Bestselling author Beth O’Leary joins Zibby to discuss THE WAKE-UP CALL, an utterly delicious rom-com about Izzy and Lucas, two receptionists at a beautiful but rundown hotel in England, who find a collection of old wedding rings and compete to return them to their owners, hoping that the rewards might help them save the hotel. (This is challenging because they hate each other!) Beth describes the inspiration behind this story (it involves a fascination with rings) and her writing trajectory since the success of her 2019 debut, THE FLATSHARE, which has sold over a million copies. In the end, she shares details of her upcoming book and offers valuable advice for aspiring writers.


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

Beth O’Leary: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Your book, so funny, delightful. Love your characters. Wanted to just hang out at the hotel. Wanted to patch the roof together myself.

Beth: I’m sure they would’ve very much appreciated that.

Zibby: The rivalry and the personalities, it was just lovely, enjoyable, really great. I just love the way you write, your sense of humor, and the way you see things. I really enjoyed it.

Beth: Thank you so much. That is very lovely to hear. I had so much fun writing it, to be honest. I sometimes feel like, I hope that is there on the page.

Zibby: I feel like you can tell. Don’t you think?

Beth: I feel like you can. Although, sometimes I take courage from thinking that there are some books or some parts of books that I found really hard to write and not fun and that people don’t seem to have noticed.

Zibby: That’s true. It only works one way.

Beth: I need to tell myself that sometimes.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Tell listeners what your book is about.

Beth: The Wake-Up Call is about Izzy and Lucas, who are receptionists at a beautiful ramshackle, falling-down hotel in the New Forest, which is a very beautiful part of England. When Izzy finds a collection of wedding and engagement rings in lost property, she sets about trying to return them to their owners. She gets a substantial reward for the hotel when she finds the owner of one of them. Management get very excited and task her and Lucas with returning all the rings to try and save the hotel. It’s even more challenging than it sounds because Izzy and Lucas absolutely despise each other.

Zibby: Where did you get this idea?

Beth: This book was brewing for a very long time, really. I love story based around rings. For starters, I just find them fascinating. Each one symbolizes a love story of its own. I love the idea that bringing a collection of rings that are found into a story would, essentially, give me however many love stories I wanted to weave through. I just thought that would be so much fun, which it was. I also think they’re a very powerful symbol. I was thinking the other day — my husband takes his ring off to go for a run. Even just the sight of his wedding ring on our table sort of sends me cold, that idea of someone taking off that ring. They’re just so important, aren’t they? I loved that image.

Zibby: Wait, why does he take the ring off when he runs?

Beth: In case it falls off because it’s a little loose. He doesn’t like to run with it on. Good point, though.

Zibby: All those single joggers nearby think he’s fair game. I don’t know.

Beth: Maybe his runs are, in fact, clandestine meetings with other women. I had that idea ages ago. I have a lot of these ideas that sit — you must be the same — that sit in the back of my mind and are kind of half a book, but not really a whole book. It wasn’t until I landed on the setting and the idea of it being a wintery novel that it really clicked. Also, I was trying to think, why would someone have all these rings? Where would you lose all these rings? I thought, a swimming pool? You might take your ring off to go for a swim. It’s a leisure center, as we’d call them here. I don’t know what you guys would call them, but it’s not very sexy or cool. Then when I thought, hotel with a spa, I was like, now you’re talking. This is somewhere I could set a gorgeous wintery romance. It actually came together at a — you know sometimes books find you or stories find you just when you need to write them? I think this book was one of those for me because it actually was my procrastination from another book that I was meant to be writing. It was my little guilty pleasure.

