Zibby is joined by author, award-winning journalist, and repeat MDHTTRB guest Anissa Gray to discuss Life and Other Love Songs, a riveting, complex, and astonishingly moving African American family saga about a father’s sudden disappearance and how it unravels the lives of the family members he leaves behind. Anissa talks about her decision to write from different perspectives and time periods, the real-life disappearance that inspired this story, and the difficult events that happened in her own life while she wrote it. Zibby loved this book so much that she chose it for Zibby’s Book Club in June!!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Anissa. Thanks so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Last time, you were here for The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. Now you are back for Life and Other Love Songs. Welcome back.

Anissa Gray: Thank you so much for having me back, Zibby.

Zibby: As I was just saying a second ago, I just enjoyed this book so, so much. This is going to be our Zibby’s Book Club pick. We’ll have our meeting. I think it’s June 6th or something. I think June 6th. Very excited.

Anissa: the 6th.

Zibby: I’m excited to have my book club read it and all of that. Anissa, tell everybody what your book is about.

Anissa: Life and Other Love Songs is a story about what happens to a family after the father disappears. The father in this family, Oz Armstead, fairly ordinary guy, at least on the surface, he goes missing on his thirty-seventh birthday. He leaves behind a wife, Deborah, who is an aspiring singer, but she’s coming to terms with life as a suburban housewife, which is far outside anything she had ever imagined for herself. They have a daughter, Trinity, who they adore. When Oz disappears, for Deborah and Trinity, it absolutely upends everything. As the story moves forward and we come to learn with them the reasons how and why Oz disappears, it only gets more troubling.

Zibby: Wow. You do such a good job of setting the stage and having us really fall in love with them as a couple in the beginning. You really take us back so that you feel very invested in the characters. You set the scene early on with this party where they meet. You go back and forth with perspective, which I love, so that you see how everybody’s feeling. Although, I feel like you had first person for Deborah, but wasn’t Oz third person? Am I making that up?

Anissa: He was, yeah.

Zibby: Tell me about that choice.

Anissa: I knew immediately that Oz was going to be written in third person because of the trajectory of his story. For me, it was almost not a choice. This was, for me as a writer, one of the first times I was writing in third person. It’s an interesting construct for me because I have to have in my head, who is speaking? Who is this person telling me about Oz? In my mind, it was Trinity telling us about her father in third person.

Zibby: What about Deborah being in first person?

Anissa: First person with Deborah, it was really important to be very close to Deborah because so much of her emotional journey — we were going to be with her quite a long time. I just wanted us to see it directly through her eyes. The same with Trinity. Trinity is also written in first person. I wanted these two women to tell their own stories.

Zibby: You jump in time too. You start out with Trinity’s perspective. I should’ve mentioned that. I’m sorry. You start out with her perspective and then jump back in time and show us the evolution of the whole relationship and everything else. You just develop all the characters so well, even the cousin while she’s working in the kitchen. Deborah really wants her to introduce her to Oz at the very beginning. Everybody is so vivid and just jumps off the page, not to mention all the emotion behind it as well. You have this one scene — this is sort of a random example — in the middle of the book where it really shows. I think you were saying this with the suburban mom-ish scene. Can I just read this one paragraph here?

Anissa: Please do. Yes.

Zibby: It’s from 1975. You say, “Oz came home and found Deborah alone. She was sitting at the kitchen table having a glass of wine in the middle of the afternoon. She seemed surprised when he looked through the cutout to the kitchen and saw him coming through the garage door. She pushed the wine away like it wasn’t hers, like a friend might show up and fill the empty chair next to her and drink it. Deborah got to her feet and asked him, ‘Shouldn’t you be at work?’ ‘Shouldn’t you be doing something other than drinking in the middle of the day?’ ‘Shouldn’t you be doing something other than checking up on me?’ ‘Well, if you would do what you should be doing instead of that,’ he glanced at the wine glass, ‘I wouldn’t feel the need to check up on you.’ He went over and snatched up the glass from the table. He smacked Deborah’s hand away when she tried to take it back, a little harder than he intended, apparently, because she cradled her hand to her chest. He didn’t apologize. He wasn’t the one who should be apologizing for this. He stalked over to the sink. He dumped the glass, staring at her the whole time. He held her gaze until she looked away ashamed. ‘I wasn’t checking up on you, by the way,’ he said.” Just such a moment of control, despair, different perspectives on the same situation, communication. Tell me about that as an example.

