Gervais Hagerty, IN POLITE COMPANY

Gervais Hagerty, IN POLITE COMPANY

Gervais Hagerty joins Zibby to talk about her debut novel, In Polite Company, which is set in her hometown of Charleston. Gervais shares how her relationship with her grandmother changed following her divorce as well as how their close relationship shaped this story. The two also discuss why Gervais says she gets what she wants in roundabout ways, the lessons she learned in her late twenties after breaking both arms and moving back in with her mother, and what project she is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Gervais. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss In Polite Company.

Gervais Hagerty: Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: I have to say, what appealed to me initially about this was the Charleston setting. My husband lived in Charleston for twelve years and loved it so much that he got his parents to move there, and his sister, who ended up living there even longer than he did.

Gervais: Oh, my gosh. What part of town?

Zibby: When I met him, I actually went down there a bunch. He lived on Folly Beach with a couple friends.

Gervais: Awesome.

Zibby: He worked on Sullivan’s Island for a while. His parents lived in — you take the bridge. It’s a little bit further away.

Gervais: It’s probably Mount Pleasant or something.

Zibby: Mount Pleasant. Awendaw, is that —

Gervais: — There’s an Awendaw. That’s even farther.

Zibby: That’s where they lived when I met them.

Gervais: It’s beautiful. Cool.

Zibby: I got to go into that famous biscuit place, Callie’s Biscuits, the King Street area.

Gervais: She is quite a businesswoman. She’s really hustled. It’s fun to watch from afar.

Zibby: My in-laws had a crumb cake business. They still have it, my sister-in-law. At one point, we were like, you should partner with Callie’s Biscuits. That would be amazing. Where’s her facility? Anyway, I was like, I would love to go to Charleston. Thank you for asking. It didn’t disappoint. You have all the places and everything, plus, of course, this wonderful relationship. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about — not me. I know what it’s about. Listeners. Let me start again. Could you please tell listeners what In Polite Company is about? What inspired you to write it?

Gervais: I’ll give my little pitch. In Polite Company, as you said, it’s based in Charleston, which is my hometown. It’s a peek behind the veil of high society here. It’s an invitation to those beautiful Antebellum homes along the water into the fancy parties, so debutante balls with kidskin gloves that go past the elbow, pearls, oysters. I do say it is stamped with a big, fat warning label. There is sex, drugs, and rock and roll in here and, I like to think, a little bit of a flick in the nuts to the patriarchy. It’s been such a blast to write. It’s been just even more fun to talk about it. Once again, thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: Of course. One of the things that stood out was this depiction of an older relationship. I’m going to mispronounce. Tito and Laudie.

Gervais: Yeah, Laudie.

Zibby: Hearing what it’s like to be in the relationship that the grandmother is in and watching that and the way you wrote their relationship and then what she might have kept from him in the past and how that all starts trickling out but also just, what does it mean to — not settle. That’s the word. What does it mean to settle into your relationship in old age and have misgivings or have whatever? What does that look like? I found that really fascinating. Talk to me more about that relationship.

Gervais: The second question you asked — I was so excited to give my pitch, I just blew right through it — was the inspiration of my novel. That is my grandmother. Aggie is her name. I was away for about a decade. I came back to Charleston in my late twenties. The city looked different. It felt different. I was different. I was licking my wounds from a divorce. I had come back. I saw my grandmother in a different way. When you have a relationship with your grandmother as a child, it’s this very sweet and pure and simple love. When I came back, I saw her as a much more complicated individual. We became really good friends. She was a very curious person. She wasn’t very, necessarily, feisty. I knew if I could run her around the city, we could go have a lot of adventures, and we did. It made me think, gosh, how many adventures did she not have just because of the times that she was born into, the circumstances, the systems at play with males and females in the South, in the city, in the world? Then when she was in hospice, I was a wreck. I was a wreck, obviously, because I love her and I was just heartbroken that she was leaving this world, but I was angry because I thought what her life could’ve been. It really gave me this fire to start writing. I didn’t ever intend to write a novel. I had this time. It was a catharsis. I was just writing and writing and writing and trying to process all of this. I imagined that if she were born at a different time, we would’ve been these two best friends exploring the world together and making up our dreams and chasing after them. I just wanted to give her a wild side that I don’t think she ever was encouraged to have.

Zibby: That’s so cool. It’s like the Back to the Future grandmother edition.

Gervais: I love that.

