“To all of you writers who are struggling and aspiring out there, it’s not an instant-gratification profession but it is the most rewarding thing when something that you make gets out into the world.” Author and co-founder of A Mighty Blaze Jenna Blum joins Zibby to talk about her memoir, Woodrow on the Bench, and the beloved dog who inspired it. The two discuss the ways in which Jenna’s dog Woodrow helped her manage the grief of losing her mother in 2018, why her journey to publication was far from linear, and the commitment both Jenna and Zibby have to uplifting members of the literary community. Read Jenna’s essay for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write‘s Grief column here.


Zibby Owens: Hi, Jenna. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog, which I absolutely loved and which makes you come across, which you are, as the most patient, kind person ever in your care for your elder dog, but also just your care for your dog and your love for your dog throughout Woodrow’s life. It was just really a beautiful opening into your soul. I loved it.

Jenna Blum: Thank you so much. As a fellow dog mom, you feel me on this, I’m sure.

Zibby: I do. I feel you. It’s so hard because, as you point out in the book, with dogs, you know they will — you don’t know. There’s a high likelihood that they will predecease you. Yet you love them so openly and with all your heart knowing this. It’s the ultimate better to have loved and lost thing.

Jenna: I think they teach us. Yes, they teach us how to love in that really brave way. When you love your kids, I imagine — you’re a mom. I’m not a mom of humans. You know that they will, knock on wood, outlast you and carry your legacy of love and caring in the world. With a dog or any sort of fur pet, fur animal child/pet, you think, okay, there is a good chance that pet will predecease me. Yet you take care of them and love them every day because that’s what they do for you. They show us how to do that.

Zibby: It’s so true. I think, though, in showing us what it was like towards the end of Woodrow’s life, you also reveal a lot about your own relationships in the past and even your girlfriend friendships and how you feel about asking people for help. There’s so much about you and your resilience, your not wanting to bother people, really, that you almost are superhuman. The scenes where you’re literally carrying Woodrow up and down the stairs and going out in the winter and running around in your underwear and all the things that you do, I was thinking to myself, how was she doing it? You had this one line where you were like, I wasted all this time on cardio when, really, I needed to be using weights so I could lift this dog up the stairs.

Jenna: It’s true. I did take a lot of physical care for Woodrow when he was old in his last chapter. He weighed eighty-five pounds. His back legs had gone because he’s a lab. That often happens to them. He could kind of get around, but then mostly not. Then he had heart failure. For a while there, I was carrying him in this great harness called a Help ‘Em Up Harness. If anybody out there has an old, heavy pet that they need to carry around, totally recommend. It saved my back. It gave him another long chapter of his life, but it was really physically draining. I think that I’m sort of anti-superhuman in Woodrow on the Bench because I had to learn to ask for help. I had to learn to let people help me, which is tremendously difficult for me. I was raised to self-reliance. That’s my family tradition. Woodrow really taught me a lot about being less than superhuman and instead, just being human and letting people in. It was such a valuable lesson that I’m still exercising to this day.

Zibby: You had one really moving scene where your mother had just passed away. Right then, Woodrow ended up having some inexplicable eye thing happen, I don’t even know how to describe, where his eyes were essentially bulging out of his head. You were like, no, no, I cannot be the person whose mom dies and then a week later the dog dies. You were like, that cannot be me. I cannot write that narrative. You somehow had to get through it. At the end of that little interlude, you thought it might have been Woodrow trying to just get you through the pain of losing your mom by making you focus on something else because it resolved itself all on its own.

