Zibby is joined by bestselling novelist Jennifer Close to discuss her latest book, Marrying the Ketchups, which was inspired by a number of things, including her time as a waitress in Chicago. Jennifer shares the original seed of inspiration for the story and the world events that expanded its scope. The two also talk about Jennifer’s inspiring career trajectory, what they’ve each learned about the publishing industry that they never knew as outsiders, and which books Jennifer is currently reading.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jennifer. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Marrying the Ketchups: A Novel.

Jennifer Close: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: I have to say, I watched the video of you teaching people how to actually marry the ketchups.

Jennifer: Did you know what it was?

Zibby: I had no idea what it was. My daughter and I watched. She had no idea what it was. Now I’m slightly, not horrified, but the idea — maybe you should explain to people. This is a novel, but Jennifer did a video, which you can all go watch on YouTube, explaining what this is. Why don’t you just explain it?

Jennifer: It is funny. I waitressed in college. I had no idea what it was. At the end of the night, the servers take all of the condiments. They take the ketchups and the half-empty kind of dirty ketchups, and they combine them to make it look brand-new. I remember the first time I saw them do that. It blew my mind. I was like, oh, I guess I wasn’t getting a brand-new bottle of ketchup every time I sat down somewhere. It is gross. It is a little disturbing. It’s just one of those things that when you eat at a restaurant, you never think about. Then when you’re there working, it’s like, oh, yeah, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. That’s where the title came from. I originally did not want this to be the title. It was the title of the first section. My editor kept asking, “Can we call the book this? Can we call the book this?” Finally, I just said, “Sure.” I’m so happy because it does seem like the right title for it.

Zibby: What did you want it to be called?

Jennifer: It’s a horrible title. You don’t even have to pretend.

Zibby: I want to know.

Jennifer: I wanted to call it Wait.

Zibby: W-A-I-T?

Jennifer: Just Wait. Yep. I was thinking, it’s about a restaurant. These people have been waiting for the Cubs to win the World Series and waiting for so many things in their life. I just thought it was simple and very clever. Everyone around me kept being like, ooh, I don’t think so. Finally, I gave in.

Zibby: Or even Waiters.

Jennifer: Waiters, yeah. That would be good too. See, you should’ve been on the meeting.

Zibby: That applies to everything, people who wait, who are waiting for something. That’s funny. Maybe go back and tell everybody about the premise of this book and where you came up with this idea, how you came up with this idea. Then I really also want to know how you became an author originally. I know you were already a best-selling author before this book. I want to hear about your whole journey. Start with this book, what this book is about.

Jennifer: Perfect. This book, I have known for a long time I wanted to write a book set in a restaurant. That was the original idea. There wasn’t really anything specific with it. Probably since I worked in a restaurant, I just think there’s so much potential for gossip and tension. I loved serving. I was young. We were all around the same age. It was just really fun.

Zibby: Wait, what restaurant did you work in? Where?

Jennifer: It’s called Hackney’s on Harms. It’s outside of Chicago in the north suburbs. They have a huge patio, so in the summer, they hire fifty additional servers. It’s all kids in college and around high school. It was really fun. We had quite a good time. I have a lot of good friends that I’ve met from that restaurant. That was the idea. Then it sort of started to gel — I was jotting down ideas when I was finishing The Hopefuls. I knew I wanted it to be in Chicago. I kind of knew the family. Then when the Cubs won the World Series — the book is about a restaurant family, the Sullivans. Their restaurant is called Sullivans. Very original. It’s outside Chicago in Oak Park, Illinois, which is not the suburbs where I grew up, but I have a good friend who lives there now. It takes place in 2017 right after the Cubs have won the World Series. The patriarch of the family dies. Then Trump is elected. They’re just like, what happened in those two weeks? They’re just reeling from it. It was funny. I didn’t plan to write about any of those things. In the original book, the patriarch actually was alive the whole time. When the Cubs won the World Series, I thought, I do want to put that in. That’s so fun. I have this feeling this family would be huge Cubs fan. I’m a huge Cubs fan. I just thought it was a fun Chicago thing. I couldn’t put that in without talking about the election. Then it really did take over a little bit more than I meant it to. It kind of crept its way in. It’s about them dealing with these two weeks that they feel like just changed everything. That’s the premise.

Zibby: Wow. Were all your other books — I should know this, but I don’t. Were they all published by Knopf?

Jennifer: Mm-hmm. I’ve had the same editor and publisher the whole time. That, I feel very lucky about because we get along quite well.

Zibby: Is Jenny Jackson your editor? She is, right?

Jennifer: Yes.

Zibby: Go back to you getting your start professionally. You grew up in Chicago. Then what happened?

Jennifer: I’m sure you know this, too, because I feel like you can always tell when people want to be writers. They’re huge readers. I’m sure you felt the same way. You have this love for it. You want to do it, but you don’t always know how to do it. I took a bunch of writing classes in college. There was one that I took with Steve Almond, who just actually published a book this summer as well. He’s published a ton of books, but he just published a novel. He was great. It was a fiction class. He was really good at giving practical advice for how to be a writer. No one had ever told me those things before. He laid it out. He talked about the pros and cons of grad school, jobs you could have that were writing-adjacent. I think that was when I really started to think, I want to do this. I’m going to figure out how to do it. I ended up going to grad school a couple years later in New York at The New School, which I loved. I met my best writing friend, who this book is dedicated to because we exchange writing and emails all day long. It was great for me, but I, right after grad school, stopped writing a little bit. I was working at Condé Nast. One, I liked that job. Two, I think I was a little shell-shocked from grad school. I had learned so much. Then I was kind of frozen. While I was working at Condé Nast, Portfolio, which is short-lived, but it plays into the story —

Zibby: — I remember it.

Jennifer: Do you?

Zibby: Yeah, yeah.

Jennifer: I started my first book, Girls in White Dresses. At that point, my job, I had to wait to sign off on things that came back from fact-checking and production, so there was always a time in the afternoon/evening when people had left but I was still there. My work was done. I finally started writing again. It was probably an hour or two each night that I was writing in my office. For a while, I told myself, this is just fun. I’m just practicing. I’m just getting back into it. Then there was a point when I was like, oh, this is a book. I can’t lie to myself anymore. It was probably three quarters of the way done, and Portfolio folded. We had to be out of the office. They gave us two days. I was so panicked because all I could think was, my book is on that computer, which is not mine, but you start to think it is yours. We had severance because they had laid everyone off. That was when I was really scared and finished my first book and got an agent. I think I was motivated by so much fear because I just thought, this is it. It’s now or never. That was how I finished my first book. I’ve probably never been as productive again in my life.

Zibby: Wow. Then you just sold it to Knopf. That’s amazing. By the way, I’ve been a huge reader my whole life too, as you probably know, but until I got into the publishing industry more, I didn’t know exactly the reputations of all the different publishers and the imprints under different publishers.

Jennifer: I don’t think anyone that’s out of it does.

Zibby: I never thought to look at who published the book. It was only about the book and the author and the story and whatever. Now that I am much more acquainted with all the different publishers, for me, Knopf is the gold medal of the literary novel, this beacon of beautiful writing and just amazing literary work, honestly. Were you over the moon? Was that always the type of writing you wanted to do, in that bucket, if you will? Was that the publisher you were after? How has that affected your writing ongoing? Is it just a perfect marrying of genre? Do you even know what I’m asking?

Jennifer: Yeah, I know exactly what you’re asking. That’s a good question. I would’ve been thrilled with so many. I was so thrilled. It’s such a storied — you walk into that building and if you love books, there’s no way that you’d — probably even if you don’t love books, you just feel like, oh, there’s so much that’s happened here, so many people that have come before. I was very, very over the moon, especially because my writing, especially Girls in White Dresses, I think it could be marketed certain ways. I think that there’s different ways. I always felt like I loved being there. I love the way that their books look. It is such a funny thing. I think back to before I paid attention to all of that or before I even knew all of that, and it seems so innocent that you just went into a bookstore and had no idea what was out. Now I’m sure you know months in advance. You know the reputations of the publishers and the editors and all of that. I was just thrilled. My editor is my age. I think you’ve met her. She had published Courtney Sullivan, who I know you know, who I adore and has become a really good friend of mine because she had gone before me. She still is giving me tips. I just felt like it was such a good fit all around. It has been.

Zibby: That’s amazing.

Jennifer: It’s funny because when I tell the story now — that was however many years ago, eleven or twelve years ago. It seems like it all happened really easily, but it didn’t feel that easy at the time. I do know now, looking at friends and colleagues, that it does, much more often, take longer. It just is funny when you’re in the middle of it. It doesn’t feel like it. It stills feels like, this is taking forever. I’m never going to do this. I’ll just throw that out there.

Zibby: I completely relate to that, completely relate. Give a brief synopsis for everybody about your other books if you don’t mind.

Jennifer: Girls in White Dresses, I believe on the cover it says A Novel in Stories. It’s connected short stories, which I love. I was very inspired by The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Did you ever read that?

Zibby: Oh, yeah, Melissa Bank.

