Emily Giffin, MEANT TO BE

Emily Giffin, MEANT TO BE

#1 New York Times bestseller Emily Giffin returns to talk with Zibby about her eleventh novel, Meant to Be, which was inspired in part by John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy’s tragic love story. Emily shares why she wanted to return to the nineties for this book, where she continues to find inspiration for each new story (hint: it starts with thinking of her fans), and why she’s such a sucker for love stories. The two also discuss how to cultivate an audience with authenticity and their mutual appreciation for the way female writers support one another in the literary world.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Emily. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Meant to Be.

Emily Giffin: Thank you, Zibby, for having me. I’m so excited to see you again.

Zibby: You too.

Emily: I started out my book tour with you on June 2nd in New York City. This is one of my last podcasts here at the conclusion of the tour. It feels fitting. It’s great to see you. Congratulations on the launch of Bookends.

Zibby: Thank you so much.

Emily: such a fabulous job. I’m seeing it everywhere. It’s such a beautiful book. That’s when we discovered how much — when you read The Lies That Bind, which had 9/11 as a theme, when we discovered how much we had in common living in New York City at the same time and experiencing 9/11 as New Yorkers. That was when we bonded two years ago.

Zibby: That’s right. I know. First of all, it’s nice to see you on both ends of your book tour. Yes, that’s why I responded so much to your last book. I loved this book as well. I love how you write. I know the whole world sort of went through 9/11, but when you have a personal experience or whatever — you wrote about it so beautifully.

Emily: When you lose a friend and were so close to it, it’s a shared experience. Awful though it is, I think it also brings people together, as tragedies have a way of doing. We won’t talk about .

Zibby: We don’t have to go there. Meant to Be, very different than the last book. We had such a great conversation. I was just saying this to you. I wish I had recorded it or something. I brought all my kids to your launch. It was the most fun ever. We’d never been down to that whole area before. There were women just flocking all in hot pink waiting for you. It was so exciting to see so many energized, excited, passionate fans of yours getting together, which was awesome.

Emily: It was really special. Your kids and husband being there, my son being there was really fun. People are just so excited to be back in person. Knock on wood. It feels like another wave is coming here. It just was really nice to see everyone and chat with you about the book. You’re right, it’s different. Meant to Be is different than my last book and really different than the ten that came before it. This is my eleventh novel, but this is the first time that I drew on a real-life historical event. It’s not historical fiction, but it’s inspired by John F. Kennedy Jr. and his beautiful bride, Carolyn Bessette. Their tragic story inspired me to write this book. It’s not based on them. It’s entirely fictional characters. Joe Kingsley and Cate Cooper in the book are their own people with their own unique backstories. It’s definitely rooted in that historical background and my love of the Kennedy family, which we talked about a lot that night. Did you grow up interested in the Kennedys? Did either of your parents foist that upon you?

Zibby: I don’t know if they foisted it, but sure. How could you not be totally captivated by the glamor and especially the two of them? I wasn’t obsessed, obsessed, perhaps like you. If you’re going to go in the obsession world, I feel like I was more obsessed with Princess Diana from a young age.

Emily: I was her too. Growing up, it was all about the history and the politics and the family. She would tell me about where she was when Kennedy was assassinated. She was watching her soap opera that was interrupted by Walter Cronkite, the three separate news bulletins. The president’s been shot. Then, of course, the president’s died. I was aware of all of the heavy backstory, the Kennedy curse, all the things that had happened. Then fast-forward to the mid-nineties when I was graduating from law school at Virginia, which, of course, is a school where a lot of the Kennedys went to law school, which was not lost on me when I made that decision. Graduated, moved to New York City to work at a big firm. This was during George magazine and when John was — I think he had just broken up with Daryl Hannah.

Zibby: I remember that.

Emily: Everyone wanted to know who he was dating. Then he strikes up this relationship with this mystery blond that no one really knew anything about. She was in fashion, worked in Calvin Klein. I was fascinated by them as a couple. I don’t consider myself a huge follower of tabloids, but in the mid-nineties, they were the it-couple. I think part of what that was about was, the family had been — there was so much tragedy that we all sort of pinned a lot of hopes of a happily-ever-after on this little boy who lost his father when he was just three years old. He was saluting that casket with his mother draped in black, the black veil, and having to leave the White House very abruptly and raise her children alone in New York City. There was just so much hope pinned to the brown-eyed, infectious charm, this boy that was growing up in New York City. We just wanted all the best for him. Then of course, he blossomed into the hottest man that I’ve ever seen. I think a lot of people universally consider him the gold standard of beautiful men. We just wanted him to be happy. Of course, that didn’t happen. His story ended just as tragically. I remember being in the Hamptons. I write about this in my author’s note at the end of the book, being there, waking up in a crowded Hampton share in the basement with people sleeping everywhere, as you do in your twenties when you can’t afford nice accommodations. The TV was on. It was just like, okay, there’s a plane crash. Who is it? I thought it was a senator. I thought it was a congressman. I was trying to figure out.

