Zibby Owens: I’m excited to be here today with Emily Gould who’s the author of Perfect Tunes: A Novel. She also wrote the books And the Heart Says Whatever and Friendship. She contributed to many anthologies and runs Emily Books, an imprint of Coffee House Press which publishes books by women. She’s a contributor to Bookforum and The Cut. She teaches writing in New York City where she lives with her family.

Welcome, Emily. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Emily Gould: Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what Perfect Tunes is about?

Emily: Perfect Tunes is the story of a mother and daughter who are very close in age because Laura, the protagonist of the book, got pregnant with Marie, her daughter, when she was in her very early twenties. The circumstances of that pregnancy and Marie coming into Laura’s life really changed the course of what she thought her life was going to be like. Laura moved to New York, as many people do, with big dreams of being, in her case, a singer-songwriter. She is someone who has a lot of talent and not a lot of ambition in terms of figuring out how to get her talent out there. She falls in really quickly with a group of people, including the man who ends up being Marie’s father, who are much more driven, much more ambitious, and much more savvy in the ways of the big city than she is. Dylan, especially, is a rockstar, someone who’s at the beginning of what seems like it’s going to be a stratospheric career. Fortunately — minor spoiler, but it happens at the very beginning of the book.

Zibby: It’s so early. It’s okay.

Emily: It’s also, I think, in the jacket copy, so I’m not actually spoiling anything. Dylan dies unexpectedly and suddenly. Laura then finds out that she’s pregnant and just feels obligated to continue with the pregnancy and bring this child into the world because she’s so in love with Dylan and feels like this is the last trace of him in this world. All of that burgeoning talent and all of those artistic dreams get pushed to the margins of her life while she focuses on raising her daughter and surviving as a single mom. Then the latter part of the book deals with Marie coming of age, being a teenager, and fighting with her mom, really hating her mom, and wanting to know more about her dad’s family. Hijinks ensue.

Zibby: Well done.

Emily: Thanks. I’m trying to figure out a way to keep it shorter than that.

Zibby: No, that was great. There we go. Now pick up your copy, and see you later. No, I’m kidding. How did you come up with this idea? What made you want to write about these characters in particular or this situation?

Emily: It’s funny. When I did the first draft of the book that would become Perfect Tunes, I was just obsessed with the idea of, what if you could meet your mother as she was before she became your mother? The first draft of this book, I was really trying to tackle that in a very literal way involving time travel. I wrote almost a full draft and then realized, you know, I just don’t have whatever it takes to play with rules of reality. I’m really at this stage in my writing life, better at just writing a straightforward realist novel that takes place in chronological order and doesn’t mess with the laws of the space-time continuum.

Zibby: Physics and whatever.

Emily: Yeah. Once I accepted that I just wasn’t pulling off the time travel, that it was always going to be ridiculous no matter how hard I tried to take it seriously as I was writing it, I had to throw out basically an entire draft, almost a whole book that I had written. It was a terrible moment, a terrible day. My writing group, we meet and have been meeting for years and years, a little more than a decade I think. They were very gentle, but they did guide me toward that decision. I’m super grateful. Then what I was able to do was pick up the pieces, take the characters who at that point really existed in my mind and some of the places where they’d been and the things they’d experienced and then just sort of put them together in a context that didn’t involve Ayahuasca-aided time travel, which is something that happened in the first draft. I feel like I dodged a bullet. It was a dark moment, for sure.

Zibby: What did you tell yourself when you opened the document to start over? Did you select all and press the delete button? Did you start a new draft? I’m envisioning you at your computer. Where were you? Were you home?

Emily: I think I was at the library. It was during the days really early in my older son’s life, my first child, where I wasn’t getting much writing time. Every little scrap of time was so precious because it really felt like I would never be able to have big stretches of time again. Also, I was so conscious of how much I was paying to have that time. It felt very, very pressured. Like you said, I had to reframe and think of my life, my writing life, my career really as a long game, try to not to think about, am I being maximally productive on this day, during this week, during this month, during this year of my life? and think more of, this is a book. Books take four or five years for me. For many people, I think that’s a pretty normal book metabolism to have. This is part of that four or five-year chunk of my life. This is just the first part of it. It’s hard in the day-to-day to go home and just feel like you have accomplished not even nothing, but negative anything, to be in the hole.

Zibby: Not to sound Pollyanna-ish about it, but I feel like you have to go through drafts. If you don’t, then you won’t get to the final draft. Everybody keeps saying, I have to throw everything away. What a loss. Yet sometimes it’s not negative. It was required to get here.

Emily: It’s so corny.

Zibby: I know. It is corny. I’m sorry.

Emily: No, but it’s true. It’s true. It’s something that I tell students and I tell my friends who are struggling with their writing. We all give each other the same pep talk. It really just is about trusting the process. The process is a thing that exists outside of people.

Zibby: You’ve written other books. This isn’t your first attempt. This is your third novel.

Emily: I feel like with every book, though, I’m setting myself a new challenge, teaching myself a new skill set. My first book, I was teaching myself how to write linked essays. My second book, I was teaching myself how to write a novel. My third book, this book, the main thing that I feel like I taught myself how to do in this book is how to work with a longer timeframe. This book takes place over the course of fifteen years. My first book, I very, very deliberately made it take place over the course of one calendar year. I knew that was all I could handle. Also, the first book has a lot of structure baked into the plot because one of the characters — I like to write about pregnancy. I had not experienced pregnancy when I wrote that first book, but pregnancy is a great way to structure a book because it just has a narrative structure built into it. A copy editor did point out to me, though, that one of the characters was pregnant for eleven months. That was a fix that had to happen. It’s more like an elephant, I guess, than a human.

Zibby: Do you have a particular affinity for music? Are you super into music? It was structed around this cool band.

Emily: Zibby, I think this might totally shock you given that the characters in this book are musicians in the . In the , I dated a musician. Other than that, I really have very little in common with Laura. She biographically is like me in that she moved to New York the same year that I did and lived in the East Village. Other than that, I feel like I have a lot more in common with Marie. I gave Marie a lot more of my own experiences as the daughter character because I know what it’s like to be a daughter, but I don’t know what it’s like to have a daughter. The way things are shaping up in this lifetime, I never will. One of the things that I wanted to sort of give myself in this book was experiencing that in fiction. It just seemed like something that I wanted to explore. Especially after I learned that my second child was also a boy, I felt even more sure about writing about this dynamic that I will never know, probably. Oh, my god.

Zibby: We’ll find out. Stay tuned.

Emily: We always say things like, if we win the lottery, or whatever. We’re pretty much stretched to our max in all kinds of ways right now, especially with our older son Rafie having such an enormous personality. I’m actually pretty happy with the situation as it is. I always have the option of writing more books.

Zibby: There you go. You can just put them on a shelf.

Emily: They don’t have to go to college.

Zibby: They won’t talk back to you. They don’t need their own room.

Emily: No. You don’t have to buy a larger car.

Zibby: The car situation with four kids, we’re constantly like, there just isn’t a big enough car. I need a freaking truck. We need a bus or something.

Emily: A VW bus or something, that’d be cute, though.

Zibby: That would be cute. I couldn’t park it anywhere, but I can’t park anyway. In this book, you do have an interesting thing happen, which is that Laura has to deal with Dylan’s death in the context of the wider national mourning for 9/11 which happens at the same time. You wrote, “She passed fading posters on lamp posts that people had put up looking for their lost relatives and friends with blurry, color-photocopied photographs. She wished that she could mourn with all the other mourners. Maybe then her burden wouldn’t feel so huge. When she caught herself weeping silent tears while walking down the street, she knew that people assumed that she was crying for one of the other dead people, and again, she felt like a liar.” Where did this come from? Did you have a loss over 9/11? Did you just imagine? Have you ever felt out of step with other people’s emotions in the same way?