I had mentioned to my editors, “I’ve got this idea for a wintery novel. I’ll maybe work over it over the next few years alongside the things that are under contract, the books that I’ve committed to write.” Then I just sneakily started on this one. Then they kind of gave me a little bit of a nudge and said, “Oh, are you still doing that?” It almost gave me permission to let myself run with it. I think part of what brought me so much joy about writing it was I had not promised it to anyone. It was a really different writing experience. Having gone from writing — my debut novel, The Flatshare, I wrote on my train journey to and from work. Writing was my passion that I tried to fit in everywhere I could. Then I went to being a full-time writer. I threw myself into it, almost with too much fervor because I was so determined. I just felt like, it’s my dream come true. I want to make the most of this opportunity to be able to be full time writing. Actually, I think I really needed that little bit of pressure off for this book to just write something and think, if I can do it, then I can do it. Otherwise, it’s okay. I’m not working, really, to a deadline here. I’m just seeing if this story comes. It was a joy.

Zibby: Too much fervor, discuss. What does that look like?

Beth: It looks like sitting at your desk at eight AM going, come up with a good idea now. Come on, try harder. I felt so lucky to be there. That almost froze me in some ways. Also, The Flatshare, it was a phenomenon. It sold in thirty-six languages. It’s been made into a TV show. It’s changed my life completely. It couldn’t have been more of a dream story of how to get published.

Zibby: Wait, back up for your whole life story for a second. What were you doing at work before you started writing on the train? Did you always want to be doing this? How did we get there? Then describe The Flatshare. A little bit of context.

Beth: Of course. I’ve always wanted to be an author ever since I was a little girl. I’ve written stories on scrap paper since I was able to write. I finished my first novel when I was about fifteen. As you can imagine, it was absolutely brilliant. It’s somewhere. I don’t dare look at it. I wrote lots of novels and tried to get representation before The Flatshare. I worked in license publishing. It’s things like the Peppa Pig activity books and things like that. I helped to make those, which was amazing and a really creative, fun, buzzy environment to work in and also put me in the same building as the kind of publishing I — I wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t an editor in the sense, the editors I work with now, but I could see them. It really changed things for me because it gave me a sense that this does happen for people. There are people every day in this building getting published. That could be me. It taught me, as well, about how a novel is sold.

Zibby: Was there a cafeteria? Did you get to see them over the lunch line or only in the elevators?

Beth: I wasn’t brave enough to approach anyone.

Zibby: Okay, but you could see them.

Beth: It was a strange moment when I knew my agent had sent me out on submission. I would walk past the adult teams, who obviously had no idea who I was. I would walk past them on the way to the loo. I would think, what if? What if one of them has got my novel up on their screen right now? They have no idea that I am just walking past to the loo.

Zibby: Wow. It was totally inspiring for you. It felt like, if someone could do it, you could do it.

Beth: Yeah, it really was. That’s what I felt like. Then I was finding, living in London, I just wasn’t making time to write. I don’t feel like myself if I’m not writing. I don’t know how it is for you, but I just find that I can’t fully feel me without that part of myself. Once I moved out of London, I realized I had this hour journey every day. It was just downtime, really. That could be my writing time. That was a huge change for me and meant I had two hours a day where I was actually focusing on doing the thing I love doing. I wrote the novel quite quickly, in about six months, spent about six months editing it, which seemed quick to me then.

Zibby: That is quick. That’s quick.

Beth: Okay, thanks. I’m conscious that some people write four novels a year. There’s me being like, I was so quick. For me, that seems quick. I sent it out to a handful of agents. Nobody wanted to read past the first three chapters except for Tanera, who is now my agent. I will never forget the feeling of getting that email where somebody said, “I’d love to meet with you. I loved the novel. Can we talk?” I felt like if that was the only thing that had happened that year, it would’ve made my year. Then after that, I worked on the novel with her. We did lots of editorial work, particularly on the beginning, which I think is really interesting. Once I sent it out to agents, no one was really that interested. Then I reworked the opening, and when we sent it out to editors, it was a totally different story. It was preempted. It sold in the US. I realized at a certain point I was going to earn enough to quit my job and do this full time. It was an absolute whirlwind. I remember when I got the news about the US deal. I was out doing karaoke with some friends, which is not a thing I enjoy, but got dragged to. I just remember sobbing my way through “Jolene” in karaoke. It was actually perfect. It was just what I needed.

