Annabelle Gurwitch, YOU'RE LEAVING WHEN?

Annabelle Gurwitch, YOU'RE LEAVING WHEN?

“I try to write these stories that actually redeem experiences because complaining would just be too easy.” Annabelle Gurwitch talks with Zibby about making lemonade out of lemons (figuratively and literally — she grows a lemon crop every year!), and shares how writing has helped her to find the silver linings in the aftermath of her divorce.


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

Annabelle Gurwitch: I am so happy to be here and to get a chance to talk to you, Zibby. Also, I’m looking at your fabulous bookshelves which seem to be color coordinated which just represents a tremendously aspirational aspiration, an aspirational aspiration of mine.

Zibby: Honestly, I’m looking at your bookshelves, as we were just discussing. Inside me, what I want to do is jump through the Zoom, take them all off the shelf, and redo it all for you. I don’t sit well when everything’s not lined up. Everybody works the way they work.

Annabelle: In my mind, I’m the kind of person that has a very organized bookshelf. In my mind, I’m a lot of things that I am not actually in reality. In fact, that is the subject of this new book, making peace with some of that.

Zibby: This new book is fantastic. I just want to say how excited I was when I got this advance copy, whenever that was, I feel like it was forever ago, because I’ve read all your books. I love what you write. I love your writing style. I’ve been reading you since you’ve been — I don’t know. I’ve just been following along with you. I was thrilled that now I’m doing a podcast when you have a book coming out. There you go.

Annabelle: Thank you so much. I so appreciate that. This is my second career. I’m on career number seventeen or something. Like everybody, I’ve reinvented a thousand times. I spent many years acting and then hosting TV shows. The thing is, I’ve always been such a voracious reader. I really taught myself to write from reading. I really started writing when I started on NPR as a commentator. My goal was to write to reflect the life that I wasn’t exactly reading about. I love Nora Ephron. She set the bar for women. Look, she’s beyond a female writer, but just reflecting women’s lives. She was such an amazing writer. I never have lived that life of Nora Ephron, the amazing life of Nora Ephron. I was like, how can I reflect the life of women who reinvent seventeen times? Maybe the hem of their pants is being held up with duct tape one day. What about the mom who accidentally locks her keys in the car while she’s got her — which happened to me a thousand times when my kid was little. Just the, I don’t want to say low rent because I lead a vastly privileged life compared to a lot of people, but the financial insecurity of women’s lives is something that’s been really important to me to reflect, and also the precarious nature of identity and just of our existence. That’s been something I wanted to reflect. I’m just so really happy that you’ve been following along because this book is the chronicle of this next place in life which turns out to be not like a Nancy Meyers movie that I saw.

Zibby: This would be a great movie too. The scene with the French — what is his name? I’m forgetting his name, your French boarder in the little shorts.

Annabelle: Jean-Luc.

Zibby: Yeah, Jean-Luc. Of course, it’s Jean-Luc. I should’ve just made that up and I would’ve been right. That whole scene where you take in a boarder, you’re trying to make a little extra money on the side. Your house smells like duck lard and bacon. It’s in your hair. You write in such a visual way, these scenes. You could write woe is me. It could be a sob story, but it’s not. It’s hilarious the way you write it.

Annabelle: Thank you so much. The stories about home sharing, which is something that so many people have been doing even through the pandemic — I think this will last after the pandemic as well. Monetizing your home to underwrite my mortgage after my divorce, that seemed to be the best idea. Of course, the idea of taking in boarders and becoming a landlady, I did have this image in my mind, blousy house dress, cigarette in hand landlady. The funny thing is, I love having people stay in my house. I thought it was going to be horrible. The first story of having someone stay there, the French Jean-Luc who cooked bacon twenty-four hours a day and smoked weed twenty-four hours a day, that story, it just was like, it’s all copy. It just turned into this hilarious misadventure. Even that I found was something that just took me out of my comfort zone. I don’t even regret that one. Of course, I’ve had all these amazing tenets after Jean-Luc’s tenancy. I just couldn’t resist writing about how Jean-Luc, after being a Francophile for so much of my life, how he took from me, my love of all things French, my love of people who are twenty-seven years old, my love of the melancholy — I think I wrote that he taught me that ennui is just another way of saying you’re a bummer to be around. I try to write these stories that actually redeem experiences because complaining would just be too easy. To find the redemption, in a way, I like to think of the writing and the chronicling of stories and adventures as a way of, for myself, finding every silver lining because that’s the only way to survive in life without becoming bitter, which is just so unattractive, sadly.

