Emma Grey, THE LAST LOVE NOTE: A Novel

Emma Grey, THE LAST LOVE NOTE: A Novel

Zibby Books author alert!!!! Emma Grey joins Zibby to discuss THE LAST LOVE NOTE, a gorgeous, charming, heartrending novel that is also a Book of the Month pick!! After the sudden loss of her husband in 2016, Emma found solace in writing. The novel, set in Australia, intertwines romance and humor with the complexities of navigating life after the death of a loved one. Emma emphasizes the importance of balancing grief with your everyday responsibilities, drawing from her experience of managing her grief while raising her young children. The two also discuss the significance of community support in times of loss, the therapeutic nature of humor in storytelling, and the evolution of her writing career.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Emma. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Last Love Note, your novel from Zibby Books.

Emma Grey: It’s lovely to see you, Zibby.

Zibby: As you know, I’m just obsessed with your book from the moment I read it. It’s so great. I’m so excited for it to be released into the world. Tell listeners who don’t know about it yet, the whole story, what the book is about, and your personal connection to the story and all of that. What made you write it? How did we get here? Dazzle everyone.

Emma: Sadly, the book had a genesis in my own personal loss. My husband Jeff passed away in 2016. He had a heart attack. I remember, as an author and a writer, thinking, the only way through this loss is going to be through words. I started to write little pieces of articles and memoir sort of pieces about our loss and focused on that at first. I remember thinking, I just need more words. I can’t express everything that I’m going through in a six-hundred-piece or an eight-hundred-piece article. I also felt like it was a little bit too close when I was writing about our own personal story, so I decided that I might attempt some fiction about grief. Somehow, this novel turned into a bit of a romantic comedy, I think because my background is as such a romantic. Ever since I fell for Anne of Green Gables and Gilbert back in the eighties, I’ve just loved romance. It’s so hopeful and so joyous. I didn’t want to write a book that was going to be too devastating to read. Although, as you know, it is very devastating in parts. I wanted to capture that light and shade of loss because there is a lot of both when we lose someone. There’s a real sense of hope in this novel. It’s about a woman who is thirty-eight. Her name is Kate. It’s a story of her processing her husband’s death while she starts to fall for someone else. There’s really two big love stories in one.

Zibby: And so much more, motherhood, friendship, work, balance, juggling, just always feeling like you can’t do enough, do it right. I feel like there was something just so immanently relatable about every piece of this book that anyone in today’s crazy world with multiple obligations will be able to find themselves in.

Emma: Yes, I think that’s the case, isn’t it? Whenever we go through something traumatic or profound like this, we can’t just switch off all that other stuff. We have to juggle it with my dog, for example, who is running around with a toy in his mouth crying as we record this call, with kids and with schooling and homework and washing and cooking and in my case as well, the pressures of being in that sandwich generation where I had elderly parents. My mom passed away a couple of months ago from dementia at ninety-one. There was all of that going on. In her case, she kept asking where my husband was. We had to keep telling her over and over again that he had died. That was the kind of chaos that I think is real and honest and raw. I think it’s important to capture that in fiction just as much as it is to share it in interviews like this.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Talk about, a little bit, parenting through grief. I don’t mean to only spotlight the grief. I want to focus more on the humor as well, but just to start off in that piece of it because you had a young son in the midst of it, and your daughter and everything. Talk about what that was like for you and then how you turned that into what happens to the characters.

Emma: When you lose a partner but you have children, a lot of your grief tends to be focused on their grief. As parents, we automatically prioritize our children. Really, from that very first moment, my first thought went to my five-year-old son at the time. I have two daughters from my first marriage, who were at crucial parts of their education in what we call year twelve in Australia, so the final year of high school, and year ten facing exams and the end-of-year formals like your proms and all of that sort of stuff. It was an intense situation to find ourselves in, very unexpectedly in this case. I remember really sidelining my own grief for some time. It wasn’t until about eight months after Jeff died that — I was actually flown over to America for a conference in his honor. He was a military historian and the president of the Society for Military Historians there. They flew me over. I remember crying from Sydney to LA on the plane. I still think of the poor sixteen-year-old boy that was sitting beside me, some strange kid who wound up with this woman who was just distraught. It was because I was finally on my own away from my children. My own grief had time to surface and to breathe.

