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

Bill Clegg: Thanks for having me on.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I was just telling you, but just to showcase my Bill Clegg fandom over the years, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, which was so amazing. Now I know everything about this period of your life, as we were discussing.

Bill: I’m so sorry.

Zibby: Did You Ever Have a Family, everybody is like, “This is the best book ever. Oh, my gosh,” everybody I talk to. Then The End of the Day which of course has just come out and which is absolutely beautiful and I was so privileged to have read. I’m so happy to be here talking to you.

Bill: I’m happy to be here too. Thank you.

Zibby: Let’s just talk for sec first about The End of the Day even though it’s not the end of this day. What inspired you to write this book? What’s it about? Why this book? Why now in your life?

Bill: Oh, the easy questions.

Zibby: Just all that. Then we’re good to go.

Bill: The End of the Day, when I’m writing, there’s usually some other secondary writing that’s going on to the main thing. It’s usually when I hit wall. I’ll just go to that other thing that doesn’t have any booby traps or problems associated with it. I am of the “go where it’s warm” philosophy in writing. If it gets too tortured or uncomfortable or just isn’t coming, I’ll move off and go write something that feels easy, and that will be fun. Then I’ll hit a wall there and go back to the problem that I couldn’t solve before and it will seem, usually, much less difficult to solve. With The End of the Day, one of the central characters is a woman named Jackie. She actually appears for a moment in Did You Ever Have a Family. She’s the mother of the caterer who is a minor character at the beginning of that book who tells a story to lay the groundwork of the scenario of that novel. She appears in the driveway in a housecoat. Her porchlight is on in the middle of the day. Then she’s gone and you never see her again. When I was writing that book, she interested me. I just kept on coming back to her. I didn’t know it at the time, but I kept on writing her backstory of her childhood, this important friendship she had when she was a kid.

Then it became clear that she and her entourage were not going to be central to Did You Ever Have A Family, but I just kept on writing her because she was interesting to me. Then when I finished Did You Ever Have A Family, there were all these pages without really an organizing center to them. Then I overheard a story about somebody who was in , Connecticut, which is near where I grew up. This is many, many years ago. He was telling the story of how he was at a picnic. It was holiday picnic of some kind. I don’t know if it was the Fourth of July. He had gotten up to run an errand and went to the store to get something. There was some group of New Yorkers who were hanging out. They invited him basically to come party with them. They went up this mountain, and he didn’t come back for two months. He had left his family at this picnic and he just disappeared into this. I was interested in that for a lot of reasons. Namely, I identified with it because at a certain point in my life that might have been something I would’ve done. The fact that he had a family and that he had just left them and then he came back down the mountain and faced this family — the marriage survived, apparently. That was a very captivating scenario. I was imagining into that quite a lot. Then it somehow merged with this whole story of this woman in this small town named Jackie who had been born of this other novel. Suddenly, the book became clear to me, what it was going to be. That’s how it started.

Zibby: Wow. This is proof that if you don’t use the pages in your novel, you can save them and maybe them another time.

Bill: Exactly. Nothing should be ever wasted.

Zibby: Don’t waste it. Start a new Word document. Who knows? It could end up as this.

Bill: Maybe it’s because I have so little free time that anything that would exist that could be used, I think of as potential. It was inert. It was this pile of — it just didn’t quite — then this other random element came in and activated it and made it a story that I could lay my mind around.

Zibby: I’m glad you didn’t toss it because it was beautiful. Your writing, first of all, is just, as you know, as you must know, it’s just so beautiful, the way you write, the way you tell stories, the way you even paint a picture of the room. You can feel yourself in it. It’s such a gift. It’s really awesome. Obviously, it goes from such extremes. In your memoir, you’re shaking and waiting for your crack dealer to call you and losing forty pounds. Your life is crazy. Then you go to this elderly woman and waking up in her bed with the light streaming in. It runs the gamut. It’s amazing the way you can take the reader to all these places. I guess that’s writing in and of itself.

Bill: It somehow makes sense to me, maybe not from a distance. Crack dens of New York, the country bedrooms and women waking up and pondering the morning, they don’t obviously connect. Somehow to me, they seem like there’s a direct link.

Zibby: How did this whole writing side of your life get started? When did you know you were a writer? Is this something you’ve always done? Was Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man your first book, or do you have novels stashed away somewhere?

Bill: No, that’s the first thing I had written since college. I kept notebooks in college and then in my early years in New York. It was always like, I just wrote impressions of things. I’ve looked at some of that stuff. A lot of it is me coming home a little bit tipsy and wanting to record something that felt very urgent or important to transcribe. Usually, it was just the Brooklyn Bridge and the lights of the city. It’s so cliché and so bad. I did write. I worked with writers. I came to New York. I started working at a literary agency. Honestly, me writing didn’t even enter a real consciousness. Underneath everything, of course that’s what I hoped would happen, but I’d never named it to myself. It seemed beyond me. Then after I got sober, in early, early recovery, I was writing stuff down because I thought that I would forget it. There was a lot that hovered in this gauzy space of, did it happen? Did I imagine it? I wrote it all down. Some of those details were incredibly vivid. I thought that if I just wrote it down then, that later I’d be able to make sense of it and it would all became clear. It didn’t, not really.

Zibby: This is back to your saved pages writing theory again.

Bill: Exactly. Nothing is wasted.

Zibby: Or nothing is new.

Bill: It just gets repurposed. Then I put those pages down. I went back to work after getting sober for a year. I had a lot of damage to clean up and a lot of relationships to mend. I had to learn how to live my life sober. That took me time. Then at one point I went back to those pages and just looked at them. It unlocked something. Now I look at that time period, I just started writing what had happened. It came somewhat easily at the time. It really came out like a gusher. I felt like I was catching up with it as I was typing. Then the book came into being. After I’d finished it, it was like, oh, I can write a book. I loved the experience of being alone with pages and the sentences and just the project of making a story that’s here, putting it here. Now since then, it’s just become a regular part of my life. My main job is as a literary agent. When I can, I write. There’s always something. Even if it’s several months between writing sessions, I’m still puzzling through stuff a little bit in the downtime.

Zibby: How does your experience as a writer then affect the books that you gravitate towards, or does it not at all? Do you pick books to publish similar to your style of writing? I saw your list. I’ve had some of your authors on my show and everything. How does it relate?

Bill: In the main, I’m more attracted to writing that I can’t imagine myself doing. There’s recovery. There’s things that involved themes that I’ve explored. In the main, these are writers who I’m in awe of. I’m trying to, at first, figure out what it is they’re trying to do and then ultimately when I get to the edge of that, trying to help them get that writing in the world. Usually, the things that don’t occur to me are the things that excite me the most. There isn’t that kind of overlap. It’s changed over the years too. People will ask, what are you looking for? My answer, which sounds so trite in some ways, is it’s sort of the thing that I didn’t expect is the thing I’m looking for. If you’ve seen it or if you’ve read it a lot of times before, it’s not necessarily the thing that you’re going to be the most excited to engage in. When I come up to this house that we now live in all the time because of the coronavirus — we used to only come up maybe two or three weekends out of the month. I would come up for a week and pull up the drawbridge and write. On the other end of that week, I’d be so desperate to get back to other people’s writing and out of the head of my own. Setting up those kind of reunions with the job and the writing, it’s just been a nice balance for me. I am always looking forward to the thing that I’m heading toward. Nothing ever feels too oppressive or too much. Even though the agenting takes primacy in the days and the weeks, I’m thinking about what I’m writing, usually. It’s on the horizon somewhere even if it’s months away.

Zibby: Then in addition to reading for your work as an agent, do you read for fun on top of that? You must not have time for that. Do you?

Bill: It’s hard. You know what’s really helped me with that? Audiobooks. I’m kind of late to the table, I think, but I’ve discovered them. When I work out, I listen to audiobooks. If I’m lifting weights or if I’m doing something, I listen to audiobooks. I have now become kind of an addict. I am addicted. Along with pizza and donuts, there’s audiobooks. It’s great. I love them. Some of them are so well-done. I just listened to The Dutch House, which Tom Hanks narrates. When I first approached it, I was kind of skeptical because that felt a little too Hollywood. He’s amazing. He reads it and really delivers a major performance in the reading. It’s great. If you haven’t listened to that, I recommend it.

Zibby: That’s a great suggestion because I’ve been meaning to read that book. I’ve had it right here for so long. That will be a great way. I also have recently gotten into audiobooks. Being out of the city, there felt like there were more opportunities like taking long walks and long drives. I wasn’t going to listen to an audiobook in a taxi or something. Although, I guess I could now, not that I’m in a taxi that often.

Bill: I also recommend City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert’s. That, it’s Blair Brown. Do you know who she is? She was in a television show in the eighties called The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.

Zibby: I remember that.

Bill: Then she’s doing a lot of theater and stuff like that. Based on this performance alone, I think she’s one of the best actresses on the planet. It’s the story of this woman’s life. It’s really the whole sweep of a life from teenage years into her seventies, eighties maybe. It’s epic and brilliant. It’s one of the best novels ever. The performance that she gives in the reading is memorizing.

Zibby: I like also reading memoirs when the author narrates themselves because then I feel like you know them even more intimately. Jodie Patterson’s The Bold World, she did such a good job reading that. I just read Jill Biden’s. I just had her on. She read her memoir. I just felt like by the time I talk to them, I’ve already talked to them for eight hours or whatever it is.

Bill: I listened to Michelle Obama’s. That was actually the first one that I listened to in March in quarantine. I thought it was great. I looked forward to it every morning when I would go down to the basement and work out in the cobwebs. Michelle Obama made it possible. It’s such a good book.

Zibby: Who narrated your audiobooks? Do you have audiobooks?

Bill: I agree with you. I think having the authors read makes it better. In my case, I’ve read them, and I can’t say that I’ve made them better. I’m not that good at it. In fact, on The End of the Day, I was supposed to read the audio of The End of the Day in New York at a studio. Then COVID happened. We were up here. Somehow, they figured out a — it’s like this converted barn that’s a recording studio, but mainly for musicians. In fact — oh, gosh, I’m going to forget his name. There’s a popstar, Shawn something, who’s dating Camilla Cabello.

Zibby: Now you’re going to embarrass me, .

Bill: I should know this. Anyway, he had just left after recording his new album. Then I turned up. It was literally five minutes down the road. I would go for an hour and a half a day and just read a little bit. I did it over the course of two months. I shouldn’t probably say this, but I don’t think it’s the best. I did my best.

Zibby: I’m sure it’s fine. At least you knew what you meant. At least the intonations are what you had in mind when you wrote it versus somebody coming into it who might misinterpret or something.

Bill: Yeah, but then when you listen to somebody like Tom Hanks read The Dutch House, it’s so shaming because there is a way to really embody the dialogue. I just don’t have the skill set.

Zibby: That’s his whole job. He’s been doing that forever.

Bill: I know. I know.

Zibby: If he tried to be a literary agent for the day, he might not do a good job. That’s his job. This is your job.

Bill: True.

Zibby: These glimmers of ideas that you still have, are you always writing a book? Are you in the middle of one now, or are you just going to look for more scraps? I feel like you should go through your junk mail and find whatever you can.

Bill: Oh, yeah, this loan offer is a novel. Possibly. I’m definitely working on something right now. It’s going to be the third of what is unofficially a kind of trilogy of these books that take place in the fictional town of Wells, Connecticut, which is where Did You Ever Have A Family and The End of The Day take place. This is one that I’ve been sort of circling since the first one. There’s a character that I’ve had in mind. I had the title a long time ago but didn’t have the book. I had the character and the title, but I had no idea, really, what the story was going to be. Now I’m coming into it a little bit and just typing toward it.

Zibby: Do you discuss your work with some of the writers you represent or just friends? Do you keep it all under wraps?

Bill: In the beginning of this, I was like, church and state, oh, no. The thing about working in book publishing and working in literature and probably any creative field where the medium is something that matters to you a lot, I represent these writers who are also big readers. We talk about books. We talk about their books. There’s an intimacy that develops, and especially with some of them, over time. With a few, my writing’s come into it kind of against my urging and certainly better judgement. A couple of them have been really good, have read stuff, and even early. We talk about it. Some, but not that many.

Zibby: Can you give a little glimpse of more of what Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man was about? I know this is from a while back. It’s about your life. I thought it was just so good. I’ve remembered it all this time, not that it was that long. Was it ten years ago or something? How long ago was it?

Bill: 2010, it got published.

Zibby: That was good. I didn’t research that. Anyway, share a little bit of your life story from that time and how you made it through. That’s the most inspiring type of story there is, going through the worst and coming out better for it on the other side.

Bill: That memoir chronicles a period of time. The foreground is a couple of months that I spent really in a freefall of crack cocaine addiction. I had, for over ten years, had an active crack addiction that I had kept secret. I was a heavy drinker. I’m sure that there was some people in my life who thought that I was an alcoholic. Nobody had confronted me about it, but I’m sure I didn’t give them a lot of room to. In terms of the crack cocaine addiction, my boyfriend at the time knew, who I lived with, but that was the only other person. If you know anything about addiction, particularly with crack cocaine, it becomes less and less manageable. At the point that it became completely unmanageable, I just walked out the door of my life on a bender that I had intended to end in death. On the other side of that, I ended up in treatment. Because so much of those two months were — a lot happened in that time. When I was getting sober, I was trying to make sense of what had happened. It’s a very close look at those last two months of my active addiction. Then it panels back to when I was a kid to lead up to the period of time that that two months commenced. It’s sort of like, how did you get here? I think I’m still puzzling through that. I’m still engaged in that.

That book is a kind of representation of what my engagement with that puzzle looked like at the time in 2008, is when I finished writing it. I was lucky. I went to treatment. I found other alcoholics and addicts in recovery. I realized after relapsing a fair bit in my first year of sobriety that I couldn’t stay sober without other alcoholics and addicts in recovery. I needed them very closely and actively in my life. Some of the people from that period of time in 2005 and ’06 when I was first getting sober, those people are still active in my life. I let go of everything I thought I knew about how to live my life. I’m sober today. If there’s a reason, it connects to that. I had a lot of ideas about how I should live my life and how I could navigate the problems in my life. I had to throw all that out to get sober. People in recovery taught me how to live, how to be honest, how to be accountable, how to be responsible, and how to be useful. Growing up before that, the North Star was, am I going to be happy? How can I be happy? I let go of that in recovery.

What became clear is that if happiness was ever going to come into it, it was because you were living a useful life where the focus of self isn’t the primary objective of the day, but really focusing on others, which parenting is very helpful with. The crisis of taking care of somebody immediately takes your mind off yourself. That’s also been helpful. There’s no finish line in recovery. It’s been a lot of years since then, but I’m not standing on the other side of a finish line. It’s something that I have to engage with, always. Happily for me, I love the rooms of recovery. I love the people in them. I love sober alcoholics and addicts, their stories, their sense of humor about the worst thing. I identify with them. That’s kind of it. There are people I know who have leaned into it and followed a very similar path to mine who haven’t gotten sober. On some level, it’s a mystery. It really gets a little woo-woo for me. When I look at the videotape, I’m kind of shocked that I am sober and that I was able to navigate that period of time, especially in early recovery. It’s somewhat of a mystery still.

Zibby: Do you feel like part of the being useful was contributing your own story through your memoir and the novels that came after?

Bill: Writing the books kind of felt like not a choice. It really became this puzzle that I needed to see through. Having it be published was the choice. The only way in which it made sense was if it could be useful. You’ve talked to a lot of memoir writers, so you know this. You’re bringing in other people’s stories by telling your own, and so there’s a cost. There’s a complication. It really had to be something that — there’s a discomfort too of just taking those parts of your life that are, for a long time, the most shameful, the ones you would do a lot to keep hidden, and then you’re actively putting them forward. The reason to do it was to have it be useful. Probably anybody who’s written a memoir of their experience, even of experiences that aren’t as dark as my own, when people identify with your story — I still get emails and DMs and all sorts of communication about people reading those books who have identified, who say it’s useful. That’s been helpful to make peace with whatever the discomforts have been for me, and especially with the people in my life who those books have involved.

Zibby: I know we were joking before we started recording about how your neighbors, they find out about your book and maybe they don’t want to send their kids for a playdate right away. I’m kidding.

Bill: Bring the kids over. To my face, I don’t get much of it. I can’t imagine the conversations. One of the things that I have found, which was not my experience when I was younger, is that stories like mine aren’t that unique. It seems ultra-unique as you live it. It feels terribly singular and not knowable. Addiction and alcoholism seem to cut through even the most serene-looking lives. I find more that, as I navigate the world, people who I meet confess to me more easily about what’s going on in their life. It’s overwhelming how much it affects people.

Zibby: That just hits on the whole point of books, really. When you’re going through life, these experiences all make you feel that way. Then as soon as you read someone else’s or you put your own there, you realize that you’re just one. This is just part of the collective experience. That’s what’s so great about it.

Bill: I think that’s true. In the literature of recovery, there’s one phrase that really caught my attention early on. There’s a description of getting sober as an end of isolation. That was a hundred percent my experience, which is going from this secret, shameful, tortured existence into a community of people who had had very similar experiences. Many of the feelings they would even describe in the same language that I would use, which shocked me to my bones. Also with books, I remember reading books when I was young, identifying with experiences, and just connecting to the world. I grew up in a small town, at the end of a long driveway, before social media. Books were also just a way of seeing what was going on in the world, but also recognizing certain feelings and circumstances. It had this connecting effect. It ended isolation, or it tempered it in some ways, made it more bearable. Certainly, recovery was the extreme version of that for me.

Zibby: I feel like a lot of moms use Facebook groups as their recovery vehicle. I’m not even kidding. What you’re talking about with community and all that, I’ve never been a big message group user type person, but so many people, that’s what they need. That’s what they’re hooked on. It provides them some sort of solace for when they go back in the middle of the night and the kid won’t sleep and blah, blah, blah. There’s all these groups.

Bill: Life is hard. Anytime that you can connect in any way, even if it’s not explicitly to connect about what’s hard about life, just not to feel alone in it is buoying. It helps you survive it. It helps you navigate it.

Zibby: Very true. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors? as our last question. I’ve kept you for too long here.

Bill: Just write, and write more. Read a lot. Reading is one of the most important things that a writer can do. Do both. Write without an expectation. A lot of the time, some of the best work that I’ve read, when I find out later from the author how it came to be, a lot of it, it happens first without a shape in mind. It comes from this amorphous feeling. All the writers I work with know that I quote this line from the poet WS Merwin. He wrote a poem about writing a poem. He says, “Any day now, I’ll make a knife out of this cloud.” I think of that cloud as the idea or the inspiration, feeling like something should be written down. The writing is making that more specific, more purposeful, more deliberate. Sometimes it just needs to be a cloud for a while, and just to luxuriate in that and to explore that. Usually, along the way, a shape or a pattern or a purpose emerges. Then you write toward that. I think there’s so much tension that arrives at the blank screen and thinking that you need to know what it is exactly before you begin. Just write. Just start. It’s like analysis. I don’t think people are in analysis anymore. Once upon a time, people would sit for hours just rattling off stuff. Little patterns would emerge from what they would say. Then meaning would be gleaned from that. Then a story gets shaped. Then something really meaningful happens and shapes, but over time. It takes a time.

Zibby: Sort of writer as sculptor whittling it down. Amazing. Thank you. Thank you so much for chatting today and for coming on my show and sharing all your experiences and writing all your fantastic books that have really made a big difference. Thank you.

Bill: Thank you. I appreciate it. Take care.

Zibby: Bye-bye.