Ashley Audrain, THE PUSH

Ashley Audrain, THE PUSH

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

Ashley Audrain: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you for having me. As I was telling you before we started recording, I am a huge fan of your podcast. I love it. I listen to it every day. I don’t know how you do it, but the content you put out for us, for all of us listeners, we just appreciate it so much, especially during these COVID days when you just need something to get through the day. You’re always there. Thank you.

Zibby: Aw, thank you so much for saying that. It really, really means a lot to hear, especially from an author whose book I so enjoyed. To know that you are out there listening to other interviews, it’s awesome.

Ashley: I have to start by telling you a funny story. I listen to your podcast a lot in the car when we’re driving to school and driving home from school. My son, who’s now five, he humors me and listens along with me all the time to your podcast. He always, especially when he was bit younger, he would hear your opening and he would say, “Mom, why is this lady saying you don’t have time to read books? She’s saying you can’t read books. You don’t have time.” It’s just so funny, trying to explain to him what it means. He’s always very concerned about the title of your podcast and what that means for me. I’ve assured him I read, so it’s okay.

Zibby: Maybe I should put a disclaimer that it’s just a joke. I read lots of books. I love reading books. I have an almost-six-year-old, but he’s still five. The other day, he was in the corner. He was holding up some little toy. He’s like, “Hi, I’m Zibby Owens from Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Ashley: They’re always listening.

Zibby: Always listening. Five is the cutest age, by the way. I’m really sad that it’s coming to an end having lived through it now four times. Anyway, can we talk about your amazing book, The Push? which is alternately chilling and life-affirming and worrisome. I just wanted to run out and find a therapist to throw in the pages. I was like, oh, my gosh, now she needs a therapist. Wait, now she needs a child psychiatrist. Wait, now. Oh, no! Then last night, literally in some scenes, I have to close my eyes. Tell listeners, please, what The Push is about and what inspired you to write it.

Ashley: The Push is about a woman named Blythe Connor. She comes from a history of women who have struggled deeply with motherhood in various ways. She’s quite determined that her experience is going to be different and that she’s going to be this warm, empathetic, present mother that she never had. She and her husband have their first child, a daughter. Her name is Violet. At first, Blythe goes through the various typical early days of motherhood that we can all relate to, tired and just overwhelmed. Then as Violet gets a bit older, she kind of starts to realize there’s something wrong with Violet. There’s something different about her. She’s quite aloof and doesn’t really express much emotion. She’s not very attached to her mother. As she gets a bit older, she starts to witness some behavior that she feels is malicious towards other children. The problem, of course, is that her husband cannot see this. Nobody can see this. She’s really the only one who believes this about her daughter. They try to move on in their marriage and have another baby, Sam, who’s born shortly after. In Sam, she finds that connection that she had hoped to have as a mother with her child until something very tragic happens in the family and they’re all forced to face what has happened and who their daughter and who Blythe herself is. The rest of the novel looks at that unraveling of the family from there. That’s sort of what happens without giving too much.

Zibby: I have to say, the whole time I was reading the book, I kept flashing back to your opening scene of the book which makes you wonder, how did they arrive there? I don’t think I’m giving anything away because it’s the opening scene. You have the mother in the car looking in through the window. You’re wondering why. What is going on? How did she end up there? As you go, you still don’t know. What is it? How is this happening? It’s almost suspense, but it’s not a thriller. How would you even describe? I don’t view this as a thriller. It’s more like a psychological drama of sorts. Yet there’s this element, this big question mark hanging over it.

Ashley: It’s interesting you say that because a lot of people have described it as a thriller. I didn’t really set out to write a thriller. It wasn’t what I had intended. I love, like a lot of us, just a page-turning book, something that you want to find out not so much what happened, but why. Why did that happen? Why have we got there? It’s funny. One of my editors described it as emotional suspense, which I thought was maybe a better description for it than thriller. I think people who enjoy thrillers will hopefully enjoy this book because of the pace of it, but it’s really more emotional suspense than anything. It’s really more of a family drama, I think, than a straight thriller where you’re trying to figure out what happened.

Zibby: You can definitely tell in the writing just how close to early childhood you are. You can tell in some books, maybe this author has young children. Maybe she doesn’t. With a galley, you never really know how old anybody is. I’m not looking at the author photo. I don’t have any context. I just always am diving in. In this book, I was like, this author definitely has had children recently. You remember all of it. I started finding myself wondering what your view on motherhood was because there seems to be so much ambivalence on the part of the characters. Did you feel that way? Then I was thinking, if you didn’t have any of these ambivalent feelings, how would you have put these characters together, and even just the inherited trauma of generation after generation of mothers who are disappointing their children? Tell me about where this is coming from for you.

