Christina Clancy, SHOULDER SEASON

Christina Clancy, SHOULDER SEASON

Christina Clancy joined Zibby for an Instagram Live to talk about her latest novel, Shoulder Season. Christina shares how she felt an obligation to tell the personal stories of former Playboy Bunnies after conducting interviews with the women for another book, as well as how her research led to her opinions on the often controversial Playboy franchise becoming far more nuanced. The two also talk about what inspired Christina to highlight the beauty of the Midwest and why her novels seek to capture the multitudes that all humans have inside of them.


Zibby Owens: Hi.

Christina Clancy: Hi, Zibby. I’m always so nervous when I join an Instagram Live. I’m like, am I doing this right?

Zibby: I know. Me too. It’s not very user-friendly. I’m sorry about the stress. I feel like my job is just to calm people down for a while at the beginning of every IG Live.

Christina: Do you know what, though? All my writer friends, whenever they have a live event with you or an event with you, they’re always like, “I’m so nervous. I’m going to talk to Zibby.” I’m always the Zibby whisperer. I’m like, “No, she’s so great. She’s so easy to talk to.” I wasn’t nervous at all.

Zibby: Good. Thank you for doing that. Nobody should be nervous talking to me. Oh, my gosh, I’m like, whatever.

Christina: You’re a powerhouse.

Zibby: Oh, hardly.

Christina: You should have your own news station just for all your news.

Zibby: Just wait. Who knows what’s coming next? Lots more. I literally have so many ideas that I want to do. I don’t even know what to do. If only there was more of me. No, I’m just kidding. I’m just joking. Okay, Shoulder Season, I read this whole thing in one long, long sitting. I had a plane ride.

Christina: No way. You actually read the whole thing?

Zibby: Yes. I got so invested in your characters. You know, you really kind of sold me on this career path. I know it was sort of a question mark. Sherri didn’t meet with the most accepting of responses when she decides to do this, but she really makes a strong case. I understand that this is where your husband grew up and all of that, in West Troy, Michigan, or whatever. Tell listeners more about the backstory and why you decided to write about this topic.

Christina: First of all, I never would’ve guessed I would be the person to write about a Playboy Bunny. I’ve never been that personally interested in Playboy myself, but I always knew that there was a Playboy resort in East Troy, Wisconsin, which is just bizarre. It’s so strange to think that Hugh Hefner would ever even think like that he could get into small-town America and make it acceptable. One thing that’s interesting is that Playboy really has changed over the years. In 1969 when the resort opened, it was considered really classy. It’s really fascinating to talk to different people about their impressions of Playboy because it changes depending on how old people are and what their thoughts are about it. I started interviewing some former Playboy Bunnies because I wanted to have a side character have worked there. It was just for background information. Then I started talking to some women who had done that. They were mostly in their sixties. They spoke so lovingly of the job like it was the most fun they ever had. They learned so much about men, about life. It had opened up the world to them. It was right down the road from Alpine Valley, which is where Stevie Ray Vaughan died, that big Alpine Music amphitheater.

All of a sudden, I didn’t care about my other book I was writing. I just wanted to follow that and see, what was it like to be a Playboy Bunny? Now that my book is out there, I’m actually really shocked that, given the ubiquity of Playboy in our culture and how long it’s been around, nobody that I know of — maybe you’ve read something with a Playboy Bunny as a protagonist or a character. Nobody has approached Playboy in literary fiction ever as far as I know. I think that says a lot about how judgmental a lot of people are about the job that these women had. What I learned is that the women, especially the Playboy Resort, which was unlike the clubs in every way — Playboy Bunnies would actually supervise Easter egg hunts. They would work in the game room with the children. They would serve hot chocolate when kids were skiing. They were drawn from the small towns that were near the resort. They made so much money. In 1981 when this book was set, if you’re in a small town, there’s not many other options available to you, so I totally respect the decisions that the women made. The work was really challenging, very hard. I feel like I want to give some props to some of the women who did that.

