Zibby Owens: Welcome, Felicia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” today.

Felicia Luna Lemus: Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here to get to talk with you. Thank you.

Zibby: You too. Particulate Matter, do you call it a poem? How do you describe it? It’s beautiful and made me feel so accomplished because on this page, all it says is, “Don’t they have an app for that?” and I read an entire page. I feel like this is the perfect book for people who don’t have time because each page just has about one sentence, which is great.

Felicia: I’m glad that it’s handy in that way. That’s wonderful to hear.

Zibby: Very handy. Not your intention, but a side benefit.

Felicia: It’s creative nonfiction. I don’t refer to it as a poem or memoir, but I think that it is a bit of both of those things. For me, it’s just the best way that I was able to try to create a portrait of this particular moment in my life. This was the form that it took. In part, the funny thing that you say, for folks who don’t feel like they have a lot of time to read, I felt like I didn’t have a lot of bandwidth and energy and headspace at that particular moment to write. Part of it was, things came out in a concise form. Then I edited it even more to get it even more exact in the ways that I wanted it to be. There’s something to that. I could hear that.

Zibby: For listeners who don’t know, why don’t you tell us about the story that is encapsulated in this work of creative nonfiction? What is it you needed to work through? Tell us that time and place and the emotion, which obviously comes across on the page immediately, but for those who haven’t read it yet.

Felicia: Thank you. This is a piece that I wrote when my spouse was very ill. There was a point where she developed — she’d been a lifelong athlete her entire life, and an avid hiker, played all kinds of competitive sports through school, always incredibly healthy. Out of nowhere, she developed adult-onset asthma. She went away for a business trip at one point to Seattle. We live in Los Angeles. She went away to Seattle where the air is wonderful, no air pollution or anything. She was feeling much better with her asthma. Came back home, and literally could not breathe. It was this emergency situation where the doctors said it’s truly a matter of life and death. You need to get to cleaner air immediately. We lived in a very polluted part of Los Angeles. It was the air pollution that was making her sick. It was an incredibly devastating moment for us to all of a sudden — I can’t think of many things that are — to lose a loved one and to feel the fear of, at any moment this person who I had a fairy tale, wonderful, happy life with all of a sudden might be taken away for no fault of her own.

I wrote this in that year that we were experiencing — we had to live apart for a while. It was just a really hard time. It was a very hard time. At the same time, I think it was one of those moments where I realized that these everyday details that are so — sometimes you’re just rushing around, rushing around in life. Before, I did not stop to notice the beautiful things in the everyday. All of a sudden, I was profoundly aware of them and grateful for them, just any little thing that could get me through to the next day and to try to get us through this thing that we’re going through. Thankfully, the air helped. That’s been a wonderful change in our lives. This is the book that came out of that. It’s a love letter to her. These were the things that I noticed when we had to be apart and I was facing the possibility of losing her. It was a horrible, horrible thing to think about.

Zibby: What did she say when she read it?

Felicia: It’s hard for both of us, honestly. It takes us back to a particular moment that we are so grateful to be past at this point. She knows how much I love her. She’s my one. I think it’s hard to read about a difficult moment in our life. At the same time, it’s a love letter. She knows it. She knows it’s filled with love. It’s just how profoundly I adore her. It’s the whole thing of when you love someone so much, when something happens, it’s really devastating. I felt the earth shake when this was a possibility.

Zibby: It’s also so timely because of everyone’s sort of collective inability to breathe right now with the pandemic, emotionally, but also physically. This is the main effect that people have, when COVID attacks your lungs and you can’t breathe. Everyone is going through their own version of this hell at the moment, and the fires, even, in the book. Then there were more fires. It’s your own experience, but you’re closely tracking collectively certainly what everyone in Los Angeles is going through and around the world, really. It’s a moment in time that maybe — I’m sure you couldn’t have possibly intended it to mirror our reality. It just goes to show how much your individual experience can really reflect a greater collective. That sounded like a total ramble. I hope you know what I’m talking about.

Felicia: Thank you. I really appreciate that. It was a profoundly vulnerable-making human experience. In whatever form that comes into our lives, we all experience it one way or another. I don’t wish that experience on anyone. The pandemic that we’ve been going through, just the ways that it so profoundly impacted people’s lives and rippled out all across the globe, it’s horrifying. It’s really awful. At the same time, I’m hopeful that there’s something in what I wrote that can give some comfort to someone who maybe has gone through something similar. There’s so much beauty in the world. Also, we all have pain. We all love. We all experience loss. If there’s any way to have that human connection, I’d be really grateful for that. That would be really wonderful.

Zibby: Even just flipping through randomly, these simple images you have. “This bean and cheese burrito is, as always, too much for me to eat. Your half is waiting for you.” Then of course, it’s tinged with, is this person going to come back? “The hearing in my right ear keeps going out. Quiet whispers. I stand at the mirror and hold a flashlight to my ear. The whispers stop. The only scratching I could hear stopped. I keep walking into spiderwebs face first. Another web. I am beyond exhausted and numb. I don’t want to get used to this.” It’s just so raw. It’s like I’m reading your diary and you’re here in my computer. It’s like some bizarre experience. “Down the rabbit hole we go. The ten-minute nap with you on the new bed, heaven. I hope we can keep it. A cup of peppermint tea made from you with a spoonful of wildflower honey, heaven. You, heaven.” It’s so beautiful. It’s really beautiful. Here is my question. In terms of making this into a book — there aren’t that many words. I don’t know how long it would be if you put it in one Word doc, to be totally technical now to get us away from this emotion and whatever. It’s so cute and small. Cute is the wrong word because this is a serious book. The format of it is so compact. How did you know this could actually be a book versus a novella or a short essay somewhere? How did you convince somebody to publish it in this form? It’s awesome. People are always like, publishers don’t want this, publishers don’t want that. Now here is a book which is totally different, which is, in part, why I wanted to talk to you about it because it’s just so cool. How did it become a book? Do you know what I mean?

