Emma Grey and Laura Tremaine at Zibby's Bookshop

Emma Grey and Laura Tremaine at Zibby's Bookshop

In this special episode (a live event at Zibby’s Bookshop in Santa Monica!), writer and podcaster Laura Tremaine chats with Australian author Emma Grey about THE LAST LOVE NOTE, a “gorgeous, charming, funny, heart-rending, longing-filled triumph of a read” (Katherine Center). Emma describes her journey into writing (she fell in love with Anne of Green Gables, of course) and then delves into the intricacies of grief, candidly discussing the loss of her husband and mother and the power of writing as a form of catharsis. The two also touch on themes of love, friendship, and self-discovery.


Host: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for coming out tonight. Welcome to Zibby’s Bookshop. First, before we get started, I’d like to say thank you to Susan Disney Lord and Alzheimer’s LA for sponsoring this event. We so appreciate it. I’d also like to thank John Kelly for donating those delicious chocolates in the back, and Une Femme, our wine partner. We have some delicious wine that you all can feel free to grab as well. As you all know, today we’re here to celebrate the launch of The Last Love Note. Congratulations to Emma. Emma is a novelist, feature writer, photographer, professional speaker, and accountability coach. She’s been writing fiction since she first fell for Anne of Green Gables at fourteen. She’s the author of the YA novels Unrequited: Boy Band Meets Girl, Tilly Maguire and the Royal Wedding Mess, the non-fiction title I Don’t Have Time, and the parenting memoir Wits’ End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum. Along with her school friend, Emma co-wrote two musicals, Deadpan Anti-Fan and Fairytale Derail, based on her teen novels. She wrote her first adult novel, The Last Love Note, in the wake of her husband’s death. It’s a fictional tribute to their love, an attempt to articulate the magnitude of her loss, and a life-affirming commitment to hope. Emma lives in Australia where her world centers on her two adult daughters, young son, loved stepchildren and step-grandchildren, writing, photography, and endlessly chasing the Aurora Australis.

Here in conversation tonight with Emma is Laura Tremaine. She wrote The Life Council. Welcome, Laura, as well. After years of television and film production, Laura Tremaine was a blogger and regular cohost on the girlfriend chat show “Sorta Awesome” and is the creator and host of the topic-driven “Smartest Person in the Room.” In 2019, she launched the “10 Things To Tell You” podcast, a show born out from her realization that sharing herself online and in person pulled her out of a long season of loneliness. Each episode of “10 Things To Tell You” provides a prompt for you to take to your journal or text to a best friend or use to start a deeper, more meaningful conversation because sharing yourself is the key to connection. From the “10 Things To Tell You” podcast came her first book, Share Your Stuff. I’ll Go First. Her second book was released in 2023 and is titled The Life Council, which we have here tonight. It’s a lovely book. Laura lives in LA with her husband Jeff and their two children. She is passionate about twenty-minute reading timers, bold lipstick, Stephen King, and chicken wings.

Laura Tremaine: I did not know all that was going to come out. Thank you. Welcome, everyone, tonight to this very special occasion where we’re celebrating The Last Love Note by Emma. Congratulations so much.

Emma Grey: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming, everyone.

Laura: This is just amazing to watch your success around this book. I am so happy for you.

Emma: Thank you.

Laura: As a reader, I always want to start and hear from authors of where they started their writing life. I feel like whatever kind of reader you are, everyone sort of dreams of writing a book. Then as we get into adulthood, you either realize that that’s a dream to be pursued or not or if that’s something that is real. You’ve made it so real. I would just love to hear your background of being a — was this a dream? Have you been a lifelong reader, writer? All of that.

