Claire Lombardo walks Zibby through the roundabout way she became an author, her experience at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and what she learned when her debut, The Most Fun We Ever Had, first came out.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Claire. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Claire Lombardo: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: We were supposed to do this years ago. Back when I would do book fairs, I would put out all the books of authors who had just been on my podcast. Because we had scheduled it, I had your book there. You were there. Didn’t you come?

Claire: I wasn’t. I was supposed to. I don’t remember why I couldn’t. I was supposed to be in New York that day, and then I wasn’t. I don’t remember why.

Zibby: It’s great to finally get a chance to meet you face to face, on Zoom at least, after our aborted attempt a couple years ago to make this happen. Delighted.

Claire: Me too.

Zibby: You book had just come out then, I think When did your book come out?

Claire: My book came out June two years ago. June of 2019, so almost two years ago.

Zibby: Tell me about The Most Fun We Ever Had, the process of writing that book, how that became a book. Take me up to today. Take your time. I’ll just settle in.

Claire: A tall order. I’ll just talk a lot. The Most Fun We Ever Had, do you want me to describe the book?

Zibby: Sure. For people who don’t know what it’s about, give a short description.

Claire: The Most Fun We Ever Had, it’s a multigenerational family story about the Sorenson family who lived in the Chicago suburbs. The book follows this family, this couple and their four errant daughters, for almost fifty years. At its core, it’s about this ironclad marriage between these two people. Then it’s all the things that come from that. That’s my elevator pitch. I started writing this book — gosh, I don’t know. Nine years ago. It’s been a really long time. I was twenty-four. Eight years ago. I was working on this book when I was in graduate school to be a therapist, so I thought. It was so all-consuming and the thing that I cared about so much that I ended up dropping out of graduate school. I ended up, very, very fortunately, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a couple of years later and spent the next few years working on this book. Then I met my editor at Doubleday. Here we are. You know this as well, it takes a really long time to publish a book. It is a long process, thankfully a fairly entertaining and pleasant one. The book came out almost two years ago. It’s coming out in paperback in a few weeks, which is really exciting to breathe new life into it. It’s been a long eight or so years.

Zibby: How did you come up with the characters and the family and decide that that was the type of first novel you wanted to write?

Claire: This novel started out as a short story about one of the characters, Violet, who is this woman who has placed a child for adoption very young and then kind of curates this ostensibly picture-perfect life for herself. She has two little kids. She and her husband live on the North Shore of Chicago. Everything is arranged to very specific specifications. Then the kid comes back as a teenager. I was really, really interested in that dynamic, in life getting in the way as it often does, but specifically in that way. Then from there, her family kind of took over. I became really obsessed with her — she had a larger-than-life sister and then parents who were crazily in love with each other and slightly more accepting of the messiness of life. The book just kept growing. I’m from a big family. This is not an autobiographical novel by any stretch, but I’m very interested in family dynamics and always have been. It evolved from there, my obsession with other people.

Zibby: What number child are you of how many?

Claire: I am the youngest of five.

Zibby: Wow.

Claire: Yeah. I was a very quiet kid. I remember one of my sisters saying once — I was always very quiet and not ever saying much. She was like, “We knew that you were listening.” There was something going on. I was fascinated by my older sisters. That certainly influences me as a writer.

Zibby: Are you close with your siblings?

Claire: I am, yeah, all of them in different ways. I feel about them the way I sort of feel about my characters, which is that I like them all to different degrees on different days, which I think is the case for most — I hope that’s the case for most people. Yes, they’re all writerly and creative in different ways. It’s been nice to have readers in my family as well.

Zibby: That’s great. I feel like so much advice people give is getting a group of readers or like-minded people, but if it comes baked into your own family, how great is that?

Claire: Right. It’s very convenient.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about Iowa. I hear so much about it. It just seems so magical and exclusive. What is it like being there?

Claire: I was terrified when I got here because I had heard all sorts of stories as well. I also felt just massive imposter syndrome when I got here. It was truly a mistake that I had gotten in. I remember first day of workshop I sat — I was in the novelist Ethan Canin, who later became my mentor and very good friend — this was not because of him that I was — it was my first workshop ever. I was sitting in the corner of the room. I thought I was going to have a panic attack. I just became convinced that I was going to die, and so henceforth sat by the door for the rest of the semester lest I passed out. I did not. I was terrified when I got here. I moved back very recently. It’s a really wonderful place to be a writer. The community of Iowa City at large is very creative, very writerly, people who are supportive of creative ideas and creative work. The workshop especially was just — I had the most lovely group of classmates. It was not very competitive. It was very supportive. De’Shawn Winslow who had a book come out, Regina Porter, several of my classmates had books come out within a month of me. It was a really magical couple of years. Hence my coming back here.

Zibby: Do you have a history of panic attacks? Was that the first one?

Claire: No. It was completely out of nowhere. I’m a highly anxious person. I think I was just so overwhelmed. My mom’s a nurse. I described it to her later. She was like, “Yeah, that sounds like classic panic attack symptoms.” I was fine. Thankfully, Ethan Canin is also a physician, so I guess he could’ve intervened if I needed it. I was just so, so nervous. Sharing creative work is such an intimate, scary thing. It was not something I had ever done before. I was an English major, but I was a rhetoric major. I had never given my fiction to other people. Suddenly, it was like, I have this novel that I’ve been working on quietly for years. Now I’m just going to hand it off to people. It was highly overwhelming at the outset.

Zibby: What does that mean to be an English rhetoric major?

Claire: It essentially means that I was trying to finish college as quickly as possible. I dropped out of college when I was nineteen because I was pretty unhappy where I was. Then I got this job as a paralegal at a nonprofit. I ended up staying there for six years. Then it was suddenly like, I was twenty-four. I was like, I should probably finish college. I was trying to do it as quickly and cheaply as possible. Credit-wise, I was closest to being a straight English major. I just ran the gamut instead of focusing on creative writing or literature. I dabbled in all of them. That was a weird few years as well.

Zibby: What is this dropping out of multiple programs? You made it through Iowa, right?

Claire: Yes, I did.

Zibby: Now you came back. Lived to tell. What is it about those situations that makes you change your mind? I tried to drop out of business school, but everybody convinced me to stay, including the people at the business school. They basically wouldn’t let me drop out. I was like, I’m out of here. I’m done. They’re like, no, no, no.

Claire: How far into your program did you want to?

Zibby: Probably, three months in. It was during 9/11. I had lost a friend. I really didn’t want to be in Boston anymore. I just was like, I can’t deal with this. I can’t even think straight. When you’re grieving, it’s really hard to focus. I was surrounded by people who were super bright. I was already a nontraditional student. I didn’t have panic attacks, but I might as well have. I don’t think I spoke for months on end.

Claire: Oh, gosh. That sounds horrible.

Zibby: Feeling so intimated and everything. Eventually, I came around, but it took a while. I know that feeling. However, I didn’t pull the trigger and drop out. I want to hear, to make it over that finish line twice, what gets you there?

Claire: It’s a good question. The first time, I was at a very, very tiny private liberal arts college in rural Illinois, Knox College. I had come from a really big high school and a really big family. I was suddenly in this tiny town in this tiny school. I was just miserable. At the time I was there — this is just a comical, happenstance-ial thing. There were dead crows all over the campus. I still don’t know if there was some mass crow flu. It was this really ominous thing. You would just walk outside and there were dead birds everywhere. I was just miserable. That’s a really weird story.

Zibby: No, I feel like I’m reading a novel now. This is great.

Claire: I know. I’ve tried to write it into a project. It hasn’t made it yet. The notion that we’re supposed to know at eighteen what we want to do with our lives is so ludicrous to me. I have friends now who have teenage kids. I have such empathy for being that age and for not knowing what you want to do. Some people do. That’s great. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had a bunch of ideas that I thought would be valid career paths or fruitful career paths. I was eighteen. I didn’t know. I dropped out then just more for practical reasons. It was a very expensive school. I knew that I wasn’t taking advantage of it in the way that I should’ve been. When I dropped out of graduate school, that was also a very financially unsound decision. I was three months into my degree. My father died very, very suddenly and very unexpectedly.

Zibby: I’m so sorry.

Claire: Thank you. It was horrible for every possible reason, but I think it also made me reexamine what I was doing. My parents were and are — my mom is very, very supportive of whatever their kids have wanted to do. It wasn’t like I felt this pressure to finish this degree because of my parents. I was putting pressure on myself. Losing my dad, I looked at the world in this different way. What matters? What got me through that year — it was such a weird year. I had bedbugs twice. It was a miserable — also in rural Illinois. It was not a great time. The thing that kept me sane was working on this book. It was the space that I could retreat into in the evenings. I was going to my classes and going through the motions and reading theoretically about all of these psychological concepts and all of these theoretical problems that people could have. I was myself having actual problems. I found fiction a more fruitful and therapeutic way to work through some of those things. I remember calling my mom and telling her I was dropping out. I said, “I think I’m going to apply to MFA programs.” She said, “Great, come on home.” She was very, very supportive.

I decided that I would give it a year and that if nothing happened, I would go back. I knew that my credits would be saved. I knew I could come back if it didn’t work out. I applied to, I think, twelve MFA programs. During that time, I was a nanny for a while. I was a temp. I worked at the National Flute Association, which is probably the weirdest job I’ve ever had. I have to clarify that I’m not saying flu like influenza. I’m talking about the woodwind instrument. I’m not a musician, so it was a very strange job. Then I got into Iowa. It’s not a path that I can — I wouldn’t advise other people to do this. I went into tons and tons of student loan debt, not for Iowa, but for my social work degree. It was a huge risk, but it felt right at the time. It’s just an example of one of those things that you can’t really plan that very fortunately worked out well for me but just as easily could’ve not.

Zibby: Can I ask what happened to your dad? You don’t have to answer.

Claire: He had a heart attack. He had had heart problems since I was a kid. It was sixty-three, very young, very healthy otherwise, so totally, totally unexpected. We were very close. In a lot of ways, the father in my novel is not my dad, but is sort of an homage to good dads and to dads who are reverent of having daughters. That was my way to work through that.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Claire: I’m working on, I say a new book. I’ve been working on it what feels like a billion years because I started it when I was in graduate school. I am working on another novel that is about marriage. If The Most Fun We Ever Had is more of pulling the lens back and looking at a whole family, this is delving more deeply into the nuances of a marriage, so putting it a little bit more under the microscope.

Zibby: Are you married? Am I allowed to ask that?

Claire: Sure. No, I’m not. Yes, you’re allowed to ask that. I am not, no.

Zibby: Maybe that’s one of those questions you’re not allowed to ask people. Somebody the other day said it was not even PC to ask if you had kids. Can I even say PC? Anyway, I’m just getting myself into trouble. Okay, I’m done.

Claire: There is no judgement here.

Zibby: That sounds very interesting. I feel like especially this year, a lot of marriages have become highly dissected and thought about intimately as everybody’s been stuck inside with their spouses.

Claire: Right, looking more deeply at their marriages than perhaps they want to.

Zibby: Perhaps it’s true. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Claire: My very pat answer that sounds really smug and that I don’t always follow myself is to just keep writing. Write as much as you can. Try to develop a writing-every-day routine if you can. Read all the time. That sounds so simplistic, but I forget how necessary that is. I go through periods of difficulty writing. I realize in hindsight it’s because I’m not reading enough. I’m not being externally stimulated. I think if you get so deeply into a project that you’ve got blinders on to everything else, you’re setting yourself up for not-great writing, possibly. I’m usually reading like seven books at once. I’ve been that way since I was little. I have very fleeting attention. Reading a lot. I’m trying to think of what else.

Zibby: What seven books are you reading now?

Claire: Oh, gosh. What am I reading right now? I am rereading a novel by — I never know how to say his last name, Dan Chaon, I believe, You Remind Me of Me, which I loved ten years ago. I’m resurrecting that. I just finished My Sister, the Serial Killer. Did you read that?

Zibby: Mm-mm. (negative)

Claire: I loved it. It was really, really fun. It’s also this physically tiny book. It’s the perfect bedtime reading. I just started We Begin at the End. Have you read that?

Zibby: Chris Whitaker?

Claire: Yes.

Zibby: Yes, I read that. I just had him on the podcast.

Claire: Oh, cool. That’s the only book I’ve ever tried to pull strings to get an early copy of. I failed because we don’t have the same publisher. I bought it the day it came out, which I also almost never do. I’m listening to that as an audiobook and really enjoying it.

Zibby: If you ever are desperate for an early copy of something, just send me an email.

Claire: What’s that?

Zibby: If you’re desperate again for an early copy, just get in touch with me.

Claire: Thank you. You’re going to regret saying that.

Zibby: I’m not saying that to everyone listening, but I am saying to it to you, Claire.

Claire: Thank you. I will probably take you up on that.

Zibby: If you need a favor every so often, I tend to get a lot of books, which is really, really exciting. Sometimes I get multiple copies. I don’t even know what to do with them. Anyway, so just let me know.

Claire: Great, thank you. I’ll keep surfacing. Great, thanks.

Zibby: The one question I really have also — so many people I have on this podcast are in the midst of book publicity craziness. It’s either right before it starts or right in the middle of it or after it or whatever. You’re just on this whirlwind of interviews. Then after that, it’s like, okay, that’s done. I can go back to my writing and this and that and the other thing. I know it’s obviously the beginning of your paperback launch. After two years looking back on that whole experience and now being able to be more, perhaps, clearheaded about what that whole thing was like and the book and everything, how do you feel looking back on that? How do you feel that whole experience even was? How do you feel about your relationship to the book now having been through all of that?

Claire: That’s a really good question. In some ways, it’s not that I don’t remember, but it was such an overwhelming — writing a book is such a solitary, lonely, often, process. You’re so deeply in your head. Then suddenly, you’re talking to people constantly and having to be on all the time. I wouldn’t say I’m wholly introverted, but I’m more of an introvert than I am an extrovert. You kind of go into this other mode. You get better at it. I shudder to think of some things I said in early interviews, so maybe it’s good that you and I haven’t met until now. I’m probably slightly more articulate. I’m not terribly articulate now, but probably slightly more than I used to be. It’s such a different thing. My relationship to the book, in some ways, I feel closer to it. In some ways, I feel I can speak about it more objectively. Again, right at the outset of the book coming out or even — we did a lot of pre-pub stuff. I had just finishing writing it, so I was really protective of these characters who felt like sort of real people to me. I was also just used to being alone in my apartment never talking to anyone.

Now it’s kind of like this autonomous thing. Not autonomous fully, but it’s this thing in the world that has its own legs and its own life. I realized that pretty shortly after the book came out, you have no control over who’s going to read it or what they’re going to think. I remember one of my professors, I don’t remember who, saying when you’re writing, you have to know that when someone, any person in the world, is reading your book, you’re not going to be next to them being like, but no, you missed that. Pay attention to this line. It has to speak for itself. My relationship is probably healthier, less codependent with the novel now. That being said, I forget plot points that I’ve written. There are certain times when someone says something and I’m like, did that make it into the book? I have to go back and check just because it’s been — I haven’t read my own book in a while. It’s hard to remember sometimes. It’s a long book. I should read it again before the paperback comes out. I’ll add that to my stack. You also feel like a sociopath reading your own book. I don’t know if you feel that. It just seems like a very masturbatory — at least it’s not on the train or something. I can just do it in my home.

Zibby: We will not tell anyone. You just stay right there and do it. You don’t have to tell a soul. No one will check you. Maybe don’t do it at a restaurant. Even if you did, that would be hilarious marketing. That would actually be so funny if you had some sort of spotting authors in the wild reading their own books. What that thing? Not Tamagotchi, but the thing that everybody played, that game that I don’t want my kids to play where you have to spot things. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Claire: The Pokémon game where people would be like — yes, yes.

Zibby: Yeah, Pokémon Go. Thank you. It should be like a Pokémon Go, but it’s authors reading their books in public. If you got it, you would get twenty points. I don’t know. Can you see a whole thing? Anyway, never mind.

Claire: Totally. We’ll pursue this.

Zibby: Yes, we’ll pursue Author Go or something. That will allow you to comfortably read your book without feeling weird.

Claire: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Zibby: You’re welcome. No problem. Anytime. Claire, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Good luck on your next project. I will try to catch you in the wild reading your own book. We’ll see what happens.

Claire: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Congrats on the paperback.

Claire: Thank you. Thanks.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Take care.

Claire: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Claire: Bye.


The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

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