Jessica George, MAAME: A Novel

Jessica George, MAAME: A Novel

Zibby interviews debut author Jessica George about Maame, which is a B&N Discover Pick, a Book of the Month pick, a #ReadWithJenna Book Club Pick, and will be adapted into a TV series by Jenna! Maame is a charming, vividly drawn, and poignant coming-of-age tale about a twenty-something “later bloomer” navigating online dating, a nightmarish job, grief, racism, an overbearing mother, and a father who suffers from advanced stage Parkinson’s. Jessica talks about her journey to becoming a writer, analyzes her protagonist and her incredibly flawed but hilarious family, and shares how her experiences caring for her late father, who also had Parkinson’s, inspired this story. She also shares the details of her next project and her best advice for aspiring writers.


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

Jessica George: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: No problem. Can you please tell listeners what Maame is about?

Jessica: It follows twentysomething Maddie Wright. I like to call her a later bloomer rather than a late bloomer just because she’s doing things such as moving out, having her first relationship, her first real job a little later on in life than her peers. She’s also doing this whilst being a primary carer for her father suffering from Parkinson’s disease. She’s navigating new friendships, new relationships, new colleagues, unconventional family dynamics, love, loss, and grief all while trying to figure out who she really is.

Zibby: Amazing. Where did this whole thing come from? I know there were some — I’ll just let you answer. Where did this whole thing come from?

Jessica: I lost my dad in 2020 due to complications with Parkinson’s disease.

Zibby: I’m so sorry.

Jessica: Thank you. When I was trying to understand the grieving process, because it was the first real loss that I’d encountered, I just started writing digital diary entries. I’d been writing with the intention of getting published for eight years, but I didn’t have the intention of making this a book until a couple months later when I rediscovered the diary entries on my laptop. I just thought about how I could make this a story and if I could. That’s when Maddie was born.

Zibby: Wow. I run a publishing company now. The scenes of being the editorial assistant, I went in and I was like, “You guys, you do know that this is what this is about. There is a character in here who is an editorial assistant.” It’s so funny because occasionally, I do have scheduling conflicts, and I’m like, “What happened?” I know it’s all my fault. I’m like, oh, my gosh. I’m so embarrassed. Very true to life. I like to think I’m a great boss compared to these ladies. I’m always like, “This was her idea. This was her idea.” There’s some idea reappropriation going on in this book too. I want to have the meal on Maddie’s first date when she goes to what’s-his-name’s house and he makes her the three-course meal. What is that guy’s name? I can’t remember.

Jessica: Ben.

Zibby: Ben. Okay, sorry. I’m really bad with names. I was starving reading this scene of all of the courses and how delicious it sounded. I was like, I hope there is some plan to have a dinner party with this meal to celebrate this book. I hope you have that in the works.

Jessica: I never thought of that. That’s so interesting. Now I’m thinking, why haven’t I thought of that? I have a lot of food plans around publication, but I never thought of — I’m not much of a cook. Someone else would have to cook it for me.

Zibby: You’ll have to do it at a restaurant or something. If you do it and you take this idea, my only stipulation is that I have to be invited because I would like to eat this come to life. It has to be in the New York area, basically, or maybe LA. It’s so funny. You said you had every intention of being a published writer for eight years. I love that. Where did that come from? Where did it all come from?

Jessica: I started off attempting to get into a more financially stable career. I was looking at law. Then I was looking at international business. I did international business for a year before I realized how much I disliked it. I was on the train one day knowing that I wasn’t going to return. Then my mom asked me the question of, “Fine, do what you like, but please go to university.” I said, okay, I’ll choose English literature because at least I can read and write in my spare time. I wasn’t enjoying my course as much as I thought I was. Then it was at that point where I just thought, I can’t change again. I have to stick this through. I was just trying to find some things that brought me some joy in the rest of my day. That’s where writing started. Back then, I didn’t know much about publishing at all, so I don’t even think as soon as I started writing again, I was like, oh, this is going to be published. It was just a hobby at that point. When I started working as a bookseller at Waterstones, that’s when I started learning more about how books are published. That’s when I started writing with the intention of getting published.