Emma: Definitely. It was an Anne Green of Gables that tipped me over into this. I remember being fourteen. It was the Christmas holidays, which, of course in Australia, is the long summer holiday. I’m about to fly home, actually, tonight after this into forty degrees Celsius, which is a heat wave, absolute heat wave. I really don’t want to go home, so if we forget ourselves, it runs over, don’t worry. I’m going to sleep on the floor here. I was fourteen. Our aunties introduced my sister and I to Anne of Green Gables, the miniseries. I remember watching this and immediately falling in love with Gilbert, of course. At the same time, I fell in love with Anne as a writer and this concept that she had this burning desire to write. I thought, so do I. I hadn’t ever really realized that before. I used to get good marks in English at school, but I wasn’t that standout English student that the teachers would’ve looked at and said, that’s the one that’s going to go on and be doing a talk in Zibby’s Bookshop in 2023. I went to the local news agent and bought a notebook and pen because, of course, I’m fifty, so this was very much pre-having any kind of device to write on. I just started writing a novel that day. It was terrible, but I didn’t care because I just had this whole world in my head that I wanted to get out on this page. I had pages and pages of this awful novel. I think I’ve still got it somewhere buried in my garage. From then on, I used to write diaries all the time.

I matured into my diary becoming a public diary on Facebook, really. I feel for my friends. They get everything, every little development. Even walking around the streets, I’ll be thinking, how could I describe what I’m seeing? How will I tell people later? How will I write about this? It’s just all the time. When my husband passed away in 2016, one of my earliest thoughts was, I’m going to have to get through this in words. It’s the only way through this for me. I really don’t understand what’s going on until I’ve written about it. I think a lot of writers feel that way. I don’t know how I could’ve got through the last few years if I hadn’t been able to process it all in words. That started off with a very detailed Facebook post where I would, on the day of something horrible happening in my loss — I’d go to the bank and have an awful interaction with the bank manager who wouldn’t speak to me because they needed to speak to the person whose account I was trying to close. That kind of horrible thing that happens when you’re grieving. I would then write about that that day. When it came to writing this book, I almost had all these real-life, raw, in-the-moment little scenarios that I’d written already that I could mine for content for the book, which I think is how it comes across as quite a raw retelling of grief and loss.

Laura: And real. It felt very real. The book just came out last week, I know, but as we do this conversation, I’m thinking about spoilers. Has anyone here finished it yet? Anyone? Amazing. Then I have, of course, too. The book is about Kate, who I think is just one of the most adorable characters I’ve read in a while. Since people haven’t finished, just give us sort of a brief overview as we talk more about the plot a little.

Emma: Kate is forty. She was described in a podcast the other day as a hot mess. In fact, the question was, Kate’s a bit of a hot mess, where did the inspiration for that character come from? I immediately exited the podcast, went outside into a New York street and was almost run over by a runaway hotdog truck in the street. I thought, you don’t have to look too far to see where the chaos around her comes from. She’s lost her husband two years earlier. The reason why we have these amazing people here from Alzheimer’s — I keep wanting to say SA, but that’s South Australia — LA, and this is a spoiler, is because this is the cause of her husband’s death in the novel. In my real life, my husband actually died from a heart attack. My mom passed away in June this year from dementia. That’s where the reality of that part of the story has been drawn from. It’s the story not only of Kate processing her husband’s loss, but of her beginning to open her heart to someone new. This bit, unfortunately, is entirely fictional, but also aspirational.

Laura: You’re writing it into being.

Emma: Anyone single here this evening know anyone nice? No. It was really lovely to be able to play with that storyline and imagine what that would be like. I’ve got a lot of friends now who are young, widowed people who I’ve seen re-partner. It’s just been a joy to watch them do that. It’s two love stories in one. They intertwine a lot too because you can love two people at once. So they tell me.

Laura: It is a book about grief, but it’s also a book about hope. I thought that they intermingled so well. Those emotions can sometimes intermingle. It’s hard to articulate. Reading it in a fictionalized version, it did feel like a beautiful way to capture it. Did you want to write it as fiction as opposed to a memoir? You said you were writing these things on Facebook that were actually happening to you. Just as a way to get some distance from it? Because you’re already a writer? What was that process?

Emma: I knew that I would write about grief. I could’ve gone one of three ways. I would’ve written a self-help book about what to do when you lose a partner in midlife, but there are already so many great books like that that I realized pretty early on I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. I could’ve written a memoir. I take my hat off to those who do. We have Meghan Riordan Jarvis here, who was in the bookshop last night doing a talk about her new memoir. It’s called The End of the Hour, another Zibby Book. So much easier to sell somebody else’s book than your own. I am the only oversharer in my family. That’s why I had to fictionalize this story, because I had to be careful about telling our own story too publicly. I feel like I could go a lot deeper into a fictional character’s story than I could into my own for that reason. Also, I’m just a hopeless romantic. I loved all those big nineties rom-coms. I still love them. I’ll be watching them on the plane tonight when I can’t sleep. I couldn’t resist.

