Anna Solomon, THE BOOK OF V.

Anna Solomon, THE BOOK OF V.

Zibby Owens: I had the privilege of interviewing author Anna Solomon on the Good Morning America Book Club Instagram Live account. Her book, The Book of V., was the GMA Book Club pick for the month of May. I got to interview her there. This is the recording of our live Instagram conversation. If you want, you can also watch us talk if this isn’t good enough. Anna Solomon is the author of three novels, The Book of V., which I mentioned, Leaving Lucy Pear, and The Little Bride. She’s a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize. Her short fiction essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, One Story, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere. She’s the recipient of awards from MacDowell, Yaddo, Bread Loaf, the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, and The Missouri Review, among many others. Previously, she was an award-winning journalist for National Public Radio’s Living on Earth. Anna is a graduate of Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and teaches writing at Barnard College, Warren Wilson’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center. Anna was raised in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and two children. I hope you enjoy our talk together. Bye.

Anna Solomon: Hi, how are you?

Zibby: Good. How are you?

Anna: I’m good. You’re amazing. I was like, how can you keep all of this in your head? If I held up twenty books that I had read recently, I would just be like, and this one was really good. Just incredible that you can hold all of that.

Zibby: I can’t remember college, but all these books are crisp in my head.

Anna: That’s a gift.

Zibby: Yeah, I guess. At least I found this one arcane piece of knowledge that I can exploit these days, so that’s nice. Speaking of gifts of knowledge, though, oh, my gosh, your book, there’s so many interesting things in your book. First of all, can you please tell everybody listening to this eventual podcast and everybody on GMA Book Club what The Book of V. is about? What inspired you to write it?

Anna: Yes, I would love to. This is the final cover, I’ll just hold it up, with that beautiful GMA seal on it which made me have to keep it covered for the week in which I got it first. I’m very excited. The book is about three different women spread out across three different centuries. There is a contemporary mother of two in Brooklyn, New York, in 2016. There is a US senator’s wife in 1973, Washington DC. Then there’s a teenage Esther in ancient Persia. You might recognize the name Esther. She is, in fact, Esther as in Queen Esther from the Bible. The book intertwines their stories. Their stories intertwine, and as it goes, you start to see them converge until ultimately collide in the present, which — go ahead.

Zibby: I was just going to say, I felt kind of like a moron because at the end I did not see how those were all intersecting. I just didn’t. I was like, oh, my gosh, of course.

Anna: Oh, good. That’s what I wanted to have happen for readers, those aha moments.

Zibby: Oh, phew. Okay.

Anna: There are a couple places in the book that different people have, it turns out, experienced them. You might be one of the people who experiences it a little later than other people, but as long as you experience it, that was the goal.

Zibby: I hope I wasn’t one of the slowest people to catch on. I was sitting reading it while the kids were watching Paw Patrol. Literally, out loud, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, wait. No, no, no, wait.”

Anna: Yay! That’s a feeling that I love as a reader. Producing that feeling in my readers is really a joy.

Zibby: This story, it’s complicated and intricate, in only a good way. By interweaving three different stories first of all, and even within those stories, the complications, how did you go about structuring it and writing it and not getting confused yourself and then figuring out when to do what? It’s an art form, really. How did you do that?

Anna: Thank you. It was a challenge. It really was. At times, it felt like I’m making a building. I felt like an architect. Then at other times, I was like, this is more like I’m making a symphony like a composer. I’m neither an architect, nor a composer, nor do I know much about either thing. I am a very structural thinker. I think the only way I could’ve written this book or even conceived of it is because of that. I use a lot of index cards. That’s one of my big organizational tools, very basic. Every single scene was an index card. Then I had them color coded at various times. Then I would put them up in my workspace so that I could see how they were relating to each other. I actually did it part by part to break it down further because the book’s in three parts. There are three women, but then there are three parts to the book. For each part, I had, this is going to be this scene, then this one, then this one, and this one. They’re going to weave like this. Then I would put in the different objects and themes and gestures that I had running through the book. I would attach them to those cards because then it helped me to see it visually instead of just — you can’t hold a whole novel in your head, even a slim novel, and this is not one. This is a big, ranging novel. Still, you can’t hold it in your head. Finding ways to be able to visualize pieces of it at a time was really helpful.

Zibby: Wow. Still though, all the index cards in the world, it’s an enormous feat. Could we talk about the Esther portion? Did you research all that? What of that is recorded? What did you glean from the Bible? How much of that is actually what happened? I only know the, let’s dress up for the Purim carnival version, not this version.

