Christina Clancy, THE SECOND HOME

Christina Clancy, THE SECOND HOME

Zibby Owens: Christina Clancy is the author of The Second Home. She’s actually a debut author, so she fits into my Debut Tuesday or my Beach Read Wednesday. Double trouble this week. Anyway, she loves Cape Cod. She enjoys living in the Midwest and grew up in Milwaukee. She now lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and her two grown kids. She’s a certified spin instructor and serves on the board of the Wisconsin Conservation Voters. She received her PhD in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and previously taught creative writing at Beloit College. She recently completed her second novel. That will be out in 2021. Enjoy our episode.

Christina Clancy: I’m truly so excited to be on your show. I heard about your show from Karen Dukess when she was on last year. I started becoming the most avid listener. Then when my book was coming out, my bucket list for my book is to be this podcast. I was so excited when I heard that I was going to be on it. You’ve made my day.

Zibby: Aw, that is so sweet. That’s so sweet. Your book was so good. It was really, really good. It kept me up two nights in a row past my husband which almost never happens. I was like, I can’t stop reading.

Christina: I’m so glad to hear that. I don’t know how you read as much as you do. I’d like to turn the tables and just turn this whole interview where I interview you. It’s amazing to me what you do with this podcast and all of your time.

Zibby: Thanks. I can’t finish every single book. I just can’t. I’m usually up front with the authors and say, you know what — on the Instagram Lives, I blatantly am like, I didn’t even open your book. I do my best. I love to read. I do it all time. I don’t know. Every day is different. Anyway, that’s really nice of you to say. Let’s talk about your book, yay, The Second Home. For listeners who don’t know what it’s about, can you tell everybody what The Second Home is about? Then also, what inspired you to write it?

Christina: The book is about a family from Milwaukee. They’re a very middle-class family. The parents are teachers. They own a house in Cape Cod, oddly enough, which sounds very fancy except it’s been in their family for generations. The reason that the parents are teachers is so that they can spend their summers in Cape Cod. The house is kind of run down. It’s from the late 1800s. Actually, it’s older than that. It’s from the 1700s. The house I’ve been talking about a lot is my grandparent’s house which is next door which is from those late 1890s. The house is in disrepair. They go to the Cape each summer, and one summer with their two daughters, Poppy and Ann. They also bring along an adopted child named Michael who is new to the family and new to Cape Cod. He also has feelings for Ann. Ann has feelings for him, which as you can imagine creates some trouble. They get involved with another family. When they do, things go very badly. The family does not stay in touch. The siblings become estranged. About fifteen years later, the parents die. They have to come back to figure out what to do with the house. Everybody wants it. Michael, the boy that they’d adopted, has a legitimate claim to a third of the estate. He also wants to set the record straight. That’s the book in a nutshell.

I was inspired to write it because I — a lot of times when people ask me this question, I think I know how to answer it. Usually, I’ll say that Poppy, the character who’s the surfer, was the inspiration because I did meet a surfer when I was in Panama with my mom about a decade ago. She told me that she never went home. It bothered me so much. I wanted to bring Poppy home and figure out what could get her there. Then I think, really, the book is about when my own grandparents passed away. I think a lot of people with second homes feel this way, the house that everyone has so many memories of and cares so much about becomes very fragile because for a while we didn’t know if we’d be able to keep it in the family. It made no sense for us. My mom and her sisters are spread all across the country like Jacks. They couldn’t really agree on — not that they couldn’t agree. My mom had the first right of refusal, but who was going to take it? My mom was a single parent. We couldn’t have a house on the Cape. Then my aunt lived in Michigan. She wasn’t sure what to do at the Cape. Then my other aunt already lived on the Cape.

My mom was driving around one day with me and she said, “You know, it’s just really hard when your parents pass away and you become the next generation. You have to figure out how to keep your family together or whether you will or what that family’s going to look like.” I was so struck by that comment and thinking about how that house kept our family together and the fear of losing it. It wasn’t just the house that we cared about. It was about keeping the history of the family in one place. I think these houses can really become touchpoints for every person in the family. I think that’s actually what the inspiration was, was that feeling, that fear that the house could somehow pass out of our family and we might lose our way. We might not have a reason to have reunions or stay together or look through the old photo albums in the den.