Laura: I love that. There’s so much about grief, like we said. I really feel like — this might be my own lens. As I was reading it, I was like, oh, this is also a book about friendship. That is part of the great love story — there’s multiple love stories in this novel — that I came away from — Kate, our main character, has a wonderful best friend. She has a colleague/boss/friend who’s been there through all these things that she has gone through. I wondered if you could say a little bit more about the friendships in our life. She wasn’t surrounded by hundreds of people or dozens of people. There’s not a huge cast of characters. As she’s going through her grief, in fact, there’s a loneliness element to it because she feels that she only has her best friend and a coworker or two. I think sometimes when we’re going through things, we feel like that’s not enough, or we don’t know how to show up for one another. I wondered if you could say something about the friendship piece. I write about friendship, so obviously, that’s what I was really honing in on.

Emma: Do you want to get a notebook and pen out before I start? No. Friendship, to me, is incredibly important. Kate has moved to another city, which is why she doesn’t have a lot of friends when this happens, that are around. In my case, I live in the city I was born in, so I was, in fact, surrounded and supported by an incredible community of friends. I’ve tried to pay tribute to a lot of them in this book by threading little anecdotes through that they will see themselves in, things like the friendship group that didn’t know each other but all were friends on Facebook who got into a little huddle and organized for me to be out one night towards Christmas the first year after Jeff died. I had a five-year-old son who still was expecting magic and all of the Christmasy stuff. I really was in the depths of despair at this time, to quote Anne of Green Gables. They got together. We drive in, and our house had been covered in Christmas lights. They appear in here. The friend who cowrote the musical, Sally Whitwell, is a brilliant composer. Her way of helping was instantly to compose a piece of music that we played at Jeff’s funeral. It goes so far beyond lasagnas and casseroles.

There was a friend who was very good at administration. I’m hopeless at that. You’ve got so many forms that you have to fill out. She just said, “Can I come and sit with you and help you fill out the forms at the bank and things like that?” I always say to people, when somebody loses someone, your time will come. Your skills will be needed. If it’s not in the first five weeks, it could be two years later or ten years later. You can step in and do your part. We’re now nearly eight years later. There are times when I still need help. I know I’m going to go home, and my front lawn will be mowed because the neighbors will have done that. I don’t even have to ask them. It was almost overwhelming the way people were helping. I kept wondering, how can I ever pay them back? Then I realized it’s about paying it forward. That just lifted all that pressure and made it much easier for me to accept the help. I think that that’s a skill in itself that a lot of us struggle with, to say yes to help. We just have to realize that we take it in turns. It’s just a mutually beneficial ecosystem of help. There are times when you’re the helper. Then there are times when you’re being helped. If we could just accept that, I think life would be so much easier.

Laura: You mentioned that Kate was called a hot mess. I get that characterization. She’s kind of clumsy. Crazy things happen to her. That kind of energy. However, one of the things that I really liked about what is going on with Kate simultaneously with the grief and the love story is she might be kind of messy on the outside, but she’s portrayed as incredibly competent at her job. She’s very, very good at her job, and yet she also feels she might be in the wrong job. That running alongside, having not a career crisis — I didn’t read it as a crisis, but as a questioning. Am I in my true calling? Am I using my gifts in the right way? Am I staying in this job because I want some stability in my widowhood, for my family? I wondered about that piece, if that was something that you were going through or if it was just something you thought would be universal for a midlife woman to be wrestling with.

Emma: I think it’s something a lot of us go through. It is a crossroads that we reach. I think younger generations coming through have a much more flexible way of looking at careers. They’re thinking about having several different careers in their lifetimes. I did used to work in a role which didn’t suit me. It was administration. I’m sure if my former bosses are listening to this, they could attest to this. I would dream of writing. Kate also has a similar ambition. Part of what happens when someone dies is that you realize life is short. It occurs to you that we don’t have the luxury of, necessarily, waiting another five years, ten years before we do the thing that we want to do. I was talking to a reader in a Barnes & Noble in Minneapolis a couple of nights ago where it was freezing cold, absolutely freezing cold. I was soaking it in before I go home. He has been writing for five or six years. He said, “I’m not ready.” We were talking about just doing it and dealing with a messy first draft and getting it out there and getting some feedback.

