Ashley Audrain, The Whispers

Ashley Audrain, The Whispers

Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling author Ashley Audrain about The Whispers, an electrifying, razor-sharp page-turner about four neighboring women who don’t realize how connected they are until an unthinkable tragedy happens on their street. Ashley talks about motherhood, parenting, women’s friendships, pregnancy loss, grief, and anger as they relate to her fascinating characters. She also reveals that she is working on her next book and shares her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ashley. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Whispers, which, as I was just telling you, I have not been able to put down. I’ve been carrying into around, into cars, out of cars. “Don’t talk to me right now” kind of book. Thank you.

Ashley Audrain: Thanks, Zibby. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course. Tell listeners what The Whispers is about.

Ashley: The Whispers is about four neighboring women who live on Harlow Street. They don’t quite realize the ways in which their lives are connected until there’s a tragedy that happens one night on the street. That tragedy acts as the thread that’s pulled. All of the women’s lives unravel in different ways. They’re forced to face secrets they’ve long kept. They’re forced to face the whispers they have long ignored in their lives and realize ways in which they are indeed quite connected.

Zibby: So interesting. I’ve been shocked a couple times.

Ashley: Good. That’s good.

Zibby: Not to mention the one — I don’t want to give anything away. The whole situation on the bed, I was like, no, this is not happening. Stop. Then I was like, where is Ashley coming up with this?

Ashley: Yes, that is a scene.

Zibby: Maybe this is your deepest, darkest secrets coming to haunt us all.

Ashley: I know. I was joking with my friends that nobody will ever let me house sit for them again, I’m sure, but that’s okay.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. There’s so much to discuss about this book. There are so many takes on motherhood. I feel like all of this is like a, not a referendum, but some sort of exploration of different types of motherhood and what it takes. Are you the type of mom who wants everything to look good but not be there? Do you want to devote yourself completely a hundred percent and lose another part of yourself? Is it to your kid’s advantage or not? That’s the other thing. Are we all doing our kids a service, or are we hurting them with our parenting? Maybe just start with mothering in general, parenting in general, and what you were hoping to tease out with some of these narratives.

Ashley: I did sort of want to, especially with the characters — we hear from the perspective of four women, I should say, in the book. Three of them are women in midlife. One of them is an eighty-year-old neighbor watching it all go down. Two of these women in particular who we hear from, Blair and Whitney, are polar opposites when it comes to mothering and parenting. I had so much fun writing them. They are best friends connected through their children. I think that’s such an interesting relationship, the mom friend. So often, we become friends with women who maybe we would not normally in any other circumstance, but we’re connected through our kids because they’re in the same year at school. In this case, they live across the street from each other and become quite close. We talk about different kinds of parents and different kinds of mothers. So often, I think we learn about ourselves as mothers in the reflection of other people. We sort of mother in relation to each other a lot. I don’t know if you’ve found that with your kids. So often, you’ll look at another mom, and you’ll admire something so much about the way that she mothers or the way she is with her kid or the decision she’s made. It really makes you look at your own life and think, am I — it’s a lot of comparison. Am I measuring up to that? Maybe you’ve made completely different decisions. That’s also a reflection to kind of stop and think why we’ve made the decisions we have as parents.

These two women, they’re really at the opposite ends. We have Blair, who gave up everything in her life, basically, by choice, willingly, happily, to stay home and raise her daughter. She was quite satisfied by that for a long time until she hit this midlife point. Her daughter’s a little older. She’s feeling less needed and taking a look around and thinking, what do I have left? How did I get here? Who really am I? What am I going to do about that? Then we have Whitney across the street who has three kids and really can honestly say she does not love being a mother. She would rather stay at the office late to prep for a presentation the next day than to go home and deal with bedtime and bath time and all of that. I think they’re such an interesting pair. Whitney will often say, she says in the book, sometimes I just want to be with Blair because it helps me think about my children. It helps me feel more maternal. Then vice versa, we hear Blair want to be with Whitney because she’s just craving something else. She thinks Whitney’s so interesting and has so much going on in her life. They sort of act as a foil to one another in terms of their mothering.

