Zibby interviews author Ella Berman about her second novel, Before We Were Innocent, a haunting and dazzling page-turner about three teenage best friends and the fateful summer trip to Greece that ends with one of them dying and the other two being blamed for it. Ella discusses a theme she loved exploring: the simultaneous power and vulnerability of youth and female friendships. She also talks about her life before publishing her books (it involves Sony Music and selling vintage clothes), the success of her mid-pandemic debut (The Comeback), the book she is working on now, and what she loves to do when she’s not writing!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ella. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Before We Were Innocent.

Ella Berman: Thank you so much for having me. I’m honestly so happy to be here.

Zibby: I saw on your Instagram that you posted how much you love your cover, which I’m glad you said because this is the most amazing, awesome cover. So cool, right?

Ella: Thank you. I’m so happy. It’s always slightly terrifying waiting for that email from my editor with the options. With my debut, I sent over a thirty-eight-page PowerPoint presentation of loose cover inspiration ideas. This time, I was like, I trust them. They’ve got this. They can do it. I’m so thrilled.

Zibby: For people listening who aren’t looking at the cover right now, it’s a black and white photo of three girls in bikinis running down the beach with some cliffs behind and then this beautiful pink, all caps, Before We Were Innocent. Of course, you have your Read with Jenna pick, The Comeback, little sticker on. Congrats for that.

Ella: Thank you.

Zibby: Tell listeners what your book is about and how you came up with this, especially on the heels of your last book.

Ella: Please bear with me because this is the first time talking about this book.

Zibby: Really? Oh, my gosh, so honored. You can try it as many times as you want.

Ella: We’ll give it a go.

Zibby: I’ll give you a critique. We can fine-tune it together.

Ella: Thank you. This sounds perfect. That’s ideal. Before We Were Innocent, it tells the story of two best friends, Joni and Bess. Their lives are torn apart when their other best friend, Evangeline, dies tragically the summer after they graduate high school on their dream vacation in Greece. Not only have they lost their friend, but the police think they’re involved. Then the world’s media turns their attention on them. The girls’ lives and choices and behavior is viewed through the prism of the worst moment of their lives. They’re just basically left there, and their lives are ripped apart like vultures.

Zibby: I liked that part when you said ripped apart like vultures. That was a good line. Keep that in the pitch.

Ella: Thank you so much.

Zibby: You know why this is great? It’s really hard to talk about a book. It’s particularly hard to talk about a novel that you’ve worked so hard on and that has twists and turns and all these things and a lot of layers and intricacies.

Ella: And dual timelines. You never know which one to start with.

Zibby: It’s complicated. Fiction is this insane output of your brain, all these amazing twists and turns. To summarize it into a couple sentences is near impossible. I love that you’re being open about how hard it is. I was literally telling the authors at Zibby Books, I was like, “Here’s what I have to say about pitching. Every time I ask author, ‘What’s your book about?’ they go like this, ‘ Okay, well…'” It’s so hard. I do the same thing.

Ella: It’s very hard. If you write quite instinctively, I think it’s really tough as well because you’re not thinking of it in terms of plot points. It’s more like a character’s journey and how it unfolds.

Zibby: Don’t even tell me what it’s about. I don’t even care. I read part of it, so it’s fine. Why don’t we talk about where it came from? You had your last book. Then what happened? You decided to write a new book, and…

Ella: The Comeback came out in August 2020. I ignored everyone’s advice, which was to write my second book or at least start it before this one came out. It meant that I essentially started writing it in March 2020, which obviously was a very complicated time for many reasons, not least because I was locked in my house, like everyone else. I started writing a book. The one I started writing was a kind of reaction to everything that was going on. It was a real roller coaster of a plot. It had the pharmaceutical industry, the adult film world. It was very plot heavy. I kind of was skimming the surface of the characters and was like, do you know what? This is just what I need to write right now. Then cut to eight months later. I have two books that I’ve thrown out, two versions of this book, full hundred thousand words. I was starting from scratch. It was maybe the third lockdown in London. It was winter. I was not in a good place. My mom had given me my teenage journals, so I was reading them. I was just really struck by how intense everything was and how critical everything felt at the time, particularly my friendships.

