Zibby Owens: Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and talking about your latest book, Show Them You’re Good. As I mentioned to you over email, I also loved your first book. Welcome.

Jeff Hobbs: Thank you. That means a lot.

Zibby: Show Them You’re Good, can you tell listeners, please, what it’s about?

Jeff: Show Them You’re Good, it’s about a group of senior boys at two different high schools in very different neighborhoods in Los Angeles applying to college and going through their last year of high school.

Zibby: What inspired you to tackle this topic? It seems like you’re very interested in how different lives along the same timelines can veer off in different ways, from this book, from Robert Peace book. What’s that about? Where’s that coming from?

Jeff: I wrote The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace about a really good friend of mine from college who passed away. That book was very hard and personal. I didn’t really think anybody would read it because it is hard. When it came out, something sort of terrifying happened, which is that a lot of schools started asking me to come visit and talk. You can already tell after two minutes that I was never meant to speak in public or really speak in general.

Zibby: Oh, please.

Jeff: I went to schools from Ivy League schools to juvenile halls and a lot of spaces in between, I would say mostly city public high schools, and had these conversations with young people. We were talking about race and education and access and entitlement. There was something about Rob Peace and his story that brought young people, particularly young men, to share their own stories or even just fragments of their families and their aspirations. I carried those home from these different places. It was meaningful. I just started thinking that maybe there’s a way to tell some stories about what it looks like and feels like to be eighteen years old in America right now.

Zibby: What was your experience at eighteen like?

Jeff: It was unremarkable. I played some sports.

Zibby: What part of the world did you grow up in?

Jeff: I grew up in the country in Pennsylvania, so a small school where you go to school with the same fifty people for fourteen years, very different from going to high school in Los Angeles. This project in no way was me trying to relive the glory days, sort of the opposite.

Zibby: How did you find the guys in your book like the character, not the character, the actual person Owen whose parents were in the film industry, and so had such reputable careers themselves. Then you have the boy whose parents are Chinese immigrants. You have all different kinds of boys, let me just say that, for all different backgrounds. How did you find them? Why did you pick them?

Jeff: I didn’t really pick them, so to speak. I undertook this project and started reaching out to schools. My wife thought I’d lost my gourd. Maybe I had. Very few schools want some awkward journalist roaming around their hallways, if you know what I mean, mainly because schools get dinged a lot by journalists. These two schools, I’d visited both of them before to, again, speak at assemblies and do book groups. I knew some teachers. The principals took a chance and opened their doors. They just sent an email out to seniors and said, “There’s going to be this guy hanging around. If you would like to meet him, come to such-and-such classroom at such-and-such time.” These guys came. One of these schools is in South LA right outside of Compton, which is a neighborhood a lot of people have heard of and even think they know what it’s like. The other school is Beverly Hills High School. If you watched TV in the nineties, you might think you know what’s going on there. These four or five guys in each school came. Then they kept coming every week. The center of the research was just these roundtable conversations I would have with these groups once a week for two or three hours at a time about what was going on with their lives. I think they came because I brought food.

Zibby: That will bring most young men anywhere. After spending all this time with all these guys and analyzing all their interactions with their family and their grades and everything, you went into so much depth, what was the main takeaway? I feel like people are very down on the youth in the US today, and what kind of life are we giving them? and all this. Do you feel that sense of pessimism? Do you feel more optimism? What’s your outlook on the next generation, if you will?

Jeff: I’m optimistic. I always risk sounding a little bit kumbaya, maybe. I got to know these guys really well over the course of a year. What I found is it’s an exceptionally interesting generation because these guys know that they’re the ones who are going to be dealing with a lot of issues that for older people, we talk about them and get outraged about them, but they’re still kind of abstract, whether you’re talking about climate or politics, race, all those things. I think these guys know that it’s on their shoulders, and not abstractly. What ended up coming out of these conversations is the idea of self-determination. It’s our national ethos that if you want something and dream big and work hard, you can get that thing. Particularly in schools, that is something that’s a notion that’s drilled in pretty hard. It’s in every graduation speech I’ve ever heard. I’ve heard a lot at this point. A lot of that year as they applied to college, again, from very different backgrounds, very different levels of privilege and family circumstances and levels of help, it was them learning that those lines are not straight. Life is messy. Things go wrong. The way they adapted to that messiness of being a human being is what makes me optimistic because that is resilience. Resilience is the other thing that’s drilled in high school.

Zibby: When you were writing this book and doing all the research, what was your process like? How long did you take to do the research versus the writing? How did you sort through the piles of transcripts? How did you actually do it?

