Zibby Owens: The interview I did with Betsy Carter was really special to me. When I was growing up, Betsy Carter was the author that my parents knew and always referred me to. She and I had this really nice relationship. I always used to send her my writing. She would be really encouraging and a total mentor to me. It’s just so great that this has all come full circle and now I get to interview her for this podcast. Our relationship has meant a lot to me. It’s an honor to get to interview her. Betsy is the author of many books including The Orange Blossom Special and her book that just came out now, Lost Souls at the Neptune Inn. I loved her memoir called Nothing to Fall Back On which was a national bestseller. She was a contributing editor for O, The Oprah Magazine, wrote for Good Housekeeping, New York magazine, and a million other publications. She was previously an editor at Esquire, Newsweek, and Harper’s Bazaar, and was the founding editor of New York Woman. She currently lives in New York City.

Welcome, Betsy. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Betsy Carter: A pleasure to be here, Zibby.

Zibby: Sorry, we had to record this a minute ago because I forgot to press record. I’m going to say again what I said a minute ago, which is that this is so exciting for me to be interviewing you because you have been a lifelong mentor to me and have been the one that my parents gave me as the shining example of what it meant to be an author. You gave me hope that it could be a profession and all the rest of it. You helped me with all the stuff I’d written my whole life and have been just so supportive of me and have meant so much. I just wanted to say thank you and how great it is that now I get to interview you here.

Betsy: I just want to say that you were somebody who was talented from a very young age. I recognized that it. It was very exciting to watch you grow. Look at what you’ve become. It’s really thrilling.

Zibby: Thank you. Why don’t we start by talking about your latest novel, Lost Souls at the Neptune Inn? Can you tell listeners a little about what it’s about and then what inspired you to write it?

Betsy: That’s a good question. What it’s about is what lengths people will go to to find a home. In this book, there’s several characters who’ve sort of been tossed out by their families or for some reason or another left home. There’s several lost souls who come together, find each other, and even in extreme situations and even though it doesn’t seem a perfect fit, they get together because they cling to each other for a home. It takes place, it ranges from the twenties to the eighties. My two main characters, one of them has a child out of wedlock and is really almost disowned by her parents. Another one, she lives in New Rochelle, New York. The other one is a Southern lovely man who has had a very difficult childhood. He has been different from everybody else. He makes his way to the North after a horrible situation. Something traumatic and horrible happens to him. They find each other. He falls in love with our main character’s daughter. Her name is Alice. He falls in love with her and decides that this could be his home. Even though it’s not a perfect fit, they get together and they get married. It’s really the story of the evolution of that kind of relationship, making a family where there really is none, and what happens even when it threatens to fall apart. Does the family stick together, or does the family go to pieces? That’s really the short form.

Zibby: How did you come up with this idea? You’ve written many novels and an amazing memoir. Why this topic? Why now?

Betsy: Two reasons. The first reason is that the female character, Emilia Mae, is born and is a colicky baby. For some reason, her mother, who is Catholic, decides that she is the devil’s child. This was really the impetus to write the book. Several years ago, and if you bring up the memoir, it’ll come out then, I went through a really bad span of luck. I was seeing a therapist at the time. I walked in one day after many calamities had befallen me. I said, “Oh, my god, my house burned down and everything in it. All my possessions are gone.” She said to me, “I want you to consider this. I want you to consider that you were a very bad person in a past life and that you should find an exorcist in New York. You should have an exorcism.” I started out wanting to write about a person who is inhabited by the devil and needs to find an exorcist. I kept writing and then I realized I was writing The Exorcist and that, really, nobody needed to read that again. I veered off a bit. Then the other impetus, frankly, was that I was married to a very lovely man for seventeen years. After seventeen years, he decided, or maybe he knew all along, that he was gay. It ended the marriage. For me, it was quite shocking. I did not see it coming. We have remained friends. In fact, we’re very close friends. It was a very shocking and surprising event in my life. I realized as time went on that when we were growing up, it was very hard to be gay. He yearned for a normal life. I was a kind of normal person he could hang onto. I think he saw in me, a normal life. One of my characters is, not him, but is based on a character that is dealing with the same issues. It was a combination of the exorcism and the gay husband that brought me to this novel, if that makes sense.

Zibby: It makes sense. Who knew? What interesting ingredients to throw together. This is how great fiction comes to be.

Betsy: Use what you have.

Zibby: Wait, back up again to the therapist telling you you needed an exorcist. How did you respond to that? Did you go get an exorcist? Did you fire your therapist? Did you think it was a great idea?

