Francesca Serritella, GHOSTS OF HARVARD

Francesca Serritella, GHOSTS OF HARVARD

Francesca Serritella joins Zibby to discuss her debut novel, Ghosts of Harvard, which was inspired by a real death that occurred during Francesca’s first year of undergrad. The two talk about what she did to capture the emotions of going away to college with a darker twist, the role Harvard played in this story and in history, and the influence that Francesca’s mother —author Lisa Scottoline— has had on her personal and professional developments.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Francesca. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Ghosts of Harvard.

Francesca Serritella: Oh, please. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so honored. My mom and I both are just total fangirls of yours. I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I adore your mom. She’s amazing.

Francesca: She’s the best.

Zibby: The two of you, really sensational. We all have to get together at some point. I guess I could loop in my own mom. Mother’s Day episode something or other.

Francesca: That would be the best.

Zibby: Tell listeners about Ghosts of Harvard and how you came up with the idea for this book and what it’s about.

Francesca: Ghosts of Harvard is my debut novel, my first novel. It’s a long dream realized. It’s been a really special experience, even coming out in this weird years that we’ve had. These virtual connections have just been everything. Ghosts of Harvard follows the story of a young woman named Cady Archer who is struggling in the aftermath of her beloved older brother’s suicide. Her big brother Eric was her hero. He was that gold standard by which she measured herself her whole life. He was a genius, a prodigy even. He made getting into Harvard look easy. It seemed like he just had the brightest future guaranteed. While he was a student at Harvard, he began having mental health struggles, ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia, and sadly, dies by suicide on campus. Cady has so many unanswered questions. She’s so haunted by, what could she have done differently? What did she miss that might have prevented her brother’s death? She knows the answers are only in one place, on Harvard’s campus. She attends herself. She’s trying to piece together the mystery of his final year, of how this life could take this unfathomable turn, and begins hearing voices herself. Then the new question is, is she losing her mind like her brother, struggling from the same illness, or could these voices be something else? Could they be ghosts? Once she begins hearing voices herself, she starts to question, what if I listen? What if these voices could lead me to the answers she craves and the ghost she misses most, her brother? Then the question is, are they going to lead her to that, or are they just going to lead her down a path of her own self-destruction? It’s a blend of a psychological thriller. It has these historical and supernatural elements. Really, at its core, it’s a family drama and a story about identity as much as it is about grief.

Zibby: Wow. Good pitch, by the way. Well done. That was awesome.

Francesca: Except for the dog interrupting with the barking.

Zibby: Whatever. That’s life. That’s life today. Tell me about how this novel came to be, debut novel. How long did this take? When did you start it? When did you come up with the idea?

Francesca: I wrote this novel while trying to build the rest of my life and the rest of my career. I wrote it over ten years. It really took nearly a decade. Like I said, I was juggling a lot, like we all do. Maybe if I had been juggling less or just had better self-confidence, I could’ve written it faster. I went to Harvard undergrad myself. There was a sad story, really, that inspired me for this book. When I was a junior, a young man in my dorm died by suicide. He wasn’t a close friend, but this was someone I was used to seeing in the dining hall every day, and especially, someone who I never would’ve thought was suffering from what could be a terminal illness. That’s the cruelty of mental illness, is that it’s invisible. With these high-achieving kids, you have no inkling. We were all shocked and saddened. I think as a community, and even among my roommates, there’s such a fear of saying the wrong thing about suicide. It comes from a good place of sensitivity, but it defaults to just compartmentalization and silence and quiet. It got bottled up and put away wherever painful, complicated things do. I don’t think we really processed it together.

Then the following year, it was my senior year, I remember picking up The Harvard Crimson, the newspaper. There was a little article about that young man’s little sister, herself only a high school senior at the time, had learned to play guitar in that interim because her big brother was a musician. She came to Harvard’s campus and played a musical tribute to him on the anniversary of his passing. I just remember the wind feeling knocked out of me. God, what was that year like for her? For all of us where we could just have a painful thing and shrink from it or have a wall up, that compartmentalization, that is not an option for the family. A tragedy like suicide doesn’t happen to just one person in a family. It happens to the whole. How you grieve when you don’t have that community support and you don’t have those people — I was so moved by the labor of love, of learning guitar, coming to the campus where this tragedy happened and playing, even just playing for older kids, much less that heavy, weighty legacy. I was so moved by her courage and her love. I want to be really clear that the book is absolutely not based on that family. I never did any more research into that family. It’s not based on them. It’s not based on any real family. In my heart, what I was so moved by was the sibling love. That’s what inspired me to tell it from a sibling’s perspective.

Zibby: It’s haunting in many ways, as you point out. What could you have done? The way that her brother had taken such good care of her and how she just keeps thinking — hold on, let’s see if I dogeared a page to read a good quote. Maybe I didn’t. He had always been there for her, always ready to catch her. Yet then in the one moment that he needed help — she almost fell off a roof once. He grabbed her at the ankles and saved her. Then when it was his time to fall, she wasn’t there to save him. That stays with her forever even though, of course, you say, it’s not your fault and blah, blah, blah. Just that residual guilt, and especially from a big brother who you’ve been under their wing for so long and yet then you can’t repay the favor, it was very emotional to read it. You got us right in the heart of the characters. I found myself so loving Cady and empathizing with her and just really liking her as a person.

Francesca: Thank you so much. That’s so gratifying to hear. I’m an only child. I think that, in part, contributes to my fascination with that sibling bond. What do we know better than that which we don’t have but want? I, growing up, really dreamed of having a big brother, was the fantasy. It is that protective fantasy and those narratives that we have around that type of relationship. I think what that main character really has to contend with during the course of this book — this is why I say the book is as much about identity as it is about grief. Her relationship with her brother was true and authentic and real and wonderful, but she also has some stories about it that she is telling herself, stories about her role in her family, her brother’s role, her brother being the star and she being the second banana, but sort of a happy second banana. That shadow was a comfort. Now that his narrative has changed, stopped being the superstar brother to a tragic story, how does that impact her? That narrative that her brother always saved her and then she missed her moment to repay him, there is an element of truth that haunts her, but there is also, as we see as the story unfolds, more complications to that.

Zibby: As in any loss. Some bits and pieces of the relationship get completely magnified, especially in the aftermath. Others, it takes longer to remember or give attention to over time. I thought it was really moving and great and funny too, by the way. I love her and her roommates. Sometimes with books that take place on campuses — you can compare this to Alex Michaelides’ new book. There are all these campus books, but sometimes they make me feel old. Not those two in particular. Being on the campus in the characters’ eyes, I’m like, oh, my gosh, that was so long ago. This didn’t make me feel old at all. I felt on the exact same wavelength as this character. It could’ve just been me as opposed to looking back and feeling like, what? What are kids up to today?

Francesca: I’m so glad. One, obviously, we are very young, so of course, we wouldn’t feel old. You’re right. I think that’s because I really wanted to situate myself in the consciousness of this woman who happens to be a college student, but not from any kind of place of condescension, or even lovingly so. What I remember about college and what I think is so key to this book is that it’s this time where you don’t feel young. You feel like the most important and oldest and kind of readiest that you’ve ever been. It’s this strange duality. As older adults, we look back and think, oh, that was the beginning of everything. To the student themselves, it feels like the culmination. It feels like this time in which every choice is so consequential. It starts even before they get in. If I don’t get into the right college, my whole life is off track. Once I’m at the right college, if I don’t get the right grades, I’m not going to get the right job. If I don’t meet the right person, I’m never going to get married and fall in love.

The stakes feel so high. It’s artificial. It comes from a bit of a naiveté, but such an earnestly held belief. I think that’s why some of these different struggles or mental health struggles or even just the normal struggles, like you said, with a roommate, can be very fraught and very heavy on these people’s shoulders because it just feels like, this is such a critical time. That feeling of time closing in on you, both the weight of your personal history and then, for Harvard, this enormous national history and legacy, and the weight of the future, this pressure of expectations of, this is your golden ticket if only you don’t blow it, that claustrophobia is what I really wanted to capture. That’s something that even before I ever knew I’d write about Harvard — you know that school is a character the moment you step foot on campus. It is larger than life. It’s larger than you. I felt that past and future overlapping. I wanted to both represent the psychological experience of it and then have a bit of fun making it almost literal with these historical ghosts.

