Zibby interviews debut author Cecilia Rabess about Everything’s Fine, a sharp and intimate novel about two young people–a liberal Black woman and a conservative white man–who fall reluctantly, complicatedly, and deeply in love with each other during the Obama and Trump administrations. Cecilia shares the origins of this story, her long journey to getting an agent (and very short journey to selling the manuscript), and her pub day jitters. She also reveals she is working on her next book and shares what she enjoys doing (besides writing and being a data scientist!).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Cecilia. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Everything’s Fine.

Cecilia Rabess: Thank you so much for having me. I am extremely excited to be here because this is my very first podcast ever.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Oh, my gosh. I feel like publicists usually put me first because I’m a very warm and gentle podcast. It’s not very professional. It’s literally just a conversation. Delighted. Wow. Tell everybody about your book. What is your book about?

Cecilia: Everything’s Fine is the story of two very different young people. They fall reluctantly, complicatedly, but also quite deeply in love just as the protagonist — she’s a young Black woman. She’s liberal. She meets Josh. He’s this young white guy. He’s conservative. The book is set between the years of 2008 and 2016, so bookended by Obama and Trump’s presidencies. The arc of their relationship traces the arc of America’s increasingly fractured political climate. As you can guess, complications ensue.

Zibby: Amazing. It also is a very in-depth look at what it means to be an analyst at an investment bank and what that culture is like. I feel like the bank itself is a character, and the culture.

Cecilia: I think of it as, yes, it’s a love story. Yes, it’s a coming-of-age story. It’s also a workplace novel. It packs a lot in.

Zibby: It really does. You have such a great sense of voice. It’s really great. Even just the way that the title plays in, we’re all so quick to be like, no, no, no, we’re fine. Everything’s fine. It’s not a lie. It’s just you can’t even deal with getting into the stuff.

Cecilia: Sometimes it’s a lie you’re telling yourself. Sometimes it’s a lie you’re telling someone else. Sometimes you just really want it to be so. I play with all of those ideas in the novel.

Zibby: I watched the little Instagram Reel you did about what it was like writing your novel and the frustration of that and how it’s now finally coming to fruition. Tell me about the whole process of getting here and having your book sold at auction. That’s so amazing. Tell me the whole story. Maybe just back up and give me a little background that might not be on your bio.

Cecilia: I have always loved reading and writing. I’m going way back to the beginning.

Zibby: Go way back. All the way.

Cecilia: I think it’s pretty difficult for writers — I think it’s rare to find someone who didn’t love to read as a kid, so that’s my story as well. Unlike maybe many writers, I ended up just completely pivoting away from English, literature, liberal arts. I ended up going to business school, working in finance, working in tech. I’m still a data scientist. Always had this passion for writing and reading but wasn’t really pursuing it professionally. Then I turned thirty and did the whole thing where I take stock. I was like, am I going to climb a mountain, or am I going to write a novel? I was kind of out of shape, so I decided to write a novel. It was a pretty chaotic process. I didn’t really have a process. I just kind of regurgitated everything on the page. Actually, I guess I can take a step back here and say that when I started writing the novel, I think I knew that I wanted to write a love story, but I didn’t really have any idea beyond that. I didn’t know who the characters would be, what the setting was, what the central tension would be. I was sitting there with this idea to write a novel but not really sure how to go about it. It was 2018, so it was the middle of Trump’s presidency. I think a lot of people on the left, myself included, were still trying to figure out what had happened and how to reckon with all that we had seen happen in our nation. I saw an article in New York Magazine that was called “Donald Trump is Destroying My Marriage.” Initially, I was extremely turned off by the headline. I was like, I don’t want to hear about people saying, we agree to disagree. Fa la la. I was intrigued, and so I did click.

The article was actually pretty fascinating, a lot more nuanced than the headline suggested. Basically, the premise was that there were couples who were struggling to keep it together in Trump’s America where previously, they had sort of been able to skirt past some of their political differences. I was like, aha. I have a lot of questions. I have a lot to say about where we are today in America. I had this idea for a love story. Why don’t I just smash them together? That’s the origin story of Everything’s Fine. I spent several years writing, writing in circles sometimes, but basically, trying to make the book better bit by bit. Then finally — I think my story is somewhat traditional in this sense. I just started sending the book out to agents. One thing I’ll say is that I sort of didn’t follow — there’s rules or best practices for reaching out to agents. As soon as I hit the end on my first draft, I was like, okay, I’m going to get an agent now, which you’re not supposed to do. You’re supposed to revise. You’re supposed to push the book as far as you can without feedback from a professional. I sent it out anyway. I was super excited. As you can imagine, I got absolutely zero interest because the book just wasn’t where it needed to be.

Zibby: Wait, how did you find the agents anyway? Did you look in a book? Did you know anybody? How did that even happen?

Cecilia: One thing that people tell you is to look in the acknowledgment sections of books that you love and find those agents and reach out to them. I did a version of that. What I did to be, hopefully, slightly more strategic was I thought about the premise of my novel, and then I looked at various agents’ manuscript wish lists and tried to match almost word for word what I thought I was writing with what they expressed interest in reading. I was like, if they were definitely interested in this book, if executed well, and they reject me, then I know it’s the execution and not the premise. It was just trying to tease out where I could do better. It was kind of free professional advice as well. Even though the rejections sting, I think it was somewhat helpful to just hear back from someone who knew what they were doing. I did a round of querying. Like I said, not a lot came of that, except for some feedback. I revised some more. I queried again. The book was in much better shape.

I didn’t get an agent, but I got a lot more bites. One agent in particular — I don’t know why she did this. I sent her the book. She rejected it immediately. You’re not supposed to reach back out to agents and ask them why they rejected your book because that’s poor form. They’re very busy people. It’s a little bit rude. They can’t answer everyone. I just was like, “I’m curious because I thought you might like this.” She was extremely kind and generous. She wrote back. She said, “You know what? Why don’t I just take a look at the whole manuscript? I’ll give you feedback.” It wasn’t like she was saying, I might offer you representation if you can make this change or that change. She was just being a good literary citizen. She read the book. She gave me feedback. I didn’t take any of the feedback, but I think what it did for me —

Zibby: — I thought you were going to say she read the whole thing and took it.

Cecilia: It’s funny because she knew that it wasn’t for her, but I guess she just wanted to help me out.

Zibby: That’s so nice.

Cecilia: People say sometimes, not every agent is for every writer. It’s hard to accept that when you’re just banging your head against the wall trying to find an agent, but that is the case. She read it. She gave me feedback. She was very generous. It just wasn’t feedback that resonated with me, but it did sort of make me feel taken seriously as a writer. I went back to, not the drawing board completely, but I went back to basics and revised and fixed up the manuscript and sent it out one more time.

Zibby: Were these all different sets of agents? You didn’t repeat?

Cecilia: Correct. I didn’t repeat.

Zibby: Okay, so now you’re in your third round of submissions. Go ahead.

Cecilia: That’s when I found success. Then the hit rate was high. Multiple agents were interested. I found my amazing agent, which, funnily enough, is not someone I queried. I actually queried someone at her agency who said, “It’s not for me, but my colleague might be interested.” I call it a traditional story in the sense that I literally just emailed agents, but it was a bit of a roundabout.

Zibby: Interesting. Who is your agent?

Cecilia: She is fantastic. She’s at WME. Her name is Andrea Blatt.

Zibby: Amazing. Wow, that’s awesome. During all those rewrites and tweaks, did you ever consider giving up and just being like, “Okay, I guess it’s not going to happen”?

Cecilia: Yeah, I am sure I did because I feel like there were lots of — it was an emotional roller coaster. I’m sure I was scraped off the floor many times by my friends and family. I don’t think I ever felt like giving up completely. I just had all sorts of cockamamie ideas for how to revise the manuscript to make it work, one of which was actually shifting the entire timeline thirty years into the past. I felt like 2016 was still quite raw for a lot of people. Someone who might be predisposed to enjoy the book could feel distracted by all the politics of it. I was like, let’s just do this in 1980. The funny thing was it was a really easy mapping because not a lot has changed. People were literally even running on “Make America Great Again,” if you recall Ronald Reagan. It actually gave me a little bit more conviction in the story because I was like, this is just America’s story. It might not be for everyone, but I feel like I am going to tell it.

Zibby: Just because now I’m invested in your journey here, so you got the agent, and then did you revise it a little before sending it out, or you sent it right away?

Cecilia: That is the amazing thing. The timeline is really remarkable. That, I’d say, is not traditional. I think I emailed my agent — she emailed me because her colleague had passed my manuscript on, let’s say, a Friday. She said, “I’m going to take a read. I’ll let you know.” Then by Saturday, she had reached out. She was like, “I love it. Let me just make a few calls, and I’ll get back to you.” I didn’t know what she meant by that, but she was reaching out to other agents at the agency, like a foreign sales agent, film and TV agents, getting them to read it. She had assembled this crack team of agents that I spoke to, I think it was Monday or Tuesday, pitching me on the agency and their passion for the project. I was like, all right, I’m sold. Maybe by Wednesday, she was my agent. Based on what I’ve heard from other writers, I was like, we’re going to maybe go back and forth for a couple months, get the manuscript in shape. She was like, “No, there’s just one thing I want you to change.” It was literally just a continuity issue. I changed that on, let’s say, Thursday. I was still working full time. It was a bit of a stretch, but I was feeling her momentum. Then she sent it out the next Monday to editors. Then I was like, all right, here is where I am going to have to wait a minute, but then, no. By Thursday, I had an offer.

Zibby: No!

Cecilia: Yeah, it happened extremely quickly. My agent, I cannot sing her praises highly enough. She is impossible to say no to. I assure you. I’m sure every editor who heard from her was like, okay, I got to drop everything, do what she tells me. That’s just her energy.

Zibby: Wow. Then it went to auction. Then when did you have your deal?

Cecilia: Probably, by the next week.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Cecilia: I heard from editors starting on that Thursday and then scheduled conversations with them Thursday, Friday, and some the Monday of the next week. Then there was an auction. I think there were two rounds of bids. By the end of the next week, I had a book deal.

Zibby: That is insane. It’s amazing. That is so inspiring. What were you feeling when this was all going on? Could you believe it was happening? Were you just like, “Yes!”?

Cecilia: Of course. First of all, I would describe myself as a post-processor. Anything that happens to me, I need at least a year to kind of come to terms with. I’m not joking. I think I was just completely in shock. It was really funny because I was telling my mom about this as it was happening, and she was like, “Make sure it’s not a scam. Don’t give them your social security number.”

Zibby: That’s really funny.

Cecilia: It was extremely surreal. No one expects this. She’d seen me struggle with the novel for many years.

Zibby: I am curious, when you were meeting with different publishers and hearing all about whatever they thought about the book or what they were like, how did you choose your publisher? What stood out to you? How did you decide? What disappointed you? Don’t name names or anything like that, but just in general.

Cecilia: That’s an interesting question. I learned a lot from those conversations that now I think I would carry into book two but at the time, I didn’t really know anything about. One thing is just having conviction in your vision. Generally, I’m a pretty easygoing person, open to feedback. If somebody’s like, “Why don’t you change the character to a Scandinavian?” I’m like, sure, let’s try it. That was a weird example. One thing that I noticed a lot was that some editors were very interested in changing things that felt quite central to the core of the novel. One editor who seemed quite enthusiastic wanted to get rid of all the politics.

Zibby: No.

