Zibby speaks to Angie Cruz about her magnetic (and brilliantly structured) new novel How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, which is a New York Times notable book and New York Times book review editor’s choice! Angie describes her protagonist, Cara Romero, who came to her in a moment of deep despair; the African American stories that helped her feel connected during the pandemic; and her journey from MFA to four years of rejection to award-winning books! Finally, as a board member of her local bookshop, she reminds us to slow down, walk to our local stores, and connect with small business


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

Angie Cruz: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Your latest novel, your fourth novel, is How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water. Can you please tell listeners what it’s about? What inspired you to write it?

Angie: The novel, How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, is about Cara Romero, who is fifty-six and has lost her job and unemployed from a job she had in a factory over twenty-five years. She now has to look for work. The novel basically is twelve-week sessions of her meeting with a job counselor called the Senior Workforce Program. In the process of meeting this job counselor for thirty minutes each week, she tells the story of her life.

Zibby: It’s amazing. I’m such a sucker for a good structure. I feel like this is amazing. I do the Zibby Awards. I used to have a Zibby Award for the best structure because I think it’s so underrated. I love how you divided it into twelve like that. Why now, this story? By the way, I love the playlist on Spotify. We will be listening to it the rest of the day, so thank you for that.

Angie: Why now? I think that when you enter a book, you’re not thinking the now. It takes so long to write a book. When I started the book in 2017, it was a moment in my life where I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue writing. I had been going through numerous rejections for my last book, Dominicana, four years of rejections.

Zibby: Really? Oh, my gosh.

Angie: Being told that there wasn’t a market for the book, that the book was too quiet. I was thinking, my god, I still have time to start a new career if I wanted to. The Trump presidency really had me worried about what was going on in the country. I was realizing, what could I do with my gifts? What would it look like to start over? One day on a platform, I was standing there in Washington Heights and 168th Street, and I saw this woman reading some kind of handbook. She seemed to be in her late fifties, early sixties. I started thinking a lot about the women in my family who lost their jobs during the Great Recession. There were a lot of them. In fact, one of the largest demographic of long-term unemployed people are working-class Latinx and Black women in New York City recession in 2006 to 2009. I said, wow, what must it be like to start over as someone who might not speak the language or who has been in a job for so many years and the workforce has changed because of technology? I was like, it would be funny to see them in an interview. What would they say? That day, I just downloaded all these interview questions from online, the most popular ones. What is your weakness? What are your strengths? What do you dream? Cara Romero came to me. She said, “My name is Cara Romero. I came to this country because my husband wanted to kill me. Don’t look so shocked. You are the one who asked me to tell you about myself.” Then I was riveted by this character. I just kept listening to her for the next year.

Zibby: It just came to you like that, right out your fingertips?

Angie: Yeah. Maybe she was always in me. In the process of working on my novel, Dominicana, I did many, many interviews with women who came to the United States in the sixties and seventies. I heard a lot about their arrival story and the kind of things they went through at work. I heard many laid-off stories and how that forced them into early retirement and how difficult that was to sustain, how they had to figure out ways to sustain themselves even though they weren’t long-term employed. I guess I was planting seeds all those years. I was working on the book for Cara Romero. When she came to me, she was like, I am going to be the voice of my people.

Zibby: Do you have a visual? Do you know exactly what she looks like in your head?

Angie: I don’t. I hear her. I can’t see her. She looks like many women. The translator who’s going to be translating it into Spanish, Kianny Antigua, who translated, also, Dominicana into Spanish, she said, “We are all Cara Romero.” I started my book tour. I feel kind of like, strangely, a lot of people identify with Cara Romero or as the interviewer. These two people represent a big section of our world. In fact, I had a man who said to me, “Oh, my god, when I hear Cara Romero, I hear myself and some of the things I told my kids.” I said, this is amazing that somehow this woman is speaking — I guess because she’s so candid. We’re so afraid now to be candid because there’s so little forgiveness for misspeaks and mistakes. I think that somehow, I’m sort of giving people permission or affirmation for the ways that we could be messy or wrong or trying to figure things out in how we’re trying to understand racism, homophobia, classism, all these things. It’s been really interesting to see the response.

Zibby: Wow. Wait, could we go back to the fact that you were about to give up writing? You had four years of rejections. That’s crazy. When you finished, were you like, this is great, this is going to sell, and then you just kept getting rejected? Show me the moment when you were at your most depressed about that experience.

