Guest host Julie Chavez interviews debut author Courtney Sender about In Other Lifetimes, All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me, a wise, fierce, and lyrical collection of stories about the longings and loneliness of love. Courtney reveals how her own experiences with heartbreak have inspired her writing and how they infiltrate her characters in this book. She also describes her path to writing (it’s tied to Divinity School, a longing for love, and her grandmother) and then shares which story in this collection foreshadows her next book, which she is working on now.


Julie Chavez: Hello, Courtney. Welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I am so honored to be the one to interview you today. I’m so glad you’re here.

Courtney Sender: Hi, Julie. Thank you so much. I’m so glad to be interviewed by you.

Julie: I have to tell you before we begin — I wanted to make sure I got this on the recording. We were just talking offline. Earlier this week, I had to change our recording time. I was moving things around. Then I got an email that my son was getting an award, so I had to go to a middle-school pep rally. It was just the absurdity of it all. In one of your emails back to me, because you had to send many, one of them back to me, though, you said, “You know what? I’m pretty free. Whatever is least stressful for you, let’s do that.” I have to tell you that was such an exhale for me. It was just such a gracious response. A, thank you for that. B, it was funny because as I was reading your book, it seemed to line right up. I know this book has so much to do with waiting and pain and loneliness and some of these things. It sounds like it has borne fruit for you in your life, not only in the form of the book, but just in who you are. I guess we can start there. How do you feel like your life has prepared you to write this book now?

Courtney: Thank you so much. I’m so glad I could help you exhale a little bit.

Julie: I appreciate it.

Courtney: We were saying the “Moms Don’t Have Time” podcast, you aligned with that perfectly.

Julie: I lined it right up.

Courtney: Something that I wanted to have happen in the book, which maybe mimics the best of me in my life, is trying to extend grace and empathy to other people. I think that a lot of my characters don’t necessarily do that. At least, they don’t start off doing that. Then over time, they grow and change and come to extend empathy even to those who have really hurt them. I think that that’s really been my own story, I hope. This book came out of being really single for a really long time, honestly, and having these two great passions and loves in my life, which was writing and romantic love and wanting partnership. These two great, maybe, desires more than love is the better way to say that. They both bore fruit in some ways but made me wait in a lot of ways and made me wait for a very long time, I would say. In this book, a lot of the characters are really angry about the wait. They’re sad in the wait. They are howling in the wait. No one seems to care. People seem to tell them that maybe love will come, until it doesn’t. It really didn’t come. Then it’s kind of in the past, and that tragedy is over. A lot of these characters start off angry or really sad or not knowing what to do with this great pain in their chest, basically. Then in the book, it’s a braided collection, so many of the characters come back. They keep waiting for these men — not always men — and women, people that they love to come back into their life. When they do, inevitably, both the person they loved and them are different people. They, despite themselves, have to extend empathy to the people who rejected them. That’s been a long journey and process in my own life. I think I’ve at least taken steps to come there now.

Julie: I love how you talk about it. I have to say this book, and specifically, your writing, is so stunning. I know I’m not the only person to say that. It’s written everywhere. I can see why now that I’ve read it. It’s the sort of writing where I read it, and it’s like you can settle into it. There’s so much there. It’s so deep. I can’t wait to reread some of my favorites, particularly — let’s see. Oh, it was For Somebody So Scared. That one, I really needed to reread, especially with her dad. All the characters in it, they’re so real. You do such an incredible job of choosing the right details. Does it take you a long time to write? I read this, and it truly feels borderline miraculous. If I tried to write like this — I shouldn’t say — I’ve tried. Let me put it this way. When I do try to write like this, it comes out like, wow, you wrote this like a sixth grader, and nobody’s going to understand what you’re saying. You have a way of using the first person or the second person. It never feels forced. I’m in awe, truly. Tell me, does it take you a long time? If you’re about to say this just flies off your fingertips, then I am hanging up right now. We’re done. You’re dead to me.

Courtney: Of course. I can’t quite say that. I’ll say a version.

Julie: Yes, continue.