Jennifer: It’s about a group of friends in their twenties in New York just dealing with everything that happens with that age. Another title I did not mean to keep. That’s what it was called for so long. Then it just came with it. Then The Smart One is a family story. It’s about three adult children who move home the same year, all for different reasons, and how they’re dealing with that. There’s a wedding that’s been called off. There’s a secret. There’s a lot happening. The Hopefuls is set in DC, which is where I live now. It’s about two young couples that become friends. Both of the husbands have aspirations to run for office. DC is a very interesting place. I think I was trying to figure out why anyone would want to run for office and what it is that calls people to run, what the appeal is. I was trying to figure that out and write through some of the personalities that I had seen. Then Marrying the Ketchups, that’s the fourth one.

Zibby: Why do you live in DC?

Jennifer: Because my husband works in politics. He’s at the State Department. We moved here. He worked for the Obama administration, so we were here for about nine years. Then we left for a few years. Then we’re back.

Zibby: That’s a lot of moving. You write a lot about families and family dynamics and even here with Gretchen. What is it that intrigues you the most about the interior lives of family members and all the inner dramas of people? Why do you think you’re called to that?

Jennifer: I’ve thought about this a lot. It’s funny. The more that you write, you think, I’m drawn to the same topics, but you’re not thinking about it when you’re doing that. I think family interests me because you can’t, and I mean this in a nice way, get away from them. They know you. The families I write about are mostly trying the best they can to love each other. Everyone has faults, but there’s no big breaks in the families I’ve written about. They’re all imperfectly trying to support each other. I just think it’s interesting. I have two older brothers. We don’t fight anymore. I was just telling someone this story. There is something super interesting about, if I did ever fight with them, they’re the only people I never would apologize to because it’s sort of like you don’t have to. I think it’s interesting, the way that families define you. The Smart One was a lot about when you’re in a family and you’re told, whether it’s out loud or just because of the way you’re treated, that you are a certain way. If you’re the smart one, if you’re outgoing, what that does to you, I’ve just always been really interested in it.

Zibby: I love reading about families probably for the same —

Jennifer: — I do too.

Zibby: I like reading all different types of things, but all those inner workings because, obviously, we all have a family of some kind. That’s the other thing you have in common. Everybody has that. They’re all different, all different shapes and sizes. It always makes you reflect on your own. I just interviewed this guy yesterday. He’s like, I thought it was normal growing up that I basically never saw my parents, and I lost touch with them. I’m like, how do you lose touch with your parents? I can’t even go down the street. My mother’s like, I was just out for a walk. I just happened to be by your house. I was like, Mom.

Jennifer: That’s the other thing. You think what is around you is normal. Then that’s your framework for going out into the world. It’s fascinating.

Zibby: Crazy. It’s wild. What are you working on now?

Jennifer: I’m just starting to work on a new book that takes place at a — I hesitate to even call it a book — a country club. This one is a little bit more — there’s a big inciting incident that happens at the very beginning of it. I don’t know if you can tell from my books. The characters always come to me. Then I could meander with them for years in a book before I’m like, oh, is this what we should write about? I’m trying to be a little bit more intentional about this one, that there is this big event that starts it off. So far, it’s fun. I think it’s an interesting thing to explore as, again, everything that’s happening around us, to choose to be a part of a place — I’m trying to say this carefully. I don’t mean to say it in such a judgmental way because part of why I wanted to write about this is because I know and love people who still — we grew up in these places, and they are still there. A place that is so not aligned with your own beliefs anymore, but it holds a special place in your heart because you grew up there, that’s sort of in the background of all of it. That’s not really what happens. There’s a lot of funny stuff that happens in the book.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I’m feeling almost a Dirty Dancing vibe-ish or something.

Jennifer: Oh, my god, I wish. That’s amazing. I hope. I do because there are families that come together. Yes. Oh, I’m going to use that as a comp because who wouldn’t pick that up? There’s a lot of history with the families and then the children.

Zibby: Elyssa Friedland has a book, Last Summer at the Golden Hotel. Have you read that?

Jennifer: No, but I’m writing it down because it sounds —

Zibby: — It’s similar to a Dirty Dancing theme with families in the Catskills. They have a storied, old hotel. It’s going out of business. What do all the different people have to do to save the thing? It’s the same sort of vibe-ish. Anyway, check it out.

Jennifer: I will. Thank you.

Zibby: Not to recommend someone else’s book. I’m here to recommend , Marrying the Ketchups.

Jennifer: No, it’s amazing. That’s what I’m here for. I feel like sometimes being in the writing world, I’m like, we get to talk about books all the time. People recommend books. You get them early. It’s amazing.

Zibby: I know. This one came out. This one came out last summer. I do love that part about the writing world. It is funny. I feel like maybe I should write an article about this now that we’re talking about it, what it used to be to go into a bookstore and what it is now. Is it better or worse?