Zibby: You also talk about how, in the community, people were like, no, you’re going to set women back by taking on this job. Sherri’s kind of like, how am I propelling women just by working at an insurance company? How is that helping women?

Christina: It’s just a weird time in our history to think about what it was like then. I do think that back in 1981 — it’s really hard to view the decisions that the women made through the lens of today. I think that it really was different. Women’s work is hard and challenging no matter what. I’ve talked to so many Playboy Bunnies. One of the Bunnies I talked to was twenty years old. Her husband was in prison. She had two kids. She is a wealthy businessowner now. She said it’s all because she saved the money that she made from working at the resort so she could do something else. In some ways, maybe the job did set back women’s progress a bit, but the women who were taking advantage of a bad situation or a bad system actually used that to their advantage so that they could buy a car. They could go to college. They could move out of the small town. I have a very complicated, nuanced view. I’ve also learned a lot about Hugh Hefner. You’ll notice he doesn’t get any play in the book. He’s referenced, but he doesn’t have a scene because I wanted to keep the focus on the women who worked for him. He has a complicated legacy too. I was reading about, in Miami, he bought back a franchise because he heard that it was segregated, and he wanted to make sure it was open to people of all colors. He did do some things that were very forward-thinking.

Zibby: Interesting. I loved how you really explained why all the women were there and followed all the narratives of many of her friends, and Val and the girl who her brother had gotten burned and she had to work — oh, my gosh, some of the stories were just really poignant. You see why. What makes people do things? I found all of the interwoven stories very compelling and understandable why they would then shove their feet into these painful shoes with the blisters. They couldn’t sit down. They couldn’t pick things up off the ground. They couldn’t bend forward too much. How they had to be constrained by so many things, it reminded me of Vegas, honestly. It’s almost like the Bunnies in the resorts were sort of like a waitress in a Vegas casino today, it felt like.

Christina: When you think about it, there’s still lots of jobs that are like Bunnies. There’s Hooters girls. There’s definitely positions like that still. I’d like to think we’ve come a lot farther than we actually have. It definitely was a reality of their time. They took on a lot to do that job.

Zibby: I also like how Sherri — Sherri or Shelli? I always mix up those names — Sherri really came into her own. She never thought of herself as beautiful. She had never had any confidence in herself or her looks and had been really sidelined by her mother’s illness for a while and just in that tiny world where it becomes so small when you’re caretaking all the time and really put her own life on hold. She’s finally like, I’m going to take care of myself. You see her becoming more beautiful, literally, as she’s shedding this layer and the layer of grief at the end of such a long illness. You have that wonderful scene in the car with her friend where she finally lets herself mourn and grieve. Tell me about the whole loss. She is an orphan, really.

Christina: I wanted to have a character who had a very stunted adolescence. For myself even when I was growing up, I never had brothers or anything, and I always thought that men were so mysterious and different from me, that they were a totally different species. I was kind of drawing on that feeling that I had when I was growing up too. I wanted to have a character get a job where she’s totally unprepared for everything that’s out there for her. I know readers get really frustrated with Sherri. That’s on purpose. She makes a lot of bad decisions, but she’s not in a position to make good decisions, necessarily, because she’s had no reason to know better. Actually, when you think about it, some of the mistakes she makes end up paying off for her in the end. If she knew better, she wouldn’t have made some of those mistakes that work out. One of the reasons I wanted to write about Sherri being so inexperienced and making mistakes is, really, this book is about — I was asked by a bunch of women in their sixties, when I was working on my book that led me to this book, they said, “What are you writing about? We hope you write about women our age because we feel like nobody writes about us. They just write about younger women.” We were talking about how when you get older, the mistakes you make when you’re younger never feel like they’re very far away. Some people never let go. They never move on. I wanted to have Sherri have something tragic happen that, as she gets into her sixties, she never lets go of it. She can’t give herself permission, so she has to then go back and revisit what she did when she was younger and think about the stupidness. I think we’ve all made mistakes.

Zibby: And the randomness of the series of things that lead to some of the biggest moments in your life and how preventable they can seem in retrospect. Yet that ends up being the thing, that defining element. It could’ve so easily been otherwise.