Jenna: It was the strangest thing, Zibby. My mom passed from breast cancer in 2018. While she was in her extremity, my then fiancé called me and said, “I’m so sorry to bother you with this, but there’s something going on with Woodrow’s eyes.” His eyes were bulging out of his head in different directions like he was some weird Pet Sematary dog who had been run over by a car and then put back together the wrong way. Nobody knew what it was. I took him to a dog ophthalmologist and a neurologist and all these -ists. Nobody could figure it out. He had an MRI so they could look at his brain. It was okay. Then the next day after he had his MRI, survived it — he was thirteen, by the way. People were just like, this is obviously the end for him. The day after the MRI, he pulled his eyes back into his head and was like, ha ha, Mommoo. That was how he talked to me. He’s like, I made my eyes bulge out in different directions. Wasn’t that funny? Ha ha ha. I was like, no, that was not funny. That was like five thousand dollars’ worth of not funniness. I was so grateful, though. I do think that either Woodrow or my mom sort of manufactured that distraction for me, that fresh panic, so that I didn’t have to feel so much like Bambi after the forest fire, which is how I think many of us feel after we lose our moms.

Zibby: I’m so sorry that you lost your mom. I’m so sorry.

Jenna: Thank you. Thanks.

Zibby: I know it’s been several years, but it’s not like that makes it any better.

Jenna: No, it’s a journey. It’s a process. You know this. You know about grief. Anybody who has lost a parent or a primary figure knows that it’s a journey you go on your whole life. It just sort of changes and takes you in different directions, but you’re never really off that journey. One of the reasons that I wrote Woodrow on the Bench is so I could hold up a torch for people in some ways who are going through that in the same way that Cheryl Strayed held up a torch for so many of us with Wild talking about losing her mom and things it made her do. Woodrow is not necessarily about my mom’s death, but it is about grief and getting through grief and how sometimes a fresh grief recalls an older grief and how people process that and how you survive it and you need your community to survive.

Zibby: I just read, actually, for a book I’m going to do coming up about trauma, that anytime you play it back in your head on a loop, pressing play and reliving it, it actually imprints as new memories. It makes it even worse. Did you know that? I probably didn’t describe that right.

Jenna: I did. No, you totally did. There’s a lot of controversy about trauma and how to do deal with trauma. I write about trauma in my novels as well, so I’m fascinated with this topic. We used to think that talking about the things that happened to you, like you go on Oprah and share all of your miserable life experiences and get affirmation that you were okay, that the talk therapy was a good thing, but if it’s not done in a very specific way, you can actually retraumatize yourself by going through the same experience over and over. I’m really interested in how we help guide people through these memories of loss without reinjuring and instead giving them some release. I think the jury’s still a little bit out on that.

Zibby: I have not figured out how to do that.

Jenna: I still think it’s better to talk about things than bottle them up, but it just has to be in the way that you’re not ruminating on it or dwelling on it and instead, giving it to other people for safekeeping and using good tools of self-care to move on.

Zibby: I also loved in your book, just to go back to some of these scenes, how the bench and Woodrow — every time you took him outside, whether walking or going to the nearby hotel or wherever you ended up taking him, the day on the beach, anything, you have that Woodrow effect, you called it. People would just show their kindness to you. It’s like Woodrow held up this mirror. It was this magic spell where you got to see the nicest bits of people. It’s very neat when you think about it.

Jenna: It was magic. Woodrow was one of those magic dogs. Some dogs have very outsized and tremendous personalities that broadcast well. Woodrow, even when he was in his dotage, his was sort of like an ambassador. We would walk around our neighborhood in Boston. People would greet him and be drawn to him as if they were being drawn to a magnet. They would say, how old is this dog? Can I pet him? He would smile at them with this big doggy grin and be like, hey, ladies, how you doing? He loved the ladies. It was really amazing to me that in a place like Boston, a big city like New York, or anywhere else, people tend to be fairly impatient and not connect to strangers easily, and yet when I took my old dog out and tried to get him across the street — we live on Commonwealth Avenue, which is a really busy artery of Boston — to his bench, traffic would stop for us, and not so people could yell things at us that were angry, but because they could yell encouragement. You got this, dog. You go, dog. You got it, mama. You can do it. That had never happened to me before. If I tried to cross Commonwealth by myself, people would mow me over and be like, the light, use the crosswalk! That was the kind of effect Woodrow had. We could be anywhere. Once I was in a parking lot in Ohio lifting him into my car. A lady came out of this hotel we were staying in. She said, “I just want you to know that what you’re doing is really hard. I’m so grateful you’re doing it and giving your old dog this kind of love and attention.” Then she just got in her car and drove away. I thought, god, thank you, universe. There’s no reason for people to be that kind to you, but that was the kind of kindness Woodrow drew to me every day. What an incredible gift.