Zibby: It’s true. I actually stopped and was thinking about it as I was reading. It’s hard to imagine that the school predates the country. What were those students like? What was that like? It’s in the same place. I know this is obvious, but I was trying to put myself back in those moments.

Francesca: It’s not obvious because it’s so challenging to wrap your mind around that the school was founded in 1636. It doesn’t just predate our nation. It predates it by a hundred years more.

Zibby: Yeah, not by a year or two.

Francesca: This is really the cradle of the nation, of the plotting and planning and vision for what America was ideally going to be. Writing that narrative, they were writing the story of America. They were penning it from the beginning. What I wanted to show in this book is how we have those personal histories and stories and narratives, and we have these national ones. We long to rewrite them. We keep editing them and keep tweaking them. Sometimes there is a real departure from the truth.

Zibby: I also loved how you introduced a character. Right from the start, her aunt, Cady’s aunt, who has a disability and is in a wheelchair, you treated that in such an amazing way. It just is what it is. She leaned over to say goodbye. I love seeing that because you really don’t see that many disabled characters in fiction.

Francesca: Oh, my god, I’m so touched and happy that you said that because you’re the first interviewer who has ever mentioned it. That was something important to me because it’s true of my own family. My late uncle had cerebral palsy but was just still an incredible, awesome uncle who was a sports aficionado and savant. He knew so many stats and was really a cool and great person but also struggled not as much with his disability, but with society’s reaction to it. I think, actually, that caused more mental anguish than anything that would’ve originated from his disability. Of course, he was born a different time, in the late thirties. He had an entire different trajectory than we have today. Disability is a fact of many families and deserves representation and love and characters. I think it’s weird that we don’t see it more in fiction because it’s just a part of many lives.

Zibby: Yeah, I agree. I just loved that. The last thing with all these intricate, interpersonal relationships is your investigation of how Cady’s mom handles the death of her brother and her having to still be a parent to Cady at the same time and how even something as simple as being able to drop your child off at college seems insurmountable to her or that she can’t go back for whatever reason and how their relationship unfolds. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Francesca: Again, I was so interested in how this singular event of losing their brother and the son this way would impact everyone and would impact them differently. Of course, the ideal would be that when a family is impacted by a tragedy, that they could all come together and really support each other. That isn’t happening with this family. It’s not because they aren’t good and loving. That was so important to me, understanding during the writing and research of this novel, that suicide affects so many families, wonderful, loving families, good families, rich families, poor families. It’s not an indictment in any way on any flaw. It’s such a complicated grief. It’s such a complicated thing to process. I think grief is an isolating emotion anyway, but then it’s really magnified. You see in this book how these family members think they’re protecting one another sometimes from emotions that are being painful.

They’re trying to soften the edges for each other, but because they’re still withholding so much and they’re holding back from each other the pieces they think are broken in the hope that that’s helping one, but holding back, it’s keeping them all separated and fractured and distant. Like I said, for my own inspiration to this book and drawing from my own experience, I don’t have a sibling, but I do have a mother I’m incredibly close with. The notion that I could be going through the hardest thing in my life and not have my mom to lean on and talk to freely, that was a fear I could very much tap into. I think that would be incredibly difficult. That schism, the heartbreak that she and her mom are not able to comfort each other for their own reasons at the beginning of this book, I think is really as much of a source of pain for her as the loss of her brother even though she can’t really name it yet.

Zibby: You lose so much because the family itself is the loss. It shapeshifts into something else. What you knew is gone. I lost a really close friend to suicide a long time ago. I’m still in touch with her mom and everything. It doesn’t go away. It’s still top of mind all the time. I do think it is a complicated grief that people don’t know how to talk about and find it easier, maybe, to avoid discussion, which is definitely not the right path.

