Debut novelist Jamie Varon joins Zibby to discuss her dazzling, heart-warming, and smartly crafted rom-com, MAIN CHARACTER ENERGY. Jamie talks about her protagonist, Poppy, who is an aspiring novelist. When her beloved aunt dies, she leaves Poppy a trip to a stunning villa (and secretive writers’ residency) in the French Riviera and a challenge to finish her novel in six months. Poppy has to confront her writer’s block, family drama, complicated romances, and self-doubt. Jamie also describes her writing process (particularly in crafting a slow-burn romance and developing such memorable characters), her own experiences in the South of France, her background in nonfiction writing, and the journey that led her to publish her first novel.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jamie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Main Character Energy.

Jamie Varon: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to chat.

Zibby: I loved this book. I really loved it. I love your voice. I love the characters. I love the setting, everything about it. The voice is so great. The message is so great. I felt like I needed to finish in time, and yet I didn’t want to speed up my reading. Anytime I would try to speed up just a little, I was like, oh, no, no, no, I can’t. I was going to miss that. I’ve been really enjoying every word of it, honestly. Really loving.

Jamie: That means so much to me. Thank you so much. It’s definitely a labor of love. I just wrote it so deeply from my heart. I was like, I don’t even know what I’m really doing. I just need to write this story. It’s really, honestly, such an honor to hear that you love the voice because I think that’s a really hard thing to bring forth, especially in a debut novel. You’re so uncertain if you — you don’t even have the tools yet to know, did I write something that resonates? Do I know what I’m doing yet? That is really cool because I feel like I sharpened that a lot with my nonfiction work. It was such a big leap to do fiction. It’s my love, my joy to read fiction, and so I was like, I guess I got to write it. It just means a lot that you loved it because it was a real big leap for me to write it.

Zibby: I feel like it was all so meta. I would love you to describe it for people listening. The writer wanting to be a novelist trope, I love that. You kind of know that she did it in the end because you’re reading the novel that you wrote and that there must be some part of you that’s feeling the same way because it’s your first novel. The whole time, you’re like, well, it is so hard. I feel like you captured, as someone who — I just wrote a novel myself. I’m trying to write my second novel, but I can’t even do that. Anyway, it’s so hard. You totally get the headspace of what that feels like. For any aspiring novelists or have written a novel or are trying to write a new novel, this is the support group, almost, for that, as well, on the inside.

Jamie: I wrote it in September 2020. I was in lockdown. I put all my fears of writing a novel into the book. I was like, I guess that’s the only way to get rid of them, is to just let this character think and say all the things that I feel of all this doubt. Yet it’s a thing you love to do. You love books. You love writing. It’s such a weird thing to be so afraid of the thing you love to do so much. You’re like, how does that work? I really wanted to show that. A big thing that was so important for me with Main Character Energy was to show — obviously, when you write novels, you got to have the plot. You got to have external conflict. I was like, man, for me, so much of my conflict has been internal. I am the one that’s in my way. I need to see that in a book. I need to see someone who, they just keep getting in their way because that’s how life is. When you doubt yourself, when you don’t have that confidence yet, when you’ve been taken down a few notches, when you feel like a failure, when people haven’t always lifted you up, you are the one standing in your way for a lot of it. I think that was so important to show in that character journey because our external world reflects our internal world so often that I was like, man, I need to see that. I need to see how someone could be in France in one of the most beautiful places in the world and still be like, no, don’t deserve it. Can’t enjoy it. Can’t even see that this is a blessing, that this is beauty right in front of me. I’m just too doubtful of myself.

Zibby: That’s why it’s so rewarding when there are moments like when she’s leaving the Italian guy — I can’t remember his name — on that horrible date and then the time in the apartment. She comes back home. I feel like she was in a car or something. It was like, wow, this was not my fault. I am not in a shame spiral because of what happened. I can see that this is external to me. This is someone else’s behavior. I didn’t cause it. She’s like, wow, I’ve never felt that way before. You’re just like, oh, this is great. That felt like such a monumental shift in the book. Obviously, there was a drama that happened, but the shift was more in her that was so rewarding. Wait, back up for a second and tell listeners what your book is about. Sorry, so excited to discuss.

Jamie: Main Character Energy is about a woman who’s an aspiring novelist. Her aunt, who she meets in secret, passes away and then leaves her this mysterious adventure where she has to get on a plane within two days and get to the South of France where Poppy, the main character, discovers all these incredible things about her aunt that passed. She had this villa that she wanted to bequeath to Poppy. Poppy has to write her novel within six months. That sends her into a whole bit of total self-doubt. Of course, there’s a really charming, gorgeous man who’s there to really make things interesting with Poppy. She struggles with her body image and a mom that has not been very supportive of her. She goes on this adventure. Can she learn to accept and love herself and also do the thing that she loves most in the world and get out of her own way within this six-month timeframe in what I think is one of the most beautiful parts of the world, in the French Riveria?