Anna: This is my version. The thing is that nobody knows what happened. When you go to do the research, which I did — I read an incredible amount in the Book of Esther itself, but also about it. For thousands of years, people have, as with anything from the Bible, people have been writing about it, arguing about it, reinterpreting it, creating new stories about it. I just was joining this long line of people doing that. One of the things I figured out very early was that no one knew what was going on at this time in terms of that this was based in any fact. No one has any idea who wrote this book or when. Some people theorize that a Greek person could’ve written this hundreds of years later. There’s really very little information. What’s so interesting when you talk about, what’s the record? the only record when you do the research, it all drives you back to the Book of Esther. A lot of people, when they’re looking at, what happened in ancient Persia? their source is actually the Book of Esther, which is, in my mind and in many people’s mind, a work of fiction itself. There are people who would argue with me about that, obviously, and people who take it in a much more fundamental sense, like, this is what really happened. I took it very much in that spirit. I played with it in that spirit and reinterpreted it in that way.

Zibby: Interesting. First of all, I have a new perspective on that whole story. Second of all, I have a new perspective on all the kids even dressing up as Esther. What about Queen Vashti? The whole thing is just — I don’t know. You’ve completely boggled my mind here on this.

Anna: I’m glad. The book is sort of subversive in that way. This story, if you know it — you don’t have to know the Book of Esther at all to get this book, to get my novel. I think the idea is that we, whether it’s this story or another, we all have had these stories we’ve been told in our lives about, this person’s good and this person’s bad. A lot of stories are made up of that, evil, and who’s the virtuous woman? Who is the wanton woman? Who is the aggressive woman? Who’s the meek woman? This is a story that I think, like many of us are told in a way, where those are very clear lines. I was really interested in shaking that up and saying, how do we know this? If we really look at what happened, does this ring true? Aren’t all of us sort of some of both? Aren’t there many women inside every one of us? Maybe we could do better to stop with these kind of categories that we tend to place ourselves and other women in. At its heart, that’s a real subject of the book. I don’t write in a polemical sense like I have an argument to make in my novels, but if I had to say one thing I’m arguing in this novel, it is against categorization and type of woman and embracing us all as whole and multifaceted.

Zibby: Interesting. I feel like there’s also something to women’s relationship with men in the story. There was so much dominance and sexual abuse and exploitation throughout all three parts of the book, really. What points were you trying to make with that? What made you include all of it?

Anna: I think that was more of an exploration, in a way. The book really is about power on a lot of levels, and I think at its core about gendered power and about the ways in which women historically, and it turns out right now all the time, are working to figure out how to possess our own power, and then in some cases how to exert it, and in some cases where women are in fact not in control of their own lives, how they, even in those circumstances, find ways to have power or to figure out how to be in charge of their own story. The book is very much about women in relationship to men, finding a way to tell their own narrative, to take charge of it. It’s interesting because I started writing this book before the last election and before the Me Too movement and in a moment that felt to a lot of people kind of post-feminist, like in the opts. It was sort of like, oh, we’re all past that now. We all knew that that wasn’t true. It was interesting writing it. There were parts of it, I was like, will people buy this? Will this feel relevant? Then it turned out, oh, yes, people really do buy this. I don’t think you have to argue for it in that way. It is about men in powerful positions who don’t necessarily — there’s not really a reason for them to be in those positions in what they do with their power.

Zibby: I was particularly interested in V’s character and how she navigated — it was so brilliant how you set that in the context of her being a senator’s wife and the power that comes with the government attached to you as well, but also, as you were saying, how she takes the power back. Even something as simple as taking off her buttons or what she ends up doing later, not to give anything away, but even how she spends her time while she’s staying with her friend later and that she makes these decisions with her own sexuality to try to make a stand I thought was really interesting.

Anna: Most of them aren’t conscious. It’s not like she’s like, I will make a stand. She’s sort of floundering. We watch her try to navigate that. Most of it’s pretty messy.

Zibby: The book, it’s still a little bit dark. The women are just wrestling with this stuff over and over like they’re in the dryer. Do you know what I mean? Centuries after centuries and trying to figure their way out of it. What can we do at the end of it? Is it inspiring? Should we all feel good? Should I get rid of all my buttons and just say, forget it?

Anna: Oh, my god. First of all, did you say in the dryer?

Zibby: Yeah.

Anna: I love that. I’ve never heard that, but it so makes sense. It’s also so relevant to this book where there’s so much laundry happening.

