Catherine Newman, HOW TO BE A PERSON

Catherine Newman, HOW TO BE A PERSON

Zibby Owens: Catherine Newman is the author of How to Be a Person: 65 Hugely Useful, Super-Important Skills to Learn before You’re Grown Up. She’s also the author of Waiting for Birdy, Catastrophic Happiness, and One Mixed-Up Night, and the coauthor of Stitch Camp. She’s the etiquette columnist at Real Simple magazine and the editor of the James Beard Award-winning nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine ChopChop. Newman has contributed to publications including The New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Parents. She currently lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family.

Thanks for doing this again.

Catherine Newman: Thank you for having me again.

Zibby: You’re welcome. How to Be a Person: 65 Hugely Useful, Super-Important Skills to Learn before You’re Grown Up, what a fantastic book. Tell everybody how you came up with the idea to write this book.

Catherine: You can stand to hear this again?

Zibby: I can totally stand to hear this again. It’ll be great.

Catherine: I wrote this book because I have the kind of kid — my daughter Birdy who’s seventeen now, for her whole life, she has really liked to do it her own self. She started saying that when she was one and a half and has said it basically ever since. She, at some point, was twelve or thirteen and I had asked her to do some basic task like sweep the kitchen. I think it was a holiday. She didn’t know how to do it. She had never picked up a broom. That was my fault. It had never occurred to me to ask her. She didn’t know how to do it and didn’t want to be shown how to do it. Then you’re in your own personal vacuum of you can’t learn something if you don’t let someone show you, so you need a book. I went to the library to get a book that I pictured as a photographic encyclopedia of housework. This is a book I thought would exist and would be a really great book for kids that would be a thousand pages long and every page would be an eight-step photograph of how to sweep the floor, how to clean the bathroom. That book did not exist, you’ll be surprised to hear. fun book for kids. Then I thought, there must be books that show kids how to do useful stuff. Weirdly, there’s lots of books about fun useful stuff like all the Girl Scout-type books, but there really wasn’t a book that was about teaching kids to do basic household chores. That’s the book I set out to write. Then it kind of evolved because my wise publisher thought that still wasn’t going to be a really fun book if it was just about chores. That’s how it got to be so variable.

Zibby: When we last spoke, I had told you that my daughter used this book. Actually, maybe this is after we spoke. Anyway, my kids, as I mentioned, love this, all ages of my kids. My daughter who’s thirteen was like, “Kyle asked me to set the table. I need that book.” She grabs the book and opens it up to the page where you have, “Here it is if you’re at a fancy French restaurant. Here it is if you’re just having regular dinner.” She set the table. She was so proud of herself. It was just amazing.

Catherine: That makes me so happy. That’s the whole goal.

Zibby: Not that she hadn’t ever set the table, but it hadn’t ever necessarily been right before.

Catherine: A book will hang out with you while you learn. I think books are so useful for certain types of kids in particular who really don’t want to deal with your pedantic tone or don’t want to deal with your assumptions or don’t want to deal with the fact that at a certain point you get irritable because they can’t seem to learn something that seems sort of obvious to you. I do feel like that’s the beauty of a book among many other beauties of a book.

Zibby: Totally. Your advice also was to just leave it out. I wanted to go force it down my son’s throat too and be like, “You have to read this.” You said just leave it out. Then lo and behold when we were all like, “Great job with setting the table and everything,” he’s like, “Hey, what’s that book?” Then he picked it up and started reading it. Then my little guy started reading. It’s been contagious in our house. I love the illustrations. It feels almost like a picture book meets graphic novel type of thing. Yet you’re talking about how to chop an onion and whip up a smoothie and sweep the floor and empty the dishwasher. You made it so fun.

Catherine: Thank you so much. That is my illustrator that I got to work with, Debbie Fong, who’s this just incredible illustrator but also this really tremendous person and really got the book, just got it, nailed it. Everything I wanted, she just did it intuitively. She really understood. I didn’t want the book to feel scolding. I feel like we’re all on the same side even though it doesn’t really feel like that, us and the kids. We all want the same things. I wanted the book to feel really like an invitation more than a, you should’ve already known how to do this, you lazy . That’s what I actually want to say to everybody. She just got it. I think she must really like kids. I haven’t actually met her. We’ve just worked together the way we all work together now. The illustrations are so loving and funny. I was just totally thrilled to get to work with her.

Zibby: It sounds like it was a great match. The text is funny too. The whole thing is almost tongue and cheek and yet also really helpful. There are things in here that I’ve learned myself. Should I not admit that? Or just different ways of doing it, like this is how you packed to save the most space. I don’t do it that way, but I’m going to try it your way. I’ll scramble eggs your way.

Catherine: I will say that the things in my house that have proved most demystifying, the section on how to apologize — both men in my house, my twenty-year-old son and my fifty-one-year-old husband, when they were proofreading for me, they covered that page with Post-its that were like, “I don’t really understand this. What does this mean?” They were just kidding, but they’re the worst apologizers. I actually felt like this could be kind of useful. Here’s a basic framework for apologizing where you take responsibility and you acknowledge how somebody might feel. In some ways, it’s so basic. It takes only half of a spread in the book. Yet it’s kind of radical. In a weird way, that’s going to be the heart of people’s emotional lives and taking responsibility in huge ways too, if you even think at the political level. When somebody stands up and says, “Wow, I was wrong about that,” that’s so tremendous. I actually think that’s an entire worldview, being able to apologize well.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s a skill. You know what would be so cool? If you took this book and made it into a series, and maybe you’ve already done this and I didn’t notice or something, but a series of really short YouTube instructional videos but all with these characters in this illustration with this blue background and everything.

Catherine: Oh, my god, like little animations?

Zibby: Like little animations because some of the things it would be good to see in action. You could show someone cleaning the tub and shower. You could demonstrate the hand washing or even answering the phone the right way. I just feel like this could be such a viral way. That’s how so many people get their information now, especially kids. It might be really cool to do.

Catherine: That’s a fantastic idea. I love that idea. Birdy and I have done a few Instagram Live events. We did some for the bookstore WORD. We showed tying a necktie, which she was totally psyched to do as a classic non-binary gender girl. She got out a pair of pride rainbow necktie and tied it on live TV. We did writing your political representatives. It was really fun to make videos. I think, oh, my gosh, if we got Debbie to do the animation, that would be insane.

Zibby: You should definitely do it. Even when I’m helping my son put a tie on if my husband’s not around or something, I will google that. Not that your book is not fabulous, and I am going to keep it as close to me as possible, but I always google how to tie a tie. Then whatever video pops up is how I learn.

Catherine: Do you have to go behind him and do it like you’re tying it on yourself? That’s what I always have to do. I think it drives my kids crazy. It’s the most smothering mother-type thing to do, come behind them and reach in front of them with my mother arms.

Zibby: Catherine, how did you end up writing a book to begin with? I know this is why you wrote this book. I know that was the inspiration, but how’d you get into writing?

Catherine: That is a good question. I was one of those little kids who wanted to be a writer. From the minute I actually put words on a page, I wanted to be a writer. Then that was drummed out of me as an impractical idea. Mental note to all the parents, please just let your kids pursue the things they love. I was sort of rerouted through academia. I actually got a PhD. I was kind of set up to be an English professor. I had been writing. The whole time, I’d been moonlighting for a friend of mine who was the editor at FamilyFun magazine. I’d been writing tons of craft pieces to support myself as a grad student. That was all through my twenties. Then I wrote this dissertation that everyone said was too readable, which I thought was really sad and frustrating. Then I had a baby. One thing led to another. I found myself turning more and more towards writing for money because we were broke and scrappy. Then I got this gig. This is just going to make me sound like such a dinosaur. I got a gig writing a weekly column about parenting for BabyCenter. This was in 2002 when I was pregnant with Birdy. I wrote this weekly column for BabyCenter. They paid me fifty dollars a week to do it. I wrote it for five years. At a certain point, I turned the first half of it into a memoir. That was a really great — I learned the lesson that you say yes to everything because you just have no idea what it might turn into. That’s how I ended up becoming a writer. It was really necessity to earn a living combined with this desire to keep track of my kids’ babyhoods.

Zibby: I probably read all your articles along the way.

Catherine: You might have. Although, it really wasn’t for everyone. The book ended up being called Waiting for Birdy. I read it now and it’s cringey. It’s fifteen years ago. I was so neurotic. It’s a little painful to me now, honestly.

Zibby: Did you see in the paper recently there was a study that neuroticism is linked to dementia? There’s a higher risk of getting dementia if you’re a neurotic person. I was like, oh, great. Now I have to worry about that.

Catherine: My mother and I sent each other that article. Yes, I did see that. It makes total sense to me. I feel like, oh, my god, at least at some point I’ll be demented and spared my neurosis. We at least can look forward to that.

Zibby: That’s the perk.

Catherine: Silver linings.

Zibby: Silver lining, oh, my goodness. Too funny. Do you feel like you’re going to keep tracking things that might be useful to your kids, or do you think this is it for you and now your next one will be a guide to aging or something like that?

Catherine: I have my eye on a menopause book. I can’t help it because it’s so my kind of topic. It’s inherently hilarious to me, all the terrible things that are happening to my personal body, so both. I do want to write another book for kids. We’re taping this in the middle of the protests after George Floyd’s killing. I keep thinking how to be anti-racist, not that me, lady-mom, needs to write that book, but I keep thinking about a book that would have different other kinds of roles in it, like how to be an ally, how to be a friend, like a how-to book that would be really formatted in a similar way but about relationships specifically and being a good friend, a powerful ally, a loving grandchild, all the relationships. I like that idea. People keep writing me now, which is so sweet, about the things they wish were in the book or that their kids wish were in the book. Some stuff has come up like how to make small talk with your grandmother, which I thought was so heartbreaking and sweet. Also, that’s not easy for kids. Or even how to be in a romantic relationship. I don’t know that I could cover that in a two-page spread, but just thoughts like how do you find out if someone likes you? How do you be a sibling and not model your relationship on all the gross competitive stuff that’s in the media or that you’ve seen on TV? just all the different ways we could approach relationships imaginatively and lovingly.

Zibby: Totally. Do you have advice for aspiring authors?

Catherine: Oh, yeah, I do. It’s probably the same advice you hear all the time. I have two basic things that I feel like have worked really well for me. One is to maintain all my relationships. In this world where everyone’s moving all over the place, that has been huge. The first thing is to say yes to things even if they don’t seem so great or pay so well, not the really terrible things and nothing that’s against your politics. When you’re just starting out, I said yes to everything. The truth is, I still mostly say yes to everything. Then you make these relationships with them. Then before you know it, the person you wrote the Kotex ad copy for is an editor at O Magazine. I really feel like that has been the key for me to having really great writing connections. I’m not proud. I’m my family’s primary wage earner, so I really can’t afford to be proud. I really will write a lot of kind of crappy stuff, but it also means that then some really lovely stuff floats my way from people I’ve worked with in the past. So I guess just that, maintaining relationships and knowing when to say no, as in every area of life, but also saying yes more than you may be inclined to.

Zibby: I love that advice. I haven’t heard that before. It’s really, really true. I wrote my first article for a magazine — I’m sorry for talking about myself. It’s just to illustrate your point. My first article I wrote, I was fourteen years old. It was published when I was sixteen. It was for Seventeen magazine. My editor there, Rory Evans, I stayed in touch with on and off our whole lives. What’s that? You know her?

Catherine: Yeah, that’s my etiquette column at Real Simple.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, too funny. I was just going to say, she called me and was like, “Will you write for Real Simple now?” I’m like, sure.

Catherine: Isn’t that the best? You wrote for her for Seventeen magazine, which I’m so envious of but I love. That’s exactly it. You make these connections. You make yourself easy to work with, which is the freelance trick because no one has to hire you. They’re not stuck with you. If they don’t want to work with you, they just won’t. I just always think that. I love that about my life because it means all my relationships are as lovely as they could possibly be because we’re just constantly mutually deciding to work together. You know what I mean? We’re not stuck. I feel like that’s actually an advantage for me. It just makes my life very pleasant, except for the hustle and the whoring, as I like to say.

Zibby: You should write for We Found Time. It’s my new online magazine. You should do an article for me.

Catherine: Okay, great. Sign me up, whatever it is.

Zibby: Done. Awesome. I know I’ve spoken to you on Instagram Live. Now we’ve done this podcast. I would like to be your friend. We have to get together in person.

Catherine: The next logical step, I feel like.

Zibby: Anyway, thank you so much for talking to me again. Thank you also for delighting all ages of kids in my household and helping the chores get absorbed by people other than me in a fun way. Thanks for all your family contributions.

Catherine: Thank you so much. Thank you for hosting me so graciously two different times. I have just totally loved it.

Zibby: Me too. Thank you so much. Take care. Buh-bye.

Catherine Newman, HOW TO BE A PERSON