Elizabeth Ames, THE OTHER'S GOLD

Elizabeth Ames, THE OTHER'S GOLD

Zibby Owens: Elizabeth Ames is the author of debut novel The Other’s Gold. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, Elizabeth has lived in Seattle, France, and Rwanda since leaving the Midwest. She currently lives in a Harvard dormitory with her husband, two children, and a few hundred undergraduates. At least, it was that way until this year when everything is going virtual.

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

Elizabeth Ames: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I’m particularly excited because I feel like we’ve been trying to plan this for like five years or something ridiculous. This is one of my longest to-do podcasts that I’ve had on the list.

Elizabeth: I know. My book has been out for almost a year, but I really appreciate your flexibility. I’m happy to be on anytime.

Zibby: I’m sure it was my fault. I’m not trying to say it’s not.

Elizabeth: We were back and forth. Obviously, we all had quarantine time. There was sort of, maybe that’s only going to last a few weeks. Maybe it’s going to last indefinitely. We don’t know. I’m just glad we found a time.

Zibby: Me too. I know we’re doing video and audio. For the podcast listeners only, you are in this gorgeous library at one of the houses at Harvard. Just tell a little bit about it and about writing The Other’s Gold in that library. It must have been amazing.

Elizabeth: People who aren’t familiar, Harvard has I think twelve, I don’t want to get it wrong, but I think it’s twelve undergraduate houses outside of the freshman houses. This is all funny to talk about, or not funny, but strange to talk about now thinking about, how will it be this coming fall? Last year and the year before when I wrote this book, I moved into this house, Quincy House, with my husband and our then six-month-old. I guess I’m taking it too far back.

Zibby: No, go back.

Elizabeth: Okay. I’m in this beautiful library. Every house has its own library. This is the Quincy House cube that I just ducked in for this short time to chat with you.

Zibby: It’s beautiful. Wait, keep going back. I like that. So your husband’s a professor. You ended up at Harvard.

Elizabeth: He’s a professor.

Zibby: What does he teach?

Elizabeth: He’s in the department of folklore and mythology. His PhD is in African and African American studies and anthropology. His class this fall is going to be The Art of Emergency: Storytelling in the Time of — I’m going to get the title wrong, but it sounds like a very timely class. Storytelling in the Time of Trauma? I’ve got to look at the . The department of folklore and mythology, I think it’s a cool department.

Zibby: Gosh, I want to go back to school. I miss taking classes. Should I learn about this? Should I learn about that? Education is so wasted on the young. At the time, I was like, if I drop French, I can go out Thursday nights.

Elizabeth: What time to get up, I know. When we moved here, I had this vantage from this library where the students work. I could look out over the courtyard, which is so idyllic. It’s so manicured and green. Students would be walking to class. I always say I love campus novels. I always hoped I’d write one. Then when we moved into a dorm, I thought, this is the time. If I’m ever going to write a campus novel, I have to do it now when I have this really useful perspective for a writer. I’m an outsider in that I’m not a student at Harvard. I don’t really have much of a formal affiliation with the university, but I live in one of the buildings and work with all these students and have literally a privilege and a joy to live amongst them while they were going through this really intense time of being away from home. I was going through this really intense time of becoming a parent, living here with a six-month-old. That was what got me thinking about the book. This is so weird to be a new mom amongst all these sophomores. I lived mostly among sophomores. Seeing them be dropped off at school by their parents, and their parents just looking at me with my baby so longingly, giving me the, it goes so fast. I believed that from day one. Also, obviously seeing parents drop their kids off at college is really a — while you’re wearing your baby, if you weren’t already weeping, you will be any minute.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Tell listeners what The Other’s Gold is about.

Elizabeth: The Other’s Gold, it follows four friends, Alice, Lainey, Ji Sun, and Margaret, from when they meet their freshman year at a fictional college, Quincy-Hawthorn College. I just mentioned Quincy House. The college is named in part after Quincy House, but it is an invented college in New Hampshire. They meet their freshman year. It follows them from that time to when they start having children or not. It’s a thirteen-year time period. It’s structured around the worst mistake made by each of the four friends during that really intense and transformative twelve years.

Zibby: I was particularly drawn to Alice and her situation with her brother and the accident and how she talked about it and processed it and wanted to tell her friends but didn’t want to tell her friends. How you go through life with secrets, I feel like that’s one of the most powerful things in books. What do people do with their secrets? What causes people to do things? Does it matter if you’re young or old? What makes something forgivable and not and all the rest? I was just wondering about developing her character in particular, if you could talk a little more about how you decided on her narrative trajectory, if you will.

Elizabeth: I always feel like when you talk about characters you start to sound so nutty. You’re like, she came to me. I do think she came to me maybe third or even fourth. How does a character come to you? That’s the part that actually feels like magic to me. I think there’s a lot of things that you can try to invite characters in your mind, but they just kind of come knocking. Then you start thinking about them. I feel like when you get really into it, then suddenly everything’s grist for the mill. You’ll hear people talking. I remember at some point actually, speaking of Alice because she becomes a doctor, I was sitting by these two doctors at a coffee shop listening to them talk. They were talking about children and one who hadn’t had children and she had wanted to. They were just having this pretty intimate conversation about their careers and their lives. I was just thinking, Alice, Alice. She’s a doctor. She struggles with her fertility. Those were just strangers in a coffee shop. Once the characters arrive at your doorstep, then you start to see them everywhere. They’re really present.

Zibby: Did you have a college experience anything like this? Did you have three girlfriends that you roomed with? Did you base the window seat off of a dorm room there? How real to life, if at all, is the book or parts of the book?

Elizabeth: I always say I feel like I could count the actual things that came from my life on one hand. I went to a large state school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is a great school. Part of my fascination with small liberal arts schools is probably fueled by the fact that I didn’t go to one. The idea of the en suite dorm room and the smaller sometimes claustrophobic environment, I think my curiosity about that partly fueled the book. I’ve been very lucky with the long-term friendships I’ve had. I’ve never been part of a quad like that, of a foursome. I think that partly inspired the book too, was just the curiosity I have about those kinds of friendships where you’re living together, taking classes together, eating together, dating, breaking up, sometimes going on to marry each other or not. It’s just such an intense time. Your bond is forged so intensely. Then I would see these groups of students just completely inextricable. I was curious about how that friendship forms and then how it’s weathered and tested once you’re not in the environment that totally supports it.

Zibby: My sophomore year I lived in a room very similar to that. We had a common room. We had two little rooms with two of us each with bunk beds. It was so tight. You couldn’t even open the dresser drawer without sitting on the bunk bed. The four of us, we did everything together. I remember my dad got married. I was like, I have to invite everybody I’m rooming with. That’s non-negotiable. It is so interesting to see, even if you took this little group of us, what’s happened over time. You could take any cluster, really. I think that’s what’s so great about books like this. My group of friends, it’s just a little microcosm. It could happen to anybody because life is so random. Any characters you pick, all these horrible things and great things are going to happen. It’s just a mishmash, like a commentary on life. That was a ramble.

Elizabeth: Are you still friends with the three people who were your roommates?

Zibby: I roomed with one girl. Then there were the other two. The two in the other little room went to St. Paul’s together, so they had been friends before. I’m still close to them. We go on girls’ trips once every other year at this point. Now I don’t know when we’ll see each other again. One of them lives in Denver. One of them lives in Hong Kong. Then my roommate died on September 11th.

Elizabeth: I’m so sorry. I think I’ve actually read your essay about that. I’m so sorry.

Zibby: That’s okay. It’s okay. We were friends after school. We lived together after school. She was twenty-five when it happened. I have so many of those memories and all of us on campus together just totally embedded the way you’re saying. If there was a social or whatever, it was us with the guys. It was just that time. To lose someone in the group is also, when you go back, it changes the way you look at everything that had happened. Even when we go to reunions, I’m looking around. It’s just not the same. The book kind of took me back to that intensity because you don’t get that with anyone, I feel like, at this age other than — there is an intensity that comes with parenting in the trenches together that’s similar because you’re in it. You’re stressed. You don’t know what you’re doing. There’s too much to do in the same way that I felt like it was at school. I think you do get that with some new parents, especially first time around, but not in that many other junctures. Maybe if you’re working in a really intense environment. I didn’t really have this big corporate setting where you might bond with people in your class or something.

Elizabeth: I think you’re right. I think that’s what’s interesting to me about that span of life. As adults, it is unusual to have that kind of same intensity of the circumstance. I felt like because I was becoming this new parent alongside these students who were kind of forging their own new families, it did highlight for me the similarities around your identity changing. When you come to college and you’re figuring out who you are, so much of that I think is forged as a result of who you befriend, which can be totally random. You’re sort of like, I want to be like this person. I want to not be like this person. Then that rachets up through college. The moments I tried to choose in the book around getting married or not, career choices, or other touchstones where you’re thinking about your identity — what does it mean if this person marries someone who I really loathe? What does it mean if my friend chooses not to have kids or another friend can’t have kids? or all these times you define yourself against even your closest friends. Like you said, when you’re new parents, your identity is — that’s a complete upheaval, the first time especially when you’re just — I feel like for most people I know, that change from not being a parent to being a parent is huge. I felt like those moments bookending leaving your family, starting a family, even though they felt so different, they have some things in common.

Zibby: Totally. I totally agree. Speaking of family, I’m sorry, you can probably hear my son screaming in the background.

Elizabeth: No, you can’t apologize for that. That’s a side effect of this Zoom life. People have to be aware that children exist in some working people’s lives.

Zibby: So you’ve been up there. Have you been there the whole time at Harvard with your — well, now he’s not a baby anymore.

Elizabeth: I moved with my husband and first baby when she was six months old. Now she’s four and a half.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Elizabeth: I know. The students who started when we started, they already graduated. I guess this will be the start of our fifth year and a very strange year. I’ve since had a second child who’s only ever lived in a Harvard house. It’s a really amazing community. I always say I was kind of weary about moving into a dorm as an adult with a baby. I lived in this apartment in a sleepy, really child-friend neighborhood of Cambridge known for being family friendly. I didn’t have kids. Then I moved into Harvard Square. It’s family friendly in its own way. It’s also more like, you can go out and do stuff that isn’t as easy to do when you have a new baby. There are other families. There are dogs. The students are amazing. Talking about it now, I just feel sad because we don’t know what it’s going to look like this year. Even if there are some students in this house, we won’t be eating in the dining hall. We won’t be having the kind of casual interactions with students that make it feel so warm and community-like, and with other tutors and other families and pets. So much around education is just a big question mark. I think this is a really special place to have kids. I felt so lucky for the people that my kids have met.

Zibby: I bet they have the best babysitters ever. You have access to the most brilliant, awesome babysitters. I feel like I should just come there to poach some sitters or something.

Elizabeth: They’re so busy, though. The ones we’ve had are so amazing. They have a lot going on in the schoolyear.

Zibby: I’m sure that’s true. So when did you write? How long did it take to write this book? Did you outline? I know you were talking about the organic nature in which the characters developed. Did you start with that timeline of the bookends that you just mentioned? Was that a “do not change” type of thing for the outset? How did you start it?

Elizabeth: Actually, it was, again, kind of college-like because it was four years start to finish. I was just thinking about this because I started taking notes, emailing myself, notes app kind of notes, when my first child was born. I just wanted to jot down some of the feelings. It wasn’t even fictional yet. It was just like, I got to figure out how to write about some of this, really just intense feelings. I want to write it down now while it’s so fresh. Then we moved here. I started really getting to work on it once we started having some childcare. When my first child was eight months old, we had a very part-time nanny share. I did some of the tentative first steps on this book. Then when she was a year and a half, I think she was nineteen months, she started at this little preschool daycare. Then I really got cooking. I had been working on the book but not in such a consistent way, in a very piecemeal way, but always walking around thinking about it but not just actually banging it out.

Then when she started at this daycare, I really figured out how to prioritize my time and be more efficient. I would drop her off and oftentimes go to this coffee shop that was really nearby that has no internet. I would just get to work. It was maybe a year of thinking, a year of writing, and then selling the book and then doing some revisions that year. Then it came out. It was kind of fast. I had written a book before this that isn’t published that took a really long time. It was a lot more labored and protracted. This book came much more quickly. I felt a lot of joy, not necessarily with the content, but with the flow, when you really get into a project and you’re just feeling the flow. I think that helped make it happen faster, and the fact that I was just so conscious of my time. I always say I closed my tabs sooner. I always have so many tabs open on my browser. Once I was working on this work and knew how precious my time was away from my young baby, I was just like, close these tabs. Open Word. Get to work.

Zibby: Love it. That’s good.

Elizabeth: That’s such a meandering answer. I’m sorry.

Zibby: No, that was great. I loved that. It’s true. I feel like sometimes the less time I have, the more I get done in that time because I have to maximize every second of an hour. If I have four hours, then I might, well, I must have tons of time, I’ll go read the paper.

Elizabeth: I heard an interview with Helen Phillips at the Boston Book Festival. She talked about that same thing, how she’s had decreasing time with each book, but she feels like she’s become a better writer and makes better use of this time. Her writing’s become more concentrated and powerful. I’m probably misquoting her. I feel so encouraged when I hear people talk about it in that way. I think, well, you wrote this book, The Need, when you had this little time. You were doing it in these chunks, and it’s so incredible. I was sort of totally deluded. I felt like when I was in graduate school at twenty-four, I thought you have to publish a book before you have a baby or you never will. Obviously, there’s evidence throughout time that that’s not true. I just had this notion that if you didn’t publish a book before you had a baby it was all over for you. It’s so archaic. I don’t know how I got this idea, but it really stuck with me. For me, it was the opposite. I got so much more productive. My career as a writer didn’t really take off until after I had a baby. I think it’s helpful for people to hear, especially “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” that it isn’t always the derailment that you might fear. I can’t speak to this during times of no childcare. Certainly when childcare is involved, people with small children can still do a lot.

Zibby: It’s a whole new set of life experiences to draw on and include. The perspective of living through it versus just knowing about it informs the writing in such a richer way. If you can find the time when you’re a mom, for sure it’s not over. Are you working on anything now?

Elizabeth: Not much. I’m back to emailing myself. Even, it’s degraded to texting myself at this point, so jotting notes and things. I need to get more organized. I’m texting, emailing. These notes are everywhere. I got to start pulling it all together. Not too much. I think if we have a little bit more childcare in the coming weeks or months or if I just get more — people also get up really early and write or they write in the night. It’s possible. Also, I’ve just been so distracted and all the things that we’re all feeling during this time.

Zibby: It’s okay. I didn’t mean that you had to say that you were doing anything.

Elizabeth: I’m working on something, but very scattered. I like to call it the filling-up stage. You’re filling up. Then you’re going to put it out.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s so important. How can you make sense of stuff if you haven’t processed it? It all is part of it, so don’t feel bad. You’re like the five hundredth person who’s said the same thing, so don’t worry about it.

Elizabeth: I know. I listen to the podcast. Of course like all of us, I’m distraught and stressed and all these things. It’s a very intense time. It is encouraging. Even prior to this time I felt like hearing from people who talk about the rhythms of their work as being — some people write every day and are super regimented, and some don’t. There’s just seasons in your life, as with all things, where you’re super productive or you’re more fallow. I think that a lot of writers think if they’re in a fallow season, well, this is it. It’s like new parenting. It’s a similar mindset where whatever trouble you’re having, especially those early days, your child is having all these sleep interruptions, you’re like, this is my life now. I guess I never sleep. I don’t sleep. Then a couple years later, or hopefully for some people a month later, you’re like, I totally forgot about that time. I think it’s similar with writing in the sense that people — I’m comforted when I hear about people whose books I revere having forgotten how to write a book between books. Each one invents itself. Maybe the difference is just that they did. You know you can do it. You don’t necessarily know how, but you know you can do it. Hopefully, you can do it again.

Zibby: I feel like you’ve already sprinkled in all this advice and inspiration. Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors?

Elizabeth: One piece of advice would be to prioritize your work in the way that it is in your heart. If you can prioritize it that way in your day, that can be really meaningful. I feel like I always put writing below a lot of obligations for a long time, like my day job. Obviously, it’s a huge privilege to be able to move writing up the list. If you can at any point — for some people, that’s grad school or a fellowship or just doing worse at your day job. Honestly, just doing a worse job at your day job and better with the thing that your passion is really for, I think that’s something that was useful to me. For me, that meant starting the day working on my book instead of getting to it after other things. The other piece of advice that I was thinking — it’s hard to give advice not knowing what someone’s doing. For me, having a baby, I would walk around with her so much to try to get her to take a nap. I wasn’t listening to my headphones because I felt like she’s brand new and I need to be very alert and not distracted. That was really useful for me. I listen to podcasts. I love podcasts. This is weird advice to give on a podcast. For me, finding some time that’s generative. It can be walking or even in the shower or swimming, just some time when the voice in your head is the one for your book and not other voices or music or other things. I think that can be an actual practical tip to try. See what happens if you just only listen to your own thoughts for a walk if you’re stuck.

Zibby: Sometimes I don’t want to hear my own thoughts. That’s why I like to listen.

Elizabeth: No kidding. I know. I want to these chats.

Zibby: Someone, I can’t remember who it was, but somebody said that part of their writing process was that on their commute to work every day, no radio allowed. That was her time to think about what she would maybe want to write at lunchtime. Now I’m forgetting who that was. My brain is just falling apart. It’s like what you were saying. She had that protected time. I mean, she was driving, but whatever part of your brain that that uses is only a tiny bit compared to imagination.

Elizabeth: Isn’t it wild that that sounds — I’m like, that sounds so boring. Don’t you want to have the radio on? My impulse is, turn it on. I guess that being bored is so crucial for creative work. You have to be bored. We’re not bored as much, or we haven’t been, maybe, these days.

Zibby: Yeah, it’s true. Planned boredom episodes, I think that’s our new thing here.

Elizabeth: Do you have the time for some boredom?

Zibby: Making time for boredom, there we go. Thanks, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for sharing your experience and for letting me feel like I got to spend a half an hour in the library this morning, which is a huge perk.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much for chatting with me. It was a pleasure. Even though I just spoke out against — total silence on your walk. I love listening to podcasts. It was a pleasure to be part of it.

Zibby: Thanks. You too. Have a great day.

Elizabeth: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Elizabeth Ames, THE OTHER'S GOLD