Then I hear it’s John and Carolyn and Carolyn’s sister, Lauren. They were flying to Rory Kennedy’s wedding, his cousin. It was so surreal and shocking and awful. I kept thinking, surely, he’s going to emerge from the surf with his little grin. Oh, it was a crazy story, but I landed the plane. We all know that didn’t happen. I think the seeds were planted around that time. I was practicing law and not yet a — I shouldn’t say I wasn’t a writer because I’ve always been a writer, but not a published writer. I think the seeds were planted then of this what-if. That fuels a lot of my fiction and I think fiction generally. You take a situation, and then you wonder, what if? That definitely happened with this book. It was a long time coming to write this fictional account of this iconic mid-nineties couple. It was a lot of fun to go back and revisit that time. You were in the city. You know what that was like pre-9/11. I think sometimes we become overly nostalgic about decades past and gone by. It’s like rose-colored glasses. You don’t remember the fact that Monica Lewinsky was completely demonized in a situation that now, she would be the Me Too victim, as it should be. A lot of things have changed for the better. For purposes of this novel, it was really about revisiting that golden feel of a simpler time. It’s dangerous to call it a simpler time, but you know what I mean, just New York City and Tribeca and this couple. I planted a lot of places where John and Carolyn actually hung out. It was fun to revisit my twenties and single years and New York City as it was then.

Zibby: I feel like — you probably have heard this before, especially as you’re going about talking about this book. You don’t look that different from — you are the Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. You have that same look. No, seriously.

Emily: I’ll say this. First of all, I’m glad that this is audio because everyone would look and be like, what is she talking about? I have heard that a lot, a lot, which is always surprising to me because she’s so glamorous, and I’m so decidedly not. Facial feature-wise, we do have the longer nose and the fuller lips and the longer face. There are definitely some facial similarities, but body, not at all. I have short legs. She had long legs. Then of course, just the inherent glam, this open book; no glamor at all. She was this mystery icon. I think the similarities stop with just some facial features, but thank you. I always take it as the highest of compliments, so thank you for that.

Zibby: Also, I think that was part of the allure of her. I feel like nobody really knows what she was totally like because she was so private. Who knows? Maybe you two have more in common than you think, but she just kept it under wraps.

Emily: I think part of what is so captivating about them is — that’s why I chose to set the book back in the nineties. This story, you could set it in any time. You could’ve easily set it in the present. There is something about the nineties that was kind of the last moment in time where — I guess a little longer into the early two thousands — where there wasn’t this explosion of social media. Celebrities weren’t so accessible. There was still mystery around them. It wasn’t everyone on Instagram and Twitter and everything else just showing what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. I love that accessibility. I think it’s brought us all closer in a lot of ways. For better or worse, I think it undermined the allure of celebrity in some ways because that mystery has evaporated in many ways.

She was so private by any account of her inner circle. We do have people from her inner circle who have shared and enlightened us about what she was really like and what she felt. It’s very consistent that she hated the attention. I wonder, would she have had an Instagram? I don’t think she would. I just don’t. If you entered into the world of politics, she would’ve had to become more public. Who knows? Again, it’s that what-if. It’s that wondering, what if? What would it have been like? One thing that she does share with Cate Cooper in the book, or I should say Cate Cooper shares with her, is this concept of being in love with John, and Joe in the book, in spite of their fame and not because of it. That feels rare in this fame-obsessed, celebrity-obsessed culture. Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe we’re projecting that onto people. It seems like a lot of celebrities are dating other celebrities to sort of increase their clout, or that’s what they’re accused of doing. You hear it with J.Lo and — J.Af now, right? She changed her name. You hear it with those two. Is this a ploy? Is this a stunt? Are they just trying to get more famous? I don’t think it is. I think it’s true love, but I’m a sucker for that .

Zibby: Thank you, by the way, for posting — I read about the Ben Affleck/J.Lo thing on your account, that whole thing. Then I was like, is Emily making this up? Is this going to be one of her funny — is this a parody of something, or is this actually a statement? Then I had to go cross-reference and see if they really had gotten married.

Emily: Wasn’t it sweet, though? I thought it was really sweet and heartfelt. I don’t know. Again, I’m just glass half full, believing in true love. I love the fact that it was rekindled twenty years later. There’s very little cynicism unless it’s beaten into me and I see so much evidence to the contrary. Then I’m like, okay, I’m a cynic too. I thought it was sweet. Not to veer off in that direction.