Zibby: That is amazing. I love that image, oh, my gosh. I feel like your own life is a novel we could write, the rom-com author whose husband has a secret life while he’s running. She’s singing “Jolene.” It all sounds very cinematic, your actual story.

Beth: Is that a good thing? I don’t know.

Zibby: Tell me more about The Flatshare. I’m embarrassed to say I have not read it. Now I want to read everything you’ve ever written.

Beth: No, don’t be embarrassed at all.

Zibby: Tell us more about that.

Beth: I love to discover somebody who has yet to read my backlist. The Flatshare, it’s a story about two people who share a one-bed flat, but they don’t meet because one of them works nights and the other one works days. It was inspired by my own living situation with my now husband, the runner. He was a junior doctor at the time. We’d just moved in together. He was working loads of night shifts. We would literally pass like ships in the night. I would find out about how his day was from little clues around the house, how many coffee cups were by the sink, whether his shoes were by the back door. We used to leave each other food. He would eat dinner at breakfast time. We had this strange existence. I just loved the idea of looking at what two strangers could learn about each other if they lived that way. Could you fall in love in that way with the negative space around a person? That was where that story came from, as I say, the story that changed my life, really.

Zibby: Wow. Then it became a movie?

Beth: A TV series, rather. It’s on Freevee in the US, if anyone’s interested.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, look at the stuff I have to do now.

Beth: I know. I’m sorry. I’m adding to your to-do list.

Zibby: No, it’s great. This is wonderful. Then you just kept going. You just kept writing novels.

Beth: I did.

Zibby: Now how many in total? How many have you written that haven’t come out yet but you’re working on them and have a deal or whatever?

Beth: The Wake-Up Call is my fifth published book. At the moment, I am juggling between the next novel I’m writing and the one after that. As you well know, you’re always a million books ahead, aren’t you? With a baby on the way, I am trying to figure out how far I can get and then put something on hold. It’s a funny old thing, isn’t it, juggling writing with life? It’s such an all-consuming job that in lots of ways, you’re never quite not doing it. It’s a funny thing.

Zibby: I love that. You’re never not quite doing it. It’s true. I feel like there’s also so much of the thinking that goes behind it that you can’t quantify it. Without that, you won’t have anything. There will be no output.

Beth: When we talk about my fervent start to writing, I think that was one of the things that it took me a while to realize, is that actually, sometimes what work looks like isn’t what work used to look like to me. It’s not applying yourself and saying, I’m going to try really hard and try my best, and that will mean I do my best work. Actually, a lot of the time, when I do my best work is when I’m not trying at all or when I’ve given up or when I’ve gone for a walk with the dog and gone, I can’t figure this out, never mind. Then an idea comes to me. It might undo two months of sitting at the desk typing. You may end up deleting all those words. There’s no relation between the input and the output sometimes. Sometimes there is. Sometimes you do just need to sit down and write. I still am not very good at telling exactly which one of those times it is. I’m not very good at saying, I need to push through right now, or when I need to say, walk away from the desk. You need time to think about this.

Zibby: Do you see your husband now? You must have seen him at least once. You’re pregnant, so that’s good. We know your paths have crossed.

Beth: Yes, I see him lots now.

Zibby: Perhaps.

Beth: Yes, I do see him now.

Zibby: Is he back on normal hours? Do you coexist?

Beth: He is. It is a delight, I have to say, not having somebody coming — the weirdest ones were the hours where he would come back in the middle of the night, like at two AM or something. That’s really weird because you kind of go to bed, but you know you’re going to be woken up in a minute by someone coming in. Then you also are listening out a little bit. Those were the oddest days. It’s amazing that people can do it for long periods of time. One of the things about writing a novel like that about people who live that way is you hear loads of real-life stories. People often tell me about their lives. I met a bookseller who told me that his wife was a nurse who worked nights. They used to meet on the corner and just give each other a kiss on the corner street on their way to work. I just found that so romantic. I was like, I should’ve written that in. That’s better than my book.

