In this recent episode, Zibby discusses Jennifer Neal’s novel, Notes on her Color, delving into the unique concept of a character able to change her skin color. Jennifer shares insights into her writing process, offering advice to aspiring authors about perseverance and authentic self-expression. This episode provides a thoughtful look into the themes of identity, creativity, and the writer’s journey.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jennifer. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, Notes on Her Color.

Jennifer Neal: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Your book has gotten write-ups everywhere. I was on your Instagram. I was like, oh, my gosh, where has this book not been shouted out? This is amazing. It hit every list. You must be so excited. That’s so great.

Jennifer: It’s really amazing. You spend so much time working on something. You just don’t really know how it’s going to land or where it’s going to land. Then when it does, it’s shocking in all the best ways.

Zibby: It has such a unique concept. You’re a beautiful writer, of course. Can you tell listeners a little bit about the idea behind this book and where it came from and how it translated into what it became and all of that? I didn’t say that well, but you know what I mean. Let me try again. Jennifer, can you tell listeners, what is your book about? Where did you come up with the idea? How’s that?

Jennifer: Perfectly formulated. Thank you so much for that question. The book is about a young Black and indigenous woman named Gabrielle who has inherited the ability to change the color of her skin from her mother. The story centers, really, on their dynamic from beginning to end. They are the heart of the story. They are the dynamic that guides the reader through the entire thing. The color changing ability is a reflection on how dynamic color and Blackness really is. I feel like in the concept of passing in literature, it tends to focus on the binary of black and white, for good reason. Whereas in this book, Gabrielle can actually change her skin color into a variety of different colors. Every color on the color spectrum is something that she’s capable of. That was a commentary on how black, within color theory, is actually the absorption of all colors. When I was able to hone in on that, I was actually able to utilize a whole bunch of language that uses color to describe feelings and emotions and sentiments. It just opened up the whole world. It was really a perfect breeding ground to explore this very interesting character and her relationship with her mom.

Zibby: You talk about how this is in the blood. This is something that has been passed down. You talk about, at times, when she has PMS or at times where she needs ice packs to deal with the changing or the passing or whatever you called it when she was transitioning from one color to another and how even that moment is a thing. It’s a physical sensation, something she has to deal with. Tell me about that. Was that just like, what would it be like to change colors? What would that entail?

Jennifer: That was my question. I started with this very interesting treasure trove of how color is used in language to describe feelings. We talk about feeling blue or yellowbellied or seeing red to describe things like anger. I feel like this is something that women are a little bit more capable of incorporating into their language on a regular basis because we have a little bit more leeway to discuss and describe our emotions, as long as we’re not seen as hysterical, apparently. I really wanted to tap into that language. I really wanted to just explore the corporality of what these emotions feel like. How would I describe the way that anger feels? How would I describe the way that jealousy feels? How would I describe fear? This is a writer’s job. Obviously, we have to describe feelings. I wanted to approach it in a way that made the reader kind of ask themselves how they feel when they’re feeling these things. Color, it was so obvious to me. It was almost too literal to be effective, and yet that’s exactly the path I took it in.

Zibby: So funny. I remember being a kid and realizing that it was possible that perhaps when I saw the color blue, it was what you were seeing as the color green, and how mind-blowing that whole idea was in terms of our perception of color, where color even comes from, then learning all of it in science and all of that. It’s so fascinating.

Jennifer: This was a while ago. Do you remember this thing that was on social media many years ago about the dress on Twitter? Was it a blue dress?

Zibby: Yes.

Jennifer: It became this massive social media moment where, are we all looking at the same picture? Yet we’re seeing very different things. I find that very interesting.

Zibby: Me too, especially the images. Is this a cat, or is this a person? I always see the opposite thing from everybody else. I’m like, oh, no, that’s totally this. What do you mean? Everybody’s like, no, no, no, this is really — sometimes that happens with me in book covers. I had to look at your book cover a hundred times. Then I was like, this is supposed to be a face. Sometimes these visual things, it’s crazy how our brains work. I’m like, what does it mean that I never see the thing?

