Elizabeth Castellano, SAVE WHAT'S LEFT

Elizabeth Castellano, SAVE WHAT'S LEFT

GMA Book Club Pick alert! Zibby speaks to debut author Elizabeth Castellano about Save What’s Left, an irreverent, hilarious, and unexpectedly tender novel about a sixty-year-old woman who moves to a small beach town looking for peace, only to find herself in an all-out war with her neighbors. Elizabeth describes her upbringing in a tiny Long Island beach town (her elementary school had nine students!) and her path to writing, starting with the humor column in the high school newspaper. She also shares her favorite books and authors and her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Save What’s Left, your debut novel.

Elizabeth Castellano: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I was just saying before this started how much I love and am completely obsessed with your book. It’s the funniest book I’ve ever read. It’s so smart. It’s so great. I read last night, all these portions of it out loud to my husband who was dying laughing with me. The two of us, we just haven’t laughed that hard. It was so great. Congratulations. Amazing.

Elizabeth: So nice. Thanks.

Zibby: No, I’m serious. First, just tell everybody what the book is about. Then I want to figure out where you came from. There’s nothing about you anywhere. Where did you appear from to write this perfect novel?

Elizabeth: The book is really about what happens when we build a fantasy for ourselves and then it bumps up against reality. For my main character, she finds herself at sixty years old in a position where she has to start fresh, get a new start. She decides to move to a beach town. She has this vision for a beach town and beach life that is built on what she sees in movies and in beach read books. Of course, she gets here, and she realizes it is anything but what she reads. The little house that she builds that she thinks is going to be her dream cottage is really a dilapidated oyster shack. There’s a giant construction project with a McMansion going up next door. Everyone in the town is fighting. It’s a small town with all the warts and problems and fighting that is anywhere, just with a better view. It’s basically her getting into escalating absurdity and trying to make this life happy for herself. She just digs deeper and deeper and gets herself in more and more trouble. Everything she does causes more chaos. Every move she makes just creates more issues for her. That’s really what it is. It’s just escalating problems in this beach town and a behind the scenes look at what’s going on in a beach town.

Zibby: Wow. My first question is how — I was like, I swear this is the same woman who I met at the luncheon. She’s writing so well from the point of view of a slightly older woman. There’s no way you’re sixty years old. This woman, Kathleen, is at a completely different point in her life. How did you even do this? Tell me about the whole thing.

Elizabeth: I just feel like a sixty-year-old. I think that’s it. I’ve always been surrounded by older people. I’m the youngest in a big family, and so I’ve always just been around older people. I come from this small town. I always thought it was funny. I always thought the people here were funny. I think it’s funny in a lot of small towns because you just have to deal with each other. It’s one of those places where you’re in it. You have to get along somehow. That’s true, I guess, universally. If you’re in a condo, if you’re in a city, if you’re living with anybody, you have to find ways. Everybody has arguments. I grew up here. I went to Little Red Schoolhouse that had —

Zibby: — Wait, where is here?

Elizabeth: On the North Fork of Long Island.

Zibby: I thought so. Okay.

Elizabeth: Little Red Schoolhouse, at one point, we had nine kids, grades K through six. We had K through three in one room and four through six in the other. It was sort of an idyllic childhood, but odd. When you’re in a school with that many kids, you have to be friends with everybody. Everyone’s going to your birthday party. Everyone’s friends. You have to find a way to be friends and to get along. Even if you’re fighting at lunch, you have to make up by the end of the day because this is all you have. These are your friends. That plays into it a big part, even in this little community. Even though there are disagreements in this little fictional town, they’re there for each other. If there’s any issue, if anyone gets hurt, if anyone has any problem, they’re always there for each other. That’s how I grew up.

Zibby: I know in the book you had talked about how this was on the way out to Long Island and how sometimes people just called it West. I was trying to figure out, is this Westhampton? Is she in Quogue? I didn’t recognize any of the streets or the communities. I was going to google. Are these actual places, or did you make them up? Are these real places, or did you make them up?

Elizabeth: I made them up. It’s sort of meant to be any small beach town. Something a little similar happened to me with a McMansion. I dipped my toe into town politics and just went to a couple meetings. Once I found out what was going on, I just thought it was so funny. People probably don’t know that this is going on. There’s the beach read side where everyone is — this is a beach read, really, with no kisses, no sunsets, locked in windowless rooms arguing about where the beach sticker goes. Should it go on the front bumper or the rear bumper? That’s the other side of beach life, is all these conversations.

Zibby: Do you still live in the same town?

Elizabeth: I’m here for now but looking to make a move after the book tour and everything. While I’m doing this, I thought it would be good to be here.

Zibby: Awesome. Can you explain your life to me? You grew up in the Little Red Schoolhouse. Then what happened?