Zibby: When you include scenes like, for instance, in the beginning when you’re having coffee with a girlfriend and you didn’t know that she was sort of in a financial similar spot as you and you end up clutching each other at the end and really bonding over that, is that the type of thing that you found some humor in it to begin with, or were you really just having a bad day? Are always able to turn it to see the humor? is what I’m trying to ask not very well.

Annabelle: I think it might be a muscle that I have trained to do this. Sometimes things are only funny later. It happens pretty quickly for me. Experiences translate into humor pretty quickly because that is my coping mechanism. It becomes sort of a cliché to say that humor is one of the few things that’s covered on my health insurance plan that I can afford. There’s no deductible for humor. It really is the saving grace for me. This is where I always try to really exercise some detachment in my writing. I’m writing about some really serious things in this book. I am the mother of a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. My kid, Ezra, who uses pronouns they/them/theirs — that’s another chapter in the book, actually. I wrote a chapter called Free to be They and Them which is, of course, a nod to Free to be You and Me which I grew on and loved so much. Learning how to do my pronouns, that was so hard, just so incredibly hard. Then that’s something that even as I was going on that adventure, I saw some humor in that immediately. Dealing with parenting of a child who turns out to have addiction, there’s nothing funny about that. This is one of the most profound experiences. In the writing of the chapter, you’re doing all the right things. Everything’s going to work out. I have to ride this line of, I need to affirm the seriousness of this issue. At the same time, how can I live day to day with this experience without seeing the humor in it?

When I discovered that my kid had a backpack full of film canisters filled with weed, which is the internationally recognized sign of “I’m dealing weed,” how could I not be clocking the humor in the fact that Ezra accidentally texted me instead of their friend with a text that read, “I’m so fucked, baby. Mom just found my weed”? Oh, my god, it is ridiculous. That’s a story that actually I published in The New York Times about after they went to rehab and got sober. I can’t actually write this story if that weren’t the case. That’s true. It would be impossible to see detachment, really, if that weren’t the case. I’m so grateful for that. I wrote the story in The New York Times about not knowing what criteria to base whether they were ready to go back to college on. I came up with the idea that we would do an escape room. We were locked together in a zombie escape room. I didn’t do that for the humor purpose, but the idea that, okay, this is kind of ridiculous, it happens pretty quickly for me. I do hope that my readers will take that journey with me knowing that I am honoring the seriousness of these issues. It would be upsetting if people didn’t think — I take everything so seriously that I have to find the humor because I do spend an awful lot of time suffering over things. If I can make that change and see any silver linings, it really keeps me going. I hope it does the same for readers.

Zibby: A hundred percent. It’s good to use that lens. Humor, as you said, there’s just nothing that can change your mood faster than finding something funny about something terrible. It’s how you can laugh.

Annabelle: Comedians always say, there’s that phrase, too soon. You just wonder. You don’t want to offend people. You want to honor these things. That’s also one of my goals in writing about my financial precariousness and financial insecurity. I feel like that’s something that’s very taboo. For me, that’s what I hope is my sweet spot in writing about just that edge of, can we talk about this? I feel like I’m sort of the anti-Instagram. All my books represent — Instagram is so aspirational. People, not to mention any names, but in their lingerie holding their babies, that does not look like my life. Fantastic for you, but my life is filled with a different kind of thing. I include a chapter in this book about having the MonaLisa procedure which I characterize as having my vagina reupholstered. I did that because I had no idea what this was going to be like to come to my fifties and find things were not working as well as I expected. What could I do about it? I want to just hit those taboo subjects or things that are not getting on the Instagram feeds.

