, Zibby. That was such a idea.

Zibby: No problem. I love how you had to interview, essentially, your own children to get the research done for this book. It’s actually a genius way to bond with your kids. I’m writing a book about something that I know interests you more than anything, so you’re the one who’s going to have to help me. That must have made them feel so great. Did it bond you guys in the process? I would think that it did in a way that you couldn’t necessarily get at in another way.

Amy: Absolutely. It’s really amazing that you spend so much of your life teaching your children how to do things, tie their shoes, use a spoon, manners, all the things that we try to teach our kids. It is so much fun. The first time this happened to me was — I lived in Berlin for two years. When we got there, my kids didn’t speak German at all. I spoke really terrible German, really, really. I can massacre that language like nobody. When we got there, knowing that my kids — they went into school. They went into German-speaking school. They really struggled. I was helping and teaching, and helping and teaching, and helping with their homework. Then all of a sudden, that flipped on its head. Their German was so much better than mine, and I was constantly asking them for help. We would go into a store. I would say, “Can you help me ask this saleswoman this question?” They were suddenly the experts and able to help me. I just remember thinking, that’s what you want as a mom. You want to see your kids get even better, like way better, than you at the things that they excel at and have interest in.

That was a lot of fun, especially with my youngest, Luke. He’s the one who’s really the most classically trained. Saying to him, “You are the expert here. I am not. I need your help,” he was very generous with his time, really slowed things down for me. He would read my drafts and he would explain, “That is not what a rehearsal process is like. That is not the way a musician would ask that question.” He would even say to me, “That sounds like a non-musician trying to talk about music.” I would be like, “Help me. Help me. Help me get that so that it sounds right,” especially in dialogue because dialogue is really important to me. I finally asked my kids for their help again. We just filmed a book trailer. I’m in Connecticut right now in a house that is somewhat dilapidated, we’ll say. I needed help. It was an all-hands-on-deck kind of project. The whole family came together. We filmed this book trailer. It should be out, I hope, in about a week.

Zibby: That’s exciting.

Amy: The last hang-up, the last holdup of getting this book trailer out in the world is the music. There’s certain places where it needs to get louder and it needs to get softer. My oldest child is a sound engineer. He’s twenty-six and works in music studios all over New York City. He’s got the file right now. He’s doing all of the adjustments to make sure that the sound is right and that the music that’s in the background is right. I am so lucky I have these experts right in my house.

Zibby: Totally. You could easily start a podcast, you know. You could just have your son help you with the intro/outro music. You could do free production. Maybe I’ll call them.

Amy: He’s really good. He was hearing in the background music in the book trailer — he kept saying, “Do you hear that hum?” I was like, “I don’t hear a hum.” He’s like, “Just listen.” I would listen. It’s my old lady ears. I was like, “I don’t hear a hum.” He’s like, “I have to take that out. That sounds terrible.” I’m happy to have him.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love this part in the book, speaking of adult children. Bridget is the protagonist of this book. You said, “Bridget did not want to get high with her children. She never had, never would. Nevertheless, her feelings were hurt that they hadn’t even invited her to join them.” Then they asked somebody else. You said when they asked Jackie, “Bridget would’ve said no anyway, but they could’ve at least included her just to be nice. When they came back to the porch talking loudly and laughing uncontrollably, she left them out there and went into the kitchen where all three dogs who were soggy from having wadded into the pond twice were underfoot and pacing in search of dropped food. She’d lost control of the evening.” Has that ever happened? That’s such a funny — my kids aren’t that old, so I haven’t thought about what happens when your kids start doing things like that or that you would feel left out or anything like that. Tell me about that scene.

Amy: I think there are times when your kids are really little and you think that there are things that could never happen or would never happen. Speaking of life imitating art, I came out here and of course when quarantine hit, all three of my adult children moved back home. This was long after I had written the book. The book was submitted ages ago. Here I am for three months now, I’ve had all three of my kids, twenty, twenty-three, and twenty-six — the twins in the book are twenty-six. They’ve all moved back home. On two levels, it’s funny to me. One, it’s just a strange thing that I never thought would happen again. I just didn’t think I would ever have a situation where there would be this extended period of time where my kids would be living here. They both regress sometimes to sort of what life was like when they were younger. Then at other times, they’re so grown up and so mature and I don’t have to take care of them at all. That’s just been funny. Then the fact that it’s exactly the situation that happens in the book. It’s been really funny.

Do my kids engage in behaviors that I sometimes don’t approve of? Yes, they do. They probably would invite me. I’m just way too anxious a person for that to be my drug of choice. Yes, these things happen. These things definitely happen. I wrote a piece that’s on a comedy site called The Belladonna, which is hilarious if nobody’s ever looked at it. The Belladonna is really a great for-women humor site online. I wrote a piece, I can’t quite remember what the number was, but it was “Your Growing Child.” It was sort of like What to Expect When You’re Expecting, but it was the 209th trimester and beyond. It was just a humor piece about what to expect when your kids are eighteen and up. I had a scene in there where your little tike might have Tinder date sleepovers. What do you do when you walk in and there’s a man in boxers in your kitchen making pancakes? I wrote that just for fun. Then somehow being here with these three very grown boys/men, it’s been really enlightening and fun.

Zibby: You have another character in the book. I just wanted to read this quote. You said, “One of Isabelle’s biggest flaws she’d be willing to admit was that she was convinced she could straighten out everyone else’s life while her own was, to the objective observer, a shit show.” That just spoke to me because I can so relate to always wanting to have the answer when I don’t necessarily have the answer myself. Is that something that you tend to do as well, or was this just you’ve seen this so many times from other people?

Amy: I think we’ve all done that. Other people’s problems, you have some distance. That distance gives you clarity. It can sometimes be so easy to look at somebody else’s problems and just be like — I always joke with my husband because he sometimes says, “You know what you should do?” I said, “You should have a podcast called You Know What You Should Do?” I think we all could because I think we all feel like we have this sense of, I know what you should do. When it comes to your own situation, it’s just always so much more complicated to look at your own problems and sort through what to do. That’s why we have friends, though. That’s why we run our problems past other people because they can so often give us a little bit of insight that we somehow miss ourselves because we’re too close to the problem. It’s the same with writing. The reason that you get beta-readers and people is because you get so close to your own material and your own circumstances and your own situation and issues that you just can’t see what’s really happening anymore, so you give it to somebody else, let them take a look at it. Then they say, “You know what you should do?”

Zibby: I say that all the time, by the way. I say that in probably half the podcasts. This is a great idea. You should do this. Like the playlist, I just said that. It’s so obnoxious of me, really. I don’t know what I should do. It’s the same thing.

Amy: I think we all appreciate it. Especially when it’s friends and experts and people who really know what they’re talking about, who doesn’t want to hear a fresh perspective on your own situation? I think it’s helpful.

Zibby: Sometimes when I have a problem, I usually write when I’m really upset about something, not for anybody, just to sort out my own feelings. I often will say, pretend that this is a friend’s problem. What would you say to the friend? I’m so much more lenient on my friends than on myself. I can see it. But when it’s me, it’s so different.

Amy: We’re so much harder on ourselves. I think that’s absolutely true. I actually think “You Know What You Should Do?” would be a great title for a podcast. I think it would be so perfect. In Isabelle’s case, she has that sense that she always knows what somebody else should do. Her life, really, when you lay it out on paper at that stage of the book, it does not look great. She is really in turmoil. You do find out toward the end of the book, what was the origin of all of this. I also wanted to tap into a little bit of humor for moms. When our older kids get really proud of ourselves for something that they’ve done that they think is very empowering and very wonderful, we look at it as the mom and we’re sort of like, are you sure that was the right thing to do? Are you positive? In this case — this isn’t a spoiler because it happens quite early on. Isabelle has quit a job that was a very good job. You know how we all feel about good jobs, especially these days. She just felt she wasn’t quite living her best life. She just quits, burns bridges, just walks out, and then says to her mother, “I’m so proud of myself right now.” You don’t want to say to your kid, “Are you sure you should be proud?”

We’re trying to instill confidence, but I think we may have taken that to such a big degree that we somehow have told our kids that they should be proud of almost any step that they take. That can be troubling. I do think even in Isabelle’s case, by the time you get to the end of the book, you feel she’s probably done the right thing because life is short. We have to put ourselves in, if we can, and this is not always the case, but if we can — we don’t always ask our kids to think, what do you want to wear to work every day? Do you want to be suited up when you go to work, or do you want to have a more casual lifestyle? This is a ridiculous conversation to be having in this day and age where jobs are just so hard to come by. When I was writing the drafts of this book, we were in a slightly different era. I felt like for Bridget, she could look at that and think, you just walked out of a good job, what were you thinking? Isabelle would think, oh, something else will come along. That’s a very privileged — Jackie says that, that they are very privileged kids and that that seeps out of lots of conversation. She sees it.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about your writing process. How long did it take to write Musical Chairs? Where did you write it? Did you write it in the house that you’re in now? I know we’re on Skype in this Connecticut, in need of fixing up — although, it looks perfectly beautiful to me from what I can see.

Amy: This is a well-curated background. , you’d be like, oh. I did write a lot of the book here. I’m actually just starting Susie Schnall’s book, We Came Here to Shine. I was just listening to her speak about her writing process. I know we’re not comparing ourselves, but it really makes me want to be Susie Schnall and Fiona Davis who writes such beautiful historical fiction.

Zibby: They were both on my podcast too, so we can listen.

Amy: For anyone who doesn’t know, they are both planners. They plan, plan, plan. It’s not shocking to people who know me and my personality that I am not a planner. I am not a planner. I go into these books with situations in my head and people in my head. Then it takes me a really long time to figure out who these people are. I know they say we start with drafts and then we throw them out and have to rewrite them as we get to know our characters. That’s, of course, true. I do wish I could be a little bit more like them and map things out a bit more from the get-go. I did not do that with Musical Chairs at all. I threw out about fifty thousand words of Musical Chairs in the process of writing it. That’s, for people who don’t know, easily half a book. That was actually in one of the major rounds, so it was probably more like seventy-five thousand words if you look at the entire course of writing the book.

I just think that’s really inefficient. I think that writing those scenes that I throw out maybe teaches me something about writing. Maybe it’s not a waste of time, but it is inefficient. I’m working on a fourth book right now. I have tried to do my version of an outline. It’s just rough, but I’ve sort of given myself a little bit of a shape that I’m trying to follow. We will talk again in a year, let you know if it worked for me. I don’t know how much of this is personality driven, how much of this is just your work style, your writing style. I just know that for me with my first three books, I really figured it all out as I went along. That’s joyful sometimes. It’s so much fun sometimes. It’s also painful and perhaps really inefficient at times. There are good sides and bad sides. I am going to give the Fiona Davis, Jamie Brenner, Susie Schnall outline the old college try this time around. I’m just going to see what happens. I’ll let you know.

Zibby: Keep us posted.

Amy: To avoid throwing out half a book again, I would like to do that. I just don’t know if it’s possible for me.

Zibby: It’s an art, not a science. You’ll just play with it and see, experiment.

Amy: I think in fact, it’s a great thing to listen other writers, hear how they do things, see if you can’t pick up on some of their skills and habits and incorporate them into your own process. I’m definitely up for trying to do that. If anyone’s too rigid and too structured, I would say try being a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser for a little while because it can be really fun. I think it was Susie who also said that she writes out diary entry type things from her characters’ point of view. I sort of feel that I do that as well. I like to really understand who that person is before I just start. I think I do a lot more work on the character side and less work on the plot side. That is fun, but it can get me into trouble.

Zibby: That was all great advice. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors in addition to all of that good stuff?

Amy: I would say just keep at it. Keep trying. Don’t be afraid to write something terrible and throw it out. I very much believe in the Anne Lamott advice of just write a terrible first draft. You can’t edit until you have something on the page. Don’t be afraid. No one’s going to see it. Don’t worry about it. Just write a first chapter. Let it be awful. It might end up being the tenth chapter. It might end up being in the trash bin. You don’t know. You can’t move to the next step until you get that lousy first draft written and finished. Then the second thing, the other piece of advice that I would give, it’s sort of two things combined. Develop a thick skin or a little bit of a wall between you and the criticism because there’s going to be a lot of it. There’s going to be a lot of rejection. Figure out, who do you trust? Whose eyes and sensibility do you really trust? Put yourself in that person’s hands, whether it’s a beta-reader — I would not say a family member or best friend. They’re going to be too nice to you. Find somebody who’s willing to be mean to you. Let them read it. Don’t take it personally. Don’t say, they just don’t understand what I was trying to do. If they don’t understand what you were trying to do, there’s a problem. Just learn to find people whose sensibility and aesthetic you trust. Then take the criticism. I go to bed sometimes for a day after I get a bad editorial letter. You just have to let it wash over you and accept it. Then you just get back in the chair. Resilience is key. Get back in the chair. Keep going. Resilience and get that first draft on paper. Just get it down in your laptop, in whatever. Just get it written.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you, Amy. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and your advice and your stories and the music and all the rest. Thanks for coming on.

Amy: Thank you for having me. Keep reading and doing what you do, Zibby. You’re just amazing. Thank you for having me on.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye, Amy. Have a great day.

Amy: Bye. You too.

Zibby: Bye.