Elizabeth: Then I went to the bigger school, which had about eighty kids in a grade. I went to Bates College in Maine. I studied theater. I wanted to work in television. I thought, I just want to work at NBC. I want to work at 30 Rock and be like Liz Lemon. I thought that would be great. I’ll get to go into that building. They just wouldn’t have me, so I started writing. I’ve always been writing. Then this story sort of fell into my lap. I thought this is probably something that hasn’t been done and hadn’t been looked at. I thought it was a funny idea to show the other side of beach town life.

Zibby: So you just wrote it? You sat down and just wrote the whole thing?

Elizabeth: For sure. I wrote other things before that didn’t go. This was the idea that I was like, this is probably correct. This is probably the idea. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple years, is working on this.

Zibby: Wow. I love hearing stories of, this was rejected. Then I tried this. Then this. Give me one of those inspiring stories. Did you write an entire other novel? What happened?

Elizabeth: I wrote an entire novel about a twenty-two-year-old who couldn’t find a job. This is very on topic. A lot of people were a little interested, but I guess nobody really wants to hear about a twenty-two-year-old that can’t get a job, which I understand now. It was fascinating to me at the time. Wrote a couple of other things. I tried writing a little middle grade because I love children’s literature. Then I wrote this. My top pick for an agent got back to me. She called me and gave me some direction and said, “This is what’s working. This is my idea.” That was all the difference, was this twenty-minute phone call with this agent that was willing to just speak to me and say, “Here’s an idea. Here’s where you’re going wrong. Here’s where you need to go.” That changed everything, really, for me. Then I went back. I changed it. I edited it. It was always about the beach town. It was always this character. It was always Save What’s Left. It needed parts taken out and things. Then she became my agent. We sold it. When you hear nothing back, it’s so hard, when agents don’t write back or tell you anything. I didn’t know anybody in publishing. I’ve never been to a writers’ conference. Well, I went to one. I went when I was sixteen. Alice Hoffman has a little writing program at Adelphi. I went to that when I was sixteen years old and met her. I just thought she was great. That was a big moment for me, to meet a real author and somebody that I admired so much. That was the big thing, was having somebody say, okay, here’s what’s going on. That really changed everything.

Zibby: I actually just had lunch with Suzanne Gluck. Is that who you were talking about? I read that in your acknowledgments. I went to a lunch for Jean Kwok, who wrote The Leftover Woman, now is coming out. I love Jean. We’ve been new friends for a couple years. Anyway, they had a little luncheon for her. I got to know her. She’s so nice.

Elizabeth: I haven’t met her, but I’ve heard her speak. She has some fascinating story.

Zibby: Oh, but I meant Suzanne was also really nice.

Elizabeth: Oh, Suzanne. Yes.

Zibby: She was funny. And funny too.

Elizabeth: Suzanne is great. She is the dream agent. I can’t believe she’s my agent. so funny. We bond over beach town life.

Zibby: Can I just read a couple parts that I thought were so funny? I kept texting myself as I read. Let’s see if I can find them fast enough. This one killed me. You were like, “Things like this happen to me. I think I have one of those trustworthy faces that says, I’ll listen to anything, which is true. I will. One time, Tom and I were waiting for the crosstown bus on East 79th Street when a woman with a cast on her arm walked over to me and asked if I could please zip her fly. Tom was horrified when I kneeled down without hesitation.” Oh, my god, you’re so funny.

Elizabeth: is that happened.

Zibby: Did it?

Elizabeth: That happened. I was just like, “Sure.” A woman with a cast on her arm, she said, “I am so sorry. Can you please help me?” I was like, “Absolutely.” I constantly get this. I am the person that people go to to tell anything. Someone sits down, I get their whole life story. That happened.

Zibby: I also love this one. You said, “I could’ve had an exciting life, but I blew it. I had a boyfriend in college who was smart and funny and could tell a story, and he liked me. The only problem was that sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes he’d tell me things like he was having thoughts about electrocuting me in the bathtub or pushing me off train platforms. He assured me that he did not want to do these things, just that he was thinking about them a lot.” Oh, my god, so funny.

Elizabeth: happened to me.

Zibby: That happened to you?

Elizabeth: That didn’t happen to me, but that is a thing with OCD, is just these intrusive thoughts. People don’t even know that. They’re the most harmless people. It’s just intrusive thoughts. Tom, the husband in the story, leaves Kathleen, the main character, and says he’s had a paradigm shift.

Zibby: Yes, which was also so funny.

Elizabeth: My first boyfriend, that’s how he broke up with me, was telling me that he had a paradigm — I was sixteen. He said, “I’ve had a paradigm shift.” I was like, “I see.” Then I went with my friends and was like, “What is a paradigm shift? He’s had one. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t sound good for me.”

Zibby: Honestly, the section with the Albania comment, I was dying. I was just dying laughing so hard, all of it. All of it’s so funny. Then your ending is so perfect. The whole thing was the perfect package start to finish. I was so excited. It was just so exciting.

Elizabeth: That’s so nice. Thanks. It’s wild. It was a wild story. These towns, I think everybody has that universal thing of having a frustration or seeing a problem and thinking, well, I can change this. I can do something about this. This seems like a solvable problem. Then you realize, I can’t change it. You think you have power. You find out you’re powerless. That can go for really any problem. Kathleen, my character, just doesn’t know when to stop. She keeps it up. She just keeps going and digging herself to the point where she lands in the hospital being poisoned by a septic tank contamination.

Zibby: I don’t mean to laugh. It’s just so funny. Are you working on a new book? I hope you are because I have to read, now, everything you write.

Elizabeth: I’m working on a new book. It’s early stages, work in progress. I’m going to do a younger character, which I’m finding more difficult, which is ridiculous. Right now, I’m not sure. It’s got an Ireland element right now, but could change. Don’t really have much to divulge at the moment.

Zibby: That’s okay. I’m delighted. That’s great. The point of view — I know I already mentioned this. This sadness over what Kathleen has not been able to live or even how she ended up in Kansas City for so long and this notion that life is passing us all by — we don’t necessarily have the grand plan. Things just happen. You fall into these situations. Sometimes it just takes the biggest thing to be able to regroup. Then what do you do when that happens? It’s so relatable but also inspiring that you can just — perhaps you shouldn’t buy a house sight unseen, but I totally understand that too.

Elizabeth: It works out. It works out in the end. She has a new chapter and sees things more clearly. I never really met anyone from Kansas or Kansas City. Now I meet them all the time. like, I’m from Kansas. I couldn’t get a job in New York. I went everywhere. I applied to everything. I applied to give tours of cemeteries. I was a film extra for a while. I still get texts that are like, “Do you have a zombie outfit? Can you meet us at three AM in this abandoned factory?” I’m still on that chain. I did a little of everything. I always thought, well, you know — I kept threatening everybody, really. I’m going to move to Kansas City. I’m going to go work at Hallmark. I’m okay at design. I’m probably not good enough to do the A holidays.

Zibby: You had that in the book, the B holidays.

Elizabeth: I could probably get a job during the B holidays that nobody really sends cards for. I thought, that’s what I’m going to do. Then it was really me imagining, what would I be like in thirty years if I did that, if I did move to Kansas City and didn’t pursue what I wanted to pursue and just went with the safer option? Not that Hallmark would have me. I’m sure they would’ve also said no thank you. That was it. It was me imagining, what would it be like to just put everything on hold? Would it just continue? Would you just stay there? That’s what happens to my character. She stays and then wakes up one day, and her husband is having a paradigm shift. He’s leaving on a world cruise on the Queen Mary. She’s like, okay, what do I want? Of course, the beach towns are sold as just magic. You’ll move to a beach town, and you’re going to meet a handsome man. You’ll have friends. You’re going to entertain. She doesn’t expect to be locked in zoning board meetings.

Zibby: Even when she goes off on this whole thing about the private beach. Guess what? There are no private beaches. It’s just a beach. There are lots of people there.

Elizabeth: Who are these people with the private beaches? They don’t exist.

Zibby: Your observational humor, though, it doesn’t have to be about beach towns. You’re obviously just hilarious. Do you do essays or short stories? Are you going to start contributing more shorter form as you write another novel?

Elizabeth: I never really thought I could write a novel. I did a little column when I was in high school. It was a humor column, five hundred words. I was like, I’m going to max out at five hundred words. That’s all I could do. I like to do shorter things. I’m more an essay person, but the novel seemed like the right way to do this story.

Zibby: What about translating this to film? Is that in the works?

Elizabeth: It’s not in the works yet. I guess there’s feelers out. I’d love that because that was my whole — I love any form of storytelling, really. I love film. I love TV. I love books. I always say that I probably got a lot of humor from — when I was a very little kid, I couldn’t sleep well. I hated being alone at night. I just hated it. Eventually, my mom was like, “All right, we’re going to put the TV in your room.” I invented screentime problems. In the nineties, I had my VHSs of Disney movies. Then when I was eight or nine, I had all these DVD sets of sitcoms, Everybody Loves Raymond and Seinfeld and all of these. I would fall asleep to these every night for years and years. That’s probably just osmosis. Had this sitcom quality to me. Got Everybody Loves Raymond constantly, just sleeping through that. That probably caused brain damage. I’ve always been a big fan of TV and film.

Zibby: What are the launch plans for the book?

Elizabeth: It’s great because it’s got a lot of beach town events. That’s fun. We’re doing something in Cape Cod and the Jersey Shore. We’ll be in the Hamptons. That’s the touring.