Zibby: I think Whitney keeps Blair around just to make her feel better. Blair is always pumping her up. She’s the one you need to get encouragement when really, she doesn’t even deserve the encouragement. Not that we don’t all deserve encouragement. Then you have Rebecca, who I think might be my favorite. Not that I’m supposed to pick favorites. Rebecca is trying-ish, has been trying, has been having a really hard time with miscarrying babies and just mourning and longing and going through that whole thing but also pushing her body to the limits as a doctor and going to the edge of sleep over and over. There was one moment when she had to splash cold water on her face just to be able to work through the tiredness and all of that. Yet she is the one taking care of everybody else. That gives us a view into what’s happening with Xavier. I kind of loved Rebecca’s view on everything. Tell me a little bit more about creating her character.

Ashley: I’ve heard from a lot of people that Rebecca is their favorite. She’s the woman who lives on the street who does not have a child. As you said, she is desperate to have a child of her own. She can get pregnant quite quickly, but she experiences pregnancy loss. She’s had this historical pregnancy loss over and over. It was a bit cruel to give Rebecca this profession that she has and also suffer from what she does in her health because she goes to work every day saving other people’s children. She’s a physician in an emergency room at a children’s hospital. That is what she does every day, look after other people, other people children, and yet can’t have this experience herself. I’ve also been a little bit fascinated by physicians, by health care professionals and doctors. I know you’re nodding along. I think it’s probably because our minds work in completely different ways. Her everyday and her natural way of thinking is guided by reason and what is rational and fact and answers to questions. She is a scientist. Yet for her own health problem, she sits across the table from a doctor who says, well, sorry, we just don’t have any answers. We know that women’s reproductive health is hugely underfunded and under-researched. That’s the reality for many women. They don’t get answers. The advice is to hold onto hope. Hope for a miracle.

That’s not Rebecca’s way of thinking. That is not how she has spent her thirty-eight years on earth. She’s facing that particular challenge. I had a lot of discussions with editors and whatnot about how much of this pregnancy loss to put on the page. She’s kind of recounting these pregnancy losses that she’s had in the past. It’s so interesting. I had miscarriages when I was having my children. I remember after, being stunned by how truly foreign that experience was. It occurred to me that the specifics of it, we do not share. You do not see it on the page. You definitely do not see it on screen. It’s this thing that happens that we very much just skip over to the next scene, the next chapter. I think we do that because miscarriage, to me, is one of those things that makes other people uncomfortable. As women, we silence ourselves about it. We don’t share about it. I just wanted to put a bit more of what that really feels like on the page with Rebecca recounting what that’s been like. That was important to me with her character in this book.

Zibby: That absolutely came through. I’m sorry about your own miscarriages and the pain and the loss and the visual stuff and the body stuff and all of it. When she buried the fetus, oh, my gosh. It’s tough to read because it’s obviously so real and comes from such a place of understanding and empathy and all of that, but just bereft. It happens all the time.

Ashley: It does. The other thing with Rebecca is, I think that unless you’ve been through it, you might not realize how completely all-consuming it is, and we get to see that through Rebecca. She has to go to work every day. She has to function. She’s trying to have this family. She’s trying to do all these things, her marriage, everything. She just cannot stop thinking about it. Her mind is stuck there. I think for a lot of women, that’s exactly how it feels. You sort of move through your day going through the motions, but all you’re thinking about is how much you wish you were still pregnant or when you can get pregnant next or watching the calendar, counting the days. That’s such a reality for women.

Zibby: You brought up in the book, too, this three-month code of silence. It actually makes it so hard. Before three months, we don’t tell anybody. Then when you lose the baby and people are like, “How are you?” you have to be like, “I’m fine, but yesterday, I was pregnant. Today, I’m not pregnant. I can’t tell you any of this.” There’s immediately a wall that goes up. You can’t be intimate, really, with anybody because you’re always hiding secrets.

Ashley: It’s a strange thing, isn’t it? It’s a strange thing that we’ve arrived at this. We’ve been in this place for a long time in society and culture where you just don’t talk about it for three months. That rules comes from this place where, well, you might lose the baby, and then what? The answer is, and then everyone around you feels uncomfortable. Then everyone doesn’t know what to say. There’s such a disconnect there between — we uphold that so strongly still. It’s so interesting. Sometimes people will tell you they’re pregnant before three months. You sort of go, ooh. You feel worried for them. It’s such a strange thing that we have not got past. We have not evolved with that for some reason.

