Zibby is joined by author Jennifer E. Smith to discuss her latest adult novel, The Unsinkable Greta James, as well as her first picture book, The Creature of Habit. Jennifer shares why she always tries to capture fleeting moments in her fiction and how the loss of her mentor helped her to better capture the grief of losing a loved one. The two also talk about where the inspiration for The Creature of Habit came from and which of her projects are being adapted for the screen.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jennifer. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss both your new books basically out at the same time, The Unsinkable Greta James and The Creature of Habit.

Jennifer E. Smith: Thank you for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: I love this color, this blue. It’s almost the same. Did you coordinate, or not?

Jennifer: I did not coordinate. It does have sort of a happy, Easter-y, cheerful feel to it all. It’s really nice to have the bright, happy colors right now.

Zibby: It’s so nice. Let’s talk about Greta, who is so awesome. I listened to this book. I don’t always listen. Sometimes I feel like the ones I listen to stick in more, in a way. I remember all the walks I went on to listen to this book. Now I feel like I need to go stock up on Call of the Wild and all the books within the book. Tell listeners a little about what this book is about.

Jennifer: It’s about a successful indie musician who is still reeling from the sudden death of her mother, who was her greatest cheerleader. She winds up taking a week-long cruise to Alaska with her dad, who has never exactly been supportive of her life choices, on what was supposed to be her parents’ fortieth anniversary trip. It takes place over this week in Alaska. There’s also a romance with a charmingly nerdy professor that she meets on board the ship, but it’s mostly a love story about Greta and her music and her struggle to find her voice again.

Zibby: I love that. I feel like the universe is pushing me towards Alaska for some reason. First, I had Leigh’s book, my partner Leigh Newman, Nobody Gets Out Alive. Then Mothertrucker came out about Alaska. Now your book on this Alaskan cruise. Then last night, my daughter wanted to watch Bigfoot’s Family, which takes place in Alaska. I was like, okay, who wants to go on an Alaskan cruise? Who’s ready for Alaska? The signs are pointing me that way. I’ve never had more Alaska than this month of my life.

Jennifer: I think you know what you have to do.

Zibby: I think so. I think it’s clear. Why did you set it in Alaska?

Jennifer: I knew it was going to take place on a cruise ship. It’s become a little bit of a joke how many books I have set on modes of transportation. I have written a book that takes place on a plane, one that takes place — it’s a road trip; one that’s on a train and now a ship. I really like putting people in confined places for a certain amount of time and seeing what happens. I chose Alaska, honestly, because — Greta is an indie rockstar. She is somebody who’s in cities, who’s at venues, who’s playing shows and concerts and festivals. I liked the idea, if she was going to be basically stuck on a cruise with her dad, who she doesn’t particularly get along with, I liked the idea of her feeling kind of at sea both literally and metaphorically and being in a place — Alaska is so unique. It’s staggering. It’s beautiful. It’s other-worldly. It’s really got a lonely, forlorn feel to it. I liked the idea of just putting her in such a different kind of place than she usually is.

I didn’t write the book just so I could go take a cruise to Alaska, but I didn’t not write the book so I could do that. I had been on an Alaska cruise as a kid. When I first started writing, it loomed really large in my mind because Alaska is so beautiful and so unique. I thought I could get by on memories of the cruise and looking at, literally, YouTube videos of other people’s family vacations and realized pretty quickly that if I wanted to write this well, I was going to have to go actually take this trip again. I did kind of a writing retreat on an Alaskan cruise. I’ve learned in the course of publishing this book that people have very strong feelings about cruises, either way. For me, it was just really interesting to be a fly on the wall. I did all of the excursions and trips and adventures that Greta and her family and friends do. I did the whale watching and the wilderness safari and the hikes in the glaciers. I also wanted to make sure I was at the buffet. I did trivia night with random people that I met. I tried to really have the whole cruise experience so that I could write about it. It was definitely a very interesting research trip.

Zibby: Wow, I love it. I love the little old lady character who sees her walking out that morning and always has some commentary for Greta.

Jennifer: She’s a fan favorite.

Zibby: She’s so funny. The way you wrote about loss was so good, so moving. Greta is in the raw aftermath. They’re still reeling, as is the dad. Those scenes were also really beautiful, where he comes to terms with that loss. The way she writes about, just like you said, being adrift without the person who holds you safe — her life raft, in a way, is gone. Tell me about writing those scenes because it felt like there was just so much emotion on the page.

Jennifer: When I sat down to write the book, I wanted to write about what it is to live a creative life and to — I’m lucky. My parents are wonderful. I’m from the Midwest. I grew up in a very practical place and in a very practical family. Being a writer is not something that was in the plan. Over the years, watching my parents struggle to come terms with this kind of job that has no guarantees and no certainty and no safety net — it’s a weird job. On the one hand, you have to be full of confidence and determination. On the other hand, you’re working without a net, always. I wanted to put Greta and her dad, two people who really came from different angles on this, together. It started out as more of a conceit than anything. I thought, how do you get these two people alone together who have basically lost their translator in losing her mom?

As I wrote the book, it was interesting. The mom has already passed away at the start of the story, but she really is a full character in the book even though she’s kind of not present on the page. It’s hard to write because there’s a lot of raw grief. There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of feelings. In turns, people get frustrated with Greta. Then they get frustrated with her dad. Then they kind of see both of their sides. There’s just a lot that they’re working out over the course of this week. About halfway through the process of this book, right when I finished the very first draft of it, my mentor, who the book is dedicated to, who is a really legendary editor in the book world, Susan Kamil, passed away. That put everything into a different perspective for me when I was writing it. She was my old boss. She was my friend. She was my mentor. I channeled a lot of that. She was always the person I was writing the book for, in a way. She encouraged me for years to write my first adult novel. She passed away two weeks after I finished the first draft and never had a chance to show it to her. She knew I was working on it. When you talk about the depth of emotion, I think a lot of that got channeled into the book. In a way, it still was for her. It still is so much about her. That’s where a lot of that came from.

Zibby: I’m so sorry.

Jennifer: She was wonderful.

Zibby: I heard about it. I didn’t know her, obviously. When I heard about her loss, I was just like, oh, my gosh, I bet a lot of people I know are —

Jennifer: — A lot.

Zibby: You must have really known her well. I’m sorry.

Jennifer: Thank you.

Zibby: It really comes through. There was one passage I wanted to read. Oh, that was also good. It’s towards the end. Let’s see. Why did I do this twice? Hold on. I loved this line. She’s with Conrad. I’ll just read this one. “Conrad asks her only once if she ever –” Well, I don’t want to give anything away. There’s just this one line at some point in the book. She says, “Maybe the point isn’t always to make things last. Maybe it’s just to make them count.” I love that.

Jennifer: I’m so glad. I often write about fleeting moments. If there’s a thread that goes through all of my books, maybe except for the picture book, it’s that I like to write about moments in time that act as hinges, days where there’s a clear split between a before and an after. Yesterday, your life was one way. Tomorrow, it will be completely different. I’m a big believer that, yeah, even meeting somebody for one day can kind of send your life into a different direction. Brief encounters, we all are sort of pinballing off each other in different ways. Even things that don’t last can really count and can really have a lasting impact on you. It’s partly why I like writing about these moments that are really bracketed by time. That’s one of my favorite lines too.

Zibby: I like it. There’s a wisdom to it. There’s a sadness and a wisdom, but then resilience. You really feel like you’re going through it. You’re getting through it. Sometimes, what else can you do? You just have to go through and get through.

Jennifer: That’s right. Exactly.

Zibby: Is this going to be a movie or a show or something? It feels very cinematic to me.

Jennifer: I hope so. A lot of people have told me it feels very cinematic. We’re still working on that. Two of my young adult novels are going to be movies. One’s coming out on Netflix this summer. One, we’ll hopefully have more news on soon. I’ve learned a lot through that process. One of the two that has been filmed, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, it started filming ten years to the week that the book first got optioned. I’ve learned patience and the long game on this, but I do hope, at some point, I get to see Greta on screen.

Zibby: Are you excited for the summer? That must feel amazing.

Jennifer: I’m really excited. I feel very fortunate because both these movies filmed back to back during COVID. I’ve seen so many different cuts and so many different versions of them. I love them so much. I think they’re both so fantastic. The first one, Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between, I can’t share a date yet, but it’ll be out pretty soon. It’s such a wild experience as an author, especially an author who’s been writing for a really long time. You don’t expect this. It’s such the icing on the cake. To really love the way these stories were made and all the people involved with them and to feel really proud of them is such an exciting thing. It’ll be a really fun summer.

Zibby: Wow. Congratulations.

Jennifer: Thank you.

Zibby: I will be out in LA a bunch. If you happen to be doing any big, fun parties, put me on the list.

Jennifer: Good. For sure.

Zibby: Wait, go back to, how did you start writing? I know you were an editor. Tell me about how that even began.

Jennifer: I was always writing in the way that I think a lot of us were always writing. I worked in publishing for many years. To go back to Greta and her dad, I was always very pragmatic about it all and never expected that I could make a living doing it. I wanted to be involved in books. I started out at a literary agency right out of college at ICM. Then I went back to grad school for a year for creative writing in Scotland. Then I came back and started working at Random House. I was getting up in the mornings and writing my books and working on the weekends. My enduring memories of my twenties are all my friends hungover on the couch watching movies and me in my room trying to write a book. I always think back — again, in terms of Greta and how hard these careers can be, I wrote two books before my first one ever got published. Then even the first two books that got published sold about two copies each. I’m always very grateful when people tell me they’ve read them because it’s really like, you’re one of a few. When I look back now and think how easily it would’ve been — especially with those first two that didn’t get published, I sat down and wrote a whole novel from hundreds of pages, and then with no encouragement and, in fact, with a lot of discouragement because I was getting tons of rejections.

To sit down and do it a second time and then to do that a third time with no guarantees, with no reasonable hopes about it, that’s what it is. You just keep trying. There’s something that compels you to do it. It comes from a place of passion. I always look back at my younger self now and feel really grateful that I did that. Greta is my eleventh published book and my tenth novel. I think sometimes when you look at a career, it can seem like a really straight line from point A to point B. I look at it as, some of these books have been steppingstones to the next things. I’ve had books that haven’t sold in between ones that have. I’ve had tons of books I’ve set aside. I’ve had books that I thought were going to be a huge hit and that weren’t and books that nobody expected anything of that went on to just be a word-of-mouth, do so well. It’s everything in between. What I always try to remember having been doing this for a while is, all you can do is control what you can control, which is the writing and the book and the work. The industry will do what it will do. The market will do what it’ll do. As long as you keep focusing on telling good stories and writing well and staying true to yourself, that, to me, is just always the kind of thing to keep in mind.

Zibby: I love that. Amazing. The Creature of Habit, where did this come from? It is so cute and just so adorable and great. My daughter particularly loved this book and has requested many reads.

Jennifer: I’m so glad. That’s so fun. It has been such a joy to do a picture book. I feel really privileged to have written YA for all these years, but after a decade of talking to teens, it’s so much fun to talk to six and seven and eight-year-olds about this book. When it’s time for questions, they’re like, do you like turtles? You’re like, yeah, I do like turtles. It’s a whole different kind of thing. This book came — I have two little nephews who I’m very close with. The older one, similar to me, is just a really routine-oriented, doesn’t like change, likes to know what’s going on kind of kid. A few years ago, he was switching classrooms at day care. He switched classrooms. My sister called me. She was like, “I don’t know what to do. Every day, I’m dropping him off, and he’s crying. He’s usually a kid who loves going to school.” I said, “It’s not his fault. The poor kid comes from a long line of creatures of habit.”

I just started thinking about the phrase and also how change is hard for people at any age. Change is hard for adults, for kids. If you’re a certain kind of person, uncertainty can feel really scary. I wanted to write a book that showed that — it’s not a book saying that if you’re a creature of habit, you should all of a sudden become somebody who does something different every day because that’s just not in your DNA, probably, but to show that sometimes taking a different path or stepping outside your comfort zone can actually lead to different things and new things. I should say, the book, it’s about a creature who lives on the island of Habit who does the same thing every day at the same time. Then one day, another little creature sails up and just knocks his whole world off balance. It’s about him seeing that there’s another way to do things.

Zibby: Recalibrating.

Jennifer: Exactly, which we all have to do. It’s interesting because I wrote it before the pandemic. Then over the last few years, how many times have we all had to shift gears and change, and kids especially? It’s, unfortunately, become more relevant and timely, but it’s been a wonderful thing to get to talk to kids about this book.

Zibby: I should’ve had my kids here to talk to you about it.

Jennifer: Next time.