Zibby: I have been doing so much laundry lately that literally my life is in housework metaphors at the moment in quarantine. Sorry about that, but yes.

Anna: No, it fits the book really well because the book is kind of obsessed with housework and housekeeping. I don’t know if you’re familiar — I have this whole Instagram called Unkempt that’s all about domestic chaos. You should go check it out.

Zibby: I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I thought I researched everything about you. I’m so sorry.

Anna: No, no, no. It’s all pictures of the mess in women’s homes and piles of laundry, literally. You’ll love it. Go take a look.

Zibby: Thank you. That will make me feel a lot better. I appreciate that.

Anna: It will. It makes everybody feel better. Actually, that’s sort of tied to, what’s the lesson? I definitely don’t write toward a lesson, but I hope that it — first of all, I feel like there’s a lot of life and light in the book in the sense of the humor and narrative. There’s a consistent narrator even though we’re shifting between these different women. That narrator really does have a wry sense of humor and can comment from kind of outside of the morass or the neurosis. I do feel like where it leads us is toward connection with other women and toward the power of female friendship, the power of mothers and daughters and those relationships, and our grandmothers, and the way in which we are tied to these women. Whether or not those relationships are easy, they are just fundamental to us and to who we are and to the stories that we’re beginning to tell to people after us. This book is dedicated both to my mother, but also to my twelve-year-old daughter. It feels to me very much a book in that way. That is something that inspired me while I was writing it. It felt like it was toward connection.

Zibby: I feel like Lily’s relationship to her mother, especially as she’s sick in the hospital, is the perfect analysis, really, of what it means to be an adult and deal with your mother’s demise, in a way, and that relationship and the things that weren’t said and the things that were said and expectations and disappointments. You took all of the therapy room stuff and just splattered it in the book.

Anna: I really wanted to get into the thick of that mother-daughter thing. It was a challenge to do it on an emotional level. Then it was also pretty cathartic. It felt like I’m getting at the truth of something here in a way that I don’t — even though I’ve written about mothers and daughters before, I don’t think I’ve ever done it quite like this and with this level of — and also this kind of arc that you travel on with Lily in terms of coming to terms to her relationship with her mother, which makes it a great book for Mother’s Day.

Zibby: Exactly. Has your mother read this book?

Anna: My mother has read this book, yeah. She says she loves it. No, she does love it. She is actually a huge champion of my work and someone who’s been very tolerant when she shows up in my work, which hasn’t been so obvious until this book. The Lily character is much closer to myself than I’ve ever written before, down to the fact that the sampler that appears in the book that says, “A well-kept house is a sign of an ill-spent life,” that sampler was in my bathroom growing up. My mother framed that. There’s definitely more — I said to her, I was like, “You don’t have to read this. You will find yourself here. I’m not going to pretend that you’re not here and that some of our stuff isn’t in here.” I’m very different from Lily too. I have a career, which is a huge difference between me and Lily. She has read it. She’s incredibly supportive. She writes herself, and so she knows what it takes.

Zibby: The part of the Lily character that’s most like you, did that involve the struggles with the toddler to get the shoes on and out the door? Is that a total morning in your life?

Anna: Yes, completely, lots of times. Yes, absolutely. Also, for those couple years, we were living in a building in New York where our washing machines were in the basement, not ours, the building’s. I would just forget the — we all forget laundry. If it’s in your apartment, it’s one thing. If it’s in the basement — I would get reminded again by the super. I would feel so ashamed. Then I would also feel so frustrated that I had to keep it all my head. Yes, I definitely drew on that for Lily.

Zibby: Did your kids’ school actually charge you if you were late?

Anna: No, I made that up.

Zibby: Okay, phew. I was like, oh, my gosh, what school is this? Is that what happens in Park Slope? I don’t know.

Anna: Well, it could, which is why I felt comfortable doing it.

Zibby: It could have, oh, my gosh, wow. What about your daughter? She hasn’t read this, has she? Maybe she has.

Anna: She has not. She’s not old enough. I will say that when I first got the galleys in our apartment in Brooklyn, I was doing something and I suddenly heard her. She was in the bathroom. I heard her say, “Mom, this senator is a real jerk.” She had snuck it without my seeing into the bathroom and had been reading the first opening chapters. I was like, what is she talking about? Then I was like, oh, my god. I was like, “No, no, no, you shouldn’t read that.” She’s in middle school. It’s not like she completely oblivious. She’s also growing up in a moment, for better or worse, where she’s actually really conscious of a lot of things that I wasn’t when I was her age in terms of things that go on in terms of men and women. She’s not ready to read the book, but she has a sense of it. She knows it’s dedicated to her.

