Author and editor Anna Pitoniak joins Zibby to talk about her latest novel, Our American Friend, which was inspired by a combination of Anna’s fascination with Russian culture and a 2016 GQ article about Melania Trump. The two discuss why writing this novel felt different from Anna’s previous two, which life experiences have found their way into each of her books, and what she misses most about working in publishing full-time.


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

Anna Pitoniak: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Please tell listeners what your book is about.

Anna: This is the story of an unlikely relationship between a journalist named Sofie Morse, who was once a White House reporter, attempted to leave the field of writing about politics but was beckoned back in by an offer from a mysterious first lady named Lara Caine, who was born and raised in Soviet Russia and later moved to Paris and then later yet moved to America and married the notoriously brash future president, Henry Caine — First Lady Lara Caine asks Sofie to write her biography and to finally tell the world everything that Lara has kept secret up until then. Sofie begins writing this story. The secrets that come out in the process of writing it have the potential to reshape the world they both live in.

Zibby: Love it. It was also so neat how Sofie ended up getting picked for the project, that she basically asked such a good question. As somebody who asks questions all day, I was like, yay, go her for asking a great question. She asks this very insightful question about the first lady’s dad and his involvement in Paris and everything while they were in Paris. I guess she remembered the question for so long that she was beckoned to do the writing herself.

Anna: I do think it’s very telling when someone asks a question that proves they’ve really been paying attention and really been listening. It opens up this kind of trust between a subject and a writer, which is exactly what happens with Lara and Sofie. I felt the same way. I’m so glad that Sofie had an active role to play in Lara’s selection of her as her biographer. It wasn’t just Lara picking her out of a crowd for no good reason. There was that explanation behind it.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. I also loved the Upper East Side references in the book, which were very close by.

Anna: It was the first book I wrote after I had left my job at Random House and was a full-time writer working from home, spending a lot more time in the neighborhood than I had when I was schlepping into Midtown every day. I’ve always loved this neighborhood. I’ve fallen in love with it over the years. Writing this book was really a reflection of how much time I was spending there and observing all these little details and all the neighborhood spots. That was a really fun part of the writing process for me.

Zibby: Did you also have a front door and put on a Christmas wreath?

Anna: I did not. An interesting little side note to that is there’s a real townhouse on East 70th Street, which was right near where I was living at the time — I’ve now moved all the way to 68th Street, so very far — that has an interesting history behind it. This woman who wrote a memoir that I read as part of my research, she herself grew up in that townhouse, the daughter of Russian parents, and had described this very Russian inflection to this particular building. I walked past it every day. I couldn’t help but think, oh, maybe this is where my characters could live. I picked out the front door that would have the Christmas wreath on it, even though I didn’t live there, and was able to almost pretend like it was a real place for these characters as I walked past it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, now I’m going to go walk on 70th and try to figure out which one it was.

Anna: I’ll tell you which one it is.

Zibby: Okay, tell me later. Put it in the chat or something. That’s funny. You even have the upstairs neighbor who was immersed in Russian everything, and when she talked about going back, how he said, no, no, I’m done. I’m never going back. She’s like, but you’re still so in it. His whole apartment was covered in Russian things. Then I was reading and thinking, oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this book is coming out in the context of what’s going on in the news right now. It’s insane what’s happening. How do you feel? You must have done so much research for this book. Tell me about that and how you’re making sense of the world now.

Anna: Processing all of that. I know. I did. I did a lot of research. As I mentioned, it was the first book I wrote as a full-time writer as opposed to someone splitting their time between a day job and an early morning job. Because I had that time on my hands, it allowed me to just dive so much more deeply into the research process than I did for the first two books. I’ve always been fascinated by Russia for reasons that I’m not quite sure why. I’ve always loved Russian literature. I think that was sort of my entry point into being interested in the history and the culture. I spent a lot of time just absorbing as much as I could, especially about the Cold War, about the KGB, the KGB versus the CIA, and what it was like to grow up during that time. I don’t know that it’s given me any special insight into the horrible situation that we’re in today. I do feel this sort of conflict, which is that I can’t stand Putin, can’t stand what he’s doing. I do think it’s very important to clearly state that Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine is being attacked and annihilated in this awful way, but I think a lot of ordinary Russian men and women probably don’t support this war and can’t abide it at all.

