Debut author Dara Levan joins Zibby to discuss IT COULD BE WORSE, a visceral and moving novel about a woman who discovers something devastating in the piano bench of her childhood home and starts to question if the people who should love her the most, her parents, have done more harm than healing. Dara delves into the inspiration behind the story and the themes of narcissistic abuse, resilience, and the pursuit of self-acceptance. She also describes her creative process (she wrote this novel in 15 weeks!) and the integration of speech pathology into the storyline, inspired by her past as a speech therapist.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dara. Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" to discuss your novel, It Could Be Worse.

Dara Levan: Thank you for having me, Zibby. This is such an honor. It's a very uncomfortable feeling because typically, I'm on the other side. Sitting here being interviewed, I'm so much more comfortable being in your chair. This is an interesting flip of the script.

Zibby: We'll have fun. Just enjoy it. We're actually doing this, recording right after getting back from our Miami retreat. You were there. We got to hang out the whole time. Kyle was literally just saying something -- oh, we were brushing our teeth. He was like, "You know, Dara told me that the whole secret to a good marriage is separate bathrooms."

Dara: He's right. We had to reconstruct our bathrooms. He mentioned something like that. I said, "Actually, we have this wonderful meeting space." My husband and I are like peanut butter and jelly. We are a total team. We've been together twenty-four years, a beautiful love story. We had to reconstruct our bathrooms. Kyle said something about separate. I said, "They're together because we love to talk." Between spits of toothpaste, we catch up, but we do have different toilets now. It's wonderful.

Zibby: Interesting.

Dara: You know, women, we have stuff to do. Men in general, that seems like their meditative spot. Not for me. I'm in, and I'm out.

Zibby: You are also a novelist. It Could Be Worse, so exciting. Can you please tell everybody what your book is about?

Dara: Sure, thank you for asking. It's about a woman. Her name is Allegra Gil. She suspects that her charmed life is not all that it may be. She doesn't awaken into becoming a mother. After discovering something devastating in the piano bench of her childhood home, she starts to question if the people who should love her the most, her parents, and who raised her, really have done more harm than healing. This is really a story of awakening and acceptance, but not necessarily forgiveness in the traditional sense. That's about a quick part of it. One thing I'd like to add is the musicality component. Allegra's name is very clearly chosen for that reason. Allegra means happiness in Italian. Her husband is what's called Jewban. Very popular here in Miami. I didn't have to do a lot of research because two of my boyfriends were Jewban.

Zibby: Is that Jewish and Cuban?

Dara: Exactly, yes. It's a big thing here in Miami. Anyone that is from here -- I'm a Miami native, where the book takes place in present day. There are flashbacks to a camp in Northern Michigan, definitely inspired by my experience, eight summers at Interlochen in arts camp where I did sing. Now I just sing in the shower. My range is five notes. It's nothing impressive. Allegra's journey -- I wrote the novel in the cadence of a waltz, so present, present, past, up, up, down. That's also the rhythm of a waltz because I believe healing is a waltz. It's not just forward. It's not just backward. Certain life events, experiences, even just unexpected triggering moments can bring us forward and backward. That's her healing journey that she doesn't even know she's about to go on. She's so blindly loyal to her father, who's a pediatric neurosurgeon. He's a healer. He's brilliant. He's her everything. Everyone is seeing it but her. When she finally starts to awaken, just like a death, a death of who you thought somebody was, she has such a hard time saying it, even though she's a therapist herself. She's very well-aware of the irony there. It makes it real for her to admit that her father especially, her mother too, are not who she thought they were.

Zibby: That is hard when you see your parents as people, but also with flaws that affect you directly. How do you reconcile that and your own identity and all of that? Where did this plot and book even come from?

