Journalist, producer, and author Denise Kiernan joins Zibby to talk about her latest book, We Gather Together. Denise shares how she sought to weave together the history of Thanksgiving, a biography of the woman who helped make it a national holiday, and research on the benefits of actively practicing gratitude. The two also talk about what it was like to write about coming together during an era of social distancing, why she is developing We Gather Together into children’s and middle-grade books to share with the whole family, and which Thanksgiving food Denise argues is the best. Have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!!!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Denise. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, a President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace. How’d I do?

Denise Kiernan: Perfect.

Zibby: Dramatic reading.

Denise: That was great. It’s funny. As a writer, you know, sometimes the whole subtitle thing becomes this giant groupthink. Sometimes to remember my own subtitles, I literally have to pick up the book and look. You did great. You were fabulous.

Zibby: Thank you. I appreciate it. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Denise: Yes. My book, We Gather Together, is really a new way to look at giving thanks and the holiday we have to come to know as Thanksgiving. There are three elements to the book in my mind. There is the evolution of this holiday we’ve come to know as Thanksgiving going from way, way, way back on other continents all the way up through the twenty-first century. Then there is the story of this amazing woman, Sarah Josepha Hale, and the Civil War and how this woman lobbied to make Thanksgiving an established, codified celebration that would take place the same day every year throughout the country, which it wasn’t prior to her efforts. Then the third part is really, to me, what the lynchpin of this entire book is, and that is about gratitude. The core element of all of this is gratitude. Thanks to the last ten, twenty years, we now have this incredible amount of research about how important a gratitude practice is, not just for how you feel. We’ve all heard of gratitude journals and things like that. Also, there is neuroscientific evidence now that it is good for your emotional health, your physical health, your blood pressure, all of these sorts of things. To me, the gratitude piece was a really, really important part of this.

Zibby: I was really fascinated by this aspiring author turned mom turned crusader piece of the puzzle. This is embarrassing to say. Maybe I shouldn’t even say that I didn’t even know who she was. I didn’t know her story ahead of time.

Denise: No, it’s not embarrassing to say. What’s funny is when you do — one of my first really big books that took off was The Girls of Atomic City, which is about these women who were working on the Manhattan Project without their knowing. People would say the same thing to me. They’d come up and say, I feel so bad I didn’t know about this. I was like, I didn’t know about this until I came across it and then started looking more deeply into it. I had learned about Sarah Josepha Hale, this widowed mother of five who becomes, basically, the most powerful editor in the United States of America in the nineteenth century. I didn’t know much about her, came across her. I thought, I have to keep looking into this woman, but I didn’t want to do a biography of her because I just don’t write biographies. I had to wait until the other pieces that I just described kind of came together, but I did know that I wanted her to be a real heart of this story because she is fascinating. You read about Sarah Josepha Hale’s life, not just her lobbying to establish Thanksgiving, but her life as an editor, her life as a fundraiser.

Zibby: And a poet.

Denise: As a poet, oh, of a little something we know as “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which really caught on. This is a woman who helped popularize Christmas trees in the United States. This is a woman who said women should wear white when they get married. This is somebody who helped introduce the word lingerie to American readers, who was one of the first publishers of Edgar Allan Poe. This is someone who was the OG influencer. If she were alive today, she would have a gazillion Instagram followers. Everybody would be looking to her about not just what to wear, but what to read and all of these sorts of things. One of the greatest things about her is that she used so much of her influence to raise up others and to bring attention to other people’s work. Again, she embodied a lot of the gratitude and grace that I was hoping this whole book would be able to capture.

Zibby: What did you set out to do with this book? Did this start as, I want to do something about Thanksgiving in general? Did it start with, I found this amazing character? What was happening in your life that made it a book?

Denise: That made it a book, that’s a great question. As a writer, I always have to go with my curiosity. These books stay in our lives for a while, so you have to have a topic that just grabs you, but writing is also so much about what you don’t want to say or don’t need to say as much as what you do want to say and do need to say. The don’t part can be tricky sometimes because you kind of want to shoehorn everything in there. What I wanted to do was present a — my curiosity about Hale was massive. Her partnering, essentially, with Abraham Lincoln to establish a day of thanks in the middle of the Civil War, you want to talk about a time when it was hard to get everybody to come together and get on board, that fascinated me. I knew I wanted to say something about that. I also knew I wanted to look at where we have come as a country with this particular holiday and how it has evolved over time and how it can continue to evolve. I really wanted to present an entirely new Thanksgiving story, in a way, an accurate one, one that’s based in facts and one that I think is inspirational and inclusive and that can sort of take us in a new, more inclusive, wonderful, gratitude-centered direction with the holiday. As I talk about in the beginning of the book, I love Thanksgiving. It is easily my favorite holiday. I want to feel good about Thanksgiving. There are so many wonderful, inspirational stories and fascinating stories related to this holiday over time and throughout history. I just really wanted to share that with folks and zero in on that thank you part of Thanksgiving, which is something that everybody can get behind. It really is a unifying idea.

Zibby: Totally agree, yes. The food doesn’t hurt, I must say.

Denise: The food does not hurt. Boy, did she like writing about food, oh, my gosh. In addition to all of her editing and everything, she writes. She wrote a novel. She has almost an entire chapter dedicated to a Thanksgiving meal and how you should set the table. Martha Stewart, step aside, and I love Martha. This woman was all about it in the nineteenth century and would share it with her readers and give hosting suggestions. In the magazine as well as in books, she wrote. It was incredible. I love that too. I cook a lot. I cook throughout the year. I really get into my Thanksgiving, for sure.

Zibby: Do you have a favorite dish?

Denise: Is gravy a dish? I think gravy can be a dish, right?

Zibby: It may well be.

Denise: Let’s just say I make gravy a dish. If gratitude is what brings this entire book together, gravy is what brings the entire Thanksgiving meal together for me. I also really like cranberry sauce. I’ve made the same cranberry sauce for years now. It’s a tweak on an old Bon Appétit recipe. It’s a cranberry zinfandel sauce. As long as the zin is there while you’re cooking, you put a little in this cranberry sauce, put a little in me. It’s delicious. I actually like when the gravy interacts with the cranberry sauce. It makes me very excited. My favorite gravy right now that I’ve made the last couple years is a madeira gravy. There’s a theme here. There’s a with wine.

Zibby: I’m sensing the theme.

Denise: There’s a theme there. It’s delicious. It’s just so delicious. Anyway, don’t get me started on gravy. I could go all day.

Zibby: I know. I feel like I just want to hear you talk about food. It’s lunchtime. I’m like, tell me more about it.

Denise: Honestly, that’s one of the things that was so wonderful about writing this very uplifting book about Thanksgiving during the Spanish flu and how they handled it. When I wrote that and when I titled the book We Gather Together, all that, this was done before COVID. When I was going back and editing and copyediting with my publisher, all of a sudden, the phrase social distancing is taking off while I’m editing a book called We Gather Together. The section on Thanksgiving during the Spanish flu took on this whole other level of meaning. The idea of trying to find things to be thankful for when times were going really, really, really badly became all the more important to me. It was such a unique experience as a writer. As you know, when you conceive of something, you get the idea for it, your life is in one particular place. As you’re writing it, your life is in another place. As you’re promoting it and the book is out in the world, that world may look very different than the world in which you came up with this idea for a book. The life of a book is very different, which is why sometimes it’s so fun to pick up a book you read a long time ago and see how it affects you differently. It’s like, you can’t step into the same river twice. You can’t read the same book twice, really, kind of, because you bring so much of yourself to it. You do that as a writer, and you do that as a reader. Boy, did the world change between the time that I was writing this book and then was out in the world talking about it. It was quite an experience.

Zibby: I interviewed somebody else during the pandemic. Oh, my gosh, I’m going to blank on the name of her — but it was all about gathering. I thought it was called Gathering. I have to look it up. I’ll send it to you.

Denise: That sounds familiar. I’d love to see that.

Zibby: Anyway, but it doesn’t matter. I loved your point about rereading books and how we bring different things. Often, authors say things like, well, it’s not my book anymore. I’ve put it out into the world. It’s yours to interpret and do what you will with it in your mind. Yes, I’ve also had the sensation. I had this one book that I read in college. For years, I would tell everybody it was my favorite book. It was called Drinking: A Love Story. I guess I was just drinking too much back then or something. I reread it recently. It’s really good. I love Caroline Knapp. She’s a fabulous author. I was so sad when she passed away even though I didn’t even know her. It didn’t hit me hard the way it had before. It just made me think, what was going on in my mind so much at the time that this was the book that I felt I needed right then? Do you know what I mean?

Denise: Yes. Oh, yeah. Books come into your life. They’re like little people. They come into your life at different times for different reasons. I love William Faulkner. One of the first times I read Faulkner, I was fourteen. It was for English class because my English teacher was obsessed with him. She had a Faulkner sweatshirt. The nerd in me, what I would give for a Faulkner sweatshirt today, but we used to love to tease her. I went back and read Faulkner seven years later, the summer right after I graduated college. I thought, oh, my god, this man is amazing. It was just interesting. Obviously, there’s a big difference between a fourteen-year-old and a twenty-one-year-old. It was one of those times when I thought it’s really interesting and always worth it to go back to those that you really, really like and give them another read and see how they affect you, for sure.

Zibby: Of course, that’s not helping book sales much, but you know.

Denise: I know. They’re like, I’m going to reread War and Peace. No, go buy books. Get out and go. Yeah, I know. Our house, like yours, it’s just a library. It’s everywhere. I love them. They’re such wonderful objects.

Zibby: Where do you live when you’re not out on the road?

Denise: When I’m not in the Hampton Inn, I live in Asheville, North Carolina, which is a lovely place. I was in New York City for many years. Cut my teeth at The Village Voice and lived in New York City for a long time. Lived in Rome for a while where I struggled to find cranberries, as I talk about in the book, which was terrifying for me. I live in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s in the western part of North Carolina in the mountains. It’s lovely. It’s a big creative community, a lot of writers. Ron Rash lives there. Charles Frazier, who wrote a little something called Cold Mountain, Charles lives there. Elizabeth Kostova lives there. There are a lot of writers there, a lot of creatives, a lot of musicians, a lot of artists.

Zibby: My husband is a producer. He has a music arm of his business. His buddy Dan just met — now I’m remembering this whole thing — met Leslie at my book party.

Denise: Yes. Leslie connected Dan and I and said, “Dan and Anna, you guys have to hang out with Denise and Joe,” my husband. Joe is also a writer. “You guys all have to hang out in Asheville.” I loved that Leslie brought us together because she’s just lovely that way. It was a classic Asheville moment, really. It’s one of those places that is its own center of the universe in a sense. It’s really interesting how many times I’ll mention it and somebody will say, oh, my god, a friend of mine just moved there, or, oh, my god, a friend of mine was — it’s a good spot. Have you been?

Zibby: I have not.

Denise: You got to come down. Got to come see Biltmore House.

Zibby: I would love to. Who knows? Awesome. What are you working on now, by the way?

Denise: Actually, related to this, next year, a picture book titled We Give Thanks is going to come out. That is going to be a new nonfiction Thanksgiving story for very young people. Also, adapting We Gather Together for middle-grade readers as well. If a family wants to do a family read, the parents can have the adult version, We Gather Together, that you just held up. Then the middle schoolers can have their young-reader edition. Then the little ones can have a little picture book. I’m really excited about that. The picture book’s done. I just saw some sketches, which is really exciting. I’m researching my next big narrative nonfiction book which is tentatively titled Obstinate Daughters.

Zibby: Ooh, I love that.

Denise: That comes from a colonial-era newspaper cartoon from across the pond. They were talking about the difficulty that the crown was having taking the Charleston area and Sullivan’s Island in particular — this cartoon they put in the paper was a woman’s head in profile. Her hair was up very elegantly, but in her hair were canons and muskets and all of these sorts of things. It said, “Miss Carolina Sullivan, obstinate daughter of the colonies,” or something like that. It was really, really cool. I’m basically looking at precolonial and colonial-era America but through the eyes of women, people of color, and indigenous peoples and kind of retelling the story of the founding of America from that perspective. Then I myself, as an obstinate daughter, am going through and retracing some of their footsteps and looking at what their legacy is like today. There is going to be this travelogue thread to it. I’m really excited about it, actually.

Zibby: I love that. I can see that being a very funny gift too, funny gift book. I have lots of people I would give that to. History aside, I’m sure it’s going to be amazingly well-written, but even title alone.

Denise: Title alone, that’s right.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Denise: The advice I always give, people feel like they’ve heard it before. I’m still challenged following it, so I always feel like it’s valid to share. Allow yourself to write a really crappy first draft. It is so hard not to edit yourself while you’re going through things. I really honestly believe that you have got to give yourself permission to write a really bad first draft so that you get it done. Then the really fun part begins, revising and tweaking and shaping. I try to think of writing as like a skeleton. Get the bones down. Then go back through. Put a layer of skin on. Then go back through for another pass. I usually like to do about three passes before I turn it in to an editor. Dress it up a little, but not too much. Then as you’re finalizing things, you do what Coco Chanel supposedly always did. Look in the mirror. The first thing catches your eye, take it off because it’s probably a little bit too much. You’ve got to find that. Then go pair down. Get the bones. Get the skin that holds it all together. Dress it up. Then Coco Chanel it. That’s my approach to writing and revising and editing. In all seriousness also, be careful about when you share your work. Write every day. Be careful when you share your work and with whom you share your work. You want people who are going to be honest with you but that have your best interests at heart. It is a harder thing to find than you might realize. It’s okay to have a good, strong critique. I get nervous if I don’t get a good, strong critique. I want things to be better, but that critique needs to come from a place of really wanting the best for you as a writer and for your work. Just keep at it every day.

Zibby: And judging from your cooking ingredients, perhaps add some wine while you do it.

Denise: Yes. I actually don’t. I will drink while I cook. I do not drink while I write.

Zibby: All right, good to know.

Denise: I can’t do it. Also, I am one of those wake up first thing in the morning and write people. I don’t tell people they have to do that because I think everybody gets into their own routine and has their own way of doing things. As long as you’re doing it consistently and it’s working for you, do that. Don’t let anybody else or someone like me say you have to write in the mornings. I like writing in the mornings because it’s before all the ping and ding and email and all that stuff starts to get in my head. I have the purest relationship with the work before all of the rest of life kicks in. That’s what I would say. Be nice to yourself. It’s hard to be nice to yourself as a writer sometimes, but try and be nice to yourself. Try.

Zibby: Yes, try. Awesome. I will be thinking of you having your gravy and cranberry sauce while I dig into my eighteen servings of mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top and a little high-fructose corn syrup to carry me through the day.

Denise: That’s also very good with gravy. You got to slap some gravy on top of those marshmallows. It goes with everything. It binds the meal together. I’ll post some on Instagram. I’ll be sure to post some Thanksgiving —

Zibby: — You should start just bottling up your gravy. You could do a side business. You could actually sell a bottle of gravy with the book as a little promotion. Not a bad idea. Next year.

Denise: That would be awesome.

Zibby: Paperback rollout.

Denise: Paperback, the gravy edition.

Zibby: The gravy train. Take care, Denise. Thanks so much.

Denise: Thank you, Zibby. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


WE GATHER TOGETHER by Denise Kiernan

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