Jennifer: That’s wonderful because that’s what I wanted people to think about. When you say the term person of color, that means somebody who looks like me, obviously, but color is an entire spectrum. Why does it automatically connotate a certain specific kind of color? I really wanted to unpack that and get people to question the terminology that has become so useful. It’s almost mundane every single day. It’s a good thing.

Zibby: Tell me about the interweaving of all of the music too. It was so creative how you titled all the sections and everything. I saw in your acknowledgments how you’re crediting some sort of philharmonic. Tell me about music in your life and how you wove that in through this narrative.

Jennifer: I’ve always been a huge, huge, huge fan of music. It’s just always something that’s been really central to my life. I think a lot of artists are really influenced by different genres of art. The book is divided into six sections after the six movements of Gustav Mahler’s third symphony. His musical writing was deeply inspired by a lot of Germanic poetry, folkloric texts, things like that. He was always in conversation with other writers when he was crafting his worldwide-famous symphonies. I really like this idea of writing a book that was in conversation with something that Mahler wrote that was in conversation with a piece of folklore from a hundred years ago. I felt like, kind of meta, sure, but also continuing this process of how texts are contextualized and reconfigured and redescribed and reinvented as times goes forward, which is what artists are supposed to do. I had this idea of wanting to write a book that was as tight and as meaningful and as dynamic as a piece of music. That is why I went after Mahler’s third symphony, not just because it’s an incredible piece of music, but because I live in Germany. I live in Berlin. He’s been experiencing quite a bit of a renaissance, you can say. His work was suppressed under the Third Reich during World War II. Then after the war ended, there was a resurgence of interest in his work and just how brilliant he was. I have to say I’ve been all aboard that bandwagon since I moved here.

Zibby: Why did you move there?

Jennifer: I moved here to write. I wanted a really quirky, eccentric, dynamic group of artsy people around me. I wanted to be part of some kind of broader creative movement. At the time, I was living in Australia. I’d lived there for almost eight years. I needed a change. I was kind of over it. I went on this tour of Western Europe. It was London, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Stockholm. I initially was set on moving to London because I thought, wow, I already got a community here. They have great stand-up comedy clubs and all this other stuff. I was performing comedy at the time. Then Brexit happened. I decided that it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to move to a country that had voted to leave the European Union for fear of immigration. Berlin, I fell in love with it as well. I think it was the unfamiliarity that enticed me, intoxicated me. I thought, well, this will be a challenge. Think of all the crazy stories I’ll have to share later on. I liked the idea of diving into the unknown and seeing how that challenge would inspire me creatively. It absolutely did.

Zibby: That is the best philosophy on trying something new. I’m literally going to play this section for my — I’m not even kidding — for my kids. You’re like, that’s a challenge, I’m running toward it. This is so great. That’s what every parent wants.

Jennifer: I left out all the parts about hard lessons learned along the way, but they were things worth learning. I don’t regret it.

Zibby: There you go. If we don’t try new things, we miss out on so much. It sounds so obvious. Fear holds us back so much. It was good advice. What is your relationship like — how did your parents — what did they do right? Tell me about that.

Jennifer: Let’s see. They bought me every single book I ever wanted. There’s something that’s really interesting in the dynamic of growing up in the South. A lot of my family lives in Florida now. Obviously, I’m from Florida. Each generation had the meteoric opportunities to rise up that previous generations didn’t have because of the history of Jim Crow and segregation in the South. I think for my parents, it was very important that I did not experience the same kind of scarcity that they experienced growing up. From an early age, they really encouraged me to read anything that I wanted to read. It was interesting because they were very, very mindful of what I watched on TV or the type of music I listened to. If it was a book, they were like, oh, it can’t be that bad. I was reading books by Marquis de Sade. I was reading books by Anne Rice. I was learning all the things that they didn’t want me to learn from television and music from books. I would say that’s something they got right, but if they were to hear this —

Zibby: — Still probably better to be learning those things in books. I’m just saying. Anyway, keep going. Sorry, you were going to say…

Jennifer: For sure. At the time, I think they were just really impressed. Wow, she’s reading Marquis de Sade. That’s so impressive. We can’t wait to tell all of our friends about that. Meanwhile, I’m turning the pages going from one very scandalous sex scene to another and was like, this is incredible.

