Elizabeth Wetmore, VALENTINE

Elizabeth Wetmore, VALENTINE

Zibby Owens: I had such a nice time talking to Elizabeth Wetmore who’s the author of Valentine, which is the #ReadWithJenna Today Show pick. Elizabeth also came to my virtual book club, which was so much fun. If you want to join, just go to the link in my bio or my website at zibbyowens.com and sign up for the book club. Anyway, Elizabeth Wetmore is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and two fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council as well as a grant from the Barbara Deming Foundation. She was a Rona Jaffe Scholar in Fiction at Bread Loaf and a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. In the spring of 2015, she was one of six Writers in Residence at Hedgebrook. A native of West Texas, she currently lives in Chicago.

Elizabeth Wetmore: Hi.

Zibby: I’m sorry to catch you. Hopefully, this can just be a minute of downtime in your crazy day.

Elizabeth: No, I’m so excited to get to talk with you. I was telling Samantha, my agent, that I felt like we had just gotten started. I think as much as anything else, that has to do with both my inexperience with podcasts and with live events and my Texan propensity for rambling on and just sort of beating around the bush. I’m so glad we get a chance to do this again.

Zibby: A little might be repetitive.

Elizabeth: I’m so tickled with how all of this is going, in part because I’ve really come to understand in the last week — I’m a bit of a hermit in my regular life, like actually really a hermit. I’ve always thought that I wrote mostly for myself and my own amusement. You’ll hear writers talk about who their ideal reader is. My ideal reader is like me. I’ve been so blown away at what a freaking honor it is and how touched I am to be learning that so many people are reading the book and how meaningful that is to me and in particular, to be hearing from people who are sending messages via Instagram or whatever saying that they’ve been moved by the book. They’re all amazing, but the ones that are most amazing are the ones who are coming from women and girls who know that part of the world and who are so delighted to see characters who are so familiar to them in literature. I don’t know if this is literature. That’s such a lofty term, but you get my point.

One woman sent me an email. It was a three-sentence email. It said, “I’ve lived here my whole life. You nailed it. Thank you for writing this book.” I know, right? It just moved me to tears. I was like, oh, right, this is amazing. This is what it’s all about too. It’s not just being alone in your room spinning stories, but sharing it and having people be moved. What remarkable days these are. All this, and in a million years of all the ways that I would imagine the world would be going right now as my book was coming out, these are such strange days. There’s this little part of me that would be like, whoa, whoa, whoa. Book? Book? Wait, wait, wait, the pandemic. Pandemic. Let’s not talk about the book. How are you doing? How are your children? Are you well? Are you safe? It’s a good thing to be able to set it aside for a few hours and be involved in a book. To think that my book is actually doing for a few people here and there what books have done for me my whole life is just heady and wonderful. Did your family have a good holiday weekend?

Zibby: We did. Thank you for asking. I think that the thing that’s so great is that now we can’t go outside and connect, but connecting through stories is what’s connected people forever, for generations before us and generations to come. You and the people who have books out now, they’re like the main form of communication for many people. It has this extra weight to it. I think people are particularly grateful because, especially your book with so many different stories of so many different types of people at different life stages, you can touch so many people. It’s great.

Elizabeth: I’m blown away by how all of this is going, honestly.

Zibby: Wait, back up a little bit and talk about when you started this book. I know when we did our quick Instagram Live you talked about that you were pregnant with your son. Tell me about starting it and how it started as short stories and how it became what it is now as Valentine, this fully formed novel.

Elizabeth: I started it when I was pregnant with Hank. A few things sort of all came together at once. I was teaching composition. This was 2004. This wasn’t the 2008 crisis, but this was the 2004 Illinois crisis in which adjunct faculty were just laid off wholesale. I got laid off from my composition teaching job and found out I was pregnant two weeks later. I lost my healthcare, and I found out I was pregnant. I had been thinking about these stories for my whole life. I thought, this is a great time to just sit down and hammer out these stories. This is going to be a piece of cake. I’ve been gone for long enough. I actually imagined that I would finish it before I had Hank. Now I look back on that and I just think, wow, what was I thinking? I thought that I would sit down and sort of hammer out these stories pretty quickly and that it would be a done deal. I would have my son and look for work and go back to things. What I discovered, of course, was that it was so much more of a Pandora’s box that I was opening than I ever realized, and not just because it was hard, because writing is hard. Writing is hard for everyone. I’m no different. I’m probably a bit slower than a lot of people. You hear these stories of Trollope or whatever would finish a book in the morning and then start his next book after lunch. God bless him, but that’s not me ever. I’m terribly slow. I have to think about things for a long time. I spend a lot of time staring out the window. I revise constantly. I thought this was going to be a piece of cake. Of course, it wasn’t. It was so much harder than I expected.