Ashley: It’s interesting. I started writing this book when my first child, my son, was six months old. When he was born, he had some health challenges that we didn’t know about. We didn’t expect them. It puts you in this situation where you’re planning for a baby and you enjoy your pregnancy and you have this healthy pregnancy, and you think everything will be fine. Then when he was two weeks old, we discovered it was not. We were going to be spending a lot of time basically living in a children’s hospital and trying to get him better and figure out how to manage the problems that he was having. We know how hard those early days of motherhood already were. At two weeks old, two weeks in, to have everything completely change and flipped upside down was very challenging. I loved him. I loved being his mother, but I just didn’t know — I guess I was learning how to mother within the walls of a hospital and with nurses helping you instead of your family members. It was very challenging, obviously. It just really made me think a lot in those days about those expectations of motherhood. Society sort of teaches us to think that it’s going to be a certain way and that we’re going to feel a certain way and it’s going to look a certain way. Then when it isn’t, it’s very isolating. It’s a very isolating experience. You really don’t feel like you can really relate to anybody. I remember all my friends having babies at the same time, which at first, seemed like such a wonderful thing. Then when my experience ended up being just so different and so far from the experience they were having, it was hard.

Those are the things that I was mulling over in those days. Then having the mind that I do, taking it a bit further and wondering, oh, my gosh, this was not experience with my son, but what would happen if it was even worse, if you didn’t like your child or you couldn’t feel like you loved your child or your child did something that you couldn’t forgive or you really regretted having that child? What would that feel like? Those were the things I started writing about. The stuff I was writing about was so much darker than what I was going through. I was going through a hard time, but the stuff I was writing about was darker. Maybe that was a way of working through or coping with I was going through at the time. It’s just exploring that.

Those were the seeds of thinking that grew into the character of Blythe and her daughter, Violet, and the story that became The Push. Then once I started exploring Blythe and figuring out who she was, especially through revisions, I started to understand that I couldn’t really understand Blythe without understanding the women that she came from. That was when the backstory started to develop, which is basically the story of Blythe’s mother and Blythe’s grandmother and the challenges that they went through. I was very much interested in that idea of inherited trauma and what we carry from the women before us and how much of that is this maternal anxiety and how much of it is true, literally in our DNA, in our genes. That really interested me. Although, I feel like I must disclaim this on every interview I do that my mother is nothing like the mother in the book, nor is my grandmother. I feel like I owe her the service.

Zibby: I had a feeling this was coming. I could tell you were going to that place. I do not blame your mom. She is off the hook. You seem pretty normal from our little limited interaction.

Ashley: It’s really funny because I didn’t talk to my mom, my parents, or really anybody much when I was writing this book about what it was. It was internal and living within me. Then when I realized that this was going to happen and the book was going to be published, I had to tell my mom what the book was about. She was like, “Oh, wow, interesting.” It was a lot for her to take in.

Zibby: It’s interesting, too, how at one point you have Blythe go to the support group for mothers whose kids have done sort of unpardonable offenses. I always think about that when I hear about the mother of this shooter or the mother of this. How does that mother feel? Of course, the mothers of the victims. You do your best with your kids. As parents, I know I’ve had moments where I’m like, oh, my god, I cannot believe my child did that. Then it reflects on me or reflects on my parenting. What does it say? Then you wonder, like you did, let’s extrapolate and make this the biggest mess ever. Then what?

Ashley: It’s so funny. I always think that too. When you hear something in the news or see something that’s happened, I always think of the parents, if the biological parents were the people who raised them and were involved in their lives. My mind always goes there to think also, what did the parents know about their child? Did they ever suspect? Did they ever think that something like that could happen? Did they believe the humans they were raising capable of that? If they did, did they say anything to anybody? Would you say anything to anybody? It kind of comes back to that question that I tried to explore in the book. Ultimately, what do we owe our children? What do you owe them? We, in many cases, birth them and raise them. What’s our obligation in helping them to live in this world? It’s really interesting. A lot of it comes back to just the nature versus nurture argument, of course. It almost goes further than that, asking yourself, what are the lengths that you would go to? It’s really more of an ethical debate. It’s funny that you say that because my mind always goes there too.