Zibby: I love that. Wait, sorry, what were you going to say? My parents said…what? You said if they were to hear.

Jennifer: Oh, yeah. If they were to hear this now, they probably would be like, oh. They didn’t read the kind of things that I read. My dad was very newspaper and biographies. My mom was a librarian, so she read a lot of stuff that the kids were reading. I was kind of out there.

Zibby: Are your parents still alive? I don’t even know why I’m asking this.

Jennifer: Yeah, both still alive. Still in Florida too.

Zibby: I read in your acknowledgments, too, your very strong views about government in Florida. We don’t have to go into it.

Jennifer: We can.

Zibby: I loved your passion for Florida in general and even the way you describe it as a character in the book and your reverence for it and your hopes and dreams for it, so to speak.

Jennifer: The way I describe it to people is — what’s the metaphor I’ve been using? If the United States were a lily pond, Maine and New England would be the lily pads floating on top with all the dragonflies and the hummingbirds and all that beautiful Monet, picturesque painting type of backdrop. Then Florida would be at the very bottom with all the plastic beer rings, the used condoms, a chupacabra floating around down there. It’s got a lot of crazy stuff, but it also has a lot of life. It’s very unique in terms of its ecosystem, in terms of its history, in terms of its bridging of Caribbean, West African, South American, and indigenous culture and history. There’s no other place in the world like it. That’s why I’m a passionate defender of the state as a place, as a geography, as a kind of phenomenon. The other side to that is that it’s run by literal monsters. That’s a very difficult thing to reconcile as somebody who loves the state for what it is and not necessarily the horrific people running it today.

I guess I’m very fortunate to have grown up in the mid-nineties there, all throughout the nineties there, honestly, and then went to university in the early aughts there where it really wasn’t like that. I feel a lot of empathy. I feel for people who are going through all of that right now. It’s really heartbreaking to see just how quickly certain government officials are in a race to the bottom of all the worst aspects of American culture making that a central platform for the entire country. It’s horrific. It’s terrifying. For things like book bans and censorship, all that stuff hits me in a very personal place because I live in Germany. This is stuff that we talk about often, we remember often. Back in April, we commemorated, I think it was the seventy-fifth or seventy-eighth anniversary of the widespread book burnings that took place around the country during the rise of the Nazis. I have this weird parallel sense of looking from a distance at what’s happening but having a very clear idea of where that will lead. It’s terrifying. As a writer, as a Floridian, as a human being, it scares me. It scares the death out of me.

Zibby: I’m praying it does not lead where it led in Germany. I’m hoping. More than hoping. Praying. Very interesting at any rate.

Jennifer: Sorry to bring the tone down there a bit.

Zibby: No, that’s okay. I asked. I had a feeling you had pretty strong feelings about it. It’s good. It’s good to talk about these things as they’re happening, in process, and all of that. Tell me more about your writing from here. What are you doing? What are you writing? What are you working on? What now?

Jennifer: Right now, I’m working on the first round of edits for my second book, which is coming out October next year.

Zibby: I read what — Siren something? No. Symphony something? What was it called? Something with an S? Nothing with an S? No.

Jennifer: There are S’s in it. There’s an S in it. It’s called My Pisces Heart. Two S’s. There are two S’s there, so you got something.

Zibby: Can I buy a consonant, please? Oh, my gosh, sorry. I did know what it was called, but I completely forgot, obviously. My Pisces Heart, tell me about that book.