Zibby: Thank you for taking us to so many different places. I’m like, okay, today we’re going to Cap-Ferrat. Now we’re going to Nice. It’s so great. The way you even describe each of the settings, it’s just so escapist. I literally feel like every time I open it, I get to discover a new place. I love the South of France too. Actually, this morning, I interviewed the authors of the Dork Diaries, and their latest one was in Paris. I feel like my whole morning has been — I’m like, this is wonderful. I can just escape when I am not traveling anywhere. It’s great.

Jamie: Amazing. I’m actually in the South of France.

Zibby: Oh, you are?

Jamie: Yeah. My husband and I have been here for a couple weeks. We went to Tunisia to visit his family. Now we’re back. I’m in the same apartment that I was in in 2018 when I got the idea for the book. I was walking around here in the French Riveria, and I was like, this is the most beautiful setting for a novel. I need to write something about this time. It took two years to get up the nerve to actually write it. I’m here right now, so I’m in my own little escape within the escape.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love it. What piece of the idea gave you the whole idea for the novel? What inspired it?

Jamie: The big thing was just being here in the South of France myself. I was like, this is such a beautiful backdrop for someone to be questioning themselves just because there’s so much glamour. There’s so much built up around France. I was like, this is such a backdrop for someone to really go on a self-discovery journey. I had my own self-discovery here. Not the same as Poppy. I got the idea just because I thought it was so beautiful. I’ve always loved the idea of an inheritance because it’s that fish out of water. You have to force someone out of their comfort zone. I don’t know how that all came together. It came in pieces. The thing that I remember the most is that Poppy, who’s the main character of Main Character Energy, she was so clear to me. She started speaking in her voice. I had snippets of her little ideas and things. I was like, oh, okay, so she has a lot of anxiety. She is questioning herself a lot. That’s interesting to work with. It’s a bit of a risk when you do — so much of the novel-writing advice is a larger-than-life character who never really doubts themselves. It’s got to be aspirational. I did the opposite. People have kind of got to hang on with Poppy. She’s sort of a mirror for a lot of our insecurities. I just love her because I think she’s so honest when a lot of people wouldn’t be. I love a really imperfect, honest character. That’s, for me, my favorite thing. As long as they’re self-aware, I’ll go anywhere with a character. They can take me into the depths of their whatever they’re going through as long as they’re aware of it.

Zibby: I love that. I have to say, my one frustration with the book was the sexual tension between Oliver and Poppy. I was like, can we please just get together? What the heck? I don’t want to wait for this anymore.

Jamie: So many people have told me that. They’re like, this was such a slow burn. I’m like, I thought I burned it pretty — I’m like, oh, yeah, okay, it was a — I love a slow burn, though, because it’s so frustrating and yet it’s so satisfying when it finally — you’re like, oh, man, they earned that. They earned that moment.

Zibby: I’m joking. You could cut it with a knife, the tension between them. Even when you say these things like the flash second, the imperceptible shake of the head when they decide not to — just those little moments. You’re like, oh, my gosh, no!

Jamie: .

Zibby: I know, exactly. I have to say, I got your nonfiction book somewhere. I didn’t have time to read that, but I wanted to be prepared and read that as well. I just didn’t have time. Anyway, you started with nonfiction. That became really successful. Tell me about that and how that book came to be and changed your life and all of that. What were you doing even before that book? Where did you come from, Jamie?

Jamie: Walnut Creek, California; June 15th, 1985. No. I’ve, honestly, been writing online since as early as 2008. I have been sharing in various capacities. Sometimes it was freelance writing. Sometimes it was more personal essays. I am just an oversharer. I like to bring people along with the journey. I started putting my stuff on Instagram, just my little posts, little things. It just started to grow. People were resonating with it. It was not even, to me, like I was trying to help people. I’m not a guru. I’m not a motivational speaker. I was learning things about myself. I’d just write them down. They were reminders to myself. Don’t forget this. Remember that you learned this in this moment. I would share it with people. It started to really resonate. I was like, this is interesting. Then I started writing a newsletter when I was here in France in 2018. I started writing a newsletter every Friday. Those essays were just resonating with people in ways that I — the more specific I got about what I was really going through and the depth of what I was going through, the more people resonated with them. I was like, I’m so confused. This whole time, it was just confusion because I never set out to do any of these things.