I really reached my very lowest point at that conference. Having to go back to the hotel room at the end of the night after speaking about Jeff all day with his colleagues and friends, it was just very, very difficult, but beautiful as well that they were doing this. Then after that, I took myself to New York for three days. I’d never been. Jeff loved New York — it was his favorite city — and had always intended to take me. I went there. I remember looking at the city and thinking, this is a place that has experienced so much grief, and yet look at it. It’s thriving. It’s dazzling and beautiful. I remember getting this first little hint of hope that perhaps there was a future for me as well. As an aside, to be bringing this book back to you and to have been picked up by Zibby Books and published in New York is just a dream come true in this beautiful full-circle experience. I wrote about the parenting in the book and about the fact that my character then ends up sort of stranded with her boss in a beautiful, gorgeous Australia beach hamlet north of Byron Bay, which is where all the Hollywood stars come and purchase their Australia properties. She winds up there. It’s, again, the same experience where her grief finally finds airs. It’s really such a crucial part of being able to process that when you’re a parent and you’ve lost someone.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. You had a full-circle moment, in particular, at the New York Public Library that I loved hearing about. Very excited to bring you back there.

Emma: Yes, that’s right. When I was in New York, having started to experience these feelings of hope, I thought, I really need to start writing a book about grief. That was the moment. I thought, I’ll take myself to the reading room at the New York Public Library and just get some words down, not really even knowing at that point the direction the book would take. I managed to work those very words into the book as if they were written by my character Kate. That feels really special. I can’t wait to visit again.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, crazy. We were meant to find each other, I feel like.

Emma: We were.

Zibby: I want to talk about the humor, but I also — we’ve spent a lot of time, even over the months that we’ve known each other, talking about your loss of Jeff, but not as much about the discovery of Jeff and how you fell in love with him. Can you just talk about that for a little bit?

Emma: One of the things that I noticed first about him — you know how they say that you can tell a lot about people by how they treat people serving in restaurants and that kind of thing? It was the way that his students and colleagues held him in such high esteem. It was the fact that he was being invited to his students’ weddings and the christenings of their children and that sort of event. I thought, there’s something about a person that is held in high esteem by all the people around them and then at work. It was something that he did that I noticed right until the very last week of his life. For example, my parents, who were well into their late eighties at this point, Mom with advanced dementia — Jeff would do all the cooking in our family. That was one of the big losses that we felt, actually, that he was no longer cooking beautiful meals for us. He would always make enough for my parents. Even on the Sunday before he died, I carried around a Tupperware container filled with a casserole and something that my dad loved. He was looking after them right until the very end. That was the kind of person that he was. That sort of love is what is behind this story. I found it so difficult to express the way I felt in just a love story about one person, so I feel like there’s these two heroes in the book. They’re both a bit of a combination about what he was like.

Zibby: You sat in the library. You were like, I’m going to write my way through grief. Yet this is a complicated story with character — not complicated in a bad — it’s an in-depth, fully formed, multi-character thing. I know you’re a huge YA author, but how did you know how to take this concept and turn it into an actual story? When did you figure out character and plot and all of the elements to make it into an actual novel?

Emma: I figured that out as I went along because I never plot my novels. I just sit down with a very high-level concept. This woman has lost her husband. She’s going to fall in love again. I just start writing with no idea about any of those things. It’s almost like the action unfolds on a movie screen in front of me. I’m scrambling to try to get it down on the page. I know a lot of writers have that experience. It’s exciting. You’re discovering it and wanting to race to the end and find out what happens. There’s a secret that exists between Kate’s husband and her new love interest. I planted that early on in the book and said there was this big secret, but I had no idea what it was at the time. I just couldn’t wait to find out myself and really didn’t figure it out until, almost, she figured it out, quite a long way into the writing process. Then of course, you do go back after you’ve done that first draft and think, right, what do we need to now feed in and seed in earlier on? You go back. A lot of the writing is in the rewriting and the editing. Really, that first draft, I threw together in a very short space of time, mainly, at two o’clock in the morning just because I had children. I was squeezing it in at odd hours of the day. Then the rewriting process took much longer.

Zibby: What was it like working with different editors for your Australia/UK, all of that, edition versus then having to touch it again with us?

Emma: I just feel so privileged with the editors I’ve had here and with you. It’s been such a beautiful collaborative experience. To me, I feel as though I get to a point with a book where I’ve gone as far as I can possibly go on my own. I need professional help at that point from editors who come in there with a different viewpoint. I was really appreciative that you have accepted this Australian-set story and kept it in Australia. Really, the story of grief could’ve been transplanted and put anywhere in the world. It means a lot to me that I’ve written about my hometown of Canberra and a place near where I grew up, at Christmas holidays having these gorgeous beach experiences. I think it’ll be something that, I hope, American readers are going to love exploring.

Zibby: They will, for sure. Also, as you’re talking, I’m like, I have to — I’ve never been to Australia. I’m dying to go. We’ll have to do some sort of Last Love Note trip for anyone who’s never been to Australia, a mini retreat or something. I did have one more question related to grief with children and all of that. There was a mom who passed away suddenly at my kids’ school. I don’t know the family at all, but obviously, they’re in the community. I sent a note to the husband on email from the directory just to say, my thoughts are with you. Is there anything other people can do when they know of someone, either someone close to them or someone they know, who has lost a parent who has kids? What is your advice to people who can be of service but don’t quite know how?