I started, no pressure, just writing a few scenes from the point of view of this character that came to me, Bess. When the book opens, she is living this very isolated, small life in a cabin in the Salton Sea. As the book unfolds, you realize that she’s built her life this way because she doesn’t want everything to be taken away from her again, which is what happened in the 2008 part of the story. I really wanted to write a book about friendship, all the ways that we test each other, especially at that age when you’re a teenager, and all the ways we show our love. It just happened quite instinctively, which I know isn’t that interesting to hear about. With hindsight, it makes sense. It incorporates so many subjects that I’m fascinated by and have kind of been researching my entire life without realizing. I think I can retroactively, retrospectively talk about all the influences, but at the time, it just felt very organic and such a relief after this other book where I’d — honestly, it was vaguely torturous trying to put it all down on the page.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. One of the things that the book raises immediately is, how much of an allegiance do you have to old friends? What are you willing to do for those friends even if you know it’s probably not the right thing to do, but you do it anyway? I have a teenage daughter. She was literally just telling me about a very — not this, obviously, but a similar thing. A friend says something. You do it because they ask and you care. Even just something as simple as covering up for a location or what she’s doing there. Do you see them? One of the friends is in another relationship. Someone goes missing right at the start. You have to cover up. What is the limitation on what you will do for people that you loved at one point? Do you always have to do that? Right?

Ella: Definitely. I definitely think that. I think it’s really interesting what we look for in friends and the gaps they fill in us. Often, what you admire in them or what you hate most about them is stuff that you are either lacking in yourself or — I think that particularly for Bess and Joni, there’s a pull there. Despite the fact they haven’t spoken in ten years when Joni turns up and asks for this favor in 2018, Bess is still drawn to her. There’s a part where Joni tells her, you knew what you were getting into. You knew I wouldn’t let you hide anymore. I think Bess doesn’t realize this at the time, or it’s not on a conscious level, but she knows that she can’t hide from herself around Joni because Joni will pull that out of her. That’s what she’s always done, for better or for worse.

Zibby: I think it’s particularly at this age, fifteen to twenty-five, let’s say, where you really are searching for what is missing. I feel like at this age — I’m much older than you. I’m forty-six. I’m not looking for friends to fill voids anymore. Now it’s like, let’s go and talk. It’s very different. Before you end up in your committed relationship for life, if that’s what you end up doing, you look to the friends for all of that, all of those needs, and to fill in all of those holes.

Ella: I agree. It was so interesting exploring it, the nuances of this friendship and just all the ways they’re constantly testing each other. Will you love me if I do this? What about this? I guess when you’re a teenager, you’re doing that with everyone, aren’t you? Your parents. You’re just pushing everything to the limit. This vacation that the girls go on in Greece, it’s sort of like a pressure cooker for all of that behavior and all their insecurities and also fears for the future. At that point when you feel so close to people and you’re graduating, you know that a change is coming. Your friendship won’t be the same again. All the insecurities come to a head, really.

Zibby: Take me back a little bit to what you said was the agony of writing your first book and how you got into writing books to begin with. Just go back quickly and describe how you grew up and when you wanted to start writing and then how you got to that first book.

Ella: Like most other writers, I was a real bookworm. I was always reading in the car. My parents would take me shopping. I’d sit under a rack of clothes reading a book. They constantly were losing me because I was just hiding out. I told my best friend when I was four that I was going to be a writer. It was one of the first things I told her. Then I guess life got in the way. I became more interested in — I was still always reading, but I wasn’t writing. Friendships and school and who I was going to be and boys, I got very distracted. Maybe I instinctively knew that I wasn’t quite ready to write what I wanted to write, if that makes sense. Because I was so sure, I still always told people, I’m going to write a book one day. I’m going to be an author. It’s so strange. I think because I was so convinced of that, it was quite reassuring. It’s like the reverse of how a lot of people feel, I think. I didn’t feel pressure just because I knew I would eventually do that. I just was so certain. It wasn’t until my late twenties when I actually sat down and started doing it.

Zibby: Wait, what was your day job at the time? What did you do before then?

Ella: I went to university, studied psychology, left, worked in marketing in the music industry. I worked at Sony Music for about five or six years straight out of university. Then at the same time, I set up a clothing company, a vintage, selling clothes from Los Angeles that we brought back to the UK. My sister and I set it up. We sold them online and did pop-up stores and events and collaborations. I was doing that and then a bit of — once I decided I wanted to write and that was what I was doing, I picked up some part-time work. I worked doing styling work at and at Amazon for a bit. Like Bess in the book, I was a moderator on a dating app. I just did bits and bobs to support myself while I was writing. I can’t explain it. I didn’t ever feel pressure because I just knew I was going to do it. It sounds so weird. I would be doing it even if people weren’t reading it. Now I can’t believe I went so long without writing because it’s, honestly, the calmest I am. It feels like therapy. It’s this flow state that I’m in. Obviously, there’s a lot around it that’s very stressful. Trying to break a story, it’s inherently hard, but it’s the happiest I am, is when I’m writing. I’m just very pleased I found it. It’s funny because talking about writing or giving advice on it, I’ve done this twice, once maybe successfully. We don’t even know about this one. I feel funny talking about my process or the craft. I’m still learning. I’m figuring it out. I’m very much enjoying it.

Zibby: That’s amazing. That’s really what everybody says. You have to enjoy the process. This whole publishing thing is so unpredictable. If you don’t love making everything a lot harder. That’s great. That’s so wonderful. Then what was it like when you had your first book come out in the pandemic and all of that? What was that whole experience like?

Ella: I think because I didn’t have anything to compare it to, it felt like that’s just how it goes. It was a little tougher because my book deal is in the US, and I live in London. I couldn’t see it in any stores. I didn’t see it in a bookstore for fifteen months because the travel corridor didn’t open up until November, October the next year. It felt slightly like I was sort of living through my phone, which is what a lot of us do now anyway. I knew stuff was happening, but I just couldn’t be there for it. It was August. Things were opening up a little more, depending on where you were. I had a fun little outdoor party with my friends. There were no books to sell or anything. It was strange. I had some great profile — the Read with Jenna thing was amazing, having her championing the book. For a debut coming out in the pandemic, it was a real blessing. I’m so grateful for that because I know it was hard. A lot of people were reading, as you know, but I think a lot of people were reading books from authors that they knew and loved. It wasn’t so much a time of discovery, perhaps, because there weren’t the bookshops to walk into. I feel really grateful how it went, all things considered. It wasn’t what I’d dreamed of, but it could’ve been a lot worse. This time, I’m just so excited to be in Los Angeles and New York and being able to walk in and see my book and talk to people. I didn’t sign a book for fifteen months. I signed two of my friends’ books, and that was it. It feels like a different version of myself, like a little avatar had that experience. I’m excited to experience it in real life as well.

Zibby: Wow. You deserve it. It’ll be great.

Ella: Thank you.

Zibby: Do you live in London now? Are you living in the States? You live in London?

Ella: Yeah, I live in London.

Zibby: But you get to tour?

Ella: Yeah. I basically lived in LA when I was very young with my family and then again for a year when I was older, but I lived in London other than that. I think because I’ve lived here for so long, I don’t feel that inspired by it. The fact that I often write about Los Angeles is because I do feel more inspired when I’m there. I often go there for writing trips. Then the fact that I got a book deal in New York, it means that I have that connection. I probably could write a story set in London. For some reason, I just have a connection to it that makes me — I don’t know if it’s the slight outsider’s perspective. Generally, so far in my two books, I’ve written about outsiders, for whatever reason. They don’t feel like they truly belong in their environment. I think maybe that helps, setting it somewhere where I don’t actually live and haven’t for a while.

Zibby: It’s okay. You don’t ever have to write a book based in London if you don’t want. It’s all good.

Ella: Thanks, Zibby. I’ll try one day. We’ll see.

Zibby: No, it’s all good. I’ve given you your excuse. That’s funny. That’s really funny. I feel like I can’t do any creative writing in this office. This is my work. I can never be creative. I get what you’re saying.