I always wanted to write. I remember wanting to write since I was so young and thinking that’s not a real job. You don’t get to do that. I grew up very practical. I grew up with not a lot of money. You get a job and go to school and get something that you can rely on. I was like, writing is scary. I just started as a side thing, hobby, in a way. Once I started seeing those essays kind of take off, I was like, man, I would really love to write a book. I grew up where Eat Pray Love came out. I was like, I need to write my memoirs. I have no life experience of which to write a memoir from. I need to be my Elizabeth Gilbert. I always thought that that seemed so cool to me. I always wanted to write fiction, but I thought that seemed impossible. I was like, these are magicians, people that write these novels. Writing a book that was all of my most honest feelings of all the things that I’ve ever gone through was way easier to me than writing fiction. I don’t know why that is. I don’t mind talking about myself because I think it’s so helpful. I was not the person that it’s hard to get me to go to therapy. I’m like, let’s go. I’m excited.

Zibby: I’m the same way.

Jamie: Who ever gets against therapy? I’m down for it constantly. I don’t know.

Zibby: Let’s just analyze our feelings all day. I am good at this.

Jamie: I love that. A-plus. Gold star for me. In 2021, I was approached by the editorial director of Quarto, who published Radically Content. She was like, “I’m just such a huge fan of your writing. Even if I just get to talk to you as a person, I would love to talk. If you also wanted to do a book, we’ll publish literally anything you will write.” I was like, what? I had already been through so many rejections. It was so bizarre to me. It’s just so weird how publishing works where you could get so rejected and the timing is totally off, and then a year later, two years later, suddenly, you’re the person everyone’s talking about. It’s very wild. The whole thing with timing is very interesting. I had kind of stopped thinking that I would write a book, honestly, at that point before she got in touch with me. I was like, I guess I want to write a book, but a book doesn’t want me back. I was just like, wow. I was like, man. I just didn’t think it was in the cards for me. Maybe it was something way down the line. Then I got this book deal. I went, you know what, I’m going to just write the hell out of this book. I’m going to write Radically Content. I’m going to write it the way that I want to write it. I didn’t want to just write a self-help book. I wanted to write my experience, some memoir, some self-help, and just meet myself where I’m at and write what I’m going through right now.

That came out April 2022. Definitely did better than everyone thought it was going to do. We were all like, okay, Radically Content is doing some stuff out here. Then just a few weeks before the book came out, I got the book deal for Main Character Energy. That was just as wild to me. It’s not like I don’t have confidence. If you look at publishing and if you look at people who are writing, it just seems like it’s so impossible. It’s so hard to get anywhere. I get discouraged easily, which is not my best — I’m very resilient. I won’t give up, but I will get discouraged for a while. Then I have to pick myself back up. I’m not one of those people where it’s like, never give up. I’m like, what if I did give up, though? Hmm, that would be nice. I could just relax. I end up not giving up. In a blink, it felt like ten years of waiting, ten years of writing outlines, of multiple agents, multiple rejections, so many things that just were not lining up. I went through the weird thing where a publisher wouldn’t give me a book deal, but I had hundreds of people in my messages going, when are you going to write a book? Do you have a book? Do you have a book? I was like, I don’t know what to do about this.

Before Quarto got in touch with me, I was like, I’m going to self-publish, I guess, if that’s my only option, or I’m not going to do it, or I don’t know. I was thinking of all different options. To then now be here talking about my novel that came out, it’s just trippy. Even with my novel, I wanted to add some of those nonfiction, self-help-y type of things into the book and really have her, like I said at the beginning, go on this emotional internal journey as well as the external journey. I think doing nonfiction and writing the way that I did for so long and being so self-aware and messaging with so many people about all our different feelings and emotions and interior lives, it really equipped me to add that layer to my novels, which I think is something that I’ll always do because I just think how our world feels and how we interact with the world often so comes from our internal experiences and our past experiences. To leave that out always felt a little — I think that was maybe the missing piece. That’s how I was able to write the novel. It never really vibed with me, just external plot points happening all the time. I was like, but what about what’s happening in their head, in this character’s head?

I think I had to kind of give myself permission to write that way, too, because it goes against some of the more popular advice with novels where it’s like, don’t have a lot of exposition. Don’t have a lot of interior — those are the things that I want the most when I read a book. What’s she thinking? What’s the character really thinking in this moment? Instead of having to maybe parse it out a little too much. That’s a condensed journey. This all happened in a really roundabout way. It didn’t happen the way that I thought that it would. I think that’s so many people’s experience. I didn’t go straight out of school. I remember thinking, I want to be a published author by twenty-one. My first book came out when I was thirty-six. I was like, that’s a kick in the pants. That’s fine. I was actually really proud of myself that I didn’t let that dream go, but I really did think that it would happen a lot earlier than it did. I finally, in my thirties, got to the point where I was like, well, I don’t think it’s going to happen unless I make it happen. I got to get writing a lot. I think that’s what changed. The difference between ten years of wishing and then five years of putting my head down and doing the work, it’s a vastly different experience that I had.