Dara: It's interesting, Zibby. I'm glad you asked. As a podcaster myself on "Every Soul Has a Story," I've had so many people trust me to share their stories. Not just that. I've had so much personal experience in the workplace, in friendships with narcissistic abuse. It's such a silent -- you don't see it. There's no bruises. People are walking around in the world looking strong and totally balanced, and yet they're hurting inside and really being peeled apart one layer at a time, sometimes not even knowing it. Allegra had no idea. She just thought, well, my parents are -- my dad especially, he wants excellence. What's wrong with that? What's wrong with calling me fat? What's wrong with taking me to Weight Watchers at ten years old? she's thinking. That was her norm. I thought this was a topic that was really important to explore, but it's really a story of unconditional love and multigenerational love and also breaking a generational cycle of abuse.

Her grandparents are her salve as well as her sanctuary in the woods, Camp Intermezzo, and her best friend she meets there who's her bestie for life. Anyone that went to sleepaway camp knows this, but especially this camp because of the connection of music, which I've always believed is a universal language -- I learned that as a camper at Interlochen. It's still with me. That's all I talk about. I met my husband by talking about it. We got engaged eleven months later. This is so personal in that regard. I feel this is something people are afraid to talk about, estrangement and having challenges with people that are not just parents. Cousins, sisters, friends. There's so much shame. The deep root of Allegra's journey, part of it is shame, shame about her body. Her mother made her feel horrible, and her father for that matter. She was never enough.

Zibby: Tell me more about narcissistic abuse. I know this is sort of in the zeitgeist at the moment, finally getting a lot of airtime in places. It's complicated. How do you know if you are a "victim" of narcissistic abuse? How do you know if someone is a narcissist? How do you identify that? Not to pin you as the be all, end all expert on this, but just in wondering if people are out there thinking, well, maybe I've had narcissistic abuse. How would I know?

Dara: I really appreciate that question. Although I'm not an expert, I'm starting to feel like it because it's something that's coming up repeatedly the last couple of years. I've done not only a ton of research, but like I said, personal experience. There are several types of narcissism. There's covert. That's the hardest to spot. Those are the people that appear to be kind. I almost think of it as a fish and a hook. They hook you with either their charm or their intellect or their wit or, I've done this for you. They reel you in. I've read that sometimes it's six or eight months into the relationship. It could be anything. It could be romantic. It could be professional. It could be familial. This is pervasive, really, like a cancer. You don't even know it's happening. Covert is really the hardest because what happens is -- there's this term that has been thrown around a lot lately, but it's truth. It's gaslighting. Actually, I learned recently, I believe gaslighting was the word of the year, I believe 2021 or 2022. If that doesn't tell you anything -- .

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Dara: Right? I know. That's so disturbing. All the more reason I think this story is important. Conversely, overt narcissism is really obvious. Those are people that are grandiose. You could spot them in a heartbeat. They need constant attention. In both instances, with narcissism, there's a lot of demeaning others, making people feel less than. At the root of it, a narcissist has no self-awareness. I used to be a speech pathologist, which is why there's some threads of that as well in the novel, which I'd love to share. They truly have no sense of self. It's really sad. They're basically vacuous. They're like a shell of a human. It's one of the hardest things to treat also. I've spoken to several therapists. Why? Because just like in speech therapy, if you're not aware -- well, with anything in life. If you're not aware of a behavior, how can you change it? An overt or covert narcissist, they truly think they're doing nothing wrong. They lie. They criticize. They put people down because at the root of it, they don't love themselves. That's why It Could Be Worse is ultimately a story of unconditional love. Allegra has always loved herself but has a lot of self-doubt because of all these seeds that have been planted. I'm sure you know, Zibby. There are so many little messages I've had to undo for my childhood. My parents did the best they could. I'm sure your parents did too. There's little messages that come up that you could either delete, you could rewind and unpack it. There's so much we can do.

A narcissist, in any situation, another common theme for them, it's almost like they're programming their prey. It's not uncommon to see narcissists with friends where -- when you ask what to look out for, I knew someone, most of this person's friends were divorced or lonely. These are people a narcissist will prey on, somebody who's insecure. They’ll prey on that. Why? Because they need to feel better about themselves, just like a bully situation on the playground. Bullies are usually looking for control. There's a sense of, if I control you, it's almost an extension of self. That's another form of narcissism. It doesn't always come across as toxic. You'll see that with parents a lot where the child is an appendage. A child is an extension of the parent, whether that's a perfect weight, a perfect look, perfect career, choosing the right husband. It really manifests in such myriad ways that it is hard to spot. When you start knowing what you're looking for, it becomes very clear. It's really hard to unsee and unhear, which is what Allegra really struggles with because she's just like, this can't be.

Zibby: In your experience -- not to spend the whole time talking about this. For the victims, like Allegra, of narcissistic abuse, what is the remedy for that? What can they do?

Dara: That's a great question. What I've read about, and I actually interviewed some therapists directly, the first thing to do is boundaries. That word also has been thrown around so much lately, Zibby. It's interesting. People that need boundaries the most will resist them the most. The way a narcissist will often react to boundaries is anger. You have some narcissists that really explode. That's scary. That's a very alarming thing, putting that person back in their place that they are trying to control. The other way they will do that is, perhaps, triangulation. They’ll start trying to intervene between a relationship, maybe if it's a parent. They don't want to be seen. That's their biggest fear, is being seen for who they are and who they aren't. One way is the boundaries. It's the only way, quite frankly. Then what happens if someone is really what they call a severe pathologic narcissist, it'll be so resistant.

They might start spreading lies about you to your friends, to your family, in the workplace. Then you go to partial contact. It's a stronger boundary. I'm only going to speak to you once a week. It could be a silent boundary. Often, that's the safest way with a narcissist. If you sit them down and say, so here's the deal, this is how we're going to begin to engage now, that doesn't go over so well because they see everything as an attack on them even though it isn't. They have such a fragile sense of self, if any, that everything you say, and Allegra experiences this, becomes this horrible attack on that person, and a judgement, when it's really just trying to have a healthy relationship. When it gets really severe, unfortunately, most people have to go no contact. That is just the hardest thing in the world because who wants to do that? It's usually someone you love or respect. If it's your boss, how do you go no contact with a boss? You have to quit.

Zibby: Not happening.

Dara: I love your shirt. Onward and upward, exactly.

Zibby: I just got this yesterday as a gift. I had to wear it right away.

Dara: I love it.

Zibby: I don't really like wearing black, but thank you.

Dara: I was just going to say I never see you in black.

Zibby: It's not one of my colors. I had my colors done.

Dara: I never wear black. It looks great on you.

Zibby: Thank you. Wait, go back to the speech pathology. I did notice that, that Allegra does have a stutter, particularly when she's talking to her dad. I feel like it's always like, "D-d-d-dad," when you wrote it over and over. Tell me about that.

Dara: She only stutters with her father, actually. Only. That's quite intentional. I'm grateful that you noticed that, so yay. That message came through. I was a speech pathologist. When I went to Indiana University, I was an English and journalism double major, so writing is not a new thing for me. I basically was writing since I could speak. Anyone that knows me, it was probably in utero. Speech therapy, I loved because I love children. I love the brain. I love psychology. What really, I know, is my passion and purpose is writing. I really wanted to integrate -- I didn't see a lot of representation -- I really haven't in fiction -- of speech and language disorders. As this character came to life, I thought, you know, maybe I can show stuttering through trauma. There's different types of stuttering. Most common is childhood stuttering. A true stutterer, you'll start seeing it between the ages of three and five. There's other types where there's a neurologic injury. It could be a stroke. It could be a car accident.

Stuttering because of trauma is less common. I thought it would be really interesting to explore how Allegra doesn't even realize it. I don't know if you noticed also, she's only called Allegra by her parents. Everyone else calls her Allie. That's another way of a narcissist keeping themselves up here, and she's down here. Those names came to me so immediately. Ruby and Allegra are actually names of girls I went to camp with little girl. I just loved those names since I was little. I knew those names would be in a book one day or somehow used. I think it's interesting. Trauma can manifest and reveal itself in so many ways. I wanted to explore how that happened through speech. Also, what I found really interesting about Allegra's journey, she just told me to write this. We hear these voices as authors. Don't tell a therapist that because they’ll Baker Act you. We all talk about, my character told me to do this. It really sounds insane, doesn't it? You understand, right?

Zibby: I totally get it, yes. Everyone does it. Everybody says it sounds insane. At least there's this common awareness that there is some element of subconsciousness working. It runs away once you get started.

Dara: It's amazing. I thought, how can I bring in my background? My second book, already, that I've outlined in my head two years ago will absolutely also have one or two characters with a speech and language challenge. How does that integrate their life's journey? I really want to teach through story. No matter what, I'm always a speech therapist. I feel as a writer and as a podcaster, just any -- you know, stories matter. I feel that there's something really powerful with fiction. My hope is that readers feel empowered, inspired, and ultimately, really understand the human capacity for resilience because we have so much more capacity for resilience than we realize. That's actually something that's even on my website. I really believe in radiance in our breaking points.

It's like a glow stick. Bar and bat mitzvahs -- I don't know if they still use it now. When we were kids and you'd break it, then it starts to glow. We grow and glow through so much heartbreak. This is a heart-wrenching story, but it's, I believe, and I hope you find it to be true, heartwarming because ultimately, it's empowering. A lot of times, we don't learn resilience just -- you don't drink it. Oh, I'm going to have cup of ginger tea, and all of a sudden, I feel just so resilient. Unfortunately, on our human journey and in our characters' journeys, which I hope were so aligned -- the best books for me make me think and feel and cry and laugh and just not feel like I'm alone in -- that's really my hope with this book and hopefully many others that will come, is to have readers feel an authentic connection. I guess that's also my theater background. The believability of a character I think is so important because there's so many books -- I know you read -- first of all, can we talk about how? You said to me, "Oh, I read your book last night." What do you mean you read my book last night? You have four kids.

Zibby: I didn't have my kids. They were with their dad. I know how to speed read now. I can just go through every page. I don't know.

Dara: Unbelievable. I think you have to teach a course on that. My TBR, or "to be read," anyone that doesn't know what that is -- my husband teases me. He's like, "Is this an art installation?" I keep buying more and more books. They're all over the place.

Zibby: I have that too. You don't even want to know. There are books everywhere. That's why I like having the podcast. I know I have to read them by a certain time, so it all gets done. Anything I put in my calendar or in my inbox, it'll get done. Anything else, forget it. One other thing, though, with your book, as a former Weight Watchers person and then eventually leader and then eventually not a fan at this point, can I just read this part you wrote about that? You said, "My father's condescending comments about the women who particularly raised me and Jack still echoed in my mind. He couldn't stand the sight of anyone fat, not at home, not at the office, not anywhere. Dr. Kurt labeled one nanny Rice Patty Fatty and fired her because of her size. Several dedicated nurses at his office were also dismissed because of their less-than-desirable appearances. Pleasantly plump and morbidly obese were frequently used phrases I had heard again and again at five years old and now. I winced recalling my first step onto the public square symbol of humiliation otherwise known as the Weight Watchers scale. One time, an older woman with frosted hair glanced down at me. Compassionate eyes let me know I was more than my physicality. Five-by-seven index cards waited in the box, blank until the next written measurement.

No matter what the number, I never measured up to my father's expectations. Listening to all the adults collectively commiserate, I learned to avoid ingesting sodium the night before weigh-ins. I also wore the exact same outfit each week. Every ounce counted. Ten years old was a bit young to be dieting, especially without anyone my age to normalize that experience. Every Saturday morning, we drove to Weight Watchers. Daddy-daughter special time when my father would share stories about growing up in the snow. I'd wring my hands like a soaked terrycloth towel, nervous yet excited for our morning of just us. I awaited the loss, hopeful that a descending number would gain my father's approval. My self-worth was an external umbilical cord connected to my father and linked to the scale. I felt raw, almost naked. Would it ever be severed?" I love that passage, oh, my gosh. Ten years old, take us through this. Did this come from your own life? Someone you know? Where did this come from?

Dara: Maybe yes to all. I've seen it. I've experienced it. Gosh, it's even worse now with social media. Just the whole expectation of women and men -- that's the other thing, too, that's not addressed much. Although, I touch upon it with Jack a little bit, her brother, and how they -- I don't want to ruin the story, but that's a big part of how narcissism manifests. Yes, I went to Weight Watchers when I was young. I don't know if it was willingly. I don't know what my memory serves, to be honest. I do know, not just with myself, but I saw it with friends -- I actually talked about this with a high school friend recently. Then another friend, I went in college with her. Not just parents, but society, there's this, not only expectation -- I'm trying to think of the right word. Again, a sense of self, a sense of -- your parent, your grandparent, your neighbor, they're saying it to be nice or they're saying it for your health. As a child, you see right through the BS. You can feel it. You know that look? You know that look.

Zibby: I know the look. I had grandmothers with the look. Never mind. I'm not going to say anything about my family.

Dara: I hear you. Same. I don't think I want to go there. The expression of your face, that was a different kind of look. I'm glad you related to it. I'm hoping there's other universal themes in the novel that are relatable, like loss and most of all, love. I am grateful because having children, as you know, really opens up your mind and your eyes and your heart. Having kids is what taught Allegra a healthy way to love and be loved because didn't have children that kept asking, Mommy, why does Grandma do this? Mommy, why does Grandpa treat you that way? It didn't even occur to her. Same thing with the Weight Watchers. She didn't really know that there was anything wrong with that. Nothing, inherently, is wrong with going to Weight Watchers or having a child -- encouraging them to lose weight for their health, but there is something wrong if it's tied to love and acceptance. That's not okay.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Dara: I do. Mine's interesting. This is my debut novel. Believe it or not -- people ask, how long did it take? This entire thing poured out of me in fifteen weeks. That wasn't writing every day. I'm a quick writer. I think that I write in my head a lot. That might be from the days I was an arts reporter. My advice would be really write the story that speaks to your soul. My whole heart is on every single page. Tune out the noise. I feel that there are a lot of discouragers. Oh, my gosh, there's so many books out there. You're never going to do well. You don't need those people in your life. That's their insecurity projecting on you. It's not really your stuff. I think what was the biggest challenge for me -- I challenged myself to do this. I'm a such a perfectionist. I actually love to edit. In my twenties when I was in grad school, I edited several books on ADHD and social skills, again, tied to, in some way, speech therapy.

My biggest challenge -- but I would encourage it. Go forward. Don't go backward. I did not edit one single thing until I hit the end. That was the hardest thing for me because I love editing. To me, that is the most delicious thing in the world. The advice, go forward. Do not go backward. I actually wrote this entire story first in third person even though my gut told me it wasn't right. Then I rewrote the whole thing in first person. I thought you just change pronouns. Not so much. I was like, oh, that’ll be easy. Thoroughly listen to your gut. I went down a whole path -- I was never a novelist. I never thought I'd write fiction. I started just reading books on craft, jumping on your podcast, Carly Watters, everything I could soak in until a friend of mine said, "Just sit down and write." One of them is Brad Meltzer, who's a really good friend of mine from high school. He said, "Just write." I said, "Brad, what do you mean just write?" January 6th, 2021, I sat down. I said, I'm hitting the end mid-April, and I did.

Zibby: Good for you.

Dara: That was it. I have to now find the place to do that again. Then the other thing I'll share that a really good friend of mine said, which is terrifying but so, also, illuminating, she said, "Once that book is published, it's no longer yours." I said, "Excuse me?" She said, "It's not. It's your readers.'" Not every book is for everybody. You move on to the next.

Zibby: Moving on to the next. Dara, It Could Be Worse, congratulations. Well done. More to come. Can't wait.

Dara: Thank you so much, Zibby. I appreciate you having me on and taking the time to read my book baby.

Zibby: Of course. Bye.



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