Zibby interviews debut author Elaine Roth about THE MIDNIGHT GARDEN, a hopeful and heartfelt story of a young widow’s journey as she tries to move forward after an incredible loss, with elements of magical realism and second-chance love. Elaine, a young widow herself, reveals how her experiences influenced the narrative, and she and Zibby delve into the central question of whether one can find love again after losing an unconditional love. They also talk about the small-town setting of the book, the power of writing as a coping mechanism, and the growing network of books on young widowhood. Finally, Elaine shares details of her writing process and her best advice to aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Elaine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your debut novel, The Midnight Garden.

Elaine Roth: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Your book was really, really good. I really love your writing voice. I loved the characters, the story, the emotion. It was really good.

Elaine: Thank you so, so much. That means a lot to hear.

Zibby: I read the whole thing. I really enjoyed it. You don’t know, necessarily, from the cover what you’re getting. Not that I don’t love the cover. It’s beautiful, but you just don’t know because it’s almost like a happy — well, you know what? I’ll let you describe the book. Go ahead. Elaine, what is The Midnight Garden about?

Elaine: The Midnight Garden, it’s a story of a young widow’s journey as she’s trying to find forgiveness and a path forward. There are elements of magical realism involved. There’s elements of second chances and romance and the courage that it takes to move forward after you’ve suffered this incredible loss. I don’t know if that’s a great summary.

Zibby: That’s pretty good. It’s pretty good. It’s asking the same question of, can you find love again after you’ve lost the one you love unconditionally? What happens next?

Elaine: I hope that it’s also asking the question of not even just, can you find love again, but can you live again? Does it feel safe enough to move forward? Even if it doesn’t feel safe, can you move forward? Can you find that strength?

Zibby: You have this one line. Let me just read it if you don’t mind.

Elaine: No, not at all.

Zibby: You have this one line. You said, “I needed only my voice, my forgiveness, my permission, my ability to believe in myself. For two years, I buried my head in the sand, hid from life, and played it safe, built a world where I had as little to lose as possible. I still lost because maybe it was never about building a life safe from loss. Maybe that’s impossible. Regardless of how small you make your life, the universe isn’t safe. Bad things happen to good people, and none of that is a reason to stop living. Maybe the real work is in finding a way to be brave enough to live every bit of the life that’s left.” So good.

Elaine: Thank you.

Zibby: Really meaningful.

Elaine: I had a feeling that that was going to be — a couple of friends have screenshotted that part to me. Oh, my goodness, I’m sending this along. I’m glad that it’s resonating with people because it’s something I believe.

Zibby: I hate to be predictable.

Elaine: No, no, not at all.

Zibby: I really loved that part. You lost your husband. Can you talk about that? I know that — what is your character’s name again? Hope. Of course, Hope and Will. Hope doesn’t like having to answer it. Hope doesn’t like hearing “I’m so sorry” and all of that. I won’t say any of that, but if you feel comfortable and it’s not triggering to talk about.

Elaine: No, not at all. It’s something, not that I enjoy doing, but I do feel, because I had this place to write and speak about it, that it gives me a voice that I can give to other young widows, so I never mind answering questions about it. Matt was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2016. There were reasons that he said he might be one of the people who defies all the odds, his youth, some of the genetic markers. Long story short, which I’ve written about extensively, after twenty months, he lost his battle with brain cancer. I was thirty-five years old. My kids were six and eight. It was, all of a sudden, this shock to my system because we just really believed everything was going to be fine. Then when it wasn’t, it was trying to figure out how to navigate this life that we had never planned for.

Zibby: I know you’ve been a vocal writer about this topic and young loss, young widowhood, all of it, motherhood. When did you take to the page? Has this been something you’ve been doing your whole life? Did you have any reservations about it? Tell me the order of things.

Elaine: It’s interesting because I always wanted to be a writer. I started writing novels right after my son was born. He’s my second one. I said to Matt — I had retired from tax law. I said, “Okay, I want to go back to writing. It’s my passion. I want to go back to it.” I started writing there. I continued writing throughout his illness. It was actually after he died that I started writing for myself, in a way, just to get the story out of my head. From that moment, I kind of figured out what I wanted to say when I was writing, if that makes sense. That’s when I started writing about young widowhood, obviously, about parenting. A lot of the personal essays came in. Then I used that to go back into the novel writing.

Zibby: Wow. So you had never written a full-on novel in its entirety, or you had tried or what?

Elaine: I had tried some pretty terrible ones that hopefully will never see the light of day. They were all steppingstones to learning. I had never written a personal essay until just a few years ago.

Zibby: I have to say I’m sorry for your loss even though you don’t like that.

Elaine: Thank you.

Zibby: I feel terrible that you had to live through that. It’s wonderful that you have turned it into something that can help so many other people. It’s a real gift. I know that writing can help both you — it’s like when you give a gift, you get something out of it, like anything, even the holidays coming up. You get something out of giving. Then other people get it from receiving. It’s lovely you could do that with this experience.

Elaine: It is. I really started writing it just to get the story out of my head and for my kids to understand. With brain cancer, and they were so young, you don’t understand why your dad all of a sudden isn’t acting the way he was always acting, why he’s saying things he never said before. It was really for them to understand what was happening. Then I kept getting messages from young widows who were reading my blog and some of my writing. Thank you for putting this into words. I didn’t know how to do that. It really meant a lot to hear that because I was glad that I didn’t feel alone, and they didn’t feel alone. There was a nice exchange of energy that we could do for each other.

Zibby: I have to introduce you — we have an author, Emma Grey, who wrote The Last Love Note, which is similar. It’s a young mom. Well, she wasn’t a mom in this. I think you’ll have a lot in common. Let me just say that. I’ll introduce you offline.

Elaine: I would love that. I’ve seen her book, actually.

Zibby: Oh, you have?

Elaine: I haven’t read it, but I’ve seen it in the book world. I’m excited to read it.

Zibby: I feel like there’s this whole network — which I’m sure you’re tapped into, but maybe you’re not; I don’t know — I’m just learning about myself. I’ve read a lot of books by young widows. I don’t know why. I feel like my heart just — not to say I love reading these stories. There’s something so universal and so beautiful about that authentic experience, even when people turn it into fiction. Melissa Gould, Widowish, have you read that book?

Elaine: I don’t have that one, or heard of it, even.

Zibby: I’m going to put a group chat together here or something because I feel like — then there’s one called Future Widow. Nora McInerny, have you read her work?

Elaine: Yes.

Zibby: Obviously. Ian died of brain cancer. Wasn’t his name Ian? Didn’t he?

Elaine: I think he might have. I’m not sure.

Zibby: Aaron. Not Ian. Aaron. Anyway, not to not talk about your book, but I do feel that there’s this new — actually, maybe I’ll just do an article about this now that I’m thinking about it, these wonderful books about young widowhood and what it can teach all of us about living better lives and loving more in the moment and not complaining so much about the little, stupid things. All of that is really important.

Elaine: It’s a terrible price to pay to learn those lessons, so it’s nice to pay them forward so other people don’t have to pay the same price to learn them.

Zibby: When you were thinking about your characters and even how you had Will, who came home because his mother, also grieving the loss of a husband who fled town — he had to come back and manage the inn. He has a brother who’s really struggling. Then Hope, who is reeling from her own loss — although, her husband dies in a car accident. You have them both in their hometown back dealing with this small town where everybody knows everything about each other, so much so that when one new person moves in down by the river, Maeve, it’s a whole big to-do. She already knows somehow, everything about everybody. Everyone knows everything about her. Tell me about putting this in this environment and the setting and how that was important.

Elaine: I wanted to pull in a little bit of my experience, very exaggerated, for the story. I live in a small town. The minute Matt got sick, it seemed like the entire town knew. I couldn’t go anywhere without people telling me, oh, my goodness, I’m so sorry. There was also this element of everyone then also rallying around our family and then after he died, trying to be there as much as they could for us in the way that they knew how. There were also the elements of people trying to say the right thing and saying something that afterwards when you walk away, you’re like, wow, that was definitely not the right thing, but they tried. I really wanted to bring that experience in because I think it’s so common for people in this day and age that you have these little communities. They’re trying to also respond to this loss in their way.

Zibby: It’s so — I was going to say it’s so funny. It wasn’t funny at all. When we lost my mother-in-law, my temple sent a care package to us. I was like, oh, my gosh, am I the person getting the temple care package now? That’s me? It’s very odd to be aware of — usually, I’m trying to help put things together. Oh, okay, now you just have to receive that gift and deal with — anyway.

Elaine: It’s strange to be the person in the center of the storm.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you for saying that. It’s strange to be the person in the center of the storm. That is a great expression. Yes, it really is, and having watched so many storms from inside looking out the window, right?

Elaine: Right, exactly.

Zibby: What has been the experience since the book came out? I know it’s a recent release. Now it’s in the world. How do you feel about it? How have people been responding? How has it been for you emotionally?

Elaine: The best part about it has been watching my kids’ reaction to it. They’re so proud of it. They’re so excited. My son came home the day after the book was released and said, “Somehow, everyone at school knows you released a book. This kid dapped me up.” I think that’s a high-five now.

Zibby: Yep. How old are your kids now?

Elaine: They’re in sixth grade and eighth grade. My son just turned twelve. My daughter is thirteen. Seeing their reaction and showing them you can follow your dream even when these terrible things happen, that has been fun. It’s been fun to see strangers’ reactions to the book because I know it. My family has read it. Obviously, they’re going to tell me they love it. It’s fun to hear what strangers think. It’s been a lot of fun to see it. Not as big of an emotional roller coaster as I thought it would be. I think I kind of had prepared for it in a lot of ways.

Zibby: Does this inspire you now to write more novels? Yes?

Elaine: Absolutely.

Zibby: Have you already written another one? Where are you on that path?

Elaine: I am right at the very end of the next novel, the first draft of it.

Zibby: Can you talk about it?

Elaine: A little bit. It’ll be focused more on two sisters, I’m hoping. If I do it correctly, it’ll pull in the same elements of magical realism in little bits here and there. It’ll deal with grief and forgiveness. Those are just themes that are rolling around in my head all the time.

Zibby: Interesting. We need Maeve to help with the rain around the country. We need to bring her to help with that.

Elaine: The funny thing is, actually, one of the biggest reader comments I’ve received from strangers is, we want the next Maeve book. We want her prequel. We want her story.

Zibby: That’s interesting.

Elaine: Which is super fun to hear and a surprise that I didn’t expect. I’ll have to figure that one out and write that.

Zibby: I kind of want the continuation of Will and Hope. I do. I want to keep seeing them. I won’t say anything, but I would like that. So many books end right where real life might begin, the next phase. Then what happens?

Elaine: Then it’s almost even more complicated when real life comes in.

Zibby: I know. When real life comes in, oh, my goodness. What was your writing process like for the one you’ve just basically finished and this one? Where do you like to write? Do you have hours you write or habits or superstitions or a place you love to go?

Elaine: I’m an early riser, luckily. I started writing, and I’ve just continued it, in early mornings. I wake up around five. My best writing time is before my kids wake up because the minute they wake up, I feel like I don’t know how to write sentences anymore. I can barely get the correct word out. My head is just scrambled. I wake up. I have my coffee set up already, so I just go downstairs, grab it, and then come upstairs and write. It’s just such a peaceful time and such a nice way to start the day. Then when I’m really trying to get my word count in, I actually end up writing in my car.

Zibby: Really?

Elaine: Wherever I drive the kids, I drop them off, I write, pick them up, take them to the next spot, write in the car.

Zibby: Good for you.

Elaine: I have a little desk, actually, that hooks up to the steering wheel. It doesn’t work as well as it sounds like it should.

Zibby: Wow. Do you have a picture of that? Is it on social or anything? I have to look.

Elaine: Maybe years ago I posted it when I first got it. There are a lot of pictures of me on social media in my car. That’s where I’m writing. That’s where I’m living.

Zibby: Do your kids play sports? Is that why you’re all over the place? Just regular activities or what?

Elaine: Just regular activities. I’m not particularly sporty. Just regular activities and playdates and whatever they’re doing. Not playdates. I’m not allowed to call it that. Hangouts now. Sorry.

Zibby: I know, I’m not allowed to either. I still do it. I’m like, so sorry. That’s the one good thing these days about living in New York City, is that I don’t have to drive everywhere. I’m not a good driver. I can do it, but it’s not my favorite. I get very easily distracted.

Elaine: I miss about living in the city. I hate driving all the time.

Zibby: Are you from New Jersey originally?

Elaine: I’m from Rockland County, so right outside the city, and then lived after college for years in the city. Then it was once the kids were born that we moved to New Jersey.

Zibby: You were a lawyer. Did you always want to be a lawyer?

Elaine: Oh, no. I wanted to be a writer. Then I thought that was unrealistic.

Zibby: Right, sorry. I know you said that.

Elaine: I thought that was unrealistic. I actually went to Syracuse for public relations. I did that for a bit. Then I realized public relations is a lot of work for very little money. My uncle was like, “Do tax law.”

Zibby: Is he a tax lawyer?

Elaine: He is not, but his dream has always been to be a lawyer. I think I fulfilled his dream for a little bit. I’ve popped around for a little bit, but it’s always come back to writing.

Zibby: Interesting. With the writing itself and getting your story out there and finally achieving the dream that you’ve had all along, what has that felt like? What does it inspire you to do? Just talk a little bit about achieving your dreams and how you didn’t give up on them.

Elaine: It definitely inspires me to keep going, to say, all right, what’s the next thing? What else? I don’t want to be done. The overwhelming feeling is, I think I can do more. I want to try to do more. I would be disappointed in myself if I just said, okay, I’m done. I can think back to myself when I was eight years old, and it didn’t feel possible for a kid growing up the way I was growing up. It just seemed like you don’t get to live that life. It feels very exciting to finally be here.

Zibby: That’s amazing. When you were going through the depths of grief, how did you keep going with two kids? What was that? Were there mornings you just couldn’t do it? How did you get through that time of your life?

Elaine: The way that I describe it — I can only see this in retrospect. I never had trouble waking up and getting up and going for them because I knew that they needed it. I really think, in a lot of ways, I feel like I had shut us down, is how I think. I just really focused on getting the three of us into this very solid space. I know we weren’t making that many social plans. We weren’t doing that many things. We were really just together. They were going for playdates. At that time, I was allowed to call it playdates. A lot of it was that we were just sort of together. I think that was a lot of the way that I did it. Then little by little, I feel like I can picture when our world started to open up. Then obviously, COVID hit, and it shut back down.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you poor thing. There’s just so much. Do you have favorite flowers?

Elaine: I do. I really love hydrangeas.

Zibby: Me too.

Elaine: Those are my favorites, hydrangeas and orchids, which I cannot keep alive. I will kill any orchid that comes into my house pretty quickly, but I love them.

Zibby: Same here. Same thing. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Elaine: The biggest piece of advice would be, it’s so cliché to say, but don’t quit. Just keep trying. I would say take every bit of critique and put it to use. You don’t have to agree with it. You can disagree, but think through why you got that critique, if you agree, if you don’t agree, what you could do to address it in the way that feels right for you. Don’t be embarrassed about taking writing classes. Don’t be embarrassed about joining critique groups. Let yourself be terrible for a while. Just do it if you want to. Just keep going.

Zibby: Amazing. I love that. Elaine, thank you. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for your book. Again, I really loved it. I’m having all these ideas as I’m talking to you about connecting you to all these people and some sort of article or something.

Elaine: I love that.

Zibby: Stay tuned. We’ll do something. It’s great to read something that’s so accessible and relatable and just authentic both from the man’s point of view and Hope’s, Will’s point of view too. There are many kinds of loss. There are many kinds of ways to rebound. Congratulations.

Elaine: Thank you so much. Thank you, thank you so much.

Zibby: You’re welcome.


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