Zibby: We have so many similarities in this journey. It’s just so nice to hear you say it all. The timing, it’s so frustrating. All these rejections and proposals, I have piles of rejected proposals. Now all of a sudden, I’m forty-seven, and my editor is like, “Okay, where’s your next novel?” I’m like, are you kidding me? It’s just so crazy because nothing in publishing is easy. Nothing is straightforward, except for the stories you hear all the time. Then I’m jealous. I’m like, okay, twenty-five-year-old with this major book deal. I wanted to be the youngest novelist in the world, and I have a novel coming out at forty-seven. You just don’t know.

Jamie: No. I wanted to be the ingénue prodigy myself, of course.

Zibby: Totally. Me too.

Jamie: Me and you are the gifted girls. For me, I’m to the point now where I hear your first novel coming out at forty-seven — I just saw all these incredible things of the publishing arm that you’ve created and everything. To me, that’s so inspiring. I’m like, oh, god, there’s so much time too. We’re both getting started. I talk a lot about the age thing. You get this idea that at thirty, if you don’t have it all figured out, if it’s not locked in and that’s what you’re doing, you’re not going to make it, ever. I think that’s so backwards. I have to remind myself constantly. Even in my own head, I’m like, you’re thirty-eight. You still got time. You’re okay. Thirty-eight is still young. Oh, my gosh, it’s just still all these things. I look at anyone who’s just continuing down that journey and — timing is such a kick in the pants because you could have it all ready. I felt ready for so many years that it wasn’t happening.

Zibby: I felt the same way.

Jamie: You’re like, so, I’m ready. What’s happening?

Zibby: I felt the same way about having kids. I really wanted to have my third child. She obviously just did not want to come. It wasn’t until I gave up that I ended up having this kid six years later. I feel like with some of these things — I am not a Zen person, that everything happens for a reason. I get the sense we have that frustration and drive mixed with sensitivity. What you said about getting discouraged, I tried to sell a novel — I’m sorry to talk about myself. I tried to sell a novel when I was twenty-five. I couldn’t go back to it for fifteen years because I was like, that hurt so much.

Jamie: Oh, my gosh, I know it. I actually heard this from Katherine Center.

Zibby: I love her, by the way. Love her.

Jamie: I love her. She said something similar. She was like, “I get discouraged really easily.” I was like, man, that is so permissive for her to say something like that. I compare. I get discouraged. I have certain people, I can’t follow their careers. There’s certain things I don’t need to know about. I just have to accept that. I try to be Zen where I’m like, okay, timing is what it is. It’s okay. I trust in that. At the same time, I need to be on my path. If I see all these other things and I see someone who is the twenty-five-year-old ingénue, I’m like, good for them, but I don’t need to expose myself to this. I think that’s the one thing about the internet that’s — there’s a lot of things, but that’s one thing that I’m like, I don’t need to come across these people on a constant basis, because I do, I get discouraged. I think maybe I should give up. Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to be doing, is giving up instead of being persistent. I don’t have those thoughts when I don’t compare. I’m just a lot more clear. I think that it’s happening to more people. There’s a sort of cultural, what you’re supposed to say. I’m not going to give up. This won’t discourage me. Meanwhile, it’s like, oh, no.

Zibby: There’s also, I’m not going to give up, but then I got to a point where I was like, but maybe it’s just not going to happen for me. Maybe it’s just not going to happen. Maybe I’m just never going to write a book. Then I was like, I’m still going to try.

Jamie: That’s where I get too. I’m going to torture myself and feel horrible. At the end of the day, then I end up at my computer with a blank document going —

Zibby: I might as well.

Jamie: What else am I going to do?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Jamie, I’m sorry, I feel like I could talk to you about this all day, and Poppy too. All those thoughts, I’m like, I want to just sit down and talk to you, talk to Poppy. It’s such a validating thing in a creative field where it’s so — anyway, thank you.

Jamie: Of course. Thank you. I could talk to you all day, for sure. I’m sure we could definitely get into a lot of things.

Zibby: Yes, but there was so much we didn’t even talk about. This whole body image part, oh, my god. Next time. To be continued somehow, somewhere.

Jamie: Yes, to be continued.

Zibby: Thanks, Jamie.

Jamie: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


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