Ilona Bannister, WHEN I RAN AWAY

Ilona Bannister, WHEN I RAN AWAY

“I discovered that the writing was helping me process everything that has happened. I didn’t know that that’s what I needed to do.” Debut novelist Ilona Bannister has a heartfelt conversation with Zibby about how her experience on 9/11 served as the backstory for her book, When I Ran Away, and about the traumatic events that allowed her to fall into writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ilona. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” As I just said to you before we had a technical issue, so I’ll just say it again now, your book had the most amazing depiction and emotional expression of what happened over 9/11 of anything I’ve ever read in any form, article, book, anything, fiction, nonfiction. I’m so curious as to how you ended up writing this book and your own experience with 9/11 and how this became the underpinning of the story. Life story, please.

Ilona Bannister: I fell into writing. I had never planned to be a writer. I didn’t know that I was going to write a book. I was a lawyer. I really loved it. After having two really traumatic c-sections with my sons, I found that I just was not the same person. I wasn’t functioning the same way. I always suffered with anxiety. After these two traumas, I found myself being quite phobic and just having a really tough time, so I had to step away from my career. After about three years when I felt ready to go back to work, I would interview. I just kept not getting the job. I was told I was a really good candidate. I’m experienced. I would talk about needing flexibility at work because I had young children. I would ask about the policies for school events. I was always second place. That was really demoralizing. My husband suggested that I look into writing, so I did. I sort of halfheartedly looked at some writing courses. I found the Faber Academy work-in-progress course. I had a few pages. I had an idea of Gigi. I just sort of threw it in. I didn’t know that I was going to get a place. The week that I got a place on the course, I also got a job offer.

My husband and I sat down. We did the math and disappointingly realized that the price of readmission to my career meant that we would only be breaking even on childcare with the new salary that I was getting. I think that’s something a lot of women come up against when they try to get back to the workplace. That’s also very disheartening. We decided to take a risk. We agreed that I would do this course for a year. If I had a book at the end of it, amazing. Great. I would pursue it. If I didn’t or I had a book that wasn’t any good, that would be okay too because at least I would have something interesting to talk about at job interviews. I could show that I could work and have kids and do this kind of thing independently. I would still have a book. Maybe no one would read it, but I’d have a book. We took that risk. I spent the year writing and taking care of the kids. At the end of the year, this is what I had. It was lacking structure, but it was definitely there. We decided that we were going to go for it. It was very much a team effort, me and my husband.

Zibby: Wow. I’m astounded that this lark of, I’ve never written before — now all of a sudden, you have this fantastic novel. Oh, my gosh, all the people who spend so long toiling their entire lives and can’t produce or try to produce something — obviously, you had all these thoughts in your head already. I feel like anyone with an anxiety disorder of any kind should just be handed a Pages/Word document and be like, here you go. Just start. You will have a book in a year if you just share with us what’s going on in your head.

Ilona: Very much so. I discovered that the writing was helping me process everything that had happened. I didn’t know that that’s what I needed to do. It was a lucky discovery that this was really where I needed to put my energy and it would help me to recover myself.

Zibby: Can we back up to the c-sections? You don’t have to go into it if you don’t want. I’ve had three c-sections myself, so I’m curious as to what happened.

Ilona: With my first son, it was just an emergency c-section. It wasn’t as traumatic as with my second son. It was just one of those situations. His head wouldn’t turn. It couldn’t dilate. That’s what had to happen. It was just a very exhausting, long labor. I think I was in labor with him for three days.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Ilona: By the time we actually got to that point, I was truly exhausted, and so very fragile. Having had that initial experience, with my second son, I was really desperate for things to be different. I really wanted to experience it differently. I had really high hopes. It was a difficult pregnancy from the very beginning. I had been encouraged to do a VBAC, which is vaginal birth after a cesarean, but it didn’t work out that way. It ended up being an even starker emergency than the first time. In that situation, there were other things that happened that made me feel really out of control, very frightened, and as a result, quite disconnected for those initial days. It was the second time in two years that things had just gone terribly wrong. Both my sons were physically fine. I was eventually physically fine. For a person with anxiety who has issues with control, to have all control taken in that way in such frightening circumstances that are a matter of life and death, my threshold for what I could handle as a person I think had been reached. That’s what happened.

Zibby: There’s so much written about new motherhood, but what you’re describing happens to a lot of people and is a serious thing. People don’t often reflect on it because they’re so swooped up in the newborn life. There’s not enough, you know what, this horrible thing happened to me. If this was an appendectomy or something else…

Ilona: Exactly. It’s major, major surgery. It’s the only major surgery in which you are then handed a baby and not told to stay in bed and not resting and not given time to recuperate, but thrown directly into caring for a newborn. I think the mother often gets overlooked. The mother overlooks herself because, naturally, of course we all gravitate toward making sure that newborn is okay. As we all know, a baby is not okay if the mother is not okay. That was something that when I was looking back in retrospect and when I was writing this book, it was really important for me to get that message across. It is a life-changing event. You do not just go back to the pre-baby you. That person doesn’t exist anymore. Parts of her do. This constant message that we get about fitting into the pre-baby clothes and going back to your career and going back as though nothing has happened to you, something massive has happened to you. That is whether you’re an adopted parent or have a child by surrogacy or had a birth or a c-section or a natural or whatever it is. It is life-changing. We should not be expected to go back to who we were. You’re a new person.

Zibby: I know you wrote about motherhood and all of its forms and the need to kind of lock yourself in a random hotel with just a wallet in your hand and all of that, which I’m sure everybody has wanted to do at some point or another. I know you’ve written it in this book, When I Ran Away, in fiction. Not to say you even want to do any sort of memoir writing or whatever, but I think it would be so interesting to read your experience of what we were just talking about. That sounds like something I would want to read and I bet a lot of other moms would relate to. Maybe you already have. Maybe it’s too private. I’ll leave this topic alone. Just to say that I find it fascinating. I’m sorry you went through all of this. I really am. Back to the book, with all of that as backstory, why 9/11? Let’s start with that.

Ilona: Partly, it was to do with when I first started trying to write. I clearly remember the first day when my son was napping and I sat down. I thought, okay, let’s see if my husband is right. Let’s see if I can write something. That is the first thing that came out, my memories of that day. I worked at a nonprofit organization on Wall Street, so we were very close to the Twin Towers. My building was evacuated. I was with a friend. I saw the towers burning. I was part of that massive wave of people that were fleeing downtown and going towards the water, towards the Staten Island Ferry. Obviously, for any New Yorker who was there that day, anyone born in New York, that also was a life-changing event. I did not lose anyone in my family, but the sense of collective grief that we all felt at that time for a very long time was still very palpable for me. It still is. I know it is for many people. When I started writing the book and I knew that Gigi was going to be a New Yorker, I also feel like you can’t really write a New Yorker unless you talk about how they feel about that day or where they were on that day or how that day affected them. New York is a character in itself, isn’t it? It’s a really special city in that way in that it has its own personality. When you’re from there, it inhabits you and you inhabit it. When this loss happened, it did feel like a loss in my own family. I think it felt that way for many people because it was so devastating.

I wanted to pay tribute to that. I love New York. I miss living in New York. I wanted to pay homage to that and respect to that. I also noticed that as time goes by, we’re approaching the twentieth anniversary, we still acknowledge the day, but we hear about it less and less, which is just a normal part of history. I felt like it was a part of me. It’s a part of anyone from New York. I felt like I couldn’t really write Gigi unless we knew how she felt about it and where she was. I was on the Staten Island Ferry that day with my friend. The water rescue that happened that day, I don’t know if people know so much about it. There were so many boats that came right there to the edge of Manhattan to literally take people off of the edge of Manhattan to rescue them, tugboats, sailboats, water taxis, Staten Island Ferry. Any boat that was in the harbor came there to rescue people. We don’t see too many images of that. That’s a story that’s gotten lost a bit. It’s really extraordinary, the bravery of the people who came to do those rescues, the Staten Island Ferry captains who kept going back and forth to take people. I also thought that was an aspect of 9/11 that it would be nice to acknowledge. I’m from Staten Island. It’s a tribute to my hometown as well.

Zibby: Wow. As I said at the beginning, I was like, I wonder if she’s going to be talking in that perfectly coined accent that you have in the book. It was perfect, even when you’re like, “axed” versus “asked” and how Gigi has to be trained to not speak like that. Gosh, the image of the boats pulling into the harbor that day, that just gives me the chills hearing you talk about it. There’s so much not discussed. There’s so many images that have become iconic and so many things that we do see replayed over and over. Yet all the individual experiences are not always in the forefront at all. Even some of the details you put in about Harry’s shoes and how the little dots in the wingtip of his nice work shoes were filled in with ash, things like that, just wow. The papers flying outside the office window where you were working, did that really happen? Were you watching the papers fly?

Ilona: Yes. I was in my office early that day. Before I heard anything, I just saw paper flying. I was up on the eighth or the tenth floor. There’s paper flying. It was really unusual. The alleys between buildings downtown are so narrow. You often see random things fly up in the air, but that was how I knew something big had happened, because it was so unusual. There are millions of people who have millions of stories like that, who when they see something even now twenty years later, I’m sure they will see something and it will remind them of that day. I think we all carry that with us. That’s where a lot of those images came from.

Zibby: I’m a lifelong New Yorker. I was not in New York that day because I had just started business school. My best friend was still in New York who I had lived with before I left for business school. She had worked in one of the towers and died. We don’t even know, really, what happened. I was very much a part of all of that stuff. I came back the next day. We were looking for her back when we thought everybody was just missing. I’ve tried to process that day in many ways myself over time. I’ve also been giving thought to the twentieth anniversary and how I would want to even personally honor that for me. This is your book and your show here, but it has made me a completely different person. There was the before and after. It’s informed everything I do every day because it’s taught me how to live. There’s no denying mortality when you’re twenty-five years old and your best friend gets exploded and disappears. Things don’t go back to normal. I’ve been searching, always, for more stories. Matthew Bocchi just wrote a great memoir about it, which you should check out, called Sway. His dad was in the towers. He developed this almost obsession into what happened with his dad. He was really young at the time. That’s another great one I’ve read recently. To put it in fiction and the layers of the parents and then, of course, the relationship and what happens after and how this affects her whole life, it was great. It made me think. Your characters were developed so well. I love how you — glamorize is the wrong word. Families from Staten Island don’t always get center stage, certainly not in literary fiction. I just loved it. I loved the gold chain and the T-shirts and the white Nikes with the baggy jeans and just how you really captured — and the laminate, the fake wood on the walls. I’ve been to Staten Island. I’ve hung out in people’s homes there. It was great. I loved all that.

Ilona: Thank you. Staten Island is a very colorful place. It’s a really vivid place. I think it gets underestimated with the five boroughs. It’s always last on the list. You don’t get a lot of street cred from being from Staten Island. I think there’s something about it that just really lends itself to really vivid characters because I met a lot of them growing up. I just think it’s a great place to write about.

Zibby: Once you wrote this, did you write the whole book in the year and then you tried to sell it? What was the publication journey like?

Ilona: No, at the end of the year, I knew that it needed work, that it wasn’t ready to go to agents yet. My tutor on my course helped me to edit it and helped me figure out the structure. It wasn’t until the end of that year that I actually figured out the idea of the hotel room as a way of stitching together all of the stuff that I had about Gigi. After doing some work, then I started sending it out to agents. I just had that long period of time where no one responds to you and nothing’s ever going to happen. You’re like, what did I just do? I just wasted a year of my life. I gave myself a time limit on finding an agent as well because I knew that I couldn’t spend four or five years just writing this book. I couldn’t afford to do that. It either had to go or I had to go back to work. Luckily, I did find my agent two weeks before my deadline, which is amazing. Then we worked together on it for a while. Then she found my publishers. Then we worked on it some more. Definitely, for a debut novel, you need to take in all the advice you can from everyone you can and edit and edit and edit. That definitely was a big part of the process to get to where we are now. Now here it is.

Zibby: Wow. How do you feel with it out coming in the world? What is that like?

Ilona: I still can’t believe it. I still find it really crazy to see it is a real object that you can hold and that people have and that they’re talking about and sending me stuff on Instagram about. It’s a thing out in the world. This is very exciting. It’s scary because sometimes I’m like, oh, wait a second, I just wrote all this stuff, and now everybody knows. No, it’s amazing. I feel really, really lucky that life worked out this way and that I got put on this path. I just feel really fortunate. It’s an amazing new career to have.

Zibby: You did a really great job, particularly with the characters and even Michelle. It was great. I really enjoyed it. I loved the issues that it brought up and how it makes you think and feel and the importance of that. I just really liked it. What are you working on now, now that I’ve sung your praises? Are you working on another novel? What are you working on?

Ilona: Yes. Actually, yesterday, I just wrote the last sentence of my second novel.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, congratulations. That’s huge.

Ilona: Yes. Also, writing it over this year of lockdown and homeschooling, there are large chunks of it that I’m just like, hang on, I don’t even remember doing that, but it’s there, so that’s good. I’m glad that it’s come together. That is also a story of motherhood and mental illness and migration, very different characters. Definitely, it’s still exploring what it means to be an outsider, what it means to be a person who’s overlooked. I really like writing about people who we don’t see or who we choose not to see. I think it’s important to get stories like that out there.

Zibby: That sounds amazing. Motherhood, migration, and mental illness, I’m like, sign me up. That sounds great. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Ilona: I think the biggest thing is to claim your time. You don’t get paid to write for a really long time, but that does not mean that your work doesn’t have value. If you treat it like a hobby, then people around you will treat it like a hobby. It will get dismissed. That’s just something that will always be at the bottom of your priority list. If you say to people in your life, “This is my work. I care about it. I need to do it because this is what I’m trying to do,” then that’s how people will look at it. My kids were three and five. They were never going to turn around and say to me, do you need time off this afternoon to write your book? We know it’s really important to you. That was never going to happen. I had to take the time. I wrote at five o’clock in the morning. I would write between five and seven AM. Even though I was exhausted, that was the time I had. Wherever that time is for you, whether that is at midnight or writing on your phone while you’re in the supermarket, whatever it is, take that time because no one’s going to give it to you. I would also say, share your work. I think a lot of writers are introverts. We get nervous about sharing our work with people. I think it’s so important. I gave my manuscript out to twenty or twenty-five friends. Stephen King says you’re not supposed to do that, but he’s Stephen King. He can do what he wants. The feedback, it’s really encouraging. Also, when people say negative stuff, it’s really helping. Negative comments are what makes your writing better. Don’t be afraid to put it out there.

Zibby: Great advice. I love that. Take the time back. As if my kids are going to come and be like, you enjoy yourself, Mom.

Ilona: It’s hard to do. It’s hard, especially for women to do, to say, no, I need this time. Over the course of this year, all of us locked up in our houses, incredibly difficult to do, but we have to.

Zibby: I feel it would be a whole nother podcast to hear what happened in the last year, especially for those of us who value plans and structure and control of things and have anxiety. I relate a hundred percent. For me, my podcast sort of saved my life, being able to talk to people and not feeling completely isolated in that feeling. Thank you for coming on the show. Sorry for the technical issues at the beginning. It was great to connect. I cannot wait to read your next book.

Ilona: Thank you so much. It’s been really great to talk to you. This is really exciting. Thank you.

Zibby: I hope to meet in person someday.

Ilona: I would love that. Thank you.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Ilona Bannister, WHEN I RAN AWAY

When I Ran Away by Ilona Bannister

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