Betsy: That’s also an interesting question. I stared at her. I was really upset. You can imagine. I said, “You know what? I’m going to pretend you never said that. We’re just going to move on.” Then I never came back. Then shortly after that, I got diagnosed with breast cancer. I saw another shrink. I kept saying to her, “You’ve got to find me an exorcist. I really do have to have an exorcism.” Then finally after I had a mastectomy and I was going through treatment, I realized that was the exorcism and I was done with the exorcist part. The poor therapist said to me, “I’ve never had to handle a situation like that. I had no idea what to say to you.” It was on and on and on about me needing an exorcist. I know what it feels to feel inhabited by the devil and search your life and think, what must have I done in a past life to deserve this?

Zibby: I hate that that happened to you because it puts the blame on you for all these things that were out of your control. That’s the worst thing, that it’s something you did in a past life. I feel like you couldn’t think of something worse to say than that when someone’s gone through a series of horrific things. Maybe we should just back up again and talk about the memoir and all the things. What were the list of the key traumas that you went through, if you don’t mind just reliving all the awful in your past?

Betsy: Anytime somebody tells me that they’ve read the memoir or they’re going to read the memoir, I just apologize right away.

Zibby: I loved the memoir. Now I’m blanking on the name, of course, now that we’re talking.

Betsy: Nothing to Fall Back On.

Zibby: Nothing to Fall Back On, it was so good.

Betsy: It just was a series of very bad luck. I had a terrible car accident where all my teeth were knocked out and my upper and lower jaw were broken. I had to get a hysterectomy at a young again. My house burned down. My husband was gay. I got breast cancer. My mother died. It was all of a piece. It was all in a very short amount of time. When I wrote the memoir, it was really, in a way, to exorcise all that too. Exorcisms have been a part of my life for a long time.

Zibby: Do you feel like the combination of the physical exorcism of the breast cancer plus the memoir did the trick completely?

Betsy: Yes, pretty much. I still have some residue bad dreams and stuff like that, but yes, it really was helpful to do that. I wrote the memoir knowing I wanted to write fiction. I thought, man, if you don’t write that first, those things and those characters will keep reappearing. I wrote the memoir to get rid of — not to get rid of my wonderful mother, but I knew she would show up in every book. I knew there’d be fire in every book. There was only fire in one novel. These things really haven’t shown up again in those characters. I was really able to put my family and friend characters to rest in the memoir.

Zibby: What would the harm have been in including those themes?

Betsy: I’d just have to relive them. Who wants to read a novel about a person getting her teeth knocked out? There have been hints that people have gotten a tooth knocked out, but I didn’t go for the whole shebang. Too much.

Zibby: I get it. It’s so interesting because I feel like a lot of authors reflect back on their work and think, huh, looks like I was working out X, Y, Z issue, but they don’t even know it at the time. You were able to see all the way into the future that that’s what you would think and then stop it from the beginning.

Betsy: I didn’t know that that would happen, but it is what happened. The thing about the memoir is I really had to do research. I had to look at my dental records. I had to understand all my medical problems. I had not done that while I was going through it. In a way, it was like a cleansing to know what I had to know.

Zibby: Then when you approach fiction and you tell yourself that you’re not going to include any of the exact stuff from the past at all and that you have a blank slate, what’s the goal? What do you get the most out of writing fiction? Is it just the joy of the writing? What does it do for you?

Betsy: I do like the writing of it. The publishing of it, not so much. The writing of it, I like a lot. It sounds stupid to say, but I’m terrible in therapy. If I were seeing a therapist now, I would say, I spoke to Zibby this morning, it was really interesting. I don’t dig as deep as I should. When I write, I do dig deep. Even if it’s about another character, I have to deal with, how do you feel about religion? How do you feel about betrayal? It’s things that I don’t seem to be able to get to other than through writing.

Zibby: Interesting. I’m going to argue that maybe you haven’t been seeing the right therapist because I know that one of them was totally wrong, so I’m kind of questioning your taste in therapists. It’s okay. You keep writing. Then everybody gets to benefit.

Betsy: I have seen therapists that have really done very well for me.

Zibby: Okay, good. Not to say that you don’t seem totally together now. Obviously, the end result is great. Now that came out wrong.

Betsy: I understand.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. Anyway, so take me through writing this book. Contrast it with some of your earlier works of fiction. Did it just flow out of you? Do you outline at all ahead of time? What’s the process like? Has it changed over time?

Betsy: Yes, actually. It’s a great question. I always start with a character in my mind. While I was writing this one, I also had a character in my mind for the next one. I have no idea where this character will go, but I know the character. With Lost Souls at the Neptune Inn, I had a character in mind. I had two characters, pretty much, the mother who’s not my mother, the mother who thinks her daughter is inhabited by the devil, and the man who turns out to be gay, Dillard. I had those two characters in mind. For the first time ever, I actually outlined this one. I’d never done that before. I usually write and think, maybe I’ll go this way, maybe I’ll go that way. My agent had been urging me to try outlining. She said, “It will be much easier for you and easier just to write.” It was. It was a much easier book to write. Not everything that I thought was going to happen happened, but pretty much it did. I pretty much knew where it was going to end. I never know where anything’s going to end.