Christina: Right. It’s hard to talk about some of the things that happen without giving away the big twist at the end.

Zibby: I was pretty vague, right? I thought I was pretty vague.

Christina: You were perfect.

Zibby: Some of Sherri’s interactions with the men, I found myself holding my breath as she would go off — I don’t want to give things away. As she has these encounters over the course of tenure and gets herself in situations that just made me so nervous, I felt like this mother hen watching her and being like, oh, my gosh, don’t go there. Don’t go on . You see men in different roles and how they can exploit women or they can be kind, all these different ways when the man has the power in that situation. Tell me a little bit about that and how you decided which interactions to have, which types of men, how you scoped that out.

Christina: It’s interesting. When I was working on The Second Home, one of my friends, J. Ryan Stradal who wrote Lager Queen of Minnesota, he read an early draft of it. I have a villain in The Second Home. He said, “Make sure your villain isn’t too much of strawman because men are complicated just like women. I’d kind of flesh him out.” Thanks to him, The Second Home is actually going to become a TV series. It was optioned by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones who wanted a part where he could play a villain who was complicated. That totally paid off, that advice. I was mindful of that when I was writing this book. I thought, I want to show men as complicated just the way women are complicated. Some of the Bunnies that we meet, we think Val’s going to be so horrible. We think Mitch is going to be this terrible guy. The different people that we meet end up maybe not being quite as bad as we think. When I finished my first draft of it, I sent it to my editor. She said, “You know what this book really is doing? It’s exploring our multitudes.” We’re not all bad. We’re not all good. That’s what I try to do with my fiction. I try to present — especially, everyone talks about cancel culture, but people are complicated. They can do bad things, but does that mean that we have to write them off? We can sometimes just think more holistically about what led them to make the decisions they make, what they’re capable, how much they can change. That was my goal with the men.

Zibby: Back to the TV thing for two seconds, are you involved with the adaptation? What’s that been like for you?

Christina: I don’t think I’ll be that involved. With debut writers, my agent said you don’t have as much say with a TV series. I’ve been paying close attention. Just like when I read now, now that I’m a writer, I read a book the way an X-ray technician reads an X-ray. You think about the story, but you — I’m sure you do this all the time too. You think about, how is this structured? How are they getting away with telling this story? I’ve been watching TV series. I think he was inspired a lot by Big Little Lies, by the role that Alexander Skarsgård plays with Nicole Kidman. He plays her husband in the show. I’ve been watching that show and thinking about, how is that structured? You have one big question, one dramatic question that the series follows, but then each of the six episodes has its own arc. I don’t know that that’s in my wheelhouse to write like that yet. I think I’d need to learn that. I think I have a lot of humility thinking that television’s a totally different beast.

Zibby: That was also the best show.

Christina: Wasn’t it great? I usually don’t watch very much TV. I’ve been really enchanted by a lot of the shows lately like Mare of Easttown. White Lotus, I had so much fun with.

Zibby: Loved. So good. Last night, I hardly ever watch TV, but I was just trying to get my mind off things. I watched Scenes from a Marriage. Have you seen that on HBO?

Christina: No, not yet. Oh, wait, is Scenes from a Marriage the one with a couple that’s breaking up?

Zibby: It’s with Jessica Chastain.

Christina: No, I haven’t seen that one.

Zibby: It’s really good. It’s like you literally are in someone else’s bedroom. I love these relationships. I’m thinking to myself, nothing’s really happening, but this is everything.

Christina: That sounds great. That reminds of a line Jerry Derzon, one of the characters in Shoulder Season — Sherri’s making some conclusions about him. He’s like, “Never assume you know what goes on inside someone else’s marriage.”

Zibby: Actually, I felt like — this sounds hokey. I felt like the town of East Troy or West Troy or whatever it is was also a character in the book because you see that developing alongside the characters and what happens with Michigan and the whole culture of all of it and what happens with the town square. It’s so interesting how towns grow up alongside their inhabitants as well.