Ella: I can understand that. I have that with a whole country.

Zibby: Even if I go in another room and I face a different direction or something, I’m like, okay. In here, I’m just like, no. This is a totally different place. I get it. What’s next? Do you have another book, dare I ask?

Ella: Yes. At the moment, I am adapting The Comeback for film. I’m writing the screenplay, which is great. I’ve loved learning a whole new craft. It’s incredible. Anyone that says it’s easy is absolutely bonkers. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I’m loving every second of it. Then I’m working my third book as well, which is a bit different. It’s set in the sixties and seventies in Hollywood. It’s about two female writers and their friendship and rivalry. It’s set over ten years, so it’s a little more sprawling. It’s less of a dual-timeline thing. I’m really enjoying it. It’s so fun. Doing research was amazing. It’s very cool. It’s just different.

Zibby: Do you know the author Jane Green? Have your paths crossed at all?

Ella: No. I know who she is, but I’ve never met her.

Zibby: I want to connect you. I feel like she’ll adopt you.

Ella: I’d love that.

Zibby: I feel like you guys need to meet and do an event or something.

Ella: That would be wonderful.

Zibby: I’ll connect you. I’ll get your email or something from your publicist. I’ll connect you two.

Ella: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. Being in London with the US book deal, I feel a bit like I’ve sort of missed that connecting with other authors. On Instagram, I speak to a few. Everyone’s been very supportive. I’d love to go for a coffee with people. I need to get better at reaching out here.

Zibby: She’s based here now, but she goes there. Anyway, I should stop talking about her.

Ella: We’ll figure it out.

Zibby: You’ll figure it out. When you’re not writing, are you still into the whole fashion stuff that you had originally been into with importing — what do you like to do when you’re not doing all this work stuff?

Ella: That is a very good question. I still have the online company with my sister. It’s more of a passion of ours now than a job, if that makes sense. I like traveling a lot. This book’s set in Malibu, the Greek islands, and the Salton Sea. I love traveling with my husband. I’m obsessed with my dog. He’s ten years old. He’s a hundred percent angel. We go on lots of walks in and get coffees and meet friends. I’m trying to pick French back up, so I’m looking to do that. I’ve just started doing ballet classes. Can you tell that I realized I had no hobbies at the end of the ? I was suddenly like, wait, hold on, I don’t have a single hobby that isn’t writing or reading related. French, ballet, and what else was I going to do? I think that’s it for now.

Zibby: That’s amazing. That’s great. Good for you. A lot of people realize they have no hobbies, and then they’re just like, oh, well.

Ella: I know. While I have time, I thought, may as well.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love it. Bonne chance, as they say.

Ella: Merci. We’re fluent.

Zibby: Not exactly. This is my third-grade French. This is a random question. If there’s an author in the world that you would love to meet or get advice from or you idolize or anything, who is that? If you have anybody, or want to be like an author, anything.

Ella: Alive?

Zibby: Sure.

Ella: Do you know what? I love Curtis Sittenfeld. I do think that Prep was maybe the book that got me back into writing.

Zibby: Interesting. Prep was great.

Ella: It was how driven by character it was and the incredible observations that just winded me. I was like, if I could write one sentence that winds someone in its universal accuracy, I’m happy. Then since then, I’ve followed her career. I think it’s because her books aren’t that reliant on hooks or plots, if that makes sense. They’re more about the characters and the relationships. I think that’s the side of writing that comes a lot easier to me. The plot side of things, I try and make sure that it’s always driven by the character as opposed to the other way around. I can see that in her writing. Then not alive, Eve Babitz, I’m obsessed. What a queen. I think she’d hate me because she was so fun and carefree. She’d be like, what’s wrong with you? I would really admire her from afar.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I love it. Ella, you survived the podcast and all of that. I will be rooting for you and wishing you luck when this book launches, Before We Were Innocent. I’m just so excited to know you. Good luck. I love it.

Ella: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Good luck with the bookstore opening and the book release. I’m so excited for everything you’re doing.

Zibby: Thank you. I’ll connect you to Jane.

Ella: Amazing. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye.

Ella: Bye.



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