This idea that life is short is certainly something that hit me very hard when Jeff died. Not just that life is short, but it’s incredibly precious. I remember — it may be difficult to hear. He passed away at home. I had a few moments with him. The police, the inspectors, of course, the paramedics, everybody was about to swarm our house. I had a few minutes just in the room with him after he had died. I became incredibly conscious of my own heartbeat and the oxygen going in and out of my lungs. That’s not scientifically possible, is it? Something else comes out of your lungs, but you know what I mean. I was inhaling these breaths of air. I actually realized I felt more alive in those few moments than I have ever felt in my life, even though it was the worst moment of my life. I just realized how fragile life is. I say to people now if they’re feeling like they have this dream, whether it’s to write or anything else, just get on it. We know from the pandemic that our opportunities can be cut overnight. We can be all suddenly locked down and can’t even go anywhere. People have been planning travel for years and thought, we’ll get around to it. We don’t have the luxury, so grab those opportunities.

Laura: In the book, Cam does not die of a heart attack, the husband. He dies of early-onset Alzheimer’s. We are graciously sponsored tonight by Alzheimer’s LA. There are some heartbreaking moments on that part of their story that were the hardest in the book for me to read as Cam starts to lose his memory of his loved ones and even some basic executive functioning and things. Did you choose Alzheimer’s — you said your mother passed. If that was informed by that experience of losing someone in a slower way.

Emma: There were two reasons why I chose that. One was that I didn’t want to tell exactly our story. The other was more of a structural writing choice, which was to choose a longer way of dying to write about in this novel, and that’s the one I’m intimately aware of and that we’ve just watched. Mom actually was diagnosed sixteen years ago, which is incredibly long. Normally, it’s a lot — well, you could tell us. Normally, it’s a much shorter period of time. She just got worse and worse and worse. We’ve all watched her firsthand. We’ve watched my dad, who’s ninety-one, care for her in the most extraordinary way imaginable. This is sort of a love note both to Jeff and to my parents. Their relationship and the way that Kate cares for him is very much my dad caring for my mom.

Laura: It was beautiful. I’ve been avoiding the love story part, talking about it, because I don’t want to give any spoilers away. There’s a few love angles in the book, some red herrings. Is this it? Is this not it? One of the things that our main character Kate ends up saying is — there’s one interest in the book that makes her feel beautiful or makes her feel sexy or whatever. Then there’s someone else that made her feel seen. Not that those things have to be mutually exclusive by any means. It was a surface level of attraction and a deeper level of attraction. That really spoke to me in the enduring relationship in this. I felt like that is what so many of us want. I want to feel sexy too. Don’t get me wrong. I think she felt seen and known. What a deeper level of care and commitment that that is.

Emma: For someone like Kate and someone like me and anyone else here who has experienced this or has lost a partner, I don’t think you could go to superficial anymore, even in conversations with people who you’re not romantically interested in. There’s just a depth that you have to have because you can’t be bothered anymore with superficial stuff. That’s the same not just in relationships, but in letting go of a whole lot of things that used to worry you and bother you and you used to get annoyed by. Just let it go. You don’t have time for this anymore. You’ve realized that life is short. Probably, the reason that I am still single is because, A, I had a great husband who I adored, and now I’ve created this character. I feel like I would have to hand a copy of this book to any potential partner and say, look, if you can’t live up to this, I’m not interested.

Laura: He is pretty dreamy, y’all. He is real dreamy. I’ll be honest. I think I had a crush on him too. Are we almost ready for questions? I don’t know if people have things that they want to ask. In the interest of time and the livestream and everything, try to keep your questions or comments brief so that we make sure we stay on time here. About writing or The Last Love Note or anything.

Female Voice: I know you’ve gotten a lot of feedback that you get out of emails and conversations. Can you talk about what that has been like in terms of your grief journey yourself?