Zibby: Also, this instinct to protect ourselves from pain, but it doesn’t work. That doesn’t work. It’s not like you’re like, oh, yeah, okay, it’s before three months, it doesn’t hurt then because I knew it was coming. Anyway, whatever.

Ashley: In fact, it’s even more painful because you are grieving, and nobody knows. You can’t share that with anyone.

Zibby: That’s only one small part of this whole big story. When I think back on The Push, your last book, and this book, there is this undercurrent of the out-of-control feeling that every parent feels at times, this frustration and where the mind goes, to the worst. What if you just lost that last bit of control when you’re angry or upset? What if you go too far? Then what? You show it in the book. Of course, you love your kids. Everybody loves your kids, but everyone has those breaking-point moments. I would say ninety-nine percent of people reel themselves right back and be like, gosh, really got angry there. I’m glad they went to school. Glad nobody saw me. When I was reading this book — I have a neighbor across the hall. I was like, oh, my gosh, does she hear me screaming when the kids are five minutes late? Get in the car! It’s so embarrassing. Then you just have to pack up and move on. You explore that instinct and the most generous with the most hurtful. Talk a little bit about that.

Ashley: Thanks for that. Yes, it’s exactly what you said. We’ve all experienced that. I think that we live so much more of our lives as mothers in that space of being on the brink than we would all like to. We’ve all had that experience of yelling at our kids and then turning around and being like, god, someone’s standing a little too close, and they definitely heard that, or the neighbors being in the backyard having dinner and you realizing, oh, god, the door’s open. I’m yelling at everyone to wash their hands or whatever. It’s so interesting to me. That feels like such a bare exposure. You might as well be standing naked in front of these people after someone hears you get angry. I think we still feel such shame as women around anger. That starts so young. I have a daughter who’s five. I catch myself all the time, when she’s angry, when she’s mad, when she just wants to throw things, trying to temper her. There’s this real uncomfortability around it and this whole message of being a good girl that we don’t necessarily give our sons. We don’t necessarily act the same way with our sons. It starts so young, this shame and embarrassment around anger.

For so much of this book, I was revising during the pandemic. We all know that was a disastrous time for so many of us for so many different reasons and in different ways. I think for a lot of us that had little kids at home, which I know you did too, anger was a daily thing, rage, anger, frustration. It was at the world at large and circumstance out of our control and then trickle down to trying to do a math problem with our kids or trying to get them to sit in front of a Zoom for school. That was really a conversation that I was having every single day with my friends at that time. Why am I so angry? Why am I so mad? Where are my patience? A lot of that has sort of come out in Whitney’s character as I was thinking a lot about this at that time. We were all feeling it. Whitney certainly struggles with that. She has one son in particular who is very triggering for her. He’s like this match that gets lit under her. It’s almost like everything he does irritates her to a level that’s heightened beyond from her other two kids. As you said, hopefully, most of the time, 99.9 percent of the time, we walk ourselves back. We can talk ourselves out of it. Whitney is someone who has a really hard time doing that, a really hard time coping with what to do with that anger. That becomes the inciting incident in the book. Then we see it throughout these times when she just has to really cope with how this feels and what that says about her and the self-reflection she does because of that.

Zibby: I think we’re also all so highly attuned to when we hear other moms do it because every so often, we do hear something that pushes the boundary a little. I remember seeing a mom yell at her daughter in one of my kid’s classes on the street. I was like, ooh, but that’s a little too much. There was physical stuff involved. This is more than just, we’re angry, and we’re late. Then what do you do? I don’t know. I’m not going to interfere. I barely know this woman. You’re unsettled. Here you are in the community. You see something. It’s like, maybe this isn’t okay.