Zibby: One of my four kids is an almost-thirteen-year-old. I have a twelve-year-old daughter also. I’ve kept her pretty shielded about some of the stuff going on in the news with the men and the women. I don’t know. I haven’t been ready to go there.

Anna: I’ve kept her shielded, but somehow, from other sources, it’s just like…

Zibby: It seeps in.

Anna: I feel like a lot of her influences at this point come from her friends as much as from us. That’s been a real shift in the last year or two where it’s like, oh, right, you’re going to learn about things that were not the things we wanted you to know. We ready to talk about them.

Zibby: My daughter seems to be getting all her information from the ten YouTubers she follows, which I didn’t used to allow. Now I’m like, all bets are off. Great new hairstyle, thanks YouTuber. Tell me a little more about where you wrote the book, your process, I know you said the notecards and all the rest of it, how long start to finish this took, and where you actually — paint me a picture of where you were writing it.

Anna: We had lived in Rhode Island for a few years. Then we moved back to Brooklyn. I think I was pretty much already back in Brooklyn which means that I no longer had an office at my home and that I was writing at the Brooklyn Writers Space, which is where I write. I mean, not during this pandemic, obviously, because it’s closed. It’s a shared workspace. It’s a totally silent workspace. There’s no sound allowed. Your phone can’t buzz, etc. You pick a different cubicle each day. The walls, you can put pins in them, so I was able to do my index card thing there. It was interesting because at first, I was very frustrated because I had to put my index cards back up every day and take them down.

Zibby: That’s a pain.

Anna: The gift in that, it turned out, was that I noticed them every day and I dealt with them every day. Whereas in my office in Providence where I had had my little garret, I would just sort of stop seeing it because it was always up. I try in my process — it changes depending on my kids’ ages, depending on our living situation. I try to find the bright spots in the different requirements that are in the different challenges that come along. It’s like, drop the kids off at school and go to the Writers Space. I try to keep the mornings really as my writing time. I use the Freedom app to block the internet. I don’t check email. I don’t go on any kind of anything. That’s my time for drafting, creating. Then the afternoon, I do other work. I freelance and I teach, like most writers. Sometimes when that’s slow, I’ll come back to it in the afternoon for revision or to do research. I try to not research in the mornings because it’s always so much easier than writing, and it will just keep me from the writing. If I go google something, I’m like, this is so much more fun than writing that dialogue.

Zibby: I need that Freedom app that you mentioned. I want to push that button now for my life.

Anna: It’s so great. It’s actually very scary when you first do it. I’m a very disciplined person, generally. I’d always had no trouble just not going on those things. Then after the election in 2016, I was like, oh, my god, I can’t stop. It was like a sickness. The first couple days that I put the app on, it actually felt like I was an addict. It was like rehab and I was jonesing, like, oh, my god, I just want a hit, I just want a hit. Then it’s like I got trained out of it. It was so much better. It’s not like I don’t do those things, but just to have that window where you’re protecting yourself and you’re ruthless about it, I feel like it saved me.

Zibby: Wow, such a nice thought to be able to drop your kids at school and go work. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Anna: Isn’t it? Doesn’t it feel like some fantasy now, the idea that we could even do that? It’s amazing to me how quickly it seemed impossible. It only took a week or two before being like, oh, we did that once upon a time? Let alone walked into a café and sat down. It’s so weird how quickly psychologically it begins to feel like a whole other life.

Zibby: Totally, one that I hope we get back to. Not the school, necessarily, that’s shot for a while, but at least being around other people.

Anna: I know. Camp would be nice.

Zibby: Camp would be nice.

Anna: I think that’s probably not happening either. It’s wild. It’s hard to fathom. It continues to be hard to fathom.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, one day at a time. Can’t look too far ahead.

Anna: I’m right there with you.

Zibby: What was it like finding out you were the GMA Book Club pick?

Anna: Totally thrilling. I was shocked, honestly, just shocked. Who wouldn’t be shocked by that? You’d have to be a crazy person to not be shocked. I was just like, are you kidding? This is amazing just to have that sense of embrace from, especially, a show that reaches so many people all around the country and all different kinds of people and not all people in my little literary circle, but just to open it up in that way. To have such a feminist book embraced by Good Morning America was also really exciting to me. I’m just thrilled by it and a little bit overwhelmed.

