I’m here today with Claire Gibson. Claire is a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Born and raised at the US Military Academy at West Point, Claire went on to study political science and Asian studies at Furmen University where she was recruited by Teach For America to be a middle school history instructor. In 2012, she left the classroom to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a writer. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Tennessean, Marie Claire, Entrepreneur Magazine, and many others. Beyond the Point is her debut novel coming out April 2nd.

Welcome, Claire.

Claire Gibson: That’s right. Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: This is such a dream. I have to say, Claire and I met by happenstance at Books Are Magic bookstore in Brooklyn when we were both there to see John Kenney and Courtney Maum talk. I recognized Claire from Instagram. My husband introduced us.

Claire: Oh, my goodness. It was ridiculous.

Zibby: It’s nice to be connected and everything.

Claire: No kidding. I was just there that night from Nashville for that one night. I popped into Books Are Magic. Then there you were. Now, here I am sitting in your house. It’s crazy. That’s the gift of book people.

Zibby: Love it. Beyond the Point, which as I’ve told you, I truly loved, could not put down, read like a movie, went so fast. So many scenes have stayed with me completely. I know you said it took you about four years to write. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Claire: I wish I could say that it came to my head in some brilliant dream or something. That’s obviously not the case. This book is based on true stories of women that attended West Point during the 2000 to 2010 decade. I grew up at West Point, like you said before. I had all this setting in my mind. I’d lived there for about seven years in my childhood from age ten to age sixteen. The cadets there and the life there had really made a huge impact on my experience as a child. I didn’t know if I could truly write a novel set there because I wasn’t a cadet. I never attended West Point. There were parts of that experience that I never had a chance to see behind closed doors. In 2013 after doing some freelance writing, some women that I had known when I was in middle school and high school contacted me. They had gone on to do great things in their military careers and careers outside of the military. They asked if I would be interested in interviewing them. Those interviews, over many, many years, turned into this novel that I’m really proud of. I’m so grateful that you enjoyed it.

Zibby: It was fantastic. It’s really a tale of female friendship. It’s about the military and the way it can pervade the deepest recesses of your life and your heart, but also about how these women grew up together and how relationships evolve over time.

Claire: Right. That was really important to me. I grew up as a military brat. Even now when I walk into a bookstore, if I see a book with a woman in uniform on the cover, it’s not necessarily the first book I’m going to do for. It was really important to me that this was a story about friends first. War, as important as it is to the story, it’s also a backdrop. It’s not in the center. That’s true for these women that I interviewed. Their lives are way more impacted by friendship than about this one element of their lives.

Zibby: At the beginning of your book, one of the women, Hannah, is married to a man named Tim. They go through this long-distance marriage. This is after they’ve graduated from West Point. Your book not only starts there, but tracks the characters post-college and beyond. You have Hannah realize that the sacrifice of them living apart, “The sacrifice was part of the sacrament.” Tell us more about what you mean by that.

Claire: Anyone that’s in a marriage experiences that day-to-day slog of, here we are again eating steak and bagged salad. That’s my life. You just go through the motions of that day-to-day living. For these women that I interviewed that were in dual military marriages, it’s an extremely challenging experience. Their paths are in and out and crisscrossing. The army doesn’t necessarily put you in the same place just because you’re married. They try often. Sometimes, training or deployments can disrupt those plans.

For Hannah’s character, she really felt like those sacrifices that they were making and that time apart made their time together all the more important and all the more sacred. It also helped me realize as I was interviewing these women that there was something really special about being in a team with your spouse and feeling like you’re both going after a similar mission. Even though in the book Hannah and Tim are going to different combat zones, they both are experiencing the same thing at the same time. There’s something really special about that in a marriage when you have that common goal. I know in my marriage, we’ve really worked hard at figuring out what is our common goal going to be? Pretty much, we have a humdrum life. What are we going to do that really unites us? That makes a marriage all the more special. It makes it meaningful.