Ashley: Maybe it isn’t okay. Exactly. I think we’ve all had that too where we’ve heard something or witnessed something. We’ve gone home, and it has not sat right. We don’t feel good about it. It doesn’t mean we don’t have empathy for that mother. We all do. We all know. That’s actually really what Blair struggles with in the book with Whitney. She has almost seen too much. She knows a little too much. She’s uncomfortable with it. Yet there’s this power imbalance in their relationship where Whitney is the stronger, more confident, cooler mom, and Blair doesn’t have nearly as much confidence as her even though she feels like a more capable mother. There’s this power imbalance where Blair would never feel like she could call out Whitney on her behavior because it would ruin too much. There’s too much at stake in that relationship between them. Yet we see how Blair, throughout the book, is pushed to really have to confront this. What is she going to say? What is she not going to say? What do they rely on each other for? Whitney also sort of knows that Blair’s not bold enough to say anything, so what secrets can be safe with her? That part of their friendship was really interesting to write about too.

Zibby: Then we have Mara, who I also found really interesting. Your description of how her mothering with her son — I’m forgetting her son’s name. What was her son’s name again? Marcus. Marcus?

Ashley: Marcus, yeah.

Zibby: Her son Marcus and his autism — we don’t know what it is, unless it comes out later. I told you I have a couple pages left to go. She has to stay glued to him his whole life, and his descent and how at one point she asks her husband Albert, we need to spend some money on a specialist. There might be something wrong. That was such a big deal. So many people just take it for granted that when their kids start going off the rails, there will be help around. What if there’s not? For so long, there wasn’t even good childhood mental health stuff available. Tell me a little bit more about Mara and the old neighborhood into the new and her own stuff that happens to her.

Ashley: Mara is the character probably closest to my heart just in terms of writing her story. A couple things about her. Yes, her son Marcus has selective mutism, which actually is an anxiety disorder. He will not speak unless he’s in a very comfortable situation, and that is only with his mother. He won’t speak around her father. He won’t speak at school. He won’t speak to anybody else. He freezes up and has this great anxiety and can’t function like another child his age. She really feels like this great protector of him. She is the champion of him. She is the only one who is going to ensure his well-being. She knows her husband is never going to have a relationship with him because of the judgement that he cannot shake. I wanted to write about just how hard that is for her, how hard that is as his person throughout life. To be the only one who can do anything for your child, that is a really hard position to be in, and also wanting the world to see the good in him that she does, but she knows that that is very difficult. That’s her backstory with her son. We meet her when she is in her eighties. She is one of these neighbors on the street. This was very much inspired by — at the time that I was writing the book, I lived in this neighborhood called Little Portugal in Toronto. I had neighbors who were eighty-year-old Portuguese immigrants. They were being surrounded by all of us young, noisy families moving in and renovating and everything everyone was doing on the street.

They were one of the few families left who really embody this very beautiful porch culture. They would sit on their porch all day and watch the street go by. They watched us raise our two kids in that house. We lived there for eight years. I never once had a conversation with her because she didn’t speak any English at all, but there was definitely a really beautiful intimacy there with this woman that you see every day who watches you walk your kids to school and everything. I don’t know anything about her life, but my mind often wandered to, I wonder if it’s nostalgic for her to watch all these young families raising their kids or if she’s just sitting there judging us completely for this modern motherhood, the chaos we’re all in the middle of. I don’t know. I wanted to write this character who becomes — Mara becomes very much this voyeur on the street. She knows way more about these women’s lives than they would ever imagine that she does. That knowledge becomes quite pivotal in the book. I thought we don’t often see the wisdom of an eighty-year-old mother on the page either. I really wanted to just give her that wisdom and that role that she deserves. She is so overlooked by everyone. She resents that, for sure, but she also holds this tenderness in her heart for the kids and for everyone else on the street. I loved writing her. She was so nice to write.

Zibby: Had you written this when The Push came out? What was the timeline?

Ashley: Luckily, I had a long stretch. It was eighteen months from the time that I sold the two books to the time The Push came out. I was obviously revising The Push in that time. I had time to do a very first, very bad draft. As we know, the first drafts are always terrible. I had got things under way and then after The Push came out, really dug into the big revising through the pandemic, basically.

Zibby: Wow. What about now? Are you working on another book?

