Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Gigi Levangie who’s the author of several novels including The Starter Wife, which was adapted as an Emmy-winning miniseries starting Debra Messing, and Maneater, which was adapted for a Lifetime miniseries staring Sarah Chalke. Her latest novel is Been There, Married That. She also wrote the screenplay for the movie Stepmom with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon. Her articles have appeared in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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

Gigi Levangie: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: Gigi’s being so patient because I just had about fifteen minutes of technical difficulties when my computer decided to update for no apparent reason. Thank you so much for being so chill.

Gigi: Thank you.

Zibby: Been There, Married That, loved this book, laughed the entire time I read it. What is Been There, Married That about? What inspired you to write it?

Gigi: It’s basically a funny take on a ruthless Hollywood divorce. It’s about a Hollywood writer who one night finds herself locked out of her own home. Afterwards, she has to navigate a high-stakes divorce with her OCD producer husband with the help of her jailbird sister. At the same time, she’s dealing with perimenopause and a prepubescent teenager. Basically, it’s hormones and divorce all at once. Yay.

Zibby: Real life. #ThisIsForties or something, right?

Gigi: Oh, my gosh, yes.

Zibby: How autobiographical is this book, would you say?

Gigi: I would say it’s semi-autobiographical because I do borrow from my own life. I try to use universal themes. They sort of come to me, widowhood, divorce, loss, loss but wait twenty minutes and it becomes a comedy. It’s autobiographical, but I really heighten it. I put a funny spin on it.

Zibby: I feel like even each sentence that you throw in is something funny. It’s your observational humor and all the everyday stuff.

Gigi: We were talking about this earlier. When I started paging through my book, I thought, wow, where do all these one-liners come from? You don’t realize when you’re writing something and you’re in the flow and it’s coming and there are no breaks, what it’s going to turn out like. In my life, like I said, tragedy plus twenty minutes is comedy. That’s what I like to write down. I like to entertain people.

Zibby: You certainly do a very good job of that. One of the parts of the book that I found so funny and a total escape, just so funny, was how you wrote about your character’s lavish LA lifestyle and the jokes you made about it. I’m just going to read a couple parts because I thought they were really funny. You wrote, “You’re never alone living in a ten thousand square foot house. I know, it’s counterintuitive. Because, staff. Staff is everywhere you want to be. You hire a team of gardeners, housekeepers, a house manager — unless you want to make your concrete tyrant a full-time job — a chef, a florist, a feng shui master. Every day, there are people coming in and going out, and half the time you have no idea who they are. I binge-watched Downton Abbey recently, and I can tell you the tears the sisters cry are real. The housekeepers and gardeners and assistants get to leave to go home. The rest of us are surrounded by invisible tripwires.” I thought that was so funny. Obviously, as we joked about before, first-world problems.

Gigi: Oh, beyond.

Zibby: But still, so funny. Did you get any pushback at all about making this relatable? There’s so much, I feel like, vitriol against the wealthy right now. Is it still funny? Is still okay to talk about?

Gigi: I love making fun of rich people because I’m sort of an outsider, or I was an outsider in that world. I could really observe from an outsider’s point of view. Also, my protagonists are always relatable. They’re clumsy. They’re vulnerable. They make mistakes. They don’t fit in. They’re kind of like me. That’s my point of view. That’s how I come into it. Who doesn’t love — like when I grew up watching Dallas or watching Dynasty, we love watching rich people falter. That’s kind of what I do with my books. I’m not putting them up on a pedestal.

Zibby: Yes, that’s true. One more passage that was really funny about this house situation, which I feel like plays a big role in the book. You refer to this house a bazillion times and what goes on in the house and the dead zone, how there’s no cell service. It just becomes so funny. You write, “Every time Trevor left town, he’d be replaced by a crew working in the house, men in jean and work boots, toolbelts slung low around their billowing waists. There was always something broken in a house this size, usually more than one thing, usually many things, that light, this faucet, that chair, this psyche. Meanwhile, whatever was broken was guaranteed to cost as much as a Kia. What’s that dude working on? Finn said –” Finn’s the sister of the protagonist — “Finn said as she sniped and narrowed her cat eyes at a man traipsing through the kitchen with paper booties covering his work boots. No idea, I said. Light fixtures? And I think a deck chair is broken. Huh, she said. Then another worker was cutting through the kitchen from the deck, cat belt, toolbox, booties. I guessed, Electrician?” This really just tickled me. I thought this was so funny. What do you get out of poking fun at this whole way of life? Does it just amuse you? Do you laugh at it too? Tell me about what you get from this.

Gigi: I get a lot of pleasure from exposing the downside of living in that way. I really want to downsize everything in my life, my closet, all that stuff. I think there’s so much comedy in these worlds that people don’t really see on a day-to-day basis. What is it like to have people in your house all the time? If you live like in a one-bedroom apartment, you don’t have staff. People think it would be great to have a ton of people taking care of you. It kind of gets old. I don’t have that anymore, but I remember. I think it’s funny. Hearing the stories about people dealing with all the different personalities, these movie stars and everything kind of at the beck and call of the people who work for them. I think that’s really funny. As a writer, I like my solitude. I like simplicity. I like structure, and so that’s just not the world for me. I find a lot of comedy to be mined there. I don’t want to make fun of poor people. Where’s the fun in that? So there you have it.

Zibby: You also joke a lot in this book about the consequence of having highly over-privileged kids in this environment. You make some joke about the protagonist. Agnes asked her friend Liz, she says, “Do you know any kids who do chores? Yes, Liz said. They’re east of the 405,” which is funny. We’re sitting here in LA doing this interview. It’s a geography joke, really, by saying, yeah, there are kids who do chores, but we don’t any of them, essentially.

Gigi: Yes, they don’t live west of the 405. I was told once by a psychologist that there’s neglect on both sides of the spectrum. If there’s too much money, parents aren’t usually as invested in their children, but they throw money at the problems. We see that all the time. Then the other side of the spectrum, people are working two or three jobs. They can’t keep tabs on their kids. That’s difficult as well. Raising kids with money, I really think you have to try to keep things as normal as possible or else your kids are going to be food someday when the revolution comes. I have that line in the book.

Zibby: You did. That was a good line.

Gigi: I might be misquoting myself, but there are a lot of lines like that. It’s like with anything. You have to be grounded. Invest time in your kids, not so much money, as we’re seeing with buying their way into college, that catastrophe. It’s just too easy to do things the easy way, and it’s never the right way.

Zibby: Very true. There’s another section — I’m sorry. I keep being like, this section’s so funny, and this section’s so funny.

Gigi: I love it.

Zibby: Sorry to be like, boom, boom, boom. This section where Agnes is researching symptoms of perimenopause, I just read this out loud to Kyle last night. Oh, my god, so funny. This, that, the other thing, and you’re like, how can you get rid of it? You said something like, reduce stress, ha, ha, ha, ha. It’s just so funny because every problem everybody has, the advice is always to reduce stress.

Gigi: Yeah, and how do you do that?

Zibby: If that’s so easy, I wouldn’t have these other problems. Really? That’s easier said than done. The funniest part of that whole thing is that the mom has a daughter who’s now going into puberty as she’s going through perimenopause and has to deal with her being like, “Mom, I have this hair. Do you want to see it?” She’s like, “Ugh, no.”

Gigi: Yes, her first pubic hair.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You said something funny. I can’t remember exactly what, something like, for the love of god, why? Why would god put these things at the same time in life, that the girl and the mom would go through these at the same time? Talk to me a little about that.

Gigi: First of all, for those of you who aren’t in perimenopause or aren’t menopausal yet, congratulations. Good for you. When I was going through it — I’m in my mid-fifties now. I was going through a divorce at the same time. It was like a rollercoaster ride, but to hell, insomnia, night sweats, but having the hot flashes when you’re meeting with your attorney or whatever, embarrassing. Also, there’s something great about the fact that we are just freaking animals. We’re not special. This is the cycle of life. This is what we’re supposed to experience if we are lucky enough to make it past a certain age. I’m very grateful just to be here. If every single bit of me has to dry up like dust and blow away, I’m okay with that because I can still function. This sounds so corny. It’s really a gift, but as we know, hormones are everything. I was lucky. I got through it without murdering anyone, that I know of. So there you go.

Zibby: You talk a lot in this book about the book industry. It was so nice to have a character who’s a writer. I can’t believe more people don’t end up doing that in their books. You have all these funny references to book readings at Book Soup and having to leave yesterday because of the traffic and how the reading culture in LA is funny in that there’s a book group and people are like, “Ugh. No, I didn’t read the book. Reading is depressing,” and all these funny things. What is it like? What is book culture like in LA?

Gigi: There are definitely book clubs. I’ve tried a couple of them. There are definitely avid readers in LA, but I think more so than in New York, there are people who read the reviews, maybe a paragraph of the review and then they kind of know the book. It’s gotten worse because we’re all on our phones at night when we should be reading books to go to sleep. We’re on our phones scrolling through Instagram, commenting in our heads about somebody’s plastic surgery, that sort of thing. We’re probably not reading as much as our brains would like. I love poking fun in LA. I’m a native. I grew up in Hollywood. I went to Hollywood High, UCLA. LA, to me, is the most fun to make fun of. Of course, that goes into books. I used to sign books, “I know you’ll never read this, but thank you for buying,” at my book signings in LA. Hopefully, this book will be read and people will enjoy it. We’ll see.

Zibby: You also poke fun, again, at — let me talk about the fifty things you poke fun at in this book — the optioning of material. You are in the throes of it all. You’ve had several things made, Starter Wife and Maneater. I can read this paragraph, but I feel like I’ve been reading half of this conversation. But it’s just so funny.

Gigi: I just love hearing you read my words.

Zibby: Oh, good. There’s this one scene. This might be my last quote, but probably won’t be. There’s this one scene where the makeup artist tells Agnes that she must feel so cool for getting her book optioned. You write, “I didn’t tell her optioned in Hollywood is lingua franca for don’t quit your day job. My project had a .00001 percent chance of getting made. Option means a Hollywood Reporter or a Variety announcement that you paid more to your publicist to run than you deposited in your back account. At the end of the day, there’s night. And option costs you more than no option. A better option not to option. Okay, I’m done. I’m out of options.” But you’ve got two things made. I’m not sure about this yet. Has this been optioned?

Gigi: This was optioned, yes.

Zibby: This was optioned. So how do projects cross the finish line? How did yours?

Gigi: It’s so difficult. First of all, I started writing movies. I wrote a screenplay called Stepmom. That wasn’t my first screenplay. I’d written several, been optioned and all. I wrote a screenplay called Stepmom. That was made.

Zibby: Which was so sad and so good. Oh, my god, one of my favorites. Anyway, go on.

Gigi: Thank you. Julia Roberts played me. Julia Roberts was the ideal stepmom. Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris — when I met Ed Harris, I couldn’t even look him in the eye because he was just a temple of testosterone. Off of that though, I really wanted to work by myself. I started writing books. I had agents. I was lucky enough to have an agent for my first book. That was actually — Rescue Me was made into a screenplay. We had Carl Franklin attached to direct the movie along with his wife, Jesse, to produce. That never got made. That was my first book. Was that twenty years ago? Who knows? Everything was twenty years ago to me. If it’s not thirty years ago, it was twenty years ago. Everything takes much longer than you think. If you have an agent, they send out your book. Maybe somebody wants to option it.

I think with me it could be a little bit harder because some of my books have sort of a Hollywood theme. One season, that’s popular. The next season, it’s not. All of my books except for one have been optioned. I feel very lucky about that, but it takes sometimes years for it to go any further than that. I have screenplays all over the place people have written for my books. They’re great and didn’t get made. Queen Takes King, Ann Cherkis wrote a screenplay that was so good, and it didn’t get made. You just never know. I’m always on the next project. I have three screenplays right now, two of which are optioned in development. I will probably wait years for them to get made, so I write the next screenplay or I’m writing the next book. I’m like a shark. That’s what I do, a shark with a computer with opposable thumbs and fingers.

Zibby: Too funny, oh, my gosh.

Gigi: I know. It’s endless, isn’t it?

Zibby: No, it’s just amazing. The heart of the story, though, is about this divorce. Agnes, the protagonist in this book, is very unexpectedly cast out of her home and has to navigate what comes next being profoundly disadvantaged because the man has all this power. Everybody’s freaking out about his lawyer. The cards are stacked against this woman in the book. Yet she has to fight for her daughter which means more to her than anything. As someone who’s been divorced, I understand that the most important thing and the thing you’re willing to give almost anything up for is more time with the kids.

Gigi: Period, absolutely.

Zibby: Agnes’s divorce lawyer is also divorced and tells her how she waited. Agnes is in this position of pain. Ann is trying to give her advice and says, “I waited until my kids went to college so I didn’t have to deal with this, but then I wasn’t really myself the whole time they were growing up.” So there’s a tradeoff, this whole waiting for the kids versus leaving but risking time with the kids. What do you think about all this?

Gigi: Right, pulling off the Band-Aid and just going for it. Every divorce is special like a snowflake.

Zibby: That’s a nice way to say that.

Gigi: I’m kind of known as the divorce whisperer in my neighborhood. People will come to me because of The Starter Wife and etc. and my own life. They come to me and they ask me, “Should I divorce? How do I do it? What are the steps?” Everybody has to weigh their options and really look at their lives. If you’re just bored, maybe that’s not the answer, to get divorced. If there’s abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, ongoing verbal abuse and physical abuse, obviously do whatever you can to get out. For a while, I thought the right answer was not to divorce. I wrote something for Huffington Post that actual marriage counselors used, “Seven reasons not to get a divorce.” I wrote this after I was divorced because I could see how hard it was on the kids whose parents were divorced and going back and forth between houses and all of that stuff that even as adults we would find difficult.

You yourself know what you need to do. If you’re a grown woman, you know what you need to do for yourself and your kids. You have to really ask yourself those questions and plan accordingly. Nobody else is going to have the answer for you. It’s just something you have to go through one way or the other. Some people stay together, and then twenty years later they’re happy and fulfilled. I didn’t see that for myself. You didn’t see that for yourself and your kids, and my kids. So I made that choice. Sometimes it’s not even really clear, but you have to make the best with what you’ve got. Oh, adulting, it’s so hard, isn’t it? It’s really so hard. If you have kids, you’re making that choice for your children. It’s terrible. Ugh, I want to go back to bed.

Zibby: No, don’t go back to bed. How did you first even get into writing the screenplays that you were writing? Were you someone who always had a notebook as a kid or always read?

Gigi: Oh, my god, I did have a notebook as a kid. That’s interesting that you asked.

Zibby: Diaries and all that stuff?

Gigi: Yeah, diaries, notebooks. I loved Harriet the Spy, so I would write in my notebook. I would observe, observe, observe. That’s when kids had notebooks instead of pads. That was the start. I was always a huge reader. I grew up in the LA basin when it was completely smoggy, terrible air quality. I was allergic to smog, so I had to stay inside. My mother was a teacher and principal. My father was a stay-at-home dad who used to be a staff sergeant in the Air Force. He stayed home and raised four daughters. We’re all eighteen months apart. Basically, if we got in a fight at school he’d say, “Who got the last punch?” Hilarious. I was raised like a little boy. Reading was my absolute first love besides my dog Snoopy, a beagle mix. Off of that, I started working for Thicke of the Night. I was an intern on Alan Thicke’s show. I thought I could write some sketches, and I did. They were put on air when I was still in college. I got a little taste of what could happen.

I was always a pretty good writer. I was not good at math, but I was always a pretty good writer. I surprised my English teachers. I was with all the gifted kids. I was ten years old in seventh grade. I’d skipped grades, but I was only good at writing and reading. That was it. It ended right there. It was always inside of me. Then I saw, when I was working for Fred Silverman after college, who had been head of all three networks and now he was head of me — that was it. That’s all he had. We managed to get seven shows on the air. I saw how much — this is so me. I saw how much the writers were getting paid, the TV writers. I thought — can I swear, or no? I thought, I can write just as “insert bad word,” but just as badly as they can. I can write this crap and get paid this much. I didn’t think, I can write just as well. I thought, I can write this. This is terrible. And so I started writing screenplays.

I took classes and getting up at five o’clock in the morning and writing before I went to work in my old Ford Falcon. Eventually, I had screenplays optioned. Then like I said, Stepmom was made. To my was-been’s — I call him my was-been, it’s much nicer — my was-been’s credit, he always believed in me, in that I could get a movie made. He gave me the gift of time. I was able to stay home and write books. I could quit my job after eight years and just write. I’m so grateful for that, of course in addition to our beautiful boys who are kind of adults now. It was always just in me. It’s my solace and it’s my tyrant. Winston Churchill said about writing, he said, “It started out as my mistress and became my tyrant,” basically. I’m paraphrasing Winston Churchill because we’re so similar. That’s what I do. You know, you can’t give it up. If you are compelled, you must follow through because you will be very unhappy if you do not.

Zibby: Very true. What are you working on now?

Gigi: Like I said, I’m working on another screenplay now. I go back and forth between books and screenplays. I like that because screenplays are mostly dialogue. You have to work within a paradigm. Then novels, you can kind of let loose more. I like to toggle back and forth between screenplays and maybe someday I’ll do a play. My next book, I’m looking to see what that is. I think it’s somewhere in — I always believed that my sisters were witches. They could predict things that I didn’t see coming. I’ve been able to do that sort of thing myself, and sometimes bad things. There’s something in that arena. I’m just finding out about LA and their covens. It’s really interesting. There’s a whole world out there. It’s not just yoga, people. I mean, it’s a lot of that too.

Zibby: Say the woman drinking alkaline-balanced water.

Gigi: Exactly, I need that.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring screenwriters or novelists?

Gigi: Yes, learn everything you can. Keep learning. Just write five days a week. Write five days a week. Take a half an hour, even twenty minutes. Just sitting down with no distraction even for that short period of time, at the end of a year, at the end of six months, you will come up with something that is complete. It’s a first draft, but it’s still complete. Stephen King said write a thousand words a day. He writes two thousand words. That’s what I do with a first draft novel. Honestly, the slower you go, the faster you get there. It’s just methodical. There’s no magic in it. The magic comes from doing. Does that make sense?

Zibby: Totally.

Gigi: Or am I just high?

Zibby: I like when you said the slower you go, the faster you get there.

Gigi: That’s my theme.

Zibby: I like that. You should put that on some pillows or maybe some journals.

Gigi: I came up with that a long time ago. This is so embarrassing, but in junior high I was the slowest runner in my entire PE class in public school. Can you imagine? Meanwhile, my sister, eighteen months older, fastest. I relate to turtles, to tortoises, to snails. The slower you go, the faster you get there. Every day is a new opportunity. Just keep moving.

Zibby: I like that. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and sharing your hilarious story, Been There, Married That.

Gigi: I’m so honored. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you.