Zibby: That’s amazing. It’s just so beautiful. I know you have another dog now. How did that happen, as PS to this book, the aftermath?

Jenna: I would love to write a sequel to Woodrow called Henry: The Pandemic Puppy. So many of us got dogs during the pandemic. The tagline for that would be “Forgive me, puppies are a-holes.” I had forgotten. It had been so long since I had puppy that I knew intellectually they are tough to train. They make them cute for a reason, so you don’t kill them. Henry Higgins is his name. Henry is nineteen months. He’s settled down. He’s being an absolute prince. He’s been on book tour with me for Woodrow. He has also been a little ambassador of joy and goodwill and saying, hi, ladies. I love you, ladies. It’s something people ask me about a lot, Zibby. When do you get a new dog after you’ve let go of your old beloved dog? I don’t think there’s a right answer for that. It’s a very individual answer. For me, I knew I would not do well without a dog. Dogs are my structure and also, importantly, my daily joy. Dogs are so silly and so loving. I really needed that. Even when Woodrow was really experiencing his last health issues, I was looking at labs, people who were breeding labs, and saying, I would love to have another little lab, who’s not just like Woodrow because nobody will ever be just like Woodrow, but somebody who will bring me that joy.

The best advice I got about this was from a friend of mine who sat with us on the bench. She had a young dog that she had gotten one month after her old dog passed, which seems really soon. She said, “You should get a new dog when it feels right to you. You will think your new dog is really weird because he’s not the old dog.” That’s totally true. Henry has all these mannerisms that Woodrow never did have. Henry loves to, shall we say, redesign shoes. He redesigned one of my Coach sandals by stripping the sole off it. I keep looking at him and thinking, who are you? He’s obsessed with my buildings’ doorstoppers. He gets a doorstopper and he’s like, best day ever, it doorstopper, and runs all around the building. These things, Woodrow never did. I kind of enjoy the process of discovering and thinking, who is this new little soul I brought into my life to do all these zany things? I wish that for any dog owner who has lost a dog and is thinking about getting a new one. I hope you can expand your life in your own time to make room for that joy.

Zibby: What’s the latest with Jim?

Jenna: Oh, Jim. For those of you who have not yet read Woodrow, Jim is my former fiancé who was Woodrow’s dog dad for seven years of Woodrow’s life and were really close. We’re still incredibly close friends. Jim lives at my family house in Minnesota. He’s a severe weather photographer, so that’s his base. We correspond daily about Henry. I keep sending him silly Henry videos and silly Henry photos and silly Henry everything. I think Jim is one of those people — I’m very lucky to have this in my life — one of these people who has become family to me after being romantically involved. We’re not romantically involved anymore, but he is somebody who will always be in my life in a very profound way. That’s kind of a hat trick. It’s really due to his patience and his understanding. Me writing about him and giving that the green light, that’s a pretty generous act. I was really grateful to Jim. He’s a great guy.

Zibby: Jenna, I know you’ve also started A Mighty Blaze with Caroline Leavitt during the pandemic, which has now become this major force in helping authors and doing all this great stuff. Talk a little bit about A Mighty Blaze. Then I want to touch on the rest of your writing because I know you have novels. You’re so prolific. Talk about A Mighty Blaze first.

Jenna: I would love to. It takes one to know one, Zibby. You started Zibby Books, and before that, Moms Don’t Have Time To everything and the anthologies. You’ve brought so many writers together and helped connect us all during the pandemic, but also before the pandemic and also after the pandemic. When the pandemic first started to close in on us in March 2020, I was watching in total horror as my friends’ book tours were being shut down one by one all during that first awful week that I’m sure everybody remembers. They just sort of winked out. A book is such a labor of love. It can take people three, five, ten, twenty years to write a book. You get one shot to launch it into the world. I didn’t want those books to get extinguished. I went to Caroline, who basically is a heart in a human form. She was doing a video blog tour called Not Everything is Canceled or Nothing is Canceled. We fused forces to put together a social media platform called A Mighty Blaze on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Every Tuesday, we featured the new books that were dropping so readers could find those books all in one place. It gave writers, also, a place to talk about their books.

Then because it was one of the few initiatives that existed at that time, it quickly blazed out of control. I was working sixteen-hour days in my underwear just trying to keep up. We were trying to give a voice and a platform to every writer who was publishing during 2020. Thank god initiatives like yours came along so that we could all loft people. Friends & Fiction, same thing. We could all loft people up and get them to readers who were then watching in their homes saying, thank you, thank you for connecting us. Now the Blaze, I call it my little TV network, we do what you do. We have author interviews every week. We have regular shows like The Thoughtful Bro and Lit Chick and Mighty Mysteries. We even have a baking show. We feature debut authors. We do Friday Frontliners featuring authors like Erica Jong and Cheryl Strayed and John Irving. We had Lieutenant Colonel Vindman on. It’s just craziness. What an incredible privilege to have a new chapter in my own life that is for service, that connects writers with readers and brings us all together in this big community. I hope you get as much satisfaction out of this as I do. I love talking to writer people every single day. It has just been an amazing, amazing experience.

Zibby: I think it really just speaks to the need. There was such a need in the marketplace, so to speak, not that we’re doing this as a market. There was just such a need. There was such a vacuum when everything started happening. Sometimes it takes a smaller, more nimble person or company or collection of people to do what isn’t being offered. It’s just so nice when A Mighty Blaze — you’re right, Friends & Fiction is amazing. Having all these resources, especially as authors ourselves, have places to go. You were so nice to have me on when my anthology came out, Friends & Fiction. It’s just very nice. Also, I’ve found that before I started this whole thing, I did not — authors are my favorite people in the — so great, such good people. It’s hard to find a terrible person who’s written a great, open, stirring memoir. You’re going to find a good person.

Jenna: There are always these rumors that authors are strange and maybe creepy. We’re ill-tempered or whatever. I grew up thinking of myself as aspiring to be one of those writers who shows up drunk at festivals and is like, you don’t know me, and becomes sort of a literary legend. I never quite made it to that status. Honestly, we have been working with people since March 2020 who have every right to be divas, every right to be jerky if they want to just because they’ve achieved this literary stature. There hasn’t been a single person, not one in all of that time — what is that? Eighteen months now? My math is off. In all of that time, we have not had a single person who was a pain to deal with. Everybody has been totally lovely. The writing community is incredibly supportive. I feel grateful to be able to share that with people as well.

Zibby: Then take me back to when you started writing fiction.

Jenna: Oh, my god, I was four. Literally, I started writing stories when I was four. My dad was a journalist. He was a broadcast journalist and wrote for Walter Cronkite and Harry Reasoner and Dan Rather at CBS and then wrote for GMA. I grew up listening to his typewriter. Please tell me that you remember what an actual typewriter sounds like. It’s not just an app invented by Tom Hanks. It’s a machine that we used in the olden days to write stories. All I wanted to do, ever, was be a writer like my dad. When I was in my teens, I wrote short stories. I won the Seventeen magazine National Fiction Contest when I was sixteen and thought the world owed me a living as a writer subsequently. Nya! behind you and shook her tag. She’s like, time’s up, ladies. It dog time. I found out shortly that the world owed me a living in food service. That was what I did for fifteen years while I was trying to publish short stories and novels. I went to grad school so I could be a teacher of writing as well, which I love to do. I teach for GrubStreet Writers now, which is phenomenal. It took me until I was thirty before I published my first book. I just want to say to all of you writers who are struggling and aspiring out there, it’s not an instant-gratification profession, but it is the most rewarding thing when something that you make with your brain gets out into the world and changes other people’s lives. It’s such a magical thing. I’m very blessed to be able to do this.

Zibby: What are you teaching? Are you teaching now at GrubStreet?

Jenna: Yes, I’ll be teaching my novel workshop, which I’ve been running for, I want to say, fifteen out of the twenty-one years I’ve been teaching for GrubStreet. It’s not even listed on their website because people get grandfathered in. I’ve been working with the same people, some of them for twenty years, some of them for six months. It’s an amazing privilege. Many of the authors that you feature and I feature have been through that workshop.

Zibby: Really?

Jenna: Yes. I have people that I’m going to send you for 2022 who have books that are going to be coming out in ’22 and ’23. It taught me how to create community and how to maintain community. Right now, like so many teachers, I’m grappling with the question of, do I continue to do online so I can have authors from all over the world be in this workshop as during the pandemic, or do I go back to in-person so I can hang out with my peeps? I think maybe a little bit of both. I don’t know. Do you feel this way, that the world is going to be that way from now on? We have in-person events and then supplement them or complement them, actually, I should say, with virtual events that are equally powerful and have advantages.

Zibby: Yes, I think you’re right. I think it’s sorting itself out, which ones should stay virtual and which ones would be better off being in person and how we do that. Access to people and people coming together from all over the world, that’s the coolest. I love that part.

Jenna: Same. I had dear friends who are in Colorado and California taking my novel workshop who would not be able to do it if I did it in person. I think I might do that virtually and then just have a lot of brunches and parties to see people.

Zibby: Maybe once or twice a semester or something.

Jenna: Or every weekend, even. I do love to throw a party. It’s true.

Zibby: I meant everyone from all the states.

Jenna: Oh, right, yes. My parties are not quite as ambitious as that. Whoever’s in town can just come and have a Bloody Mary, is the way I think of it.

Zibby: Aside from the sequel to Woodrow, which I hope you are taking notes for and everything and actually writing, what other projects are you working on? And teaching and Mighty Blaze. Not that you need another project.

Jenna: Right, exactly. Don’t tell my agent that because I know she would love for me to shut down some bandwidth on the other endeavors and get back to work on a new book. I’m planning to do that this winter. You know what it’s like to sort of be running on all cylinders. You make the time for the things that are important. I’m not really sure. I am taking notes for the Woodrow sequel, the Henry, pandy puppy follow-up. My Instagram and social are my notes are writing dog books because they are memoirs. I just this morning texted my friend Mark Cecil, who’s The Thoughtful Bro on the Mighty Blaze, and said, “I have a book idea that I’d love to walk around with you next week. Let’s air it out and do a writing session.” It’s very rare that I have these ideas where I’m just like, boom, thunderbolt, but that’s what I require to start a book. I’m not very disciplined in the way that some of our friends are. Pam Jenoff finishes a book in the morning and starts a new one in the afternoon. I admire this so greatly. It’s totally not me. I need to feel really emotionally gripped by an idea. I thought, oh, I think I have an idea, and start tapping my fingers grinchily together. I’m going to explore that for the rest of the year, write some short stories about it. If that holds water, then I’ll work on it. It would be historical fiction again, I think.

Zibby: Wow, it’s so cool. Busy, busy. It’s amazing.

Jenna: It is. It’s good to be busy. I like being busy.

Zibby: It is. I like being busy too.

Jenna: A productive life is a rewarding life for me.