Francesca: Right. I have friends too. When we’ve lost someone, you go, I don’t want to bring up the painful memory if they’re in a good place, or something. Really, the default is then you’re never talking about these wonderful people. I think a great pathos of suicide is that the people who succumb to that are too often — they’re named their cause of death. When somebody dies of cancer, they’re not a cancer. Suicide, it should never be a suicide. That should never become a noun for a person. We want to talk about them and their whole life. They shouldn’t be defined by this one final moment and mistake. I was thinking very much during the writing of this book and then even during this pandemic, for this main character, the loss of her brother is that type of cataclysmic event which, in her mind, creates an alternate reality. Every step she’s at Harvard, she’s like, if my brother Eric were alive, he would be doing this. He would be helping me with this. He would be turning this age. I think that happens with many forms of loss, but now I think it just happens with anything unexpected when we’re really confronted with that loss of control. I’ve caught myself so many times this last couple years being like, oh, if the pandemic weren’t here, I would be meeting Zibby in person. I would be doing this. Maybe I would be this farther along. That’s why I got even the spooky physics of really exploring alternate realities and other dimensions. What does that feel psychologically? What does it feel scientifically? What does it feel supernaturally? Those are the types of things I was interested in.

Zibby: I’m totally fascinated by that, this whole sliding doors notion of life and mourning the life you could have led. What would it have been? What would these last two years have been like? Even a heartbreak, what would those kids have looked like if I had stayed with that guy? It’s just endless. I also loved the moment and could feel it so deeply when Cady, when her dad doesn’t tell her about her brother’s loss. She has the amount of hours exactly that she didn’t know that something had changed and that feeling which I think people feel with regard to major tragedies or their own personal losses. Oh, my gosh, I didn’t know that life was forever changed. How could I have been doing whatever stupid thing I was doing, in retrospect, when really, the biggest thing of my life had happened and I didn’t know? That’s something that I think a lot of people can relate to.

Francesca: Absolutely.

Zibby: You’re a great writer. It’s really awesome. Tell us more about your mom. I didn’t explain your mom and her books and everything. Talk a little more about her and what it’s like growing up with a writer and being a writer and all of that good stuff.

Francesca: My mom is Lisa Scottoline. She’s the author of thirty-three incredible thrillers and most recently, historical fiction with her latest Eternal.

Zibby: Which was so good, by the way. I loved Eternal. That was awesome.

Francesca: I’m so proud of her. I’m just bubbling over. Also, she and I wrote together, a series of nine essay collections that are sort of humorous and also really heartfelt and sometimes serious stories just of life as women .

Zibby: I have those here. I have your essays here. I should’ve pulled them out and reviewed them to talk to you about.

Francesca: No, you’re so sweet.

Zibby: I seriously do. If you gave me a minute, I would be able to find them.

Francesca: They have silly titles like Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat? and Have a Nice Guilt Trip. They’re really fun. They’re really true to us. I look back on those and feel so incredibly blessed that I got to have this living, permanent journal. I narrated my twenties and got to write about this time in my life and my relationship with my mom, and especially, actually, my relationship with my grandmother who I was incredibly, incredibly close to. I’m so sorry for the loss of your grandmother.

Zibby: Oh, thank you. Thanks.

Francesca: I also did a little nickname for my Muggie who we call Mother Mary in the books, but she was Muggie to me and was so precious to me and a real star and a spitfire. We had a lot of fun writing about our family. I always say about my mom that the greatest blessing was I was born not to a best-selling author, but to a beginning one. I got to watch her build her career brick by brick and see the perseverance and the just butt-in-chair time that it took to build that career. That was one of the most inspiring things. I think creative careers and writing, they’re so opaque. How does that book become on the shelf? How does a person get to do that as a job? To have it demystified and then, like I said, demystified in this really down-to-earth way in my mom, it made it seem possible. It wasn’t a given that I was going to follow in her footsteps even though we are very similar. Of course, to us, we think we’re polar opposites. Everybody else, it’s like, you’re the same. Of course, when you’re very close, any difference feels like a grain of sand in your teeth. We have our own little friction over the littlest things. It just seemed possible. I always say that the reason I’m a writer isn’t because of my mom, but that I had the courage to try is entirely because of her.

Zibby: Aw. Oh, my gosh, it would be a dream come true if one of my children ends up saying something similar.

Francesca: Listen, if you read those essay books, we have our moments. We call them our chihuahua fights. You know when two small dogs are just like, ? Attacking each other without drawing blood, that’s a lot of times our default, but it’s all with love. What I love so much about your whole series and movement and everything is that it might look — to me, you look like a superwoman mother. You’re drawing back that veil and revealing the grit and the tough times and the blood, sweat, and tears that go into it. That’s certainly what we were trying to do with our essay collections too. It’s really touching and honoring when people say, oh, you guys have the perfect relationship. I was like, oh, my gosh, once you read the book, you’ll see it’s not perfect. It’s not smooth all the time, but it’s still really authentically, fiercely loving. That’s really all that matters anyway.