Angie: I think it was that day that I started working on Cara Romero. It was November 2017. I remember it very vividly. Trump had just announced the Muslim ban. There was a call on Twitter for immigrant lawyers to go to JFK. We were seeing tons and tons and tons of footage of kids in cages on the border. Receiving emails from my agent with letters from editors saying, “The writing is beautiful, but we don’t know how to sell this book. Is there a market?” Then smaller presses were like, “It’s not innovative enough. It’s not edgy enough.” I said, wow, where do I fit in this conversation? Maybe I don’t fit in this conversation. I guess I did feel despair. I felt despair because I was like, wow, this is something I love to do, and yet I have to figure out how I’m going to survive. I’m not so old that I can’t start over and find a real way to build my retirement account and all this stuff, but I’m not so young that I can waste time or lose time waiting to see if — also, I was up for tenure. I wasn’t going to get tenure if I didn’t get into contract. There were a lot of pressures. I felt despair for my country. I felt despair for my own career. Cara Romero emerged. I have a very dear friend, Jennifer Clement, who’s a wonderful writer. She wrote the book Prayers for the Stolen. She said to me, “Writers write. It doesn’t matter if anyone’s going to read the work. We’re going to write.” I do believe storytelling saved my life in many different ways, reading stories, listening to stories. It’s not a surprise that in a moment of deep despair, Cara Romero came to me so urgently and with so much to say.

Zibby: I love that. Tell me about one of the stories or the books that got you through a really difficult time.

Angie: You mean books that I’m reading?

Zibby: Yeah. You said stories have been so important to you. What was a story that took you from one part of your life to another? Not that you wrote. Why did you need it so much? What did it do for you?

Angie: As a younger writer, reading a lot of the African American writers, like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, and slave narratives in general were really useful in me to understand where my place was in the United States and how I’m part of this Black diaspora. That was really important for me as someone who always felt like an outsider in the United States, even though I was born and raised here. During the pandemic, there were some books that really surprised me and really kept me company. Vivian Gornick has this book called Odd Woman and the City. It’s so great. I was in New York City during the pandemic. What we were missing was connection. That book is so much about connection and people meeting up and hanging out. In some ways, having someone write about that experience reminded me, oh, yeah, this is what makes the city so beautiful. Everyone was leaving and moving to a place with a backyard. I was like, yeah, but there’s something really great about having neighbors and be all piled up on top of each other too. I would say that book was really wonderful. I carried it around, actually. It was one of the books that I carried around with me. I was like, she’s with me. We’re having this conversation about New York.

Zibby: Like a talisman. How did you get into writing to begin with? Tell me about the first novel experience. How was that journey versus this one?

Angie: I have a very nontraditional path to writing. Maybe everyone does. Definitely, I didn’t imagine myself as a writer. As a young person, I only read dead white men. I didn’t imagine that I was ever going to find myself in a book or tell a story inside of a book. Then I went to the university. I started reading African American literature, Chicano literature, which was what was available at the time, and some Caribbean literature, like Jamaica Kincaid. I was like, oh, okay, maybe there is a place for a Dominican story, but I wasn’t convinced that I could do it. I had these amazing teachers. They encouraged me to go to these writing residencies and fellowships. It was slow. I think I became a writer because there were so many different people who would read a little something that I would write. When I applied to my MFA, I only had twenty pages of a novel. That’s all I’ve ever written. That’s it. I went to NYU. Those pages did a lot of work for me because anytime someone would read it, they were like, oh, you really could do this thing. Maybe you should try for this. I ended up going an MFA. That way, someone was like, you really could do this thing. You should apply to an MFA.

I decided to go. My first teacher was Edwidge Danticat. It was her first class she ever taught. We kind of came up together in a strange way. I feel like it’s funny because I think — I was saying this yesterday. I had a launch event at my community bookstore. It’s called Word Up Community Bookstore. I was saying that the myth of the writer when I was a younger writer was that you’re alone in your room. You’re typing away. Maybe you’re in the woods. No one’s talking to you. I didn’t grow up that way. I grew up in a crowed space where the door was always open. The kitchen was always working. Being alone, yes, I could do it. I could be alone. I go to residencies. It’s really useful. I do feel like so much of my writing practice, the reason that I’ve gotten this far, in particular with this book, is because I had community in those moments of despair. I had great friends, like one of the wonderful, best writers of our generation, Emily Raboteau, who was my neighbor at the time. She goes, “You’re a great writer. All you need is one editor .” other people, I would probably have given up. I don’t think I had it all inside of me. I think it was really that I had people that really believed in the work and the story.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. Amazing. Did you actually talk to career counselors for this book?

Angie: Yeah. I did all the forms as Cara Romero. I went through a lot of processes and bureaucracy, as far as I could go. You can’t go very far without a social security number. I did do a lot of the career counseling exams. I kept thinking about, how far can you go? and thinking about how difficult it is, the bureaucratic elements of our lives. I grew up as a translator for a lot of my family members moving through these systems, so I have a lot of familiarity with documents and have seen how difficult some of these questions — especially security questions, they’re ridiculously culturally biased. It was so fun to play with them and give it a satirical slant in a literary work after all these years where you’re just kind of performing a thing and actually having a character just be honest with the thing. Then of course, it critiques the thing. The thing that I’m actually doing is critiquing how a lot of these machines keep us out or allow us in.

Zibby: Interesting. What do you like to do when you’re not writing, when you’re not working? If you had a free day, what would a dream day be?

Angie: Honestly, I do a lot of not writing. What my life is like in general, I read. I walk. I meet friends for lunch. For different books, I did different kinds of things. I always like to balance. With this particular book, because I wrote it so much in pandemic, I got into elaborate cooking, like a lot of other people. I have a fourteen-year-old, so I entertain some of his interests, whatever they are. It’s funny because I was thinking, do I have a hobby right now? I don’t have a hobby right now. I used to draw a lot and paint a lot. I’m thinking of returning to that. I’m a teacher. I mentor a lot of students and spend a lot of time talking to young writers about their work. I am on the board of my local bookstore. I brainstorm with them about how to keep them alive and going. That’s pretty much my life outside of traveling all the time.

Zibby: What are the secrets? What are you helping with the bookstore?

Angie: It’s impossible.

Zibby: Not impossible, but I just feel like the odds are stacked up against so many pieces and players in the whole literary ecosystem right now. Maybe not.

Angie: This is true. I do think that’s true. This particular bookstore is run by sixty volunteers and very few paid employees. I think that it’s done a really good job at sustaining themselves through the pandemic. In particular in Washington Heights, being the only bookstore in this neighborhood, what’s been really interesting — this is how I got involved — is seeing how it flexed a kind of fluidity for the demands of the neighborhood. There was a moment where they were giving away — they had a food relief program during the pandemic. They became a COVID testing site. They combined that with books and literature. Suddenly, they’re testing people. People are getting free books. My book, Dominicana, was one of the books that they were getting for free when they went to get tested for COVID. Food relief boxes would have a book inside of it. I think that’s really interesting to think about, how do we get books to new audiences? It was really fun. I do think that encouraging — part of the secret is really telling people that these resources are there. A lot of people don’t know that there’s a bookstore in the community. They’ll just shop on Amazon. They don’t know that they could just order online from their local bookstore. All over the country, there is a bookstore near you that you can order online and you could support and sustain. I think most people don’t know that.

Zibby: I think they value the speed at which they could do something else. That takes a couple extra steps. I know it seems ridiculous, but I think that’s the rationale. I think people are like, do I go online? They don’t have my stuff stored. What’s my password?

Angie: Totally. That is true. I find that frustrating too. I do think that one of the things I’ve been learning with time — I think this really was true in the pandemic — is the value of when things weren’t working so well, of having local businesses that were actually open and providing stuff for you. The truth is, you could order a book and pick it up. That means you have to walk a few blocks. It’s so good for you. You don’t have to get it shipped. They could get into their store immediately. You could just walk over. Walking and taking that walk is actually really good for you. The benefits outweigh any kind of — this culture for speed, which is one of the reasons — I think my book also is doing something really interesting with time, which I hadn’t thought about before.

Now that it’s out, I realize that what it’s done is it forces people to sit down and listen to a person for five hours tell their story in all its nuances. We’re so rushed that rarely do we give anyone the amount of time necessary to unpack what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling. There’s so much value . The book has this word that I use. It’s called desahogar, which is the undrowning. You could cry it out. You could talk it out. Sometimes that takes days and weeks. When we think about things that happened to us, like loss, the ways we grieve, it’s almost like we have to do it so quickly and move on. What this book forces you to do is not to move on. It’s really just to stay with it and really think and laugh. There’s a lot of humor in the book, as you know. The humor, it’s also connected to the ways that we can cope, but also how, even in the challenging moments, there’s joy. We laugh not to cry.

Zibby: It’s so true. I knew there was something really wrong with the world when I was in — not even a hardware store. Some place that had all these random things. My husband needed a wrench or something like that, some item, houseware-type. Anyway, he had it in his hand. Then he took his phone out in the other hand. I was like, “What are you doing?” He’s like, “I’m ordering this on Amazon to be shipped.” I was like, “It’s literally in your hand. You’re holding the — why are you going to order it?” He’s like, “How am I going to carry it? I don’t really want it.” We were on a trip or something. I was just like, this is so crazy. All the steps now that are going to have to happen to this hammer or whatever, from the factory, into the box, the box into the car, out of the car. How many hands are going to touch this box, and logistics involved, to get it so that we open our door, and there it is? It just seems beyond inefficient. It seems efficient for the end user, but actually, it’s completely inefficient.