Jeff: That’s just a lot of work. For the year, this was the 2016/’17 school year where these guys gave me a lot of time when they didn’t really have much time. I probably spent a hundred hours or so with each group. I went to classes and dances and sports games and plays and proms. That’s a tall stack of transcripts. I recorded most of it. You take that home and type it out and start rooting through it. Really, the hard thing was editing what was probably two thousand pages of single-spaced transcripts down to a book. You get very attached to people. You get very attached to their stories. You have to leave things out. That’s hard sometimes.

Zibby: It’s true. Did you always know you wanted to investigate and be a journalist and a writer and all of that? Was that something that you always had in your mind?

Jeff: Writer, yes, to the point where my older brother was playing baseball games and my dad would be yelling at me to get out of a tree and stop reading. But journalism, no. That was something that happened when my friend died, Rob Peace. It’s not as if I went to his funeral thinking I was going to write a book. I went to his funeral, and people did the things they do at funerals to celebrate a person. Mainly, that is to tell stories. At the time, I thought I’d just write down some stories maybe for his high school newsletter or the Yale magazine or something that nobody would read but might speak to his life more than his death. That undertaking, I call it a eulogy that got out of hand. Through that process, I just learned I was a good listener in that I like listening.

Zibby: I like listening too. Maybe we should have a podcast where we both sit here silent and just hear the background noise and see how that goes.

Jeff: Listen to the kids banging around.

Zibby: Yeah, you could drag in a dog if you wanted. So what project are you working on now?

Jeff: I spent the last year on a project about juvenile halls, sort of similar, some different schools. They are schools, jails/schools. I’ve just been spending time with young people going through those systems.

Zibby: Exciting. Why does your wife think you’re out of your gourd for focusing so much on this age group and basically reliving your youth that you didn’t really have in this way? What’s that about?

Jeff: I think you just said it. It’s odd to tell your family that you’re not going to be cooking dinner on Friday night because you’re going to a Halloween dance in South LA. I thought the stories were just really powerful. They’re kids, but they’re making these adult decisions. You mentioned Owen whose parents are very successful in Hollywood. He’s kind of the perfect picture of this privileged Beverly Hills kid, but his mother’s bedridden with an illness. He knows how little the world really cares about privilege. He knows randomness. He’s trying to figure out how to be a good person knowing nobody really cares if he’s a good person because he’s a rich kid from Beverly Hills. A kid named Carlos who was applying to Ivy League schools and DACA at the same time and carrying that social narrative of upward mobility, all these kind of tropes we have in our world that when you get underneath them a little bit and look at the humans, they’re pretty complicated. They’re hard narratives for these people to carry.

Zibby: It’s true. I felt so terrible for Owen’s mom with not being able to find a diagnosis for so long and ending up in a wheelchair and all of that without knowing even really what was going on with her.

Jeff: There’s a really touching scene, to me, when he’s in all the school plays and he was practicing a song and dance number for Putnam County Spelling Bee, was the play’s title. At night, he would sing and dance at the foot of his mother’s bed while she harshly critiqued him.

Zibby: Wow. None of my kids are running around doing full-on dance recitals for me like that. Maybe I have to figure out a way to get better acting output. Anyway, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Jeff: No, it’s usually just kind of a clumsy process of stumbling around, I find, my particular work which I guess is called immersion journalism. I don’t know if it exactly fits. Like we said, it’s just kind of sitting and listening. Different issue, but I’m a white guy who grew up pretty easy. My work brings me around people who don’t look like me and didn’t grow up easy. That’s a complicated thing. A lot of them trust me to tell their stories. I take that seriously. A lot of them don’t trust me to tell their stories. I take that seriously too.

Zibby: That’s great. Thank you, Jeff. Thanks for talking about your new book. I’m sorry, I read your last book a while ago. I should’ve reread it before we talked. All I remember is how much I loved it. I’m sorry if I messed up any details. It was a while back.

Jeff: You didn’t mess anything up.

Zibby: Sometimes I just have a feeling. I see book covers, every cover, I feel a feeling. I remember loving it or not really liking it or not even finishing. Some books really stand out on the shelf, but I can’t always say exactly what about it was what — anyway, sorry for not bringing up any details, but I know it was amazing. This was a really interesting portrayal of a whole group of people.

Jeff: It means a lot that you would remember it and that you would have me.

Zibby: No problem. Good luck on the juvenile hall thing. If you get all the way back down to kindergarten, I have one of those lurking about. If you get there, you might need a therapist alongside. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.

Jeff: That sounds treacherous. I have a first-grader, so I’m sort of in that all day anyway.

Zibby: Got it. Thank you so much. It was nice to chat with you today.

Jeff: You as well. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks. Buh-bye.