Zibby: Congratulations on that. That’s so cool. What’s next for you? Are you working on a new project? Are you just going to focus on publicity? which is fine, not to say you need to be doing any more than that. You don’t need to be doing a thing.

Anna: I have a new novel cooking. I was actually waking up early — a month ago, I was making progress every day, just even an hour. That was so great to be in it. I have turned, right now, to this book and seeing it out into the world. It feels important to do that. As soon as I can, I’ll get back to that, even if it’s just that hour a day. I find even if it’s a little bit of time I’m working on it each day, then it’s still in my consciousness in the rest of the time and things will filter through. That’s the most important thing to me, is the regularity. I’ll get there. It’s too early to talk about it yet. I think it’s set a little bit in the future. It’s not sci-fi or anything, but it’s set maybe a decade from now.

Zibby: I’m interested to hear what’s going to happen a decade from now. That’s interesting.

Anna: Me too. That’s the other thing. Once the pandemic happened, I was like, oh, huh, I might have less of an idea than I even thought I did about what’s going to happen. Definitely, part of me is like, I should probably wait and see what’s happening here. I’ll just keep developing my characters. I’m sure the plot, as always, will change.

Zibby: I loved, by the way, your LA Times quarantine diary where we got to see what you were doing every day. That was so neat too. You’re out there basically camping or trying to do whatever with your kids. I’m like, oh, my gosh, at least I’m not the only one trying to get on Zooms.

Anna: Making a raft.

Zibby: Yeah, a raft. Right, a raft, that’s what it was.

Anna: It was actually really cathartic to write that. It was such a gift to be allowed to write it just to make sense, as we do as writers, of the chaos in a form of the diary. There was a very funny — I think I put it — I’ll send it to you. There was a Google Alert, did you see this, that I posted a while ago? The top said, “Kate Hudson reports that quarantining with her boyfriend is the best sex she’s ever had.” Then the next line was, “Anna Solomon is building rafts with her son, and her novel’s not on tour.” It was just the funniest. They were listed as if they were in relationship to each other. I was like, this says all of it, me and Kate Hudson, her reality and mine.

Zibby: Do you think that’s really her reality?

Anna: No, of course not.

Zibby: Great if that’s her reality, fantastic. Why not?

Anna: Totally. We are all happy.

Zibby: We are all happy, yes.

Anna: It was so funny, though, when I saw it. I was like, oh, my god, if you really read these in a row, this is hilarious, just hilarious. I’ll send it to you.

Zibby: The juxtaposition of glamor and reality. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Anna: Yes. Obviously, people are in different stages in their writing. Maybe some are already in a career and others aren’t. To me, the things that feel the most important to say is write and write and write and write. Try to focus on the writing at this point and not the career part. Let yourself do that work. It takes years for most people, if not decades, to get to where they should be thinking about, can I find an agent? Should I get published? It’s a muscle, the writing muscle. The other thing is read. I know people will say, I don’t want to be influenced too much by — no, no, no, you do want to be influenced. This is how we learn to write, is by reading. So read and read and read. Pay attention as a writer. Learn to read as a writer. The thing that you loved about this book as a reader, go back to it. Figure out what the writer’s doing. Oh, huh, this is how you set up a plot in this way. Oh, that’s interesting, if you bring an object in in that way, you can move a scene along, or all the things that you can learn from what other writers have done. Don’t be shy about it. Myself and many writers I know, when I’m in a moment where I’m like, how do I move someone across the room again? I turn to the books I love. That’s not plagiarizing. That’s just craft. That’s like, oh, right, here are possible ways to do this. I remember now.

Zibby: Anna Solomon talks plagiarism tactics on GMA Book Club. News at five.

Anna: Please tune in tomorrow for her arrest.

Zibby: Anna, thank you so much for doing this interview. This will be on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for doing it through the GMA Book Club Instagram. How great that this worked out. I’m sorry I had to reschedule, but this is even better.

Anna: It’s perfect. Thank you so much. Thank you for everything and just all of what you’re bringing to the literary community with my book and others.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure.

Anna: I’ll send you that link.

Zibby: Hopefully, I’ll see you in — yes, send me the link. I’m going to go check out Unkempt as well.

Anna: Please do. It’s Unkempt Real Life. Bye.

Zibby: Unkempt Real Life, okay, I’m there. Bye, Anna. Thank you.

Anna Solomon, THE BOOK OF V.