Zibby is joined by author Jeff Hoffmann to talk about his debut novel, Other People’s Children, which is now out in paperback. The two discuss Jeff’s essay about who can tell which kinds of stories which he wrote in response to people’s surprise that he was not a woman, as well as how his own experiences with adoption inspired the core of the novel. Jeff shares why he made the decision to quit his job and get an MFA at 47, how his relationship with his daughter has found its way into a number of his projects, and what he is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jeff. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Other People’s Children.

Jeff Hoffmann: Thank you, Zibby. It’s very exciting to be here.

Zibby: I was just mentioning to you I have your hardback, but I’ve seen your amazing paperback and the new design. It’s very cool. I really want to talk to you about — I kind of love the idea that paperbacks let you rebrand a book altogether. How involved were you in the two different covers? Then I want to talk about the book itself.

Jeff: I was involved in both. The paperback cover was actually one of the choices that was considered for the hardback and was the one that I lobbied for. Simon & Schuster chose the cover that they chose. I just love the paperback version of it because it really prepares the reader for what they’re going to read as part of the story. I feel that the hardback kind of presents it as a love story to a certain degree. For me, it’s a story about busted expectations and a story of literary suspense or domestic suspense. I think the paperback just presents that more or better and allows the reader to expect things more accurately.

Zibby: Could you tell listeners, now, what the book is about? Then I want to ask you some other stuff.

Jeff: Gail and Jon Durbin, they’re thirtysomethings living in Downtown Chicago. They move to the suburbs when Gail first becomes pregnant. She miscarries three times before they turn to adoption to build a family. Carli Brennan is a struggling teenager. She’s pregnant. She chooses to place her baby for adoption and chooses the Durbins. She feels like she’s made the right decision until her domineering mother embarks upon a campaign to change that decision. The Durbins bring Maya home and fall in love with her and start to mend their fractured marriage. They have her home for about four days when they learn that Carli’s chosen to reclaim her baby, which she has every right to do. The Durbins, rather than giving the baby back, decide to run. They disappear.

Zibby: I love how, in fiction, you can live out, what if we just did this?

Jeff: What if?

Zibby: Right? What would happen? I’m not really going to do it, but how would I do it?

Jeff: I was in a book club. Some of the people were saying, “I’m not sure I’m buying that this family would run.” One of the women in the book club said, “I was in this exact same situation.” In California, you have a year to reclaim your baby. We were in California. She said, “We had talked. For a while, I was on the edge. We had talked about, what are we going to do? Are we going to stay, or are we going to go?” It’s something that people have faced.

Zibby: People will do all sorts of things for their children. I think the line of when it becomes your child or not is very blurry, which you call attention to. That’s one of the main things. The last thing about the covers, on the hardback, it says R.J. Hoffmann. You made the decision on the paperback to say Jeff. I know there was some, not controversy, but some people didn’t appreciate the fact that you were a man writing from women’s points of view, which is ridiculous, especially because Jon has many chapters of his own in here. He’s just one of many. Then you wrote this amazing article, “Let Fiction be Fiction,” about the right to decide what you can write about and who should write it and what stories you can tell, which I just thought was amazing, so true, and so important. Tell me about both coming out as the male author here on this book and that decision and all of that.

Jeff: The decision to go with initials was Simon & Schuster’s, along with the cover. My mother’s still a little angry about that and happy to see how things turned out with the paperback. They put my picture on the cover. We didn’t hide the fact that I was a man. The correct pronouns were used in the bio and all that. I think they chose not to lead with that. It’s a story of families. It’s a story of mothers. I certainly didn’t set out to write a story about mothers. Actually, the short story this was based on was from Jon’s point of view entirely. Then when I started telling Carli’s side of the story — she was a birth mother. The birth father was gone. It shifted from Jon and Gail’s story to Gail and Carli’s story in a lot of ways. There is more representation. When I wrote that PW piece, I should say that I was real careful to distinguish between cultural appropriation and writing from a different gender.

Zibby: Yes, you were.

Jeff: I value a ton of the books that have come from the Own Voices movement. I certainly don’t mean to say you can write whatever you want and say whatever you want about yourself. One of my favorite books from the last few years was Fleishman Is in Trouble.

Zibby: So good.

Jeff: That’s written from a man’s point of view kind of wrapped in a woman’s point of view, but it’s a man’s point of view that it’s being told from and written by a woman. She nailed it. She just killed it. That made the book better for me. It’s a conversation that our culture will continue to have and participated in. I’m just terribly excited that my book got published.

Zibby: There’s another book — I don’t know if you’ve read it — called What is Missing about infertility and a father, a son.