Cecilia: Yeah. If you read the book, you’ll know why that doesn’t necessarily work. That was an easy conversation in that I was like, we’re probably not on the same page. Then I think it can get a little trickier when the suggestions are subtler and they’re things that you hadn’t necessarily thought too hard about. Is the character going to go home for Thanksgiving or not? Things like that, I think it forces you to really ask yourself, what am I trying to say? How am I trying to say it? What will I compromise? What won’t I compromise? That was something that I learned that was sort of interesting. When you’re writing a book by yourself in the corner, you can just do whatever you want. No one’s opinion matters. I think that’s the main thing.

Zibby: I tried to sell a novel for the first time in 2005 or something like that. It was based on a true story, but I fictionalized it, about losing my best friend on 9/11.

Cecilia: I’m so sorry.

Zibby: Thank you. It was all about 9/11. That was the core of the thing. It was about it. I went to business school also, by the way.

Cecilia: Where’d you go?

Zibby: I went to Harvard. How about you?

Cecilia: Cool. Booth.

Zibby: Booth, awesome. I was, by the way, one of the few creative writers. I was like, am I here just to mix it up? I also love marketing and all that stuff. Anyway, one of the agents wrote back and said, “I really liked it, but could you have the friend die in a car accident?” I was like, what? That’s the entire book. She really liked the friendship piece but thought it was too soon for that. It’s how you know. Now after all this hard work and time and energy and excitement, now that it’s getting much closer to coming out, how are you feeling about things? How ready are you? Give me the whole .

Cecilia: I think I’m as little ready as someone can be for something that they’ve been preparing for for five years. It feels like — I don’t know if this is a good analogy — like a wedding. I’ve been planning for so long. There’s so much buildup and brouhaha. I’m sure when the day comes, I will feel a lot, but I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to process it. Of course, it’s not just the day that matters, even though that’s what it feels like sometimes. It’s sort of like the marriage or the career of being a writer and the life of this book. I’m kind of uncomfortably excited. I have a lot of fun events planned, so I hope that takes the edge off. It’s really nerve-racking. It’s interesting because I didn’t realize before getting on this publishing train how many people would engage with the book before it even hit shelves, so I’ve had a bit of experience, more than I thought. People read it months in advance. I thought it would just be like, on June 6th, suddenly, everybody knows what I’ve been doing for the past half a decade. I think I’m somewhat prepared, but I don’t know if there’s anything that can prepare you fully.

Zibby: My two cents — not that you need it at all. My memoir came out last July. I’d worked for twenty years, on and off, with the same story. I was so nervous and all of this. You just have to keep in mind that consumers don’t know that — the average consumer shopping for a book is not like, okay, today is Tuesday, June 6th, and I’ve got to go out and get — this is the day, the way that it works in movies sometimes. The book-buying population, aside from people closer to the industry, I don’t think are as — I shouldn’t make generalizations. What I’m trying to say is it doesn’t all happen that first week.

Cecilia: That makes sense to me. I don’t think I go to bookstores on Tuesday mornings.

Zibby: No, you don’t even think about it. It’s just the next time you go to a store, maybe you’ll look at new releases, and you’ll see what’s out there. I kind of wish I had known that myself. Okay, if nothing happens the day after pub day — how could people even read it? How could people even finish it in order to like it and post about it and spread the word? Yours seems like it’s in a totally different category. There’s so much buzz and all this stuff, so I’m not worried. It can take a little longer to have people find it and start reading it and finish it. Let people have time to finish reading it.

Cecilia: Did you see that article that went around by — I guess the bookseller did a survey of debut authors and found that fifty-four percent of them felt like debuting was an author was bad for their mental health.

Zibby: I did not see that, but now I’m going to go look that up. I’m going to write this down.

Cecilia: I think it’s because you’re waiting for something that might not happen.