Zibby: The dark Instagram, the dark web or something. Can you go backwards a little bit? I know you said you had like seventeen different careers and all of that. When did you first start writing and realizing that you were good at it or that you enjoyed it or that you wanted to sell it and all of that? When did that start?

Annabelle: Really, my only thing I wanted to do was act growing up. My goal was to appear in off-off-nowhere-near-Broadway shows where you had a pretty good chance with sleeping with the majority of the cast. Now, I attained that goal. It’s actually not that hard to do, as it turned out. I just wanted to act, be an actress. I was so fortunate to have that youthful confidence to move to New York, go to NYU, drop out immediately getting starting work in theater. I had that career. I was on a soap opera for three years. It was funny. One of the things that I think is so strange about the time we live in right now, this pandemic is so isolating. It’s hard to see my own child who’s twenty-two now not have the benefit of the kind of community that I built in my early twenties. That is one of the subjects of this book. Community is, again, one of those things that I think is so important. In lieu of a vacation home, if I have friends — I’ve invested in friendships instead of real estate. Yay, me. I mention that because I’m so excited my book is launching with very dear girlfriends. One of the first events I’m doing is with Marisa Tomei who I actually I met when she was on soap opera and I was on soap opera. There was a lot of comradery in that acting world. That’s something I really loved and thrived on.

That was my first career, as an actress doing theater, TV shows, and eventually, Dinner and a Movie. During that time, I started as a commentator in NPR completely by accident because I had acting in a Harry Shearer, from This is Spinal Tap, movie and mentioned that I was such a fan of NPR and I wanted to be a commentator. They thought, at NPR, that I was writing my dialogue and my copy on Not Necessarily the News on HBO. I was the news anchor. I wasn’t writing it. I didn’t tell them I wasn’t writing this satire. They hired me. I just didn’t correct that misconception. That was my first opportunity as a writer. I just was such a voracious reader. I was reading essays. I was reading S.J. Perelman. I was reading Nora Ephron. I was reading David Rakoff and David Sedaris. I just loved that writing. That’s what I wanted to do. I was so lucky to have that opportunity. That was really when I started writing. Then I ended up being fired by Woody Allen from this play off Broadway and then edited my first book which is a collection of essays about being fired and using humor to rebound from that experience. That really set me off on this path of taking things that were in the cultural zeitgeist. I’m not that interesting. I think what I have is a purview by which to write about the experiences that everyone else goes through. I lead a pretty ordinary life. I’m a mom. I’m a working mom. I’m just using my own experience. I like to say I use memoir to write about my own experience in things that are in the cultural zeitgeist.

The funny thing is when I started writing this book and I subtitled it Adventures in Downward Mobility, I was actually worried that maybe my experience as someone who was experiencing financial insecurity wouldn’t be relatable to my readers. I had no idea. Who could foresee the pandemic and the economic impact and how actually even more timely this would become? By the way, of other careers though, just to say this, it’s so nutty, I am that person who in the early eighties, I was making a line of jewelry in my studio apartment with a hot glue gun taking apart jewelry that my grandmother had given me, combining it with stuff I was buying at thrift stores. I ended up with a line of jewelry at Bergdorf Goodman. I’m just a scrappy Jewish girl, basically. My friend Melanie Mayron from Thirtysomething made up that phrase for us. She had been an actress. Now she’s a director. For some of us, we hit these points in our careers where either we’re not making as much money as we were or also, I have varied interests too. Like a lot of us, we’re having many careers. I like to reflect that in my writing. That’s just some of the careers. I perform. Basically, I’ll sell you my books out of the trunk of my car, which is what I’m going to be doing when my book comes out in March because we don’t have live events. I’m not kidding. Anyone who lives within the range of my house in Los Angeles, I will be masked up with gloves on. Out of the back of my Prius, I’m going to be signing books because, you know, scrappy. We got to be scrappy in this economy.