Jeff: I haven’t.

Zibby: You should read that. It raises some of the same questions and is written by a man mostly from women’s point of view. It’s really beautiful. Same type of thing. That also has a little triangle situation. Your article, too, you shared a lot. Could I just quote from your article if I can find it, if I can even read it? Let me get my glasses on, my middle-age tokens here. Let me just jump to this. You said, “Was it my story to tell?” Let me back up and make it a little bit better. “I’m probably not the first new writer –” That was funny that you’re reading all your reviews. “Some of the most impactful characters in the book are women, and the assumption that I was also a woman suggested that I had succeeded at some level in writing those characters well. My favorite reviews remain those that refer to me with female pronouns. I was troubled, though, by the reviewers who found it problematic that a man wrote the book. Other People’s Children tells the story of a couple who, after struggling with infertility, adopt a baby girl. The birth mother decides to reclaim her child after four days, and the adoptive parents choose to run rather than return the baby. Was it my story to tell? I could tell you about the moment I first laid eyes on my own adopted children. I could tell you about the fierce love that hit me like waking from a deep sleep into a bright light. I could tell you that the book, for me, is about shattered expectations and the pain of separation from a child. I could tell you that my daughter was living in a residential treatment center while I wrote it struggling with mood disorders layered atop autism, and I could tell you about all the expectations that experience shattered for me. I could tell you that although Other People’s Children is not my family’s story, our story litters the margins of the book.” That’s really beautiful.

Jeff: Thank you.

Zibby: Talk to me about sharing your own feelings but channeling it through other people and how fiction serves as such a great receptacle of that. Maybe touch on your own experience if you don’t mind.

Jeff: Sure. My daughter will talk about it as much as I will. I’m careful when I talk about that experience to try to talk about what I went through because that’s the part of it that I own. There’s a part of it that my daughter owns that is her story to tell when she chooses to tell it. When she was twelve or thirteen, when puberty hit — she has always had autism. Bipolar disorder got layered upon that, which can be a tough combination. It was a violent year for our family where a lot of, lot of bad things happened with multiple hospitalizations and self-harm and violence. Before we made the heart-wrenching choice, and she was part of that choice, of enrolling her in a residential treatment center — it was the toughest decision, the toughest time I’ve ever been through. I quit my job at forty-seven to go get an MFA. That was during the time that my daughter was gone. My first semester, I wrote a bunch of short stories. I went there knowing I wanted to write a novel. That was the thing. I wrote a bunch of short stories. Gosh, I looked at them at the end of the semester to choose a novel from one of them. Lo and behold, every single one of them had this distance between a parent and a child. I said, I guess that’s the theme that we’re going to attack here. I chose the one that drew me the most. My children are adopted, but we didn’t go through this adoption story. For me, this is about — you go into life, you go into adulthood, I should say, with all kinds of expectations — everybody does — about what’s going to be available to you, what’s going to be available to your children with happiness and opportunities and being free from struggle. Then it happens to all of us at some point. At some level, those expectations are not met. For me, the book was about, how do people react when they’re met with the shattered expectations? What do they do about it? How do they treat others when that happens?

Zibby: Have you found that a lot of people are reaching out to you as a result of your story to share their own experience?

Jeff: I have. I hope that’s what comes out of it, that people are able to see what they see on Facebook every day isn’t what everybody experiences. Last summer, I — my daughter had a rough year last year. She’s been home since the beginning of COVID. If you end it right now, there’s a happy ending. It’s all how you frame the ending, right? She had a rough year last year. We were going through a bunch of med changes. We were out at our lake house. I took a picture of a beautiful sunset. I posted it to Facebook. I said, “It’s really idyllic, isn’t it? My daughter and I are at the lake trying to survive some medication changes after a hospitalization for mental illness. I hope that helps somebody else out there that is scrolling through everybody’s graduation pictures and prom pictures, understanding that it’s not like that for everybody.” A lot of people responded to that because everybody goes through stuff. It’s so easy to present that beautiful side of things rather than the true side of things.

Zibby: Then you miss out on all human connection. Then you’re completely on the surface of the water as if there was nothing down below. You could do it, but what a loss that would be. When you have a child with a future that’s not as you predicted, you also have that sense of loss. You are grieving something that you thought was happening, something that you had assumed would be the case. Then you have to not only confront the challenge of the everyday, but let go of what you thought. That’s a loss. I feel like people go through a lot of grief response in addition, but they don’t know that, so they beat themselves up. They’re like, why am I denying it? I think there is some application of that.