Angie: It’s totally inefficient, and especially because we’re not thinking that we’re connected to every aspect of this.

Zibby: Yes. You don’t think about it.

Angie: We live in the world as if we’re not connected, but everything we do has an impact, an environment impact, the climate impact, a physical impact. Again, this book is so much about community, how she moves through the community. She goes to the Everything Store. In fact, there is an Everything Store in a lot of communities, but you wouldn’t discover it if you’re always ordering at Home Depot and getting it shipped. You have people that are informed and have been doing this for a long time and give you free advice about things. You don’t even realize these resources that exist everywhere you go. It’s true. It seems efficient, but actually, it’s incredibly inefficient. Sometimes things get lost. Then they don’t even arrive. Then you have to spend more time trying to resolve that problem. Again, this is about narratives that we tell ourselves of what’s fast, what’s easy when they’re not necessarily fast or easy.

Zibby: And what we value.

Angie: Even more, it’s the emptiness of it because we’re not connecting. We’re not connecting. We’re not connected to nature. We’re not connected to people.

Zibby: So true. In addition to the walking to the bookstore, which is another ancillary benefit, it’s also chatting with the people and seeing what other people are reading and walking in and meeting somebody. Then who do you bump into on the street? Anytime I walk out my door, something happens. I meet somebody. If you’re just here slicing open Amazon packages all day, what’s going to happen to you? I know this is off topic. I think about this a lot, actually, especially in terms of bookstores. Somebody once joked, who I was chatting with about it, they’re like — maybe it was somebody who worked in a bookstore. “Really? You need this by the end of the day? You’re really going to start reading this particular book? You can’t wait to start this book? It’s going to sit on your bedside for months. Why do you need it tomorrow by nine PM? Couldn’t you wait a week? Could you not read something else?” I feel like maybe there needs to be a campaign for bookstores a as whole that just says, “Really? When are you going to read this?” or something that encourages people to go back into the stores and rethink how they’ve made all these decisions. I don’t know. Maybe you could start it.

Angie: I’m not going to start a business. I love writing so much.

Zibby: Not even a business. Just —

Angie: — I’m so glad I could still do it even though I thought I would give up. A campaign.

Zibby: Yeah, a campaign.

Angie: Your podcast is called “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read,” right?

Zibby: Yeah.

Angie: I was thinking about it because I’m a mom. I was thinking about how reading has changed for me since I became a mother. I think that it changes the way you write a book too. The reason I wrote this book in twelve sessions, I also think it’s because the way I consume books now are in thirty-minute sessions. It’s when I’m commuting. It’s when I actually have a little downtime before sleep. In some ways, I was like, this book is perfect for moms who don’t have time to read because it’s all in these small sessions. You actually could read one and then read another. You know in twelve weeks, it’ll be done because that’s how long the book is. Twelve days if you do it every day.

Zibby: That’s perfect. Yes, you’re absolutely right. Also, people like to feel accomplished that they could do a whole thing, a whole chapter, a whole section. Then they feel good about themselves. Then they want to read it again. There you go. What’s your next project?

Angie: I have a lot of projects I’m working on right now. One is about a young street photographer. Another one is set in Italy. It’s hard for me to figure out where — it’s funny. I was working on the street photographer project, but now that I’m talking so much about Cara Romero, I might start working on the Italian project because it’s dealing with immigrants and labor as well. Again, right now, I’m on tour. I really want to be present on tour. I’m not trying to be the writer and also the author. Being the author requires a lot of energy. Being the writer requires a different kind of energy. One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that I can really just do one thing at a time well. I think women have been made to think that we’re great multitaskers, moms especially, and that we could do it all, but I think we should rephrase it and say, we can’t do it all well. Somebody pays. Our child pays. Our partner pays. Our jobs pay. Our writing pays.

Zibby: Our bodies.

Angie: Our bodies. I’m really trying to be present for this book after I worked so hard on it as much as possible.

Zibby: Go do that. That’s amazing. Forget the other projects. We’ll see what happens.

Angie: They live there. Now I’m like, oh, yeah, all that stuff I was doing in 2015, I see it come through the book now. Living life is also writing.

Zibby: It’s an important ingredient. You need the ingredients before you can make the cake. That was my genius statement of the day, so there you go. Angie, thank you so much for coming on. Thank you for all of your work. Honestly, the role model of resilience is just unparalleled. It’s amazing.

Angie: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Angie: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.


Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop.

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts