Zibby Owens: Heidi Pitlor is the author of the novels The Birthdays and The Daylight Marriage which was optioned for film. Her third novel, Impersonation, will come out on August 18th. A former senior editor at Mifflin Harcourt, she has been the series editor of The Best American Short Stories since 2007. She’s also the editorial director of the literary studio, Plympton. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Lit Hub, Ploughshares, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She lives outside Boston.

Welcome, Heidi. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Heidi Pitlor: Thank you so much for having me. It’s really exciting to be here.

Zibby: Congratulations on Impersonation. Your latest book is coming out. Tell listeners what it’s about and what inspired you to write it, please.

Heidi: It’s coming out in about a month, so I’m in this terrified place right now of, everyone, I hope they don’t hate it. Impersonation, I have the galley here, an early copy.

Zibby: Ooh, I love it.

Heidi: I love this cover because it’s unforgettable and just the right amount of weird for me. This book is about two women. It’s about a single mom ghostwriter who has been hired to write a memoir for a prominent women’s rights advocate. The advocate lawyer, brilliant woman, decides on running for office but needs to soften her public image. It’s been deemed that she needs to publish a memoir of motherhood. She works all time and she doesn’t have quite enough mom stories, so she ends up relying on the ghostwriter’s own stories. There’s this funny interplay of, whose stories are real? Who’s the better mom? Of course, no one’s the better mom. We’re all great and terrible in our own way. It really is about their relationship, but also motherhood, about this single mom to a boy and how much she loves him and feels that she’s failing him because she can’t earn enough money. That’s the brief plot summary. I try not to go on too much because who wants to hear too much plot summary?

Zibby: It’s such a great plot. It was such a great book. I feel like you could just keep going. You just want to hear more. Where did this come from? How did you arrive at this for this novel of yours?

Heidi: My last book was really dark and twisted. I thought, I want to write about happiness. As any writer finds, you start writing about that and slip slide down to misery at all times. I wanted this one to be a little more comic and a little more about someone who’s just trying to basically be happy and live a decent life, not that complicated. I had some financial struggles. I’ve had some over the years. I think people think people in publishing and writing are just rolling in it. We’re not, like everyone else. I was interested in that. I don’t read a lot of fiction about that. I started this a while ago. My last book came out in 2015. I probably started this around then, so right before the election was ramping up. Things like gender and class and politics weren’t quite as electric as they became. Writing this felt like I started in a light room and then a disco ball came on and then I was put on drugs. It was just the craziest thing because everything kept changing around me. It was set in the present day. What I ended up doing is setting an end point, which really helped, which was 2017 and saying, you can’t write to the present. You’re never finished. The present never stops. I did that. What else did I want to write about in this book? I wanted to write about a flawed mother who really loved her kid. I feel like there’s a lot about maternal ambivalence lately, which is very understandable depression. I wanted to write about someone who loved her kid, who enjoyed sex, and was struggling with money because I felt like these were things that were not really in enough books lately.

Zibby: There you go. You have to write the book you want to read.

Heidi: Oh, and one last thing. I wanted it to feel like nonfiction. I did a lot of research that dots its way through the book. I wanted it to feel like a real memoir, and I hope it did in the end, but a memoir of writing a memoir. I wanted to get at the hell that is writing and the hell that is earning money in motherhood. My biggest hope is that it gets at that and makes reader moms feel a little less like weirdos, especially younger moms.

Zibby: Totally. I feel like every book makes me feel a little bit less weird. Maybe that’s why I like to read. No.

Heidi: Good point.

Zibby: The connection in reading other people’s experiences and thoughts and worries, there’s just nothing like it, film, TV. I find it, it’s second to none. It’s amazing. Tell me about ghostwriting. I thought that was such an interesting angle. Actually, I ghostwrote a book in 2005. This is forever ago. Then I thought maybe that I would do that for a while, but then I had twins. We both have twins who are —

Heidi: — Oh, twins. How old are your twins? I want to interview you.

Zibby: My twins just turned thirteen.

Heidi: Same here. What?!

Zibby: June 14th.

Heidi: Mine are — well, they didn’t just turn. Mine will be fourteen in November. So they’re thirteen. You have the double thing.

Zibby: Pretty similar. Double thing, yes. That was always fun. Anyway, I was pregnant with them when I was ghostwriting this book. I was doing interview after interview trying to capture the voice of the people whose book I was writing. Then I was reading your book. I was like, this is so interesting, even how you decide which projects to take and the fact that there can be a book on the shelf, my book didn’t do particularly well, but the book that’s in the library that she sees someone reading and wants to scream out, I wrote that book. I got to put my name on, which was fine. This whole notion of ghostwriting, so have you done ghostwriting yourself? Did you research people who had done ghostwriting? How did that part of the plot come to be?

Heidi: I’m really restraining myself from turning this interview on you because I want to hear about your book. If we can return to that at some point, that would be great. Ghostwriting, I’ve done a little. That’s all I can say, not a lot though. I am the series editor of The Best American Short Stories. What I do is I’m kind of the worker bee. I work with a big famous writer every year to help pick the best short stories that were published that year. They go in an annual. I felt like I know what it’s like to work behind the scenes with a bigger, higher-profile person. That relationship really interested me, especially between women because there is a power dynamic. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had amazing guest editors. I haven’t felt taken advantage of by anyone, but I can imagine it happening. That was a starting point. I think ghostwriting is fascinating too because it gets at so many different things. It gets at class. It gets at authenticity, identity, gender, all of this stuff. It just felt really ripe to me. I interviewed a bunch of ghostwriters for this book across the gamut, young, old, business, celeb.

The greatest part about that research is they know how to write, so they knew exactly what details to tell me. They were like, “Write this. Make sure this happens then in the plot.” They could write this stuff in their sleep. I’m like, this was the best idea for a book ever. I don’t even have to write it. I’m just going to take notes from ghostwriters. There is a really interesting thing. The power dynamic is not what you think. While the big famous person, the obvious, is earning more, the public face, there’s a bit of a marionette-like thing that happens with ghostwriters in that they’re controlling the work that comes out of someone else’s mouth. You can say horrible things. You can lie. This does happen. I’ve had a few readers say, could this really happen? I say, I toned it down. The crap that I heard is so much crazier than this, and especially when it comes to politicians. I hate to say this, but a lot of these books that seem like someone took a year and went to their garden and wrote it were not written by them. That’s all I will say about that. It’s fascinating to me, the kind of hidden economy of that and just the emotional dynamics that go into it. Did you have a second part of your question that I missed?

Zibby: No, you covered it all. I was wondering about if you did research, if you had ghostwritten. You were sparse in that answer, which is fine. That’s totally cool. Wait, let’s go back to editing the short story series. This year, you’re doing it with Curtis Sittenfeld. Give me a few past guest editors and what it’s been like for you having to pick. That’s a powerful position getting to select those stories.

Heidi: It is. Curtis is amazing, as you would think. She’s so down to earth and smart. She’s deceptively smart and also kind of a badass. You never know who’s going to be a little waffle-y and a little more neurotic and more decisive. She knew exactly what she — she ran the show in a way that I was a hundred percent comfortable with. I feel like we could be best friends in another life. She’s just amazing in so many ways, funny, smart. She picked great stories. That book, it got bumped a little. It’ll be out in November. Usually, it’s out in October. The person before that was Roxane Gay, also hugely badass, decisive, wonderful in so many ways. It’s just amazing to get to watch these people work and think. It’s never what you think it’s going to be. You think that people are going to be drawn to the writing that’s like their writing, and they’re not. Everyone has a little bit of an agenda, which is good thing. The most important thing is, is the writing good? You are thinking, it’s nice to give some new writers exposure. It’s nice to get some smaller magazines out there. Again, first and foremost, is the writing the best or whatever someone thinks is the best or good, can be considered good? Other people I’ve worked with, who came before that? Anthony Doerr was great. Before that was Meg Wolitzer, I think. I’ve been incredibly lucky. It’s been a weird shifting time out there. It impacts people. I worked with Meg during the election. I worked with Tony Doerr right after that. Everyone felt a little shaky around that and sort of like, does this matter? Does literary short fiction matter? I’m going to be really honest. I would love to say literary short fiction can change the world, but our world is messed up right now. I do it. I love it. There’s moments of connection. This is what matters. There’s pieces of it that really matter. It’s hard on a day-to-day basis, as I’m sure it is for a lot of people working out there, to feel like your little tiny spot on this crazy planet is really doing a lot.

Zibby: That’s so sad.

Heidi: Let’s bring it up. Okay, actually, all the difference in the world.

Zibby: I liked more what we were saying about the power of how a story can connect and make one life better.

Heidi: We’ll go back to that.

Zibby: Let’s go back to that. Otherwise, it’s too depressing. I think short literary fiction is essential. Whether it’s short or long or whatever, obviously one story is not going to change everything, but I think that giving, right now in particular, so many different viewpoints is what we all could really use.

Heidi: Now I’m going to contradict myself and say, here are some stories that did do something to change the conversation.

Zibby: Thank you. Okay.

Heidi: in The New Yorker which was not in my book but really changed, I don’t know if people read it, but changed the conversation around the consent and dating. You don’t know what’s going to shoot out there. There was a story called The Feminist that really wove its way into the conversation online, which was amazing and got at some nuance of the male’s point of view. I think on a literal level, yes, I take back everything I said. I think Brokeback Mountain did a lot for getting people more comfortable with gay relationships, those who weren’t, for seeing it and understanding it. Yes, here are some examples where I’m totally wrong. On a more general level, I think there’s something about the act of reading and the act of being with someone else’s words that’s really intimate and connective and important right now. I spoke to a group of librarians. I said, even though you can’t be there, you’re some of the most important people in the world just because the idea of, here is a place that’s been named as a quiet place to read. You come in here, it’s free. You can pick what you pick, a story you want, and you go somewhere else in your head.

In this day and age, that’s kind of a radical thing. There’s not many places like that anymore. We’re a loud, roiling world. The fact that that still exists, I have shivers from my own words. I have shivers from the fact these things that we do, public art, these things where we’re still trying to have joy are hugely important. These are our buoys. These are our things that keep us sane, the stories being the catharsis you get when you read a story that you feel a part of, that sense of belonging you get when you read about a character that is a little bit like you or the sense of escape when you read a book that’s a little bit more out there in some way and you need to escape your life. Psychologically, yes, super important. It’s a hard time right now. It’s a weird time to be publishing a book. Everyone’s perspective is a little wobbly and off. There was something online called the corona-coaster. We’re all a little bit bipolar-ish, not to belittle bipolar syndrome at all, but it’s just an emotional time. It’s hard to have perspective right now, and that’s what you’re hearing from me.

Zibby: I loved your essay, though, at the beginning of the coronavirus in, was it Lit Hub? Lit Hub, right?

Heidi: Yeah.

Zibby: That was so great, even to read now where I’m like, oh, that was back in April. Things were so different.

Heidi: Long, long ago. Four months ago.

Zibby: Long, long ago, yes. Even though things change so quickly, watching you process what life was like and deciding that you were going to scrap all the rules, which I did many times. I feel like I don’t know when I’m getting all the rules back in my house because it’s harder to reel them back in.

Heidi: I know. It’s okay. I think we all need someone to say, all parents need to hear this, it’s okay. Your kid can watch TV all day long right now. We’re at kind of a war. You just have to get through the day and love them. If there’s moments you can’t, that’s okay too. I think we all need those voices right now. This was the book for me, even though it wasn’t set during COVID, that I wanted to write which was to say it’s okay not to — we put a lot of pressure on parents these days, and especially with schooling and all these issues right now. Just to hear the — lower the bar. Put the oxygen on yourself. It’s okay. It’s okay to suck as a parent. It’s okay to feed them crap for dinner. It’s okay to order dinner more than one night in a row. Do it. If it’s going to give you the sanity, it’s totally worth it. I give you permission because I am the parenting expert, let me tell you.

Zibby: I’m just going to put this on repeat.

Heidi: On loop? .

Zibby: My friend Heidi says it’s okay, so this is what we’re going to do. Here you go. Here’s the proof right here.

Heidi: You need no one else other than me.

Zibby: Just two more seconds on the short stories because I find it so interesting. How do you whittle down the pile and pick? I would find it so stressful. I’ve always thought, oh, my gosh, I could never be an admission person because the stress of having to say no would weigh on me forever or something. How do you do it?

Heidi: I have been doing it for a while. When I first started, it weighed on me. I just thought, who am I to do this? The first year I did it, I had my twins. I just felt not at my sharpest. Also published a book. It was a hot mess. Within a few years, I developed a system which was that I grade everything. I grade it ridiculously, like, A-, A-, B+. There’s eleven different tiers. I have found that my first instinct pretty much always holds. I go back and reread everything, of course. If I pull a story, if I read the whole way through and think about it, it’s probably going to get stuck in a pile. Then I end up picking the top. I’m well aware that this is my opinion. I think every year I say in my forward, this is my opinion. This is Curtis Sittenfeld’s opinion. There are other great stories. We’re human. We’re not machines. Again, it’s like the lesson of my book. I’ve given up trying to be perfect or operate as if there’s some independent truth of what makes something good. There isn’t, especially with art. I like crap. I like high. I like low. There’s no accounting — I don’t know why I like certain things. Unfortunately, readers are stuck with my opinion and the opinion of someone else. The fact that they rotate I think is really useful because you do get a variety of opinions, but yeah, I’m the first door they have to go through. Sorry, people.

Zibby: How did you get that gig to begin with?

Heidi: Long, long ago, I was an acquiring editor at Houghton Mifflin for about ten years. I went assistant, associate, editor. Then this was offered to me right around the time I had my kids. I thought, this is a great way to be at home a little bit more and do something a little more part time because, twins. Hello. And writing. It was an amazing opportunity. It’s really wonderful. I say this all the time, but I have the world’s best book club with one of the world’s best readers. I learn something every single year. I become friends with someone every single year. We laugh. We struggle and say, ugh. There’s always a handful of stories that, yes or no? Oftentimes, that writer’s name gets stuck in my head for later and I’ll say, keep an eye on this person, that person. I feel like I’ve had people on my radar and then I see them do really well and I’m like, oh, yay! I’m out there cheering.

Zibby: I know that feeling. That’s how I feel about everyone who’s been on my podcast. I read the newspapers and the book review and I’m like, oh, that’s somebody from my podcast, or great, new book. I feel the same way. I’m a fan after. Whatever you do, I’ll be cheering for you.

Heidi: Thank you. I’ll be cheering for you too.

Zibby: Thank you. Speaking of, so what is coming next for you? Are you working on a new book? What are you up to?

Heidi: Gosh, you know what? Right now, I am taking a break because everything is kind of crazy. I actually ended up writing a fictional podcast with a producer. We’re waiting to see if that gets picked up somewhere. It could double as a TV series. I needed a break from the book thing. The rhythm of writing a book is slow and quiet and a little torturous, as you know. I needed some time to do something that felt quicker. I really liked the feeling of writing a script and just writing dialogue. Dialogue comes really easily to me. I think it’s fun. I think it’s a great way to show character. I wrote a season with an NPR producer friend of mine. That’s kind of floating. We’ll see. I don’t really know. Right now feels like we’re just all living in unknowns. I don’t want to take on another long project. I would do short things. Right now, I’m kind of like, get through book publication. This is the first time I’ve published a book without having another one up and going. It’s scary, but it feels really right for this moment. I’ve got a lot of work on my plate. I’ve got Best American Short Stories. I’m the editorial director of a little tech firm called Plympton, shout out to Plympton, who does digital publishing. I have a consulting firm where I consult for authors and do some editing. It’s a lot. It was time to slow down a bit.

Zibby: At least you know that. I feel like so often people just keep piling on the work until one day their back breaks, essentially. Everybody has their limits. We only live once. I didn’t mean you had to have another book in the works. It sounds like you’re plenty busy as it is.

Heidi: Thanks for guilting me, Zibby. Thanks a lot.

Zibby: Oh, god. Sorry.

Heidi: No, no guilt at all. That’s a standard question. You have to ask that.

Zibby: I know. Speaking of standard questions, do you have any advice to aspiring authors? I always like to ask.

Heidi: Oh, yes. This is the boring one. Read, read, read. Also, take from other places other than books. It’s not just fiction that you have to read as a fiction writer. This book, Impersonation, I’m going to show it again, I took from crazy — and my last one too. My last one had a lot of climate change in there. I love picking and choosing. You can take from menus. You can take from anything that inspires you. I think the most important thing is this. Write about something you care passionately about because it translates on the page. There needs to be energy. You need to be engaging with something. If you’re writing a book, that’s a long marriage. You got to have a big explosion at the beginning. Something has to be under your skin. You need to be able to live with it for years. Picking your subject is important, engaging with it. Learn things that you don’t know. Try to enjoy the process. As anyone who’s published knows, there’s this fallacy that publication is going to be the fun part of it. The dirty little secret is that some of the most rewarding part of it is the writing. It’s sitting in a room alone. What happens is you’ve written this story, and something happens. I’m going to get woo-woo. Something comes through you. You didn’t know it was coming. You’re writing. The character does this, and it’s perfectly right and you don’t know how. Those are those the moments, to me, that are the most rewarding. I love meeting people. I’m very sad I won’t be able to go on a real book tour this year. Those moments when you’re making some weird connection when your characters come to life are so — I don’t know if you’ve found that, but it’s so rewarding.

Zibby: I worked on this novel recently. I spent this whole flight from New York to LA writing. My husband picked me up at the airport. He’s like, “What’d you work on?” I was like, “This is what happened to my characters.” Then I finished talking and I was like, “Now I don’t know what she’s going to do.” I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Heidi: Right. It’s a really big leap of faith. It’s sort of like Best American Short Stories. You have to fake it. Then suddenly, you start doing it, it’s like an engine that begins to run on its own and you’re just there accompanying it. It’s a really exciting thing. It’s an exciting thing not to know what’s going to happen and then to have the wrong thing happen and then to find the right thing that’s going to happen. It’s great.

Zibby: Especially, like you, if you can actually pull it off time and time again and make it into a book that, for me at least, was so interesting and entertaining and all these different messages that were so relevant, especially as a mom.

Heidi: It ended up being more relevant than I even knew. I would say a huge part of that is I have the world’s best editor in Kathy Pories at Algonquin. Also, a shout out to her. She’s a badass editor. She goes in with a hatchet. She says, “Add this. Cut that.” There’s macro-editing going on. I tend to be more of a — I focus on the sentences. I’m going down a little road. She’s like, “Nope, stick them on a different road.” I always say, “No, you’re wrong. That’s awful. I can’t believe that.” Then twenty-four to forty-eight hours later, I’m on board with her. She’s always right. She’s brilliant. Best editor I’ve worked with. She’s great.

Zibby: I feel like most good advice, at first, I’m like, no. Then I give a minute and it’s always the right thing.

Heidi: It really teaches you as a person. It’s a really big growth thing to be able to accept criticism and take it in and integrate it. Sometimes it’s wrong. You also need to know when to throw out what’s wrong. A lot of times, it makes you better.

Zibby: Very true. Heidi, thank you so much. This was so interesting. I loved talking to you.

Heidi: I loved talking to you too. Now I want to talk to you about your ghostwriting, but I know you’re busy. I know you’re .

Zibby: There’s nothing to say. Thank you so much for coming on. Best of luck with your publication. Bye.

Heidi: Thank you so much. Bye, Zibby.