Zibby: I know. Sorry about this. Sorry. Back to your book.

Emily: No, I’m doing it. I’m going to continue to do it here. Did you notice how her dress was so young-looking, so first-bride looking? Then her taking his name, which she’s never done before, I was wondering — I was talking to a friend last night about it. You can see what I do in my free time. There’s almost this sense of, I feel like this is what she’s always wanted. She’s going back to her inner twenty-year-old self of how she thought she would get married and what the world would look like. I just really hope that that’s true for her, that this is really the real thing, this is really going to stick. I don’t know. Who knows? It would be a good book, though. It would be a good fictional book to write about a couple. I probably wouldn’t do another famous couple ever again, or no time soon. This whole concept of being together and then twenty years later, being together again, you hear about that with Facebook. You reconnect.

Zibby: I actually had — my babysitter — now we’re really getting off topic here. My babysitter, Kerry, who was my babysitter when I was probably five or something like that, was our mother’s helper for a summer, she went to Skidmore. I thought she was the coolest thing ever. She had one of those 1980s straw bags that everybody used to carry. She wouldn’t come back the second summer to babysit us unless her boyfriend came. My mom got him a job at The Palm restaurant out here in East Hampton. They ended up breaking up, but Fred ended up marrying the daughter of the owner of The Palm and ended up becoming the head of The Palm restaurants for a while. Then we went to Kerry’s wedding. She married somebody else. She moved to New Mexico. Fred moved with his wife to Washington, DC. They both had three boys. Then they both got divorced, found each other on Facebook after all this time. Now they’re married.

Emily: I love it. Did you go to the wedding?

Zibby: I feel like I should write a book about that.

Emily: You should.

Zibby: Or they should write a book about that. Did I go to their wedding? No, it was just their family and whatever. Now they have six boys between them.

Emily: I love that. There are so many stories. Relationships are so complicated and messy. They take such turns and twists. That’s what I love to write about, just how complicated we are and how we get things wrong. We screw up. We mess up. Stories about forgiveness and redemption, you see these themes in Meant to Be. You really see them throughout all my books because I think that’s life. That’s relationships. That’s who we are. It’s been special to hear how readers have connected with these two characters who are so different than a lot of the readers, but there’s universal themes there of how we feel about ourselves.

Zibby: Emily, eleven novels, how do you keep coming up with new — I know “what if?” is a big through line and all this fascination and whatever. How do you keep doing it? How do you not worry that, what if the next one is not as good as the last one? You have to keep reinventing yourself as an author, in a way, right, to keep —

Emily: — That’s the big what-if. It’s time to gear up and write the next book. I have my idea, but it’s scary. It’s scary every time, which is really sort of a metaphor for life. We constantly have to approach the next new chapter. My boys are leaving for college. I’m going to be seeing more of you in New York because they’re going to Columbia.

Zibby: Amazing. We’ll hang out.

Emily: Zibby, the Zibbster, as I call you over here. It’s scary. It’s daunting. What’s it going to be like with one child left at home and two gone? We’re moving. Starting a book is, in many ways, like little mini chapters of our own lives when we have to start over with where we are and reinvent ourselves at times, whether it’s our careers — you saw a lot of that in the pandemic with people’s relationships and jobs. I’m not going to sit here and say that I’m not scared every time because I definitely am. I’m also a warrior. Innate anxiety fuels me. I think in some ways, it’s my greatest curse, and in some ways, it’s my greatest gift because it really propels me too. I’m a perfectionist. I want to get it right. I want to write the next book that people love. I never want to write a book that — I always want people out there to say, this is my favorite of your books. Not everyone, but at least a subset of my readers. No, this one spoke to me the most. Are you a warrior, Zibby?

Zibby: I am a total warrior. I was about to say that this is my theory about writers in general, that we all share an anxiety disorder, I think ninety percent of authors or some really high percentage. I think that’s why whenever I talk — there’s this shorthand. If you’re always worrying, “What if? What if? What if?” which is what I think about everything — I always go to the worst of whatever scenario I’m in. I play that whole thing out. Then if it doesn’t unfold that way, I’m relieved. If you can turn that into writing, which so many people do, I feel like it’s a funnel for that. If you are out there worrying, you should just write a book.

Emily: Yeah, just write a book. Write a book. Motherhood doesn’t help that much. That really amped up my — because the stakes are so high. Before I had kids in my twenties in New York, it’s like, okay, don’t lose this wallet in a New York City cab tonight. I lost so many purses and wallets. When my dad first read Something Borrowed, my first novel, he called me. He said, “No wonder you lost so many wallets and purses. You were always losing things.” I said, “What does that mean?” He goes, “All the drinking you were doing.” I’m like, “Dad, it’s fiction. I’m not Rachel. I also didn’t have an affair with my best friend’s fiancé. Fiction, Dad.” Of course, you’re always drawing on things in your own life. I guess Rachel and I did have that in common, that sort of absent-mindedness.