Zibby: Next time. You could do little shorts, little short story spin-offs or something. What kind of books do you like to read when you’re not fervently writing yourself?

Beth: I love reading romance. I’m a big romance reader, which is handy because now that I’m an author, people like to send me their romance novels, which is always a bonus. I do find that I sometimes need to step out of genre a little bit. One of the things about this job is your reading gets a bit less varied because you are reading proofs. You’re reading advance reading copies. You’re reading within your genre all the time. Lately, I’ve really refound my love of fantasy, which I used to read a lot as a teenager. I’ve been listening to Sarah J. Maas on audiobook, which I’ve been really enjoying. Audio is my outlet for things that I’m like, I know I don’t really have time to read this, but I’m going to read it on audiobook. Then it doesn’t count because I’m only reading it whilst I’m cleaning or something.

Zibby: I totally get that. Yes, I know. Every so often, I’m like, wait a minute, it’s possible that I could also be listening to a book while I do whatever. I have twenty minutes in the car. Will this kid care? What could I put on?

Beth: It’s so satisfying when you can fit a book into another bit of your day which doesn’t have a book in it yet.

Zibby: Exactly. That’s so funny. I feel like I’m the last one to jump on this fantasy bandwagon, but maybe audio is my way in. I don’t know.

Beth: You do need a good reader, though, don’t you? With fantasy, because there’s often so many names and place names and things, I sometimes struggle when I’m not reading it on a page to remember all the — I don’t know. Maybe I’m quite visual. I’m like, who? Where? If I leave it too long — you’ve got to stick with the audiobook and listen to it frequently. Otherwise, you’re like, oh, no, I don’t know which planet we’re on now.

Zibby: Do you have any adversarial relationships like Izzy’s? Is there somebody who just gets under your skin like that?

Beth: That’s a great question. I don’t think so. I have four older brothers, which I think probably helped with writing the — just for context, Izzy and Lucas, at the beginning, they have a very spikey kind of relationship. They spend a lot of time winding each other up and trying to irritate the other. I think being the youngest of a family with so many older brothers probably taught me a lot on that front of exactly how to hold your own in that situation. I actually loved writing that sort of banter-y, the sparky kind of dialogue. I always like writing dialogue. If I’m left to my own devices, I’d probably just write pages of dialogue without anything happening.

Zibby: Meaning, maybe you should be a screenwriter. Just saying. I’m just going to throw that out there. That is the job.

Beth: Is that what it is, though? Is that allowed? Would anyone watch it? Who knows?

Zibby: I don’t know, I think your odds are probably pretty good given your track record here.

Beth: Maybe one day.

Zibby: At the beginning, you said your life completely changed with The Flatshare. What do you think your life would be like without it? What are the most significant ways in which your life has gone that you never ever would’ve thought? Obviously, attaining success in the publishing arena, but any other ripple effects that that’s caused or just ways that things have gone in a different direction?

Beth: Right now, I’m looking out of my office window at the woods. I live in the countryside. I am not within easy reach of London, which is where my job was and where all the jobs in publishing were at that point. Being able to live here is something I would never have had without that book happening. Having a dog, that was the first thing I did when we were like, I’m going to be working from home. Then I was like, I definitely need a golden retriever puppy in my life. She’s now five and still a puppy at heart. Just who I am, being able to take my hobby, my passion and make it my job, it’s just so fulfilling. I find so much joy in my work. I feel so lucky to have that. This part of myself always had to be sort of squashed into time where I could find little pockets of opportunity to write. Now to be able to give it the expanse of the day is just amazing. I love getting to do that.

Zibby: Do you still feel tapped into the writer community there? What is that like? Is it a supportive group of people? Is it more like you have friends on Instagram?