Zibby: There was just in the paper this week — this episode will come out not this week. Now we’re in — I don’t even know what we are. November, pre-Thanksgiving. There was just, on the New York Post, some man pushed a woman onto the subway. He had done so also in January. The mother had said, “Don’t let my child back out on the streets.” They did. He did it again. She was like, “I told you.” It’s her face in the paper. He was adopted, not that that matters. It’s so on the theme we’re talking about, not necessarily all the themes. Wait, so let’s go back to the fact that you had a six-month-old son and decided to try to write a book at that point and that the book ended up becoming this, which is a good book, not the tired musing of a completely stressed-out new mother. Tell me about that undertaking and how you did it.

Ashley: I think it did start as the tired musings of an overtired mother. It’s gone through a lot since then. It’s gone through a lot of revisions since then. It’s interesting. I had always wanted to write. I was writing. I was taking writing courses at night and writing on weekends. I had another full-time job and career. I couldn’t afford to do an MFA when I was in school. I honestly felt like I couldn’t really afford to pursue writing for a lot of my life because I needed to go to university and work part time to pay for that and then get a job that could pay the bills when I left. Writing just never felt attainable to me, writing as a career, and so I didn’t pursue it that way.

Zibby: What kind of jobs did you have?

Ashley: I worked in public relations agencies. Then after working in agencies for a while, I did move over to publishing and worked at Penguin Canada as a publicity director. I was just really focused on that and writing when I could even though I would’ve loved to be a writer full time or to consider myself that or be published. When I had Oscar, when I had my son, I realized I wasn’t going to go back to work after that because, I mentioned, he had these health challenges. Life felt different. I just couldn’t really see myself being able to balance both of those things. It was around that six-month mark where we weren’t spending as much time in the hospital. I was home a bit more. We were lucky to have a bit of babysitting help through the week. I used those hours to write. It’s funny. You had an author on your show, Rumaan Alam. Yours was such a good interview. I thought he put it just perfectly. He talked about when you have children, sometimes it can really clarify for you what you really want out your life and who you want to be and who you want to show up as in the world. Who do you want to be for those children? Who do you want to be for yourself? Your time becomes so limited when you have kids.

I really started thinking about that limited time very differently. I just thought, I need to do it now. This is when I need to pursue this because this is the time. Yes, I was tired and exhausted. It’s very hard to write during those months. It is a privilege to have help with childcare. That is for sure. If I didn’t have help with childcare those few times a week, I wouldn’t have been able to do that, I don’t think, because that’s really how it started. Our babysitter would walk through the door, and I would run past her with my laptop under my arm running to the coffee shop on the corner trying to get in as much as I could while she was here. It wasn’t easy. I think without help, it is very, very difficult. There was just so much on my mind then too. It’s funny. A lot of writing advice you get is, write the story that’s just burning inside you or you feel like only you can tell. I did have a bit of that. I had this creative energy around that time that I just felt compelled to do it. Looking back now, of course, I’m like, I don’t know how I did that. I don’t know if everything were to happen all over again, if I could do it again. It just felt like what I needed to do at that time, if that makes sense.

Zibby: Can I even ask, how is your son? This might be personal. Is he okay?

Ashley: He is. Thank you for asking. That’s so kind. Yes. He has a chronic illness, a chronic condition. He will have that forever, but it is very manageable now. He is thriving and is just the most incredible five-year-old, almost-six-year-old like yours. Now those days feel so far behind us when things felt so much worse because he’s doing so well. We’ve learned how to manage it. It does get better.

Zibby: I know you said earlier, I can’t remember if we were recording yet or not, that he was upset that I was always talking in your car radio about how moms don’t have time to read books. Tell me about your reading life. Are you reading a lot around the house? Do you have books everywhere? What’s your relationship to reading like these days, or do you just not have the time?

Ashley: We read a lot in our house. We do. We do read a lot. My kids love books, which is great. I’m definitely a nighttime reader. I have a hard time reading during the day, but I read every night. It’s amazing how fast that can add up if you just commit to doing it at night. I love to read new releases. I love to read debuts. I love to read whatever the newest book — which is probably why I love your podcast because you have many authors whose books are just coming out. It’s such a nice pairing with reading what’s publishing at the moment. We do read a lot. I always make sure my kids know how much I’m reading. Even though I’m reading at night when they’re asleep, the books are piled on the bedside. We go to the library a lot and buy books a lot. I hope that my kids grow up with that. We’ll see.