Jennifer: I don’t know because I do have memories of just stumbling upon books. Again, now you know a year in advance, probably more, that a book by an author you love is coming out. I do feel like there was more — it was like, oh, this is out? It’s so pretty. I’ll buy it. This looks amazing. It is very different.

Zibby: Also, Instagram too, and I guess all social media, but I’m much more of an Instagram person, you can watch them finishing the sentences on the book. Here’s my last page. I’m like, great. You’re along for the ride in a different way. There’s so much about the industry — I didn’t know that books came out on Tuesdays. Why would I know or care about that?

Jennifer: I know. I didn’t know that until, honestly, right before my book came out. I was like, what? That’s weird. That’s a weird rule. It’s so strange.

Zibby: Right? I keep trying to break it. I started this publishing company. I’m like, I don’t want my books to come out on Tuesdays. Why? Why can’t I just pick my day? Although, my book came out on July 1st, so I guess some people can change it up, if you’re Amazon or whatever. Advice to aspiring authors?

Jennifer: I have so much. My main advice is just reminding yourself that, one — this is my most important thing because I think this is what stopped me from writing for so long. You have this idea in your head. It’s amazing. Then when you try to write it down, it’s awful. Just knowing that’s a very normal part of the process. You just have to get it down and figure it out later. Then also knowing that no one is perfect at this. I was about to say no one is good at this right away. You still have to practice and learn. I think people sometimes think writing is different than other jobs or other things where you just are born knowing how to do this. That’s not true. You get so much better the more that you read, the more that you try. I do think people — by people, I mean I’m sure I have said this too. You get so frustrated because you think, I want to do this, and it’s not great. You can always make your draft better. You can always make your next book better. It’s a skill. Ann Patchett has this great essay about it where she talks about, why is it any different than playing an instrument? You have to put in the hours. I really love reminding people of that because I think we forget. Writing something that’s not perfect is great because it means you’re practicing, and just knowing you can make it better. My first drafts, I call them garbage drafts because I think people would be like, what is this? I’m like, I don’t know. I’ll figure it out in the next five drafts.

Zibby: It is funny. What other profession — I guess you said music or whatever — do you have to do so much? It takes so long, and then have to throw it all out just to get to where — it’s the most bizarre — I don’t know. Maybe a chef coming up with the perfect recipe who has to make batch after batch after batch or something.

Jennifer: I know. It’s funny, too, when you think about all the words that are thrown out. You just have to be like, that never happened. I’m not even thinking about it. The lie that you tell yourself with each new thing you start is, this time, it’s going to be different. This time, I’ve learned a lot, so I won’t throw out five hundred pages of the character’s childhood that’s never going to make it in the book.

Zibby: It would be funny if there literally was the land of discarded drafts where all these stories go that never come out anywhere else. What would that world look — anyway, whatever. I’m going off on a tangent, per usual. Are you reading anything good? If so, what?

Jennifer: I am. I just started Lessons in Chemistry, which I’m really liking. Then one of my friends, Megan Angelo, who I think you’ve interviewed too — She wrote Followers. She has a new — it’s a Word document I’m looking at on my computer right now. That’s my plan for this weekend. I’m so excited. I started it earlier this week. Then I am teaching as well, so I wasn’t able to get to it. I’m very excited to get to it.

Zibby: I interviewed her right before the pandemic. I feel like that was one of my last.

Jennifer: I think you did. Yeah, she came into the city.

Zibby: One of my last in-person things before the world changed. That’s exciting.

Jennifer: What are you reading?

Zibby: Oh, you know, this book, Marrying the Ketchups. I don’t even know. What am I going to read for next week? I’m just trying to get through today. What am I reading next week? I’m looking over. I don’t know. What am I reading?

Jennifer: At your piles of books.

Zibby: I only read based on my calendar now. It’s how I choose. I’ll tell you what I’m going to be reading because I’m going to see who I’m interviewing on Monday. I am going to be reading — I’m in April on my calendar, so that’s not helping us. Let’s see. I am going to be reading Kyleigh Leddy’s book. It’s called The Perfect Other. Kyleigh Leddy, The Perfect Other. I better get to that because obviously, I haven’t started. That’s what I’ll be doing later today. I’m so lucky to read such great stuff all the time, like books like yours. Thank you.

Jennifer: Thank you.

Zibby: It was nice to meet you.

Jennifer: It was so nice to meet you. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you. I love this podcast. Congratulations again on your book. That’s very exciting.

Zibby: I did an event, by the way, last night at Planet Word. Have you been there? It’s in Washington, DC. You have to go.

Jennifer: No. Wait, where it is?

Zibby: It’s new. It opened probably two years ago or something. It’s all about the written word. It’s all about language. Go check it out, Planet Word.

Jennifer: I will. Thank you. Thank you so much. Bye.

Zibby: Thanks. Bye.


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