Emma: It’s interesting. I was very privileged in that I had a huge community of support rally behind us when it happened. When I look back on it, everyone contributed something that is from their own area of specialty. If they’re good cooks, they would cook lasagnas and other dishes for us. I had one woman who saw me post something on Facebook where I said, “I hate admin. I’m drowning under all these forms that you’ve got to fill out when somebody dies.” She had a business where — she called herself Admin Bandit. It was where she would go and help people with their admin. She said, “Look, I’ll come and sit with you while you fill out these forms and help you organize it all.” As we went through, there was something for everyone. The other important thing I would say is that there’s a lot of support at the very beginning. Then that support tends to drop off, as it must because everyone has to go back to their lives. If you can’t see something right at the start when this happens to someone, bear in mind that they still need help a year later or two years later. You will always have an opportunity to contribute.

The other thing, too, is not to wait for people to ask for the help. We often say, let me know if I can do anything. It’s hard to ask for that help a lot of the time, so to just do things proactively that can help them. Then I would say, too, that people are worried about tiptoeing around and not talking about the person who died. They’re kind of worried they’ll remind you. It’s on your mind constantly. You can’t be reminded of something that you’re already thinking about. Most people that I’ve met that have had these big losses love to talk about their loved one and to keep them alive in that way and to hear stories about them. Particularly when you’ve lost somebody when they have young children, it’s so important to capture those stories so that when the children grow up, they have this secondary-source library of remembering from other people because they didn’t have a chance to form enough of their own memories.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. You do such a great job, also, with these hilarious situations in this Bridget Jones-esque tone. You’re really rooting for Kate to get through anything. You’re just so funny. Even the dialogue, all of it, it’s hilarious. What are the tricks to pulling off great humor writing? Did you always write like this? Where did this voice come from? Is it just totally natural to you?

Emma: I’m pretty sure that voice came from my mom. After she died, we found a whole lot of letters that she had written home to her parents when we were kids, and they were absolutely hilarious, just her observation of the ordinary and the sense of the ridiculous. There’s just so much content in all of our lives. A lot of the things that happen that, at the time, might feel like you’re having a bad day are actually really quite funny if you can just put that slant on it. You do that brilliantly yourself. I see it all the time on social media and your videos. It’s hilarious. I think it’s about paying attention. One of the classic stories from my book was that scene where the five-year-old walks out and says, “Why did Daddy have a grenade in his study?” That was entirely based on what happened in our house. Jeff was a military historian. He had a grenade. Seb walked out with it when he was five. Almost everything that I wrote there was actually real; unfortunately, without the hot neighbor and gorgeous boss. The rest of it was pretty much accurate. I would just say to pay attention because there’s so much in everyday life that can make us laugh if we’re looking for it.

Zibby: It’s so true. This morning, I had this MRI thing for my heart just as preventive. There’s this scan you can get. I went in. There was this electronic voice. It was like, “Please hold your breath.” Then they would say, “And now release it.” The whole time I was sitting there, I was like, what if the machine backfires and they forget to say that second half? I was literally like, I’m going to start laughing. Now I’m going to have to redo this whole thing. I was like, what if this room, everybody just keeps — I don’t know.

Emma: Passing out, exactly. I know. That’s the thing. It’s part imagination and part just observation.

Zibby: Very funny. How did you originally get into writing?

Emma: I started writing the day after I finished watching Anne of Green Gables in 1989. I can remember it to this day. We were at my grandmother’s house. I remember watching this and really strongly identifying with the romance between Anne and Gilbert, but also the fact that Anne was a writer. I thought, I feel like I’m a writer. I went and bought a notebook and pen, pre-computer days, and started writing this novel. It was absolutely atrocious looking back, but I was fourteen. I just remember looking at my sister and thinking, why isn’t she spending her summer holidays writing a novel? Maybe that’s what being a writer is. It’s this compulsion to tell stories even when you have an idea in your head and what you’re putting on the page is nowhere near as good as what you’re hoping to achieve. I think that’s the key for writers to be able to push through that initial first draft and the mess of it all. It’s the storytelling. Even as things are happening — I bet this happens to you too. I’m often thinking, how am I going to express that on Facebook? How will I tell this story? It’s just a constant — I don’t know. It’s never not been there right from the start.

Zibby: Almost narrating life as it happens.

Emma: Yes, that’s it.

Zibby: Reframing and all of that. Then what was the story of your first book sale when you realized you’d be a — I was going to say famous author, but of course, that’s not necessarily —

Emma: — That’s just inspirational at this point.

Zibby: It’s what we think, maybe, before our first book is published. Before your first book was published, tell me that story of acquisition and what that experience was like and how you kept going and then switching genres a little bit.

Emma: The first book that I had published was in 2005 called Wits’ End Before Breakfast: Confessions of a Working Mom. That actually came about because, like my mom writing the letters home, I used to write emails once a week to my friends and family, just with chaotic stories of what it was like to have little children and a job. One day, one of my friends overheard a stranger on the sidelines of a kids’ soccer match relaying one of these stories. Obviously, the emails had been forwarded on. She said, “Just stop sending these emails, and bundle it all up and send it to a publisher,” which is pretty much what I did. That book was published. Then I moved a few years later into writing fiction. My first young adult novel was called Unrequited. I wrote this because my fourteen-year-old daughter, at the time, hated reading, but she loved Harry Styles. I thought, I just might start a little story about a girl and a boy band and show her that reading can be fun.

It got completely out of control and ended up in a two-book deal with HarperCollins. I just became obsessed with this story. Then my own high school friend, who is a composer in Sydney and has won multiple awards, said, ” I’m desperate to write a musical based on that novel.” We’ve done that and performed it in a high school. We’re constantly working on that show and developing it. It’s really my happy place. In fact, that got me through the year after Jeff died, that show. It was just magical. Being surrounded by the exuberance of teenagers and romance and music and fun, it was incredible. Then I moved into this adult debut, which feels very grown-up in comparison with some of that. I’m just loving writing for adults now. Who knows what I might morph into next? I seem to like to jump around. I’ve also got a nonfiction title that I cowrote with Audrey Thomas called I Don’t Have Time, which is another connection that you and I have. It’s all about productivity but also things like being kind to yourself and embracing failure and having persistence and all of that sort of stuff. We’ve got fingers in a few different pies.

Zibby: You have another novel coming out with us simultaneously. Hopefully, simultaneously, but close in publishing date with your Australian release. Can you talk about that book?

Emma: That one is called Pictures of You. There’s a photography theme to this one because that’s one of my other passions. It’s a romance, but there’s a fair bit of psychological suspense as well. It starts with a woman who has — she has woken up in hospital and has misplaced half of her life. She’s got a form of amnesia after being in a car accident that took her husband’s life. She can’t remember anything about her husband or any of that period of her life. As she’s sitting in the funeral a few days later, she’s looking at the slideshow that you tend to show at one of those services. She’s thinking, I not only don’t recognize any of this, I don’t even like what I’m seeing. I’m wondering how on earth I ended up here. She begins to have a panic attack. She, effectively, goes absent from her husband’s funeral. She calls an Uber, races outside, jumps in the car, and says, “Just drive. Take me anywhere.” It turns out that she’s jumped into the car of somebody who wasn’t an Uber driver, a man who was standing outside the church trying to psych himself up to go into the funeral and to face his past. Now a part of his past is in the backseat of his car.

Zibby: So good, oh, my gosh. I have not read it yet. I am dying to. I’m very excited for this to hurry up and get done so I can enjoy. I’m very excited.

Emma: I was working on it minutes before this call.

Zibby: Okay, good. You keep at it. I’ll get off this podcast in a second. You can go back to it. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Emma: It’s similar to what I said before, which is just to push through that first draft. Get through the mess of it. Just remember that once you’ve got the words on the page, then the magic happens. It’s so easy for us to give up while we’re writing the first draft. If you get to a point and you think, I don’t know what to do, I’m stuck, I’m just going to have to put it away, just write something like, insert a chapter later. Fix this later. Move on to something that you can do. The first draft, it feels like that for everyone no matter how many books we’ve published. We all go back and start again and think, I think I’ve forgotten how to write. Just push through. You can do something with a first draft after that.

Zibby: Amazing. I’m so excited. By the way, I had shown a version of this cover for The Last Love Note to old friends of mine, Sean and Juliana McBride. They have this amazing visual sense. They were like, “I think you should do this and this.” That’s how we got to the final piece of this cover.

Emma: It’s beautiful.

Zibby: Shout-out to them. Thank you to Sean Juliana.

Emma: Thank you. Thanks very much.

Zibby: Emma, I am so proud to be the vehicle that gets this book into US hands. I feel like this was meant to be. Everything that comes out of your mouth, I’m like, yep, yep. You’re like the Australian — if I were — I don’t know. You meet these kindred spirits all over the world. It’s just so nice when you actually find them. Everybody has people like that all over. It’s just a question of, oh, my gosh, there’s this person living here. Here’s what we have in common. It makes the world feel much smaller.

Emma: It does. I’m so grateful to you and all of your team. It’s just been an amazing experience working with you. I can’t wait to come over there and go on tour.

Zibby: Yes, so fun. Thanks, Emma. Congratulations.

Emma: Thanks, Zibby. Talk to you soon.

Zibby: Bye.

Emma: Bye.

THE LAST LOVE NOTE: A Novel by Emma Grey

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