Zibby Owens: I had such a nice time interviewing Erin Geiger Smith about Thank You for Voting: The Maddening, Enlightening, Inspiring Truth About Voting in America. She also has a middle-grade version of this that she was so sweet and dropped off copies for my thirteen-year-old twins. That was just super nice of her. That tells you what she’s like as a person. Erin is a freelance reporter who writes lifestyle stories for publications including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. She’s covered everything from corporate sponsorships at children’s museums; to the cult following of Mexican Coke; to the cult for certain card makers; type-A planners conquering Disney World, which, PS, I could have written myself; and why pattern leggings were everywhere. She worked at Reuters and Business Insider covering legal news and graduated from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, the University of Texas School of Law, and the University of Texas at Austin. She grew up in Liberty, Texas, and now lives in Manhattan with her husband and son.

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

Erin Geiger Smith: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here and talk to you about the book and everything else.

Zibby: You too. Thank you for Voting, this is the best subtitle, The Maddening, Enlightening, Inspiring Truth About Voting in America. You have both this one and a younger-readers edition. Tell me about these books and what inspired you to write both and how this all happened.

Erin: I should start by saying the goal of the book is to increase voter turnout. I wanted to include all the information that would empower and inspire people to vote and bring all their friends with them, hopefully. The way the book came about is sort of two strings. One couldn’t have happened without the other. In 2016 after the election, there were so many questions that I personally had as a reporter and as a voter and just as a citizen. The world seemed so in disagreement. I’m from a tiny town in Texas. I live in New York City. Those felt like different universes. I’ve spent my whole life being able to see the commonalities. I feel like I’m very much in both places. All of a sudden, it was just different worlds. I was playing with all of those things in my head. Usually, I write features about business trends and legal trends. I don’t write about politics.

I was trying to figure out where I fit in that world and in the meantime just started writing stories about female entrepreneurs and things that I felt like got me closer to what the bigger conversation was. That included writing a lot about books because when times are trying, books always center you, I find. This is a nonfiction book, but fiction is the only thing in the world that truly relaxes me and takes me out of where I am. I started writing about, mostly stories for The Wall Street Journal, classic books people had never read. Then the story that really made me focus was talking about books that spoke the truth to young boys. We were seeing so much, especially leading up to the 2016, all these books that empower girls, which is wonderful. I wanted to find the same for my now six-year-old son. Point being, I was in the book world more than I had been as far as reporting on it. I was watching an Instagram video with Reese Witherspoon and Ann Patchett. Reese was interviewing Ann. Ann said that she — I say Ann. I did not know her at all at the time.

Zibby: That’s okay. Reese and Ann, it’s fine.

Erin: I don’t know Reese Witherspoon either, I should point out, but she feels more of a first-name basis all the time. Reese was interviewing Ann Patchett. Ann was saying that she was writing a book about women and voting. For whatever reason, I thought, that’s it. That’s something that I can do as almost a side project. I was a lawyer before, a reporter now. I just thought, I’m going to try to be a part of that. Truly out of nowhere, I emailed Ann Patchett’s publicist and offered my services. “If Ann needs a researcher, I would like to do it.” I was able to hopefully not sound like a crazy person by pointing out all of these books I’d recently written for The Wall Street Journal and the legal stories I’d done and the work that I did and just said, “This is a massive project. If Ann needs helps researching or conducting background interviews, I’m happy to do it,” and honestly assumed I’d never hear anything of it, but I was inspired by the project. Then in a very short amount of time I got an email from Ann who said, “Let’s talk. What do you think you can do for me?” I quickly developed a plan of how I would research this. Within a couple weeks, Ann and I had met. She lives in Nashville but had come to New York for something. We worked out what this would be. The idea was I would research a topic a month and send her a packet which she would kind of sit on because she was writing a novel. That’s the novel that turned out to be The Dutch House. The goal was for her to write that novel in 2018, me do all this research, and then hand it over to Ann to write the book.