Emily: Laura is so emotionally immature. She’s revealing it in that moment. She’s so young. She has no idea what the magnitude of 9/11 means to the people who lost someone. She’s experiencing very shitty, selfish emotions in that moment. It felt really important to me to be true to Laura as someone who is imperfect and really young and yet having these really big challenging life decisions thrust upon her. A lot of the book is about Laura figuring out how to grow up at the same time that she is becoming a mother. My own 9/11 experience informed this part of the book just because I did live in New York at that time. I’m a little younger than Laura, even. I remember the process of really learning over the course of years, how childish and how incomplete my generation’s capacity for understanding something of that magnitude really was.

It shaped my experience of what it was like to live in the city, for sure. It also really coincided for me with — this is a little bit weird to say, but I think a lot of people had this experience too, of really deciding that they wanted to live in New York forever and really falling in love with the city. It was a moment of really seeing people at their best and really seeing people care about strangers and care about people that they didn’t know. That was really special and really unique. In some ways, I got to experience some of that again after Hurricane Sandy. That was another time that I felt like New Yorkers really came together. Doing volunteer work after Hurricane Sandy, that was a time that I was able to, as an older person, make some emotional sense of what that experience, with my Laura-esque naivete, had been like. Sorry, asking someone about their 9/11 story is a little bit like asking someone about a dream they had because everyone has one, but most people’s are pretty boring. Anyway, I will spare you.

Zibby: You don’t have to spare me.

Emily: It was actually such a crazy time because I met this woman who had been one of my writer idols. I was going out to Stony Brook, Long Island, to meet her for the first time and interview to be her assistant, this cartoonist and author Phoebe Gloeckner who is just an amazing super genius. I ended up spending the next three days at her house because trains weren’t running back to the city. We really got to know each other. I really got to know her family in this maximally intense and crazy time. I was such a kid. I was nineteen. I didn’t even realize at first, the first thing that I should do when I got off the train is call my mom and reassure her that I was okay. It didn’t even occur to me.

Zibby: I feel like you’re being kind of hard of yourself because you actually were a kid. It’s not like you were acting childish but you were forty-five. You were young. Sometimes, like you’re saying, maybe you just didn’t have — your brain had not gotten to a point where —

Emily: — It’s true. Your frontal cortex is actually not fully formed at that point. It’s interesting to me as a novelist to think about the ways that young people can be very fully formed and then the ways that we are still so incomplete. I thought about that a lot when I was writing this book too.

Zibby: You recently wrote an essay called “Replaying My Shame” for The Cut in which you talk about the experience of being interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel on Larry King Live and being unexpectedly thrust into a situation where you had to defend your role as Gawker’s editor and writer, and the map of celebrities and how they felt about whether or not that was a safe thing to do, if you were putting celebrities at risk. You had to go on the defensive and were completely blindsided by where the interview was going, which was all caught on TV and now on YouTube. All this lives forever. After that, you had to have a period of complete defending yourself and soul searching and whatever. Then you just wrote this essay now, last month, about how that whole thing affected you going forward, everything from your bubble gum-pink suit from the vintage store to how you deal with it now and how it keeps coming up even if you don’t want it to come up. I did not even know all this happened to you. I just read your book and I was like, oh, I was wonder what — well, I’m glad I googled her because this is a really interesting experience you had at a young age when things were unregulated in the blogger space, really. You were sort of left out to dry. Now you’ve revisited it as a mature older person and wrote about it. I was wondering, what made you write this article now? Maybe related to this book? What have you thought about it as the years have passed, being in that situation and being thrust into that uncomfortableness that ensued?