At the same time, I realized after I finally did get a draft, which was when he was about four years old, that I was telling a more overarching story, that this wasn’t just a collection. I don’t want to say just a collection in a disparaging way because I happen to love short stories. That’s actually the form I’m most comfortable with. I think I probably started with short stories as much as anything else because I love them, but also because I had no idea how to write a novel. Once I realized there was kind of an overarching story to it, I went back and started treating it accordingly. At the same time, I was always working. My husband and I have always hung on to the lower end of the middle class. He’s a high school English teacher for an independent school. I was an independent copy editor and taught adjunct for a while. As I was writing the book, I often set it aside for long periods of time, either just for practical reason, raising a child, or for frankly, emotional reasons, which is that I found the book hard to write. In spite of not having been there for a really long time and thinking that I finally maybe had the perspective I needed to be able to write this book, when I actually got into it, I often had to step away for long periods of time because either I wasn’t seeing the characters clearly or according them the kind of dignity that they deserved or because I’d frankly just lost my nerve.

Then of course, there were just the practical parts of living. George and I were doing the gig economy before they even called it such a thing. My work life, I left home at eighteen with really no money and no survival skills at all for being out in the world outside of West Texas. I’ve always waited tables and driven cabs and bartended and waited tables and bartended. With the exception of graduate school, writing has always been something that I’ve squeezed in around the edges of my life. On the one hand, it makes for a slow going. On the other hand, I think it probably gives me a lot of empathy for the kinds of working-class characters I’m writing about. I have a joke with some of my girlfriends that if I ever write a book that’s about a college professor who’s suffering from some kind of midlife ennui, just shoot me. Those are great books. Don’t get me wrong. The characters I’m interested in are characters like Ginny who longs for beauty and holes up in her bathroom looking at library books of painting and museums that she’s never even heard of. I think a lot about that, characters who somehow don’t think they have a right to or that things, beauty, aren’t really for them. Those are really the characters I’m interested in. So slow going on the one hand, but on the other hand hopefully it gave me a kind of empathy and compassion for these characters that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s a long answer to a real — are you going to be editing this?

Zibby: It was a great answer. I’ll edit a little. That was a great answer. Just to bookend this, your son who you were pregnant with when you started, how old is he now?

Elizabeth: He’s fifteen. I sold the book when he was thirteen.

Zibby: How did that happen?

Elizabeth: For all the talk about the time it took me to write the book, actually, to be honest, it was pretty easy. I got really, really lucky. I had an amazing agent who believed in the project. Once I finally finished the damn thing, it actually sold really quickly. That was amazing. We submitted it in early August. Of course by then, I understood a little bit more about the publishing industry. I thought nothing’s going on in New York. It’s August. Everyone’s elsewhere. I’ll brush off my resume and start thinking about what’s next. The book is done. It sold very, very quickly, even in August. It was pretty magical, honestly.

Zibby: It’s so well-deserved. It’s a really fantastic book.

Elizabeth: amazing editor who I love dearly and has been just brilliant in every way.

Zibby: Now you’re a debut novelist at age fifty-two. How does that feel?

Elizabeth: It feels great, not going to lie. It feels great. It feels right. I think that it can be really easy, especially in the arts, to put yourself on a timeline of when things are appropriate and when they’re not. For those of us who don’t come from backgrounds where art-making is prized or even really considered to be an option as a way of earning a living, I think it can be really easy to hit your thirty-fifth birthday and no book, and your fortieth birthday and no book, and your forty-fifth birthday and no book, and to think, okay, this is over. This is not happening. It’s time to set it all aside and go on to my “real life.” For me, I definitely had those moments. I’ve had my dark nights of the writer’s soul for sure. Every time I thought about giving up on this book, I was filled with such sorrow at the idea that these women and girls’ stories — of course, someone else could’ve written this book. These women and girls could’ve told their own stories. It’s not like I’m doing any of these characters a big favor or whatever. When I did think of abandoning it, it really filled me with such sorrow to think that I couldn’t do it. Even when I set it aside and thought, this is it, this is over, I always found myself going back to it and feeling a great sense of relief when I did.

Zibby: I know you said before that the characters were fictional characters, but they were somehow based on types of people you know and that Larkspur Lane is not a real street but it mimicked the street that you were on. Tell me about taking your whole experience and mashing it up and making it fiction. Which part of it did you really want to get out? There were so many characters. Whose story did you feel most compelled to get out into the word?

Elizabeth: Oh, gosh. I felt compelled to get all their stories out in the world. Glory and the terrible miscarriage of justice and the terrible racism that I witnessed growing up — I was a working-class, middle-class white kid. My experience was, in retrospect, pretty sheltered in a lot of ways. I think a lot of the reason it took me so long to write the book was that I just did not see my hometown clearly for a really long time. Glory’s story was one that I felt most drawn to in a lot of ways because I knew from the beginning that she wasn’t going to see any real justice, at least not in a court of law. I was so heartbroken by the reality of her life. This was a girl who’d endured this horrific experience. Then almost immediately on the heels of that, her mom, who’s an undocumented worker, is caught up in an immigration raid and deported back to Mexico. Now she’s going through this without the one person in her life who could probably have offered her a great deal of comfort.

You’ve seen the book. I’m pretty obsessed with the relationship between mothers and daughters and all of their complications and glory and difficulties. She was probably the character in a lot of ways who most touched my heart and whose story I really, really wanted out there. At the same time, she was also the character I was most terrified to write for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that I’m a middle-aged white lady in Chicago trying to write from the perspective of this young woman who’s endured this horrific crime, survived this horrific crime. All of them really were so important to me every step of the way. I tried as best I could in each character’s story to fully inhabit them in every possible way, to always be asking myself who they were. Maybe in a lot of ways the reason it took me so long too is that I was really trying with each character to give her her page time and her justice, I guess.

Zibby: I was struck, I haven’t stopped thinking about the scene with Mary Rose when she goes to get an abortion. I hate to even bring this up in case this is controversial in any way. She has her daughter with her. The daughter has to wait while she goes through this excruciating emotional process, but she’s thinking she can’t handle another child. Then she has this experience and then gets immediately pregnant afterwards. You wrote it so clearly that I felt like I was in there. I was in the waiting room with them. My heart broke when she got pregnant again. I just wanted you to talk about putting that scene in and where it came from or maybe just the dead-end-ness of life for some people. I don’t know. Tell me what you had in mind.

Elizabeth: And also the incredible humanity of the way women find a way regardless of how few resources they have, how little money they have. They find a way. One of my favorite parts of that scene is that she has to take her daughter with her because she has nowhere else for to be. When she gets to the clinic in New Mexico, the woman behind the counter offers to keep an eye on her daughter for her. I love that chapter. I love that scene. It was a scene that I thought about for a really long time, in part because it’s historically accurate. In 1976, in spite of being three years post-Roe v Wade, women in my hometown still had to drive about three hundred and fifty miles to get abortion. What that meant for them then is that they had to find a way to absent themselves from their lives. For a lot of women, that was not possible, and they became mothers. There’s another character later in the book, Carla, who, when she gets pregnant, she can’t figure out a way to get there. She’s a teenager. She doesn’t have a car. She’s never really been out of her hometown. She’s afraid. Somehow, the clock just keeps ticking. By the time she realizes that the window is closed for her, she’s going to become a mom.

I think a lot about how many women in rural areas, women who don’t have a lot of resources, women who come from backgrounds that are deeply religious and anti-choice, and how motherhood is a thing that really can be thrust upon them. Some women recover from that beautifully. Some women, it sort of haunts them for the rest of their lives, the doors that they see slamming closed at the age of eighteen or nineteen years old. One of the things that I didn’t realize when I first started writing this book was how terribly young all of these women are, or not all of them. Mrs. Shepard, she’s an old lady. These women in this book are twenty-five years old. They have nine-year-old daughters. I thought about that. I hear you, I’m not wanting to be controversial. At the same time, the sad reality is that that was true in 1976 in my hometown, and that is true today. If you’re a young woman in Odessa, Texas, right now and you need access to an abortion, you better hope you can get into a car and drive at least three hundred or three hundred and fifty miles and disappear from your life for a couple of days to be able to pull that off, the money, the way to get there, the ability to disappear from your home life.

As we speak, the state of Texas has just declared abortion an optional surgery during the pandemic. This is in court right now. They have suspended all abortions in the state of Texas during the pandemic. The deeply cynical way it’s being presented is that they need those masks and those medical supplies. When in fact, that is not at all what’s going on. What they’re doing is they’re punishing women and denying them access to medical care in the midst of a pandemic. Let’s not kid ourselves for a moment about who the women are who will be affected by this. Women of means will be fine, as they were in 1976. The women who are going to find themselves thrust into motherhood in the midst of this pandemic are poor women, women in rural areas, women who are in abusive relationships, women who already have children who can’t find a place for them to be, women who don’t have money, women who don’t have cars. Sadly, it’s true now. It’s as true today as it was in 1976.

Zibby: Then you see the effects of the flipside when you have young mothers like Ginny who end up saying, I can’t deal with this anymore, and just driving off. Then you see what happens to her daughter as she’s left behind and the sadness of waiting for her mom to come home. Oh, my gosh, it’s just like there’s no good outcome sometimes. The book is so inspiring, but I just mean sometimes for the teenage moms, it just seems very difficult.

Elizabeth: And yet the human spirit prevails. Even in the midst of the most dire moments, there are these tiny little moments of kindness, the man who fixes her car for her, the woman who volunteers to watch Aimee while Mary Rose has the surgery. That was something that always kept me going in this book, was understanding in a real visceral way the way people who don’t think of themselves as heroic manage to step up to the plate again and again and again when the moment calls for it.

Zibby: Wow. What do you think is going to happen with your life next? You’re sort of at the beginning of this huge meteoric rise with being picked as a book club pick on the Today Show and all the rest of it. Are you still writing in your spare time? Are you just full-on focused on trying to get this book in the right hands? What’s on your plate?

Elizabeth: I’m a fan of the notebook. About five years ago, I started writing in longhand again because I was having a particularly nasty case of writer’s block. I decided to pick up a notebook, these little dollar-fifty Mead notebooks and start writing longhand again. What I’ve found is that I always almost start things longhand now. I’m about to finish this notebook. I’ll probably finish it today. It’s got like two pages. I’m going to tell you, I was joking to George last night that that is one to burn in the backyard. If there are five or six pages that are salvageable for fiction writing, I will be lucky. Mostly, this notebook is just me rocking back and forth in the corner longhand. I am, I’m working on a couple of short stories, which is really one of my passions. While I was writing this book, I actually wrote two complete collections of short stories that are unrelated to this. Although, one is still set in West Texas, so I guess it’s related in that way.

I’m eyeballing the first hundred pages of the next book which is going to be set in Odessa with some of these same characters, only a bit older. It begins in the fall of 1982 at the peak of the oil boom and ends in the spring of 1983 when the entire bottom has fallen out of the market, which is whole different book. Valentine is set at the cusp of an oil boom. An oil bust is really different animal in that part of the world. Suddenly, houses are foreclosed upon. Unemployment shoots through the roof. It’s a terribly desperate time. At the same time, there’s an odd beauty to it because the town clears out. Things become very quiet. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. That’s the next book. Debra Ann will be a bit older. I think she’ll probably take a much larger role in the next book. Some of the other characters who were major characters in this book will be more in the background, I think. As you can see, I’m still sorting it out.

Zibby: I’m really excited to know that at the end of this book we don’t have to just say goodbye to the characters because, as I said, they are so real. I became so invested in them and what happened. I am thrilled to hear that that’s the plan.