Beth: It took a little while to meet other writers, to be honest, because I didn’t know anyone else that did the job when I started. I definitely didn’t feel confident enough to reach out to anyone and be like, hey, would you like to go for coffee? It just really had to happen organically, mostly through events, really, when I get paired with another author in a bookshop or something. Now I’ve got some really, really close friends who do the same job as me, maybe in different genres. People to brainstorm with, it’s just so great having writers to talk to, isn’t it? There are some things that are so specific. They’ll get the problem because they’ve been there. This character’s just not working. I can’t figure out an element of their character. Being able to talk to someone about it who’s like, “Yeah, I’ve been there. I had that with my second book. This character did this,” it’s just lovely to have that support as well. It did take me a couple of years, probably, before I really made proper author friends.

Zibby: That’s one of my favorite things, is being able to introduce especially authors who have books coming out, so they have no idea what’s coming up, with maybe somebody who has just been through it or something. I felt like I was unprepared even though I’ve talked to a million people. Sometimes you need the buddy system.

Beth: You do. There is so much. It’s so overwhelming. It’s one thing dreaming of being published, but actually being published, there were definitely moments where I felt like I’d opened a big box of things. I kind of wanted to shove everything back in the box again. I just thought, I’ve let it all out. You can’t take it back. It’s hard to ever have total confidence in your book even though you’re like, I know I love this story. I know I put everything into it. You still, I think — I don’t know any author who doesn’t have days where they’re like, what am I doing? This is terrible. Why am I letting anyone read this?

Zibby: Can you give any tidbits about your upcoming book, your next one, what it’s called or anything, when it’s coming out?

Beth: I wish I knew what it was called. Titles are so hard. I can’t say that because I do not know. I can say, this one, I would say it’s probably the hardest book I’ve ever written. I hope that when I get there, it will be a really epic love story. I want it to be a book to make you laugh and cry. It’s a big idea. It’s a big concept that I had a while ago and thought, I don’t think I can do that. Then eventually, I don’t know what gave me the courage to do it, but I was like, I’m going to try. It was really hard. It has been really hard, but I hope it’s going to be beautiful in the end.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I just was reading some quote, which I’ll massacre here. It was something like, you think you need confidence to have courage, but actually, it’s courage that creates the confidence.

Beth: Wow, that is really interesting.

Zibby: Right?

Beth: I love that.

Zibby: Just noodle on that.

Beth: Wow, I want to think about that one.

Zibby: I’ll think and see if I can find the actual quote. Maybe I got it backwards. It’s by Emma Grey.

Beth: What you said was very profound, so if it’s not the quote, you should claim that one.

Zibby: Thank you. Let’s just take it. Any final parting words? Advice to aspiring authors?

Beth: My top piece of advice is always, try to finish something. It sounds very simplistic, but it’s not. It’s really hard to finish something, particularly a novel because it’s so big. For me, that process of writing lots of novels before The Flatshare, it taught me so much because for me, so much of the writing, what really creates the book happens after the first draft. I got to practice that. You can’t practice that process of going back over a story and going, “What is this? What could it be? How can I make it better?” until you’ve tried finishing something. It’s so painful sometimes. It does take so much confidence to push through that point in the book, usually about forty thousand words for me, where you’re like, I don’t know if this is going to go anywhere, or whatever. If you can push yourself to the end and say, just get it down and make it good later, then you get to learn the joy of a second draft.

Zibby: That’s great advice. Edit later. Just get it down. Beth, this was so fun. I hope I get to meet you at some point. Do you come touring in the US? Are you coming anytime soon? Probably not with your baby.

Beth: Not yet, but I would love to one day. If I’m over there, I’ll definitely let you know.

Zibby: Please come. I have a bookstore in Santa Monica in California, so you’ll have to go.

Beth: Oh, my gosh.

Zibby: Put it on your tour stops or whatever.

Beth: Absolutely. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Good luck with the rest of your pregnancy and new motherhood. I’m here as a resource. I’ve been through everything at this point. My husband’s like, “Why don’t you just be a doctor? You think you know everything about every kid illness.” I’m like, well, science issue. Anyway, take care. Great to cross paths. Congratulations on your book. Thank you.

Beth: Lovely to chat to you. Thank you so much. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

THE WAKE-UP CALL by Beth O’Leary

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