Zibby: What you did so well in the book was create such a sense of place and character, both. I could see this house. I could see Poppy and Ann and the parents and their house, but I could also see Anthony and Maureen’s house. I could just see it, all of it, and feel it, and all the sensory things you put in. All of it just made it so real. Then with the parents and what ended up happening to them, I felt such a sense of loss myself. How do you think you did it? I know you teach creative writing and all that. What do you think it was that made these things just come alive so much?

Christina: First of all, the place, I know very well. It was nice to write about two places I know well, which is Milwaukee and then also Cape Cod. It was funny. It took me a while to realize that I could write about a place I know, to give myself permission to do that. I don’t know why it felt like there was permission needed to write about Milwaukee. Originally actually, the story, it started out where the characters were in Evanston, Illinois, which seemed kind of like the near-east side of Milwaukee to me. Then I kept thinking I should go spend more time there so I can figure it out. A friend of mine who’s a writing instructor said, “Why don’t you just set it in Milwaukee?” It was such a revelation. I was like, oh, I can write about a place I know. Then even writing about businesses that I know or places that I know well felt a little bit like I was doing something wrong. I’m just going to name Shahrazad, this restaurant I like. I’m going to name the Urban Ecology Center because I was on their board. It was fun to do that. Then in Cape Cod, I gave myself the same liberty to write about all the places that I know and love there.

The only risk of doing that with place is that if you get one thing wrong, people will go crazy. They won’t be able to get it out of their mind the whole rest of the book. A bookseller friend of mine was saying that somebody wrote about a car and they used the wrong horsepower for it within the first ten pages of the book. The whole rest of the book he couldn’t even focus. I was very careful to try to get everything right. The copy editors were amazing too. It was fun to see how they would — if I named a restaurant, they would actually pull up the sign for the restaurant and the menu for the restaurant to see if they put periods after each initial, like for PJs. It was fantastic to have them go through that level of detail also. The place really spoke to me. I think I live in my skin anyway. You can probably tell that from the writing. I just feel like I’m always almost more there than there, so that helped.

Then the characters, once I had them in my head and I went through my first draft and started redrafting, they became so alive to me. One of the most fun things I did with the book where — after I sold it, my editor said, “Why don’t you go through the last third and just add a few more surprises? Just sprinkle them in so that it doesn’t read like where you’re going to expect what’s going to happen.” That was so much fun. Then I thought, oh, I know what Maureen would say here. Ed could do this. Connie could — I just started thinking about how the characters would surprise me. I think those are the magic moments in writing, when you get so immersed. You let the story wash over you. I just had that happen again with my second book. For a long time, I was just building it, building it, building it, struggling with it. All of a sudden, my head was so deep in it that I would wake up with these characters talking in my head. I just couldn’t wait to write about it. As hard as it is to get to that point, it’s amazing when it happens.

Zibby: Wait, what’s your next book about?

Christina: It sounds different than the book that I just wrote, but my editor assures me it sounds like a Christina Clancy novel. In 1981, and actually in the ’70s mostly, in a town called Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which is near Chicago, oddly enough there used to be a Playboy resort there. The women who worked there were the daughters of dairy farmers and slaughterhouse workers and factory workers. They had no experience being anything like a bunny. Suddenly, they were bunnies. I follow a woman who’s from a neighboring town who gets a job. She’s a very unlikely bunny. It follows her coming of age and her experiences with recognizing what it’s like to inhabit a woman’s body and be looked at and be the object and sometimes limbed by a male gaze. I had the best time writing it. It was so much fun. I think it’ll come out next year.

Zibby: That’s really exciting. I read your essay about your son leaving, The Washington Post essay about your son going away to school, and is it okay that maybe you’re not going to miss him that much? I know that’s not exactly what you said. How there were all these support groups for the parents, you’re like, well, he’s ready to go. I’m ready for him to go. It’s okay. That was great.

Christina: I wrote that. Then afterwards, I started feeling really sad. I was like, am I just a hypocrite? Now he’s back home. He’s at USC. Because of the COVID situation, he was in Greece studying and he had to come back home. Now we don’t know if he’ll be there in the fall. The emotions are totally different. I want him to go back. I want him to be able to resume his fun life as a student.

Zibby: It’s tough. I also read your essay in The Sun, I think it was. That was your life, right? It was a personal essay?

Christina: Yeah.