Jeff: Everybody deals with it in different ways. When my daughter was younger, mainly, it was just autism we were dealing with. Those were the days. My wife, she would align all the therapies and buy all the toys and get all the books. She dealt with it differently. I said, “Just stop and enjoy the moment for the moment.” She said, “I hate your optimism.” I said, “It’s not optimism. It’s pessimism. It’s going to get a lot worse, so we got to enjoy right now.” I say that to speak to different ways of dealing. I have great empathy for the struggles that my daughter goes through, but she brings something to our family that no one else brings. She brings a very, very different way of looking at the world that makes me laugh twice a day and three times a day. That diversity in a very specific and metaphorical way definitely made our family richer.

Zibby: Can you go back for a second to the decision to quit your job at forty-seven and get an MFA? You just kind of glided right past that. What were you doing before? How long did you want to be a writer and didn’t do it professionally? Were you doing it on the side? Give me that whole story.

Jeff: My father was a high school teacher. My mom was a dental hygienist. When I was growing up, the funny thing is, our TV broke when I was in second grade. They didn’t replace it until we all hit the honor roll in the same quarter. That took two years. Back then, there was nothing to do but read, so I read. That’s when I fell in love with it. When I went to college, I got a finance degree. Because I went to a mediocre college, I went into IT because you couldn’t get a finance job. I borrowed two grand from my parents and started a company with a friend from college. We worked hard enough and were lucky enough to be successful with it. We sold it. Four years later, we bought another one, grew that, sold it. I was lucky to have the opportunity to do that but, at the same time, earned it. I had written between those two companies for about a year and a half. I wrote two books that’ll never see the light of day for a very good reason and then decided, hey, if I’m going to do this, I’m almost fifty. Always doesn’t last forever. I’ve always wanted to do this, so I’m going to go back to school. It was funny. I told everybody at work, of course, because I stopped showing up. I didn’t tell any of my friends back in Elmhurst. The novel’s set in Elmhurst. That’s where I live.

My rule was that I wouldn’t lie. When somebody asked me, “How’s work?” I would say, “Actually, I’m going back to school.” They would say, “Oh, MBA?” I’d be like, “Well, kind of. Not really, though.” After I told them what I was doing, they’d just kind of stare at me for a long moment and then walk away or else tell me about the novel that they were planning to write someday. Then I went back to school with a bunch of twenty and thirty-year-olds. I was in school with twenty and thirty-year-olds. I was the old guy. There was actually a retired woman who helped me feel part of the senior cohort. It was great. When I went through undergrad, I did the bare minimum to get As and Bs and didn’t learn much other than how to deal with people, which was a really important thing in the end. When I went back for my MFA, I knew how valuable this time was. After working so hard after the last few decades, I knew that this was my shot to do this thing that was really important to me. I spent sixty hours a week either writing a novel or working on schoolwork. I really treated it as a job and got way more out of it than I would if I did it when I was twenty-four and was just trying to get my MFA. I didn’t really care if I got my MFA. I wanted a novel out of the deal.

Zibby: Wow. How soon after you graduated did you write the novel and sell it?

Jeff: The novel, I started writing the end of my first semester. It took five semesters to finish. I finished it at the beginning of my last semester and started submitting it. Harvey Klinger, my agent — I got about seven folks to read it. The cool thing for me, the thing that may be exciting for other writers is I kind of went through the front door. I just sent things to people in New York. I knew zero people in New York and sent it out to forty-five agents. Harvey was one that replied. He said, “Hey, I really like it, but you need to change all these things.” I spent two months rewriting it as I was hoping another agent would make me not rewrite it. They all rejected it. I resubmitted to Harvey. He signed me up the first week of January and by the second week of January had sold it to Simon & Schuster. I was like, what? My daughter, she was still in the RTC at the time. I was driving her home for a weekend visit when Harvey called. I reacted in a way that you can only imagine. She said, “This is the happiest I’ve ever seen you. Is this the happiest day of your life?” I said yes. Then I had the common sense to —

Zibby: — To back up.

Jeff: “Except for the day I married your mother and the day that I adopted you and your brother.”

Zibby: I love that story. That’s such a wonderful success story. I love it. Actually, when I graduated from business school, I tried to write a novel. I mean, I did write. I wrote a memoir, then made it a novel. I worked on it for — whatever. Anyway, that was my agent. My agent was Sarah . She worked with Harvey Klinger.

Jeff: Oh, really? Okay.

Zibby: They didn’t sell my book, which I understand now in retrospect.

Jeff: I understand on my first two as well.

