Christine Mangan walks Zibby through her worldly life story and how her experiences have directly led to a number of plot points in her writing. The two discuss the inspiration for Christine’s latest novel, Palace of the Drowned, and why she wanted to write empowered female characters in a story set during the 1960s.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Christine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Palace of the Drowned: A Novel.

Christine Mangan: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. It’s so funny, when I first read the pitch for this book even over email, I was like, ooh, I’d like to spend some time in Venice. That sounds great.

Christine: I think everyone’s thinking that right about now too.

Zibby: Right? Oh, my gosh. For listeners who aren’t familiar with Palace of the Drowned quite yet, can you tell them a little bit about what this book is about and also what inspired you to write it?

Christine: I’m always so bad at giving .

Zibby: I’m sorry. I don’t always do this. As I was asking this question, I was like, oh, boy, I’m putting her on the spot here. I’m really sorry about that.

Christine: It’s always like, how much do you reveal? How much do you not give away? Basically, it follows the main character, Frankie, who is a writer. She, where we meet her, has just published her most recent novel which has not been very well-received. The numbers are kind of down. She gets a review that she considers to be quite savage and quite upsetting. She wants to get away from it all, essentially. She leaves her home in London and travels to Venice to try to start something new, try to distance herself from what’s happened. Ultimately, this silence that she’s able to find is interrupted and broken by someone who is also from London and claims that they know each other, that they’ve met. Frankie doesn’t quite remember this. She questions whether this woman is telling the truth. Then it just evolves from there, without giving too much away.

Zibby: I know, I love that scene. She’s like, “Wait, I thought that daughter was blond, but okay, fine. Maybe it’s her.”

Christine: It’s the moment where you don’t want to say, “I don’t remember you.” She’s got questions in her mind. I came to this story — Frankie was the first thing that solidified for me. She was what I started with. I knew right away who she was going to be and what her character was going to be like. I knew that I wanted to use her to explore the relationship between a writer and their work, and at that point where it’s kind of not just yours anymore. It’s gone through the editing process, so you have all these different voices helping to shape and define what the final product is going to be. Then it’s also gone into the public, so you have people who have not just read it, but critiqued it. That’s where we meet Frankie, when she’s dealing with all of this. How does she move past what’s happened and go onto the next? That was something that I really wanted to explore. I knew that I wanted to put her somewhere other than London. I wanted her to go somewhere that was kind of isolated. I wasn’t sure where at first. With my first book, it was very much, Tangier came first, and then everything followed. Whereas this, I had the idea for this story and the characters, but I didn’t really know where I wanted her to be. I tried out a few different places. They didn’t seem right. A couple years ago, I was living in Dubai. I was working there at a university. My friend, she’s an academic. She specialized in Italian art history. We were sitting outside under the sweltering sun of Dubai in the humidity. She wears a sweater. She’s fine. I was blood red trying to drink my hot tea hoping it would cool me down.

She started telling me about Venice in the winter. She started telling me how cold and dark and rainy and very gothic it is and that I would love it and I should go. Up until that point, I’d only been to Venice once, and just briefly. My partner and I, we were in Slovenia. We drove over for a day trip, parked the car, took the train in, spent a day. It was June, so it was very touristy. Spent a day walking around. We sat down, had two beers. We paid like thirty dollars the musicians and everything outside. I was like, okay, I’m done. I’ve seen enough. We left. I just started thinking about what she told me, and then also, the idea that you can’t really know a place in an afternoon, even a week. I was kind of intrigued to go back. It was a place that I necessarily didn’t want to go back to, but I was like, okay, let’s do it. Let’s go see. My friend who has spent a lot of time there, she wrote up this really intensive, essentially like a tour book for me, all these little things that you wouldn’t necessarily get anywhere. All of that, I got there and I was like, this is it. This is the perfect place for where I want to set the novel. It’s strangely isolated and kind of its own little bubble. You’re away from the mainland. You feel very remote. This takes place in the 1960s as well, so you got to figure the feeling of remoteness would be even more so. I spent some time there. The rest of the novel evolved from that.

Zibby: Wow. I loved that you made the rest of us reading it feel like we were now sort of local Venetians. I loved when you talked about the real Venetian women coming out of hiding when all the tourists left and creeping out and how glamorous they actually were in their own right and how you’re supposed to go in the back and never sit in the front of cafés and go to some bar in the back to get coffee or something. All these little tidbits, I was like, ooh, if I ever go back to Venice, now I’m going to have all these secrets. This sounds so trite, but you really made Venice such a character in this book. It’s true. The streets and getting lost and the dead ends that Frankie would arrive at and the places she visits and even where she lives, the castle — not castle. What do you always call it?

Christine: The palazzo.

Zibby: Palazzo, yeah.

Christine: Very similar.

Zibby: It just felt so real and so vivid. I just loved it as an escapist whatever, but then mixed with the literary was so great. While I was reading it, I was like, I wonder if Christine got a really bad review one day and was like, what if?

Christine: I will say, some of that — I love writing. It’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do, but the whole part that happens after you turn in the book I’m not great with. It makes me very anxious and very nervous. Definitely, that helped shape this novel. Everything that happened when Tangerine came out — everyone knows I don’t want to see reviews. I don’t want to even know that they exist. I did have some sent to me. It was just like, . It’s terrible. It’s a terrible feeling. It’s hard to explain, but it’s the worst because it’s public. It’s out there. Everyone can see that. It’s just the worst feeling in the world. There were a couple of nights spent hysterically crying in the shower. All of that, I kind of wanted to put into this. Frankie’s probably a lot tougher than I am, though. She can handle it, in different ways maybe. That definitely went into shaping the book.

Zibby: I just wanted to read this one little passage from when she found out about the review. You said, “At first, Frankie tried to forget about the review, tried to push it out of her mind, but she had always had a tendency to fixate, to obsess. That day, she had cleaned her entire flat from top to bottom. When the house was spotless and she could find nothing more to spray or polish, she decided to contact her editor.” Then you went on on the next page. He had said, “Go home. Get a good night’s sleep. Don’t worry about it.” You say, “Frankie had smirked at the idea and upon arriving home, done the very opposite of what her editor proposed by not sleeping at all that night. Instead, she had sat up reading and rereading the review until she knew it by heart, smoking the entire pack of Player’s Navy Cut that she had palmed when leaving his office hating the slim counterparts that were marketed now towards women. In the morning, eyes red and puffy, she threw the review into the rubbish bin outside, shut the door behind her, and made herself that suggested cup of tea.” I read that, I was like, I wonder if this happened in some way, shape, or form. This is feeling very real to me, this little passage. The thing about reviews is people just feel that they’re not hurting anyone’s feelings, or they don’t care. I got this review for my anthology. I assembled this anthology with essays from people from the podcast. I hadn’t checked out my Amazon reviews until last week. There’s this one review. It was like, “The best thing about this is that it’s a cold day in spring and I’m out of Duraflames, so I can use this as the kindling for the fire I’m about to build.” I was like, what? These reviews, I don’t know. Anyway, for Frankie, of course, it set her off on this path of no turning back.

Christine: In my former life when I was in academia, I spent a lot of time looking at the relationship between authors and reviewers. It’s not like it’s new. It’s always existed. It’s always something that has influenced writers, that they’ve been aware of. I looked at, certain authors in the eighteen century actually put in author’s notes kind of meant to win their favor with reviewers. It’s always in the back of everyone’s mind whether they want to admit it or not. You don’t want to be writing for them, but everyone’s always aware and always thinking about it.

Zibby: Wait, so you’ve had this completely international existence. How did you end up teaching in Dubai? Where did you grow up? Take me through the short version of your life story.

Christine: I grew up mainly in Metro Detroit. I lived in Long Island, North Carolina, for a bit as well. Then I went to Bennington for a year for college, which I wrote about in Tangerine. Then I ended up in Chicago. I was teaching at a university, but just part time. I realized I needed a PhD to ever be full time. For my BA and my MFA, I did creative writing, but I thought that, well, that’s not really ever going to happen, so I need an actual job. I went to Dublin for my PhD. I was there for four years. Then Dubai, it was honestly the best offer that I got. They’re quite generous in what they offer. It was good timing. It was bad timing. I had submitted my book to my agent. She had said, “I love this. Let’s work on it. Let’s get it sent out.” It was literally as I was going to Dubai. When we sold Tangerine, it was within the first couple weeks of working in Dubai. I was jugging both of those. It was intense, and the time difference and everything. It was a strange time.

Zibby: Then how long were you there? Then where did you go?

Christine: I was in Dubai just for the year. Then I came back. I was in New York, in Brooklyn for two years. Then my partner and I, we put all our stuff in storage and we went to Asia at the end of 2019. We got a couple of good months before COVID started popping up. I think we were in Hong Kong when we first read about it. It was before it was COVID. It was just a strange flu thing happening in China. We were supposed to go through China. I think we were supposed to go through Wuhan, actually. We were like, okay, we’re going to change the plan a little bit. Around the time it started to filter out of Asia, we jumped over to Australia. We ended up getting stuck there for nine months. We just got back in November. Now I’m Detroit.

Zibby: Wow, that’s really cool.

Christine: It was an interesting last couple months.

Zibby: When did you write this book? Where were you?

Christine: A little bit of everywhere. I had written a lot of it while we were in New York. Then I was doing final edits in Japan, actually, in Osaka, I think we were at the time. I spent a lot of time there polishing it up before sending it out. It’s traveled with me along the way. I worked on it a little bit everywhere.

Zibby: Did you know writing it, the whole story? I know you had the idea for Frankie and everything, but all the twists and everything that happened with the friends and the end?

Christine: I had some of it. I tend to change a lot. I tend to write a thing and then go back and edit and change things along the way. The beginning and the ending is what stayed the same. Then there were little things that I tweaked a bit throughout it all. That ending was there from the start.

Zibby: I feel like now all the reviews are going to have to make this feel so meta. I’m writing a review about a book that — not that the review is such a huge part, but just that it set off the trajectory of this story and how she ended up there. I also loved this idea of an independent woman living on her own and dealing with everything, whether it was directions or the stomping feet next door and the crazy housekeeper and all this stuff. It was just so neat to see, especially during that time. I just loved that. I loved that element of it.

Christine: I love Frankie. She’s one of my favorite characters that I’ve written. She’s dealing with a lot, but she’s also incredibly strong. She’s got Jack, also another incredibly strong female character. I like that about both of them. That’s what drew me to their characters, what I wanted to instill in both of them to make them very different, probably, for that time. You know there are women like that, so that’s what I want to see. That’s what I want to read.

Zibby: That’s awesome. If you were casting Frankie, who would it be?

Christine: Oh, gosh. I’m so terrible at this stuff.

Zibby: I am too. I was about to say, oh, yeah, she reminds me of someone. Then I couldn’t think of anyone, so I was like, I’ll just ask her.

Christine: I really don’t know. I really do not know, honestly. People asked me that for Tangerine. I was like, I have no idea. I didn’t have anybody in mind when I wrote it. I have no idea.

Zibby: I feel like you need to find a palazzo where people can come and have this experience, especially now. Maybe there’ll be more that one phone in a closet or something than there was back then. Just the idea, gosh, if I could go to Venice and hide in this old-fashioned, kind of spooky, kind of cool place and just my way around canals, I don’t know, maybe I’m just in a bad mood, but that sounds so good.

Christine: It’s very appealing, especially now. You don’t know when it will be able to happen, so I think it makes it even more — I look back and I start to think about my time there. I’m looking at photos and everything. I think it makes it even more bittersweet just not knowing when that will be possible again.

Zibby: Did you have any trouble either writing this or coming up with an idea after the success of your first book? I’ve heard that the sophomore novel can sometimes —

Christine: — I didn’t. My agent is very nice and very patient with me. I wrote another novel before this one. We had gone through it. We had done the edits. I was like, no, it just doesn’t seem right. I don’t want to continue with this. I set that one aside. Then I started this. This just felt right. This felt good right from the start, not that the other one — I might still go back to it. It didn’t feel like the right book for book number two, maybe.

Zibby: Interesting. How great, now you have number three already ready.

Christine: I know. It’s one of those ones I keep going back to. My agent’s like, “What about that one?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what it is. There’s something I need to work out with it. I tend to do that. I write a lot of one thing and then I change my mind and start something else. I have a lot of unfinished novels.

Zibby: Is there anything you’re doing right now? After this you’re going to go back into some sort of story and keep going?

Christine: I have something that I’ve just started. This kinds of feels like book number three, I think. I’m hoping.

Zibby: That’s great. You mentioned earlier that you’ve always known that writing is your thing? Is it from the time you were a kid?

Christine: Yes, I always loved it. That was what I wanted to do. That’s what I went to school for. When I graduated from my BA and then my MFA, it just never occurred to me — I was like, that’s not going to happen. I can’t sit down and write a novel and get it published. It’s just never going to happen. I would still write, but not with any kind of clear motivation to get it done. I finished my PhD. I was having a really hard time finding a job. It’s very difficult to find a job in academia. It’s just so competitive. I was starting to really panic. I was like, what else can I do? I don’t have anything else to do. I had a year between when I graduated and when I got that job in Dubai where I was just — I probably applied to upwards of a hundred jobs, and just nothing. I was like, you know what, I’m just going to sit down, I’m going to write the novel because I don’t know what else to do. I had this idea because I had gone to Tangier recently. I always say doing the PhD was probably the best thing I could’ve done because it taught me how to complete something. Before, I would always get halfway there, three quarters of the way there, and just stop. Having had to complete an actual work, I knew what I needed to do to sit down, write it all, and get it down. That year, I finished it. It was months before I left for Dubai. I was like, I don’t know what else I can do. I’m just going to send it out to agents. We’ll see what happens. Then I heard from my agent two weeks later or something. It was pure luck. It was meant to be. I think her assistant was out for the week. She was going through the pile, and she never usually does, of the submissions. Then she happened to find mine and was like, oh. Then it happened really fast from there. It was perfect timing.

Zibby: That’s great. What advice would you have both as a full-on professor and as an accomplished author? What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Christine: Just finish it. Do the work and finish it. That was my number-one thing, was not thinking that it could ever happen. You won’t know until you send it out. That’s the thing. I never sent anything out. I never actually submitted anything. I’m glad that I had all the academic background. I do think that helped me actually learn how to finish and edit revisions. I know how to revise now from that. I think the biggest thing is just getting the work done, sitting down, getting the work done, and sending it out. I know a lot of people, they’re like, I really want to do it, but they’re just not sitting down and doing the work. That’s the only thing you can do, is plow through it and get it done.

Zibby: I think it’s just that it takes so much time. It’s hard to commit to something that’s going to take so much time with no certainty of outcome.

Christine: I think that’s the biggest thing that probably prevented me from doing it before. It was like, how do I know this will go anywhere? You do, you spend so much time. You sit there from morning until night going through it just believing that it could happen. It’s a really tricky thing. I think that’s what stopped me from really finishing it, not thinking it could ever happen.

Zibby: Yet here you go. If you don’t write, you’ll never know.

Christine: You got to try.

Zibby: You’ve got to try because you definitely won’t sell what you don’t write. Christine, thank you. This was so great. It was so nice to get to know you. Thanks for taking me on my little journey through Venice. It was so great and really immersive and beautifully written and a real joy to consume.

Christine: Thank you.

Zibby: Take care. I hope that all your reviews are really positive. I’ll be crossing my fingers and reading them eagerly and hoping, hoping.

Christine: I’m ignoring them.

Zibby: I won’t send you any. I promise. Take care. Buh-bye.

Christine: Thank you so much.


PLACE OF THE DROWNED by Christine Mangan

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