Emma Gannon, OLIVE

Emma Gannon, OLIVE

“I think most people do doubt their decisions. It’s so human to just be like, ‘Have I done the right thing here?'” Debut novelist and fellow podcaster Emma Gannon joins Zibby to talk about her shift from nonfiction to fiction writing, the research that helped to create her characters, and why she wanted to approach the weighty decision to have a child with lightness and humor.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Emma. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Olive and all the great stuff that you do.

Emma Gannon: Thank you so much. I love your podcast. I listen to it religiously. Very happy to be here.

Zibby: Yay! I love your podcast. I was just listening to the one about you being a recovering people-pleaser. I was like, how do you become a recovering people-pleaser? Why don’t we start there? What is your secret? I feel like I have not recovered from that affliction as yet.

Emma: I think I said recovering because I feel myself slipping back into my old ways very easily, so I’m not quite over the line. It’s good. It’s like an out-of-body experience now because once you read all the self-help books, you can kind of call yourself a bit more. I’m getting there. It’s hard. People-pleasing is a thing. My tendency is to say yes. I read something, I’m like, yeah, I want to do that. Then I think, oh, god, that’s cutting into all your writing time and blah, blah, blah.

Zibby: You were recommending a book on your podcast. I think it was called People, Please or Please, No. What was it called?

Emma: It’s called Please Yourself, which I really like. It’s quite empowering, actually, to be like, do you know what? I’m going to go in the garden and eat some ice cream and not talk to anyone and please myself.

Zibby: I wouldn’t mind talking to someone. If they could be in the garden with some coffee or something, that would be a please myself moment. Anyway, your podcast, “Ctrl Alt Delete,” is so hugely successful. I was almost surprised it was billed as a business podcast because I feel like it’s so much about life. I guess you have to put it in one category. Obviously, business ties into everything. I want to go back to your book, but now I’m so excited about your podcast. Tell me about how you framed it. I know you’ve had eight million downloads, something crazy. Tell me a little more about the podcast.

Emma: That’s a really good point. I wouldn’t say it’s business-y, but it’s in the careers section, which I kind of feel like automatically falls into the iTunes or Apple Podcasts business bit. It’s really interesting. I started it five years ago. A lot of has happened in five years in terms of the media landscape. I feel like the podcast has evolved with me, which is really nice. It feels like my little home. As a fellow podcaster, you’ll understand that it’s such an intimate, lovely space. I’ve never been into YouTube. I’ve never been into presenting or video stuff. I just love that it’s my voice. It’s my thoughts. It’s accompanying someone on a walk somewhere or in the bath. It started off as social media careers, digital careers and new unconventional paths that we’re taking. It slowly but surely turned into a mental health podcast because I’m realizing that we’re all just losing our minds, basically, at work. Even in the creative space, creativity comes with its own challenges. We’re so hard on ourselves. We beat ourselves up all the time. It’s kind of morphed into this careers-y, well-being, creative podcast.

Zibby: It’s super cool. It’s just amazing. This is your first novel. You have written two other books, Sabotage and The Multi-Hyphen Life, which I feel like describes everyone I currently work with or am or exists today. You’re always just a little bit ahead of the curve with what your topics are. Take me through writing those two books and how we have arrived here at Olive.

Emma: Thank you. There’s something to be said for being too early with certain things. Then someone comes along and writes the same book. I’m like, hello? It’s fine. With The Multi-Hyphen Life, I feel like that has actually taken on a new life of its own during this strange COVID time we’re in. I believe that we can’t all be famous musicians and artists. It’s hard to live that happily-ever-after dream career. It’s not even like that for me, and I make my living through writing books. There’s ups and downs. You have imposter syndrome because maybe one month is good; the next isn’t. I feel like we’re just all trying to make it work as best we can. We’re all just trying to make our days slightly better. It’s not about always being in The Sunday Times best-seller lists, but just, how do we feel successful on a daily basis? That book, I still love and am proud of. The Multi-Hyphen Life was about the tools we need to succeed or make our lives better, but then I didn’t really talk about our brains and our mental health in that book. It was more about Skillshare and YouTube and podcasts. How do we build our brand using internet tools? It was very logistical. With Sabotage, it was, okay, if you’ve got all the tools under the sun but you still can’t get started with your creative project, it’s probably not that you don’t have the time or money or resources; probably that you’re getting in your own way in some other way. Those books kind of go together. Then the pivot came into fiction. I wrote The Multi-Hyphen Life so that no one would pigeonhole me. I was like, if I write a book about being a multi-hyphenate, surely no one will make me into this one thing. That book was about being multiple things. What was interesting is I kind of did become pigeonholed as the side-hustle woman.

Zibby: You just cannot win. You cannot win. It’s impossible. Anyway, keep going.

Emma: I don’t know if it’s more of a gender thing, like women need to be just one thing. We’re not. I don’t know one woman who is just one singular thing in their life. They’ll, one minute, be a parent. Then they’ll be doing something else on the side and then something else and something else. We’re so multifaceted. So are men, but I feel like men aren’t questioned as much in this space. They just get to go and do what they want and experiment. Whereas if you’re a woman experimenting with lots of different things, people are confused by you. I basically was like, I’m going to do fiction now. People were surprised. I don’t know why. You’re allowed to try new things. They were.

Zibby: I interviewed an author recently who switched genres. She spent a lot of time talking about this big deal that she had switched genres. I’m like, I know this all feels like a big deal to you. As a reader, nobody else is keeping as close tabs. You know when you’re at a seventh-grade dance and you think everyone is staring you and your sweater that your mom made you wear? Maybe that was me. You’re allowed to try whatever you want. If you’re creative and you love to write, switch genres. Try fiction, nonfiction. Great. Who else is going to do it? We need a new person to be, now, a debut novelist? It can’t be the same amazing writer? I’ll get off my soapbox.

Emma: No, I completely agree. I feel like my whole thing is, try whatever you want, and also, at any age. There is no cap to reinventing ourselves and rebranding ourselves. It’s all exciting. You can try new things.

Zibby: I completely agree. So you started fiction. Had you ever wanted to do fiction before? Was this a new thing that you’re like, I fancy a try at fiction? How did it come about?

Emma: It was a whole thing. I think that when we really truly want something deep down, it’s quite terrifying. We don’t tell anyone. We don’t really admit it. For me, that was fiction. I kind of palmed it off as something that maybe I’d do one day, but truly deep down, I was too scared to try it. It was so terrifying to me. My friends and family were so lovely about the fact that — I think they knew that I wanted to do it. They’d keep buying me presents. My mom, five years ago, bought me this novel-writing workshop class online thing. I was like, this is nice. People around me are noticing that I keep saying I want to try it. I really was terrified. I put it off for years. What happened was when my nonfiction career was toddling along and things were fine and I had a bit of spare time through the success of that side of things, I took myself off and just started doing it in secret. It was a really scary thing. I felt so exposed. Also, I know all authors will say this, but when your book goes out on submission and you’re basically waiting for the entire publishing industry to either laugh in your face or say, okay, this is good enough, I literally laid on the sofa for a week under a blanket. I felt like my skin had been peeled off. I felt awful, so thank god.

Zibby: There were so many things that I loved about Olive. The one thing that has stayed with me, to your point about trying new things in writing, is the one quote — wait, hold on, I have to find it — about how many tweets you can have and if you write enough tweets, they would actually be converted into books. There’s this new app. Wait, now I can’t even find the correct quote. Just to summarize, Olive realized through her friend that if you counted up the word count of all the tweets you’d done, you could convert it in an app to how many books you could’ve written. She could’ve written like fifteen books. One of the guys could’ve written two books. Is that an actual app?

Emma: No, this isn’t. It might be.

Zibby: You should start that app.

Emma: It might exist. I don’t know. I thought it would be quite an interesting, really simple tool, actually. If you just type in how many characters you’ve literally written, it could work out how many. I did think that when I looked at my Twitter page one day. I’ve been on there for about twelve years or something ridiculous. I looked at how many tweets I’d sent. It was like a thousand. I thought, that is books. We’ve all written books. I always thought that about my blog. My first book deal came from a blog. Essentially, I basically turned the blog into a book. It’s all words. It all can end up, hopefully, somewhere.

Zibby: I tried at one point — I was doing so many little mini-essay-type things on Instagram, particularly over the summer during the pandemic. I was like, I’m going to lose all these. I should copy and paste them into at least one document to save it for my own sanity to see what that was like back then. I was like, oh, my gosh, this is twenty thousand words of Instagram posts. I’m almost up to a book just on Instagram alone in a couple months. It’s amazing how we’re afraid to do big projects alone. Yet you can put little things out with no hesitation, and it’s totally fine.

Emma: It’s so weird, isn’t it?

Zibby: It’s so weird. We’re all so weird.

Emma: Hearing about other people’s process, I love hearing that. I remember Jessie Burton once saying — she wrote The Miniaturist — about how she used to email herself things, and the same with Christie Tate who wrote Group. Also, with Abigail Dean who you’ve also interviewed with Girl A, she said she used to write random little bits. I find that so relaxing. That thought is so comforting to me because I think we just think about novelists writing into a Word document and it all being perfect, but it’s not.

Zibby: That’s good. The one other fact and figure that I took from your book, and then we can talk about the plot and everything else that’s important, but Jacob says at one point, Olive’s ex-boyfriend, “Did you know six minutes of reading can help reduce stress levels by up to sixty percent? That’s sixty-eight percent better than listening to music, a hundred percent better than drinking tea, and three hundred percent better than going for a walk.” She says, “Did not know that.” Are those actual facts, or did you also make those up?

Emma: Those actually are. They are, yeah. I don’t know if you have noticed, but during some really stressful weeks and very anxious months, I have found that if I’m reading, I feel my whole body change. It’s just a physical reaction to reading. Some people just think it’s conjuring up thoughts in your head, but it has a physical reaction. I just feel so good after reading, and also because we’re not scrolling. Scrolling makes you so touchy. I think just the act of sitting and not moving for a while is very good.

Zibby: I think you still get that even if you’re moving and there’s an audiobook or something. I think it’s the getting into the story and all of a sudden out of yourself that is a complete reset. Yeah, five minutes, six minutes, it doesn’t take long to jump into anyone else’s head. As long as you’re in there for a minute wading through their muck or their ideas or stories or whatever, how can you not just come back, then, into your life — it’s like this bizarre time travel or Freaky Friday-type thing that we do all the time with books.

Emma: That’s the whole premise of your podcast.

Zibby: I know, I know.

Emma: Life is hectic. You have a lot of people relying on you. Yet you can still escape.

Zibby: You need to escape sometimes, faster in a book than in a bath, I think. Olive, the main issue Olive having is whether or not to have kids, or not even really whether or not, but she kind of doesn’t want kids. Is that okay in society? Should she change her mind? You do it so interestingly with lists and texts and quotes. It’s sort of a multi-format approach to the inside of someone’s mind trying to wrestle with this really important, big question, especially as her friends all go off and have kids or do IVF or do all these things. You have this one moment in the bathroom where the two girls are doing their pregnancy tests side by side in different stalls and have the same result but very different emotions related to that result. Tell me about centering this book around that question.

Emma: I love that you picked out those little scenes because it was so fun to write. I wanted to talk about this theme. It’s a big theme. It’s meaty. It’s emotional. I wanted to do it with a bit of lightness and a bit of humor because it’s a very heavy thing for a lot of women. I guess I need to make the distinction that I really wanted to write about a character who was child-free by choice, who is very much leading the narrative of her own story, whereas I know a lot of women who have desperately wanted that and it hasn’t worked out. I think there’s a nuance to that discussion. With Olive, she knows she doesn’t want children. She’s definitely one of those people that just thinks, it’s like a seventy percent no, so therefore, I should probably not because it’s a big old decision and life commitment. Her problem is that we start the book with her ending a relationship with someone she’s been with for nearly ten years who does want to have kids. They hadn’t really discussed it before then because they were in their twenties. They never really spoke about it. Olive was brushing it under the carpet. Suddenly, she’s in her thirties and she’s got her partner saying, right, let’s do it. Even though she knows she doesn’t want them, I think she’s just questioning herself because she’s thrown away — not thrown away, but she’s said goodbye to a massive chunk of her life. I think most people do doubt their decisions. It’s such a human to just be like, have I done the right thing here? The book is basically her going on this journey of convincing herself that she’s made the right decision ultimately.

Zibby: The thing about that decision versus other decisions that are more private like, should I go here for the weekend or should I take my kid — I don’t know. A decision like this, I feel like society, as you point out in your book by the onslaught of comments — when is it time? What do you mean? Are you guys trying? All these societal inputs that you get when you’re a woman of a certain age and you’re in a relationship or not, without women having kids, essentially, I feel like there’s this evolutionary thing hardwired into people because if we didn’t all encourage each other to have kids, we would all extinguish ourselves as a species. I feel like some of it, it’s this deep-rooted thing that I don’t know people are even conscious that they’re doing. Everybody’s got to get on this train. We’ve all got to get on the train even though it hurts and it’s hard and whatever because without us, then who? That’s heavy for each individual woman to have to carry.

Emma: It’s true. What was interesting is when I interviewed the real women to inspire the book because I didn’t want it to be just me and my opinions — Olive is an amalgamation of a bit of me but a bit of all these women I spoke to who are child-free. A lot of the women were concerned about the planet and overpopulation. I was like, oh, my god, that’s so interesting. I don’t know if I want children, but I definitely didn’t factor in that. I don’t know, maybe this is a big thing. For me, it’s just, oh, I don’t think it fits into my lifestyle. For some people, they’re like, we’re overpopulated and I don’t want to add to that. I was like, this is such an interesting topic because every woman had so many different reasons. I don’t think we talk about it very much.

Zibby: It’s so true. When I was reading Olive’s list — she does a pros and cons lists for having kids at one point. All the cons of what her life could be like without kids, I was reading and I was like, that sounds so nice. She’s like, I can go for tea. I could see my friends. I could do this. I was like, yeah, that is true, isn’t it? She makes a good case for the cons.

Emma: I think that’s the interesting thing. All the women are kind of triggered and jealous of each other at different times. Maybe jealous is too strong a word, but I think sometimes Olive does look at her friends and thinks, having a kid looks really lovely. She’ll see tender moments between her friend and the baby and think, that’s the meaning of life. That is love. That is what we should all want. Yet Olive doesn’t, but she still longs for that part of her life. It’s not just black and white. It’s not, I don’t want that, so I’ll never long for it. Then her friends with kids sometimes look at Olive and think, god, she’s so lucky. No one life almost has it all, I suppose.

Zibby: The character Dorothy, is that the elderly next-door neighbor? Is that her name, Dorothy?

Emma: Yes.

Zibby: I thought when you introduced Dorothy as this single elderly lady living next door who every so often totters over and says hello and everything, at first, I thought, okay, she’s using this to show what a woman who doesn’t have kids but gets older — is this some sort of commentary? Then the way you wrapped it all up at the end sort of threw that on its head. You can have a legacy. It does not have to be through kids. You can have a zillion friends and make a huge impact. Kids are just one way. I was just so interested in seeing how that relationship developed throughout the book and what your messaging was or what her role was in your thought process in putting her into the story.

Emma: I tried not to be too obvious with planting people in just to set an agenda and then leave, but I feel like Dorothy was that person. What was interesting is when I turned thirty, I got a lot of people asking me if I wanted to have children. I was also sort of like, I’m not sure. A lot of people would say to me — I was always baffled by this. They would say — if I said I didn’t. I change my mind what I say. Sometimes I say maybe. Sometimes I say no. People were like, but aren’t you worried you’ll be lonely when you’re older? That is a really valid thing to say, but I’d never really thought of that. I really wanted to show with Dorothy that — she’s this older woman. She lives on her own. Her husband’s died. She’s quite happy. She does have a kid, but he moved away years ago and lives in Australia. They never really talk. I just wanted to show that having a kid doesn’t mean you have this best friend for life. Some people don’t get on with their kids. Sometimes it’s really difficult. Sometimes people move away. I think Dorothy was an important character for Olive to see that, actually, there is no one-size-fits-all. Life just takes on its own different path for each of us.

Zibby: Wouldn’t it be so neat if there was a way to fast-forward and see what it would be like so you could say, well, I was going to have a child, but this I went to blah, blah, blah and I could see forward, and he was going to be horrendous and abusive or he was going to be a terrorist, so I’ve decided I’m not going to have him. Everybody would be like, oh, okay.

Emma: Oh, my god, imagine. I know you interviewed Ashley Audrain recently, the author of The Push. I love The Push because I think that really taps into a primal fear of, I want to have a kid, but is it going to be nice? I kind of want to know in advance. It’s funny. The Instagram mom thing I feel like has fed us this formula of, you’re going to have a cute kid. Then you’re going to dress it in some dungarees. Then it’s going to be really well behaved. Then life is going to be great. I just think, god, that’s kind of a scary marketing thing. There’s lots of ways that isn’t going to go just one, two, three, step program.

Zibby: That’s not even how that person’s life is. That’s that picture of that second. Then that kid’s going to go the — that’s such a fleeting moment. It’s not the whole picture. It’s too bad. See, if I were a novelist, which I’m not, I would be like, ooh, I should write a novel about this machine where you could fast-forward. How would that change society?

Emma: Oh, my god, I’m into that. I’m into that. I’d read that.

Zibby: Right? It would be very cool. All right, any novelists, feel free to steal my idea. What was your process like when you were writing this book? Where did you write it? How long did it take once you finally got going? Would you do another novel?

Emma: The process was — when I look back, I don’t know if I’ve got rose-tinted glasses on because it was hard. The way I see it is that it was one of those ideas that just came out. I didn’t do a lot of planning. I just, in my head, kind of knew what I was trying to do and then just went for it. I’d never done this before. I’m not trained. I haven’t done an MA. I look at people who have done all these degrees and I’m like, oh, my god, that’s not me. That doesn’t mean I can’t give it go, but I don’t know what I’m doing. It was very much just navigating through that sort of darkness of not knowing. When I sold it to HarperCollins, they loved it, but we had to do, then, more work on it. I was so happy to work with a fantastic editor. I feel like it’s important to say that because you don’t do this first draft that’s shiny and done and then it goes and gets printed. There was a lot of drafts, a lot of drafts. I loved the fact that I could do it in private. No one was watching me. No one knew I was doing it. This wasn’t me putting on Instagram, my laptop saying, “Am writing today.” There was none of that. It was like, I don’t want anyone to know. I’m writing a second one at the moment because it was part of a two-book deal. I have to say, I found it really hard. It’s a psychological thing. Because I have people waiting for me to produce something, I’m a bit blocked. I need to find a way to make myself feel free again. I’m not a big-time author. People who are really well-known must have this so much. People are sort of tapping their watch saying, come on then, where’s your next one?

Zibby: From big-deal authors that I’ve interviewed, they’re just as scared. Not all, but many admit to being just as scared that this time, the secret sauce of their creativity, it’s not going to come out right. Nobody ever feels — not nobody. Many people don’t feel like, oh, I’ve got this nailed, even if they’ve written so many books. Of course, I’m blanking on which exacts authors. It doesn’t go away. Every time a good book comes out, it’s like, phew.

Emma: I completely relate to that because I do think, and I’m not trying to be woo-woo, but I do think there is this magical sort of dust that has to be sprinkled onto it. You have to have that inspiration wherever it comes from. During the last year in the pandemic, I hardly wrote. I just felt really flat. I just didn’t feel like I had this mojo of me being out in the world and feeling energetic. It had disappeared. That is scary. Thank god it’s coming back. If you lose that kind of zest or whatever it’s called, you’re not going to write the book you want to write, I suppose.

Zibby: Speaking of magical dust, I said this to my son yesterday morning. I was so tired. I could barely get out of bed. He was like, “Get up. Get up.” I was like, “Ugh, I need some magical fairy dust that’s magical wake-up dust. Could you sprinkle some on me?” He just looked at me. He goes, “You have a thousand books to read. Get up.” I was like, “You’re right. I do. Okay, I’m getting up.”

Emma: I love that.

Zibby: What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Emma: My advice would be to spend some time by yourself. Go and reflect. If you can, it can even be a walk by a river or going and sitting in the garden. Really tune into what you want to write about. I think we’re in this world, and we’ve always been, with writing that there is an industry with a capital I who is trying to market things and spin things and sell things. I do think you have to write the book you want to write. As much as someone’s trying to push you in a certain direction or thinking that you’ll be more commercial if you do this, I think you do have to have that magic dust, whatever it is, to be proud of the book you’re going to write. Have conviction in yourself, if you can, to believe that you’ve got something to say.

Zibby: Love it. Amazing. Also, find a way to trick yourself into doing it and pretending that no one’s going to read it.

Emma: Yes. Also — I’m guilty of this because I’m being impatient. I’m very impatient as a person. It will take time. Especially with novels, it’s kind of a little bit every day. Try not to be too hard on yourself because you’re not going to wake up and write ten thousand words. That’s just not how it happens. Some people might. If you’re listening, I’m jealous of you. Most people write a couple hundred words a day. Then over six months, you have something. Just little steps.

Zibby: Not that you actually need help, but I’m trying to write something too and I’m getting in my head so much about it, and so I put in big letters now, “This is not the draft I’m going to show anyone.” I write that at the top. Then I find I can actually just write.

Emma: That’s so good.

Zibby: Experiment. It’s working for me, having two different documents. It was really great getting to know you. I’d love to meet you in person someday. Thank you for sharing Olive and everything, and your fantastic podcast, “Control Alt Delete.” Stay in touch.

Emma: Thank you so much. I’d love to as well. This has been really fun. Really exciting that Olive is out in the US. It’s something I never thought would happen for a debut novel. I’m so thrilled. To be on your podcast, one of the biggest ones I follow in America, I’m like, wow. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care. Buh-bye.

Emma: Thanks. Bye.

Emma Gannon, OLIVE

OLIVE by Emma Gannon

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