Emily: For me, clearly this has been a strange fifteen years in terms of media, the media landscape, the global shifts in who has power and how that power is distributed, and how we get our news, how we get our information. I was there for this historical moment. I’ve also seen it being reframed over and over again by other people. Instead of being caught up in someone else’s narrative of this job that I had at this early stage of my career, at the very beginning of my career, I wanted to just tell my version of the story, tell people what my experience of this has been like and how it’s shaped me. It felt important to me to write it. I did my best.

Zibby: It was great. I wanted a whole book about that, honestly.

Emily: It’s funny. When I first started working on it, I actually thought that I would write a whole book about shame, or that shame would be the sort of key that unlocked a lot of different themes, and that I would continue to do essays on that theme, some of them researched and reported and really digging deep into what shame has meant for a lot of people, not just myself. Then after I worked on this essay for seven months, I was like, oh, my god, no. I really feel so done with this. That was another thing that it turned out that I wanted by the end of this process. I was like, this is published. What I feel right now — I like to never say never about anything clearly. I never like to fully close the door, but it feels to me right now like this is the last time that I will ever write about this stuff. Now I can just move on from it to the extent that that is possible because, as I said in the essay, it’s not totally up to me. No matter how many books I write, no matter how many books of other people’s I’m able to publish, no matter what teaching job I get, it’s always going to be this thing that’s in the first paragraph of my bio.

Zibby: I didn’t put it in your bio, just so you know.

Emily: Well, thank you.

Zibby: It’s not even in there. It’s not even mentioned.

Emily: I was doing another interview recently. The way that we ended up talking about it somehow — I don’t remember whether I brought this up or whether the interviewer brought this up. The way that we ended up talking about it was whether it would be in the first few sentences of my obituary when I die. Life is long. Who knows what will happen in the next several decades of my life. Maybe I’ll only be known as Rafael Gessen-Gould’s mom. Maybe he’ll go on to be a global pop sensation and I’ll just be Emily, his mom. I think she was a journalist or a writer or something.

Zibby: My goal is just to have an obituary written about me. I’m like, do you think they’ll write one?

Emily: Oh, I’m so vain. I’m like, it’s a foregone conclusion.

Zibby: It is probably for you.

Emily: I’m not saying it will be above the fold or anything. It’ll just be tucked away in some obituary section. But yeah, come on, I’ve written a few books.

Zibby: You’ll never know, so it doesn’t matter.

Emily: That is such a good thing to meditate on.

Zibby: You don’t have to feel bad or good about it. It just is what it is.

Emily: Fully. That’s reassuring, actually. Yay.

Zibby: Good. I go down such a dark hole about my whole death. I’m like, I want to write the speech that people read. I want to organize it. I want to have the whole thing planned. I want to be in charge. I want to know exactly who’s going to talk. Every so often, I rewrite the notes. I know I’m ridiculous.

Emily: That’s legit crazy.

Zibby: I know. I know.

Emily: Although, it’s better than being totally unprepared.

Zibby: I like to plan for everything.

Emily: Oh, my god, we had this rent-a-rabbi when my grandfather died. He was the first of my grandparents to die. He got his name wrong. It was horrible. It was horrible. That was a moment for me of being like, I should really —

Zibby: — Think it through.

Emily: Yeah, at least do a playlist.

Zibby: Well, now that we’ve got to think about our deaths today again in another context…

Emily: It’s before noon, but we went there.

Zibby: What do you want out of life now? You’re writing this great book. What comes next for you? What else do you need to do? You written all these books. You’ve influenced so much. Wait, I also want to hear more about your imprint. Tell me about the publishing business that you were doing with the imprint of Coffee House Press, Emily Books.

Emily: It’s actually really an exciting time for us because our next book in the imprint, it came out this week actually, Hilary Leichter’s book, Temporary. It just got a rave in The New York Times. Maybe you should have her on your show.

Zibby: Maybe I should. Hook me up.

Emily: She’s lovely. We love this book so much. I’m so excited for people to get their hands on it. It’s actually already going into its second printing, which is really a huge deal with an independently published book.

Zibby: How many books do you publish a year?

Emily: We were just publishing two a year.