Christina: I think it’s the way people see it. It’s actually in Wisconsin, but I wanted to have Sherri — like most people from small towns, they think they’re too big for their town, and they want to leave. I am completely enchanted with East Troy. I was watching this episode of The Bachelor when Chris Soules was the star. Going back to our television conversation. This is years ago. He was from a farm. I remember I watched that episode. When the ladies arrived for the home date, they played horror music, literally horror music. If you’re from the Midwest, farms are actually really beautiful. It’s really gorgeous here, rolling hills and these glacial kettle moraines. I wanted to be, actually, almost like a tour guide and show that Sherri can take for granted what was right under her nose. East Troy has summer camps and history of mobsters. Al Capone would hang out in that area and hide slot machines. It’s really close to Chicago, so you have that infusion. I think it’s a beautiful, interesting place. Just like I wanted to show that there’s more to being a Playboy Bunny than people think, there’s also more to a small town than people think.

Zibby: Very true. You have a line that you said, “Sherri’s mother once told her that when you’re young, you have good days and bad days, but when you’re older, you have good years and bad years.” This is totally off topic, but is there a year of yours that was sort of a bad year?

Christina: Oh, I think for — although, I can’t really say that the COVID was a bad year. I’m sure that you had a really bad year, knowing what happened in your life. That would stand out. For me, I didn’t have a personal loss from COVID. My kids were grown, so it wasn’t as horrible. My book came out, and even though it wasn’t exactly — I said it was kind of like the Edward Eager book, Half Magic, where the kids — I don’t know if your kids ever read those books where they find half a magic coin. Every wish they make, they get half of it. I felt like last year was kind of a half-magic year for me. It was fun to have my book come out and then finish my other book and get that out. I think a hard year was the year I graduated from college. My dad died that year. Jerry Derzon, in the book, is kind of inspired by my dad. I give him a little bit more life there. There’s a sense where you feel like you lose that structure in your life. You’re not quite sure what to have happen. I broke up with my boyfriend. As bad as that year was, it really helped reshape me. I think sometimes those bad years end up becoming good years later. You learn a lot of from them and develop kind of a second spine from going through those hardships.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. How long did this take to write?

Christina: It’s fun because you have your own publishing company now, so you’re probably going to be the person telling people to do this. I had a two-book contract, so I had to write my second book in a year. I was a little arrogant, to be honest. Even though it took me forever to write The Second Home, I was like, I can do this. No problem. Then I walked into a door and got a concussion.

Zibby: What?

Christina: I know. For two months, I couldn’t even look at words. They’d float up off the page. It was terrible. In retrospect, I think that helped because it forced me to slow down and think. I got to talk to people and hear their stories and just marinate in the ideas that I was working on. I think that’s how I made that deadline. It was great to work with an editor. My editor, Sarah Cantin at St. Martin’s Press, could not be smarter or better to work with. She had great feedback. She was really great about helping me focus on, what story are you trying to tell? This is Sherri’s coming-of-age story. That really helped me streamline my thoughts around it. Before, I had all these side stories and little dramas. They didn’t really need to be there, so that helped. It was helpful to have an editor, definitely, through that period. I’m really lucky that I had that.

Zibby: I think you’re one of the first people to say that a concussion ended up being a really good thing. Love it.

Christina: Have you ever had tinnitus? Have you ever had your ear ring?

Zibby: Not really.

Christina: That was the worst part. After I hit my head, it was like a bell going off in my head constantly. I’m so lucky it went away. I wasn’t sure if it would. I thought, how am I going to hear my ear ring constantly for the rest of my life?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m sorry.

Christina: The theme for today is turning bad things into good things, lemons into lemonade.

Zibby: Exactly. My husband was telling me that lemons actually aren’t even a naturally occurring fruit. They were bred between different fruits to manufacture the lemon.

Christina: Really?

Zibby: We were having a lemons-to-lemonade conversation. He told me that.

Christina: Now I every time I say lemons to lemonade, I’ll think, but…

Zibby: Yeah, but. Who knew? What are you working on now?