Anissa: I’m glad you picked that scene. When I was writing it, and I can remember vividly, I wanted to crystalize Oz’s drive and desire for this perfect family and Deborah’s resistance, hesitance. She’s utterly lost in this moment in the story. In that scene, the tension between the two of them, you see them in their purest form in that moment. At this point in the book, they’ve come through the beautiful honeymoon love stage. They’re doing life for real. They have very different ideas about how life should be done.

Zibby: I love it. It’s all just so visual.

Anissa: Thank you.

Zibby: This is an impossible question. How did you come up with this? What was the initial nugget of an idea for this? How did it grow the way it did?

Anissa: Some years ago, I heard a real-life story about a suburban family. Dad goes to work. Doesn’t come home. Never to be heard from again. The fallout from that trauma rippled through this family for at least the two generations that I know of. I watched how they dealt with it. It was something that stayed with me for years. After I finished Care and Feeding, I just started thinking about, as a writer often does, the what-ifs. What if someone you loved disappeared and, unlike this family, you found out exactly what the reason was? What would that do to you? What if it upended everything you thought you knew about this person, everything you thought you both understood in the formation of your relationship and your family? What happens with that? I sat down with all of these what-ifs, and the Armstead family was born.

Zibby: Wow, I love it, all of them sort of around the table. Did you know where you were headed the whole time? Did you know where it would end?

Anissa: I didn’t. My writing process is, I don’t write to an outline. I’ll write the skeleton of the book, a very rough draft. That gives me a sense of where I might be going. After I wrote that little skeleton, I had a sense that I wanted a funeral in the beginning and a wedding at the end. Now how to get there, that’s the tricky part. It was a journey. The way I write is incredibly inefficient. It’s trial and error, writing into dark alleys and finding out that’s not the way and going down this street and finding out, oh, that is the way. It was really feeling my way and finding my way, which is how I write.

Zibby: Very cool. How long did this whole thing take? I feel like you were just on for the other book, but whatever.

Anissa: I know. I went back and listened to that interview.

Zibby: You did?

Anissa: Yeah. You were like, “Are you working on something else?” I was working on this book. I talked about, I was working on another family, a smaller family. It took about two years, a little over two. Over that period of time, a lot of life happened. It was a difficult period to write for me. I lost my father at the beginning, which was destabilizing in that I was writing this book about a father who disappears. In some ways, it was therapeutic to write about it. Then there was the pandemic, of course. I happen to be an extreme introvert. I was like, I’m totally built for this. Lockdown, bring it on. I was not built for it. I just developed terrible insomnia that I had to literally be treated for. Worked out of that and kept working on the book. Right there at the end, life said, you know what? How about a complete hysterectomy? There was that. Automatic menopause, hot flashes, all of the stuff that comes along with it right there in final edits. I had a great team. My editor Amanda, my agent Michelle saw me through it. We got the book done. It was an incredible journey, unlike any writing experience I’d ever had.

Zibby: It’s almost like those events of your life can just be tucked away. When you put this back on the shelf, those experiences, you could almost put back on the shelf. Okay, I found a container for some of that stuff.

Anissa: In a lot of ways, that’s what it feels like. I look at this book, and it is an encapsulation, certainly, of the story of these characters, but also a story of my own life in writing it.

Zibby: I’m really sorry about your father, especially knowing how the characters develop here and the love and all of it. I’m really sorry, and of course, the pandemic. I had a hysterectomy myself. It is not fun.

Anissa: No, it is not.

Zibby: It was really, honestly, so painful afterwards. It was so unexpectedly painful.

Anissa: Mine was too, especially after my gynecologist told me it’s back to work in two weeks. I’m like, what? That’s not happening over here.