Jennifer: That’s okay. This one’s nonfiction. My agent described it as memoir-plus. It’s about my life spent living on four different continents, tracing Black histories in each of these places, and how they align with my own. The thread through this book, it’s my relationship with my paternal grandfather. He was a soldier during World War II. He went to France to fight. When he went back, he couldn’t just go back to his very small town in Woodland, Georgia, so he left. I feel like his journey was the catalyst that started me in my wanderlust. I think it’s because he and I were very similar in terms of our personalities and in terms of our values. That’s weaving the whole thing together. I’m really looking forward to having that out in the world too.

Zibby: That sounds amazing. That sounds great. I can’t wait to read that. When is that pub date?

Jennifer: October 2024.

Zibby: It’ll be here before you know it.

Jennifer: It really will. I am deranged. Hey, got to make hay while the sun’s shining, I guess.

Zibby: It’s amazing. I’ve been doing this podcast now for five-plus years or so. I am astounded by how many repeat — I’m like, really? Another book by this person? How did she do that? How did he do that so fast? I literally, this morning, got pitched a book, and I was like, there’s no way that’s the same author. It must be somebody with the same distinctive name because I just interviewed her about her other book. Wasn’t that a month ago? How could she have another novel? It’s amazing. Everybody just keeps going.

Jennifer: I guess we don’t really have a choice.

Zibby: I know. I know.

Jennifer: What else can you do?

Zibby: It’s great. It’s wonderful. It’s really wonderful. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Jennifer: Oh, gosh, so much advice. I’ll try to condense it into something as useful as possible. Number one, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You really should take your time to make sure you are very happy with what you submit either to agents, to publishers, whatever because once it’s formalized in print, you can’t change it. Rejection is just a part of the process. The moment you accept that, the easier it becomes. The moment you start to take yourself seriously as an author, that’s when the world will start taking you seriously. That means reading as much as possible, making time to write, being very disciplined about meeting your own deadlines, whether you set them for yourself or other people set them for you. Write only for yourself and for the audience that you want to speak directly to because you can’t make everybody happy. If you try, that is one recipe that’ll lead directly to failure.

Zibby: I learned that. I feel like I learn that all the time, even with dinner reservations or something. I’m like, I’m going do this for this person. I’m going to do this because this person wants to do this at this time. Then I end up crying.

Jennifer: Oh, no.

Zibby: I know. It’s hard.

Jennifer: Have you learned your lesson? is the question.

Zibby: Don’t they say that’s the definition of crazy, when you do the same thing over and over and over again hoping for a different reaction but getting the same thing?

Jennifer: You hesitated a little bit there. You were like, no, no, I’ve learned my lesson, but well…

Zibby: I know. I have, but… I learned it, but does that mean I actually ?

Jennifer: You’ve learned it, but have you internalized it?

Zibby: Exactly. Do you feel like you’re good at that? Do you live by that advice yourself?

Jennifer: Now I’m much better at it than I used to be. That’s a fact. Like you, I feel like dinner reservations are the final frontier of all of our anxiety, trying to make everybody happy, trying to make vegan people happy and people who are gluten free happy and people who have a lactose allergy happy. I’m like, you know what, I’m just going to book a spot that has nice options. If people want to come, they can come. If not, that’s fine. We can try different things with different people. I think it’s just something that you can kind of disabuse yourself a little bit more of as you get older. I don’t see myself as having been that composed when I was twenty. Now it comes more easily, but it’s also just because if people don’t show up, I’m happy having dinner by myself. There you go.

Zibby: There you go. I think I’m going to have to put that in the kitchen or something. Dinner reservations are the final frontier of anxiety. I love that so much. Thank you.

Jennifer: Happy to help.

Zibby: This has been so fun. Thank you so much for coming on. Congratulations on your beautiful book. You’re such a creative, original talent. I cannot wait for your next book, really. Congrats.

Jennifer: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s been wonderful talking with you. It’s been a lot of fun, actually.

Zibby: Good. I’m so glad. Have a great day.

Jennifer: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Notes on her colour by Jennifer Neal

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