In this special episode (a live event for the Streicker Center!), Zibby speaks to New York Times bestselling author Ann Napolitano about HELLO BEAUTIFUL, a big, emotional, heartwrenching family drama. Ann delves into the emotional and creative journey of writing this book, revealing the depths of her immersion in the narrative and her subsequent feelings of loss upon completion. She touches on her writing process, including the balance between lyrical and analytical thinking, and the influence of her own life experiences on her characters. The conversation also explores the impact of her book’s selection for @oprahsbookclub on her life and the broader implications of her work. Audience questions bring to light Ann’s approach to character perspectives, her literary influences, and her reading recommendations, culminating in a rich dialogue about the nuances of storytelling and the personal connections writers forge with their creations.


Marjorie Shuster: Good morning, everyone. My name is Marjorie Shuster, Coordinator of Literary Events here at the Temple Emanu-el Streicker Center. Not that we’re counting, but this is author number forty-five to join us on this series, which is sponsored by the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation. How lucky are we today to have New York Times best-selling author Ann Napolitano, whose book, Hello Beautiful, was a recent huge, huge success and read by every single person that we all know. In conversation with Ann today is Zibby Owens. I don’t have enough time to list all of Zibby’s accomplishments. Briefly, Zibby’s an author. She runs a publishing company. She’s a podcast host, a bookstore owner. Now she’s in charge of Zibby Media. This will be a fantastic conversation between two absolutely powerhouse women. As usual, please write your questions in the chat feature of Zoom. We’ll try to get to as many as we possibly can. Now it’s my great pleasure to welcome Ann and welcome Zibby. Hello, Ann. Hello, Zibby.

Zibby Owens: Hi, Marjorie. Hi, Ann.

Ann Napolitano: Hi, Marjorie. Hi, Zibby. Thank you for having me.

Marjorie: conversation.

Zibby: Thank you for having us. It’s a pleasure to be here. Ann, before we start, I just wanted to acknowledge everything going on in the world for a minute. Here we are at the Temple Emanu-el Streicker Center just days after this catastrophic attack. By no means do I want to turn this into anything political, but I have been just, like many of you on here, I’m sure, physically sick crying. Our hearts go out to all of the people affected, the families, everybody there, everybody in the world. I just wanted to send my own condolences and my own visceral feelings about how upsetting it all is. All this history that we’ve learned about all of the attacks in the Holocaust, and now all of a sudden, it just feels like, okay, well, we learned this all for a reason. Now just pay attention. I’ll stop there. Just wanted everybody to feel like it was okay to discuss. It’s in the world. I am with you. My heart is just broken. Wanted to just start with that.

Ann: Thank you for speaking to that.

Zibby: Moving on. Ann, Hello Beautiful, masterpiece book. By the way, there is nothing more uplifting when the world is crazy and confusing and upsetting than diving into a fabulous, immersive read like Hello Beautiful, which I could not put down. Like, I’m sure, everybody on here, am just such a huge fan. Your writing is sensational. I know I talked to you about Dear Edward a while back. Now back again for Hello Beautiful. Ann, welcome. Sorry to monopolize at the beginning. This will be all about you from now on.

Ann: No, no, I’m glad that you spoke to that. Thank you, Zibby. Thanks so much. It’s lovely to speak to you again.

Zibby: You too. For anybody who perhaps has not read Hello Beautiful, can you give just the two-line? I bet most people here have already read it, but it’s possible that this is a big sales opportunity for you. Here you go.

Ann: Sure. I end up describing it differently every time, so here goes for this time. It takes place between 1960 and 2008. It’s set mostly in Chicago. It starts with a sad little boy named William Waters who grows up and moves to Chicago and is sort of taken in by a family of four sisters, the Padavano sisters, who have a very connected, loving home, which is the opposite of the home that he came from. The combination of his history with their family and love, it changes all of their lives, for the better and for the worse, over the next thirty years.

Zibby: Wow. Ann, you have this gift of writing about very sad boys. Where is this coming from?

Ann: I know. I know. I don’t know. I don’t know why I do that. The sadness, I guess I understand. I don’t know why I put it into sad boys. I have two boys. I have two sons. Part of it is that, A, I’m worried about my boys and worried about all the children of the world. I’m worried about how men are raised and grown and seen and the beauty and the sadness that they have in them, like everyone else has. I want to make sure they’re going to be okay. In a way, in my books, I think I’m trying to make sure that it’s possible for them to be okay even when the world is really scary and precarious and often incredibly sad.

Zibby: Where did this idea come from? How long were you working on this? I know Dear Edward took quite a while.

Ann: Dear Edward was eight years. I actually wrote this in two, which is like lightning speed for me. Largely, that had to do with the pandemic. My process for the last two books is that from when I have an idea, for nine months, I don’t let myself write because what I really love to do is to write what I call pretty sentences where I start a scene and something — someone walks in the room and says something I didn’t expect. Then something happens that I didn’t know was going to happen. It’s like being a reader. It’s an act of discovery. It’s so satisfying, but I often end up meandering all over the place. I have found that if I set aside a distinct period of time, what has ended up being nine months, which I didn’t realize was the length of a pregnancy, but of course, it’s the length of a pregnancy, where I’m not allowed to write the pretty sentences but I can think, research, and take notes about the idea that I have, in this instance — there’s always some kind of obsession. When I say obsession, it’s also an unlikely obsession that makes very little sense. I became obsessed, for Dear Edward, with a real plane crash despite, generally, not wanting to hear about plane crashes or not having an interest in aviation, per se.

For this book, it was a fascination with the history of basketball, despite being a soccer player growing up and being married to an Englishman who plays soccer and having two sons who play soccer. I became obsessed with the history of basketball. I had this image of a lonely little boy dribbling a basketball. Then also, I have an uncle who lives in Chicago. When I was little — I grew up in New Jersey. He used to send me postcards. They would always be addressed, “Hello beautiful.” I knew he didn’t really know what I looked like because he had two million nieces and nephews, and I hardly ever saw him. I felt like he was seeing that I was beautiful on the inside. Since I was a very shy, bookish child, I really felt like if I had any beauty, it was on the inside. That greeting made me feel really warm and special. He lived in the neighborhood of Pilsen in Chicago. With this series of postcards coming to me, I imagined Pilsen as this semi-magical world like the worlds that were in the novels that I was reading, which also feel real, particularly when you’re a kid. I wanted to set the book there. Then the third element really is that when I was growing up, my best friend Leah, I used to sleep at her house as often as I slept at my own, and her mom has five sisters. They all have slightly different versions of the same face. They would just come in and out of the house all the time and sort of start conversations in the middle. They seemed more themselves when they were together than when they were separate.

I used to just sit there and watch them like they were a television show when I was kid. I really wanted to write my way into understanding what the magic of that kind of sisterhood is. That became the Padavano sisters. Those elements came together. Then the timing was that the nine-month clock for my thinking, research, and taking notes actually ended in April 2020. Of course, I couldn’t have known what April 2020 was going to be like. None of us could. My father died in April 2020. Still, it’s like this timer went off. It was time to start the book. When I started writing, immediately, it was like I was writing all my own heartbreak and grief and worry and the uncertainty of the world and what really mattered and what were we going to do and be next into this novel. I wrote more hours of the day than I ever have. I wrote it in two years instead of eight, I think because I needed to find out if we could all be okay. My way of doing that was through this story.

Zibby: I am so sorry to hear about your dad. That’s so sad. Now I’m reading this with a new lens, or rethinking it. I’m so sorry. Your passages on grief, I have to say, and loss just struck so close to home. Can I read one or two examples that I just loved when you wrote about loss in general?

Ann: Of course.

Zibby: I don’t want to give things away.

Ann: Don’t worry.

Zibby: I’ll just go to this. “Sylvie had seen a photo of the aftermath of a massive earthquake once, and the image had stayed with her, a road split in half lengthwise revealing the middle of the earth, and how silly humans were to build houses and schools and cars on top and pretend they were safe. Sylvie felt like she spent her days carrying an overnight bag and a book leaping over that chasm.” The before and after of loss. I had to pick that up in the middle. There was another part where one person says, “This kind of loss must be hard.” She said, “I didn’t expect for it to be part of everything every minute. I didn’t know that you could lose someone and that meant you lost so much else.” They said, “Like it’s all connected.” These were just some of the many, many examples of the writing about what it feels like to lose someone and just watching the unpredictable fits and starts of when they would cry and when it would hit and that it wasn’t necessarily when you might think, but then it comes out at another time. Just how real that all was, it was incredibly powerful the way you wrote about it.

Ann: Thank you so much. It’s so universal, obviously. We’re leaping over the abyss today with the news of the world. We’ve all suffered foundational losses in our life. I think you have an idea of what that’s going to look like before it happens. Then what it actually looks like ends up being, often, very different. Not necessarily worse or better, but just where it fractures and how it touches you and changes your life is sort of unknowable before you walk that path. We all, at one point or another, do that. It’s a very universal feeling.

Zibby: At what age did you first feel like you had a foundational loss, or was it your dad?

Ann: The most foundational certainly has been my dad. Until then, I think I was trying to experience it as a very sensitive person through everybody around me and worrying a lot about foundational losses that didn’t happen and thinking I knew what was going to happen first. The losses that I had beforehand didn’t register in the same way.

Zibby: The loss of a parent, I’m so sorry. In the book, you often pair — you even address this, that things come as a one-two punch and that with loss sometimes comes something good or something new. Where did that come from? Have you experienced that? How did you come up with that? Now I’m like, is that true? Maybe not in the timing of the book.

Ann: I know, not in the timing of the book, I don’t think. I didn’t plan that. That was one of these things where — without giving anything away, one of the four Padavano sisters gives birth the day that someone very important in their life dies. Then the next time another one gives birth, there’s another major shift in their family that day as well. I do think that life is about doors opening and closing. They do both. It’s not like you only lose. You are also walking into joy and new loves and deepening loves as often, or more often, hopefully, than we lose. It really is all, like they say, the cycle of life. It’s really important to be aware of all of it, to not pretend the hard stuff doesn’t happen, but also not to push away the joy and the silliness and the delight and the love when it’s nearby as well. You’ve got to reach out and grab that and then be willing to look in the face of the sadness when that comes as well.

Zibby: It’s so beautiful. I only have a brother. I don’t have a sister. The way you wrote about those close bonds of sisterhood — I can’t get the image of the two sisters on the couch just fitting into each other — they were enmeshed. Even later when you talk about almost the shadow of the other person and just how enmeshed these girls all were. Enmeshed sounds negative. Just how close and how unique that bond was. Tell me about writing that. Do you have a sister? I feel like you don’t have a sister. Did I make that up? I don’t know.

Ann: No, I do. I have a brother and a sister and a half-sister. You can have found sisters and found brothers and found mothers and fathers. It’s chosen family as well as the given family. It really was my friend Leah’s aunts where I was like, there’s this spectacular magic going on between these women. It’s particular to them. They’re so deeply rooted with each other that the roots are entwined beneath them. I think I would love to have that. I think that, where it is your given family and you are entwined like that, is incredibly rare and incredibly special. Writing my way into that was a joy. I got to be sort of one with that kind of sisterhood and those sisters. Certainly, they’re not enmeshed in any kind of unhealthy way. I think in female friendships, too, there can be this beautiful power where you look at the other person and you’re like, I see all of your potential and all of your beauty and everything you can be as well as what you are. That lights the other person up. They do that for you so that even when you’re going through a heartbreak or feeling shlumpy or going through a slump, that person looks at you and is like, yeah, I see that, but I also see what you can be. These girls do that for each other. I think female friendships have that particular power and beauty. I loved exploring that because I loved living inside it.

Zibby: Amazing. It’s interesting how you say how the roots were tangled and yet Rose, being a gardener, the matriarch of the family, she’s in the back garden and dealing with the plants and all of that. I feel like roots are such an essential part of this whole story.

Ann: Rose, being who Rose is, is trying to control the roots and make them go in the direction she wants them to go into and making sure they’re tidy and in control, which doesn’t work so well in human relationships when you try and do that to people.

Zibby: True. Very true. There’s a need for control throughout. Different characters have it more than others, essentially. Particularly Julia, she needs to control everything. Then you see the effects of that. What happens when you’re in a world where somebody is trying to control you? What does that create? That’s also an interesting thing.

Ann: It’s really interesting. As people have read the book, they generally either really have a problem with Julia or really have a problem with Sylvie. It doesn’t overlap. You’re either the kind of person who objects to Julia’s way of living and the consequences that it engenders or really have a problem with Sylvie, who is more of a dreamer. She’s a reader. She deeply believes in love and in seeing people honestly without putting projections or expectations or assumptions on them. She really wants to be seen, and she really wants to see you. It’s been interesting to me to have those two women who love each other so much trigger things in different people.

Zibby: I am actually personally offended that people would have an issue with Sylvie. I’m like, what? What do you mean?

Ann: People really think she crosses a line that you just cannot cross.

Zibby: But we understand. We have zoomed into that line. Every speck has been exaggerated, so we see it.

Ann: , obviously.

Zibby: I know we touched on the sisterhood, but you also did a beautiful job writing about men’s friendships, Kent and William’s friendship. You don’t often read that as much, the bonds of being together, standing through, saying, oh, no, I’m going to be here for you, and just even showing up when his former teammates — just showing up on the benches and being like, I’m going to be here every week. It makes me cry just to think about it. It’s so beautiful. It’s so nice. You don’t see that enough, I feel like.

Ann: Thank you. That was one of the side effects, unexpected for me, where an obsession leads me into the story. I’m like, okay, I’m going to write about basketball. I don’t know why exactly. One of the things that I really loved writing was about being on a team. Really, this goes for everybody, but often particularly for boys and young men, the great thing about a team is that it takes all kinds on a team. You can’t have a team of all golden-boy stars. You need role players. You need the gutsy guy who’s running up and down the court. You need the brainy one who’s figuring out the plays. You need the star. You need the major athlete. Because teams need all of those things, they welcome the misfits, basically. They welcome the peculiar person who isn’t necessarily very good at forming friendships or having conversations or anything like that. That’s what William is. Within the infrastructure of a team, men are allowed to love each other. They’re allowed to slap each other on the back or to notice that one of them is having some problems and just show up for them. They feel within themselves that that’s okay because they’re teammates. It gives them this place where they can really show their love for each other. It’s a great privilege when you can show up for someone in their hard time. It’s such a gift for yourself to be able to do that. The team nature of it allows them to do that. It allows Kent and William to have this beautiful friendship that is started from a place that has expectations that allow it. I really did love writing about what it means to be on a team for these men.

Zibby: My main takeaway is if I am ever given a set of floor seats to any basketball game, I am calling you.

Ann: Awesome.

Zibby: I’m kidding. I haven’t even been to a basketball game in a long time. I could sense all of your passion for it and all of the knowledge. That was really wonderful. There is something, too, about being able to anticipate how slight injuries, physical or emotional, then ricochet throughout life. You demonstrate this in a lot of ways, whether it’s an emotional slight or an accident or something. No matter how much you focus on it or try to change the narrative, it’s going to push you in one direction. All you can do is then try to accommodate it versus fix it.

Ann: For William, in playing basketball, which is what he loves to do more than anything else, because he was this lonely little boy dribbling a basketball, it is the activity that has allowed him to function and hold himself together, has always been having the outlet of basketball. When he has a physical injury in college — it’s his second one, so it’s sort of career ending. He’s injured physically, but it removes this emotional crutch that he’s been using for his whole life too. It’s the mind-body — we’re a whole entity. You can’t injure one part of us without taking down a larger system. That’s really what happens to William. Of course, these things happen on a dime. You step off a curb, and you break your ankle. Then you have to come back from that, not only in rehabbing your ankle, but that will take you down. These are the moments where you need the people around you to step forward. It leads to a reckoning within your bones and within, who am I going to be in response to this? What does this mean for who I want to be next? It was interesting to me to explore that for athletes, but also in the effect that it has on all of us.

Zibby: When I finished the book, I was like, I have just been on such a journey. I felt like I had just lived these lives. The span of it and the in-depth narratives and all the different points of view and everyone’s life and the setbacks and the joys and the sorrow, I feel like I had kind of lived with this family and gone through it. From the writing standpoint, how did you feel coming to the end of it? How do you even feel now about looking back on how you wrote this in that timeline and the characters themselves? How do you feel about the whole thing? Where does the journey go from here?

Ann: I get depressed every time I finish a book. This was the worst one, particularly because of the process of the book writing, publishing timeline where you finally finish — generally, the last six months of writing a book, for me anyway, are completely immersive where you’re just trying to pull all the threads together that you weren’t even able to see before because now the story is there. I’ve now created the world. It’s fully real. It’s the 3D universe that I am living inside and loving. I love all these characters. I love being in that world as much, if not more, than I love being in my real world. Then all of a sudden, you get it to where it’s singing. Meaning, really, just that it’s complete. It’s real. It’s true. Then I have to hand it over. When you hand it over, you’re actually handing it over to the copywriting phase, which means copyeditors take it, and they put it into the software of the publisher, so it’s actually not even on my computer anymore.

It’s really gone. No one has read it yet except for six people at Random House. It’s like it doesn’t exist. It’s like you’re standing in the middle of the world, and it’s gone completely silent. No one else knows about it. You don’t have it with you anymore. I get really depressed. The only thing that makes me feel better is getting a new idea. It normally takes me a couple months for that to happen. I had a few emotional months where I was just hoping and thinking, okay, this has to go away eventually. I just love them. I still love them. Once people start reading it, even if it’s a Goodreads — not Goodreads. Whatever it is that they do in their early reviews, someone will be like, I loved Sylvie. I’ll be like, I love Sylvie too. At least, I feel like it lives. It’s living somewhere. That’s the process. Then I get excited because I have a new idea and a new world to start building and live in. Then I feel like I’m going to be okay again. I can’t live with just the real world.

Zibby: I’ll let a therapist go into that, why that’s the case. I won’t touch it. What world did you create now? What are you writing? Where are you in the alternate universe of your mind?

Ann: I feel like I should say I also have a lovely life. My real world is actually really wonderful. It’s not like I’m suffering in the real world. I just think the balance of who I am requires me to be reading a book, usually listening to a book, and writing a book. There’s a balancing. For me to feel like the alchemy is right for myself, all those things have to be happening. I got a new idea last fall. Again, it was an obsession. I can’t really talk about the book yet because it doesn’t make sense for me to do so. It’s still very gossamer even though I’ve been working on it for a bit. My obsession is trees, as opposed to basketball, this time. I read The Overstory by Richard Powers last summer, which I’m sure most of you have read. Magnificent, remarkable novel. He’s genius level, brainy, beautiful writer, everything. When I finish a book that I really, really, really am blown away by, I always listen to every interview I can find with that writer. He did a number after that book.

In a couple of them, he said that he felt like it was beholden on contemporary writers and artists to diversify the worlds that they’re writing about, and not only diversify within the human realm, which of course, is incredibly important and is taking place more than it used to, thank goodness, but also to diversify our storytelling to include the world that we live on and that that kind of art is one of the necessary things that we need as humans to raise our consciousness in the way that it has to be raised for us to actually remain humans on this earth, to look at the world as organisms that we are fully related to. Ninety-nine percent of our DNA is similar to that of much of the rest of the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom. When he said that, I felt charged with — I was like, it’s true. We do need to do that. I do need to do that. I’ve been reading a lot about trees. The book I’m writing now takes place on a cul-de-sac in New Jersey in the town that I grew up in, basically, that’s surrounded by a forest. It’s as much about the people on that cul-de-sac as it is about the trees and the forest and the world around it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that sounds amazing. Did your life change after becoming an Oprah’s Book Club pick?

Ann: Yes, I think so. Yes. That day that my book came out, I didn’t leave my house. Thank god. It was all so overwhelming with me even being in my house. I had already filmed the announcement with Oprah a couple days earlier. That showed on television that morning. Then there was a profile on me in The New York Times. It was the most overstimulating day of my life. Thank god I didn’t leave my house. Oprah, you know, she’s Oprah. She’s a force of nature. She’s a force of democratization of literature. She’s done so much to put books in the hands of so many people and turn non-readers into readers and to spread her love of fiction. She put her hand on my shoulder. I was like, oh, this is different. This is amazing. Yes. Yes and no. I’m still me. I hardly leave my house. I’m incredibly grateful. Her calling me on the phone to tell me, I think that — I don’t even think. It was the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me in my life, for sure.

Zibby: Did you even believe it was her?

Ann: No, I thought it was a robocall. You answer your phone, and it’s like, “Hi, Ann. This is Bill Clinton. I would like you to vote for…” They have those very clever recordings now that call you. I thought it was Oprah as a robocall. Then I was like, this doesn’t sound exactly like a robocall. I said, “‘Oprah Winfrey’ Oprah Winfrey?” Then she started talking in sentences that made it clear that she was not robotic. No, I did not believe it.

Zibby: Wow. Congratulations. Well deserved.

Ann: Thank you very much.

Zibby: I just have one more question. Then I’m going to open it up. There are so many questions here from the audience. There is a moment where Rose, the mom, allows us to see parts of her that, I think it was Sylvie, in the moment, realized, maybe my mom does have little parts of each of us in her, and this brisk front hides a lot of different pieces of us. I imagine there are different pieces of these characters that live in you. Is there one that you feel is most resonant with anything to do with you yourself as a woman?

Ann: Yeah. The short answer is definitely Sylvie. I actually feel like I share a lot of DNA with all of the characters except for Rose and Julia. I love Rose and Julia, but I just am not them in any way, really. I know a lot of people who are like Rose and Julia. Again, this is not an affection thing. I think they’re wonderful. I am part William. I’m in William. I’m in Cecelia. I’m in Emeline. I could see myself and feel myself in them. They were easier to write because I instinctively felt how they would feel and what they might do. It was harder for me to inhabit Julia and Rose.

Zibby: Amazing. Brilliant job. It was so good, oh, my gosh. Now I’ll ask everyone else’s questions.

Ann: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you for indulging me in all of my own.

Ann: Please.

Zibby: “Is Walt Whitman/transcendentalism key to the theme of the book? Also, your frequent mentions of sewing, a symbolism of connection to others?”

Ann: Walt Whitman was another little obsession that I went on. There was more Walt Whitman in the book. My editor was like, “That’s a lot of Walt Whitman.” She paired it back. I’m sure she was correct to do so. I became really fascinated with the fact that Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass, his most famous collection of stories — he republished it at least three times over the course of his life. He would remove poems. He would change poems. He would add new ones in it. I loved this idea that because he was also a publisher as well as a writer by occupation, that he looked at it as, as he changed, his work changed beneath him. That felt very resonate for me within life, how we grow and change and how we have to — who you are when you’re twenty-two, you’re almost a different person when you’re forty-two. That’s really fascinating to me. I have empathy and I remember my twenty-two-year-old self, but how much do I still share with her? I don’t know that it’s that much anymore. His approach to his work and the expansiveness of his work and the way that he saw the world and the love and the beauty and the connection in it all felt intertwined with what I was trying to do in the novel. The symbolism for connectedness and the roots and sewing, it obviously falls under the same umbrella.

Zibby: “Did you purposefully intend for the protagonist to develop the strength to accept his beloved wife –” Actually, I don’t want to ask. Never mind. I don’t want to give anything away. This is also another giveaway one. “Any interest in putting this wonderful story on screen?”

Ann: Yes. Because of the various strikes — I think that something might happen, but nothing has happened enough that I can say anything. Yes, that would be lovely. I think there’s a good chance that that might happen.

Zibby: Patty is wondering if you have a name yet for your next novel.

Ann: I don’t. I wish. The first novel of mine that I have actually named is Hello Beautiful. I’m terrible with titles. I usually have eight different working titles over the period of me writing the novel. Then usually, my friend Helen Ellis, who’s another wonderful writer, she ends up naming my novels for me. We’ll see what Helen comes up with for this one when I get further on in it.

Zibby: Helen’s book, meanwhile, was Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge, about her marriage, which was hilarious. I loved that.

Ann: Hilarious.

Zibby: Question from a book club. “I felt that the love of her sister pushed her husband away.” It’s not really a question.

Ann: That’s fine. There’s a way to look at what happens between Julia and Sylvie. Julia is married to William. They start dating. That’s how William sort of becomes part of the Padavano family. Then as William struggles with his past and with mental illness and depression that he has, it’s very difficult for Julia. It’s something that Sylvie is more comfortable with just as a human being in embracing the darkness and the shadows. Julia is not comfortable with darkness and shadows. I think often when you’re in a difficult situation, you can have two very good people, and one just happens to be better suited to the situation at hand. The other person, although excellent in other areas, this is not their strong point. Often, that changes the course of your life or the course of those people’s interactions. I think I would be a terrible lifeguard because I watch too much. I’d be like, let me give it another ten seconds to see if that person’s really drowning. If you’re a really good lifeguard, you are off that chair bellyflopping into the water to rescue someone. It’s just, what are your strengths? Then what does that mean for the situation in front of you? For Sylvie and Julie, they’re put in a really challenging situation, and they both have different responses to it.

Zibby: Interesting. I have not thought that much about lifeguards.

Ann: I was sitting on the beach with a friend once. We were at Cape Cod. We were at the ocean. It looked like someone might be struggling, but it was a crowded ocean of people swimming. She was just off like a shot and diving — I was like, what the…? I was still holding my book. I was nowhere near the stage where I would be running, as a non-lifeguard. Neither of us were lifeguards, but her impulse was just to, if there’s a chance, I’m saving this person. I was so impressed. I was like, my god. She’s so much better than me in that regard. We all have our own different strengths and weaknesses.

Zibby: I would not be jumping in. Then again, I’m sort of terrified of the ocean. Maybe in another context. It doesn’t matter.

Ann: Exactly.

Zibby: Susan wants to know, what other working titles did you have for Hello Beautiful?

Ann: Oh, gosh. I used various lines from Walt Whitman. I can’t remember. It’s a sign of how the titles were not good that I can’t remember. What I ended up doing was — I used a bit of Walt Whitman in the beginning of the book. I generally collect quotes and poems that seem resonate with what I’m working on. I keep them in a file in the document. Then I pull lines from the poetry and make it the title at various points. Hello Beautiful, about one year in, became the title. I can’t remember the specific lines anymore, but it was Whitman.

Zibby: Amazing. Anybody who has questions that don’t give anything away, please add them to the chat. The book that inspired was The Overstory by Richard Powers. That was another question there. I’ll ask some more until we get more because I have endless fascination with process. You talked earlier about how much you love writing beautiful sentences and have to force yourself to do research. Where did that come from? How do you make your sentences better? When did you realize that you were a lover of that type of writing and that sort of literary aesthetic, if you will? Where did that come from?

Ann: There’s a great quote from E.L. Doctorow, the novelist, who says writing a novel is like driving home on a foggy night. You can only see as far as the end of your headlights beam, but that’s enough to get you home. You can see a little bit, and then you can see a little bit more. Then eventually, you’re at your driveway. My second published novel is called A Good Hard Look. It has Flannery O’Connor, the short story writer, as a character in it. That book took me eight years. I did it entirely in the Doctorow way. I just started with a scene. I wrote and cut six hundred pages. I felt like I drove in figure eights all over the country and then eventually found the driveway. When I finished that book, my husband was like, “I think maybe for the next one, you should do it differently. This is supposed to be a labor of love, and you were in despair for most of it,” both because I didn’t want Flannery O’Connor to be in the book and then because I couldn’t find my way to the book.

He suggested that I have a set period where I actually — what it turns out is the case is that when I am writing, it’s about lyricism and the sound of the language in my head. A lot of it feels kind of musical where I’m following the emotional beats of the story, but I cannot think analytically at all when I’m doing that. I can’t think about plot. I can’t pull back and have perspective. What turns out to be very smart, and it was entirely his idea, is that I have this set period where I have to think. I can’t access the lyrical part. I do figure some things out. I would say I figure out thirty percent of what goes into the book. Then a lot of what I figure out I don’t actually end up using, but I start to create the world in a more thoughtful way before I engage the music-making part of my brain and walk in. The combination of the two has turned out to be very helpful for me.

Zibby: I love you call it the music-making. That’s awesome. Julie is wondering, “How did you come up with the idea to tell the story from different characters? Did you have difficulty keeping track of the story when you switched back and forth?”

Ann: Thank you. That is a strength and a weakness of mine, is that I love to go into different characters’ heads. Ideally, I would like to go into everyone’s heads, but that makes the story feel too baggy and disorganized. I knew the book started with a lonely little boy, so I knew I had to start in William’s head. Then once I got to the end of the first chapter, he was at college. He had met Julia. I needed to find out who Julia was, and so the next chapter is Julia. By the time I got to the end of that Julia chapter, I knew that Sylvie was somehow going to become involved with them too. I didn’t know what that was going to look like yet. It became clear that it was Sylvie. Then by the time I was done with the first Sylvie chapter, I knew that they were the three cogs in this wheel that was going to turn the story, and so I stayed with them until Julia and William have a daughter, Alice. Alice eventually steps into the story. I did actually write a chapter or two from Rose’s point of view. I wrote a chapter from Izzy, who is Alice’s cousin’s point of view. This is where other people are very helpful. I have two readers, Helen Ellis, aforementioned, and Hannah Tinti, who’s another amazing writer. She runs One Story magazine. She wrote an amazing book called The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley that came out a few years ago. I highly, highly recommend it. It’s amazing. They’re my first readers. They’ll say, you shouldn’t go into these heads. You need to stay in the heads of the people who are moving this story forward. I took those chapters out. They were right. My editor and agent are also incredibly helpful to rein me in in the various ways I need to be reined in, like too much Walt Whitman and too many point of views.

Zibby: I would put those on your website or something. I would love to read those discarded chapters. I’m curious.

Ann: I know. I might. People have said that. I should do that. I have to find them. I enjoyed writing them.

Zibby: This is just a nice thing. Do you want to hear just a nice comment? “So sorry to hear that you were in despair writing A Good Hard Look. It was the first book of yours I read, and it blew me away. Thanks for sharing your process. It’s incredible to hear and completely understandable. I love the notion of living in each character’s head. I find I continue to live in the heads of your characters long after I finish your books. I enjoy savoring them. Thank you.” That was from Suzanne.

Ann: Thank you, Suzanne. That’s so kind. Thank you very much.

Zibby: Bonnie is asking, “Besides Overstory, what else do you recommend?”

Ann: Oh, gosh. So many good books, of course. I just wrote to a friend of mine who wanted me to recommend books. I can remember three years. The last three years, for some reason, are like a pocket. My memory just went back three years. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is amazing. Deacon King Kong by James McBride. I also really just loved Heaven & Earth Grocery by him that came out. That was wonderful. Sorry, I’m going back. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, I really loved in the last few years. I loved The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Jeffers. The Covenant of Water was wonderful, by Abraham Verghese. I just listened to The Last Fraud by Zadie Smith, which was really interesting. She does the audiobook. My god, she sounds so talented. Same thing with The Covenant of Water where Abraham Verghese reads it and does an amazing job. I could never do it in a million years. Usually, you have to audition to do your own audiobook. I would never be chosen. They’re correct. They would be correct not to choose me. That’s just some. Really good books.

Zibby: Do you ever pick up a beach read and just feel like, I’m in the mood for something light and funny?

Ann: Yeah. On a plane, I read Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros. I immediately preordered the new one that’s coming out in November. That’s YA fantasy, dragon riders with incredibly hot sex. I was unprepared on every level. Great storytelling. Incredibly propulsive storytelling. I do. I like mystery. Sometimes I’ll read a mystery. I went through a real Agatha Christie kick during the pandemic. I like everything. I like memoirs. I like to read.

Zibby: Estelline is saying, “Magnificent writing. Thank you.” She said, “Your ending felt like a symphony,” which is beautiful.

Ann: Thank you.

Zibby: Someone is frustrated that we’re not addressing questions without giving anything away. “I wonder if we could expect the audience will read the book prior to the author talk.” I was trying to be sensitive to those who have not read it. I don’t know. We can definitely revisit this for next time. Can you speak more — Rosemary wants to know about the father of the sisters.