Then in August of 2018, Ann — she tells this story on her book tour. I’m not telling stories out of school. Ann says that she realized she had made a massive mistake in the novel that she had written, and she trashed it. She threw it away, her entire novel. No one read it but her. She said, “I messed up. I have to start over.” It was going to make the timing for this book a real crunch. She said, “Erin, you’ve been doing all the research for this book. You have become passionate about it.” I had. I had essentially stopped doing my real work and was spending all my time researching this book. I would send Ann the packet. She was like, “Are you maybe spending too much time on this?” I couldn’t stop. I really became obsessed. Ann was like, “This is yours. This is your book. It’s not mine. See if you can make it happen.” The timing at that point was — this was September of 2018. It would need to be wrapped up by, first draft, July of 2019. It was then a quick move. I came up with an outline and was able to quickly present it and show what I would do with it. That’s the publishing story of how this book came to be. Then the first string is the reporting of — I was already in it. Then this kind of just came. It’s the craziest story that there is. As a freelance reporter, you have to do a ton of hustling. This was all of a sudden, I was doing some publishing hustling that I hadn’t realized I was going to be doing. I’m so grateful.

Zibby: Basically, you accidentally wrote your own book.

Erin: I accidentally wrote a book, exactly, and then wrote two books. After we were working on this, they decided it would work well for the young readers. As parents who are preparing to vote, obviously we want to help our kids prepare to vote too. That was the idea for the young readers. That didn’t come about until probably five months into writing the adult book. It was a very quick clip, but I had spent, at that point, nine months really diving in. As I look at it in hindsight, I was researching it as if I was going to be writing the book myself even though that wasn’t the plan at all at the time. I’m grateful that I couldn’t stop and became obsessed or I might have been in real trouble.

Zibby: I read a bunch of your previous articles for The Wall Street Journal and all the rest. I read about why patterned leggings are now all the rage.

Erin: legging story.

Zibby: I don’t think I can pull off the patterned leggings that well. My daughter loves them, so that’s good enough.

Erin: Listen, I wrote that story because I was and mostly still am a purely black leggings workout person. Then all of a sudden it became, I was nearly one of the only people. The leggings just got wild. It’s a great consumer story. It was a tough sell at first, but then I had some female editors in the realm who were like, “No, really, that’s a thing that’s happening.” That’s one of those stories I got so much feedback on. You never know what’s going to hit people, but that one, the patterned leggings was a — it was one that, as I wrote it, it’s all female-owned businesses and mostly young people who are making it work, so it was a really fun story.

Zibby: I also read how super type-A planners tackle Disney World because I wrote a similar thing which I don’t think I ever even published. I just gave it to all my friends because they knew that for a while I had been going to Disney World quite often. It was something like “The Neurotic New Yorker’s Guide to Disney World.” Basically, I had all the inside scoop on Disney. I was like, oh, my god, this is it. She did the same thing. You did all the research.

Erin: I’m glad that it tracked for you. I wish I had known to call you at the time. It’s fascinating. Then also, I think it scared me because, man, you have to work to make it work. I feel sorry for my six-year-old. I’m waiting for him to demand the Disney trip because it almost scared me that it had to be done. I loved hearing about people’s intricate planning. It was fun.

Zibby: My point in bringing up some of your past work and your profile of the juice press owner and all these very relatable lifestyle-type features, how did you go from those — now I know the story, but what is it that brought you from that type of writing to the obsessive part? That’s what I find super interesting. How did you become obsessed with this? Had you yourself been thinking about voting? Was this a latent interest of yours that then just percolated because there was the opportunity? Was it completely random? How did you get there? What made you so obsessed with it?

Erin: Before I was a journalist, I was an attorney. I went to law school. You read all of these, the major civil rights and voting law cases, and learn about the passage of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments ending slavery and all of those things. The legal side of me is always there. I found all of those cases interesting and sort of never gave that up. Then when I was a legal reporter at Reuters, you have to follow, of course, all the current-day cases. I never left the world of knowing what was happening in the arena of voting rights, but I had never fully focused on it. You’re absolutely right. I always kept up to date without diving in. Then what really got me on the track of being obsessed with voting was all of the questions that came up after the election, of the electoral college and what happens when the popular vote and the electoral college vote don’t match up. I knew that, but I didn’t know how many times it had happened before or what the protocols were. Then all of the stories after the election on voter turnout, I just couldn’t believe how low our voter turnout is for younger people. I read way, way too much news and always have. I think all of those seeds were there. Then once I started really diving into the history and laying out the timeline of those supreme court cases and how much it impacts current day, that’s when I just couldn’t let it go, basically.