Emma: Yes. This book came out in January in Australia and then last week here. I’ve been talking about this all year. I get a lot of messages and emails from people who have lost someone who then want to share their story and who will often say, thank you for articulating my loss. Then they’ll want to talk about — it’s not just losing partners. It’s losing children, losing parents, other forms of loss, divorce, all sorts of things. Unlike Meghan, I am not a psychologist. I would never offer that kind of response, but it has created this beautiful opportunity to have these conversations. People who lose people just want to talk about their person. In a way, I’m lucky that I get to talk about Jeff so much, but it can become a bit overwhelming at times. I’ve had some remarkable things happen. There was a woman who drove ten hours to come and meet me after reading this book, ten hours return trip, in Lexington, Kentucky, a couple of nights ago. She had lost her dad when she was twelve. This book had meant so much to her that she wanted to come talk about it. At that same talk, there was another woman there whose partner died five weeks ago. We actually met and had dinner beforehand and had that conversation. It’s just an opportunity that I’ve got, again, in paying it forward and trying to give back a little bit in that kind of support. I’m trying to give the support now that I needed seven years ago.

Laura: To further that in your own alone time or your off time — it’s hard to not carry other people’s stuff.

Emma: Yeah, it is. I watch a lot of Hallmark Christmas movies.

Laura: You got to get it out somehow. That’s great. Then I didn’t ask you this. I’ll just say one more thing. Actually, let’s do questions. I’ll come back. Go ahead.

Female Voice: You touched on it very briefly, but I’m very curious — it’s been eight years since your husband’s passing surrounded in grief and death. Then you have this influx of comments and dealing with other people’s death and grief. How do you stay at peace and not let that affect you and take over?

Emma: I have found photography as a hobby. Honestly, it is the one thing I do where I can get so completely absorbed, even more than in writing, that I forget what’s going on, who I am, anything. In particular, macrophotography where you get in close and take photos of dewdrops on blades of grass and things like that, really, really specific. It’s the mindfulness of that. Even with this book tour, I’ve brought my camera because there have been moments during the tour that have felt quite overwhelming, in good ways as well as in sharing all of the stories. I know I need to go and take some photos. That is my thing. Everybody needs to find something that can help you just lose yourself because we all have so much stress and pressure and loss and grief that we’re all dealing with. For me, it’s that. I have my sister, who is my boundary keeper, in a way. She has, a couple of times when it seemed like I was getting too overwhelmed, has said to me, “Right, we’re getting in the car. We’re going to the beach for the day,” which is a day trip from where I live. She knows the signs that I need to put my technology away and just escape for the day. It’s that sort of thing. I think it’s so important to either work out your own boundaries or have someone help you work out your boundaries because it would be too much to carry otherwise.

Laura: Kate is an aspiring writer. Towards the end of the book — not a spoiler, but maybe she pursues it a little more towards the end. She has to work out for herself a little bit — this really resonated with me, so I actually wanted to ask you this in person writer to writer. One of the hangups where she hadn’t been able to write before then was that she envisioned herself as a literary novelist, a high-minded sort of writer. Then when she realizes, oh, maybe I’m a different sort of writer than I thought, then when she acknowledged that, then the words kind of flooded out of her. This exactly happened to me as well. I do not write the type of books that I ever thought I would write. It has been a wrestle, actually. I wondered if that was something that you had also wrestled with or if that’s something that you just gave to Kate as an obstacle.

Emma: No, I haven’t wrestled with that. I’m under no pretentions about the fact that I am not a literary writer. I’m just not. I write the books I want to read. I think that’s the most important thing for writers, to write the stories you want to tell and write it in the way that you like to read. I think that is how I find my way through writing. I wrote my teenage novels for my fourteen-year-old daughter at the time who hated reading but loved Harry Styles. I thought, I’ll just write a little story about a boy band. It got so out of control. I ended up with a two-book deal with HarperCollins and a couple of musicals.

Laura: Which is amazing.

Emma: It was amazing. It was so much fun. It was actually the thing that saved me. It goes back to this question before. We staged that musical in a high school the year after Jeff died. You might think, that must be the last thing you felt like doing, is putting on a high school show. It was the best thing I ever did because I was surrounded by theater kids and teenagers and a disco ball and glitter cannons. It was the salvation of me that year.

Laura: Lots of life.

Emma: Yeah. I think that’s a message that comes all through this book, is to look for the light and to look for life and to grasp hold of any little opportunity you might have to smile or be happy or do something nice with friends or any of that because it won’t take away anything from your loss. You’re going to have that regardless. The person who you lost would want that for you.

Laura: Do you have time for more questions? Anyone? Any other questions? I sort of stole the questions.

Male Voice: What was the journey like when your mother was diagnosed?

Emma: Mom had some knee surgery sixteen years ago. We all independently in the family started noticing Mom’s little slipups and short-term memory problems. We thought maybe it’s the anesthetic because that can affect you for six months, apparently. We allowed that to go on for a while until we couldn’t ignore it any longer. One thing that happened that was very difficult for my sister and I was that our dad was determined never to tell Mom that she had dementia. Mom had struggled with losing her dad to dementia. He did it. He managed to get through sixteen years without ever telling her she had dementia. It was hard. We were more of the opinion that she should’ve known. In retrospect, it was the kindest. He is an extraordinary man. It was heartbreaking to watch because it’s a type of death that you lose them while they’re still alive. You’re grieving them from the second you find out. It never gets any better. It’s just in one direction the whole time.

As I don’t shy away from in this book, it then takes over the body and the physical aspects and the personal care. There’s so many different aspects to it. I had one incredible moment last Christmas day, last year. Mom didn’t know who we were anymore, didn’t know who she was in relation to Dad or who he was or anything like that. Then in the middle of all the buzz of Christmas presents being opened and all the excitement with the kids, she saw me across the room and said my name. It was just a miracle. It’s that sort of thing that is all in this book. It’s that real raw stuff. I’ve got a photo of her holding a copy of the Australian version of this book not knowing who I was or that I wrote it. She would’ve loved it. One of the most extraordinary moments I’ve had on this book tour was an Uber driver in Savannah who was asking me about this book. He said, “I want to buy a copy of that book and put it on my mom’s grave because she would’ve loved that.” Had also died from dementia. The work that you do is just extraordinary for families because we are all at sea with that. It’s so hard to watch and to just lose your person in front of your very eyes in a long, drawn-out way. I just thank you for what you do for the people here and for your colleagues in my country as well. It’s amazing work.

Laura: It’s amazing. For you putting it in a fictionalized version like this for those of us who haven’t experienced it firsthand to understand it better, that’s what’s magical about books and novels, is that it helps us understand better than an article would or something.

Emma: I was given a lot of books when Jeff died. People were sending me books. There were a lot of self-help books that I received. They were really helpful as well, but it was this one particular novel — I can’t remember the title now. It was a woman who had lost her husband and had a little five-year-old. I remember devouring this book three weeks after he died. You would think that’s too soon to read a novel like that, but it’s not because you want to see that she is okay and that there’s going to be a future. That’s what I hope that people will take away from this, that they will be okay. The me from seven years ago would never have imagined that I could sit here and talk to you and that I would even have written this book, that I would’ve had this book tour, all the stuff that’s been going on that’s been amazing. It would’ve been too overwhelming to have seen that future back then, but you grow over time. I think that even though you might have seen me crying, there’s a lot of strength that you develop when you go through loss.

Laura: Kate, even as she finds new love, really holds her husband that has died in such love and esteem and care. You write eloquently, she’s always going to hold him. She’s always going to love him. This moving forward isn’t a diminishing of that in any way.

Emma: No. People say it’s like having a second child. You don’t love your first child any less because a second child has come along. Your heart just expands to accommodate the second child and the first. I think it’s similar.

Laura: I agree. Any questions over here?

Female Voice: I just want to say a thank you to you. I work in the Alzheimer’s field. I work at the Alzheimer’s Research Center here in East LA. Just thanking you for bringing young-onset Alzheimer’s disease into a novel. It’s something that people don’t hear about. We hear about Alzheimer’s when people are older. For it to be somebody who is younger — we run support groups where we have people who are living this story. Just as a thank you to you for not shying away from that and writing into that. I appreciate it. Thank you.

Emma: Thank you.


The Life Council by Laura Tremaine


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