Ann: Sure, I’d love to. Charlie. I love Charlie. You talk about spoilers or whatever. It happens early in the book, relatively speaking, but Charlie dies. It ends up being a propulsive event for the sisters and for their family as a whole. I didn’t know he was going to die when I started writing the book. During my nine months planning, I didn’t know. That’s where I think it’s interesting to be a writer, to be a human and to work through those things at the same time because my own father died at the beginning of the pandemic. We weren’t able to be with him when he died. Then we weren’t able to gather after he died, which happened to so many families during that specific window of time in the spring of 2020. I was able to go through a wake and a funeral with the Padavano sisters for Charlie. Because I am so connected to the people that I write about in this world that I’m creating that is real to me, I got real healing and satisfaction from sitting — I felt like I was sitting in the pews of the church wearing my starchy tights and uncomfortable skirt next to the Padavano sisters for Charlie. That was really wonderful. Then the other thing about Charlie, which is not related to my father, I knew he was wonderful and that the love that he pointed at his girls and the way that he saw them for who they really were from the first minute of their lives and that when he greets them and says, “Hello beautiful,” he’s seeing their inner specific beauty, and by issuing that greeting, he calls it to the surface.

By the time he dies, these young women know who they are. They know what their beauty is. Even when the world challenges them, as the world does, and particularly for women and particularly during the time that they’re living, the 1980s at this point, they have the strength to call on themselves. Each of the sisters makes a really brave decision for themselves over the course of the book. All four of them do that. I think that they are able to do that because they know themselves. That’s because of the really beautiful love that their father gave them. Then tied into that is the fact that Charlie, he was disappointing to the people who loved him, particularly his wife, during his life, for understandable reasons. He didn’t provide well financially. He drank a bit too much. He didn’t pull his weight in all the ways that you want a husband and father to do, but the love that he gave to the people around him was so strong that he was successful. As the story goes on and as the years pass, he lives with them and in them in a way that only the most successful of us do. It’s a beautiful legacy. It’s actually a much more powerful legacy than if he’d had a great job downtown and brought in six figures.

Zibby: Beautiful. Somebody would like the list of books you recommend, so we could potentially get that going afterwards. “Did you struggle with Rose’s decision later in the book?”

Ann: One of the interesting things in writing the book for me was that it did take place when it did. I was born in 1971. I really was growing up in the eighties and nineties. Each of the generation of women in the book sort of reaches for the freedom that’s available to them within their generation. Rose is a product of her generation. She got pregnant and ended up marrying Charlie because she was pregnant. She didn’t go to college. She didn’t have access to further education or a good job. Her success was fully invested in the “success” of her daughters. Her only hope for freedom came after her husband died and her children were grown. That was the first chance in her life that she could make a decision about herself for herself and be free in any definition, and so she took it. I understand that. Then if you look at her daughter’s generation, Julia came of age in the first generation of women that could be a CEO. It was absolutely impossible for a woman to be at that level in a business prior to that. Her idea of freedom came with shoulder-padded suits and a really high-paying job and financial security that she entirely owned herself. She strove for that freedom. Then the freedom of Julia’s daughter, Alice, as she comes of age looks very different from what she sees as freedom. I do understand Rose’s choice because I feel like it was one of the few choices that she had to her because of when she became a woman.

Zibby: Interesting. Last question. “Why did the other characters give so much to William? It seems like there was very little expected of him in return.”

Ann: I think that largely, it’s the state that William was in. He was so broken because of the childhood that he had and the way he grew up. He was pretending to be capable as an adult, but the infrastructure inside him was either broken or incredibly weak. The people around him who really saw him saw his good heart, saw that he was doing the best that he could and that he wanted to be better, and so they stepped forward to help him. He didn’t have the ability to give back in the ways that would look equal. Although, as the story goes on, he does try to do that. He becomes involved in the other sisters’ lives in a much more proactive way. He tries to be as good a friend to Kent as Kent is to him. I think it’s really about him being at a very weak point and then people either walking away from him because of that or stepping towards him.

Zibby: Great answer. Thank you. I know we’re just about out of time here. Marjorie usually likes to come on at the end and say thank you.

Marjorie: That was a spectacular conversation. It as I knew it would be. Thank you both very, very much. Thank you so much for being with us. Zibby, thank you for being with us yet again. I hope everybody who was watching got their questions answered. I actually have a friend in Boston, her book club watched it together, and they sent in some questions. I think they were on the side there. Thank you very much, both of you. Please join us next week. We have Jean Kwok. Her new book is The Leftover Woman. That also will be a wonderful conversation.

Zibby: Thank you.

Ann: Thank you so much. Thank you, Zibby. Thank you, Marjorie.

Zibby: Thank you, Ann. Thanks, Marjorie. Stay safe.

HELLO BEAUTIFUL by Ann Napolitano

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