It sounds so obnoxious in a way, but I was trying to find, what part could I play in helping us be a little more active? I talk to so many people in the book who were so inspiring that just saw the issue and created organizations and rallied people. I’m not a shy person. I’m clearly, as your listeners can tell, often talk too much, but I’m much better at digging into the words and what’s there than I am at standing in front of people and talking. This just felt like my way to get good information out there. Then also, I couldn’t stop because I learned so much. I would’ve thought because of my background that I understood what was going on with voting and I understood what voter suppression was still happening, but I understood it at a top level. This let me keep digging and digging. I was learning so much. In a way, it was a selfish project too because I learned so much about something that we all do regularly, or should do regularly. If you’re lucky enough that your parents taught you to vote, generally you go and vote pretty often. I had taken that for granted too, that my mom brought me with her to vote. We lived in a really small town. We would go to our library. She would chat with the poll workers. I would listen for gossip because that’s how small the town was. We’d vote and it was done. It was just something that I always did. Then when I started researching and realized how we just fail our young people by not teaching them how to vote and then we get upset when their voter turnout is low — if no one’s taught you that you have to register, and in many states, thirty days in advance, there’s just so many little details. I was so moved by the people who were doing that work. This seemed like a way to tell more people about their work, essentially.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I remember taking my twins when they were really little. It was so cold out. The line to vote was wrapped around this outside courtyard that was like six basketball courts all lined up outside in some sort of school or something. They still are like, “Can you remember that time we had to wait an hour and a half to vote?”

Erin: That was so cold.

Zibby: I know. I’m like, “Yes, I remember that time.”

Erin: Great to take them, though.

Zibby: Yeah, it’s great to take — after that, they were like, “I’ll pass.” In all your research, if you could think of the most powerful thing you found or that you would want to say about voting or that could convert nonvoters to become voters, what would that be? What was the most powerful thing?

Erin: I think the most powerful thing sounds like such a simple thing. That is that the person who has the most influence on getting people to vote is you. You have the best chance of getting your friends and your family and your colleagues, and if you go to church or synagogue, those people, to vote if you help them learn the rules and provide them a plan. Those things can actually be, it’s pretty simple to do once you arm yourself with the information. I think that that is the most important takeaway of the book. I hopefully help you learn the websites that you can find that information on. Then if you just start a text chain with five people that you want to make sure go to the polls — if you have friends that you know are going to vote, maybe don’t choose them for your text chain. If you have a niece who’s turning eighteen as I do, it’ll be her first time to vote, people like that that you can make sure, “Today’s the last day to register. Make your voting plan. Look up where your polling place is. Especially now, what are the vote-by-mail rules?” if you can help people with that information, it can make a big impact. If we all did that, I think it can be a big change. Then the second thing is one that requires a little more educating, but I do think those of us who are lucky enough to be able to vote easily and have mostly always been able to vote without trouble, if we can educate ourselves a little bit on whatever’s going on in your state. See what the League of Women Voters is trying to do in your state. It’s on their website. You can go to the League of Women Voters website. It tells you what lawsuits they’re involved in or organizations they’re helping out. I think understanding what’s going on in your state to make it easier and more convenient to vote is the second step for those with a little more time and inclination.

Zibby: I love how in the back of your book — we’re on Skype, so nobody can see this but you and me. Sorry, but I am showing that you have this great checklist of all the things you need to know with Thank you for Voting: A Checklist: what you have to do today, what you have to do forty days before an election, thirty days before an election, ten days before, the day before, and then on election day, what you have to do. Then you have this great thing called Thank you for Voting: Tell Your Friends. You have this little, it’s says, “Dear @, @, @, Let’s make our voices heard on election day. I pledge to you that I’m going to vote in the next election. Will you pledge to vote too? Thank you for voting.” Then you’re supposed to put your name. This is a great. It’s a whole campaign you can do on Instagram, @ThankYouForVoting, to spread the word and make it viral. @ThankYouForVoting can be a great —

Erin: — Thank you. I’d love to see people do that. I’m very excited for — once the book actually goes out in the world, I hope that people do that. I’m a big checklist person, and so I wanted to include that because I think it’s so — voting can be overwhelming. I feel for myself and hopefully by laying it out it can kind of — if you’re a checklist person, it’s right there for you.