Felicia: I think you hit on something, though. It really is, in some ways, like my diary of that particular time and experience. There would sometimes be one thing that I would fixate on in a day. My mind would just play with it all day, one detail from the world around me or something that I was noticing at home that normally I would just tell Nina about at the end of the day in passing. All of a sudden, it had this huge importance and magnified presence in my life. I’d write it down. It’d be sometimes one sentence, one particular detail that I would just try to capture as specifically as I could. It’s that thing of when you’re going through something that is so all-encompassing, sometimes that’s how the brain works through a situation. I was giving so much energy to do everything that I could to help her get better and to try to keep our life together.

Sometimes all that I could focus on was one specific detail. That’s what got me through. It was that one particular beautiful detail like a hummingbird’s nest, just this magical thing that this hummingbird’s nest fell outside our house. All of a sudden, it was there. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. It gave me some hope. It made me sad too because I thought there should be little birds in here. It was this whole mix. Everything had the layers like that. I’m lucky that I work with really wonderful publishers who are happy to take risks and are happy to try to push the boundaries of what’s included in literature. Akashic Books, they’re amazing. That’s what their whole purpose is, is to really expand those boundaries and to bring to the center, pieces that may not be conventional in some ways but that still really speak to a human experience and hopefully are good literature. I’m hopeful that this lands in a way that, even though it’s so different, people will appreciate it as much as one of my novels.

Zibby: I didn’t mean different would be bad. Different is very good. As somebody who reads a zillion books and looks at books so often, even the books I don’t end up reading but I evaluate or whatever, to have something so different makes me stop and sit and look. In a way, that’s also what these life experiences do to us. You’re going and going and going. Then next thing you know, you’re not going anywhere. You’re just forced to stop and sit. I feel like the form of the book mirrored the sentiment of the book. I think it really worked. That’s my own two cents. Tell me more about your writing in general and novels and how you got started as a writer and how we got here, you and me, this afternoon.

Felicia: Well, because you very graciously invited me to come talk with you. It’s funny. I thought I was going to be an academic. I studied history in college. I absolutely loved it. I was all geared up to go and focus on German history in particular. I was really interested in cultural history and all different sorts of things like that. I went through my program as rigorously — I was a nerd. I’m just going to say that. I was an absolute nerd. I was convinced that I was going to be a professor. My professors were supportive of it. Then all of a sudden about a year after I had finished that and I was actually in a teaching credential program because I thought maybe I’d want to do this for a little bit first, I saw an advertisement in the OC Weekly where I lived in Orange County in Southern California at that point. It was kind of like The Village Voice publication.

It was a photograph of this historical figure, . I saw this picture. I was like, oh, my gosh, who is this punk riot girl? She looked fierce and wonderful. That was kind of my scene at that point. I thought, there’s got to be some great show that’s coming through town. No, it turns out that it was actually an Edward Weston photograph. There was some very classy, very lovely exhibit in Laguna Beach that I ended up going and seeing. The second I saw this person — I had no idea who this person was. There was very little written about her at that point. I was just absolutely obsessed and compelled and could not stop thinking about her and started writing. That’s how it happened. I was obsessed with this person that I couldn’t find anything out about. I started writing these stories trying to imagine who she was. That material became part of what was then transformed into my first novel. Then I came back to it for my second. That’s where it went. It’s the whole thing of if you just have that one moment where everything changes course. Here I am.

Zibby: Wow. Tell me about, when did you get off the main track and sit and start writing and said, this is it? How did it work in terms of publication? Did you sell the pitches of that? Tell me a little more about it.

Felicia: I ended up going to graduate school. As a nerd, I felt like I needed to learn more and be guided and just learn more. I wanted to know more about how to do this and to learn from some people who knew how to do it well. I went to graduate school. My thesis ended up becoming my first novel. It was really difficult at first to try to get it placed. Then once it happened, it just all clicked really beautifully. I’m really grateful for it. It was a really lucky set of events that happened.

Zibby: Amazing. Are you working on anything now?

Felicia: Oh, my gosh, I’m always writing. There’s so much going on in the world right now. I’m trying to figure out what the next project’s going to be. There’s so many things that I’ve been thinking about. It’s going to take a minute. There’s just so much going on in the world that is worthy of being addressed in a really smart way. I think it’s going to take me a second to try to figure out how I might try to contribute to that.

Zibby: All right, we’ll give you a second.

Felicia: Thank you.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Felicia: Read everything you can, especially the things that inspire you. Read it as a book lover and also actively reading it to figure out how writers are doing the magic that they do that inspires you. Work really hard. Be kind. I think that’s important. Be kind to the people who support you and take time to read your work and offer feedback. Be appreciative of all of that because it’s always a group effort to get this stuff done. Stay humble. Just keep working hard. Keep at it. If it’s what you love, it’ll click.

Zibby: And don’t forget to breathe.

Felicia: That too, and stretch, especially right now with everything being on computer all the time. Be sure to go outside and enjoy beautiful nature. Spend time with people that you find joy in. Stay human

Zibby: I miss people. I miss people a lot. Thank you. Thank you for your time. I’m so glad our paths have crossed in this bizarre format such as it is. Thank you for talking about your work. I’m glad that your partner is okay and that you guys got through this. I hope you both have continued health and all the rest.

Felicia: Thank you. I really appreciate it. You and your family too.

Zibby: Take care.

Felicia: Bye. Thank you.

Zibby: Buh-bye.