Ashley: I’m working on something. I am working on something now. It’s so early. I can’t say anything about it, but I’m loving it. I’m really loving it. I paused that while The Whispers is coming out to do all the press and stuff. I’m excited to get back to it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, exciting. Are your neighbors ever like, are you writing about us? Go away.

Ashley: It’s funny. We just moved neighborhoods. We’re not far. We’re ten minutes away from where we used to live. We just moved this summer. We’re just still meeting the neighbors, which is especially awkward this book coming out. I actually had a message yesterday from a neighbor who was like, “Hey, Ashley. It’s Michelle from down the street. I’m just reading your book.” I’m thinking, oh, god, she’s not going to invite me to the next backyard party after that. It’s not going to happen. We’ll see.

Zibby: Have you thought about doing anything from the point of view of the men? I know sometimes we get little glimmers into them. It might be a neat Audible companion or something just to dig a little deeper. I wanted to know a little bit more about Jacob in particular.

Ashley: I love that. I love that idea. At one point during my revisions, I had written some scenes or chapters that were actually from the perspective of some of the men and Jacob. I had a lot of fun. In the end, I had changed directions and didn’t need that anymore, but it actually was helpful to just write those scenes and those chapters from their perspective and get more into the minds of them. While we get the perspective from these four women, their husbands all are very important characters. We just don’t get their point of view. I am definitely interested in that. I feel like I really know these men very well in my mind.

Zibby: If you want, you could take all those chapters and just throw them on Zibby Mag. We could say, these are forgotten chapters. What about the men?

Ashley: Yes, it’s true. I would love that. I think they each have their own distinct story too.

Zibby: There you go. Interesting. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Ashley: Actually, I was trying to think this morning of the advice that I gave last time. I can’t remember. The advice that I love to give most has been really important advice for myself. There’s that phrase, dance like no one’s watching. I think you really need to write like no one’s going to read. That has been a real guiding thing for me, clearly, in these very dark books. I really think you have to just not worry about what people are going to think and not worry about exactly who’s going to read this and write the scenes you really want to write. Write the characters you really want to explore. Just go there. I think if we can do that, we can go to some really moving, interesting, deep places. As a reader, that’s what I want to read. I want to really read the truth on the page. That’s my best advice. Just pretend no one’s ever going to read it.

Zibby: I love that. For me, I feel like I have to go somewhere else. I have to get out. I have to just take my body and go somewhere else, maybe to reflect that I’m about to go somewhere else intellectually or something. I don’t know. I can’t do it in the same spot as I do my work.

Ashley: I totally agree with you. I am the same. I hardly ever, ever write at home. I need to be out somewhere else. Actually, during the pandemic when I just found it so difficult with the kids at home to do anything, let alone try to be creative and come up with stuff and all of that, once the hotels opened here just outside of Toronto, I would, every once in a while, go for the weekend away and marathon write. I would find that being outside of the city, even just outside of this — it’s like something opens up in your brain. You really can feel like a total license to just write completely differently, get completely different, new — there’s a refreshing thing about that. If you can manage to do it, it’s like a kickstart for writing.

Zibby: For everything.

Ashley: It’s true.

Zibby: Is there anything on your tour you’re so excited about or a stop that you haven’t made before or just something fun?

Ashley: I’m excited about a few things. There’s going to be the very first literary festival or a book festival happening in Columbus, Ohio, this summer. I’m going to be doing that, which I’m really excited about. Then actually, I’m going to the UK to promote the book when it comes out in July. I’m very excited to go to London. There’s some fun stuff happening there. I’ll look forward to that.

Zibby: Are you coming to my bookstore? You have to go to my bookstore. Are you going to LA?

Ashley: I’m not. LA is not on my schedule right now, but I would love to come to your bookstore. I’ve loved following along with that whole journey that you’re on and all the success .

Zibby: I know that’s completely inconvenient from Toronto. If you ever get out there or you want to make a stop or you’re going that way, please do an event there. We would love it. It would be so fun.

Ashley: I would love that. Thanks, Zibby. Thanks for all the support. Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day. Congratulations. I will be cozying up finishing your book tonight because I cannot stop reading it.

Ashley: I love that. Thank you so much, Zibby. Take care.

Zibby: Bye.

Ashley: Bye.

The Whispers by Ashley Audrain

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens