Zibby interviews #1 New York Times bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard, A VERY INCONVENIENT SCANDAL, a page-turning family drama about a young woman who returns home to announce her pregnancy and marriage, only to discover her widowed father is marrying her best friend. The story was partly inspired by Mitchard’s own experience; her widowed father introduced her to his new partner, who turned out to be a high school acquaintance. Mitchard discusses complex family dynamics, the importance of empathy in navigating familial changes, and the differences in how men and women perceive and handle such situations differently. Mitchard also shares insights into her writing process, advising aspiring authors to be patient with their stories and stressing the importance of reading for writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jacquelyn. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” this time to discuss A Very Inconvenient Scandal: A Novel.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: Thank you for having me. That’s as opposed to the kind of scandal that is very convenient for people. Don’t you wonder?

Zibby: Yes, always. There are so many of those.

Jacquelyn: That you just don’t mind, a little scandal.

Zibby: The next book will be A Very Convenient Scandal. Then we can evaluate pros and cons. This is an inconvenient scandal, though, particularly as it hits so close to home. Not for me. I mean for your characters. Tell listeners what the story is about, how you came up with the idea for this book.

Jacquelyn: Many stories are inspired by things that happen in one’s real life. Though, something that only vaguely resembles what happens in A Very Inconvenient Scandal happened in my real life. It’s very different. Of course, in fiction, we both intensify and correct the things that are historical. In any case, it’s about a young woman who is an acclaimed underwater photographer who comes home to Cape Cod to announce to her family that she’s going to have a baby. She’s getting married. She never dreamed of doing this. Her sixty-year-old widowed father, who is a well-known marine biologist, has a surprise for her as well. He is marrying her best friend. That is just the first twenty-five pages. That’s just the start of all the mayhem that ensues as a result of that announcement. It was inspired when I came home to the West Side of Chicago one time to visit my father, and he said he wanted me — he was widowed for quite some time. My mom died very young. He wanted to introduce me to his new beloved. I walked into the house with two of my kids. I think I only had two kids at that time. I met the woman and stared at her. The reason that they call it double take is because it’s literally what you do. Your head spins around. I said, “I went to high school with you. You’re Barbara X.” She said yes. That was the beginning. I realized that my dad was going to marry the kid next door.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Jacquelyn: Indeed.

Zibby: Did he? Did he marry her?

Jacquelyn: They became engaged. Unfortunately, he died. He had kidney disease. He died before the actual wedding could take place. They were a couple for a long, long time. Her children from three or four previous marriages — I don’t mean that in a pejorative way; anyone can make a mistake — moved into the house that had been my dad’s house. It was a very disorienting experience. Very disorienting.

Zibby: I’m sorry about the losses of your parents. Wow, what a crazy thing. My mom’s dad remarried someone younger than her, so my step-grandmother was younger than my mom. I’m familiar with that sort of relationship thing.

Jacquelyn: Somehow, I don’t expect that from people of my sort, which is to say, we aren’t in Hollywood. We’re just ordinary folk. My parents were a shop clerk and a plumber. It just seems like something that is very exotic to do, but I guess it’s not. I don’t know. It stills seem like it ought to be for royalty or something like that. Anyway.

Zibby: Anyway. It’s interesting what happens because there’s — not to give anything away. Later in the book, there is a moment where you’re wondering if Mack is going to be okay or not. It sounds like that echoes sort of what did happen. Interesting.

Jacquelyn: It doesn’t spoil anything to say that people find a way of negotiating new realities in this book. I never did. I don’t know if I didn’t try hard enough, but I never found a way to truly negotiate those realities. By contrast, my husband, his parents married when they were very, very young. I think they were eighteen when they got married. They had children. Then they parted. He married a woman who was my husband’s age. She still is my husband’s age. They had a child together. He was much more accepting and graceful, at least publicly, than I was. I don’t know. It depends on your temperature. Of course, this is fiction. It is the way that I would have wanted to explore real life if I had been able to. Do you do that, ever? Do you cherry-pick elements from life to put in your stories?

Zibby: I had something happen to me the other day. I’m literally, in my head, being like, should I do a whole novel around this? What am I going to do with this scene which was so funny that I have to write about it? Yes, I do that.

Jacquelyn: I remember once being in one of those New York restaurants. I haven’t been to New York in a hundred years, but in one of those little restaurants that has five tables. I was sitting at a table with my then agent. Next to us, there was this impeccably beautiful couple. Perhaps they were in their eighties. I’m sure they were in their eighties. They had clearly been together for a long time. She was offering him the tastiest bits from her plate. He was saying one thing and another. All of a sudden, she slammed down her knife and fork on the table. She said, “You should not say that. I have always honored your marriage.”

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Jacquelyn: My jaw dropped. They had been having that same argument for fifty years.

Zibby: Unbelievable.

Jacquelyn: That just proves that you don’t stop wanting to howl at the moon when you get old, or something.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. In the book, Ariel is not just a friend. She was essentially like another member of the family. Her own relationship with her mother, who is also a character in the book, is a very difficult one. She really found refuge in this other more stable family, despite the mother having passed away, and was almost raised by them. It was not just a high school friend, but almost like — there was an example in the book where she was trying to explain to Gil, her husband, why this was — she’s like, imagine this is your brother, and this is what happens. He’s like, ugh, gross. You can just hear that happening.

Jacquelyn: To be fair to Mack, the father who marries Ariel, he was never around. He was always on the road traveling doing his TV shows and discovering new species and saving ones that were on the verge of extinction. He really didn’t participate. He barely noticed his own children, and so he really didn’t notice Ariel until she came to work for the foundation that he represents, the Saltwater Foundation. I don’t want people to think of him as a pervert.

Zibby: No, no, no, not at all.

Jacquelyn: I know, but I just wanted to hasten to add that. He wasn’t really aware of her until she was a woman truly grown, twenty-six, twenty-seven years old.

Zibby: I meant it more from the character’s point of view, not from the dad’s point of view. More the betrayal of a friendship.

Jacquelyn: The most interesting thing about the book to me is the way men feel about things versus the way women feel about things. Her father does not get — and neither does her husband, to be fair. Though, he’s a sweet fellow. He’s, well, live and let live. Move on. Let’s go have lunch. Frankie, the main character, is absolutely distraught. Her father has no idea why and barely pays lip service to it when it seems that with a little bit of — in fiction of a few years ago, the trope was forgiveness. Now it’s empathy. With a little empathy, these people might not have had to have such a cataclysm as they did have, but nobody was listening to anybody else. I think that is the truest thing that we can possibly say about families, even good ones. Nobody’s listening.

Zibby: I feel like there was a lot of regret that Frankie didn’t take more time coming home. There was a lot of, well, I was busy, but was I so busy? Was I really that busy that I couldn’t call more? Did people not tell me things, or was I just not available? I feel like that’s the constant dialogue for any grown-up, honestly. Am I calling home enough? Is there enough connection? What should I be doing? Are people moving on without me, or have I opted out of this? It applies to family. It applies to groups of friends from high school or whatever it is. How do you know if you’ve been excluded or if you excluded yourself?

Jacquelyn: You don’t know. That’s another thing where men and women differ. If you think of a man in your life — if I think of my husband and I say, “Who’s your best friend?” he’ll say, “Paul.” “When was the last time you talked to Paul?” “Must be six or seven years now.” To a woman, that’s inconceivable. To us, friendships and relationships need watering and care and attention. Men just sort of walk back into them as if it was yesterday. I guess that’s because other men are doing the same thing. The person who is the friend is doing the same thing. I know that in my friendships, if I neglect them, I’m going to find out about it one way or another. Friendship is — I think Frankie says something about this in the book. In its own way, it is even more fragile and to be cherished than family relationships because you can’t divorce your sister. You can in an extreme circumstance. These are chosen relationships that you want to last for a lifetime. Frankie and Ariel’s relationship had persisted since they were ten years old, for seventeen years by the time this began to happen.

Zibby: Amazing. What number book is this?

Jacquelyn: It’s twenty-four counting all of them, but some of those are children’s books and young adult books, which take maybe even more concentration because you have such little space to do all the things that you want to do. With novels, you can be discursive. I have this one coming out in November. I’m at work on another one. It’s truly spicey, Zibby, this one coming up. This one is based on the first criminal case I covered when I was a baby reporter back in the eighties about a young woman who — how shall I say this? — a call girl who was accused of murdering her two most devoted clients. Not one, but two. She was an enigmatic figure, extraordinarily intelligent, a scholarship student in biology and chemistry with only straight A’s. She gave that up to become a hooker, and then an accused murderer. Of course, there’s a story behind the story and underneath it and everything.

Zibby: Do you ever get tired of writing? Is it something that gets you out of bed every morning?

Jacquelyn: I’m always tired of writing, and I’ll always do it. You’ve had many people on your show who say, I’m happiest. It’s so fulfilling. To me, it is absolute misery all the time. It’s misery. I’m very — I don’t know what I want to say — OCD, perhaps, about my writing in that I won’t let myself write the second sentence until the sentence before it is perfect. I’m fiddling with things constantly and editing things constantly. Sometimes I feel that by the time I complete a manuscript, it has so many fingerprints all over it — though, it doesn’t, of course, because it’s in the computer — that it’s practically illegible. I think about people like Charlotte Brontë who only got to write it once, and it was that good. Yes, I love it and hate it, as you do most of the things in your life that are most satisfying, like being a parent. Oh, it’s so difficult. Sometimes you think you just want to go and put your head under the faucet. Then other times, you cannot imagine living without the best rodeo in life.

Zibby: I love that. That’s beautiful. It is this strange dichotomy of difficulty and not. I feel like if I were to spend every sentence — I would never get anything done. Charlotte Brontë, maybe she took all this time in her head. I feel like we’re all so quick because we can. We can put it down. Then we know we can delete it and rewrite it and whatever. There’s nothing that makes us stop and evaluate it in our heads. Whereas maybe before, she was editing it. It was just in her head and not on the page. Who knows?

Jacquelyn: You know writers who write in longhand.

Zibby: That’s true.

Jacquelyn: You know writers who still use a typewriter. To me, that would be like hitting yourself in the face with a belt as often as you could. To me, the computer is an extension, the laptop is an extension of my brain. Being able to move scenes around within a story is one of the greatest gifts that I’ve ever enjoyed as a writer, certainly. With all that, there are still things that — I think when I give my book to my agent, I’ve done the best job that I could do. Maybe the best job anyone has ever done in writing a book. I say, “Here it is.” Then he reminds me that there’s no reason for this guy to be a priest. Why would she go and see her sister at that point? This is absolutely ridiculous. That doesn’t make any sense. After crying, I fix everything that he wants me to fix. Then he gives it to the publisher. She says, “Obviously, this guy should be a priest.” You have to please yourself. People say they write for themselves, and I don’t. I really write for that person out there, that person who can’t sleep at night because she wants to finish the next chapter. She’s sitting in the bathtub with no water in it. She’s got a light on that won’t wake anybody else up. She’s reading that book. To me, that is the person — I live in Massachusetts just a couple hours down the road from Emily Dickinson. She doesn’t live there anymore. I think she does. This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me. This is my form of taking someone’s hand in the darkness.

Zibby: That is beautiful. Spoken like a true writer. Look at that. No need to edit it or anything. Are there books that you’ve read recently or in the past that are those bathtub books for you?

Jacquelyn: Absolutely. I was memorized and upset with her, by the way, with Elizabeth Strout, for writing her seaside trilogy, Lucy by the Sea and My Name is Lucy Barton, that they were so short. You would read them in one night, and then it was over. Anything Ann Patchett writes, I will be there to read. I love mystery stories. I love crime stories that Gillian Flynn or folks like that write. I love the mathematical sort of riddle that comprises a mystery story. I also love to know what human beings are capable of doing to each other because there’s never a limit. There’s never a limit on the way people will behave badly if they have a motive and if they’re given the chance. Recently, I’ve been reading books by — I can’t pronounce her last name. Mona Awad. Recently, I’ve been reading through her things. Everything Jean Hanff Korelitz writes, I love. I certainly have no shortage of books to read by people that I can then be jealous of and force myself not to lift passages from their books. My favorite book of recent years is called Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Have you read it?

Zibby: I read part of it, but I didn’t finish it.

Jacquelyn: It won the National Book Award when she was thirty-three. I wrote to her and said, “I just want to get you alone so I can slap you for being thirty-three and winning the National Book Award with your first book. Thank you very much.” It is bewitching.

Zibby: Says the Oprah’s Book Club pick, by the way. Come on. Talk about slapping people.

Jacquelyn: Her book was magnificent. I’ve read it a couple of times. I’ve read the ending countless times, read it to my students. Every time I read it, I start to cry. The effect of it is so profound. It is the most, I think, for your listeners, the most profound ending of a book that I’ve ever experienced because it’s so finely plotted. It almost didn’t happen the way that it did. It’s just wonderful.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that is a huge endorsement. I am now going to go back and read that. I feel like I did a quick interview with her for something else, but it wasn’t for this. Maybe for the New York Public Library or something. I don’t know. Now I have to go back, or maybe I did. I’m losing my mind. I’m literally losing my mind. Anyway, I will go back and read it. What do you like to do when you’re not wringing your hands at the keyboard and all of that?

Jacquelyn: I don’t have hobbies. I have a big family. I still have some responsibilities with kids at home. My last kid is in high school. A number of them are in college. I have things to do. I’m not an avid cook, but it’s necessary for me to cook because you’re not going to go out and buy prepared food for six people. I’m a very good Italian cook. I used to do all kinds of things, like make my own pasta sauce and things like that. Pretty much right now, my only hobby is reading. I read a couple of books every week, maybe three books a week. I read, and I write. Sometimes I watch a movie. It is a really exciting life. It’s filled with glamour and pink champagne. I don’t do anything. I don’t have any vices, nor do I have too many virtues. That’s all I do. All my friends, they quilt. They paint. They do all kinds of curated things. I don’t do any.

Zibby: You’re doing a lot. By the way, even though it — when we’re reading — this sounds like such an obvious thing to say. I do feel like you can have a very glamorous life when you go to all the places in your books. You’re not just sitting still when you’re reading. I know you physically are, but it’s like you go to all these places. You’re experiencing all these things and people’s emotions. It’s like conversations you’re having but you’re not actually having. I don’t view reading as any sort of passive activity. I feel like you’re actively engaged.

Jacquelyn: Brain science bears that out. I have a great friend, who is a novelist also, called Lisa Genova. She wrote Still Alice.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, yes. Wow.

Jacquelyn: She points out that when you are reading, you’re engaging your emotions, your lower brain, your upper brain. That’s why you experience personality change when you read a book, because you’re actively entering the world of another, learning the way people react and prosecute their lives in that setting. It’s fascinating. It can’t help but have an effect on you as a reader. No, I don’t think of it as passive at all. It’s just unremarkable. I would love to be able to say that I’m a competitive member of a rowing crew or something like that, but I would be the anchor on the crew. I don’t do anything.

Zibby: Okay, well, I beg to differ. You do a lot. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Jacquelyn: Be patient with your story. Unless you are writing something that someone else told you to write — don’t do that. People are always saying to other people, that incident that happened to your grandmother in the 1930s, that should be a book. Books have to have a great deal of — they have to have a deep basement. They have to have lots of moving parts that come up from the basement and change the basic story. That’s why there’s an A plot and a B plot and a C plot. Be patient with your story until you know that it’s cooked enough to actually really be a book. You were saying earlier about how some people work out their writing of a story as they write draft after draft. For me when I’m making that spaghetti sauce, I’m also making that book. I’m thinking, this could happen. That could happen. What could she do when she works at the strip club and not be a stripper? Oh, she could be a bartender. I’m thinking and thinking about — this starts out as one little shoot coming out of the ground. Then it gradually becomes fenestrated, and it becomes a tree because you add those elements to it that make it fully fledged.

I think sometimes the desire to write a story is so strong that people sometimes rush into it and rush through it as a writer before it is really ready to be presented to the world. Then that way lies disappointment. They may have a brilliant concept, but when they go to see whether that can be traditionally published, the answer sometimes is, this isn’t really there yet. That’s very discouraging. I would counsel people to be patient with your writing. Be patient with your story. Let other people read it before — if you’re going to let the world read it, it’s okay if great friends of yours read it or a writing partner reads it before you decide that it’s ready to hand off to an agent because there are always things that are missing. The obvious thing, I think if you — so many people who are writers say to me, who has time to read? To me, that’s like saying, who has time to brush your teeth? No, your brain will fall out if you don’t read, just like your teeth will fall out if you don’t brush them. You have no business trying to write a story for other people if you’re not consuming literature of all kinds with a great ferociousness.

Zibby: I love that. Amazing. I hope many people will ferociously be consuming A Very Inconvenient Scandal.

Jacquelyn: I hope so too.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jacquelyn: Thank you for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: It’s a pleasure.

Jacquelyn: Take care.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Jacquelyn: Bye. You also.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens