Elizabeth Passarella, IT WAS AN UGLY COUCH ANYWAY: And Other Thoughts on Moving Forward

Elizabeth Passarella, IT WAS AN UGLY COUCH ANYWAY: And Other Thoughts on Moving Forward

Guest host Julie Chavez interviews writer and editor Elizabeth Passarella about It Was an Ugly Couch Anyway: And Other Thoughts on Moving Forward, a refreshingly honest and hilarious collection of essays about navigating change and staying sane during the unexpected twists. Elizabeth shares the story behind her iconic title (it isn’t the one she originally wanted!) and describes how tough it was to write during the pandemic when she didn’t feel like herself. She also talks about her beloved New York City apartment, her faith, her questionable opinions (she despises kitchen islands, for example), her late father, and the big, ugly couch he left behind.


Julie Chavez: Elizabeth, hi.

Elizabeth Passarella: Hi. It’s so good to be with you, Julie.

Julie: It’s so good to have you here. I’m so happy that you came on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and that I got to be the one to talk to you. I felt so excited to hear about you.

Elizabeth: The excitement is all mine. This is my second time on this podcast. Listen, obviously, Zibby was sick of me. No, I’m just kidding. She’s doing everything. I’m so delighted that she has delegated and passed the baton. You are a ray of sunshine. I’m so excited to talk to you. This will be so fun.

Julie: Thanks, friend. I’m super excited. Yes, she does all the things. It really benefits me in this situation because it just means I get to chew the fat with more people, which is something that might be one of my gifts. That’s really exciting. I’m so excited to talk to you about your book. You’re the author of Good Apple, which I’ve also read and loved at Sherri’s recommendation. We talked about Sherri Puzey being one of our mutual wonderful people that we know. Your new one is It Was an Ugly Couch Anyway: And Other Thoughts on Moving Forward. I have to tell you, every time I have looked at this book when I’ve walked by it, I hear the line from Christmas Vacation.

Elizabeth: Which one?

Julie: The one where he goes, “It was an ugly tree anyway,” after the tree catches on fire.

Elizabeth: Oh, when it catches on fire from the grandfather’s cigar. Oh, my gosh, I hadn’t thought about that. I should be marketing that. I should be making memes about me and the grandfather from Christmas Vacation. I did not even think of that.

Julie: I’ll put my teenagers on it. They’re really good with the meme. There’s, apparently, a meme generator. They told me that. I was like, don’t tell me that. That’s a lost day right there, at least.

Elizabeth: I have to say — I haven’t really said this in any interviews, I don’t think. This was not the title that I wanted originally. I had in my head, a different title that really did not make a whole lot of sense. It was just this phrase that I had used in a conversation with a friend. I thought it had this deeper life application meaning. It felt really highbrow and good to me. I wanted that as the title of the book. I’m not even going to tell what it was because it will not make sense. My editor said, “It will not make sense to readers. This is not a great title.” My agent, who is so supportive and so wonderful and now also an amazing writer, and so I totally trust her too, she was kind of playing along with me and trying to help me make it work. Then after a while, she’s like, “Elizabeth, you’re going to have to let it go. You’re going to have to let it go.” This title existed. It was the title of the first essay in the book. Everyone, every single person on my team except for me, was like, “This is the title of the book.” I was like, “But maybe not.” They were like, “Elizabeth, this is the title of the book.” They were a hundred percent right. Always listen to your editors and your agent and everybody else who’s telling you what to do. The cover and everything just turned out so punchy and fun. It absolutely went the way it was supposed to go. Just so you know, I had a different idea that was dumb in my head.

Julie: Interesting. I love that story. My title has changed a few times. It’s funny how you can get attached to those pieces. You think, no, no, I’m telling you guys, this is going to be great. They are so gentle when they’re like, no, it’s not.

