“Novels. What’s wonderful about them is that you can do the stuff you can’t in real life. You can make all the mistakes. You can commit all the crimes.” Donna Frietas talks with Zibby about how her own life experiences inspired her new book, The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano, and how writing it helped her heal certain wounds. The two bond over divorce (as well as divorce recovery cake) and discuss how indecision can sometimes be a force of good.


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

Donna Freitas: I’m so happy to be here today.

Zibby: Yay! The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano, this book, it’s like, should I have my character do this or that? Should this happen, or should that happen? Instead, you put all of those alternatives in different lives. It’s a genius way to explore alternative lives and what can happen when you make these little decisions, which I loved. I just wanted to say that up front. That’s so cool.

Donna: Thank you. It was really fun to write. I’ve actually really thought of it as a kind of generous structure for a character or for a novel. It made me feel like I had room for my character to make lots of mistakes and do transgressive things and that maybe the reader would be able to forgive her because in other versions of her life, they’d see her being good or doing the right thing. I feel like it ended up being really generous to Rose as a character.

Zibby: Yeah, you definitely got to know her and all the different — it’s more than you get to know her. You get to see what happens to someone when a life takes them in one way versus another. Some things, she decided. Some things happen to her. Then you roll with it in each scenario. I feel like I’m being very vague about this, but everything from, do you cheat? Do you get cheated on? Do you have a baby? Do you not have a baby? Do you adopt a baby? Then I would go to the next one. I’m like, oh, yeah, she could’ve done it this way. This could’ve happened. Those things on probability where you chart out all the different things — anyway, it was just great. Of course, the central question of your whole book is, is it okay for a woman not to want to have a child? You examine that over and over again. Tell me a little bit about that whole theme and how you got going and all of it.

Donna: When I’m going to write another book, I ask myself a question. What feels urgent to me? Then I sort of wait for an answer. Usually when I start a book, it’s because there’s a topic or a complicated question that just doesn’t have an easy answer for me or it seems like a big knot that I want to untangle. I feel like novels are so great for things that aren’t easy because they give you all this space to try to work through them. You get to do it with this character who’s not you, so that feels really exciting and very protective. When I asked myself that question, what feels urgent to me? right away, I knew this question of motherhood, and specifically, a woman who doesn’t want to have a baby and the way society, her family, everyone around her treats her if she expresses that, I knew that that was the topic. I could also imagine a million different ways to write that book. Would she have the baby even though she didn’t want to? Would she refuse to have the baby? Then we have to look at the consequences. I’m the queen of the what if. I am so bad at decision-making. I’m the kind of person who lays in bed at night. I call it having the shame spiral of trying to think through my decisions and wondering, what if this is wrong? Then I go back. I have all these different thoughts. I really felt that way about this book. Then one day, it just suddenly hit me. What if I could write all the stories? I had all these different visions in my head. When I landed on that, why not? Why couldn’t I just do that? Then I just started writing. I wrote like a maniac. It was like suddenly I found a way to tell all the stories. It felt really exciting. In some, she has a baby. In some, she doesn’t. In some, it goes well. In some, it doesn’t. You see lots of different versions of the consequences of that decision.

Zibby: As a fellow decision-ruminator, if you will, I completely relate to that. I feel like I’m always doing that. I could do it this way. I could do it this way. For me at least, I end up changing all my plans all the time because I book something and then I’m like, wait, I could do it better. What if we do this? What if we fly through here instead of here? It appears from the outside like I just can’t make up my mind, but that’s completely not it. I make up my mind all the time. It’s just that I keep thinking there’s a better solution and now I need to shift everything to execute that better decision. I feel like that’s what was going on with Rose in all the ways you explore it just like what you were saying.

Donna: I think I could’ve written The Twenty-Six Lives of Rose Napolitano.

Zibby: Exactly. That’s just it, though. That’s like life in general. Every decision — do I take the dog left or right? — changes everything in a way, let alone the giant decisions you make about whether or not to have a child.

Donna: Motherhood is one of the biggest ones. What if you choose wrong? What if something happens that doesn’t go the way that you hoped it would? What if? What if? What if? I feel like I can go what if forever about all sort of things, especially vacations. I feel like I plan and replan them over and over and over again.

Zibby: Me too. I have credits at all these different places because I’m constantly canceling. Also, the whole notion of the kids you didn’t have I found super fascinating. With every relationship, what if I had had kids with that boyfriend I broke up with? What about that other boyfriend? What kids are those? Who are those unborn kids? Where are they now? What would that have been like? Who doesn’t think of — maybe not everybody thinks about this like we do, but I do.

Donna: I feel like that’s a whole other book, the nine children of Rose Napolitano that she had had with the other —

Zibby: — Ooh, I like that. I’m seeing a sequel. That could be really cool. Then what happens to those kids? What if one of those kids was going to be the president but she breaks up with that guy? I don’t know. This could be a series. Each episode could be a kid you didn’t have. Okay, I’ll stop.