Zibby: Erin, what are you working on now? The book is coming out.

Erin: Oh, my god.

Zibby: Not that you have to be working on anything, but I’m just wondering.

Erin: I know. I don’t have any big project that’s next. I am excited to hopefully get back to writing a few stories that take me a couple weeks or a month to write instead of a year and a half. When you’re used to being a newspaper reporter — when I was at Reuters, I’d write two or three stories a day. Now I get to spend a couple weeks reporting. I wouldn’t mind doing something that runs a little quicker. The way the news cycle was with coronavirus and the protests, there isn’t a lot of room in the news right now for freelancers to write feature stories. That’s just not where we are. Hopefully if things calm down a little bit and we have time to take a larger view, I hope to write stories highlighting what the people in the book are doing right now. Of course, the nature of a book is you have to cut it off a little early. They’ve started all different new initiatives. I want to write about that. I’m really anxious to write more, this is the same topic, but on how companies are helping people to vote. Anyone who works in a corporation could get their corporation to help employees and customers vote. There’s easy ways they can do it, and nonpartisan ways. I think that has a chance for a big impact. That’s a business story I want to write soon. Otherwise, I don’t know. I love authors. My quarantine book club has saved me. I have a lifetime of admiration for people who write books. Then after doing one, it is times a hundred. Diving back in and writing another one is so, so impressive to me. While I hope to get there, the people who immediately have a new idea, hats off to them. I am not there yet. I’m hoping to read some more books. When we’ve been in quarantine, I’ve been able to read a ton, but I missed so many books while I was writing this one.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Erin: It’s so hard. Like I said, if it is in you that you want to write a book, I think that’s wonderful and probably the most important ingredient. I think there’s no magic to it. Part of the way I was able to do this was because Ann gave me such amazing advice in the way her process is. It’s work. You have to sit down and do the work and put the words on the page and set yourself up by doing the necessary preparations. In the best way possible, it’s not magic. So often when I was younger, I would look at authors’ work and think, gosh, they had this idea. They write so beautifully. It just fell from them, basically. You just have to think every sentence has been worked and reworked. One thing, I don’t know if this is helpful to all writers, but that I tell younger reporters all the time who are hesitant to get started — I often find for myself, I talk myself out of ideas and just don’t know how to get started because I can be overwhelmed with how well other people do. Anything you read in the newspaper or books, eighteen people have probably looked at that and helped improve it. Just getting it down and then recognizing how much work you get to do on the back end is important too. Seek out good readers. That’s also what I would say. It’s so important to not get trapped in your own mind, which I think is so easy to do. Find people who are going to read your work and be kind but honest. I think a kind-but-honest reader is the most important one you would have. It took me a while to get there. Maybe that’s my top advice. Be brave. Take the leap. Find a kind and honest reader.

Zibby: Awesome. Thanks, Erin. Thanks for coming on the show. Thanks for inspiring all of us to vote. It’s so important. I will be touting your message and tagging you and all the rest, especially as we get closer to the election. Thanks for getting ahead of it and having this book come out and all of it and helping improve the country, really. It’s important.

Erin: That feels big, but I still will just say thank you. I hope the book is helpful. If people have voting questions, I’m easily findable on Twitter and Instagram. I’m happy to try to find the answer for them. If it’s not in the book, ask me and I’ll search it out.

Zibby: My last question to you is, I’m loving the dress that you’re wearing which no one can see except for me. Those are my favorite colors. It’s a blue and —

Erin: — You’re wearing blue too.

Zibby: I know. I love it. I’ll cut this part out, but where did you get that dress?

Erin: It’s a shirt. I think it’s Maria Cornejo.

Zibby: I literally would go buy the same. I’m obsessed with it. You look great. It’s awesome.

Erin: Just last year. Thank you. I’ll show you.

Zibby: So cute. Thank you again. Thanks for coming on the show.

Erin: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Bye, Erin.