Zibby: I think a lot of people aspire to that closeness. I don’t think people think it’s perfect. To be super close is something that not every mother-daughter duo gets. It’s just not in the cards.

Francesca: That’s true. I don’t take it for granted. I think in part, it came from some tough times we did have, not necessarily even between us, but just circumstantially and being on that journey. In this book, for Ghosts of Harvard, I dedicated it to her. The dedication was almost like an inside joke, but it’s not a joke. I knew people might not get it. I said, “For my mother. You kept the rickety raft afloat.” That’s because we used to play this game called rickety raft when I was little, when I really little, a small child. She would hold onto me. I would hold onto her little shoulder and would bounce on her bed. We would roll around. She’d make it like I’d almost fall off the bed, but I’d cling to her. When I look back and think about that, I’m an author, and even I would think that that metaphor and game was a little too on the nose. That was a metaphor that was true. We had, sometimes, stormy seas and sometimes felt like we were on a bit of a rickety raft, but I held onto her really tight. She held onto me. We held onto each other and got to a much smoother place and everything.

Zibby: I do that same thing with my kids, but we call it rollercoaster. I pull them, and we almost fall off the bed. I could probably use that metaphor as well.

Francesca: That’s probably better. When I was doing the dedication, I wanted to keep it a surprise from her, but I ran it by one of her best friends. She was tweaking the wording because it was like, rickety? Does that make her sound old if you call her rickety? That’s what we called the game. The game was the rickety raft. I can’t change it. Rollercoaster, that will age well.

Zibby: Do you talk every single day to your mom? Do you text all day?

Francesca: Yeah.

Zibby: Yeah? All the time?

Francesca: We do talk every day for the proof-of-life call. That’s what she calls it. Sometimes I forget. Maybe it’s not every day. It’s a lot for an Italian mother to have an only child alone in New York City, so she worries.

Zibby: I didn’t even realize you were in New York City. You could have come over here. I would’ve loved to have met you in person.

Francesca: We’ll have to do it for next time. Yeah, we text. Yesterday, we were texting about Lady Gaga at the House of Gucci premiere, how fabulous her outfit looks. She is like a friend that way. She’s my first phone call when something really good or really bad happens.

Zibby: My husband is Italian. We have another dear friend who is Italian, and her husband. We all go out for these really fun meals. I’m going to grab you next time. You’re going to have to come.

Francesca: That would be a blast.

Zibby: Any advice for aspiring authors?

Francesca: I love the book, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Her section about, that she keeps a one-inch-by-one-inch frame on her desk to remind her to just only write what you can see through that frame, I think that’s all getting to that idea of shrinking the day’s task. There’s a lot of different ways to do it. I learned from my mom to work with word count goals to sort of make the day’s writing a more empirical judgement. You either wrote your five hundred or a thousand words a day or you didn’t. It isn’t just, am I a good writer or a bad writer, or a good person or a bad person? I love that E.L. Doctorow quote that’s something like, writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make it the whole way home that way. It’s so hard to not look at the whole project and to think of all you have yet to write and all the long way you have yet to go. That’s really paralyzing. I still feel it. My biggest advice to writers is that if you feel like you’re bad at it, that doesn’t mean you are bad at it. Every writer, even at the top of their game, feels like they’re bad at it a lot of days. A lot of times, you feel that way because you’re mentally biting off too big a chunk at a time.

Zibby: Love it. Yes, snackable bits, very important. Awesome. Francesca, thank you. It was so nice to meet you. I’m sorry we’re not together in person, but next time. I’m glad I could close the loop on — your mother spent half of our episode raving about you, so I’m delighted that now we can return the favor.

Francesca: We rave about you. Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Thank you for all that you do to foster this wonderful community of readers and writers and mothers and just women.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.

Francesca: Bye.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Francesca Serritella, GHOSTS OF HARVARD

GHOSTS OF HARVARD by Francesca Serritella

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