Elizabeth: I kept rewriting the intro. The prologue in the book was actually the last thing that I wrote. I wrote all the chapters. Then I ended, I was writing this. I think I wrote twelve or thirteen different prologues. I kept trying to, again, make this different phrase work, and work into the rest of the theme of the book, which was already written. You were talking a second ago about covers. Somebody else had used a cover that you were thinking about using. I finally hit upon the beginning of this prologue. It had been the first paragraph of the first chapter of the book. I was talking about dreams and children. I love telling people my dreams. No one ever cares. I say it’s kind of like your children. You always think that yours are more interesting than anybody else thinks that they are. I thought, this is it. This is a funny story. It’s a funny commentary. I can work this into what I was going to say anyway. This is great. Then Jessi Klein, who is a wonderful, hilarious New York Times best-selling author — You’ll Grow Out of It was her first book. Then her second book was I’ll Show Myself Out. It’s essays on motherhood. Fantastic. Wonderful writer. Sells way more books than I do. She has a chapter in her new book, which came out right around the time I was writing this — I was reading her book. I had ordered it. I was reading it. She has a whole chapter that starts with, “Dreams are like children. Nobody wants to hear about your dreams or your children.” I just thought, well, F me. What am I going to do now? I sent that to my editor. I sent what I’d written to my editor. She was like, “Good luck. Back to the drawing board.” Just like the cover, it ended up the way it should’ve been in the first place. Everything worked out, but I did have to rewrite my intro again.

Julie: Oh, my gosh, after that many times. That feels like it tracks, though. I feel like that’s the theme sometimes of book publishing. Oh, you thought you were done with that? No, you weren’t. The revisiting of things and then also, exactly what you’re saying, I had never considered that other things coming out in this window can impact what’s happening with your book. It feels like it’s baked. It’s going into production. That’s what’s happening. Then, nope, we got to change that. I love those stories, though, because I’m a bit of a control freak.

Elizabeth: I have no idea what that’s like.

Julie: I know. After reading your book, I was like, I don’t think we’re going to have anything to talk about. This is going to be really tough. We don’t have a lot in common. That letting go, it’s amazing how that lesson is one that needs to be hammered to me just constantly. Maybe we’re in the right place for that exact reason.

Elizabeth: Yes, that’s true.

Julie: Tell me about when you decided to write this book. You wrote Good Apple. Did you know you wanted to write a second book at that point?

Elizabeth: I did. Just to get into the weeds of book publishing, I had a two-book contract. I knew I was writing a second book because they had told me I was writing a second book, which was great. I was excited about that and had ideas and was ready to go. Interestingly, though, when Good Apple came out, it was January of 2021. We were still very much in the middle of the pandemic, especially in New York. It was winter. My kids were still in hybrid school. Nothing had gone back to normal. The city was still in semi-lockdown, in a way. I started writing this book in late winter/early spring of 2021. It was hard logistically because places that I used to go to write, childcare I used to have, full-time school, for that matter, was not happening. In terms of pure logistics, I did not have the schedule that I had when I was writing the first book. That’s what made it hard. Also, I was just in a really bad mood, just a terrible mood, as many of us were. I really felt for a while like I’ve lost my sense of humor. Life is just too hard. Things are just too bad. Everything is sad. Nothing is ever going to be right or normal or good or happy or joyful again. I started writing this book. I had some stories percolating, some things that I had left out of the first book or had happened in the time since that I really wanted to write. I was writing essays.

Maybe around late summer/early fall, I turned in a chunk of stuff to my editor and my agent and said, “Here’s where I am.” I try not to turn in things piecemeal. I try to turn in things when they’re close to finished. I said, “Here’s about half of it. What do you think?” They both said, “There’s stuff here, but you don’t sound like yourself. You sound mean in certain places.” We’re all evolved people. We’re all multifaceted people. I can be mean. Everybody knows that if they’ve read my first book. It’s not like we’re not allowed to be in bad moods, but I do think I was writing from a really dark place at the beginning. It was a lot of just, life is not fair. This all sucks. Some of that is in the final book. Some of those pieces are in the final book. In fact, I do write a little bit about what it was like just being in New York during the pandemic and how I put a nice shine on it, but I was lying. It was really, really a lot worse and a lot harder for me personally than I liked to tell people when they asked. There’s a little bit of that that made it into the final book. Then what this book follows, there’s a thread that runs through this book of my family selling our apartment that we had been in in a building that we loved and a neighborhood community that we loved. We sold our apartment.

We were attempting to buy a larger apartment in our same building that had really been abandoned. It was a hoarder situation. The man who had owned it was a doctor. He had passed away about ten years ago. He had hoarded furniture, medical supplies, office supplies, all kinds of crazy stuff. His widow did not live there. She lives elsewhere in Manhattan, but she just had held onto it. I think it was overwhelming to her to think about emptying it and selling it. It was overwhelming to her to think about letting go of it because it was her husband’s. She missed him, obviously. We found out about this apartment in our building and proceeded to enter into a sweet but strange friendship relationship with this woman. It took us over a year of talking to her and trying to find certain documents and government IDs and all kinds of things. It was a real up and down process of trying to buy this apartment. When I started writing the book, I knew this was a possibility. We, at that point, had seen the apartment. I had no idea where it was going. I started taking notes on my phone calls with her. Her name is Lois in the book. That’s not her real name. Her name is Lois in the book. I started taking notes on all my phone calls with her. The stories that were coming out of just talking to her — we were talking every week, every two weeks and having these long conversations. As a writer who knows a good story when she sees one, I just knew that these stories about her were gold. I started taking notes. She knew I was a writer. She did know that I was working on a book. I started writing about her. I started writing about this apartment that we were trying to get.

In a sense, the book really took shape out of that. I didn’t know where it was going. I did not know whether we were going to get the apartment, whether Lois was going to pass away in the middle of these conversations. I had no idea where this was going, so I didn’t know how it was going to end. I started writing those stories. Then so much about that situation informed so many of the other essays that are interspersed throughout the book. Lois here was holding onto this apartment that was so meaningful to her. I was holding onto a couch that was very meaningful for me. It was my dad’s. That’s the title essay of the book, is this big ugly couch of my father’s that I hung onto so obsessively after he passed away. I didn’t want to get rid of it. Our real estate agent told us we really needed to before we sold our apartment. Those kinds of things. What do we hold onto? What do we give up as we move through life? What do we need to move on from in terms of opinions or all of those things? The apartment story really was a gift in that time. It gave us as a family something to hang onto, something that was hopeful for the future, which we really needed at that time in New York City. It gave me something to hang onto and sink my teeth into as a writer at that time. It was a joy to write this book at that point, but it started out really dark.

Julie: I appreciate you sharing that because I think that’s really just such a good note for anyone who’s a writer or, really, anyone who’s trying to create something. It pours out of you in more ways than you would think. It’s easy to kind of fool ourselves and think, oh, I’m separating this, but a lot of what we create comes out of who we are. That’s not, in itself, good or bad. To have people like your editor and agent and people that are safe for you to say, “This doesn’t sound like you. We can help you with that piece,” I think that’s a real gift because it’s a lot.

Elizabeth: We can also go into things thinking, especially when you’re writing nonfiction — you write memoir. When you’re writing about your own life, you can go into something — there were several chapters like this. With Good Apple, I had that book mapped out not only in my head, but really, on paper, really detailed. I knew exactly where it was going before I ever started. This was different. This one was moving and changing and morphing as I went along. I do think, also, you can think you’re going to start writing about one thing, and as you get going, it takes a different direction. We all know that happens too. Something occurs to you as you’re revisiting old memories. Something that you’d forgotten about comes to the surface. You feel differently about something after revisiting it from a long time ago. That’s another thing about writing nonfiction. You think it’s going in one way, and then it takes a turn. You kind of have to follow along.

Julie: I told someone recently — she said she wanted to write a memoir, but she was waiting for her mom to die. She had been hurt by her but didn’t want to hurt her, which I totally understood. People had told her, why don’t you start? You can write stuff down. I did tell her I think there’s something to be said for waiting until it’s the right time because you’re going to feel differently. In some ways, some things get better. I just think, hopefully, if we’re growing more gracious as we grow, then hopefully, we get more perspective, more wisdom on it. It becomes more universal as opposed to, here’s why I’m angry. I wrote it all down.