I feel this real conflict which I think people probably felt at other points in the past, which is that you can love the culture and appreciate the culture and have this interest in it but also find it completely repellent, what’s happening today. One thing I picked up on in my research, which certainly seems to be true these days, is — I read a couple of biographies about Putin because there’s a Putin-esque Russian president who makes an appearance in this book. In reading about him, it became very clear that he just carried this humiliation with him ever since the end of the Cold War because he was a KGB officer who had this very ignominious end to his time at the KGB. I think it’s clear to everyone today that he’s acting out of this place of just totally irrational anger and humiliation. That makes him a very scary person to be reckoned with.

Zibby: Wow. It’s like dealing with a child, really.

Anna: Exactly. You could explain to a toddler that throwing this fit isn’t going to get him or her the toy they want, but they’re not going to listen. They’re going to throw the fit because something in them is causing them to throw a fit.

Zibby: Like the Putin character, the American president and wife share some commonalities with the former president too. Did you write this right as Trump was elected? Was this in the aftermath of that? What happened?

Anna: I first got the idea back in 2016, but it wasn’t for a few years that I began writing it. I read a profile in, I think it was GQ magazine in the spring of 2016. Trump was still just a candidate at that point. He hadn’t been elected. The profile was really focused on Melania Trump and how little was known about her. This article was attempting to expose some of those things from the past. One detail really stuck out to me in the article, which was that growing up in Yugoslavia during the Cold War, it was a time when most people in that situation really didn’t have much in the way of money or material comfort. Melania’s father was a member of the communist party, quite well-connected, had this relatively comfortable job that gave him quite a good living. She grew up with this kind of privilege and material comfort that was a byproduct of her believing in communism, or her family believing in communism. Then you flash forward all these decades later, and she’s married to the president of the United States who’s sort of the ultimate capitalist in the ultimate capitalist society. I kept finding myself wondering what it would be like to make that journey from one ideological extreme to the other. Had something happened along the way to change her mind? There was no way I was going to find this out about the real Melania because she’s such a closed book. Nothing’s known about her. Maybe nothing did happen along the way. Maybe she’s simply an opportunist. I was really interested in those possibilities.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that kind of question, which is usually a sign that maybe you’re onto something and this might be area to explore for your next novel. It wasn’t until the fall of 2018 about two later that I began writing Our American Friend. I was very certain at the outset that I didn’t want to write about the real Melania or the real Donald Trump, partially, again, because so little is known about the real Melania that it wouldn’t make much sense to base a story on the real person and also because I couldn’t stand the idea of spending all that time with these people who I found so obnoxious and repellent. It was a good way of taking a seed of inspiration from reality but writing very much my own version of it and letting my characters evolve organically, have their own journeys, have their own paths. I think it was also helpful to have this world to escape into during that time that was chaotic and challenging for so many people. This was a way of engaging with some of the moral question posed by our era without driving myself crazy watching twelve hours of MSNBC or CNN every day.

Zibby: Wait, can we go back? Tell me about your job in publishing. I want to know about you becoming an editor at Random House, your other books. When did this start? How far back did you start writing? What was your main interest at school? We both went to Yale, right?

Anna: Yes, that’s right.

Zibby: Awesome. When did you graduate? Can I ask?

Anna: Of course. I graduated in 2010. I was an English major and also an editor at the Yale Daily News. That’s the extent of my experience with journalism. I’ve had a few people ask about that given that the character Sofie is a reporter. I’ve always loved journalists and admire them so greatly and got to work briefly as a journalist at the college paper. I loved it. I think that it gives you such a great license as a novelist when you make one of your characters a reporter. It’s their job to go out and ask questions, so that’s kind of irresistible. In any case, when I graduated from college, I started working in publishing. My very first job was as a subsidiary rights assistant at Penguin and then later moved over to become an editorial assistant at Random House where I worked for just about eight years, gradually moving up and building my own list and becoming an editor in my own right. I think it was in the spring of 2011, so about a year after graduating from college, that I began to feel the itch to do something creative that only belonged to me that was something that I didn’t necessarily get paid for or have that obligation that you have with a regular job.