Zibby: Also, I would say probably fifty-four percent of authors have an anxiety disorder to start with. I say that from a place of love, given that I have had anxiety my whole life and didn’t realize it was anything problematic. I just thought it was the way it was. I do feel I’ve met so many like-minded people. You have to kind of always be wondering why or what if. That is sort of similar to the anxious frame of mind. It’s not like the most confident people are all in the same boat.

Cecilia: Having worked in data and analytics — there are obviously metrics. You can see how many books sell, but I feel like it still feels like a bit of a black hole sometimes.

Zibby: Yes. That doesn’t count, necessarily, how many times they’ve been taken out of the library or how many times you’ve shared. Sometimes the audiobook sales take a quarter to get. You just don’t know. There’s lots going on. I put an email address in the book. I said, “If you finish this and you like it, reach out to me. I’ll write you back,” which I do.

Cecilia: That’s nice.

Zibby: That’s the only way that I was gauging. I was ignoring all the reviews. I was like, “If you didn’t like this book, please don’t write me.” It’s not going to happen in one day. Maybe for you, it will. For most people, pub week is —

Cecilia: — No. expectation.

Zibby: Make it more of a celebration of the accomplishment. That, you can plan. The tour is fun. All of that is great. You’ll meet lots of interesting people. Just remember who you’re selling to, for the most part.

Cecilia: I don’t know if you’ve ever spoken to her, but Meng Jin is a writer who I admire. She’s freakishly smart. Her first novel was about physics. I don’t think she said this, but she told me this. It really resonated. She was in the middle of her book tour and book promotion. She said, “Nothing feels as good as writing a novel. No part of the process of writing a novel, including all the promo and the touring, is as good as the actual thing,” which sounds surprising to an unpublished author. You’re like, what about getting a deal? What about getting an agent? I’m learning that it’s true.

Zibby: It’s totally different. One is a business transactional experience, and one is a deeply creative experience. I don’t know why I’m giving you advice. You don’t need advice.

Cecilia: No, please.

Zibby: You’ve had this whirlwind success already. I’m sure it will continue. I hope it’s not sounding condescending in any way. I’m excited for you. Are you working on anything else? Do you have a new book in the works and all of that?

Cecilia: I do have a new book in the works. I’m struggling to find time to work on it, but I actually have, as of last week, an accountability partner. We’re both working on getting our drafts done by the end of the summer. That also is quite a balm to the anxious debut author, to just start the new thing because that’s really the goal, at least for me, just to write one and then another one and keep going.

Zibby: I want to do a thing to the anxious debut author for Zibby Mag and get quotes. I’ll come back in touch because that’s great. Is there anything you love to do when you’re not writing or data processing and doing all the things?

Cecilia: That’s a fun question. There is a few things. I love snow sports. It’s this passion that I developed, actually, moving to California. People in California, for real, they will wake up at six AM to go hiking like it’s normal. I didn’t grow up with that. I kind of have adopted this outdoorsy lifestyle. Part of that, for the first time ever, I went skiing when I moved out here, which was a decade ago now. I’m super into it.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Are you in LA?

Cecilia: I’m in San Francisco.

Zibby: Oh, you’re in San Francisco. Awesome. You should come to Zibby’s Bookshop in Santa Monia.

Cecilia: I would love to. I saw that you opened it very recently. It’s beautiful.

Zibby: If you want to add a tour stop or whatever, we’re happy to do it.

Cecilia: I’ll definitely stop by. It’s in Santa Monia, right?

Zibby: Yeah.

Cecilia: I’m going to be staying there for a couple days in June.

Zibby: Perfect. Amazing. I’ll be there in June too. I just finally set all my dates for the summer. It took hours between all the kids’ different schedules.

Cecilia: Where are you based full time?

Zibby: I’m in the Palisades in LA. The rest of the time, I’m in New York City.

Cecilia: Got you.

Zibby: Go back and forth. Good luck. I hope I see you in LA. I’m really excited for you.

Cecilia: Thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Zibby: Thanks for talking. Buh-bye.

EVERYTHING’S FINE by Cecilia Rabess

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