Courtney: My version of it is that very often — I’m really voice driven as a writer. I just have a voice in my head. In this case, the first line of the story that you mentioned, For Somebody So Scared, it’s, “Say no to me, she said.” That voice was just in my head very quickly. It’s someone asking for her own rejection from the start. At first, it’s in this sexual context. It’s kind of a game in the first opening, but then it really becomes her character. “Say no to me” is what she is unintentionally doing to everyone who tries to love her, and to the protagonist, who is a woman who has loved her and left her in the past. For me, something like that line comes really quickly. It will attach to a setting or a situation. In this case, it’s a cabin in the woods in Vermont, which was based, I can tell you, on a real cabin, but it was in New Hampshire, not Vermont.

Julie: I loved the description of it too. I could picture it instantly with the spiral staircase. I loved it.

Courtney: Thank you. I attached this voice to a setting. Then the story, it will kind of run out of me, flow out of me in the first draft. Then it’s the going back and the meticulousness with the details. That takes a long time, so you don’t have to hang up the call.

Julie: Phew, what a relief.

Courtney: As a writer, I think a lot about images that I call vectors. I can’t remember whether I invented this term or not, frankly. In physics, my understanding is that a vector is something that has weight and direction. I think of images like this. Images that matter, they have weight. They go somewhere in a story. In this story, it’s the cabin in the woods, the spiral staircase — that becomes kind of like a Romeo and Juliet play place — and the main character’s father bringing her records and some art stuff that she’s doing in the cabin. Those details I have to then be careful with and work through the story, thread through the story so that they all wind up pointing in the same direction, like those arrows, those vectors. I think that I used both thread and vector here. I mixed my metaphors.

Julie: I’ll allow it.

Courtney: Basically, I think that it’s the detail that you talked about at first. Those take me a very long time. The voice and just the rawness of a character who desperately wants love and endlessly, accidentally pushes the people who love her away, that comes out very quickly and fast.

Julie: It sounds like from what you were describing earlier that your own periods of prolonged waiting really gave you the ability to step right into that character when you hear that voice or feel that. It sounds like you can just put yourself there. That makes sense that that part would be maybe the quicker part. I love that idea of vectors because I am the queen of unimportant, tree-branching details. Just throw it in. It’s fine. It doesn’t matter. One of the first things one of my writing coaches said to me was, “Don’t put a gun on the stage if nobody’s going to fire it.” This shows how little I know. I was like, ooh, who said that? That’s neat.

Courtney: Oh, my god. That’s our Chekhov’s gun. As a writer, I think all about reverse Chekhov’s gun, which is, if a gun fires in the last act, you better make sure it’s on the stage in the first.

Julie: It’s so interesting to think backward. You’re right. I’m just starting to work on things now where I think, okay, I have to go this direction. I love that idea of direction and trajectory in your writing. That the details you choose are part of that, I don’t think I ever took it down to that level. I only thought of it as the large plot points and things like that. Wow, I really love that.

Courtney: Thank you.

Julie: I’m so impressed. I really like this line from An Angel on Stilts. “I am better in the short form, I have been told since you went away. My stories about loss that start with loss and end with loss are more tolerable when they finish fast.” There are so many I marked in this book. The construction, I could go on for days. I won’t. I am just so impressed. Tell me why you chose stories.

Courtney: That line from An Angel on Stilts, “My stories about loss that start with loss and end with loss are more tolerable when they finish fast,” that was some feedback I’d gotten, first of all, honestly. For me, the story form enables me to inhabit more perspectives as the main perspective. In other words, there’s no singular protagonist here. Of course, a novel, we can do roving perspectives in a novel. It’s not that a novel is limited, but very often, we’re following one storyline. There’s a primacy to the storyline. In stories, there doesn’t have to be. I didn’t want there to be. The For Somebody So Scared story that you mentioned earlier, I just wanted to add that I’m really glad you picked that one out too because that was an example of me having been very lonely and left and rejected at that point in my life, but I was casting into the perspective of a person who left a figure who was more like me, so trying to extend that kind of empathy. Then the Angel on Stilts story is from the perspective of someone who is the left behind and is longing for that second person, that you. I wanted both of those kinds of figures to be equally important, to be equally relevant. In the book, there’s two main sets of characters who long for a lover, and then a lover comes back in the second half of the book. In one of those, it seems like that relationship might actually work, although changed. In one of those, it seems like that relationship is just doomed because of how long the pain went on first. In stories, I don’t have to give either one of those primacy. I can say that both of those are really possible kinds of outcomes for love. There’s no telling. It’s kind of a roll of the dice. You just hope.

