Caroline Gertler, MANY POINTS OF ME

Caroline Gertler, MANY POINTS OF ME

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

Caroline Gertler: Thank you for having me, Zibby, I’m really excited to be here today.

Zibby: I feel like it was not that long ago that Sarah Mlynowski introduced us and we sat next to each other at the library lunch. You told me about this book you were working on. Now here we are. It’s coming out, Many Points of Me. It’s in my hand. This is so exciting.

Caroline: I’m excited. I actually can’t believe how fast it’s happened. I remember being at one of your events and you announcing to the room that I had just had my book go out on submission.

Zibby: Sorry about that.

Caroline: No, it was really nice because it led to a really nice conversation with some writers after. It was really sweet of you. You’re such an amazing supporter of authors and books. I love watching what you do. Your podcast really helped get me through some of the pandemic and the quarantine, so thank you.

Zibby: I’m so glad. I really felt like we were all going through that submission process with you. You told me the day you sent it out. Then every day, I was worrying and wondering and seeing you in the halls at school. It’s a nerve-racking process knowing it’s out there. Does the timing of hearing matter and all of that stuff? We were all flies on your shoulder in that event, so sorry for blasting your anxiety out to the crowd.

Caroline: I kind of wish I could reexperience it. Now that it’s come to a published book, I can say it was enjoyable.

Zibby: That’s good. Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you start writing at all? Then let’s just go from there. When did you know you wanted to write?

Caroline: I’m someone who’s wanted to be a writer my entire life since I knew what it meant to be a writer, I would say certainly by the age of — I had taught myself to read at three or four. I had two older sisters. All the learn-to-read books were around the house. I just picked them up and never stopped. My first diary that I ever wrote when I was nine that I kept, I have an entry from when I was six. I wrote that I wanted to grow up and be a writer and have two girls and a dog. My husband’s like, “Where was the mention of the husband?” I’m like, well, you know…

Zibby: Means to an end. Wow, that’s impressive. What is it when you will something into happening? I don’t know. I’ll think of it. Prophesying or something of your future.

Caroline: It’s hard work. It was sort of willing it to happen. I had to work and work. It didn’t come fast. I thought, by the time I’m twenty, by the time I’m twenty-five. Now here I am in my early forties. I just kept working and working and working. I think that’s what made it happen. It wasn’t just a childhood dream. You have to work to make it come true.

Zibby: A hundred percent. Very true. Yes. I was not trying to suggest that the heavens just flew down the book deal for you or anything. You knew you wanted to be a writer as a child. Then tell me about some of that hard work that led us to this book.

Caroline: Just years of playing as a child and writing stories and reading. Then for a little while, I sort of moved away from it thinking I could never become a writer. I looked into journalism. I thought about other things, art history. I went and I did a degree in art history. Then at a certain point, I decided books are really my thing. I had done an internship in college for a children’s book editor. After I finished my art history master’s degree — I was in London. I moved back to New York. I started looking for jobs in publishing. While I was doing that, I actually got a temporary job working at the bookstore at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They were hiring seasonal temp workers for the holiday season. I was there, which was an amazing experience. It was my first exposure to being on the staff side of the Met and got some internships in curatorial departments. I was just applying for publishing jobs. Then I got my first one with at Henry Holt who I had interned with when I was in college. I spent a few years working for her and Wendy Lamb at Random House. That was kind of like my MFA, learning about how to write and being on the other side of publishing. I was just writing on the side and practicing and working.

Zibby: How did you choose what audience to write for? Why write for younger readers versus adults, or was it just for this specific book?

Caroline: I was thinking to write for adults when I was younger. In college, I took a writing class with Mary Gordon. I was writing short stories. I always was writing about children and childhood. My absolute favorite period as a reader, that time from eight to twelve, reading middle grade novels was such a rich experience, just the way those stories made me feel. Then also, when I got the internship in publishing in college, I applied to a children’s book editor and then also to an adult publishing internship. I went for both interviews. Above and beyond, I just fell in love with the children’s book world. That’s sort of how it came to be. For a while in my twenties, I maybe was still trying to write adult stuff. Then actually when I was twenty-four or so, I think I took my first class in writing for children at NYU with Amy Hest. That’s when I focused in on really trying to write for this audience.