I’m trying to do that with the one I’m working on now too. I’d never done that before. I’d just start with my characters. People say, “Your characters must tell you where to go.” There’s some sort of magical thinking about fiction writing. The fact is I come from a reporting/journalism background. For me, it’s always like I interview my characters. I interview them and think, you’re having this reaction. Why are you reacting so strongly? She said that to you. What are you going to say back? It’s very much, to me, like reporting. That’s how I get to know them. I get to know, what are they wearing? When I worked for Newsweek, I started as a researcher. Researchers, at the time, had to file for the writer. I would have to interview you. I would have to describe what you looked like and what you sounded like. I think that fed into the reporting that I do in my head for these characters.

Zibby: Then of course you went on and ended up running entire magazines and being a real leader in that industry.

Betsy: Still, I had to assign stories and think of the questions to ask. Yes, it was always that process.

Zibby: This is not even related to the book. Having seen all of that with the magazine world and where we are today, do you think there’s any hope in magazines? What do you think?

Betsy: I feel so lucky to have been where I was when I was. I think social media actually might just take another turn. We’re seeing a lot of magazines online. I don’t know. I think that there could be a comeback. I think they would be very different. I don’t even know if they’d be in paper. The thirst to understand something in-depth or to see pictures of people you don’t know, I don’t think that goes away. I don’t think social media can do it in the way that magazines can do it. I don’t think it’s something you curl up in bed with at eleven o’clock at night, just you and the pages, and turning the pages and reading the text. Do you read books on your iPad, or do you read books on books?

Zibby: It’s so funny you say that because I got in bed to finish your book last night with my laptop, which I hate doing. With this time, not everybody’s been able to get physical advance copies. I, in the last couple months, have read more on devices than in my entire life. I cannot wait to just chuck them. I like real books so much more. It’s easier for me to think and process and fold down the pages and go back and forth. What about you?

Betsy: Maybe it’s just a generational thing, but I’m so used to books and magazines. I love the weight of them and the smell of them. I can tell you a book by its smell sometimes. Magazines, there’s something about taking them with you as you’re getting your hair cut or having them on the subway that is just different. I don’t think that will go away completely.

Zibby: I agree. I picked up InStyle which I happened to get when I was getting batteries or something. It was literally this thin. It was like a centimeter. I felt like InStyle used to be the thickest doorstop. Now it’s just this little sliver like a pamphlet or something. Very sad. Anyway, back to the book. When you were talking about outlining and how you did it for this book and how you’re doing it for the next book, I wanted to get maybe a little sneak peek at what the next book is going to be about.

Betsy: Oh, god.

Zibby: No? You don’t have to.

Betsy: I’m just starting it.

Zibby: You don’t have to.

Betsy: It’s about giving up a child. What does it mean to give up a child? How do you do that? How do you go on with the rest of your life after you’ve done that? That’s a really broad stroke. There’s something that made me think about that. I’ve been wondering about that.

Zibby: Wow, that’s intense. You have a lot about motherhood, and especially in this book, and the ambivalence that comes with motherhood. I’m going to get the names wrong. I can’t keep any of characters’ names straight. This the other problem with not having actual books. If I had it next to me, I could flip it open. Instead, it’s a document, and so I can’t even refer back. Anyway, in the beginning —

Betsy: Geraldine is the mother.

Zibby: — Geraldine is so resentful of her daughter for taking away, basically, her beauty and the je ne sais quoi that she has with men and the potential of her life. She talks about how she doesn’t really like her daughter. Her husband is sort of appalled by this. She just says over and over, “Get out.” Then I couldn’t believe when the opportunity came that she was like, this is great, my daughter should work at this inn. Goodbye, age fifteen, we don’t need you anymore. I did send my son to boarding school. I hope I don’t fall in that bucket in any way, but I don’t think she was doing it because it was better for the daughter. She even said, “Wouldn’t the house be so much better without our daughter?” The husband’s like, “What?” The house would be better if you weren’t angry all the time. Tell me about that aspect of it and this whole “maybe having a kid is just not the best thing” vibe.

Betsy: First of all, you should know I’ve never had children. I think my fascination with motherhood in all of these books is, what would it be like if…? In this case, it would be like, geez, what if you had a kid and you didn’t like it? She has the kid early. She’s very young and beautiful. I thought, I’ve known young, beautiful women to have children. I wonder how that feels. I wonder if it feels like an intrusion on their sexuality and their view of their beautiful selves. I think in every book I’ve done there’s been a different version of a mother that I wonder about because I’ve never done it. I think that’s an astute observation.

Zibby: Especially now if your next book is about having to lose a child, oh, my gosh. It’s interesting, though, to write about something over and over that did not happen. I feel like in talking about themes that you were trying to avoid, now you’ve fallen into writing about the thing that didn’t happen. I wonder why.

Betsy: That’s one of the beauties of writing. It’s one of the things I love about writing. I’m so curious about many things. Particularly this last book, Lost Souls, really had pretty much none of me in it. It’s why I love journalism. You get taken to places that you’ve never been or to experiences you’ve never experienced. You get to sort of wallow in them and see what it’s like. I guess it’s like being a voyeur. I think I’ve always been intellectually a voyeur. That’s why I was drawn to journalism in the first place. The book I wrote before this one was called We Were Strangers Once. It was about the whole immigrant experience. I am the child of immigrants. My parents were German Jews. They never really would talk to me about their experience. They’re both gone now, unfortunately. I wrote that book putting myself in their heads and trying to relive what that was like because I was curious. It’s the best I can do sometimes when I want to know something and I want to figure something out. That’s the best I can do is try to write about it.

Zibby: For that book, did you go through records and history and documents and all that too?

Betsy: so much. I read everything. I found papers of my parents’ that I’d cleaned out. I really, really tried to recreate them. The characters in there are not them. There are about seven different characters. Each one probably has an aspect of them. Then the book before that, I also dealt with an immigrant situation. I found a photograph of the synagogue that had been burned down in Germany where my parents were married. It just forced me to write a whole wedding scene that I was able to project them in. It’s a great way to get at stuff you can’t get at any other way, for me.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing, the power of writing. Did those put the underlying issues to bed for you too? Did you wrestle with their inability to talk about what happened and then this was the answer? Not to be so formulaic.

Betsy: That’s a good question. My father was always very angry. He was an angry fellow. He was angry with me because he felt that I never really understood what they’d been through. In a way, he was right because I really tried very hard to be an American girl and to move beyond that. It was only after they died that I really delved into it. I think it was helpful for me. It answered those questions.

Zibby: I wrote a whole paper in college about being the child of Holocaust survivors and the whole ream of effects that the children inherit when they have a parent who can’t, by nature of what’s happened to them, be as fully accessible as other parents. It’s just wild.

Betsy: I felt that I got as close as I could get to it, but I’m sure I didn’t get to the absolute heart of it because, how could I? I tried.

Zibby: So where do you like to write? You seem to be in a living room. You write at home?

Betsy: I live in New York City. There’s a wonderful library. You probably know it. That’s New York Society Library on 79th Street. On the top floor is a writers’ room. I had this beautiful schedule worked out before all this happened. Usually, I’d go to the 92nd Street Y and swim or take a class and work out some of my anxiety, which is impressive. Then I would go and sit at the library. You sit at just long tables. You plug in your computer. You can’t talk in there. You can’t do anything but write. For me, it was a wonderful place because you have the illusion that there are people around even if they’re not talking to you. You also think, I can’t spend too much time on eBay because they’ll notice. Not that anybody was looking at what I was writing, but it really kept me kind of focused. I’d spend most of the day there writing. Now that the whole pandemic thing has happened, I’m writing at home. I’m sitting at the desk where I write. It’s perfectly nice except that I have a dog and I have a husband. Sometimes they communicate with me. That kind of breaks things up. I’m happy writing at home too. It’s lovely to be here.

Zibby: You mentioned that while you love writing, that the publishing you don’t love quite as much. What’s the major hang-up in the publishing world? What is it you really object to?

Betsy: It’s just, you never feel you’re doing enough. Even if your numbers are good, they’re never good enough. It’s just the self-beating up part that I seem to take part in. I’ve gotten very good at not reading — I don’t read numbers. I have my husband read reviews, usually, before I do so I can’t get my feelings hurt like that.

Zibby: Aw. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors aside from having their husbands read their reviews for them?

Betsy: Keep at it. It’s like a sport. It’s like anything. Just keep at it. Write every day even if you cross it out. One of the things that helps me very much is when I write, and particularly now when I’m starting something, just write whatever you want to write. No one’s ever going to see this. I really believe that no one will see it until I’m ready to show it. Just keep writing. Don’t be judging what other people are going to say because chances are what you’re writing right now they’re never going to see anyway. Just keep at it. Do it for yourself. Really write from the heart. I know people who write thinking, what’s commercial? What will sell? I’ve never been able to do that. Maybe that works for a lot of people. Write from either your experience or your questions or your longings or whatever. Just be true to yourself on that. That’s what I think.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for helping me for years, decades now, being somebody that I’ve always looked up to. It’s just so great to have another book come out by you and to be able to be a tiny piece of your publicity tour and all the rest.

Betsy: Thank you, Zibby. It’s always a pleasure to see you and talk with you. You’re doing great. You’re doing great work. Congratulations.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day. Thank, Betsy.

Betsy: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.