Zibby: They would’ve loved it. I’ll show them this little clip. They’ll be excited. What are you working on now?

Jennifer: I just turned in the sequel for The Creature of Habit, which is The Creature of Habit Tries His Best. I’m working on another adult book, another novel. That’s the next big thing. Then I’ve been working on a couple scripts, adaptions of other of my YA books. For a long time, I would write a YA book every year and the cycle of, you write it. Then you finish it. You take a little break. Then you start a new one. Over the last few years, similar to The Creature of Habit, I’ve shaken things up a little bit and been doing the adult book and the picture book and the scripts. It’s been really fun to try new things. That was not supposed to be a plug for Creature of Habit. That’s actually just what’s happened over the last couple years, but it worked.

Zibby: You can plug. This is a show for plugging things. It’s okay. That’s allowed here.

Jennifer: Trying new things, it actually works sometimes.

Zibby: I like always having lots of different things going on in different ways. I wish I could, but I feel like I need lots of stuff or I get restless or something.

Jennifer: It’s good. It’s a good thing to have a lot of pots on the burners.

Zibby: Although, I don’t like cooking a lot of things at the same time, so aside from that. I mean intellectually, not . That’s a total nightmare.

Jennifer: Exactly. Totally fair.

Zibby: I’m not blessed. I can follow a recipe because I’m a reasonably intelligent person, but I cannot —

Jennifer: — I’m right at your level. I get it.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Jennifer: The obvious is always just to read a lot. Read widely. Working in publishing for all those years was such a great education, not about the publishing industry, necessarily. Although, that helped. You can’t read that many manuscripts and that many stories and that many books without getting an internal rhythm of a story and figuring out what works in a book and what works for you in a book. Then the other thing is, just like I was saying, not to be afraid of failure. When I think of my early books that didn’t work or didn’t get published, I would not have written the next ones without the ones before them. I truly don’t think that anything is ever wasted. The amount of false starts I’ve had over the years and books I’ve set aside, sometimes you have to write them to get to the next thing you’re going to write. You learn something from each. You carry something forward. Just sit down and write. If that doesn’t work, the next thing will. Just keep going.

Zibby: I totally agree. I feel like before I did this podcast and learned that everybody else who wants to be a writer had the same thing, I just felt like such a failure because you don’t realize. I guess if you listen to this podcast —

Jennifer: — It’s an isolating thing. Everyone’s out there just tripping over themselves at their own computers. Everyone is going through it. After years of being an author, working in publishing, I’ve never met a single author who doesn’t have a book in the drawer or one that didn’t work or something that they got stuck on. It’s so universal.

Zibby: You have to practice.

Jennifer: Yes. It’s a muscle.

Zibby: It’s like making the first cake or something.

Jennifer: We’re back to cooking.

Zibby: Back to cooking. I just had lunch. I shouldn’t be talking about food. I think it would be a conciliation. I wish I had known that way back when, that having something in a drawer doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It means you’re a writer.

Jennifer: Absolutely. Oh, my gosh, the amount of stuff — recently, I was trying to figure out a new book. I went back through old files just to check out old ideas. I found sixty-page beginnings of books that I don’t even remember writing. Over the years, you have so many ideas. You stick with the ones where the energy is at the moment. Sometimes it just takes one in between to get to the next thing.

Zibby: Very true, but also good to hear. Jennifer, thank you so much. The Creature of Habit and The Unsinkable Greta James, which I truly loved. This is my Book of the Month copy, by the way. I not only got it from you, but I picked it for my subscription.

Jennifer: Thanks. That’s so nice. I love Book of the Month. I’m so glad you liked the audio too. Mae Whitman did an amazing job.

Zibby: Really good job.

Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me. I love your podcast. You’re doing so much good for the publishing industry. It’s really exciting to be here.

Zibby: Thank you. For anyone listening, if you want to hear more of us chatting, come to Pages. When are we doing that? May 10th or something?

Jennifer: I think it’s May 14th.

Zibby: May 14th. Thank you. Don’t go on May 10th. Although, you can. May 14th, in the morning, we’ll be doing a story time with our two books. That’ll be really fun. Manhattan Beach, California, Pages bookstore. Yes, you can just show up. Yes, I’m talking to you.

Jennifer: I can’t wait to see you then. Thank you again for having me.

Zibby: Thanks a lot. Buh-bye.



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