Zibby: I was walking holding the walls of my hallway like, ow!

Anissa: Very painful.

Zibby: It’s so fun being a woman.

Anissa: I really appreciate estrogen in ways I never had before because the immediate menopause, that’s something.

Zibby: They actually left my — this is now too much information. They did leave my ovaries, but it ended up making no difference because I’m already of the age. That was seven years ago or something. It was right before the holidays for me. Everybody was off traveling or going with family. I had to cancel everything and hunker down. I was on my hands and knees trying to wrap gifts.

Anissa: That’s exactly the period for me too. It was right before Thanksgiving. Totally canceled all Thanksgiving plans. It was a lot.

Zibby: At least writing is — I had a job at one point stocking shelves. At least your life is sedentary enough. You can get it done, theoretically.

Anissa: That’s true. You look at the blessings. I know people who have very physical jobs, and they would not have been able to — they would have lost a lot of time. To be able to sit on the couch, just sitting there with the computer, not a lot to complain about.

Zibby: Although, I really think I’m developing my shoulders and my wrists. I’m like, I don’t know, maybe I’m sitting here too much. Totally out of alignment. Oh, my goodness, it’s always something. When you think of the best things that are going to come out of this book, what are you hoping? Who are you hoping to see themselves? What emotion response would be most satisfying for you?

Anissa: For me, I’ve been a reader pretty much ever since I could recognize words in a book. There’s this feeling I get when I close the book on a really good book. It’s very simple and not profound at all. When you read a good book and if there’s a , then it stays with you. You see it on the shelf, and it brings you thinking about the characters. If someone can come away with that feeling, that is, for me, such a special feeling. You don’t get it with every book. If someone can come away with that feeling, feeling like they’ve been with these characters, they’ve cared about these characters, they sometimes think about these characters and hope they’re okay, that would mean the world to me because that means I’ve written a pretty good story. That’s always my goal.

Zibby: I feel that way. You have written a really good story.

Anissa: Thank you so much.

Zibby: People are going to flip out about it. I don’t even know why we’re doing this interview. Your book’s not coming out until April. Here we are. It’s January. I think we’re going to have to hold this interview. I’m like, why is this even on my calendar? Whatever, here we are. Great.

Anissa: It helps to get on as soon as possible.

Zibby: It’s great. I’m like, does that really say four? I’m putting my glasses on. I haven’t read half my January books yet, but it’s fine.

Anissa: They told me, as soon as possible, get on her calendar.

Zibby: It’s fine. It’s great. I’m delighted because now I had the chance to get the book club with you all set up and get a sneak peek. I bet by the time this airs you’ll be on all sorts of lists because this book is wonderful. You can say, remember that podcast I had a hundred years ago about this book?

Anissa: For me, it’s something great to do out of the gate because I enjoyed talking to you so much the last time. For this to be the first event out of the gate is quite nice for me.

Zibby: Good. I enjoyed talking to you last time and this time. I’m really a huge fan of how you write and your books. I was so excited when I saw a new book coming out. Then I was like, oh, my gosh, from the very beginning, in it, totally in it, loving it. Congratulations.

Anissa: That’s awesome. Thank you so much.

Zibby: I should ask now, in case we’re on here a third time, are you working on another book already? What can you tell me that we can check our facts next time?

Anissa: I am. I am working on another book. I’m in the stage where I’m about to sit down and actually write it out. It’ll come to me first, the rough idea, but it doesn’t really live until I start typing it. I’m about to start typing it next week.

Zibby: Wow. Congratulations. That’s exciting. Good luck with that. Have fun with all the press. I hope that whatever your life events are contained in the next book are not as traumatic and that you have an easier go of it within the next set of pages.

Anissa: I hope so too. So far, right now, life is incredibly good. I feel incredibly blessed. I’m so happy to see this book out there. I hope people enjoy it.

Zibby: Wonderful. I’m knocking wood for you.

Anissa: Thank you.

Zibby: Bye, Anissa. Take care.

Anissa: Bye, Zibby.



Purchase your copy on Zibby’s bookshop 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