Elizabeth: I thought I was done with them too, but no. I am not done. In fact, this may be where I land for the rest of my life, is these women and these girls. Hopefully, it won’t take me fourteen years.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Elizabeth: I do. I have a ton of advice. The first thing I would say to writers is you’re not alone. I think that there’s this kind of lore for writers about the brilliant writer who holes up in their room alone and just by force of will and their own genius and their own willpower and unwillingness to give up and smarts and imagination turns out this beautiful work. That has not been my experience at all. My experience is that my book would not exist without the love and support and faith of friends and family, from women who took care of my son for a few hours when he was little so I could just hammer out a few sentences, to my husband who’s a beautiful poet in his own right and made the sacrifice of taking on a second job for several years. For several years, he taught high school English all day and then went and tutored up on the North Shore of Chicago after work so that I could work as little as possible for money. The first thing I would say is you’re not alone. The second thing I would say is ask for help. I think it’s really hard to ask people to make sacrifices for you and your artwork. I think that’s particularly hard maybe for women. Although, I’m sure it’s hard for male writers as well. I think for women, asking your family to sacrifice for you to be able to finish a book is very hard. Often, what happens instead is they don’t. They don’t ask for people to sacrifice for them. They just try to muddle through as best they can. I wrote a lot in the hours between midnight and three o’clock in the morning.

The other thing I would say is you’re not on anyone else’s timetable. Some of us just don’t have lives that lend themselves to getting our first book deal in our mid-twenties. We just don’t. American literature is poorer for it when we don’t have working-class writers telling their stories. Everyone’s on their own timetable. Then finally, what I would say is be good to yourself. This is so hard. It’s hard under the best of circumstances. If you’re juggling two or three jobs and raising children, it can feel almost impossible. I think there’s a really fine line between being kind to yourself without bullshitting yourself. I would say be kind to yourself. The work we’re doing matters. These stories matter. I’m so honored that stories of these women and girls are out there in the world. I think they’re important. It took me a long time to do it. I don’t think the book would’ve been as good as it is if it hadn’t taken me that much time. I guess you really never know if your work is good. In so far as I think it’s pretty good in places, I know that the time that I put in was crucial. That’s my advice. You’re not alone. I also like to imagine that in some tiny little way every time I sit down to write that all the souls and spirits of all the writers that I’ve ever loved are somehow perched on my shoulder whispering in my ear, “Keep going. Keep going.” That would be my advice. Hang in there. If you have faith in your work and you know you’ve got a story to tell, it doesn’t matter how long it takes. You have the right to do it. The last couple of years I worked on my book, I don’t know if I volunteered at all at my kid’s school for anything. I was really intent on finishing the book there at the end.

Zibby: Honestly, I am so happy for you. I know I’m just getting to know you, but I am so happy for you. Congratulations. I’m just going to watch in the wings as you take off. I just could not be more excited for you. Thanks for sharing your time with me.

Elizabeth: I feel the same. I am so hopeful that when we’re all free to move about the cabin again that I’m able to get out to New York. When I do, let’s go celebrate with a glass of wine.

Zibby: I would love that. I would really love it.

Elizabeth: Like I said, my screen is completely black now, so I can’t see your beautiful face to tell you thank you. This has been such a pleasure. I love the work you’re doing. Moms are my favorite people. I’m not kidding.

Zibby: Thank you so much.

Elizabeth: I think moms are pretty much the most marvelous people on the planet. It’s an honor to get to do this and talk with you. Thank you.

Zibby: You too. Take care. To be continued in person one of these days.

Elizabeth: Indeed. Good luck. I hope you and yours all are well and able to get outside here and there and get a little fresh air. Are you in New York?

Zibby: No, we’re out on Long Island.

Elizabeth: Oh, god. Y’all have got your own thing going on there right now.

Zibby: Yes, we do.

Elizabeth: I have so many dear friends in New York. It’s such a beautiful city. My heart aches for everything that y’all are going through right now. Anyway, thank you, Zibby. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Thank you.

Elizabeth: We’ll talk again soon. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Elizabeth Wetmore, VALENTINE