Julie: Gosh, it’s so true. It’s such a brave and terrible act to love someone that can leave you and that may leave you. I think about this all the time. It’s so precarious. Yet we do it. We long for it. The way that you treat that with your language really honors it. We have so many things about romantic love. To your point, we long for it, but so many of the narratives that are available about it are so much thinner and cheaper than they should be or than are true. It is nice to see and heartening to see something that actually does it justice because it’s so deep. Also, I think something so interesting about you is that you went to Harvard Divinity School as well. Tell me a little bit about your path to becoming a writer real quick if you don’t mind.

Courtney: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I think a lot of people who want to be writers — I feel like there’s two types. Some start with a subject and a story they have to tell. Then they just need to develop the skills as a writer. Some of them start with wanting to hone the craft and just loving writing and loving books and sort of finding their way to the story and the theme. I was the second kind. I always wanted to be a writer. Wasn’t totally sure what story I’d tell. Then to the benefit of my writing career but not my life, this lovelorn situation presented itself to me earlier in my life. What a gift.

Julie: Yay for me. How many years was that that it felt like you were in that place on and off?

Courtney: Oh, god. Probably, between the ages of eighteen and thirty, I would say, so my entire early adult life.

Julie: Perfect. Good. So pretty much, fifty percent up to that point.

Courtney: Yes, very much so.

Julie: Great. What a delight. Okay, go ahead.

Courtney: That gave me the subject that I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about it in large part because of what you said. The advice that I was getting from the world and from pop culture was thin. Literature, the great books are not thin. Elena Ferrante is my go-to for someone who writes the pain of a smart woman who just longs for love and puts herself in these horrible positions because of it. She writes it so well. Many have. I think the pop idea is, you’ll find it. You’re young. You’ll find it. For me, that never felt true. In part, this is where my interest in love marries my religious/spiritual background, which is that my grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. I was very close with her. I think that the lesson from that was just, really bad things can happen. Really bad things can happen. Not finding love, in some ways, is — well, I should say in a lot of ways is much smaller as a tragedy than the Holocaust, but in other ways is a real personal tragedy as well. I just think it was always hard for me to believe that the good thing is inevitable. I think the good thing is possible. The good thing happens, but it’s not inevitable. I don’t think it is. I think that tension between being so alone and being told that it would work out in the end and then knowing that horrible things happen in this world, that’s where the writing took off for me, I would say.

Julie: I love hearing that because you’re exactly right. People are well-meaning when they want to encourage you and tell you that it’s all going to work out. I do have that pushback as well where I think, but it might not. I can’t even articulate it a little bit. It’s just an interesting place that you find yourself. Of course, you want to believe. I think you put it perfectly. The good is possible, but then what do you do in the interim?

Courtney: Exactly. I think we as writers are always interested in the, “Yes, you’ll get love. No, you won’t get love,” or the third option, which is that the answer to longing and loneliness is not what you thought it was. Romantic love is maybe not the answer. I think that’s wonderful as both a writer, because you get to explore the complexities of something in between, and it’s often very true in life as well. That’s, frankly, the lesson that I had to learn in order to write this book. There’s other forms of love, love of self, love of family, history, friends, sisters, women. Female friendship really comes out in the book and in my own life as well as a place where you can put the longing for love. You can find another sort of love that isn’t romantic, even if romantic love does come your way or if it doesn’t. There’s a turn and gaze that you can do in life and in writing. I think I had to learn that lesson in life before I could write the book to my satisfaction. Going to divinity school along the way just kind of, I would say, opened up more possibility space. Divinity school is a place where people are really asking questions and don’t have a lot of answers. The more questions you ask — this is very similar to writing as well. The more questions you ask, the more possibilities arise as possible answers. Again, that pushed past the binary of, “Do you get love, or you don’t? Is your story happy or sad?” on that metric. I hope that, in the end, in this book there’s hope and belief. Even though the characters also rail against hope and belief, I think there’s hope and belief. There’s also a love of family and history and legacy that becomes just as important.

Julie: You express that so well. You’re right, opening up possibilities in how we measure our lives, too, in terms of what constitutes joy and depth and all these things that we want. It sounds also like this probably, even if you had — let’s say you wanted to write it earlier, or tried. So much of this, when I was reading it, was thinking, if I read this book when I was twenty-two, let’s say, I would’ve thought this is beautiful and wonderful, and I wouldn’t have gotten it. I can say that confidently for myself. I think there’s definitely things to appreciate in it. I just don’t think I would’ve understand the nuance. As you get older, I think you see so much more of what you’re talking about, which is the different forms of love and the different ways our lives are full. I like that. What are you working on next? Let me start with that. Are you working on anything right now? Is it in the same themes, or does this feel like you’re done with this now?

Courtney: It’s such a good question. I’m so happy this book is in the world for so many reasons. Part of this book I think would have spoken to me at twenty-two in the sense that a lot of the characters do feel how I felt then, which is sad and longing. I agree with you that a lot of the insights that they reach by the end, I was not ready for at that time. I do feel like this book being in the world has released me a little bit from writing that kind of twenty-two-year-old’s pain, which I think is so valid and is totally valid as a subject for literature, especially with a frame or a perspective that’s a little bit older, potentially. I don’t want to have to write that anymore. Yet I also felt for years and years that I had a very specific perspective on it. I could not let it go in my own writing until some version of it was out in the world. I’m so glad that this book is. I’m working on my next project right now. I’m actually at a writers’ residency called Santosha at the Hillholm Estates in Maine. It’s new. It’s incredible. It’s mindful, spiritual. It’s wonderful.

I’m working on this new book here. I have to say that there’s just a paragraph in my current book, in In Other Lifetimes, that sort of presages what I think I’m going to do next or what I’m working on next. It’s from the story To Lose Everything I’ve Ever Loved, which is the story when one of the characters that has been longed for returns. It’s on page 142 in the finished book. I know you have a galley, so I’m not sure if it’s the same. This man that she’s longed for has finally chosen her and has come back to her years later. They’re together. She says, “I start to think it has all been a problem of genre. During those years I spent loving a man who wasn’t mine, I thought I was living a romance or maybe a tragedy. My friend tried to get me to see it as a comedy. In fact, it was a horror story.” That is kind of the seed of what will come next, something that views all of this a little bit less as tragedy and a little bit more as horror.

Julie: That’s so exciting. I loved that storyline through those essays, and this one especially. That one really stood out to me for lots of reasons. A horror story, so exciting. I love hearing that.

Courtney: Thank you. I feel like I can just be a little less soft with the characters now because I hope that I was gentle and loving with them. I hope I pushed them against a wall, as a fiction writer needs to do, but I hope to have been very gentle. I think that my voice can just be a little sharper and a little meaner and a little less dreamy toward my characters. I just needed to get out the story collection that I think really holds the pain of all of this. I hope the next one can be a little sharper.

Julie: I love how you talk about it, too, because writing is such a spiritual exercise and such a meeting of where we are and then perhaps what the book or the story or the essay is meant to be. Then we’re ushering it. It’s such an interesting interplay. You’re exactly right to feel like that was something that you had to finish, that it was something that belonged in the world, and you were almost its caretaker. Now you are ready for the next thing.

Courtney: I do feel that way. I think that as writers, it can’t be about publishing. Publishing can’t be the thing that keeps us going. It has to be the work. Yet I see very powerfully how if something is kind of stunted in terms of it never gets off our own laptop into the world, it can stunt us a little bit. It can stunt our growth and movement forward a little bit.

Julie: What a gift to be able to share stories. To loop back around, it’s funny, had I read this at twenty-two — the beautiful thing about it, about your writing too, is that these are the kind of words you can store up. I got to talk to Gregory Maguire forever ago. He talked about writing a book. He wrote Cress Watercress because he was writing it with a specific person in mind. It was a teenager struggling. He said, what would I have liked to tell her earlier? He talked about writing to store up comfort and to store up wisdom. That is what this book absolutely does. No matter what your life story is and if you, let’s say, haven’t — I’ve been married for twenty years, and so I haven’t experienced some of this, but yet I will in some form or another because to love people is to lose them.

Courtney: That’s so beautiful. Gregory Maguire wrote Wicked, right?

Julie: Yes.

Courtney: I grew up in North Jersey, and I went and did the Wicked ticket lottery every weekend of my life. I waited outside the stage door for Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth every weekend.

Julie: How could you not? Wicked is one of my favorites. The book is so different than the play. I got to talk to him a little bit about that. Interviewing him was just — that idea of, you’re storing it up, that’s totally what I do with reading. You take those favorite sentences and these ideas, and then maybe later is when you really think, now I know what that was for, what I needed that for.

Courtney: Absolutely. I do think part of why I wanted to write this was to represent what it feels like to be lonely and really sad and feeling like people around you can move forward and build lives, and you’re just trapped. You’re dependent on finding someone else who loves you and wants you before you get to move forward. That feeling, I wanted to represent it. Like you say, I also wanted to offer some solace or some wisdom to it. In the end of this book in the very last story, there’s one moment where a story that’s in that second-person you breaks, and there’s just a first-person I. It’s the only time in the whole book that I view the I as being me, the author. Just for one moment. It doesn’t matter if the readers view it that way, but I do. It’s in the very last story, which is called A New Story. I wanted to end with a kind of beginning. There’s a part that says, “This is the story I want to tell, the one where he doesn’t leave because of no because, because he doesn’t. No metaphor is truer than the fact of his body in your bed day after day.” I just wanted to say in that, there is no because. There is no reason for your loneliness. There’s no real reason, either, for why love came to you. It’s a blessing and a sacrament. There’s really no deserving in my mind. There’s no one who deserves loneliness. There’s no one who deserves love more than anyone else. Maybe we could say we all deserve, but there’s no more or less. That’s just the notion that I wanted to put out as a solace to that twenty-two-year-old or thirty-two-year-old or fifty-year-old or sixty-year-old, anyone who’s lonely. I think that’s a perennial condition.

Julie: It is a perennial condition. You are exactly right. I think that is a lovely word to share with anyone because we live in a culture that tells us you must be jamming something up. There’s something, not faulty, but maybe you need to wait a little longer or whatever. There’s just so many reasons that people have for why someone’s maybe lonely or single or whatever it is. No one’s deserving. I like the way you said that. That’s perfect. It’s a blessing and a sacrament. To not have it, to turn the gaze and look elsewhere is something that’s healthy too. My gosh, it’s so hard to be a human.

Courtney: Oh, my god, it’s so hard. This is why we’re writers. We’re looking at all these facets of how hard it is.

Julie: It is. It’s a heartbreaking enterprise, but worth it nonetheless, a lot like writing, really, right?

Courtney: Oh, god, yes. Writing and love, to me, have both absolutely broken my heart and given me some of the greatest joys in my life and have inspired each other very much.

Julie: It’s so true. The highs of insight and conversation and the lows of Goodreads reviews.

Courtney: Yes. Don’t look at those.

Julie: No. I’ve heard that. I’m going to have to just put a password on it or something. My kids can unlock it for me. I’ll let them read it.

Courtney: Someone safe. When I forward my friends emails that I know will be bad, I just tell them to report back to me what it says.

Julie: So smart. Everyone needs those people in their life to just be like, look, you know me, and this is not healthy for my mental health. Courtney, thank you so much for this time and this conversation and for a beautiful book that I can’t wait for other people to get their hands on. Just as a quick plug, this would be an amazing book club book. I don’t know that’s it’s necessarily probably in that marketing area, but it should be. Women like me, like you, whether you’re in a relationship, not, these are the conversations we should be having because there’s so much elevation and honesty there. I hope that everyone picks it up and talks about it nonstop.

Courtney: Thank you. I have to agree, so thank you. Thank you so much.

Julie: Thanks for the time. Thanks for the conversation. I’m so happy we’re connected.

Courtney: Wonderful. I am too. Thanks so much, Julie.

Julie: You’re welcome.


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