Christina: Now I’m working on a book that’s set in 1927 at a lakeside resort. It’s really interesting. In the 1880s, all these people from Chicago, this Gilded Age, they call it the new part of the Midwest; Geneva, where Shoulder Season‘s set. There’s all these amazing estates from the Wrigleys and so on. Along the lake is a compound of ten houses. There’s five on each side. They’re these beautiful, cute, old, Victorian cottages that are painted white with green roofs. In the middle is a clubhouse. I saw this compound. I read about it. They said when it was started, they built the houses without kitchens so that the people who summered there would have to take every meal in the clubhouse. Not only that, but the people who summered there all lived on the same block on the same street in Chicago. It was the middle of COVID. I was with my family all the time. I was listening to my husband click his spoon against the bowl and chew almonds and thinking I was going to die. I was like, what if you’re with all these people all the time? You can’t even escape in the summer. What if you don’t like them? I always tell people that novels — a lot of people will say a novel comes from an anecdote. They’ll say, oh, this thing happened to me. You should write about it. This should be your next novel. That’s not really where novels come from. They usually come from a question. For me, the question is, what if you’re around all these people all the time and don’t like one of them? That’s what’s propelling this new book. It’s really research-heavy because it’s set in 1927. I read that Bill Bryson book, 1927. It made me want to set a book there. Now I’m reading Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. Oh, my gosh.

Zibby: Loved Rules of Civility. Loved.

Christina: That’s just a remarkable book. The writing is so good. That’s a great model for me to just think about. You know how I was saying, the X-ray thing? I’m totally taking that book apart as I read it. I’m about three quarters of the way through and so impressed.

Zibby: Okay, advice for aspiring authors.

Christina: I hear a lot of aspiring writers say that they think they’re bad writers. I think they give up on themselves too soon. I think that writing is, necessarily, really hard. It’s really frustrating. I know you had my friend Lauren Fox on your — you interviewed her. She wrote Send for Me. We’re in a writing group together. We spend a lot of our time texting each other about just how hard it is. I think we need to remind each other that that’s part of the process. It’s totally normal. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It just means it’s a lot more work than you think it’s going to be. With that in mind, I’d say try to keep your head in your manuscript as much as you can. If you put it away or you start thinking that it’s bad, then you might lose energy and momentum. If you can just look at it every day, think about the characters, immerse yourself in that world, that really helps you stay with it. Keep writing knowing that it’s going to be a lot of hard work, a lot of revision, and getting rid of stuff. It doesn’t mean you’re bad at writing if you have to cut everything you’ve written. Stephen King has this great line where he says something like he doesn’t get to page one until he’s gotten to page three hundred. I think that’s what it’s like for a lot of writers. The first draft, you’re just telling yourself the story. The book I’m working on right now, I’m 137 pages in. I wouldn’t be surprised if I have to start it all over again and write it in first person and trash it all.

Zibby: Amazing. Good advice. All part of the process. Thank you so much. Thanks for talking about Shoulder Season. I know this came out a while ago. I don’t know why we’re doing this today, but here we are. Great.

Christina: Well, it is shoulder season now, so it’s actually perfect.

Zibby: There we go.

Christina: Do you know what shoulder season is? Have you heard that phrase?

Zibby: It’s the time between something and something else.

Christina: Yeah, between peak and off-peak. It worked on a number of levels. Right now, technically, we’re heading into shoulder season or we’re in it.

Zibby: There was a reason.

Christina: Zibby, truly, congratulations on everything you’re doing. I’m really excited. One of my friends here in Madison just said she has a book coming out with you next year or in 2023. I’m thrilled for everything you’re doing. I think writers are so lucky to be able to work with you. Readers are going to have some awesome, new books to read. Kudos.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m really excited. It’ll be great.

Christina: We’re excited for you. You’re one of those people you root for. You read my book.

Zibby: It was great. Christina, thank you. I can’t hear you anymore. I don’t know why, but thanks for coming on. We’ll stay in touch.

Christina Clancy, SHOULDER SEASON

SHOULDER SEASON by Christina Clancy

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