BLANK's Pub Day! Zibby chats with Julie Chavez

BLANK's Pub Day! Zibby chats with Julie Chavez

PUB DAY SPECIAL!!!!! Guest host Julie Chavez interviews Zibby about her debut novel BLANK. Zibby reflects on her journey to becoming a novelist (she has been dreaming of this day for many, many years!) and then delves into the book, touching on the initial spark of inspiration, the meticulous structuring of the storyline, and the importance of infusing playfulness into the writing. She also describes the challenges of transitioning from memoir to fiction and the moments of doubt she's had throughout this whole experience. Oh, and in the end, she picks a theme song for the BLANK movie... if it ever becomes one!


Julie Chavez: Zibby Owens, welcome back to your own podcast.

Zibby Owens: Thank you, Julie. Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Julie: I bet it is. You transition right from interviewing to being interviewed. This just feels so true to your life.

Zibby: Yes, and of course, running late.

Julie: You know, we just can't get everything right all the time. I'm trying to figure out if I could ever be a person who is on time consistently, but I just don't know that it's in the cards for me. I'm pretty on time, but I don't know. Are you an on-time person? I feel like you mostly are.

Zibby: Yes. I used to be early for everything. I feel better when I'm early because then I am not so anxiety ridden. Lately, it's just been impossible, so I've been running later.

Julie: You have a lot happening. What constitutes early for you? What would be an ideal time to arrive at something? Five minutes? Ten minutes?

Zibby: Yes, five, ten minutes.

Julie: I find these things interesting because some people are really early birds. I can't live like that.

Zibby: No? You're usually late or on time? Late?

Julie: I'm on time, but I misjudge how long things are actually going to take. I'm on time, but anything will throw the timeline. I don't know why I think that things are always going to go smoothly. That's just how I roll.

Zibby: You're an optimist. That's a good thing.

Julie: That is true. That's probably part of it. I'm so happy we get to talk today about your novel. I was thinking about this last night. This marks such a special moment for you in my mind just watching your journey. Does it feel like that for you?

Zibby: It does, yes. I'm actually kind of beaming inside. It's taken a long time to get here and to finally have a novel out. I actually can't believe it. I was holding my miniature book. It's right here, actually. I was showing this to my kids yesterday, my miniature book. I was like, "Let's look at the date. When was this published?" It was 1985. I'm like, who could even do the math to figure out how long -- this is when I decided I wanted to write a novel. It's been quite a while. We decided it was thirty-nine years. I'm going to go with their math.

Julie: I lean on children for math constantly. I can't. No. I don't have time for that. I love that you have that record of your beginnings for this. I was thinking about this. Bookends is such a wonderful memoir. That represented, obviously, a big milestone for you. Why was it still important to write a novel? What felt different for you about writing a novel that kept you at it?

Zibby: Perhaps, all the times I failed at writing a novel. I've written several novels in the past and have kept at it and kept trying new things and just hadn’t really figured it out or how to do it. I don't know. I get really hung up on these goals I set for myself. I really wanted to do it. I've also read eight million novels. It's hard to read so much and not say, could I do that? How would I do it? I feel like a kid being like, wait, could I just get in this conversation? Could you just let me in? Could you scooch over just a smidge? Could I join in? I feel like finally, I snagged a tiny little spot in this very, very crowded concert hall of people.

Julie: That's really exciting. I'm so happy for you. I think it makes a lot of sense. What is it about a novel? Obviously, you're goal driven, but what is it about the novel that feels meaningful or valuable in a different way than memoir and our factual reporting that we do?

Zibby: That's a good question, Julie.

Julie: Phew. At least I brought one.

Zibby: Pippa, in the novel, talks about how she looks at things a little bit like an art history, like writing a blank novel as a commentary on everything that's come before it. I feel that way a little bit in writing my own novel. You're entering in this fast-moving stream that's going. You're on the side fishing. I don't know what's up with all my analogies today. There's something about joining this very powerful, centuries-long tradition of writing fiction, which is very different than nonfiction. Also important. I love doing it. It's much easier for me to do it. That was a milestone. Something about just joining this collective imagination and this -- it's an art form. It's one that I've always so admired in other people, their ability to do it, and feeling like I'm not naturally this way and realizing maybe most people are not naturally novelists. You have to learn how to do it. There's just something timeless about contributing to the canon of fiction, even though this will be -- people will read it in two days and toss it aside like it's a magazine article. It's fine. I'm fine with that. It just feels somehow important, in a way.

Julie: That makes sense to me.

Zibby: That was very generous of you because it barely made sense to me as it's coming out of my mouth. I don't know. I hadn’t really thought about it before.

Julie: It was something I was noodling a little bit. There is that idea of imagination and what place it comes from inside you, too, to create something. I made a comment to Mando the other day. He was asking about what I was working on. I was like, "Oh, just trying to create something that's never existed before. That's what I'm up to, just willing it to come."

Zibby: I'm just creating people out of thin air and having them talk.

Julie: Yes, and trying to make the dialogue not too stilted and dumb. It's really quite a challenge. It sounds like it was kind of that twin challenge. I also understand how there is a privilege to have contributed to this amazing tradition and this thing that we believe is very worth people's time but is difficult to execute, which is to write a novel. I'm so happy for you that you've done it and that now you're there. You're in the theater. You got your line in the stream. That's so exciting.

Zibby: I really think the biggest thing is just how much I love fiction. It's just how much I love it and how much I love ingesting it that I wanted to contribute to it. It comes from my appreciation of other people's work that makes it feel so important to me, and exciting. That's all.

Julie: I love that. That makes sense. I understand. Let's talk a little bit about Pippa. I'm assuming, obviously, since many of the people who listen to this podcast -- I'm assuming by the time there will be quite a few people who will already have read it, which is so exciting. I'm loving seeing the response to it and just people enjoying it so much. I think it really is a joyful book. Just give me the quick what it's about so that for the five people listening that haven't read it, so that they’ll run out and buy it. Maybe two copies.

Zibby: Yes, so ten. Good, I need the ten. I'm sure there are a lot of people listening who haven't read it. That's okay. There's time. Blank is about a character named Pippa Jones who is a former best-selling novelist on deadline for her next book. It takes place over six days in LA when she finds out that she has to get her book in or her advance will be taken back, even though she's already spent it converting her pantry into an office. At the joking advice of her son, who suggests that she hand it in blank, she does and decides that she will hand this book in with no words. It will be a commentary on the publishing industry. It will be funny. Then the book is really about the impact of this decision on everything in her life from her friendships to her marriage, to her mothering, to her career.

Julie: How did Pippa arrive to you? Now that you've written a fictional book, did that just come to you? Was it something you kind of conjured? Did you do a complicated ritual with lots of burning and maybe some dancing?

Zibby: Oh, yeah, that's totally me. I like to burn and dance. In fact, I'm packing my bag now for Burning Man because that also is totally on brand for me. No.

Julie: Burning Man is my living nightmare. I know all the people who love Burning Man are going to be like, Julie, you're missing out. I am okay with that. I can't.

Zibby: I'm like, explain this to me again. No. Okay, great. I remember hearing about it when I moved to LA after college. All the people I worked with were all leaving for Burning Man. I was like, no, I'm going to go to my tennis clinic and read. Anyway, no, I did not conjure up Pippa. My son suggested the idea of a blank book when I was trying to come up with an idea for my next book. Although, my husband Kyle thinks it was his idea too. I'll just let the two of them duke it out. My son really thinks it was him. I kind of remember it being him too, but don't tell Kyle.

Julie: We won't.

Zibby: I was like, oh, my gosh, what a great idea for a book. That is something that I want to explore. What would that be? That is what gets me excited, when there is a situation that I'm like, oh, my gosh, think about all the ways this could go and what could happen. What if? That's how I started it. Then Pippa just came pretty easily. She is not me, but definitely have some similarities. The voice came really easily. Now I'm writing another novel. I'm like, how am I going to make this character's voice not Pippa? I really begged my editor, I was like, could I just write another book about Pippa? No. I'm like, I'm not sure I know how to write another voice. We'll see how I pull it off. Pippa came just so easily. I decided early on that if I was going to take the time I didn't have to write a novel that nobody was asking or waiting for, that it had to be fun. Otherwise, why? Why am I doing this? If I'm not having fun, it's not worthwhile. I tried to infuse it with that sense of playfulness and fun. Then it just took off.

Julie: I love hearing about how people arrive at the story. Then when you were writing, which by the way, you did very quickly, as you do many things -- I think you are a fast mover. I feel like most people know that about you, which is one of your gifts. You have an ability to just get after something, which is so amazing. When you were doing it, though, did you have to stop and step back in terms of craft and plot? Were you thinking about a structure? Do you just write and figure all that out later?

Zibby: No, I had a structure and a plot. I was lucky in that I sold this idea to my editor, Carmen Johnson at Little A, who published Bookends. I had to write out a whole outline and proposal to even sell it. That was a requirement. I had that to go on. I knew where it was going. The problem that I ran into is that I wrote the first thirty thousand words and thought I was done because I had gotten to the end of my outline. I had basically finished. I was like, "Okay, Carmen, I finished." She was like, "What are you talking about? This is half a book. It has to be longer than this." That ended up being a good thing. I feel like it was putting down the first layer, like laying the foundation. Then I could go back and add all sorts of stuff. Then I did that a couple times until it got long enough. I was like, "Here. It's sixty thousand and one words. Take it. Just take it." I kept adding more and making it more complex and more layers. I'm reminding myself this time around, just get to the end of the first big chunk, and then you go back and decorate and put on the window treatments or whatever else.

Julie: That's an interesting approach. I don't think I've ever thought about it that way. As I slog through currently, I think the same thing where I look at it and I'm like, well, I know the ending, so do we just want to wrap this up and make it a super short book?

Zibby: I'm not advocating for this because it might not be efficient. I'll see how many words I can eke out of my original -- I don't know. We'll see. This is definitely how it went last time. I almost gave up on this book. I did it quickly in that the time I allotted for it altogether was not that much, but I spread it out over a lot of time. I started it when I got this book deal in the summer of 2022. I remember this one day when I really had to get going on it. This friend of mine, Taylor, who used to own a bookstore in the Hamptons, became a manager of a hotel and snuck me into a room between check-out and check-in time when my kids were at camp. I was like, I have to use this time, these eight hours or whatever the time window, six hours, to get a huge chunk of this underway. I wrote then. I wrote a bit that summer. I remember writing at the Ocean House too. Then I decided, I don't have time to do this anymore. Maybe I shouldn't do this. Between summer and Thanksgiving, I got in touch with my agent, and I was just like, "Honestly, I don't know how I'm going to get this done." I was launching the publishing company with your book.

Julie: I've heard of that.

Zibby: Everyone but Myself. Author: Julie Chavez. I spent a lot of time on that. That is something you can't rush, which is frustrating. I think this is the major frustration of running a business. I can do things on my own quickly. This is why I have trouble delegating. Anyway, over Thanksgiving, I was going to give it up. My agent was like, "Let's talk about it. Are you sure? I know you really wanted to do this." Then over Thanksgiving with my family, I was telling them how I think I'm going to give up on this book. They asked me what it was about. I started describing the thing and all the things that I had coming up. I was like, actually, this sounds kind of good. Then I decided to finish it.

Julie: That's really interesting. I feel like that's the true mark of so many things, though. How many times along the way are you considering quitting? I feel like so many writers will tell us that. I think that's an interesting thing. You've interviewed so many authors. Do you feel like you're able to metabolize those stories and that advice for yourself, or does it feel as difficult for you? Do you feel like there's an alchemy there that's helped you?

Zibby: It does help. When I was thinking about quitting, I was really thinking about quitting. Not like, today, I feel like not doing this anymore. I was really revaluating whether or not I had the bandwidth to do it. Should I do it? Then of course, later, now I'm sitting here being like, I thought about quitting, but I really thought about it. When my books were rejected in the past -- I would hear authors say that this happened to them. I'm like, yeah, right, but now you're on my podcast. Obviously, it all worked out. I don't think it's actually going to work out for me. I keep getting data to support this. What if it just isn't going to happen for me? How do I come to terms with that and put this dream aside? Yes, it kept me going, but I was also like, well, it worked out for them, but that doesn't mean it's going to work out for me. It doesn't work out for everyone. I'm going to be one of those people it doesn't work out for, which is fine. I have this great podcast. I do all these other things in my life. I should be happy, but this is really what I want.

Julie: It's such a struggle too. I was talking to another writer about this. We have to smooth out the story a little bit when we're sharing about how you got from here to there. You say, I was thinking about quitting. We kind of have a picture of that. Then to go in a little deeper and explain, no, I actually was at that point where I thought this isn't going to work for me, those emotions are so powerful. It's so easy for us to kind of skip over them. Then when someone else is in that situation, they're only thinking of someone else's smoothed-over story. That makes complete sense, where you know it cognitively, but can we feel it when we need to?

Zibby: That's the uncertainty in life. It's like when you're at all your friends' weddings and you're like, I don't know, maybe I'm not going to fall in love. Not everybody falls in love. Not everybody gets married. I might be the person this doesn't happen for. I might be one of the eight million people who, it doesn't pan out for their books. You just don't know.

Julie: No. There is a tenderness to it, too, because it is a creative act and because you're not doing it for the fame and fortune, I've discovered. Although, I do feel very famous these days. The elementary schoolers think that I am. That's what matters.

Zibby: It enabled you to launch your Tiny News Network, so there you go.

Julie: Totally. That will be my claim to fame, for sure. Yes. I would love to hear, what are three words that describe you? What are three words you would use to describe yourself?

Zibby: I just finished this big branding exercise for my brand. I feel like my brand is sort of aligned with me. I think one word is warm. I would say warm. Is that the same as nice or kind? I don't know.

Julie: I don't think so. Continue. Warm, kind.

Zibby: I'm debating between motivated and determined. Somewhere in there because that's part of me as well. I'm debating saying something about -- I don't know.

Julie: It's a hard question.

Zibby: Some combination of hunger for knowledge, but not in an academic way. I love to learn. How about that?

Julie: I think you're curious.

Zibby: Curious, that's it. Thank you.

Julie: You are a curious person too. I would agree with that. I like those. You are all of those things. Do you find that challenging right now, that whole alignment of your person and your brand?

Zibby: Well, we're working on it. We might be doing this new logo and all of this. Then all of a sudden, I was like, this is ridiculous. I actually worked in brand development. I did this. I'm good at this. I should do what I used to do. I should do a competitive analysis. Then I should do the brand adjectives. I should find the imagery. I just put together this whole presentation. Of course, Anne was like, "When did you do this?" I was like, "No, it's fine. I did it waiting for my dentist this morning and then for the hour at the beginning of the workday."

Julie: Oh, my gosh. I would ask that too. When do you do this? Elle Evans recently told me that her writing style is chaos gremlin because she types on her phone between patients. She's a doctor, just for people who don't know. You'll be hearing about her book soon, Wedding Issues.

Zibby: Wedding Issues. Coming out in April. Thank you for the plug.

Julie: She said that, and I thought, what? I feel like you have that same ability. I need everyone to stop talking to me and have at least a modicum of silence to get things done. You just hammer it out.

Zibby: I could do a lot of things between theoretical patients, meetings, whatever, but I could not write fiction in between, in those spaces.

Julie: Honestly, I said, that's great. I thought, you might be a little crazy. I'll tell her in person next time I see her.

Zibby: Uber talented. I am not that talented.

Julie: No. Some people can do that kind of code switching like that where they can just put their mind in that mode, which is incredible. You said that writing the memoir was a little bit easier, so we'll skip over that question. Do you like one better?

Zibby: I don't like one better, but they're just so different. I will say this is much more fun. The novel is much more fun. It's lighter. I know there are dark parts of this book as well.

Julie: You did a good job making it fun. It's a great read. It's a quick read. I feel like people will say that. That's not to its detriment because there are so many books out there that you slog through. It's just like, I can't live like this. Right?

Zibby: Yeah. It's fine. It's entertainment designed to be consumed. This is not supposed to be precious and poured over. That's fine. That's what I meant to do. It's all good.

Julie: You did a good job. One final question that someone asked me that I'm stealing from Kelley Vick on "Literary Podcast." "Literary --" shoot. "Prospects." That's what it is. Sorry. Wanted to make sure I got that in.

Zibby: I like "Literary Shoot."

Julie: Perfect. That's what we'll name our next project. Put that on your branding slides.

Zibby: I will. It'll go on. There is a spot for podcast name.

Julie: She asked me -- Blank as a movie, not the characters and who's going to play who, but tell me what the theme song would be for the movie.

Zibby: That's a good question, the theme song for the movie of Blank. I don't know. Something with Taylor Swift.

Julie: That feels right, yes. Really, we queued that right up.

Zibby: You know what? I think "Karma."

Julie: I think you're right. I think that works perfectly.

Zibby: I'll take that.

Julie: Zibby, it has been a pleasure hosting you on your podcast today.

Zibby: Thank you, Julie.

Julie: Also, I just want to take this opportunity to tell you that I know your listeners, they love you for a reason. They're loving this book. I'm so happy for you that you've achieved this goal and that you're part of this club of novelists. All the luck to Blank. Congratulations.

Zibby: Thank you, Julie. Thank you for the interview.

Julie: My pleasure, friend.

Zibby Owens, BLANK

BLANK by Zibby Owens

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