Zibby: It’s so funny because I didn’t set out to do books that were coming out now. In fact, I remember at the very beginning when I was trying to get an author on my podcast, the response was, “So-and-so doesn’t have a book coming out.” I was like, so? It never occurred to me that authors would only be interested in doing publicity around new books. It’s become this because that’s what the authors need the most, but I never would’ve thought. I was like, I’m going to work my way around my bookshelves. Luckily, most of those authors end up coming out with new books. Then I’m like, let’s talk about your new book, but really, I want to talk about the old one from ten years ago.

Ashley: It’s funny, isn’t it? I would’ve thought that too. Now that I’m writing, I sort of get it a little more because it’s hard to talk about one book and be writing another book. You have these two totally different worlds in your head. I think a lot of it is people needing to kind of shut out the world and dig into the next project. You can’t even let your mind go back to the other book. Maybe that’s part of it. It is funny. There’s something fun about always wanting to dig into whatever’s new and whatever’s out. I’m definitely a news junkie. I love reading the book that’s everyone’s talking about. The reviews are happening. I just find that adds to the whole experience of reading for me.

Zibby: There’s some books, though, I know they’re going to be big books, but I know I wouldn’t have bought it. This is my big thing. I’m always like, I was pitched that, but I didn’t do it. My husband’s always like, “Maybe you’re passing on way too many books.” I’m like, “I just have to stay true to the books I would want to read. Maybe it’s going to win a huge prize, but I’m not sure I would want to read it.” I don’t know. I have to want to read it.

Ashley: I’d still have to want to read it. It still has to speak to you in some way.

Zibby: Not that I haven’t read tons that don’t go beyond my comfort zone. I am so grateful for them. If it’s just a little too — I don’t know. I don’t even know why I’m talking about this.

Ashley: I know what you mean. Books still have to speak to you. I don’t know about you, if I’m not enjoying a book, I will put it down. I will never force myself to finish a book because that’s just not what reading is to me. Reading’s just about being swept away and enjoying it, enjoying every page and enjoying every minute that you’re devoting to that book. If I’m not in love, I usually don’t finish it. I get it. I totally get it.

Zibby: As a big book lover, tell me about the thrill of the publication journey for you then from when you were starting to write and then editing. Then what happened? Tell me about what happened.

Ashley: It was really crazy. It was a wild ride, for sure. I worked on the book for about three years from that time I was talking about when I first started to get it to where I felt like it was maybe ready to go out there in the world. Because I’d worked in publishing for a couple years, although I was on the editorial side, I was on the publicity side, I think I had an idea of how things worked and going to agents. Even though you have that knowledge, you still don’t know what you have. I hadn’t shared it with that many people. As I shared with a few, had got a few more readers, I started getting more comfortable with going out there with it. Again, because I worked in publishing, I kept friendly with — it was Penguin Canada at the time; this was just before the Penguin Random House merger — with the head of Penguin Canada, Nicole Winstanley. She and I would meet a couple times a year for tea or whatever just to keep in touch. I met with her. This is when I was just working on my query letters getting ready to send it out to agents. I met with her for tea. I was so anxious to meet with her because she didn’t know that I was writing. When I worked there, I never talked about wanting to write a book or publish a book. I didn’t tell anybody that I used to work with that I was doing this because it just seemed like such a pipe dream and was so interior, living within me only.

I thought, I want to just get her advice on agents. I had this list of agents I wanted to go to and would love her opinion on it. I sat down with her for tea. I said, “I have something to tell you. I’m nervous to tell you this.” She interrupted me and said, “Let me guess. You’ve wrote a book.” “Was I that transparent? I thought you would never guess that I would do this.” It was kind of funny. She gave me some good advice. Then it was out to agents. From there, it was really a whirlwind. It was life-changing. I will always remember and I always save that email back from my agent, Madeleine Milburn, she’s now my agent, just her reaction to it. It’s really incredible to see this dream, to see something that you’ve worked on for so long that you just don’t know if it will ever be anything. Then to have these people take a bet on you and have this kind of reaction to your work, it’s a very magical thing. I will never forget it. I don’t take it for granted. I feel very lucky to have had that experience. Then from there, it very quickly went out to publishers and went out into the world, and we’re here. Magical is kind of a funny word, but that’s just how it felt. It felt kind of magical, kind of incredible.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Are you working on anything else now?

Ashley: I am. I’m revising the second novel now, which has been a really fun process. The process of writing it has been very different than writing the first one just because life looks a little different now. I have two kids. They’re a little bit older. We’re in a pandemic, obviously. That’s another challenge. I’ve been working through that now. I’m so new at this still. I still am just trying to figure out how to write a book. This is the second one, so just working my way through it.