Zibby: Why not? You might as well. That’s amazing. It’s all just so inspiring because it’s the ultimate making lemonade out of lemons or whatever the expression is. Everything, you turn into entertainment gold. It’s just awesome. It’s just really awesome.

Annabelle: Thank you. It’s just a funny thing because I actually have a lemon tree. I persist in calling the output from my tree a crop. Every year, I have a crop. It’s basically two lemons. I love these lemons. For some reason, it used to grow a lot of fruit. This past year, I got these two lemons. They were each the size of a baby’s head. They were huge, but only two. It’s like the tree stopped producing. It was very stressed like everybody. In 2020, I got two lemons from my lemon tree. It’s still my crop. I harvest my crop. It’s a little ridiculous. If you read my writing, you will know I’m an anxious person. I have to find humor. It’s my really big coping mechanism.

Zibby: I share that gene. I might not be as scrappy. I think you’re a little more flexible than I am, but I definitely share the anxiety gene with you and the desire to have things be funny. Although, I’m not as good at probably turning them into comedy. Now that you have this new book coming out, I just wanted to know, what does your ex-husband think about this?

Annabelle: That’s interesting. I know it might not look this way, but I really try to think a lot about how I portray other people in my books. I think, I hope at least, that what I’ve written here — I had a very specific goal concerning the divorce and the aftermath. I wanted this book to be a reflection on the aftermath of divorce. I’m not actually able to really write about that right now. I don’t have the detachment to write it. Maybe I’ll get to that. I have to have a certain detachment in order to write about something. I tried — you can tell me, Zibby, if I’ve succeeded here. I really tried not to write about the divorce. I didn’t want people to — gosh, I’d love to hear from readers about this. I didn’t want people to hate my ex-husband or think — I just didn’t want to create him as a figure. I don’t find anything redeeming about that. What does that say about me? I think marriage is so challenging. Every marriage, every happy family is happy — what is the Tolstoy quote? Now I’m getting it wrong.

Zibby: All unhappy families are alike. Did I get that right?

Annabelle: Yes. You could say the same thing for marriages. It was important to me to not make him this bad guy, bogeyman character. I’ve tried to really minimize his appearance in the book and just write about how I have moved on or don’t move on, how I struggle to do that because I don’t want you thinking about him. For me, also, the best humor comes from — I always like to take it on the chin myself. I’m the target of my humor, all of my failings, because that’s the only thing I really have control over. I don’t like to set up other people. In terms of that, I mention a few things like the red flags I didn’t see like the fact that my ex wasn’t really keeping up his end in the household chores. Maybe instead of looking at emotional detaching from marriage, we should really look at things like housekeeping as a barometer of a marriage’s health. That’s really my reflection on it. He hasn’t read this book. I don’t know how he’ll feel. I mention that when I was cleaning out my house — it’s so funny. In the TV series Divorce, Sarah Jessica Parker, in the opening scenes of that show, she struggles over whether or not to keep her ex-husband’s golf clubs in the house and throwing out his plaid shirts or whatever like that. I’m often writing in reaction to things that I see. That wasn’t what my experience was. I found love letters that I had sent to my ex and then also nude pictures of myself. I write in the book about what I did in reaction to that. Again, I don’t want to write about him and his actions. It’s what you do with it because it’s just too unattractive. Zibby, what do you think? Am I in trouble? I don’t know.

Zibby: I have an ex-husband, and so my radar is up for what people say. What are people allowed to say and can get away with or can’t? I think maybe I just had a heightened sensitivity to those scenes. When you were talking about how much stuff he left behind and how you — didn’t you send him an envelope full of his nail clippings or whatever you found in your bedside table? You were like, he didn’t really appreciate that. I didn’t get a thank you note back, or something funny.