Zibby: I would love to hang out with my grandmother too. What would she be like if we were the same age? I miss her terribly. She was so feisty and funny and had the best sense of humor. Sometimes I think the same thing. If she were here today, she’d probably be on Twitter all the time. She’d have a totally different life. We’d probably be friends. I think there’s something about that skipped generation that makes it okay to be really close to your grandmother no matter what.

Gervais: It is true because you can’t tell your mom everything, or I didn’t. There is that kind of buffer.

Zibby: I loved how perfect it was, the one scene where you have her stretching and doing her ballet at the barre. The mom comes in. Of course, the granddaughter gets in trouble for letting her grandmother stretch. I’m not speaking very coherently, but you know what I mean. There’s a scene in which the grandmother has her leg up high or something like that. The mom comes in and is like, what are you doing to your grandmother? She’s going to fall. She’s going to break her hip. There’s this conspiratorial glance. It’s okay. This is what she wants to do. Of course, the mom is the bad guy, right?

Gervais: Yeah. That’s another interesting part of aging. If you do the things you love, you’re not going to be able to do anything much more, but maybe just go out with a bang. My grandmother was a beautiful woman. She used to walk the streets of Charleston. Everybody knew when Aggie went for a walk. She walked with this little strut. All the men would come out to the piazza. My Aunt Susan even wrote a poem about her once. It goes, “Some moms have this and some moms have that, but I’ve got a mom you can whistle at.” She was never a dancer, but it was really easy for me to imagine because she was just so elegant. That is sort of how that all came to be. Then I wanted to give her that backstory, that passion, that desire, that untouchable dream that a man didn’t have his hands on.

Zibby: Wow. Do you have a picture of her?

Gervais: I do. I have a younger one, but I have to run far away. This is her ring I wear every day.

Zibby: Aw, that’s gorgeous. That is so gorgeous.

Gervais: Sometimes when I don’t feel right, I give it a little .

Zibby: You’re stunningly beautiful, so I would not be surprised that she is also.

Gervais: You’re sweet. I have not put on makeup or washed my hair in six days, until today.

Zibby: Well, then I feel even worse. It’s just crazy to think of what life would be like and what, maybe, our lives would be like in future generations. Wait, so tell me a little more about — you didn’t think you were writing a novel. Keep going. By the way, with rings, I found this ring at a pawn shop in Charleston, one of those antique stores, my wedding ring. Can you see it?

Gervais: Yeah, it’s beautiful.

Zibby: We bought it and brought it back here. I had a jeweler resize it. The jeweler up here found out it was actually — the diamond was totally cracked, so we sent it back, the actual thing, but then my jeweler up here made an exact copy that wasn’t the original. I always wondered, too, what is the story of the woman who wore this ring in Charleston? How did it get in that store? Who was it? If I were a novelist, I would try to write that story.

Gervais: That’s such a good nugget. That’s all it really takes to get a story. It’s just this one kernel of fascination that you can stare at and manipulate and try to figure out. I was a professor at The Citadel, which is the military college here. I had these breaks. I had summers off. One was the summer my grandmother was in hospice. My second child was an infant. My first maternity leave, I loved being with my baby, but I was going bonkers not using my brain in a way I was supposed to. It was bad. It was not healthy, I don’t think. This next go-around with this next kid, I’m like, I’m going to have somebody for three hours a day, just three. I’m just going to do something. Through the whole situation with my grandmother, it became writing. That’s how I got started. Then I just got obsessed. I think in life, if you find something that you’re just like, nothing is going to get in your way, maybe that’s the thing you need to be doing. I really worked hard on this novel for years. Then I just networked my tail off. I met as many people as I could. I begged this woman who’s a New York Times best-seller based on the Isle of Palms to read my manuscript. It took her about a year. Not too long after she did, and she gave me great advice, she connected me with my editor. I had an offer with HarperCollins before I had an agent. It was all just a real fairy-tale dream. I tend to get things I want through the back door, but it works for me. That’s how I was doing that. Then I took the leap leaving my job, which was great. I absolutely loved it. It’s a military college, so I wore a uniform. I had shoulder boards and a barrette teaching all these handsome eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds. There are some women there too. It was a tough decision, but I —

Zibby: — Wait, what were you teaching them?

Gervais: Communication. This won’t be surprising, your having read it. I used to work as a news producer and reporter. That’s what my main character does. I had that. I have my MBA. That’s how I got to be teaching at The Citadel. It was so fun. Anyway, then my husband and I, we made this big financial plan of how we would save our money so I had enough cash for a year where we weren’t dipping into our savings. If I didn’t the sell the book, we wouldn’t be in a financial panic. Fortunately, I did.

Zibby: Wow. That is cool. Good for you taking the risk and just doing it. How old are your kids now?

Gervais: Six and four.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. See, this just goes to show, all this determination — books take time. It can work out, right?

Gervais: It can. I really think it is sheer will. I’m just going to do it. That’s how I feel. I’m almost done with this next one. I’m just pushing constantly.

Zibby: Tell me about the next one.

Gervais: It’s so hard to sum up something, but I’m going to do my best. I like to think of it as in four parts. My first book, as you know, is first person in one perspective. This next one is four different perspectives. One is an older woman. The root cause, her motivations are the secrets we keep from the people we love to protect them. You probably have somebody in your life who, you know something about that person. They might wail against you. They might be mean or say something. You know you could reveal this one thing and it would just shut them up, but you would never do that because you love them so much. That’s one character. Oh, and it’s all based on an island off the coast of Charleston. You’ll also head back to Charleston because I’m a Charleston writer, at least for now. I love it. Then the second character, Wret, she is in the tenth year of her marriage. I’m around that too. I just think it’s a fascinating time. You’re growing. You love each other, but you’re like, oh. You’re kind of out of the monkey room with the babies. You’re like, oh, I find other men attractive. What is that? I’m really interested in sexuality and as it changes. I’ve been really mining that. It’s been a lot of fun. I like to read about sex and write about sex, so there you go.

The third is a character who worked really hard her whole life and had what she thought was an amazing job, but she just comes to this epiphany. She’s like, I hate it, I got to get out of here. I think that speaks to a ton of people who just sort of wake up and, I thought I had it all, and it really feels like nothing. The final character is a Citadel cadet because they’re just a fascinating population that I was pretty much studying during my years there. I taught public speaking. That was such a fun thing to teach because I would get to hear their stories. I like to think I knew that population better than a tenured professor who’s been there for decades because that person was always talking at the front of the auditorium as opposed to me listening. It’s a mix of all that. You get to be in Charleston. You’re racing through all this beautiful Lowcountry land. You get to go downtown to Rainbow Row and then definitely on the campus of this military college, which is this wild place. It’s been fun.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love how you just described the characters not by what they look like or their ages or whatever, but by the thing about them that everyone can relate to. That’s really smart. People don’t do that.

Gervais: Oh, thanks. That was my first pitch. I’m glad it’s Zibby-approved.

Zibby: It’s Zibby-approved, for sure. It makes me want to change how I describe things, also, because then you just immediately relate. By the way, I’m coming to Charleston at some point to promote my memoir to the Charleston Society Library.

Gervais: Oh, my gosh, yes. We’re so intertwined here. We’re either related or whatever. The director was my teacher in seventh grade. I grew up with her son.

Zibby: No way.

Gervais: It’s beautiful there. I’m going to come. I’ll get a ticket.

Zibby: Okay, awesome. Maybe you can be involved or something. That would be really fun.

Gervais: It’s a lovely, lovely . I’ll be there, yes. You just tell me when. I will be happy to do whatever I could do.

Zibby: Awesome. We’re planning it now, so I’ll loop you in. We’ll have to get your email or whatever. We’ll circle around.

Gervais: Yes, lovely. Great.

Zibby: I also love how you just described yourself as going through the back door to get anything done. That’s such a funny thing to say. It’s such a self-aware, interesting thing to say because it’s so hard to get through the front door to do anything, especially in publishing. It seems like the front doors are locked shut, so how will anybody get in? I feel the same way, in a way. There was no red carpet.

Gervais: Right. That’s something I’ve definitely learned to do. I got to teach undergrad. I couldn’t teach graduates. A lot of people have their PhD in stuff. All I had was an MBA, but you can do that. That’s because I knew somebody. I had to try for that particular position and interview and do all that stuff. Then same thing with getting my book deal. It’s a hustle. When I was working at The Citadel, I was really close with the director of career services. A lot of times they were like, “Oh, my god, we need somebody to talk to all the juniors of 2nd Battalion about how to get a job. Can you cover?” Because I taught public speaking, I’m like, “Yeah, sure. I got it. I can cover for you.” I helped out with this particular lecture. It basically said, whatever you want, you do two things. One is, you work so hard to improve the skills in the direction that you want. For me, that would be writing. Just write, write, write. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Then two, you network. That’s what I did. I think that’s really how you can get the things you want.

Zibby: I have an MBA too. Do you think it’s helped you in your writing career? What pieces of it have helped?

Gervais: I’ve read your bio. You have a much nicer MBA than I do.

Zibby: It doesn’t matter. I’m just asking the program in general.

Gervais: God, I truly don’t know if — I don’t mean to diss The Citadel. You got it at Harvard, right?

Zibby: It doesn’t matter. You teach management and all the things, and finance, accounting, and marketing and all the stuff. I remember when I was at school, somebody raised their hand and said, if you’re an author, you’re still selling a product, but your product is words. You’re manufacturing your own product, but then you still have to market it just like anything else. It could be a can of Diet Coke, or it could be an eight-hundred-word essay. You have the same responsibility to get it out into the world. It doesn’t matter what you are.

Gervais: I completely agree with that. Our particular program, I don’t know if it was so holistic that it would — what I think really helped me was — frankly, I hit rock bottom when I was going through that divorce. I know you’ve had a heartbreak too. I’m a really naturally buoyant person. I’d never been depressed before. I was twenty-eight. I even went roller-skating on a date to impress a guy, and I broke both my arms.

Zibby: No!

Gervais: I had to move back in with my mother. She had to bathe me, which is different than bathing a child. An adult human has far more hormones and smells. You just don’t realize how much you scrub yourself until your mom has to bathe you. It was so rough. Zibby, it was such a hard time in my life. I had to crawl myself out of that hole. I think that was a big lesson. Ever since, I haven’t stopped. I got out of the hole, but I’m just continuing to move forward. I’m really grateful that — I never want to do it again. I feel like that reach me to the next level of awareness. It was so hard, but I’m really glad for that experience. The heartache that I felt is something I can always tap into when I’m writing a scene trying to channel these different characters. I think it was more just the life experience of being knocked down flat that I can be thankful for.

Zibby: How long had you been married?

Gervais: Only a couple years, but he was my college boyfriend. He was a sweetheart. He was a total gentleman. He’s not Trip in the book. If he was Trip in the book, no one would understand why she didn’t love the guy. I was just at this point in my life that was this peak of arrogance and naïveté. I just thought I was better. Then I get out in the real world. I get back on the dating scene. I’m like, oh, my god, women are treated like this? I just had no idea. I was so protected and loved by him. It was shocking. That brings in that Me Too moment experience within my novel. That also really got me thinking about — at the time, I’m trying to date. I’m trying to recover from all of this. I’m with my grandmother. I see her at the end of her life, at the end of this very long marriage with — as much as we make progress in the world, in the boardrooms, as soon as that bedroom door shuts, it feels like, at least for me, I was tipped back into that power dynamic where the man was on top. I was unsure. Is this right? Is this what we do? I don’t know. As a collective group, I think we’re teaching our daughters to trust our guts better. I was kind of amazed that somebody who was nearly thirty, I was just blindsided.

Zibby: I think part of the problem is that people don’t talk — the whole prevailing wisdom is, what happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors. Literally, I just wrote this essay two days ago because I feel like, finally, there is emerging, this new genre of reality marriage lit. I think people are finally creaking open those doors, which will help everyone. You go through, and you have all this input. Then all of a sudden, you’re in your marriage, and nobody talks about it. You’re like, is this normal? Is this not normal? Is this how I’m supposed to feel? Is this not how I’m supposed to feel? What are the rules here? Nobody talks about it. I feel like everybody has to start talking about it more, just enough to help people, especially because people are so open. We’re in a culture where we’re so open about everything. Then it’s like, . Then you feel like, what are people not talking about? What are we protecting? What’s going on?

Gervais: I’ve heard people looking at Americans like we trapse around in thongs, but we’re actually quite puritanical when it comes to — I get that. That’s why I was so interested in exploring that particular — the main dynamic is Wret and her husband. I’ve been listening to a lot of Esther Perel and reading a lot of that kind of stuff. It’s fascinating to me, which makes it an absolute blast to write about. Good thing my husband is a strong man because he’s like, what is she doing all day? He’s a good guy. He can put up with a lot.

Zibby: What is the name of your next book, by the way?

Gervais: I don’t know. My other book, I was originally titling it Zinnias because the flowers are quite throughout the novel. Then I got my New York editor, who I love, but she tells it to you like it is. She’s like, “Zinnias sounds like a gardening book. It can’t be that.” We went through this whole list. It took forever. At one point, I threatened to tell her, “Look, if you don’t pick one of these titles I’ve given you, I’m going to call it South of Broad Broads.” If you know Charleston, you know South of Broad. We came up with this title, which I think is great. At this point, I don’t really know. I kind of want to call it The Secrets because there’s this place that’s in question that these people go to that the family is aware of, but they’re not sure who the land belongs to and what those people are doing there. I think it’s kind of a cool title. I also know there’s a book called The Secret. Is that confusing? Does it say enough about what the book is? I don’t know if it’s paired with a Lowcountry marsh — book covers are tricky. Also, with this one, when they first gave me —

Zibby: I love this cover.

Gervais: It’s really fun, isn’t it?

Zibby: Yeah.

Gervais: — book cover designs, it was the same sort of stuff you put on your typical beach read, which I was really nervous about. I’m like, you have to show some edge. Otherwise, someone’s going to open this book, and they’re going to see some grit in here. They’re not going to like it because it wasn’t as advertised. I was like, we have to show something other than just a sunset. I feel like this, it matches the tone really well.

Zibby: It’s true. I love it. Very cool, particularly the high tops. The high tops on the dress is a nice touch.

Gervais: Thank you.

Zibby: Can you imagine being the — I’m sure this didn’t actually happen. I’m sure it’s photoshopped or something, but how fun would be it to —

Gervais: — It was originally a blond girl cheerleader. Then they did the hair. Then I made them put on the Chuck Taylors, but I had them remove the label because otherwise, it just looked like that shoe would’ve been a part of the book, and it wasn’t. I didn’t want to have too much attention.

Zibby: Wow, very cool.

Gervais: You kind of got to know in the publishing world, what you can push on and what you don’t want to push on. That was one of the things. I’m just going to be a little pushy here. I’m glad I was.

Zibby: I was so pushy about my cover for my memoir. We went through so many rounds. I was literally emailing my editor, I was like, “You’re never going to want to work with me again. It just can’t look like this. If it looks like this, this is not representative. This is not what’s inside.” I do think covers are super important, unfortunately. Book by the cover, but nobody has any time to look.

Gervais: I love this one. I think it’s so cute.

Zibby: Thank you.

Gervais: I noticed how the watch is kind of turned, so think about the time, Moms Don’t Have Time To. Did you do that on purpose?

Zibby: Literally, this wasn’t the cover. This was going on in my kitchen. My husband took this picture during the pandemic.

Gervais: What? Really?

Zibby: Yeah. It was not posed. I was freaking out during the pandemic. He was standing in the kitchen with me and just took that picture. We were trying to bake.

Gervais: I’m so impressed because I was like, also, I like how she has her kids. I guess she chooses not to show their faces.

Zibby: He took a few in a row. The other one, you could see their faces. He happened to take a bunch.

Gervais: That is cool.

Zibby: My other cover was posed, the first one. This one was just a pandemic moment. Okay, last question. Advice for aspiring authors? Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Gervais: Oh, tons, but I’ll just stick with, you got to put your butt in the chair. You just have to write. You’re going to have a nagging little voice saying, is this good enough? Who’s going to read this? There’s zero point in paying attention to that because it doesn’t move you forward. It does not make you a better writer. The only thing that’s going to make you a better writer is to just keep writing. Give yourself goals. For me, it was a thousand words a day. If I didn’t hit five thousand by Friday, I’d work on the weekend. You treat it as a job. Just be easy on yourself when it comes to that little voice. Also, it’s hard work. If you want to get your foot in that door, the back door or the front door, you have to have a completed manuscript that you’ve really given it your whole heart.

Zibby: Amazing. I love it. Thank you. This has been so fun. I’ve learned how to do a Reel. I guess that was before we started filming. I learned how to do timelapse photography, more about cover photoshopping. This is great. Thank you, all this knowledge.

Gervais: Let me know when you come to Charleston. I’d love to show you around. I can take you into some of these homes if you’d ever want to.

Zibby: I would love it. It would be so fun.

Gervais: Come to my childhood home. It’s really cool. It’s all just within walking distance of that Library Society. It’s a beautiful space.

Zibby: I can’t wait.

Gervais: You’re going to have a blast.

Zibby: All right, I will definitely be in touch about that.

Gervais: Wonderful. Thank you, again, so much for having me. I know you’ve got so much going on. You interview the coolest people. I was like, she interviewed Liane Moriarty. She’s going to interview me? I have all her books here. I’m a huge fan.

Zibby: She’s awesome. That was about When Apples Fall.

Gervais: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Gervais: You too. Bye.

Gervais Hagerty, IN POLITE COMPANY

IN POLITE COMPANY by Gervais Hagerty

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