Zibby: When are you going to be in the Hamptons? Do you know? I can check your schedule. It must be up somewhere.

Elizabeth: July. I want to say the 14th. Something like that. I have to look.

Zibby: We’ll connect on it later. It’s so fun. Now, of course, you’ll come to LA and do an event.

Elizabeth: That’d be so cool. I’ve never been to LA. I’ve been to San Francisco.

Zibby: It’s fun. It’s sort of the ultimate beach town. The whole thing is one big — people move out there for the same reason, except it’s an enormous city.

Elizabeth: July 7th.

Zibby: July 7th, okay. Doesn’t work for me, but that’s okay.

Elizabeth: Uh, oh. Oh, no.

Zibby: When you read, who are some of your favorite authors? Do you like to read humor? What’s your go-to?

Elizabeth: I do like to read humor. I love Nora Ephron. I always loved reading her essays. I like Salinger. I love memoirs. I guess that’s because I always write in first person too. I love that kind of thing. I have a real guilty pleasure for reading musician’s memoirs. Love doing that. What did I read now? I read Trust. I thought that was great. Now I’m reading The Plot. I’m kind of all over the place. I like to read humor. I like Calvin Trillin, I think is so funny. He has a book, Tepper Isn’t Going Out. That’s from the nineties. It’s about a guy in New York who just sits in his car and won’t leave the parking space. That’s right up my alley, somebody with a very small problem that creates — he becomes a folk hero. I love those books that are little moments and a character just falling — man in a hole, gets into a situation. How do they get out of it? I’m a real sucker for that.

Zibby: Did you watch, in the eighties, the movie called The Money Pit?

Elizabeth: No, I don’t think so.

Zibby: Oh, my god, you have to go watch it. It must be streaming somewhere. I don’t even know what happens to movies anymore. It was with Sally Field and Tom Hanks, I think. Not Sally Field. Shelley Long. Do you remember Shelley Long? I’m older than you. She was in Cheers back in the day. They buy this house that they think is beautiful and decide to fix it up. Everything goes wrong. It’s a lot of situational comedy. It’s so funny. I should watch it again now that I’ve actually renovated a house as a grown-up. They walk through and sort of fall through. Tom Hanks is, at one point, stuck in his oriental rug hanging down from the floor below. I think you’d like it. Random.

Elizabeth: It’s like Funny Farm and other .

Zibby: Yeah, Funny Farm. Do you read Erma Bombeck ever? She’s really funny.

Elizabeth: Yeah, she’s so funny.

Zibby: More about parenting and housework stuff.

Elizabeth: I read a little bit of everything.

Zibby: Have you reconnected now with Alice Hoffman since you —

Elizabeth: — I haven’t. She signed a book for me. “Good luck with your writing.” It meant so much to me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I email with — I can put you in touch if you want.

Elizabeth: That would be great.

Zibby: I’ll put you in touch.

Elizabeth: So great. That was fun. It was mostly poetry driven, that little — I’m not a poet. We were sitting around. We had to be in a circle. Let’s write a quick poem in fifteen minutes. I wrote a poem about a sailboat, something very light. Everybody else got up and dug up trauma, drugs, and this. I was furiously trying to add a sinking of the sailboat or some drowning to keep — I was like, okay, I can’t compete with this. I wrote a poem about a sailboat. It’s not working. That was that experience. It was great. It was so fun. It was so great to meet Alice.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Elizabeth: Do I have any advice? This is the constant advice, but to write in your own voice and not follow the trends. I did that for a while trying to figure out, what will people want? What does the publishing industry want? It turned out my perspective was the thing that worked and the thing that I thought was funny. It really was sticking to my view. I think that’s important, to find your perspective and what you can bring that’s different than what other people can bring. That’s one thing that’s been said before. I’m trying to think what else.

Zibby: That was good.

Elizabeth: The big thing is to just trust what you think is good or interesting. That really will work more than just going with, well, this person wrote this, and that works. I thought this was funny. I thought someone else will think it’s funny. That’s eventually what worked. I wish I came to that conclusion earlier, but maybe this had to happen. Maybe I had to wait. I think I also had to get older. My voice has kind of been the same since I’ve been in high school, the same kind of writing voice, but I think I just had to get a little more mature perspective. It’s just time. It’s the way you see things also. You just need to have some life experiences to go off of.

Zibby: Bravo to you. Save What’s Left, so great, so funny. I’m such a huge fan. Thank you.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much podcast.

Zibby: Thanks so much. I’ll follow up about the other stuff on email.

Elizabeth: Great. Thanks so much, Zibby. So good to .

Zibby: Bye.

Elizabeth: Bye.

SAVE WHAT’S LEFT by Elizabeth Castellano

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