Zibby: Can you give a glimmer of a plot, or not really? Is it too early? If it’s too early, don’t worry. I don’t want to jinx it or anything.

Ashley: I feel like it’s for the same readers of The Push. I feel like it’s for those same kind of readers. It’s family drama. It’s emotional suspense. It’s motherhood and female friendships and marriage. I’m really excited about it. I’m enjoying writing it.

Zibby: That is a combination that I would be like, yes, sign me up. Pre-sale, pre-order, okay, you sold me on that. That’s good enough. I will definitely be reading that book. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Ashley: After I just said I have no idea what I’m doing?

Zibby: I don’t believe that at all. Scratch that and be honest.

Ashley: I have advice for new mothers who are writing because I think that’s my experience. That’s the place where I can offer advice. It’s two-part advice. The first part is that it’s okay to ask for help to write your book specifically. It’s so hard to ask for help, period, as a mother, we know this, or as a parent, especially when your kids are super young because you just have so much anxiety about other people caring for your kids and all of that. Something that I had to learn with the first book when my son was so little was that it was okay to ask my mom or have a babysitter or obviously my husband, whoever, to say, I need help for two hours and it’s because I’m going to go write this book, and making that really a priority, showing people that writing a book is a priority for you and that writing is as important as the things that my husband got to go out to do like go to work, where I was home. Making it a priority, committing that time, and letting other people know about it. Giving yourself permission to make that as important as doing the errands and going to the grocery store and everything else. That was my number one.

The part two to that advice is that everybody says, so many writers, accomplished writers, say you have to write every day. I really believe that when you have little kids, you cannot write every day, and it’s okay. I did not write every day. It took me longer to get this book done, but I could not write every day because I was exhausted. I was overwhelmed. Babies get sick. Things pop up. Some days, I just did not have it in me even if there was a blank slate for the rest of the day. Some days, I just could not rally to write. I think if you’re a new mom, throw that advice out the window. Just do your best. Write when you can. When you can get those windows of help, write during those windows of help. Something I could do every day, which I do recommend doing every day, is think about the book. You can think about the book even when you’re not sitting down at your computer to write it. I would think about the book at the park or think about the book when I was walking or think about the book when I was bouncing the baby or whatever at night.

It’s funny. I won’t say which writer it is because I don’t want to freak her out, but I live across the street from an accomplished Canadian writer, which is kind of funny. She has no idea who I am, so as I said, I won’t mention who she is. I remember — this is with my second. I was going through revisions on The Push. My second baby, she was such a bad sleeper. She was up. It took me so long to get her to bed. I remember standing in my house rocking her and bouncing her from the witching hour until the wee hours of the morning and looking out across the street and seeing this other writer’s office light on and just thinking, oh, my god, she’s in there writing. She’s in there writing her next book. She’s able to write for hours on end. I would just sit there and bounce my daughter and think, I wish I had that. I wish I could do that. It made me so anxious thinking that this woman across the street had all this time and I did not because I had this crying baby. I couldn’t write every day, but I could think about the book every day. I could make notes. I could come up with ideas. I could feel committed to the project every day in other ways. That is my best advice. Don’t worry if you can’t do it every day.

Zibby: By the way, some people find having too much time to be a paralysis of sorts as well. If you just have blank pages in front of you and endless amounts of time, I find it harder to get anything done than when I have like two seconds and so writing is an Instagram post. I’m like, well, that’s all I got. I can’t even remember the last time I opened up Pages or Word on my computer. Anything I “write” now is in the body of an email or it’s a post or it’s something. I’m like, you know what, it might not be this way forever, but this is what we got right now.

Ashley: That’s what you have at that time.

Zibby: You got to go with it.

Ashley: Being a mom is hard. You got to do whatever you can get done. You can’t live up to other people’s expectations of what it looks like to write a book.

Zibby: Whatever you’re doing, you look amazing. I say that because I’m particularly disheveled. You look so put together like you’re Kristen Bell on her way to the Oscars or something, and I’m just like, oh, my god, with this great book. For all the drama, from the outside, it looks like you have it made.

Ashley: That’s very, very sweet. Thank you.

Zibby: I’m really excited for you. I can’t wait for this to come out in January. I’m just so thrilled. I’m so thrilled for you. Thanks for our little intro pre-recording and the conversation and the hours I got to spend with your novel, which were great.

Ashley: Zibby, thank you. That means so much coming from you, truly. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. Let’s stay in touch. Buh-bye.

Ashley: Bye.

Ashley Audrain, THE PUSH