Annabelle: That was not my finest moment.

Zibby: Yes, that’s what you said.

Annabelle: I included that specifically because, yes, I realized — it’s something I didn’t manage to work into the book, this exact phrase. There’s that phrase, skin in the game. I realized that this dust that I found in his side of the bedside table on his side of the bed, all this dust, I realized, oh, my god, it’s like he shed his skin and he left it in the house. I put it in an envelope. There were also nail clippings. It’s true. Did I send the nude pictures back? I’ll have to reread that.

Zibby: I think you kept the pictures.

Annabelle: Actually, I did keep the pictures. I sent back this dust and nail clippings. I included that because that’s terrible. Nobody should do — it’s a reflection on me that I didn’t just throw it out. My ex never mentioned it. Never acknowledged getting this envelope. It didn’t even say, I think you left this. It was just disgusting. I did do that. I did write it seemed like he had packed an overnight bag and just gone away for the weekend.

Zibby: Left everything else.

Annabelle: Maybe men are different. Maybe my ex was different. Again, I hope it’s the aftermath. It’s not a divorce book. That was really important to me.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to suggest it was.

Annabelle: No, no, no, of course. I know. It’s just interesting because I really labored over that. In the end, what I ended up doing, Zibby, was I went through the book specifically to count how many mentions of him. Then I even took some things out, some of my favorite things. I just felt like, okay, too many mentions. Ultimately, a book is kind of an algorithm of math, of how much attention in — it’s kind of a numbers thing of how much attention I give to each subject. I had even more stories of home sharing, but then I took some of those out because those were going to dominate the book. In some sense, I always look at a book of essays as a puzzle of numbers. There’s this much attention on this subject. It was really fun for me to include — there’s a couple of chapters that are really more big-think chapters. The chapter on resistance to retail therapy, that was a chance for me to write about how women are sold the bra, the bag, the brow, the bath that will change everything. I love to do these cultural essays.

Then there’s a chapter where I skewer all those wish fulfillment fantasy movies about women who were prescribed the island cure or the man cure, these kind of fluffy films. In order to get that stuff in, I have to balance the other stuff. I’m never really convinced I get it right. Writing a book is always going to break your heart. I didn’t realize that before I started writing. There’s always something that doesn’t make it in there. There’s always that wonder, I hope I didn’t portray my ex in any way that is more negative than how I’ve portrayed myself because that’s just not attractive. There’s always some issues that I realize later. Oh, my god, I didn’t get that in there, which is I guess why I keep writing more books. There’s always more stories. It’s like a sunburn. I grew up in Florida. I used to love to peel sunburn. This is so embarrassing. It’s addictive. If you’re sunburnt and then it’s peeling, or paint peeling, I love to peel away layers. It just never ends. I guess that’s why I keep writing books because there’s always more layers that I haven’t gotten to.

Zibby: Maybe I’ll send you some glue or rubber cement because that’s very good for peeling as well.

Annabelle: I love that.

Zibby: I have stockpiles of this for my kids in the next room. If I get to cleaning it out, I’ll send some your way.

Annabelle: Everyone in America cleaned out their closets during the pandemic except me. A chapter in the book is about what you get left with if you’ve been married and your spouse leaves and your kid goes off to college and your parents die. Then my house, as I write in the book, it’s like one of those sediment maps of the crusts of the Earth and all the layers. This is what I’m living with. I’m not sure if I’m ever going to clean out those closets until I move eventually one day. Even this pandemic hasn’t been enough to get me to do the life-changing magic of Marie Kondo.

Zibby: Then they just fill up again anyway, so don’t worry about it. It’s not like everything is done. It’s like losing weight. It’s not like you lose it once and then you don’t have to lose it again. It’s always going to come back. Don’t beat yourself up too much about it.