Zibby: Very interesting, behind-the-scenes scoop there, little stealth market research when nobody’s watching. You never know what your booksellers will do. book shopping, be careful what you say and do. It may show up in fiction one day. Oh, my gosh, it’s so funny. One of the things that I think you do particularly well is dialogue. The way that you have the characters just completely — they’re so clear to me in reading the voices, especially her mom and her brother and Maddie, the friends. Mostly, the family is just so crystal clear in the way that they talk, and the flaws, too, that they all sort of eventually acknowledge, in a way. Everybody has flaws. Tell me about that and the acceptance that comes with accepting your family for who they are.

Jessica: I think it’s quite a hard pill to swallow when you realize that your parents are human. I’m kind of fighting with this idea that you should always assume that. When I talk about taking them off this kind of pedestal, I do it in mind for all parties involved, really. Maddie had an unrealistic idea of what her family were going to turn out to be. Because she’s been trying to get that dream family, she’s put her own mental health at risk. She’s tried to be the supportive one. She’s tried to keep everyone happy. She’s just tried to keep the peace so she can have the unrealistic, normal family. Then, without trying to add any spoilers, in the end, it’s just a case of, there’s nothing entirely wrong with accepting who your family are. It’s just how you can fit in with that, how you make it work best for who you are and how you want to go further on in life. I love Maddie’s family. I think they’re hilarious. They’re incredibly flawed, but I think that of everyone. I think that of Maddie herself sometimes. It’s always fun to write those characters who feel real.

Zibby: Do you feel like Maddie will be continued in any way, and these characters?

Jessica: I don’t. I don’t know. I think I might leave Maddie where she is just because — I intentionally don’t have a plan for Maame two or something. The way books are written now, I have to put her through more emotional turmoil or some sort of distress so I can resolve at the end for there to be a plot, and I just kind of want to leave her alone. I said if any publisher wants to publish a three-hundred-page novel about Maddie just being happy, visiting coffee shops, hanging out with her friends, hanging out with Sam, then I will happily do it. Unfortunately, plotlines have to have some kind of distress or some kind of bumpy, bumpy roads. Then a friend of mine said, “How about a short story where we just see Maddie having a nice time for a couple of pages?” I thought, I would consider that. That, I would do.

Zibby: I think if Maddie were to have kids, there would be emotional distress immediately.

Jessica: Yes.

Zibby: You could always fall back on that at some point in life. Wait, did I mispronounce the title? Do you not pronounce it Maim? Is it Mah-me?

Jessica: Oh, no, sorry, Mah-me.

Zibby: Mah-me. Sorry. I will now pronounce it differently. Good to know. What was the story of this being acquired for publication?

Jessica: I submitted it to a small number of literary agents. Then I met my agent, Jemimah. After some months of editing, we sent it out to a number of publishers. Eight of them were interested. I took some meetings. I met all the teams. Jemimah and I were keeping in touch. This was during the pandemic, so we weren’t in the office. We weren’t going to actual meetings. We weren’t meeting up in person or anything. We were just always on the phone or online discussing where we felt the best home for this book would be. We landed with Olivia in the UK and Sarah in the US.

Zibby: They’re from — which is this from? St. Martin’s.

Jessica: Yeah, St. Martin’s.

Zibby: Exciting. They obviously adore you and are pulling out all the stops, so that’s nice. You can always tell when there’s a party for an author eight months ahead of time that they really have their act together. I’m like, okay, noted. This is great. Have you been at work on another book?

Jessica: Yes. I’m working on my second book at the moment. I’m focusing very much on female friendship because I really liked that aspect in this one. That is going to be the goal of book two.

Zibby: Interesting. Love it. Where do you see Maddie going in life? Where do you think she’ll be in twenty years? Without giving anything away.

Jessica: In twenty years, I think she’d have a family by then. Hopefully, with Sam, but you never know. I think if she were to have children, it would be a case of thinking about her childhood and maybe the things that she doesn’t want to repeat. I think that would be something that would continuously play a role in her day-to-day.