Zibby: And only by women?

Emily: Yeah, women and gender-non-conforming people. We started as a Book of the Month Club. We were doing just a book pick every month and distributing them as e-books. Then we started in collaboration with Coffee House Press which is a small press that’s actually located in Minneapolis. We started publishing books as an imprint of Coffee House.

Zibby: Is that amazing? Do you love it? No? Okay, careful. Let me just say that again. Are you enjoying that? Do you enjoy your role as a publisher?

Emily: Yeah, I’ve loved it. My first job ever was in book publishing. I feel like it’s this thing that I’m always going to be really interested in. Sadly, bittersweetly, Temporary is the last book that we have lined up right now. The project has sort of run its course in some ways. It’s complicated. I think we’ve really done what we wanted to do with it. We’re seeing now that a lot of the books that have some of the same themes and some of the same formal qualities of the books that we have been championing and publishing for years are now being published by the big five presses, which is great. It’s great news for these authors. For us, we sort of felt like what we can do as a small press is really, really limited. We’re always going to have a hard time saying to authors, you should take less money to be published independently. It got harder and harder to make that make sense. Also, just for me and my best friend Ruth who I’ve been running this business with for years, we wanted to take some time for the other parts of our careers. For me, writing, teaching, everything else that I do. For her, writing and editing books that aren’t necessarily books for a small press. Making money also is something that we need to do more of. As much as we have loved doing this passion project, we were running low on passion. After a while, it became this thing where we were sort of dredging the last bits of passion from the passion. We wanted to quit doing it while we still had any left.

Zibby: That makes sense. I love that. That should be a whole thing on, when passion runs out of your passion project, what do you do? You should profile all these different — I’ll let you write that.

Emily: I think it does happen pretty often. People have a hard time. It’s like the end of a relationship. You’re like, when is the day that you want to wake up and blow up your life? But sometimes it needs to happen. I’m really scared because I have no idea what’s next. I just know that I need to make space for whatever the next thing is to come into my life, not to sound like a hippie wellness guru, but I think it’s true. Sometimes you do need to make the space before you know what’s going to occupy it.

Zibby: That’s true. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Emily: Gosh, don’t do any of the stuff that I did, basically. That’s interesting.

Zibby: You’re so sweet. This is the question that every author gets a thousand times.

Emily: I know. I’m trying to be really genuine and sincere about it.

Zibby: I love that you’re taking it seriously like you didn’t see it coming. No, I’m kidding. I’m joking with you.

Emily: I think the answer that everyone probably gives is just constantly be reading and read a lot, right?

Zibby: Well, don’t give that one then.

Emily: It’s a good one, though.

Zibby: Okay, fine. I’ll take it.

Emily: Having books be so fully in every single part of my life — I’m also married to a writer. Really, books are just everywhere, coming at me from all sides. Sometimes it does get difficult, and I’m sure you experience this too, to realize that books are actually this amazing technology that we have for transmitting one person’s consciousness into another person’s consciousness. It’s the best way of doing that that humans have come up with. It’s this amazing miracle. Sometimes hitting hard restart on my reading and writing life involves, for me, going back to a book that I love and realizing why books were ever important to me in the first place. That’s good stock advice for writers, to get back in touch with why you ever cared about this so that it can have meaning. It’s increasingly hard right now at this historical moment to figure out what we can do every day with our lives to find some sense and meaning in the increasingly chaotic world that we live in. Anyway, the book that I’m rereading right now is The Age of Innocence. There’s a new edition of it that just came out with a fabulous new introduction and forward. I’m just loving it so, so, so, so much. It just gets richer and more interesting every time I read it.

Zibby: Awesome. I have to say goodbye so I can eat something so my stomach stops growling like this.

Emily: Totally fair.

Zibby: Can everybody hear my stomach on these microphones?

Emily: Get that snack.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on the show. I loved your book. It was great.

Emily: Thank you so much. Thanks for reading.