Zibby: I was reading and reading. I was like, this is a book. This is another book. You should write that. Not that your fiction isn’t fantastic. It’s amazing. Your life story reads like fiction, really. It was hard to believe. The relationship with your dad, oh, my gosh, I couldn’t believe how it ended.

Christina: That was a hard essay to write.

Zibby: I bet.

Christina: It was funny because when I worked on that essay, it was originally about the preppy movement and The Preppy Handbook. I don’t know if you remember the preppy movement that much, The Preppy Handbook particularly.

Zibby: I do.

Christina: I never knew it was a joke. I always thought it was totally serious, like, you must be a prep. I lived in kind of a preppy community, as I write about. I reread The Preppy Handbook from beginning to end. Actually, if you haven’t read it for a while, it’s so interesting to go back and look at. The whole essay was about my experience being a prep. Then I just had a little bit of my dad in there. I sent it to the editors of The Sun. Most writers would give their eyeteeth to be in The Sun. They have such a devoted readership. When I got feedback from them, they said, “We love your essay, but we think your dad’s really the story.” I was kind of offended. I was like, no, I want to write about The Preppy Handbook. I thought they’d rejected it. Then later on, they were like, “Didn’t you get our email? Do you want to write it?” I was like, oh, my gosh, you guys still like it? I worked on it. It was very cathartic to publish it, to have people from my high school read it and get back to me. So many said, “I had a bad high school year too. Nobody knew. People didn’t know about my dad. I was really struggling. I didn’t know how to say anything.” They felt so grateful for that essay.

Zibby: Do you think that part of what you do in fiction to put together the family the way that you wanted it to be growing up that you never had? Maybe that’s too simplistic or armchair therapist. What do you think the role of fiction is in helping you with your own issues?

Christina: One of my friends said that I waste my best nonfiction on — or I waste my fiction — I’m sorry. I need to rephrase this. He said that everything I put in nonfiction I should put in fiction. He’s like, “All your best material, you’re wasting on nonfiction.” I thought that was really interesting. It’s almost like a way to write a diary. The things you’re anxious about tend to be what you write about. Even though you’re turning it into a story about other people, maybe I was working on this book — I never thought about this until now. The Second Home, my kids were getting older. Our family was about to change. Maybe that was just a way for me to hold onto us and what our life was like before everyone would go.

Zibby: Of course, it’s actually not a home that makes a family. The home is just — not that it doesn’t have a lot of soul, but a family can transcend a physical place. It can’t be destroyed by one demo truck or whatever else.

Christina: It’s more just the memories, I think.

Zibby: It feels painful. Losing a place that’s important to you like in The Second Home, it’s a loss. It’s something that you can grieve in and of itself. It seems silly to say in the context of the craziness of the world right now, sitting around being sad about your family home, but I think it’s a physical loss that you feel when a touchstone of your life disappears. It’s a rootlessness, almost.

Christina: Yeah, and a place you go back to again and again and again. There’s a certain cadence to your life, a certain rhythm. We have a summer cottage. It’s very simple. In fact, I think it has the first toilet ever invented. We have to close it every winter. My life seems to make some sense when I go back every year and I go through all the routines of opening it up and having the well pump turned back on. I’m thinking about who’s going to be there, all the people that populate it over the course of the summer and the memories that we have of playing Parcheesi and so on. I think it just makes your life make sense sometimes to have one place you go back to again and again instead of always going somewhere different.

Zibby: I agree. My mom and stepdad sold the house that we had gone to my whole life. All the books that I had even as a kid, now I have here with me in my house. It was almost as if I had finally grown up more because of that house going out of our family than I had getting married, getting divorced, getting remarried, having kids. The cleaning out of that particular room of mine that was, here at age — it happened a couple years ago, but still in my forties. It’s emotional, passing of a torch.

Christina: It can definitely make you feel . It’s kind of a new era when you let go of those places. You realize you’re jumping into something new, which I think right now, given all the turbulence in our lives, maybe those second homes are going to be even more meaningful to people, just having one constant in a world that’s in complete flux right now. I keep wondering how the second-home market is going to work this summer. I think most people are renting places for longer period of time, which actually I like. When I was a kid, we’d go to Cape Cod. We would get to know all the kids. We were there long enough. We’d go to the ponds. We’d want to be there at the same time the next day because maybe that cute guy from Connecticut was going to be there or whatever. I like that kind of repetitive visit and longer visit.