Annabelle: It’s true. When you also live in a family home, if you have kids, you know, the minute you clear out one space, more stuff just appears.

Zibby: Always more stuff. Crazy. Last question for you. I could listen to you all day, honestly. This is so fun. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Annabelle: Oh, gosh. I teach workshops in writing. I love helping people to develop that voice. I’m just always amazed at people’s reflections on life. First of all, I think that writing is such a great redemptive act. Whether or not you’re published, you’re writing for your family, you’re writing for yourself, it’s a way to reclaim with detachment, your experiences in life. There’s no writing that is lost to have a benefit to yourself. That’s the first thing. I think it’s really important to distinguish between looking for a writing career and just writing. That’s nothing but redemptive to the soul. A writing career is just full of endless challenges. Look, we live in a time with this — opportunities are as big as the worldwide internet, which it might seem like we’ve made it to the end of in this pandemic, but we haven’t. I am just always astonished at coming upon new writing somewhere, whether it’s in a blog, it’s in a book, it’s a magazine. It’s just astonishing.

I really take the words of Katherine Mansfield. There’s a line that she wrote that I think about every day. It guides me as writer. It’s what I look to in other people’s writing. She wrote, “From my life, I write to you in your life.” I think about that line. I think it’s such a profound idea that writing connects us. It’s the connective tissue between our lives. Honestly, in this time where we’re — I’m sheltering alone. Reading other work — I am still a voracious reader. Readers, send me your blogs. I’ll read them. I love it. The way it connects us, I think particularly we’ve seen in this moment how important it is, this human connection and sharing of experience. It’s just so important. It turns out to be the anchor. For me, reading has become even more important now because of the intimacy. In the lack of human contact, reading is just the most intimate act. I feel like if you’re thinking about writing and you have writing, there’s someone out there who needs to read your writing. I’m astonished at our appetite for that and the human need that just only grows greater for human contact and what I really consider, even though I write humor, to be a sacred compact, which is why I love and I invite any readers to tell me things that they relate to or to ask me questions because it’s a conversation. I encourage people to bridge that gap to bring us closer together through writing.

Zibby: I love that. It’s amazing. Annabelle, thank you. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for all of your books. Thank you in particular for this most recent one, You’re Leaving When?: Adventures in Downward Mobility, which was fantastic and gave me a much-needed laugh. I even paragraphs out loud to my husband. I was like, “Listen to how funny this is. But you know, it’s even funnier if you read the whole chapter because it all played off each other until you got to this section.” He was like, whatever. I hope to stay in touch. This was really fantastic.

Annabelle: I love that, Zibby. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Annabelle: Thank you. Can I take a picture of you, a screenshot of you holding up the book?

Zibby: Yes.

Annabelle: One thing. You know what I forgot to include in this book? On my list of things I forgot is that — here’s a red flag I didn’t see that should’ve told me I was headed towards divorce. My husband gave me a copy of a great book. The title is This is Where I Leave You.

Zibby: Wait, I have that book.

Annabelle: Who is that by? I forget. Jonathan Tropper. He gave me a copy of Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You.

Zibby: It’s good. It’s about the shiva, right? It’s the one about the shiva?

Annabelle: Yes.

Zibby: It’s actually very good. Did you read it?

Annabelle: It’s a great book, but I should’ve thought about that.

Zibby: That’s really funny. That is really funny.

Annabelle: I know. I missed that line. I’m going to have to write another book. There’s just no way around it.

Zibby: Next line. Maybe then you’ll be ready for a divorce book or something.

Annabelle: Yeah. Let me get my little screenshot-y thing going because I’m terrible at this. Oh, thank you. Great. I’ll take an extra just to be safe. Yay! Wait, shoot, I missed your — I really suck. I am not crafty. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Of course. Awesome. Thank you. Have a great day.

Annabelle: Thanks. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Annabelle Gurwitch, YOU'RE LEAVING WHEN?

You’re Leaving When? by Annabelle Gurwitch

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