Zibby: There are so many people out there who are caring for parents or people with illness and know the toll that it takes to have to be in that mindset all the time and constantly worried and all of that. Tell me a little bit more about your own experience with that and where that dynamic came from and all of those feelings of such personal emotional feelings.

Jessica: I was a secondary carer for my father, whereas Maddie’s more of a primary. It’s a very isolating place to be. That’s why I didn’t have any intention of publishing this one. I thought it was a strange thing to talk about because it wasn’t something that seemed to be spoken about very often. As I was going to bookshops and talking about Maame with booksellers, a lot of booksellers said, “This is going to hit home for a lot of people because the pandemic has created a large number of carers now,” and young carers because COVID was affecting those who are older a lot harder. It’s a very difficult place to describe. It’s just one of isolation and often, hopelessness and obviously, sadness, but there’s some joy in it. My dad and I certainly got closer because I was home and watching over him. I often think, if he were fit and well, would I have been home that much? I think the answer would’ve been no. There’s definitely more cons, but there are some pros.

Zibby: I’m really sorry about your loss and that you had to go through that and all that. Do you like to read yourself? I’m guessing.

Jessica: I love to read. My goal this year is fifty. We’ll see. I’m trying to incorporate more short stories to try and reach that goal a lot quicker. I’m getting sent a lot of proofs now, .

Zibby: I bet.

Jessica: With Maame press and book two, I’m not reading as fast as I want to be.

Zibby: What are some of your go-to books or your favorite books or the genre that you like? Anything like that.

Jessica: I love . I think she’s an incredible writer. Candice Carty-Williams, , they’re great. I love Agatha Christie. That’s always a surprise to people. I think her books are brilliant, her murder mysteries. Jessie Burton, I’m a fan of her books as well. Zadie Smith. I often get these random ones that I take from recommendation. I might pick up them in the shop. I’m not very genre focused. If someone I trust thinks it’s really good, I will read it.

Zibby: Word of mouth.

Jessica: Word of mouth, exactly.

Zibby: The elusive holy grail of publishing, word of mouth. Is there any part of the publicity for this book that you’re particularly excited to do or have done already or thought was really creative or exciting and fun or anything?

Jessica: There’s some marketing stuff which is really cool. My marketing team in the UK are putting up a mural of Maame and Maddie in West Croydon, which is where the book is set. We’re partnering with West Croydon Waterstones. They’re going to have a single-title table and a window display. The mural is going to be outside. Then there’s going to be a trail to trail to Waterstones. Then you’ll see the display. Things like that, I’m very excited about. It’s just going to be so fun. I like fun when I’m working.

Zibby: Who doesn’t like fun? We might as well. Do you have a really close girlfriend or somebody who’s helped you through all this? I know you have close friends. You’re writing about friendship again. Is there some friend you have?

Jessica: Yeah, Nia and Shu in the book are real. People love meeting them. They’re real people. Those two and the dad are the realist characters from my life. My Nia is called Ashley. My Shu is called Camilla. Some of the scenes in the book are conversations we’ve had and scenes that have played out between us. I have a great pair of friends.

Zibby: Shu is the over-sharer with very much graphic detail, horrifying graphic detail. I had a friend like that. I’m like, oh, my gosh, I don’t want to know that. So funny. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Jessica: Yes. It’s a cliché, but I guess it’s going to be, keep writing. It’s the one that I can say I’ve tried and tested, and it works. I have been writing for years. I’ve written five books before this one. They were all rejected. I often think, what if I had stopped writing? Then I wouldn’t have gotten to this book with this incredible marketing campaign and publicity campaign. I love my teams. They work so hard. We work so well together. It’s the most tried-and-tested advice I can give, just to keep going.

Zibby: Wow. I hope you have a lot of fun on this road ahead. Very exciting. Congratulations. I’ll be watching it all unfold eagerly hoping you’re having fun.

Jessica: Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks so much, Jess. Buh-bye.

Jessica: Buh-bye.

Jessica George, MAAME: A Novel

MAAME: A Novel by Jessica George

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