Zibby: Wow. Let’s talk about how your experience at the Met ended up informing this book because there’s so much of that in it, the art world and drawing and the famous artist and all of it. Tell me about deciding to use those bits and pieces of your professional life for the backstory, or not even the backstory, but the whole setting and everything of this book.

Caroline: First of all, I loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a child. The idea of having some sort of behind-the-scenes access to the Met really spoke to me. There have been a few other books that have done it nicely, Masterpiece by Elise Broach which I actually got to help work on when I was at Henry Holt. Then Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald was another really good recent one. I wanted to write something that was an ode to the Met and drew on my art history background, my love for art, for the place, for New York City. That’s really where it came from. Then I was just intrigued by the idea of, what would it be like to be a kid whose father was a famous artist and who died and left behind this legacy that is visual that people see and have exposure to but doesn’t necessarily speak to what the actual personal relationship was? That was the other part of it.

Zibby: That was so interesting how you went into the whole discussion of how you refer to artists in the present tense. Yet they’ve passed away. In a way, it’s keeping them alive.

Caroline: Yeah, that’s exactly — the first line of the book, which is a line that stayed through several drafts, then I had actually taken out that line towards the final drafts that I was working on with my editor. Then I finally was like, I want to put that line back in. I put it back in the beginning. I’m glad that I did.

Zibby: I’m glad you did too because it makes you think about the whole — if you’ve lost someone and it’s up to you to bring back their memory, if you think of them or items trigger them or something, that’s one thing. It’s another thing to have somebody who you’re constantly being re-sensitized to. You’re exposed to it, so your trauma keeps coming back up, and your loss, but not even because of you. My grandmother, I can see her sweater and be sad. The famous artist here as the dad, you can’t get away from that. It’s a very interesting conundrum, the private and public spheres of loss.

Caroline: It is interesting. I’m sorry for your grandmother.

Zibby: No, I didn’t mean to bring it in. Most people have lost a grandmother at some point.

Caroline: I lost one grandmother. The one I’m really close to is luckily still with us. My heart goes out to you.

Zibby: Thank you. It was very sad. Tell me about the writing of this book. Knowing your daughters and your life and everything firsthand, when did you do it? Was it when they were all at school? How did you structure your time? How long did it take to write and all of that?

Caroline: I am the most undisciplined person that exists. As our common friend Sarah Mlynowski can testify, she was so key in helping me to settle down and find that discipline. I met her on a plane to Montreal when my older daughter was just starting kindergarten at the same school that her daughter went to. We actually ended up spending ten hours together in the airport because our flight was cancelled. My husband was already up there. She was going up for the holidays. She and her husband took me under their wing — I was with my two girls alone traveling — and helped us all get up to Montreal. Then after that, we started meeting at a coffee shop right after drop-off. She would make me sit there at a place with no internet and just write. She would be like, “Just sit down and write for an hour.” Of course, we had many wonderful conversations too. She’d be like, “Stop talking now. Write.” She really helped me get into this mode of doing that. Then after that period, I started going to the New York Society Library on the Upper East Side after dropping my younger daughter at nursery school. I just made myself do it. I was like, I just have to go. I’m not leaving here. I knew what time I had to go pick up my daughter. I was like, I’m not leaving until I get out this number of words. I just kept going. It was a lot of discipline for someone who’s not disciplined, which is hard to do.

Zibby: I think your story just there negated your claim that you are not disciplined because you clearly are. I think having a friend or having accountability of some sort is so key. I’m jealous of you. I wish Sarah still lived on the East Coast. I’m jealous that she was the one because she’s such a champion and cheerleader. To have somebody in your corner who believes in you and wants you to do your work, that’s so awesome. It’s really amazing.

Caroline: I was very lucky. I also had a writers’ group that’s disbanded slightly now, but I would be meeting with them once every other week. Having that accountability and knowing that I could check in with them was helpful too to keep me going, and those times when I just got so down and thinking, this is never going to go anywhere. I’m never going to be able to finish. I don’t know what to do. It’s just very helpful to have writerly emotional support and find those people.

Zibby: Very true. Do you draw? I know there was a lot in here about different types of art forms and all the rest. Are you an artist at all?

Caroline: Not at all.

Zibby: I know you say no, but maybe a little? No?

Caroline: Oh, no. I love visual arts. I love textiles and fabrics and visual things, but I cannot draw. I remember in college meeting someone who — he runs a drawing center or something. He was like, “Everybody can learn how to draw. Close your eyes. Draw what you see.” I’m sure that it’s like never say never, anybody can do it, but I’m just not talented that way. There’s a parallel with writing that I think is really interesting. It’s just that difference between what you have in your head and then actually putting it onto the page. I have no conception of how you’d go about that with a piece of art, how you would capture something figuratively. I guess abstract I could try to do. Even then, I just don’t have that vision. With writing, I understand from the inside out how it works or how that feels to be able to have this vision in your head and then put it onto paper. Everyone who writes knows what initially comes out is nowhere near close to what you envisioned in your head. Even the final product is never really what you had in your head, but you work and work and try to get it there through all the tools that you have as a writer which you get better at by practicing them.

Zibby: It’s true. The artist has all their equipment they can line up, all the brushes and the colors and everything they need. Then writers, it’s the transition from head to fingertips in some way, and that’s it. All your tools are your hands. I always get so worried whenever I slam my finger in the door or all these ridiculous things where I’m constantly hurt or something’s hurting or whatever. I’m like, what if I couldn’t use my hands to type? I feel like not only is it our primary communication method now, at least for me, I rarely pick up the phone, but also just to get my feelings out of my head. It would be devastating to not be able — now I’m jinxing myself.

Caroline: Two things. I have a friend who has arthritis. She got arthritis at a young age and has that issue. She has a hard time typing. Also, I think it’s so interesting how we’ve grown up. I learned to type in fifth or sixth grade just on the cusp on when computers were becoming common. Just how my thinking is so attached to typing on the keyboard and being able to hit delete and move and cut and paste, I don’t write well by hand, and just how different that is. I always admire when I hear writers who are still writing their first drafts by longhand. My hands are not strong enough. I don’t have a good pencil grip. It hurts me to write. I think there must be something very special about writing it out by hand first and then translating that onto the computer when you don’t have the time to fidget with every word.

Zibby: I used to write by hand ages ago, like ten and under or something, maybe even a little bit further. Now I just feel like it’s so much faster. I can’t write as fast as I’m thinking, so it’s just so frustrating to wait for the pencil to catch up. This is such a silly thing.

Caroline: That’s where some writers that I admire that are very beautiful writers, they probably are writing more slowly and more deliberately because they’re not just — I’m a speed writer. I’ll be like, I’m going to sit down and punch out three pages. I can do it in fifteen minutes, but it’s not always as well thought through as it would be if I slowed down and took some time with it, maybe.

Zibby: Yes, I’m not good at slowing down pretty much anything. Good point. Having been through this whole process and getting it published, having it coming out into the world, which is so exciting, what advice would you have for young writers, you years ago starting on this journey?

Caroline: The big things are just keep reading so that you learn story and internalize a sense of how a story and plot and character work. I think that’s something you just learn by reading a lot. And writing, just practicing, just doing it, and having fun exploring different worlds. I don’t know how important finishing a project is. I had this conversation with another writer friend who teaches writing to young children. I never was really great at finishing things when I was a kid, and even well into my adulthood which I think eventually becomes a very important feat. I remember the first time I finished something. It didn’t matter if it was good or bad. When you’re young, you have so many ideas. It’s okay to just keep exploring them. Actually, my almost eleven-year-old daughter writes. It’s so fun to watch how she — she’s way better than I ever was or ever am or will be at thinking of plot and character and motivation, all these things that I can’t consciously think about. She can talk through it. It’s amazing. She’ll write a hundred pages of something and then move on to something else. I’m like, is it important for her to finish at this age or just get it down? She was asking me about copyright rules. She wants to quote from . “I want to have them acting out a play. Can I use the actual lines of dialogue?” I was like, “Don’t worry. Unless you’re publishing it, you could just have fun and use it. If you do get to the point of publishing it, then we’ll figure that out.” It’s fun to have that in the house, this person to have these talks about writing with.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Wow. If a kid of mine could finish a page, that would be a miracle. No, I shouldn’t say that. Some of them like writing more than others, but none of them are writing a hundred pages and worrying about copyright infringement. That’s pretty impressive. Did writing about all of this enhance your appreciation of art? Do you have a favorite room in the Met that you really love? Do you now feel more attached to it having just had it in your consciousness for even longer?

Caroline: I think that came from my — I’m a docent at the Met. I give tours there. For the past ten years, I’ve done volunteer training. We used to have volunteer training on Mondays when the Met was closed to the public, so I got to spend a lot of time there when it was closed. I think that’s really where my love for the Met has solidified, that it feels like my own backyard. There’s so many things I love. I love the period rooms which I think I mention in this book. You feel like you’re walking through a giant dollhouse. The American rooms are amazing too. Of course, I love European paintings, which is my field. I’m especially a fan of seventeen century Dutch art. They’ve had a special exhibition on it for the past couple years as they’re renovating the European paintings gallery. They’re all gathered together in one place. I could just live there. There’s so many wonderful places to explore. It’s funny. When I go with people to the Met, I’m racing through. I could cover the whole Met in ten minutes because I used to give a tour of the whole museum. People think, where are we? I forget that not everybody is as comfortable, doesn’t have the whole floor plan of the Met living in their heads. It’s a really special privilege to be able to have that relationship with such an amazing place.

Zibby: I have that with the Museum of Natural History because all four of my kids took a class there for several years, each child. We had to tromp through every single thing.

Caroline: I did that class with Elizabeth, actually.

Zibby: There you go, for years.

Caroline: The asterisms in the book, the stuff about the dad painting stars and he painted this series of asterisms, I learned about asterisms from the natural history class that we did last year. This year, we were doing even more, like astrophysics and learning even more about stars. I was like, I wish I had had all this information last year book because we’re going a little deeper now.

Zibby: I know. As I go from child to child, I’m like, can I remember the answer to these questions? One time, it was a six-year jump.

Caroline: Have all of them done it? All four of them?

Zibby: Yeah, I did it with all four of them.

Caroline: I’m always amazed at those parents who are there four times a week with each one of their kids.

Zibby: I never did more than two times a week. Dutch art, I love. I took a class in college. I took an art history every semester, but I didn’t major in it because I only wanted to take the ones I wanted to take. There was some amazing class by Christopher Wood who’s this preeminent scholar on Dutch art. He was amazing. I hear his voice every time I’m tromping through exhibits. Anyway, Caroline, thank you so much. It’s so exciting that your book is coming out. I’m excited to do the event together at Shakespeare and to have this book. I started reading it out loud to the kids, but then I couldn’t read it fast enough to them for the pace that I wanted to read it. At least they got a few pages. It’s really awesome. I’m so excited for you. It’s really fantastic.

Caroline: Thank you so much, Zibby. This was fun. I’m looking forward to our event. I’m also looking forward to your books coming out next year, your anthology and picture book.

Zibby: Yes, that’ll be fun. Awesome. I’ll talk to you later.

Caroline: Thank you.

Zibby: Told you it wouldn’t be bad.

Caroline: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Bye.

Caroline: Bye.

Caroline Gertler, MANY POINTS OF ME