Zibby: You wrote so beautifully about your marriage and your adoption of your son in Marie Clairein that beautiful essay. I feel like you and your husband — I’m going to jump in and comment on your marriage here — I feel like you do have this common pursuit. You made it through so much together. Obviously, it’s not the military, but it was a war of your own.

Claire: It was a war of our own, for sure. We worked at it. We were talking about this just before we started recording. Marriage, it is hard work. It is messy. There’s a lot of it that people don’t see. Thankfully, my husband and I, we worked really hard to get through those trenches and figure out how to be a common team. It wasn’t something that came naturally. For Hannah and Tim’s character, because they had this common purpose and they met at West Point and they both knew what they were getting into, they went into their marriage already knowing they had a common purpose, which Patrick and I just had to find along the way.

Zibby: You had this other scene later in the book, not to jump around here. You have the scene with Avery. You had these three main girls. Hannah is one. Avery has a very different relationship to the men in her life and her self-image and everything. She is in a scene where she’s really depressed about things that have happened recently with the guys in her life. She says to herself, “It’s your fault. This is what you keep getting because this is what you deserve,” punishing herself like that. Tell me more about how you got into the Avery character and why you felt like that punishment — not a good question. Take it from there.

Claire: You’re right. Hannah and Avery are very different in this book. For folks who haven’t read it yet or are getting ready to pick it up, Hannah is the typical, apple pie, American girl that meets her college sweetheart. They go on to have their dual military marriage. Avery is this character who is a rebellious homecoming queen, wanting to prove everyone wrong, doesn’t love authority, which is funny that she ends up at a place like West Point, and has a bad pattern of relationships. You picked out that little quote there from a part in the novel where she’s really trying to grapple with why do I keep getting the same situation handed to me with men? Why do I keep experiencing these crummy relationships?

I dated a lot. I got to be careful here. There’s one relationship in my past in particular where I remember all of these red flags happening in the relationship. I kept telling myself to squash them. I remember the guy — I’ll tell this one little story — he knew me when I was a little kid. He was like, “You were always a little snot.” I was like, “Ha, ha. That’s funny. Let’s move on.” It was this red flag. That’s mean, actually. Don’t say to me. Only later once we had broken up, thank goodness, did I realize there were all these red flags about him that I didn’t allow myself to notice because I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted it to work out because I really liked him. I liked the parts of him that weren’t crummy, which were only a few parts.

Avery’s character, she’s the same way. She has these red flags she sees in these guys. She so desperately wants to be loved. She so desperately wants something to work out and to feel like she has a future with a solid relationship that it’s easy for her to push those red flags aside. At one point in the novel, she has to come face-to-face with her feelings of self-worthlessness. She’s realizing maybe one of the reasons why I’m ignoring those red flags is because I think what they’re saying is true. That’s a really scary place to be in as a woman, to realize I deserve more than this. I need to believe that I’m worth more in order to get out of this pattern. I wanted that for her character badly because she’s an awesome girl.

Zibby: Dani is the third in this Beyond the Point triumvirate of powerful women, an African American. They’re all former basketball stars, but she was head and shoulders above everybody in terms of talent and leadership. I don’t want to give anything away. She ends up taking a job in market research, which I found so interesting. You have her going from West Point and all the training and all the drama to bathrooms watching men shave, which was such a contrast, which I loved.

You had this one moment. I feel like this, maybe, is why you were writing about this. You have this one subject, a guy, who’s looking in the mirror after he’s taken a shower. He says, “It’s not like if I shave really well one day, the hair won’t grow back. No matter how good a job I do today, I know I’ll look in the mirror tomorrow and have to shave again.” She took that as this gem that informed the rest of her research. I took that as part of what the commentary on the military was as well. It’s one day after another, one battle, one scene. It never ends. They have to keep doing it and keep fighting. Individuals can graduate from the military and go on with their lives.

Claire: Sure, but as a united force, we’re constantly fighting back against our enemies. It’s true. That was an interesting storyline. It’s real. One of the women that I interview for this novel did work for a massive consumer goods company. Part of her job was watching men shower and, in the name of research, jotting down, where do they keep the shampoo bottles? Do they face the shower? Do they face away from the shower? What do they think about while they’re getting ready in the morning? If you think about it, it’s an interesting time frame. The men’s grooming explosion happened in the last ten years or so. That’s what she was researching. How do we get men to care more about what they look like?

That quote in particular, we’re all constantly fighting the chaos that just comes into life naturally. My house, every day, I clean it. At the end of the day, it is a mess. You can let it be a mess or you just constantly work at keeping the chaos at bay. That’s part of our human experience is learning how to make the most of the space that we have, whether that’s creatively as a novelist trying to make things work, or in the military, constantly fighting against enemies that would like to make our country less safe, or in the case of that character, shaving every day just to keep your performance and your face looking professional. It was fun to write those scenes.

Zibby: As a novelist yourself, tell me a little more about your process and how you went about writing this book. You said there were fits and starts. Where and when did you write? Paint a picture for me.

Claire: Totally. Oh, my gosh. So many fits, so many starts. I started in 2013. I started with the research process. I interviewed women a lot like this, sometimes in person and sometimes over the phone or over Skype. I started, actually, by using spiral notebooks. I would just write scenes by hand. It’s not very glamorous or anything. It helped me get things down without editing too much. Once I had those scenes written down by hand, the next day I would go in and type them out and edit as I went in typing them, transcribing them. That really helped me get the ball rolling on some things. There are a lot of early scenes from those spiral notebooks that made it into the final copy, which I think is interesting.

I had a lot of trouble with chronology. At first, I was going to do a lot of flashbacks. There are still some flashbacks in the novel. For the most part, I tried to keep it chronological because you already have a lot going on with three different points of view. I wanted people to be able to follow the storyline. There was also a fourth character at one point, sad she’s gone. I felt like I needed to get rid of her so that there could be more space for these three characters to really come to life.

I write every day from about eight AM to noon. Particularly when I was writing this novel, my husband and I didn’t have our son yet. I was writing a lot every day. I can’t work from home. I’m not very good at that. The dishes call my name too loudly. I have a little coffee shop in my neighborhood called Ugly Mugs. They’re really kind to give me my two-dollar coffee and not give me the side-eye when I’m there six hours later. Courtney and Jared are super kind. Writing, it’s crazy. It’s hard. I’m just grateful that I get to be here. It’s really crazy that this novel is finally out in the world. I remember at one point someone asked, what would success look like? I said I just want it to live outside my computer. Even if I just print it out once at FedEx, just to be outside of my computer would be great. Now, it’s definitely outside my computer.

Zibby: That’s amazing. You said something great at lunch. You said you have to figure out which no’s to pay attention to, which ones are the right no’s. Tell me more about that.

Claire: We went to lunch.

Zibby: Sorry. I’m not doing a very good job. Let me be more professional. We were at lunch recently and were discussing feedback from editors and agents and how in the writing field, there is constant rejection. That’s just part of it. There’s not necessarily saying it’s not good. Maybe it’s not for them, but it’s hard to tell the difference.

Claire: Or maybe it’s not ready yet.

Zibby: Or maybe it’s not ready yet. Claire was saying it’s important to know which no’s to really pay attention to and which to skirt over, which I thought was profound and very inspiring.

Claire: Thank you. It’s true. Everyone knows writing comes with rejection. If you sit down and you’ve written any number of words, you’re already fret with nerves. Is this any good? Then you send it out to an agent, or twelve. You get all these opinions back, if you’re lucky. Those opinions can be similar. They can be contradictory. I remember there was an agent I really, really wanted to work with that told me to get rid of the West Point years all together and only focus on the years after West Point. I felt like maybe I could do that. Then another agent was like, no, leave the West Point years in. Then there were other agents that said a big fat no. Big fat no, I’m not interested. It’s hard to know when you’re in the midst of all that rejection and opinions, whose opinion to listen to and whose opinion to disregard.

For me, I’ve had to learn how to walk through the doors that open. Don’t resist when doors start to open. Follow where there is the least resistance. That’s a good thing to listen to. Also, to trust my own gut when it comes to which no’s feel like they’re right and which no’s feel like they’re just mosquitos in your ear that you need to let them go their way. We were talking about when my agent finally did send Beyond the Point into the world, she had this whole Excel spreadsheet of publishers that she had sent it to and all of their feedback. Sometimes it’s hard to even look at that and see the people giving their opinions. You come to a point where you really have to trust the process and trust your own instincts. It’s your work in the end. It’s your name on it. Sometimes, you just have to push through and disregard people or go back to the drawing board. This took me four years to write. Like I said, there were a lot of drafts that ended up in the trash can. Even my agent and I worked together for about a year polishing it before it was ready to go out to publishers. It’s a lot longer of a process than anyone wants to believe, myself included.

Zibby: Now, it’s coming out with HarperCollins. It’s been optioned as a TV show, so exciting.

Claire: That’s right. This is the first time I’m talking about it. It’s been optioned for television, which is weird and exciting. We’ll see what happens. They can go forward and try to make it into a television show. They could sit on the option, but I’m hoping that they don’t. I think it would be great for the big screen, mostly because West Point is such a beautiful visual place. I hope I got that across on the page. It always is so stunning when you see it in real life.

Zibby: The way you wrote it was so cinematic in a way. I could see it all in my head.

Claire: Someone told me when I was learning how write, they were saying try to write the way a director looks at the camera lens. Imagine the scene from a director’s point of view. That really unlocked stuff for me. I was able to think about it in terms of what is my lens looking at? Is this a close-up on her necklace? What are the actual concrete visuals versus being in the character’s head a lot, which is a trend right now in a lot of literature, to have a lot of internal dialogue. It helped me think about it more cinematically. If this was a scene in a movie, how would it go? Then I started writing from that perspective which helped me get through some crags.

Zibby: I think that’s why it was so hard. I finished reading this on an airplane. Every time one of my kids would tap me on the shoulder or something, I felt like I had to press pause. I feel like I’m in the most intense scene of a movie and everyone keeps making me pause it. If there was a screen, you would know not to do this. It’s really like that.

A minute ago, you jokingly gave the cross sign to yourself. I wanted to talk about faith a little because faith played a large role in your book. You had this character, Wendy, as this older influence who often brought in scripture and had that influence over the girls’ lives as they were navigating all these painful issues. At one point, you wrote, this is from Hannah’s point of view, “She couldn’t understand how a person could just end. The more her mind circled around the drain, the more she felt the beginning of a battle she would someday have to fight with God, but for now, she couldn’t sleep unless she held onto her cross necklace and prayed, begged for a moment of rest, a moment to forget.”

Were you trying to have some sort of commentary on God’s role in war? Is this the importance of clinging to faith? Tell me what you were thinking.

Claire: I’m a person of faith. My background, in my heart, I believe in Jesus. There are a lot of people within the military that call them Christians or have some kind of faith understanding of their own. I hope that this book comes across as very realistic and not preachy or anything like that. The reality is a lot of the women that I interviewed, faith was a huge driver for why they chose to go to West Point or why they chose to serve our nation. They felt like God had a mission for their life and something that he wanted them to accomplish. Hannah’s character very much believed that and believed that God had a plan for her life and that West Point was a part of it. Like Hannah, I felt like there was a plan for my life that I was trying to follow and trying to listen to what God might have for me. The problem with that thinking a lot of times is that when that “plan” that you thought was happening goes awry, it can begin to topple all of the thoughts that you had about God in the first place.

That quote that you said about she felt that there was this coming battle with God, that was very true in my life. I know it was true in some of the women who I interviewed. Maybe they started at West Point very strong in their faith but after experiencing something like war, your faith, it’s so hard to hold together. How do I deal with these things that I’ve seen and the horror of what’s happening around me with this belief that there’s a God? Then you go through all of the questions. Is there a God? If there is, what happens after we die? It’s all of those questions that are so, so hard to grapple with but that I think people that are in the military don’t get the benefit of skipping out on. You’re young, and a lot of twenty-four-year-olds don’t have to deal with those questions yet. These twenty-four-year-olds did.

I appreciated growing up around women and men who weren’t shying away from the hard questions in life. Whether they landed on faith or not was beside the point. They were at least dealing with those questions. I find that really compelling, when people are open about what they believe or don’t believe. I love having conversations with people that think differently than I do about those things. Wendy’s character — she’s talking to these three women — serves as a place for them to grapple with those questions.

Zibby: Was that like you at West Point in the house, outside? Was that like your family?

Claire: Very much so. Yes. Wendy’s character in the book is this mama hen figure for these girls in college. I was definitely very inspired by my mom, who is a very hospitable woman and a great cook. I didn’t write myself into the novel at all. I definitely was there as a child watching from upstairs as my mom was having these conversations with these college girls about what’s going to happen now that 9/11 has changed the course of our lives. It really made a huge impact on me to see that my mom and my dad were investing in these other kids. Even though they had three kids upstairs, they had enough space in their lives to care for these other college girls too. That really impacted me.

Zibby: What is next for you after this? So much. First, the launch festivities and the TV. You have a new book idea you were throwing around.

Claire: I do have a new idea. I loved writing this novel that’s inspired by true stories. That has worked for me. I want to lean into that. I’ve been interviewing some new potential friends that may turn into book context and might turn into some new ideas. I’m a new adoptive mom. Our child was born a few years ago in Florida. Through adoption, we were able to bring him into our family. Adoption has been really interesting to me. I’ve been interviewing some women who have recently reconnected with their adoptive families and their biological families. That is inspiring me right now. You talked about this before, that authors don’t ever want to jinx their work. I’m in very early stages with the novel. I’m really having fun. It’s different now with the blank page. It feels way more free and exciting than it did in the middle of writing Beyond the Point. It’s nice to be the beginning again.

Zibby: That’s good. Other people have said they have some second-book doubt. It sounds like this is more freeing for you without the pressure of trying to publish.

Claire: Exactly. The first novel, it was so much, is this okay? Is this good enough? Will this ever go anywhere? Am I wasting my time? I’m sure I’ll have days that feel that way again. For now, it feels exciting to just look at a big, blank page and think of all the possibilities. It’s fun.

Zibby: Do you have any parting words of advice for aspiring writers? You’ve already given so many throughout this conversation.

Claire: I’m definitely not the person to be taking advice from.

Zibby: Everyone’s journey is so different.

Claire: That’s true. That’s so true. I love Flannery O’Connor. She’s one of my big influences. There’s another writer in Nashville named Jonathan Rogers who teaches writing courses. I’ve taken a few of his courses over the course of the last few years. There’s a story about Flannery O’Connor. She wrote this character. One of her readers asked her, “Hey, why is he wearing a black hat? Did that black hat have some symbolism because he was evil?” Flannery O’Connor responded and said, “No. People in my neighborhood just wear hats. Most of them are black.” What Jonathan taught me through that story was that my job as writer, and I think our job as writers, it not to try to put meaning into something. We’re not trying to make a successful book or get a TV deal or whatever. Our job is to sit down and write things the way they are, not trying to put some extra layer of meaning into. That is where I land now that I’m back to the blank page again, just closing my eyes, imaging the scene, and really writing it as it is and not trying to infuse it with something extra or some pizazz. It’s easy in the writing process early on to want it to be great. You want it to be so good. In the end, you just need to look at the scene and write it really concretely. That makes the strongest writing.

Everyone says this. Keep going. Keep going. It’s so frustrating. There’s so many forks in the road and discouragements that come along. Particularly, you and I have been talking about things you have working. I want to say keep going, always. Especially keep going with this podcast. It’s so great to listen to. All creative work is so inspiring to me. This podcast has been really helpful to me over the last couple months, listening to different authors’ advice. Thank you for what you do to bring this to bear.

Zibby: Thank you, Claire. That’s so nice. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” It’s a treat.

Claire: Thanks for having me.