Zibby is joined by debut author (and Manager of Books at Reese’s Book Club!) Gretchen Schreiber to discuss ELLIE HAYCOCK IS TOTALLY NORMAL, a big-hearted novel best described as The Breakfast Club meets Five Feet Apart. Gretchen opens up about her medical journey and upbringing around Ronald McDonald Houses and then delves into her book's themes: navigating illness, family relationships, and the impact of social media on personal privacy. Finally, she talks about her exciting role at Reese’s Book Club, giving listeners a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the book selection process and the evolving landscape of book club fiction!


Zibby: Welcome Gretchen. Thanks so much for coming. Mom's Don't have Time To Read Books. To discuss. Bye. Ellie Haycock is totally normal.

Gretchen: Yes.

Zibby: I really enjoyed this book. I really enjoyed the blog from the mom's perspective, how clever that was. The daughter, I was like frantically like, well, what's going to happen with the surgery?

Is, is she going to be okay? Like, you know, I'm like, can I Google how to, you know, what, you know, and then I'm like, well, maybe she has this, maybe she has that. Anyway.

Gretchen: The number of people who have been like, I was gapting along the lines and trying to figure out what she had, and I was like, surprise, you're not going to know.

Zibby: Yeah, exactly.

Gretchen: Spoiler alert.

Zibby: Yep. Okay, so Gretchen, give the elevator pitch here. What is your book about?

Gretchen: Yes. So the easiest way to talk about the book is that it's Breakfast Club in a hospital. And the slightly longer, more detailed version of the pitch is that it's about a girl named Ellie who keeps her hospital life and her high school life very separate.

And it's what happens when a new illness sends her back to the hospital and a new group of friends and a new love interest helps her to see that she's not alone. Combining both lives is not only okay, but also totally normal.

Zibby: Awesome. I love that. And talk about your personal connection to the material and your own stuff.

Gretchen: Yes. So one of the like weird things in my writing journey that I will often say is that when I'm looking for inspiration, I just go to my own medical file and start rooting around for all the like weird things that have happened in my life. Um, and so the like sort of medical journey that Ellie is on of having this strange illness and then having surgery and what happens after that surgery is all based on a time in my own life where that was also like the sort of ups and downs of like mysterious illness, don't know what's going on.

What if we just started, you know, chopping things out of your body, and then what happens if that doesn't work? So, that's like sort of the like the plot backbone of the book, but also I spent my childhood growing up in and around Ronald McDonald houses, and it was sort of like, It's not called a Ronald McDonald house in the book.

And I don't really ever pitch it that way because I find that most people don't know what a Ronald McDonald house is. And for the, I know, yeah, like people just don't know. And I'm like, okay, well let's talk about that. But for those who don't know, it's a house that's usually located close to a major medical facility.

And much like in the book, it's a place where families can stay for either little costs or no costs, whether children are undergoing a medical surgeries, treatments, et cetera. And so these like. These moments of like places where you can find community and connection while going through something that is arguably like so singular, but also like with a bunch of other people who are also going through something was impactful in my life.

And so it was like something I never saw in books, especially that talked about kids who were disabled of like this weird sort of, I often described it as like some kids went to summer camp and I went to The Ronald McDonald House, and so, like, you sort of see these same personalities and they become, like, really, really impactful super, super fast, and then you, now thanks to social media, you can probably keep track of each other way more often, but for me, it was like you had these deep emotional connections, and you may never see these people ever again, partly because you don't want to know if they live or die, and partly because you just, you know, You go on with your life and so really wanting to capture those sort of like moments of like, what does that feel like to have somebody who can like so intimately understand what you're going through, but also maybe not as Ellie finds with Brian.

So, um, Yeah. So that's kind of like it. And then, I mean, my mom, I should say my mom did not vlog about me.

Zibby: Okay.

Gretchen: Growing up, but she did start a 501c3, a non profit for families of kids with bacterials when I was a kid. So I sort of grew up around that and watching a lot of moms put everything about their kids online and be going, I don't know if like growing up in the, the, you know, internet, the becoming of internet age of, I don't know if I would want all of my surgeries just out there.

For the world to see and, like, Google. So, that sort of became, like, a big part of her relationship with her mom. And then my mom actually came up with, like, the sort of twist of the book, which is that, spoiler alert, her parents are secretly divorced on paper, which is, like, a real thing people do to, uh, get healthcare.

Which is kind of, like, wow, our system. What a, what a system. So, yeah, so that's kind of the, the background and inspiration points of the book.

Zibby: Well, I think you did a beautiful job of describing what it's like just on a day to day basis, like being a younger person in a hospital and in a, you know, a home and the interactions.

And there was one line you had to where you said something like, there's, you can get over the physical pain, but you can't get over. Like, being left out and having, like, your regular life just move on without you. Like, that is something that is really hard to deal with.

Gretchen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that, I mean, is a whole, like, portion of Ellie's life is that, like, yeah, you can't.

Like, everything around you is still sort of going on at home and no one else really knows You know, it kind of becomes hard to talk about, especially when you're like Ellie or Caitlin in the book, where like, this isn't something that you're going to like, get over, quote unquote, like this is something that is just going to keep happening and keep coming up and keep doing it.

So how do you explain that to like, your friends who are so used to like the sort of narrative we have from society which is you can beat this thing or you can get better or like I think she says it multiple times in the book you know something can be solved in 45 minutes or less on a medical trauma and you know talking about it becomes complicated and that's just yeah yeah so.

Zibby: And like her devastation when she realized that Jake did know, well, that he, when he came to visit her and she was like, no, no, no.

Like this was, these were my two things. This is not what I wanted. Thanks for the surprise.

Gretchen: Thanks for the surprise, mom. You thought I wanted this and I did not. Yeah. And what it feels like to have someone see you in this like very vulnerable situation that you were like, you know, No, because I'm having a me time and now I have to try and explain and, like, manage your feelings on the subject when Ellie can barely manage her own.

Zibby: Interesting. So many times. But then you sort of use Ryan as a foil when you are Yes. And I love, not I love, I mean it was sad, but the scene where, where Ellie goes to visit Ryan and he is very weak and she asks if he has like a standing device or, that wasn't the right word, but. Assisted mobility device.

Is that what it's called?

Gretchen: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Zibby: And, and, and, and the, the tension of not wanting to need slash ask for help, but needing it, but not wanting to be the one giving it. And that, that whole thing and that they both kind of get it. And she has to step into the role anyway.

Gretchen: Right, and she's like, I'm gonna do it and he may or may not like it and I'm gonna do it anyway.

I mean, I think they're I often describe their like relationship as one of those like Ellie as much as she wants to prove him wrong and that like doctors will never have all the answers and like, you know, just keep going like sure have fun with that. I'll be here, you know, she also knows that at some point he's going to get the news that like devastates him, which he does in the book and like what it's going to feel like she wants to she wants him to not have that experience, but she knows that it's coming and like those moments.

Like you're describing of like her having to like step in and be like, okay, we're going to do this and we're going to pick it for the friends and being there when he sort of discovers that medicine doesn't have all the answers and how devastating that can be is like some of my favorite. Their interactions are some of my favorite moments of the book.

Zibby: Yes, for sure. Wanted a lot more of that. I even love how she's like covertly texting him about her meetings with the one doctor and he's like, what are the levels? What are these? And she's like, you know, she's like, okay, go for it. You know?

Gretchen: Yeah. Like his whole medical coach situation is like medical coach.

No, no, no. His like whole thing with her is just It's so adorable and, but yeah.

Zibby: And I, I know I mentioned this at first, but I really feel like this is the first book I've read where the child of a blogger is old enough to write a book and have that point of view because there's, you know, the whole mom blog revolution, what is happening with all those kids?

How do they feel? And this is like, you know what? I'm not feeling so great about it, mom.

Gretchen: Yeah. Well, and I think it's, it's like an added layer of like complication for Ellie is that she's like, she's grown up knowing all of these things and is not okay with it, but also knows thanks to her mom's blog that like this is the last thing that her mom quote unquote has, right?

Yes. Like that if like I take this away after I've taken away so much, like my very existence is like quote unquote, ruined her life. What does that say about me? And like, can't I just, like, live through this just a little bit longer? And everyone else around her, her friend Caitlin, is like, no, you don't have to, you know.

Zibby: It just is a lot to put on a kid that like, this is the only thing your mom has left. So you have to succumb to the pressure of like, you have to subvert your own needs and All of that, because otherwise your mom will be upset, meanwhile you're the one who's sick, or going through whatever.

Gretchen: Yeah. And I don't know, I feel like Ellie is often one of those characters who, much like me, is somebody who would like cut off her own hand to save someone else, of like, you know.

You know, she will, she'll take it and she'll take the hit rather than being like, actually, could you maybe not hit me again? That would, that'd be great. Which I think becomes really hard and like trying to find your own voice, which she does, but it's, it's a long journey.

Zibby: You also have some other characters who come in and I feel like we're always getting different points of view on how there are good ways of handling this and there are not so good ways or not as productive.

So there's one interaction with someone in the home when Ellie's like in the worst mood and she's like, someone broke up with my best friend, and the person's like, I'm just going to give you chocolate because when you deal with a breakup, you need chocolate, and I was like, that is so huge because that's just taking the moment and dealing with the thing.

Like we don't have to, you know, like sometimes you just need to deal with the regular things.

Gretchen: Yeah. Um, no. Veronica is one of those characters who I think she learned, yeah, no, no.

Zibby: I'm sorry, I have like half a thought and you can fill it in.

Gretchen: I can fill it in for her. It's a team effort here. Uh, she is one of my favorite characters because she does, I think, A, stand in a lot of times for it.

A, the audience of like, She's just a normal kid. She's volunteering at the home. And, Is kind of trial by firing it with all of these new people that she's meeting and I think that moment that you're describing of like Ellie has had a terrible day and Veronica is like, how's it going? And Ellie is just like, no, we're done this.

We are not doing this. I am not putting on a nice face and I'm going to let you have it. And I think the fact that Veronica is like, okay, so this is what I can do. And I'm really sorry, chocolate. Here's some other things. Have at it is like her first step of like Ellie being like, Oh, maybe you're okay.

Maybe you're like, you can do it. And she has a couple missteps throughout the book that she still is like, well, well, where Caitlin and Ellie have to be like, you can never say that again to anybody. I'm like, we're going to forgive that. We're done.

Zibby: So, but at least you know that her heart is in the right place.

Gretchen: Yes. And I think that's the thing is like, I think Ellie and Caitlin both are like, okay, you are trying to do right here. However, however, so.

Zibby: Wow. Yeah. So, tell me about writing this and coming up with the characters and your process of doing it, your motivation. Like, just tell me the backstory of the writing piece.

Gretchen: Oh, so the writing piece, this was a COVID book, and I feel like all of us either found reading or found writing in COVID 19.

Zibby: I actually thought Ellie might have COVID, by the way. That was a theory of mine.

Gretchen: Honestly, it probably could have been COVID. I had left LA under really like morbid circumstances because I, like Ellie, have really compromised lung function and I was like, well, I should just go back, maybe see my family one last time.

So I drove all the way home to Kansas. And I wrote Ellie, I had been doing another book at the time and sort of put that book aside and was like fulfilling a promise that I made to a friend because I had pitched her a book that was like breakfast club in a hospital. And she was like, I'm never going to let you not write that.

So I finally said, okay, I'm going to do it. And I wrote it in seven weeks during the pandemic and then sort of revised it a little bit. Sent it off, discovered very quickly that maybe in a global pandemic where doctors are heroes, maybe a book that maybe is a little critiquing the medical system, not, not the way to like agents hearts and ended up doing a online mentorship program called Pitch Wars that fall.

Then in the spring got an agent who is fabulous. Her name is Alex. She's everything then strangely enough It took we revised it some more took it out in August and then that April Funnily enough the night before my mother had surgery got the offer from Wednesday that they wanted to buy the book and so have been on that journey ever since with them.

And then the blog, actually, I will say the biggest change from like, writing it to now was that my editor was the one who was like, I think we actually need to see the blog. And I think you should write the blog posts because there was always something that had been referenced, but never something that had like, actually been like, concretely stated in the book. And so I was like, okay, here we go. Let's write, let's write some blogs. Except for the end. The end had always had the last blog, the last letter to Ellie. So that was that my writing process is what I call, and all my friends call, chaos. Because I do not write in order and I do not write with an outline, which is, terrifies a lot of my friends.

And so I would hop around in the draft to sort of be like, Oh, I know where these touchstones are. And then that weird thing that happens that I never believed writers could be, but then it happened to me. And I was like, Oh, this is that magic of writing where characters would start referencing other conversations or other things that happen.

And I'd be like, Oh, I make just a little note that. We've got to go back and actually write that scene now and then at some point you stitch it all together and usually as I say I get to the 60,000 word mark and I have to stitch all the scenes that I have in order and then I throw out 20,000 words and I write 40,000 more words and I end up with a full manuscript.

And so, Someday I hope to like cut down on that eliminate 20,000 add 40,000 number because that's a lot of like excess work but that's not happened yet because I also did that with my second book of throughout 28,000 to write 40.

Zibby: So my gosh wait so what is then your next book gonna be?

Gretchen: Well my editor never told me what I could and couldn't tell so joke's on her.

Okay so my next book is I pitch it as like Taylor Swift. Enchanted meets Cyrano with a speculative twist. Okay. So it's about a disabled girl who all the women in her family are, they know their true love at first sight and her determination to fit in with her family, especially that she doesn't look like anyone in her family.

And for the first time ever in her family, her parents are getting a divorce. I promise someday the parents will not be divorced in my books. Are your parents divorced? They are not, surprisingly. Yeah, I, you know, my mother even was like, Gretchen, we made it through you. You're fine. It's like the divorce rate for parents of kids with disabilities was like 90%.

Yeah, so she's there. So she's determined to have the most epic love story. And it's what happens when she finds her person and realizes that she just knows he's her true love. But because she's never like dated anybody or been like, cause like, why date someone when they're not your true love? I mean, okay.

Zibby: Okay. Okay.

Gretchen: So, you know, she's like, what's the point? She falls flat on her face. And has to convince her best friend, who is a bit of a ladies man, but everyone still loves him, that he needs to teach her how to woo her love of her life. And what happens when her best friend says, but what if I love you more?

And what if you give up on a love that fate has chosen for a love that fate could never dream of? Um, and so, yeah, so it's all like magical, little, little mystical and lots of friends and drama again. So, wow.

Zibby: Yeah. That sounds great.

Sounds good.

Gretchen: So yeah. April 2025.

Zibby: Wow. That's going to come in like two seconds.

I know. It's going to be here in no time. Oh my gosh.

Gretchen: I don't even know how it's March, but like it's the middle of March. I know.

Zibby: I'm, yeah.

Gretchen: Time just, yeah.

Zibby: Yeah. It's way too fast. When I first heard your name, it was affiliated with Reese's Book Club because didn't you used to get all the pitches for that? I still do.

Gretchen: Oh, you still do? Okay. I still do. I have, nope, nope. I have, I have like one of those weird writers with a day job that is also in books. So, yeah.

Zibby: What, how did you end up there and what has that been like?

Gretchen: Yeah, so I came to California originally. I went to grad school for producing for film, television, and new media.

And then graduated into that casual graduate without a job thing at a terrible job market. Welcome to the millennial, you know, life cycle. And I started just sort of working in any odd job that I had. I worked at a bookstore. It was like the sort of constant. I ghost wrote romance novels. I input metadata for a studio.

And then I also like read scripts for a fellowship and the thing about Freelancing that no one tells you is that it's a young person's game and about the time that I was 28 and had seven jobs at one time So I was like, I can't my body is too old And I let all my friends know that I was like, I want a job and a benefit and that's it And so a friend emailed me and was like, hey Reese is looking for a personal assistant be interested?

And I was like, sure, I'll get the coffee. And my, you know, resume did the whole like, to a friend, to a friend, to a friend, and over to racist people, and they called me in. And in the interview, I mentioned, oh, I read, 200 scripts a year and 80 books, and they were like, what? Uh, this was at the very beginning of Hello Sunshine.

I think I had even like, they were like, we're gonna have you go meet with Hello Sunshine. And I even like remember Googling it and it was like, the only thing that said was like, Actress Reese Witherspoon starts production company, you know. And I went in and I, Was like, Oh, you have a book club. That's really cool.

Bookstagram, booktube, all these things. And they were like, we don't know about any of this. So clearly we need you. And they offered me a job and I said, done.

Zibby: Wow.

Gretchen: And I was in 2017 and I've been there. I've done different jobs, sort of always doing a lot of the reading and helpful curation. But I've helped with our audible projects.

I've helped with the build out of Reese's book club. And that's become what it is today. And so, yeah, now I, I do reading and then I help run Lit Up, which is our writing fellowship that we do for underrepresented women and non binary storytellers. So, yeah, it's been, it's been a while, but it'll be six years, seven years this August, which is, I don't know.

And yeah.

Zibby: Wow. So when you're, when you're reading for book club, is it what you like? Is it what you're trying to like, you know, cross off? Like, how do you, how do you marry your own tastes with trying to like read? Because I'm sure a lot of people do this, right? For publishing houses or other outlets, right?

You have to read for the company. that you're working for, but you have your own tastes as well. How do you marry the two?

Gretchen: So I think that the bigger part of that is like really understanding that at the end of the day, everything has to be Reese approved. So it's like, it's almost like you are trying to like take off the, like, this is my personal jam and like being able to say, this is a good book on its merits alone.

This is why Reese will like it. And so it's like a very strange thing. If we like set up a lot of like different guidelines and having done this now for like seven years, I can kind of be like, Oh, I think she'll like this about it. I think she'll like this, you know, you sort of the first couple of years we'd get a lot of back and forth of, no, I don't like that.

Try again. And now it's, it's a little less. It's often that we get a try again, but it's not so much my own personal taste. It's recognizing this is a good book. It's a fast, like it's a fast read. We love a good read. You know, you're always sort of looking at the end of the day for that book that sort of like sucks you in and like the page falls away and you're just like reading something for enjoyment.

But I also will say, like, on the flip side of that, if I don't tend my own reading outside of work, then I really struggle with my day job. So it's like, I do have to feed myself and what I like, and then go and, like, feed the, the work of, like, oh, here we go. And sort of, I don't know if any of that made sense, but it's like, you kind of have to have, like, be in two, in two corners, but also like weigh everything more toward that.

And then I think I'm also just extra hard on things that I over index on. So like fantasy, sci fi, romance, I'm like, okay, it's got it. Like it can't just be, is this just because I love it or is it because like, it's actually good and she will enjoy it.

Zibby: I feel like the last six years have seen a shift in the market, too, towards those types of books.

Gretchen: Yes, it's been strange to watch them, like, sort of, I don't want to say rebrand women's fiction to like book club fiction, but yeah, it's, it's been wild to sort of watch, like, book club fiction take over the world and be like, oh, right, I've had a hand in, like, shaping this. Which is, like, terrifying and both, like, amazing.

Well, I mean, you, too. Like, you know, with your podcast, your bookstore and everything. Like, It's a smaller scale. But, yeah. You know? It's still, it's coming. So, you know, it's definitely, um, I don't know. It's been weird to watch publishing sort of go back and forth as they try to figure it out. And I'm always fascinated when editors come and be like, I have the perfect Reese's Book Club book for you.

And I'm like, Lay it on me because I can guarantee you probably don't. But I'm always fascinated when people tell me they think they know what a Reese's Book Club pick is. And I'm like, describe it. Go for it. Because I think it's like seven years. I think it's very clear what a what a Reese's Book Club book looks like.

But, you know, sometimes people get it right and sometimes people are like, I'm like, Nope, try it again.

Zibby: But it was a good book. Or maybe they just are hoping. They're just hoping.

Gretchen: Yeah. I mean, there's so much hope for it. Yeah.

Zibby: Is there a book that you passed on early that like became a huge hit and you're like, Oh, I should have recommended that or no?

Gretchen: There are definitely books that I think became a huge hit and like something we like talk about like internally is like a confident pass. Like we have our reasons.

Zibby: Yep.

Gretchen: You know, like we can see that this will become a thing and we know why, but we're okay saying no. You know, so I definitely think back on some of those books where I'm like, yep, we saw that book and you know, it's interesting and I'm sure you see it a little bit too of like when you get a book before all of the buzz, but there's really sort of like, there's this like, I don't want to say pure moment, but there's this moment of like, I can't judge on what anyone else is saying about this book. Like, I purely have to go just on my reaction to it. And you then sort of go, well, it's good. I can see why this will appeal to a lot of people and we can either like pick it up, but does it align with what we want?

And does it align with what? You know, Reese will love and then you have to just trust, Oh, go ahead.

Zibby: No, I was wondering how many books do you think you read in a given week or month or...

Gretchen: oh my gosh, this is always the question. I read anywhere from three to four books in full a week. And if I'm not looking at full, I will read anywhere from like seven to 10 partials a week.

And that can be anywhere from like 5 percent to like 25%, which I'm sure is like making authors everywhere go, Oh, and also as an author, it makes me go, uh. And I used to not be understanding of why agents only needed five pages from you. And now I'm like, Oh, nope. I, I understand now.

Zibby: I learned that quickly too.

Gretchen: Yeah. Yeah. You're like, Oh yeah. Yeah.

Zibby: Get it. Oh my gosh. Well, Gretchen. Oh my gosh. Congratulations. Ellie Haycock will stay with me. I feel like I am on the lookout for her and Ryan and her mom and all the characters. So congratulations.

Gretchen: Thank you so much. Thanks


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