Zibby: For someone who’s wanted to be an author, your career is the dream of so many people. You just write forever. You have all these fans. You’re a best-selling author. Do you still have the drive when you have — is the drive just to top your last book? Where are you going with this now? Do you know what I mean? What’s propelling you?

Emily: Thank you for that characterization. I try to remind myself of that. We all get so mired in our worries and our deadlines and everything else. I always try to back up and say, I’m not a lawyer anymore, which I did not enjoy. I get to do what I love. That’s a really good reminder just in general about gratitude in all of our lives. It sounds sort of cheesy, but it’s really true. I’m most motivated by wanting my readers to be happy because I do feel such a close relationship with them. The in-person interaction — you saw the event. It’s something that I enjoy. I think some writers don’t. Some do. You really can’t fake it. It’s something that I love. I feel a deep connection with my readers, and so I don’t want to disappoint them. There’s always a handful that I’ll picture. I don’t want them to put down the book and be disappointed. That’s what really continues my drive to do my very best with each book. I think that’s also just part of who I am, the little inner nerd in me, the perfectionist, the one that didn’t want to get Bs in college and law school. Although, I got plenty of them in law school. It’s been fun. I do feel grateful. I’ve met great people like you, Zibby. I wouldn’t have met you without this career, and just so many fascinating people, especially women. I feel like we have a great community amongst women writers and readers and supporters of fiction. I feel very, very lucky. I know you feel the same too.

Zibby: I feel totally lucky. I’m delighted to have met you. I feel like this is the greatest thing. You set out to write a book, and you get this whole community of people who are the nicest, most supportive group ever. It’s out-of-this-world amazing. It really is.

Emily: Have you ever noticed the way men, sometimes they’ll say — I don’t do male bashing in my fiction or in real life. I love so many men and have great relationships with the males in my life. They always sort of seem surprised by how much we lift each other up. It’s interesting. Readers of books, the more you love books, the more you’re going to read books. If someone picks up another novel that they love, that’s great for our work, memoirs included. That just makes you want to read more. The worst thing is a reading drought. You don’t want the reading droughts to happen with readers. You want them to be like, oh, my gosh, I’ve read this great book, and now I want to read another great book. It always surprises me when people sort of pit female writers against one another in the way that some do, often men. of my male bashing.

Zibby: I’m not even sure it’s male/female. I think it’s this industry. Women in other industries aren’t necessarily as supportive of one another as they are in writing.

Emily: That’s a good point. Yeah, maybe. Maybe because what I’m saying, it’s not a zero-sum game. There’s not just one book. In marketing, you’re picking one — I don’t know. I don’t even know the lingo of those worlds. We all have a ton of books. The more you read, the more you want to read. It’s a beautiful thing.

Zibby: You do such a great job of cultivating — I know we’re almost done. What’s your secret in cultivating your audience? I know you keep writing books. I know you have such a strong Instagram following and everything. If you had advice on authors trying to build their readership and maintaining that sense of community, what’s the secret?

Emily: I think, as with anything, it would be the same thing that I would say about relationship advice or job advice. Authenticity. You have to be yourself. You can’t look at a formula and say, this is what I should do to gain more followers or to get more readers. I talk about politics in my feed. I post my kids and their running. I post my dogs. Some people are not going to be interested in my daughter’s pet ducks on my Instagram page and my kids running and what I have to say about the election in Georgia. To me, you’re going to find your true people and followers and readers if you just are authentically yourself. You have to just go with that and not follow the trends of fiction or of social media or try to analyze too much what’s going to garner you the most support and followers and everything else. You know this already. I know you’re asking the question more generally. You’re very authentic in your social media and your personality. That’s what people want to see because there’s too much imitation in the world. It’s just good to see when people are themselves.

Zibby: True, but I always worry, what if Instagram disappears? Where will I find all these people ever again? Where am I going to find them?

Emily: Didn’t we say that about Myspace? Look where we are.

Zibby: Okay. You’re right. You’re right. Emily, thank you so much. This has been so much fun. I’m sorry we didn’t talk that much about the book because I feel like we analyzed it so much. Now I’m selfish. Meant to Be, fabulous book for all Emily Giffin fans and people who are not yet Emily Giffin fans but should be. After being a number-one New York Times best-selling author, I figure you probably knew her already. Thank you so much.

Emily: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. Congratulations again on Bookends.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you again for posting about it. That was so sweet. I’ll see you in New York, then.

Emily: See you in New York. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

MEANT TO BE by Emily Giffin

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