Zibby: I never should’ve — if there’s one piece of advice I feel like everybody needs to hear, it’s you must have two finished novels tucked away somewhere in your house. When you were saying that, I was like, I should design a three-novel storage file cabinet so that people know they need to fill up the first and second one before they have the third one they can submit. It’s okay. You’re not supposed to sell the first one.

Jeff: It takes more than 85,000 words. It takes about 750,000 words to get to where — .

Zibby: No, don’t say that. That’s literally so overwhelming. It makes me want to never type again. Oh, my goodness, 750,000 words. It shows that it can happen when you’re ready.

Jeff: That’s the fun thing. I was old enough. I was fifty-one or fifty when I sold it. I was just giddy. I couldn’t sleep. I slept for three hours that week just because I’d wake up and I’d say, I have a novel. I’m going to have a novel. I told my wife at the time, “I’m old enough to realize that now is the best part.” It’s unsullied by what everybody else thinks and sales numbers and reviews and all that stuff. I’ve done that thing. The rest will be fun in its own way.

Zibby: I’ve had goosebumps four times as you’ve been telling the whole story. They just keep going up and down.

Jeff: Me too.

Zibby: It’s so exciting. What do you think it is? I feel the same way as you. I know so many authors do. I feel like there is no greater thing than selling something you’ve been working on, getting that — I literally can’t explain. As you felt, there is nothing better, but why? Why is it such a big deal for writers? Why do we get so excited? Is it that we need the validation so badly? Do you know what I mean?

Jeff: Yeah, I hear you. I spent the rest of my career selling stuff, IT services.

Zibby: Right, there are other accomplishments.

Jeff: Those weren’t nearly as fun. Selling companies was kind of fun. For me, it was the lottery ticket idea. I was old enough to know that I was probably going to come out of my MFA with a book that would get rejected. Then I’d go back to do the next thing. I knew going in I was not going to be successful, but I was going to take this shot. That’s part of it. Part of it is that things move so slowly in publishing, from short stories all the way through to agents to novels. This was one of those times where lightning struck. The other part of it is that you put so much of yourself into that novel. I moved those words around for two thousand hours on top of the four or five thousand that I had already invested in trying to write, with four people reading it and five people reading it and nobody else caring. There’s a lot at emotional risk when you set aside time in the middle of your life to tell people that you’re going to go write a novel and tell yourself that you’re going to go write a novel.

Zibby: I love reducing it to, I moved words around. When you said, I moved words around for two thousand hours, that’s it. Writing is just moving the words around.

Jeff: That’s all it is. It’s just words in a Word doc.

Zibby: A little forklift just picking them up and putting them somewhere else or something, like in the sand. I heard you have a second novel coming out. What is that?

Jeff: Actually, it’s with my agent right now. Hopefully, it’ll come out.

Zibby: Oh, it’s with your agent. Okay, second novel written.

Jeff: Yeah, it’s written. I’ve started on my third. It’s about four boys, eighteen-year-olds who get in a fight in a Burger King parking lot, as eighteen-year-old boys do. They kill one of the other boys and maim the second.

Zibby: That is not what eighteen-year-old boys usually do, that part.

Jeff: I would say in my experience where I grew up —

Zibby: — Yeah? It is?

Jeff: I felt like every other weekend, it was kind of on the edge of that. Everybody’s seen that almost happen, I think. Most eighteen-year-old boys have seen that almost happen. Their friendship fell apart. They don’t see each other until they’re fifty and one of them dies. They see each other at the funeral. The dead man’s wife happens to be and seems to know a few things. Wrapped around that center are stories in each of their lives about the rots that happen with the lies that they told and the withholding that they’ve done. One of them has buried himself in corporate law. Another ignored his family. Another is becoming a broker of torsos for medical device companies and has a flawed relationship with his wife. The third has a wonderful relationship with his wife and , but his wife happens to be the prosecutor in the county that killed that boy. Things are complicated.

Zibby: Wow, interesting. I like it. You’re working on a third. That’s awesome.

Jeff: That’s what I’m doing right now. I better get up at seven AM and start writing.

Zibby: That’s why you were up early for this interview. I understand now.

Jeff: That’s right. I have to get my thousand words.

Zibby: I get it. Jeff, thank you so much for chatting today. This was so fun.

Jeff: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: I feel this sense of pride in your work now. I’m invested in it. I want to hear about the success. It’s very exciting when you know more of the backstory to enjoy the — you know what I mean.

Jeff: Thank you for being excited about it. I still get goosebumps when I tell that story. That’s what keeps me coming back to the desk every morning. Thank you so much for spending the time this morning talking about it.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day.

Jeff: Take care. You too. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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