Donna: I feel like novels, what’s wonderful about them is that you can do the stuff you can’t in real life. You can make all the mistakes. You can commit all the crimes. You can have all the affairs. You can have all these different lives and even give more than one to your character, which you just can’t do in real life. Then you can see the consequences play out but without having to bear those consequences in your own life, which is really the therapy of writing for me.

Zibby: Were you working through some decisions at the time of the writing of this?

Donna: I had, for many years, worked through some decisions about this, which is why when I was ready to write a new book and I asked myself, what do I want to write about next? I knew immediately to my core, to the bottom of heart and soul that, oh, I’m going to tackle this issue of being a woman who says she doesn’t want a child. I definitely was that. I was that woman. I didn’t understand how much pushback I was going to get. Early on in my life, it didn’t occur to me that people wouldn’t accept that desire. I just thought, sure, I can just say I don’t think this is for me. I was really startled, especially as I got older. Then in my twenties, if I said that out loud, people just automatically dismissed me. Those dismissals got more and more intense as I got older. Then once I got married, it became a battle against me all around me.

I had many, many years that I would say were pretty dark nights of the soul around this issue. I had so much pain from that time in my life and then also so much anger from not being believed or just from being dismissed or from being called selfish that I just — when I opened my laptop and I really started working on it, I just poured it all out and into Rose and out of her mouth, every verboten thought I had ever had, all the things that I had experienced but didn’t know how to respond to. Suddenly, I responded to them with Rose. I remember as I was writing, I thought, I’m just going to give her all the thoughts. I’m going to say all the things. Maybe people will hate this. Maybe no one will want it because you’re not supposed to say these things. I was prepared for nobody to want to buy the book or just for there to be a really negative reaction. I kind of felt shocked when it got such an intensely positive response when my agent went out with it. It actually kind of made me feel forgiven as a woman.

Zibby: Wow. Who knew a book proposal could do all of that?

Donna: Could heal all the pain of many years.

Zibby: All the wounds. Shed the light on the dark times.

Donna: It felt really good to explore this thing that I had gone through via a character. I really do feel like writing novels, they feel like such safe spaces for me to say whatever gets unsaid in real life. It felt kind of miraculous to have this outpouring of positivity for this character that isn’t me but also came from me and from this part of my past that feels like an ugly part of my past. I know that sounds cheesy, but it really did feel pretty healing. It still does as people read it now and are excited about it.

Zibby: I bet after you realize how many people share some of the thoughts and feelings, you’ll feel — it sounds like you felt very alone in this decision of yours, like it was you against the world, whereas many women struggle with the same decision and maybe you don’t know that, maybe because they end up with kids. Maybe they don’t talk about it. You just don’t know. It’s not something that people are very open about, necessarily. How great to be able to open up the dialogue. I feel like you should actually write what you feel, you Donna. I love hearing about Rose and all of her stuff. If you ever feel like you’re ready to address it head on, I feel like the world would be far more receptive that you imagine them to be.

Donna: I wonder how much the world has changed on this issue. One of the things I really novel is just, the novel isn’t pro-having kids or against having kids. It’s about choices, the importance of women having choices about everything too, about marriage, career, their friendship, etc., not just whether or not they have children. This idea that motherhood is a choice, I think we grow up and everyone assumes it’s a given. We don’t really raise kids or girls to think that it’s a choice. I do kind of feel like, oh, I guess I’m not as alone as I thought. Even if maybe I was more expressive about my pushback, about some of the pressure that I got — a lot of people experienced that too. They just didn’t necessarily articulate it out loud when they were navigating that decision.

Zibby: I want to talk about this whole thing with divorce in your book. I’ve gone through a divorce, and so I loved some of the stuff you wrote about it. I have found that sometimes when you put forward a plan or a decision, people’s responses have almost nothing to do with you. It’s how they all feel about what’s going on with them. Your reaction to that and the anger, I feel like it’s this evolutionary thing where we all feel like, collectively, if we all decide not to have kids, then the world ends, literally. That’s a lot to put on our shoulders as a group, that we’re in charge of civilization. In truth, that is the crux of it. Anyway, back to divorce. I just wanted to read this quote that you had. I love that this started a whole chapter. You wrote, “How does one stop a marriage? It’s like trying to stop a slow-moving train, heavy, daunting, something that takes forever to come to a complete halt. Its natural state is forward; its momentum, steady, relentless.” I loved that, this notion of marriage as a train that you can’t stop.

Then you also have this divorce recovery cake, which you need to brand and make a thing because it is so clever. Tell me about all of that. Wait, I wanted to read this too where you describe the recovery cake. You say, “Mmm, this cake is delicious, memorable. I eat another bite. I am eating memorable cake with memorably delicious coffee to go with it. The café where I sit is beautiful, spacious with tall white tables and tall white stools to go with them. Soft music plays over the speakers. Pale gray concrete floors, tall windows with thin, white metal trim. White and pale gray, pale gray and white, serene, clean, soothing, new. I’m supposed to be at a conference this week out on Long Island, but after a morning of boring panels and talks I found myself walking out down the street through the pretty little town and into this café. I cut a big forkful of the spongey cake and gobbled it, let the soft, sugary flavor melt on my tongue before I swallow, chase it with a sip of the rich americano I ordered to go with it. A sense of peace and well-being spreads from my stomach and my throat to the rest of me. It is a strange feeling, one I wondered if I’d ever feel again, if I’d ever feel it again by myself.” That’s amazing. This is ode to the divorce recovery cake.

Donna: You know what’s funny? When I was doing the revisions for this book or the very, very last read before it went to press — my editor, Pam Dorman, I feel like she made me read it like a hundred times. Anyway, but then I had between the second-to-last read and then this final one where it was in PDF form. crying through a lot of the book, which was weird because I don’t normally cry when I read my own books. That chapter, one of the chapters that just — I’m also divorced. I just remember feeling like I was never going to feel okay again. I remember those moments. I also love to eat. I love to eat things like cake. I remember when I was in the throes — I was left. I was left by my husband a movie. It was bad. My friends, they had shifts. They just kept coming over to my house. They would bring all kinds of food because everybody in my life knows Donna loves to eat. I had no appetite. I remember my friend Alvina Ling who’s also an editor, she kept telling me, she was like, “You are going to want to eat again, Donna Freitas. Your appetite’s going to come back. I promise.” calendar and put a date six months into the future that said, Donna’s appetite comes back. I think about that all the time. I remember those moments when it did start to come back. I was like, oh, that’s right. She was right. I’m going to want to eat food again. I’m going to want to eat cake. I am going to taste things and enjoy them. I really did believe I might never enjoy anything again when I was going through that. When I read that chapter, I burst into tears. I think it was because I just felt it so strongly. I kind of weirdly wanted that for Rose. I felt her divorce really . I love that you fixated on that passage. It’s one of the most meaningful ones in the book for me.

Zibby: When I read that section, I was like, I feel like I am reading the author’s experience in an actual café right now. Not that you didn’t integrate it well, but I was like, I bet this actually was something that happened because this is so specific. I could be wrong. Also, I’m the same as you. I’ve told people, I was like, I think I like to eat more because I believe I get more pleasure out of cake than most people. When I eat a piece of cake, I’m like, this is the best thing ever. I really appreciate it. This whole scene and all of it, it hit home for me, probably my own experience. I think what you just said, by the way, Donna gets her appetite back, that should be a book title. It should. That whole story is another book. Not that you need my help. I’m sure you’re already working on stuff. Actually, I should ask. Donna, what are you working on now?

Donna: I’ve been dabbling with a couple of novels over the last year or so. I’m not quite sure which one is next. I go back and forth between . Both of them are actually about motherhood in very different ways. One is kind of a love triangle between three women, but not romantic. Another one has to do with two mothers and two children, so a mother and a daughter, and a mother and a son, and an incident at their school and how the two different mothers react. That’s to say. I think my favorite thing in the universe is to write the first draft of a new novel because it feels like a big playground for me to — I love that time when you’re writing the first draft because it’s just yours. Nobody else has told you what to do yet or how to fix it. You can include all the chapters that might get cut or all the characters that you have to fix. When I wrote my first draft of Rose Napolitano, the number-one piece of from every read the first draft — I was like, yeah, yeah, I know. It was like, you know the husband’s kind of the villain. You got to fix that. I was like, yeah, but just let him be a villain for the first draft. There’s always certain characters that I have to work on eventually. I like just letting the first draft be the story that I need to tell. Then fixing it can .

Zibby: I love that. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Donna: What I always tell my writing students and I think I do myself is I them to write like their lives depend on it. I mean that. When I said before, I ask myself this question, what feels urgent? I really do feel like if you land on a topic that you feel like you need to deal with, it has to come out, then it won’t be that hard to write about it. You’ll have momentum. You’ll have tension. You’ll figure out the plot. The novel will come together if you need something from it. I feel like I always sound cheesy when I’m talking about writing. I’m trying to stop using that caveat, but it’s hard. I think every book is a gift that you give to yourself. You get to ask something of the book that you’re writing. You need to figure something out that you don’t have an easy answer to. You set the task of the book to help you do that.

I was helping a friend with a book. She’s writing a memoir. I was trying to yank out of her, what do you need from this book? What do you need different than this book? Why are you writing this? Why are you writing this? Finally, I pulled out of her, she said, “I want to forgive my parents.” I was like, well, that’s a good reason to write a memoir. There you go. You have to keep that in mind. What is it that’s going to tell that story? What is it that’s going to get you to that forgiveness? That’s how you decide what to include . That’s how you figure out how to write this. What a gift to give to yourself, a book that gets you to this place of forgiveness. I joke with my students, I was like, let your novels and your books be your therapist. I kind of mean that. I think they are that for me. Someday, I’ll stop using that caveat about how I know it sounds cheesy. Someday, I’ll get there.

Zibby: It doesn’t sound cheesy. It’s very inspiring. Your book was great and very thought-provoking on a very fundamental life level in every way and very enjoyable and meaningful. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for chatting with me. I hope our paths cross in real life so we can try to undo each other’s decision-making fatigue.

Donna: Me too. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been so wonderful to get to talk to you today. I really appreciate you having me.

Zibby: You too. Take care. Thank you.

The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano by Donna Freitas

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