Zibby: So how did you end up writing a debut novel now at this time in your life? How did this happen now? Tell me about it.

Christina: I was writing a lot before. I have a PhD in creative writing. I’ve written essays in The New York Times or Washington Post or The Sun. I have published a fair amount of short fiction. I love short fiction. I’m a complete short story addict. I read them all the time. I kind of want to be buried with my short start collection. I think that the craft of a short story, I just appreciate it so much. That’s all I worked on, was short stories. Then people would say you’re not really an author until you have a book. I’d kind of bristle at that a little bit thinking that, no, I’m still a productive writer. I have to say there is something super satisfying about writing something as big as a novel and tracking the characters and putting it all together in a way that there’s an arch from beginning to middle to end that I don’t know now that I’ll be able to go back to short stories. It just took me a really long time to learn how to do that.

One thing I tell people is I’ve gone through multiple drafts on this book and then also another book that I worked on for my PhD thesis that just never really quite had a plot. It takes a long time because the first time you write a novel, you have to recognize one thing that you’re doing, which is you’re telling the story to yourself the first time. You’re just creating this landscape. You’re inhabiting it with characters. You’re just kind of populating things. Then when you go back and you revise, that’s when you start telling a story for your reader. I think a lot of people who try to write novels and think that they’ve failed or who give up, it’s because they get frustrated at one of those points along the way when they’re writing. It’s just a sticking with it and getting back into it and trying to make that transition from telling the story to yourself to your reader, which I think makes a book — that’s where the magic takes place.

Zibby: Wow. That’s really, really interesting advice. I’ve never heard anything like that before.

Christina: That PhD did something, huh?

Zibby: I also loved, by the way, your Modern Love essay about your friend’s ex-husband and his new girlfriend being in your spin class. That was priceless. You need to send these around again. You wrote in that 2014 or something, a long time ago. It needs to breathe new life because that’s such a good essay. I’ll put it in the show notes when I do this. At least I can do that. Wow, go you.

Christina: The Modern Love essay, one thing that I love about that essay is — I’m sure a lot of writers can recognize this. Sometimes you just know a story. The minute they walked into my classroom, I was talking about, okay, we’re going to climb a four-minute hill. It’s going to be really hard, and whatever. That’s what I was saying. In my head, I was like, I’ve got a story here. I cannot believe he’s in my class. The funny thing about that essay is that the couple, they’re really good friends now. I think that is really, maybe, in a way wasn’t my place to enter that situation. At the same time, it kind of made it funny in a way. It was meant to be funny. I think a lot of us can relate to that feeling of when your friends get divorced you take it really personally. You can tell this from my book. I’m super nostalgic about things. I just want things to stay the same. Even though they both ended up in a really good place and they’re totally at peace with what happened, I wasn’t. The editor, Dan Jones of Modern Love, the day before it was published, he called me. We were talking about it. He said, “You know what I love about this essay?” This is right after he said about three million people read it. I was like, “What?” He said, “You just make such an ass out of yourself.” I was like, yep, I guess I do.

Zibby: It was really fantastic. Do you still teach spinning?

Christina: I do. Because of COVID, I haven’t had my classes. I love teaching spinning. It’s the best money I ever spent, was getting certified. You meet the nicest people. I never dread a class, never, ever. I never wake up and think, ugh, I have to teach a spin class. There’s just this wonderful energy when you walk into a spin room. I don’t know what the future of spinning is right now.

Zibby: I know, the future of anything. Christina, thank you so much. Your book, as I said at the beginning, I could not put it down. It kept me up. That doesn’t happen that often. I just really, really enjoyed it. It’s really a pleasure talking to you. I share that same appreciation of all nostalgic elements and not wanting things to change, so I get it. It was just really great. Congratulations on your pub day and everything.

Christina: Thank you for having me on the show. I truly listen all the time. It’s just a total thrill to be on it. Thanks for all you do for writers, especially a debut writer like to me. To get my name out there through you means so much.

Zibby: Aw, it’s my pleasure. Hopefully, I’ll meet you in person one of these days.

Christina: Great. Thanks a lot, Zibby. Buh-bye.

Christina Clancy, THE SECOND HOME