I was also really fascinated and somewhat perplexed by that whole post-college experience of moving to New York, of choosing one path and watching your friends choose another path, of suddenly being aware of these great differences that college had a way of covering up and kept you from seeing. It was also not long after the recession. I had a lot of friends working in finance, which was sort of getting its footing back but obviously had just gone through this huge shock. Those various factors are what planted the seeds of what became The Futures, my first novel. I loved writing that book because it was really a way for me to process some of the observations and thoughts and feelings that I was having in those post-college years but without writing about myself because not a lot was happening to me. I was just going to work every day and doing my normal thing. When I started writing the book, I wasn’t sure what it would turn into. I didn’t have the great, grand goal of becoming a published novelist because I had no idea if it would be any good. I worked on it for about three years in little dribs and drabs in the morning before going to work before eventually having a finished draft that I shared with my husband and with my sister and then eventually went out and found an agent and a publisher.

Zibby: Wow. You make it sound easy.

Anna: I know. Now I’m like, oh, that? That was nothing. It’s a little over ten years ago now that I first started writing the book. The amount of intimidation and, frankly, just terror I felt when I opened that blank Word document for the first time, oh, my god. I’m just very grateful to my former self for having started it because I think starting is always the hardest part.

Zibby: Yes. It depends, though. Sometimes the writing is really hard.

Anna: Depends. There’s a lot of hard parts.

Zibby: Then what about your second book?

Anna: My second book, Necessary People, I also wrote while at Random House. That was a very fun book to write, very different from The Futures and was certainly a reflection of a different period of life when I found myself thinking a lot about ambition and how people define themselves in terms of their jobs and moving up in various hierarchies. Necessary People takes place in the world of television news. It’s about two best friends, Stella and Violet, who have always had this complicated frenemy-like relationship. When Violet gets a job as a TV producer, she feels like she’s finally found a way to stand apart from Stella, but then Stella swoops in and becomes an on-camera star whose shadow quickly eclipses Violet’s, as it always has. It’s the story of them competing with each other and bringing out both the best and the worst in each other. That was really a fun book to write because I do think that ambition is a theme that we all encounter, especially in a place like New York City. There’s a lot of good to it, but there’s a lot of bad to it too. Necessary People is very much a story about that.

Zibby: Now you have Our American Friend. What have you learned from — that sounds like a canned question. Now that this is your third launch, what are you going to take away even from a book publicity standpoint, or marketing? With all of your experience and as an editor, what works for you? What doesn’t work for you? What are you excited about? What are you not excited about?

Anna: That’s a great question. I think the thing I appreciated the most the third time around as compared to the first two publications was the importance of, only try to control what I can actually control and to not sweat too much the things that are completely out of my hands. Every time I talk to writer friends, I say that the best piece of advice I can give just from a sanity perspective is, do not check your Amazon reviews. Do not read your Goodreads reviews. There may be some great ones out there, but there’s going to be a lot of negative ones too no matter how great the book is. That’s a good way to drive yourself crazy. I think it’s helpful, too, to remember why you wrote the book in the first place, which is that it’s a story that you’re excited about and that you want to share with the world. That is a really important thing to come back to when the ups and downs of the publicity and marketing process hit. Also, if you can really figure out what your book is about and what it means to you, it’ll help you, ideally, speak about it in a more authentic way when you’re doing podcasts or other interviews or when you’re sharing your own material on social media or doing a marketing campaign.

In terms of real specific brass tax — I used to be much better at this because when I was working in publishing, I had the chance to see all these great campaigns at Random House and what was working for those books. It’s amazing how much can change in three years, which is about how long it’s been since I left Random House. All the specific buttons we wanted to push back then, now it’s a whole new set of things. I think it’s just staying curious and flexible about what’s actually going to help get eyeballs on your book and move the needle on it. One thing I’ve gotten better at, which I was not as good at on my first two books, is asking friends and people in my life to help me along the way. I think it’s easy as a writer to feel very shy. I think a lot of writers are sort of shy and introverted by nature, but you have to put that extrovert hat on when it comes time to talking about your book. You probably have plenty of friends and family and people in your community who love you and may love the book. They’re excited about it. You just ask them to get that word of mouth going for you. I really do think the word of mouth is just the most powerful thing in the world.

Zibby: You’re absolutely right. I feel like that too. Also, the thing of, you have to see it enough times. You have to see it. Someone has to mention it. You have to be like, okay, okay.

Anna: I think that’s exactly right. I think it’s maybe a little bit less about that one big mega-publicity hit that’s going to change your mind. Although, those certainly exist still. If you’ve seen it mentioned in three different places, on a friend’s Instagram feed and in a round-up online and on a podcast, then you’re probably thinking, okay, there’s clearly something to this book. Maybe I should give it a shot.

Zibby: Yes, agree. What do you like to read? What are you reading right now?

Anna: What am I reading right now? I was just wandering through the bookstore yesterday because I feel a little bit like I’m emerging from this daze of having been talking about myself and my book for so long. I didn’t have a strong gut instinct of what I wanted to read next, which I sometimes do. I was wandering through the bookstore yesterday and just scanning my eye across the shelves to see what jumped out at me. The book I wound up picking up — I can’t believe I’ve never read this — is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, which came out, I want to say in 1995, one of those books that I’ve always heard is magnificent but never picked up. With everything going on in the news right now and the chaos of the world, I just have this desire to escape into something completely different. I started reading it last night and already am loving it so much and am so glad it’s a six-hundred-page novel because it’s exactly the kind of thing I want to escape into for a while.

Zibby: I have not read it, and probably because it’s six hundred pages.

Anna: It’s very long. It’s one of those books where if you fall in love with a really good book at the beginning and it’s really long, that can be such a good feeling.

Zibby: That’s a good thing, yes. There are definitely many books I wished didn’t end because I loved them so much.

Anna: Exactly. In general, I think that kind of sweeping saga, especially family sagas where you’re following all these different threads, the grandmother and the mother and the children and the interlocking fortunes over the course of various years, I love books like that. I just find them so juicy and appealing.

Zibby: Those are great. Would you ever go back to being an editor even part time or freelance?

Anna: I do occasionally, a little bit of freelance editing, which is really nice because the thing I miss about the job at Random House is that creative partnership that develops between an editor and a writer. You’re really in the trenches together. You’re talking about these characters and these dynamics as if they’re real people. That’s such a rewarding and special kind of work. Every once in a while, I’ll do a little bit of freelance editing, especially for a few writers who I used to work with at Random House where we’ve continued working together a bit now. I don’t think I’d want to go back in any full-time capacity just because a lot of your time is taken up with everything else, the project management, the coordination between various departments. There are so many moving pieces that come with publishing a book. I’ve liked being able to be more selfish with my time and devote that time to writing as opposed to the bureaucracy that comes with it.

Zibby: Got it. Awesome. I feel like you’ve already given so much advice. Any parting advice for aspiring authors?

Anna: I think the best advice I can give is probably the simplest advice, which these writers have surely heard from many other people before, which is that the best thing you can do as a writer is just get your butt in the chair every day. Develop a habit and a routine. That advice basically gets dressed up and spun in different ways. If you can figure out what time of day works for you, whether it’s a half hour or an hour carved out somewhere, and stick to it every single day, I’m a big believer in having that time set aside. Even if you don’t get a single world written, even if you’re just sitting there rereading what you wrote yesterday, maybe tinkering with it around the edges, it’s that practice and that formation of a habit that’s really going to serve you well. That’s the best advice and the simplest advice I can give. I think that if you really want to do it and you keep showing up day after day, it’s going to happen eventually. There are no guarantees in terms of how it gets published or what happens with a book ultimately, but just by the act of showing up every day and writing, you are becoming a writer. That’s pretty cool.

Zibby: That is pretty cool. I love it. Anna, thank you so much. This was really fun. It’s so nice to know we’re in the same neighborhood. We can get together in real life at some point or whatever, cross paths. Move we’ve already crossed paths. Now we know.

Anna: Now we know. Thank you so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure to be here.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Anna: Bye.



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