Zibby: Very true. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Jenna: Never give in. I have, on my wall above my desk in my study, the Winston Churchill quote. Never give in. Never give in. Never give in. I think you have to be unrelentingly optimistic about your chances to push through an industry that is often indifferent-seeming. It’s not. Agents and editors and publishers really want to get good books out there. There are so many books that are aching to be born. Just cutting through a lot of the process that it takes to get your book out there, you have to have a great, steely belief in yourself and in the world that you’ve created, whether it’s fictional or it’s memoir. I would just say never give in. It’s equally important to have grit as talent in this industry. I know you’re giving authors a shake in a different way. All of us want to know more about that. We’re so excited about your new publishing model.

Zibby: Thank you. I was thinking, when you mentioned your GrubStreet novel writers, I was like, oh, don’t wait for them for the podcast. Show me what they’re working on first for Zibby Books.

Jenna: I would love to. Oh, my god, you guys all heard that here first. I will. As you know, it’s an interesting industry too because it’s not, again, an instant-gratification thing. You have a book that you give to a publisher. Then it comes out a year or a year and a half later because it takes that long to alchemize a manuscript into a book. I will definitely feed you my people. They’re amazing. They’re so talented. A lot of them are Blazers because, of course, I poach for my own workshop. That that’s really strong community to create another community. Yes, we’ve got some fantastic, juicy, delicious novels coming your way.

Zibby: Is there anything coming up new and exciting from the Blaze?

Jenna: What is coming up that is new and exciting for the Blaze? Oh, my gosh, I have been on tour for the last three weeks driving around the country with Henry. I have been really away from my captain seat on the Blaze. We are having a lot of holiday shows coming up. We have the best of 2021 shows. Readers, if you haven’t gotten your recs or you want to add to your ever-towering TBR pile, we’re going to be compiling our recs from every genre. That will be fun. We’ve got the baking show coming up. Jane Green just did our baking show. I’m going to be doing it in a couple of days for Woodrow. I make maple bacon shortbread, which I sent to you, I think, that maybe didn’t make the bacon in it, that I’ve been bribing people with.

Zibby: Yep, thank you.

Jenna: I would love to share that recipe. In the new year, we’ve got a lot of really exciting stuff coming up. I know we have Fiona Davis coming on because she has a new book out. Now I’m blanking on every single name of everybody besides Fiona. Anybody who has a book coming out in 2022, we have poached them.

Zibby: I was trying to aggregate that list. I’m failing. I was trying to remember all the people who have been on my podcast who have new books coming out. I keep forgetting. That’s another.

Jenna: Fiona, she has a book coming out in February. Rachel Barenbaum, who is our debut editor, has Atomic Anna coming out, which I cannot wait to interview her for. We’ve got some really fantastic stuff coming up. This week, actually, tomorrow — oh, my god, it’s almost Tuesday — we have Gary Shteyngart coming on.

Zibby: Oh, everyone’s raving about that book.

Jenna: I love it, but I was listening to it.

Zibby: Yeah? I haven’t read it.

Jenna: It’s funny because he’s super funny. I was listening in my car and laughing out loud while driving 1,500 miles from Minnesota to Boston.

Zibby: Okay, I will listen to it.

Jenna: You got to get it. Our Country Friends is what it’s called. It’s fantastic.

Zibby: Our Country Friends, I bought it last weekend. It’s on my list.

Jenna: When do you have time to read? Everybody must ask you this question.

Zibby: I read in the car yesterday for three hours. I had to get through a couple books. That’s just what I do. I don’t know.

Jenna: We make the time. You must be a speed reader also.

Zibby: I am a speed reader.

Jenna: You’re a Zibby, Zibby reader.

Zibby: Jenna, thanks. It’s been so nice getting to know you through all this stuff. Can’t wait to hang out. Thanks for everything.

Jenna: Me you too. I can’t wait until the day where we can hang out in person. Meanwhile, let’s keep comparing notes online. I just love this. I love seeing you. Thank you.

Zibby: Me too. Thanks. Bye, Jenna.



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