“The thread that runs through all of my work is that I don’t like when people are not heard or seen.” Zibby is joined by short story writer, professor, and novelist Carolyn Ferrell to talk about her latest book, Dear Miss Metropolitan. The two talk about the real-life events that partially inspired this novel, how Carolyn handled her own mental health as she dove deeply into her character’s twisted psychologies, and the mythical moment Carolyn realized she was going to be a writer.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Carolyn. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Dear Miss Metropolitan: A Novel.

Carolyn Ferrell: Thank you very much for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Would you mind please telling listeners what your book is about?

Carolyn: In a nutshell, the plot is based on three girls who are kidnapped, held hostage, and eventually make their way to freedom. That’s the basic plot. The book is spread out. It’s got tentacles everywhere. It’s also about not only how they deal with this tragedy, but how their community deals with the tragedy, their various communities. I was looking at their own experience, but also the larger experience of the people around them.

Zibby: I thought it was really interesting, by the way, that you started with an intern at a magazine or an intern at the local paper writing the story of what happened because, just like you said, the larger community can’t believe that this happened in their backyard and that nobody knew. What does happen to a community when something so traumatic happens right there?

Carolyn: It’s interesting. I think that, sadly, we’re seeing it played out right with the Gabby Petito case. All over the country, communities are awakened and are protesting and thinking about how women’s lives — what their worth is. I would say the other thing that’s come out of the Gabby Petito case is that now more people are thinking about brown and black girls who disappear and who do not get the national attention. While it’s a tragedy all around — it’s quite horrible, what happened and what’s probably the outcome of that case — this was an opportunity to look at all of the neglected Native American women who have been disappearing, women in Mexico, and just in our own backyard, brown and black women who disappear and upon whom no media attention is shown.

Zibby: It’s so true. It’s so interesting, you call the woman “the mother” and then how you explain the backstory. I feel like it’s so easy to make judgements about why somebody turns out the way they do and to assume the worst at first. You have this nice passage. Can I just read this one paragraph if that’s okay?

Carolyn: Of course. Please.

Zibby: You said, “To soothe my brother, I started to tell the story about why the mother really acted the way she did. Oh, I hate this story, Bud said. Once upon a time, the mother was delivered into the world on wings. She had an okay father. She had, however, a mother who no more than a fuzzy Polaroid. The world wasn’t paying attention when it doled out these two parents. Well, time went on. I’m going to be different than these two, the mother told herself. And then she turned around again, and here was the world once more giving her two funny-looking kids. Come on, world. What games you playing with me?” Then it talks about the mother and how, “I wish it could be another ending, but then it wouldn’t be us, Bud observed.” Tell me about that and adding that layer of context.

Carolyn: I felt that it was really important to add context to all of the characters, not just the three girls who were abducted, but everyone in their orbit. Even the most minor character, I tried to give a little bit of context. Of course, one of the most difficult people to do that for was Boss Man, the man who kidnaps and rapes and tortures them. How do you make someone who is completely unsympathetic into a character that people will want to read and want to invest themselves in? The answer for me was to not make him completely unsympathetic; in other words, to give him dimension. We don’t like him. He’s a loser in every way, but he had this history. Perhaps, that can explain why he is the way he is. That was really important to me, to give everybody, so that it wasn’t — it’s boring if you have characters that are all bad or all good. You have to give them dimensions and texture.

Zibby: Most people are not all good or all bad in reality. Everybody has a backstory. Their parents have a backstory. Inherited trauma is such a big topic these days. Some of the stuff, it seeps in and colors everything you do going forward.

Carolyn: Right. To look at trauma, I was also very interested in that, to look at the lineage of trauma and how it’s passed on and how each generation does something different. It’s always different. Fern and Gwinnie, when they are rescued, they don’t have any children, but of course, there’s a child who’s born in captivity, Katanya. She is veering down a very different path than her mother and her grandmother. I really wanted to capture as best as I could, the different aspects of their experiences. It may not be as easy as saying, this is why she turned out this way, but it just gives the reader a picture. The reader can come to her own conclusions.

Zibby: What made you write this story? Where did this idea come from for you?

Carolyn: I had been thinking about writing fairy tales. In fact, the original title of this book was The Last Life of The Three Bears. I was really interested in revising, updating fairy tales. The first fairy tale that was on my mind was Goldilocks. A girl gets lost in the woods. She comes upon this house. I was looking at Goldilocks as both kind of a, for lack of a better word, a colonizer — she just goes in and makes herself at home — but also someone for whom the consequences were quite surprising. She can even be victimized. I was thinking about that. Then all of these things were happening in the news. The Ariel Castro story happened and the story that took place in Vienna where the father locked his daughter for twenty-seven years in the basement. There were just a lot of things happening in the news. It seemed to me that the story of girls held captive was just going on and on and on. Unfortunately now, it’s sort of like school shootings. When someone says, did you hear about the school? which one? It just happens so frequently now. We’ve, in some ways, become desensitized.

When I was thinking about these cases, I really wanted to pluck the characters that I created because I did not want to write a true crime story. The people, for example, in the Ariel Castro case, they’re still alive. It wasn’t my place to tell their story. When that story hit the news, I asked the same question that everyone did. How could people not know? How could they not know? Then I thought about, what are the repercussions for the society around them? It’s not like people were just like, oh, okay, they’re going to be okay. They’ll get some therapy, and they’ll be okay. This idea that they’ll get closure, what is closure? What’s closure? Closure goes on for the rest of your life. I was thinking about those news stories, but there was something else that was on my mind. There were actually a lot of things. There were a lot of sources of grim inspiration for this book. I’m not normally a viewer of true crime, but I happened to watch a true crime show one day. It was about a black woman who was a sex worker who had been kidnapped by a white man, and probably in Ohio, I think it was. She was telling her story. She obviously had been rescued because she was telling it in retrospect. There was something about her story that just struck me. She had been imprisoned by this man along with some other sex workers. They were chained up in the basement. She managed to convince her captor that she was in love with him. He took her out of the chains and brought her upstairs. She was fooling him to try to make a getaway.

She asked him one day if he would take her to a gas station so she could just tell her parents or her family — I can’t remember if it was her parents — that she was safe. He said okay. He believed that she loved him. They went to a gas station. This was in the days of payphones. She went to a payphone. There happened to be two cops there. She ran up to them and said, “I have been kidnapped. I need to be saved.” They looked at her and saw a strung-out prostitute. They didn’t take her seriously. She has to beg for like ten minutes. “I have been kidnapped.” They were laughing at her. Eventually, I think they followed her. They said, “Okay, okay.” They’re going to humor her. They follow her to the house. They discover all of these women chained up. The man is arrested. In fact, one of the women in the basement had actually died. That also stung me. What was interesting was at the very end of the show — it was a really difficult story, you could tell, for this woman to tell and for us to hear. It was so much to process. In the end, they kind of tacked on this happy ending. They wrote in text on the screen, “She got married. She’s happily married.” I just thought, again, it’s this idea of, okay, let’s not even deal with the complexities of what it’s saying about race and gender, sexuality. We’re not going to even think about that. We’re just going to give it a happy ending and be on our way. That really inspired me to take on the other side of these three girls.

Zibby: Wow. How do you do research into this and write about it without — this is dark stuff. This is upsetting. References to what happens with even something as benign as a paperclip, the view of the world becomes so dark, really. How did you preserve your mental health while writing this book?

Carolyn: It was really hard.

Zibby: Maybe I should say, did you? Did you preserve your mental health?

Carolyn: I don’t know if I did. I don’t know if I preserved my mental health. I will say that I did relatively little research. In fact, I did almost no research. For me, the research that was important was just figuring out how to inhabit these characters. It wasn’t just, for me, writing them; it was really seeing the world through their eyes. It was hard. There were times that were really hard. For me, the most difficult character to do that for was Jesenia because she has this Stockholm syndrome. She identifies with her captor. She wants to have a future with him. They’re going to have a baby together. She’s really looking forward to it. Everyone around her knows that that’s not going to happen and that that shouldn’t happen. Her denial was, I would say for me fictionally, it was such a — I loved the challenge of doing it, of writing a character who really could not see what the reader wanted her to see and had built this fantasy. It was really tough writing it also because of the abuse she endures and her unwillingness to connect with reality. That was really hard to write.

I would say with the other characters and also with Jesenia, one thing that saved me from completely losing myself in the grimness was humor. One of my colleagues read my novel. He said, “I can’t believe how many times you mention Judge Judy.” For me, humor is so important to preserve their humanity. It’s a really important tool. Everything can’t be serious all the time even though it is a serious and tragic situation. They have to have some coping mechanisms. For me, it was really humor. It was building this world that they actually cherished and also building a friendship. That was also a really big part of it for me. It wasn’t that much about doing research. I’m often asked, did you do a lot of crime research? I didn’t do any. I just imagined what it would be like when you have to really build a new world, where your food is not actually food, where you’re chained up, where you have to — we’re all talking about worldbuilding, but in relation to science fiction or fantasy. What about people who have to do it all the time? That actually includes all of us. We’re all worldbuilding, but they’re a pretty extreme case.

Zibby: You did, obviously, a very successful job. It’s emotional. You feel it when reading it, that emotion. That’s the sign of really good fiction, when you are inside the characters’ interior lives. You feel, even when it’s really horrifying stuff. How did you end up becoming a writer?

Carolyn: The original myth behind this is that when I was — it’s actually not a myth. It actually happened. When I was six and my sister was five, we had a big argument. Who was going to be the artist in the family? Of course, I wanted to draw horses. She wanted to draw them. We both could not do it, and so we argued and argued. My mom came up to both of us and said, “Okay, stop. Marlene,” my sister, “you’re going to be the artist. Carolyn’s going to be the writer.” That really set the path. My sister’s an artist. I’m a writer. My mom gave me a notebook. I wrote a collection of poems immediately. I’ve always wanted to learn how to draw, but I’ve just accepted writing is my lot in life. I always wanted to do it in school, but the public school I went to, there was no creative writing. I had to wait, unfortunately, until I got to college. Then I had just amazing writing teachers. I never looked back.

Zibby: Wow. What was the process like in terms of timing and actually sitting down? Where did you write this book?

Carolyn: I need to be in your anthology because where do mothers get time to write? It’s interesting, there was a review of my book in The Times in which Dwight Garner talked about the twenty-five years that had passed between my first and second books. He described it as a time of silence. When I look back on it, it’s a time of kids. I had two kids and noise and birthday parties and trying to get little bits of time to write here and there. When they were very young, I had a short story collection that came out. Actually, I was pregnant with my son when it came out. When they were very young, writing was almost impossible. I actually have been publishing in these twenty-five years, but short stories. That’s what I really turned to, short stories. I wrote a few essays, but short stories have always been my thing. I can’t believe I actually wrote a novel. I admire Alice Monroe, Grace Paley, people who just are like, I’m writing short stories, and that’s it. Then suddenly, this weird novel comes out of me, which I really see as a collection of short stories in some way. It’s so fragmented. It’s fragmented for a reason, not just my love of stories. I really wanted the fragmentation that the girls were experiencing. Their lives were upside down. Everything had been fragmented. I wanted to use that as a narrative strategy for the book just to break things apart in this way, to mirror what they’re experiencing, not to completely confuse the readers, but just to get a sense of how they’re experiencing the world.

Zibby: What was it like to sell the book? What was that publishing journey like?

Carolyn: I’ve sold two books. Each one was a Cinderella story. My Cinderella story with this book was, right before the pandemic, my last outing before we knew that we would be locked up, I was invited to give a reading in Harlem in the basement of a restaurant. It was Sunday night. I didn’t invite anyone. I just thought, who’s going to want to come out on a school night? I have to go to Sarah Lawrence in the morning. My husband came with me. I was reading with, actually, a former MFA student at Sarah Lawrence. The person who came before me was reading poetry and playing the digeridoo. It was one of those kinds of things. I was like, okay, this is kind of funky. I read my stuff. In the audience was an old friend of mine. We used to be in a book group together. She had been an editor years and years ago and then took a different career path, led the publishing program at City College and did a lot of other things and also had two kids. She was in the audience because she happened to live around the corner from this venue. She knows that I am a story writer.

She said, “Do you have a collection of short stories? I’m going to begin work at Holt. I’ve taken a job as editor-at-large.” I said, “I’m almost finished with my story collection, but I do happen to have this novel.” I had just gotten an agent a couple of months before. I showed her. We went through the proper channels. My agent sent her the book. Really, in a matter of two weeks, I had a contract. It was really wonderful because Retha, my editor, she wasn’t even working for Holt yet. This was her first acquisition for the company. Then we were suddenly locked down. My task was to revise, to make edits. I went through what everybody goes through. Okay, there are a few things I have to change, and months later, a lot of things that I had to tighten up; with a book like this, getting the dates right and making it such that the horror didn’t overwhelm the reader. That was my pandemic project. I worked on it through the pandemic.

Zibby: That is impressive. That was a dark time, so there you go.

Carolyn: It was really this silver lining, really like a Cinderella story. I was like, this is a really weird book. Who would be interested in reading this totally chopped-up book? This is based on just what I read. I think that when men ask that question, they don’t really ask it because they’ll write something weird, and it’ll be published. People will praise it. I think for women, sometimes it’s hard to write something that’s so out of the box. Will people be interested in reading it?

Zibby: It was meant to be, right? That’s a meant-to-be-story. This book was coming out. It just had to find its way. That’s kind of how I feel about my daughter half the time. She was going to get out into the world one way or another. She just was bound to be. It’s the same thing. That’s amazing. Are you working on anything else now? As if this isn’t enough.

Carolyn: I am trying to finish the story collection. Believe it or not, I’m working on another novel. I sat down and I said, okay, this book is not going to be as fragmented and all over the place. So far, I’m about a hundred pages in. It’s just as fragmented and all over the place. I’m looking at slavery and the Holocaust and making connections there.

Zibby: So another light read?

Carolyn: Yes, exactly.

Zibby: I’m just going to have a therapist show up at your doorstep. You’re going to be like, who’s this? Oh, right, that talk with Zibby a while ago. Kidding aside, is there something that appeals to you about writing through the worst-case scenario of stuff? Do you know where that comes from in yourself?

Carolyn: That’s a really good question. I guess where it comes from, the thread that I think has been through all of my work is, I don’t like when people are not heard or seen. That’s a thing with me even though I’m very introverted. I’m not an extrovert by any means. I’m really talking about people who are silenced. You can be silenced in, of course, as you know, many ways, not just through overt violence. Even as a child, I’ve always thought about stories that we don’t hear about. I thought about, in fairy tales, what actually happened with that princess? I’ll give you a good example. I think I was five years old. No, I was about six or seven. I was watching West Side Story. It was on TV. One of my sister’s friends who was a year younger, we were watching it, and she said at the end — we were all crying at the end. She said, “You know, nobody dies, actually. Tony, he didn’t die. Maria doesn’t die. In the other end, they all actually just live happily ever after.” I thought, well, the whole point is that there’s a murder. I didn’t know it was a Romeo and Juliet. It was about how fighting was bad. This friend just made up this whole other story about Tony and then even thought about dragging Maria into it. That intrigued me. I never stopped thinking about that. How could she say nothing had actually happened to them? She probably couldn’t deal with the fact there was death, but I was just so intrigued. I’m always interested in that other side of the story, but particularly with people who are just not heard or taken seriously or seen or invisible.

Zibby: Good for you for excavating. That’s awesome.

Carolyn: Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Last question. Any advice for aspiring authors?

Carolyn: Oh, my gosh. I just came out of my graduate class. I had a long lecture, and so I can just give that.

Zibby: Just one thing.

Carolyn: It won’t be a long lecture. One thing that I would advise people to do is, when they’re writing something, to try to write it to its end as opposed to writing a little bit and then going back and revising, and writing a little bit and going back and revising, but to write something to its end. Of course, that’s difficult with novels. I think there’s something about getting a finished draft down and then using the powers of revision to really figure out what you want to do as opposed to constantly editing yourself. That leads to a kind of perfectionism that stymies everybody, myself included. I may not always practice what I preach, but I think that that’s the best advice I could give. Try to write a full draft before revising it.

Zibby: We won’t hold you to it yourself, but thank you for the advice. Carolyn, thank you so much. Thank you for your time and this beautiful book, Dear Miss Metropolitan. You know what? If choppy is your thing, just own it. That’s your style. It’s amazing. Why not? You have to do something different, right? Everybody has their thing.

Carolyn: Right. Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care. It’s been a pleasure.

Carolyn: Take care. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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