Elizabeth: My dad died the week before I was supposed to turn in the manuscript for Good Apple. I called my editor. I said, “Hi. I’m going to need a couple more weeks, first of all, because I have to now go to a funeral. Second of all, I’m going to need to go back and revise, just putting him in past tense in the book where he was in present tense before. I’d like to write about his funeral and about his death. I feel like that’s an important thing to do.” I went back. It’s funny. My mom has said about both of my books, she goes, “You sure write about your dad a lot.” I said to her, “You’re right. I do.” Part of it is because my dad and I, temperamentally, were very similar. My mom, I adore her. I love her. We have a wonderful relationship, but we’re really different temperamentally. There are things that I feel like I can write about my dad because I know how it feels. I know how he would’ve reacted. I just think that I understand him and his motivations in a deeper way because I’m wired very similarly. Also, as I said to my mother, it’s easier to write about him because he’s dead. Your memories crystallize, in a way. You tend to forget some of the unpleasant things. You tend to overemphasize the good memories. I think that’s normal. It’s just easier to write about him when I know he’s not going to get upset, offended, want to fact-check me, whatever it is. I said to her, “I’ll write a lot more about you when you die too.” That’s the deal we have. I don’t know if you’ve read Beth Moore’s memoir. She has a memoir. She is a pretty well-known Christian Bible teacher. I don’t know if many people outside of the Christian publishing world really know who she is. She wrote a memoir recently. It’s excellent. It came out a couple months ago. She very clearly says she was waiting for certain people to die before she wrote it.

Julie: That doesn’t surprise me knowing a little bit of her history. I did a few Beth Moore Bible studies years ago. I think anyone who grew up in that era did, probably, at some point, in that area of the culture. Wow, I will have to read that. It was good?

Elizabeth: You will love it. It’s excellent. Especially if you have any familiarity with her, you will love it.

Julie: I’ll put that on my list. I have nothing else going on. I just sit around all day wondering what to do, so this is perfect. When you were talking about your dad just now, I loved the story of you sitting on the counter smelling cologne and saying one smelled like a gin and tonic.

Elizabeth: We should say that I was probably six years old at the time. He took me to Goldsmith’s, which was the family-owned department store in Memphis, Tennessee, where I grew up. My dad was really into clothes. He had a hair dryer that he really loved. He liked his hair a certain way. He was very particular about certain colognes and what he wore. He took me to the men’s cologne counter at Goldsmith’s. He propped me up. I was little. I was tiny. He propped me up and sat me up on the sales counter. He was spritzing different ones. I said, “That one smells like a gin and tonic.” I thought the salesperson was going to just pass out right there because I was way too young to know what a gin and tonic smelled like. Now a gin and tonic is probably my favorite. Especially this time of year when it’s warm outside, it’s my favorite drink. The apple does not fall far.

Julie: That is true. I love a good gin and tonic. Plus, the smell.

Elizabeth: It clearly just had a citrusy smell, but that was what came out of my mouth. The mouths of babes. That’s what came out.

Julie: All of Manhattan do this, Dad. I love it. I love the way that you talk about the people in your life in this book. I really think you have — I haven’t said it yet. I love your writing. You have a really good perspective on yourself and on the humor. I think we’re all so unreasonable at heart, and so having an honesty about that — hey, I know I’m being difficult. That’s just what you’re going to get sometimes. I really like that about your writing. It’s so honest.

Elizabeth: Thank you. I love you say we’re all unreasonable. Oh, god, that is so good. What’s reasonable? What’s reasonable to me is not reasonable to you. It’s not reasonable to my husband or my sister or whoever it is. We are. We are unreasonable. I love that. You better hurry up and write that down, Julie, because I’m going to use it.

Julie: Shoot, let me get a pen.

Elizabeth: You can copyright. Trademark, Julie. There is a chapter in this book towards the end that’s called The Chapter of Questionable Opinions. We struggled with this one, my editor and the copyeditor. The copyeditor was involved too at this point. It is really just a mashup of a few different things that I think I was sort of scared to say out loud but really are opinions that I have. They’re the opinions that I talk about in the car on a car trip with my husband. When I bring them up at a dinner party, people look at me like I’m crazy. For example, I get into a whole thing about open kitchens. I don’t want an open kitchen. I don’t like open kitchens. I think kitchen islands are terrible. Again, I understand that that is unreasonable to some people. That is absolute madness, the idea that I wouldn’t want a beautiful kitchen island with stools where my children could sit and talk to me while I cook. My children sitting and talking to me while I cook is my worst nightmare. It just is. I would like to burrow into a cave underground to cook dinner and come out when it’s ready and have nobody talk to me. It gets a little bit more serious. The kitchen island is the lightest part of that chapter. I talk a little bit about therapy.

I talk a little bit about just having children in general, how I really think I could’ve been very happy having never had children. I love my kids. I think people hear that, and they think, oh, my gosh, you regret having your kids. I don’t regret having my kids. I could just see a sliding-doors moment where both lives could’ve been okay. I love this life, and I also think I could’ve loved this life if it hadn’t happened for me. These are things that — yes, you’re right — some people would not say out loud. I am just, as a writer, so apt to put my foot in my mouth. It sometimes does get me in trouble. I will say, number one, I am fun at a dinner party. Invite me over. I will start a conversation. I will get people talking. Number two, I do think that a lot of us have these thoughts or opinions, or we think I’m the only one. I’m the only one who doesn’t want a kitchen island. Here’s Elizabeth Passarella telling me it’s okay to not want a kitchen island. I love being the writer that can bring that out of people or make them feel a little bit less crazy or less unreasonable in their own lives, that they have a pal out there who thinks the same way we do. We are all so different. We are also entitled to all of our opinions and all of our desires, but I think there are certain ones we don’t talk about so much.

Julie: You’re exactly right. The kitchen island cracked me up because I’m a talker. My children are talkers. My husband is a hostage. I think he wants a kitchen with no one in it all the time. We have a small home. Not New York-size challenges. We’re in California, which is also its own real estate disaster. It’s freeing, though. I loved the part about that you could’ve been happy without kids. That is something I’ve thought so much more about in the past years. There’s such a nuanced, really lovely conversation to be had there about the way that we can be transformed by others, whether they’re our children or whether they’re people in our life. There aren’t a lot of places where we see that talked about, so I really appreciated that talk or that chapter in the book. I think that being honest about that really does give liberty to other people to not only speak it, but maybe even think honestly about it. For some people, it’s, nope, I can’t think or believe that. The therapy cracked me up. I’ll do that later.

Elizabeth: I know it’s tricky to bring up because there’s so many people who want to be a parent, and they can’t be. It’s hard to just say, I have these three kids, and I could take them or leave them. Of course, that’s not what I’m saying. I think that also, there are a lot of parents out there who are in the deepest weeds with their kids. It is hard. Their marriage is suffering. Their friendships are suffering. It is so hard. I just want to say, yeah, it is hard. It’s so hard. It is not magical all the time. It is not my life’s calling, and it’s so wonderful all the time. It’s not. I don’t feel like that very often. Motherhood does not come super naturally to me. I will say in that chapter, too, I talk about, again, my dad because I talk about my dead dad a lot. I say in that part of that chapter, my dad did not want to get married, and he did not want to have children. He was having a great time being a bachelor. Then he met my mom. He fell really hard in love with my mom. They got married, but it took a long time. They dated for a long time before they got married.

Then he was very ambivalent, didn’t want kids, wasn’t sure. The story of my mom getting pregnant with my sister is not safe for work, maybe not safe for — that’s my mom’s story to tell how that happened. She will say, “Once your sister was born, it was like your father was the only man in the hospital who had ever had a baby. He was just the most enthusiastic.” We joke all the time in my family — it was a refrain on loop all the time. Your dad didn’t want kids. Your dad didn’t want kids. It never made me feel anything less than completely loved and adored by my dad. It was a running joke. He would always follow it up with, “Am I not the luckiest man alive?” I just think that you can hold both in all circumstances. Every happy incident in your life has a little bit of a sadness to it. Every sadness in your life has a little bit of joy in it. There are no hundred percent on either side. I think every blessing has a little bit of, this is hard. Every hard season is going to have some light at the end of the tunnel. I just think that all things have two sides.

Julie: I think that’s a beautiful way to think about it. So important to be able to hold that space for those sorts of ideas and conversations. One question for you. You talk often about your faith, which I love. It’s a part of you. You’re writing about yourself, obviously, so I can see how that would be natural. For people who may not share your beliefs or people who do share your beliefs but maybe don’t speak about them or don’t write about it, what is the reasons or what’s what you want to give people by sharing that side of you?

Elizabeth: There’s a little less Jesus in this book than there probably was in the first book. The first book, every chapter seemed to wrap up in a little bit of a bow, a little moment or a lesson or something I learned. This book, I just let myself be a little bit more free. If there was a situation I was writing about and — obviously, anybody who is a person of faith, no matter what your faith is, you’re always looking at your challenges, your sufferings, your joys through that lens. If there was a place for it and it felt like it was something I wanted to talk about, I did. If there wasn’t, I didn’t. I felt really free in that in this book. Listen, there are wonderful books out there for Christian people who want to be inspired or instructed or they want advice on their life. This is not that book. You guys, I’m not writing any kind of inspirational, devotional, Bible study, self-help anything. At the same time, I think there is a little bit of a lack in our world in terms of books for books that the person writing it might be a Christian, and that might be something that informs their decisions in some way or another, but that they’re not full-on just writing an inspirational, life-changing devotional. I just want to write about my everyday life. As I say all the time, I don’t have a spectacular life. I have a really pretty boring life. I have a life just like most of you. I’ve been through small disappointments and griefs. I’ve been through the everyday things of parenting and marriage and jobs and friendships.

Getting back to your question, this is what I think I would want people to know, especially if they don’t share my faith. The reason I think that I can be super honest and pretty vulnerable and probably say some things that might make me sound a little weird or have opinions that might not resonate with everyone is because I do feel a lot of freedom in what is actually important in my life. My faith speaks to who I am. Then I can be a little bit of clown underneath that. If someone doesn’t agree with me about an opinion about something or someone says something unkind about my sharing a certain aspect of my — it just doesn’t devastate me. It really doesn’t. It gives me so much more freedom in my writing. I would hope that when people say, I just loved how you shared that — the reason I can share that is because I know who I am deep in my gut spiritually. I can share the warts a little bit more. I can share the things that might be a little bit more embarrassing. I can say the ways that I completely screwed up in terms of raising my children, and there are so many ways. So many ways, Julie. I think I can be more honest about that because I do have this deep-rooted, firm foundation of who I am underneath it. I live in New York City. I grew up in the Bible Belt, but I live in New York City now. Many, many of my friends absolutely do not share my faith. I love getting a nice barometer from them or what they like and what they don’t like and questions that they have. It opens up so many great questions. I have tons of Jewish friends in New York. Also, my dad was Jewish growing up. That’s something that I talk a lot about in the first book. My dad was Jewish. I do think that draws some people in. My New York-ness, my Jewish dad will kind of draw some people in that might not otherwise have picked up my books.

Julie: I know I said it, but I love your books. I love your writing. I love the way that you share exactly that. I do think your books have a sense of place not only in their setting, but your place in yourself. You feel at home in yourself in your books. To watch it and read about it is a real joy. I’m so glad you have another book out. I’m so glad we got to talk today.

Elizabeth: I am too. Thank you so much, Julie. This was fun.

Julie: Thank you.

IT WAS AN UGLY COUCH ANYWAY: And Other Thoughts on Moving Forward by Elizabeth Passarella

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