Jill Bialosky, THE DECEPTIONS: A Novel

Jill Bialosky, THE DECEPTIONS: A Novel

Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling author Jill Bialosky about The Deceptions, an urgent and thought-provoking tale of love, desire, motherhood, and art. Jill discusses her love of poetry and the gut-wrenching memoir she wrote about her sister’s suicide, which is being re-issued on its 10th anniversary and has completely changed her relationship with life. She also talks about her decades-long career at Norton (she is now an executive editor and vice president!) and the books she recently edited that she is very excited about.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jill. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest novel, The Deceptions.

Jill Bialosky: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I have to tell you that when I started reading your book, it was a Sunday with a driving rainstorm. My husband had been watching football all day. I was reading. It was just around dinnertime. I was like, this is so creepy. This is exactly what’s happening in this book. I even said something to my husband. He’s like, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if everything you read in a book would make your whole life change that way? You open the book, and it would start raining.” I felt very immersed in your opening moments of the scene and your relationship and all of that.

Jill: Thank you. That was really fun to write. I think my husband heard me or he saw some review in print that said something about that scene. I said, “It’s archetypal. It’s not just you.”

Zibby: I don’t think you made him come off that great, so you might as well say it’s somebody totally different. Why don’t you tell listeners what The Deceptions is about? Why write this book right now?

Jill: Thank you. When the novel opens, my character is — she’s a middle-aged woman. She’s just sent her only son off to college. She’s feeling very bereft and a little lost about what her next chapter means. She’s also a poet. She teaches at an all-boys prep school. When the novel opens, she’s in this crisis. Along with her son leaving, she’s trying to avoid thinking about an incident that happened to her with a visiting poet at the school in which she teaches. I think that the name of your podcast — I’m hoping that the novel will really be the kind of novel that women will want to read and relate to and celebrate in some ways. It’s also about a woman figuring out that she never really has fully found her own agency and power — through the novel, you get the sense of what she’s been up against teaching at an institution founded on the patriarchy — and also a poet still, in her eyes, dominated by male power and also the way in which she has to reconcile her feelings about being a woman who is near the point in life where she feels desire. She’s also reconciling with what that means within a marriage.

Zibby: Many relatable themes to so many people out there.

Jill: I hope so, Zibby. I do.

Zibby: I just interviewed, yesterday, Liz Michalski. Do you know who she is, the author?

Jill: No.

Zibby: She wrote this beautiful book called Darling Girl. It’s a new take on the aftermath of Peter Pan and the Darling girls. It’s really beautiful and clever. She’s grieving that her child just went to college. She’s in that very raw spot. I feel like you need to send your book to her. I think that would help. I feel like you two should connect. I think that would help her right now. Maybe I’ll just send her your book, is, frankly, what I should do. Anyway, you’ve written a lot of books. Actually, somebody I told — they said, “Who are you interviewing?” I was like, “I’m doing Jill Bialosky.” They’re like, “The poet?” That is how you’re known in certain circles. You are an amazing poet and novelist. Narrative nonfiction. You do everything. When do you decide to do what? Why a novel right now and not poetry? How did you even get involved in all of this writing and editing? I want to talk about your publishing career. There’s just so much. I’m overwhelmed.

Jill: Really, poetry was my first love. When I was in college, I was very fortunate to — I was an English major. I took a few poetry workshops. I was very fortunate to work with the wonderful poet Stanley Plumly, who was my first teacher. Somehow, he just gave me the confidence to feel that I could continue to develop my craft as a poet. That took me, then, to get an MFA. I went to the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I studied poetry there. Then when I was at Iowa — the program is divided into fiction writers and poets. I became very conscious of this idea that these fiction writers, they were so interested in publishing. They were just so far ahead of the poets in terms of ambition. It really struck me. I was reading a lot of novels at that time. I read one novel by Marilynne Robinson called Housekeeping, which you must know and maybe have read, which is such a beautiful book. When I read that novel, I felt like I had a novel in me that needed to come out. My first novel was called House Under Snow. That took me many, many years to figure out how to write a novel. It also allowed me to feel very comfortable with prose and with shifting back and forth from poetry to prose. I think that that was all a journey that I wanted to pursue. It’s a lot of hard work. I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish about it.

I really was driven to write that first novel. I’m so glad that I did. Then it allowed me to want to tell other stories in fiction. I find fiction and poetry so different. Poetry is much more internal in some ways, bringing out the inner life more through words, through narrative. For me, fiction is so much about characters. You can be expansive in telling a story. I really love both. I really didn’t think that I was going to write nonfiction. I had a terrible loss in my life. My youngest sister ended her life when she was twenty-one. I just could not stop telling myself that I had to write about it. Maybe you feel that way, Zibby. You just told me about your book. The first memoir that I wrote, History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life, really allowed me to — I couldn’t have done that in fiction. Some of my poems are about that kind of loss, but somehow, I needed that larger landscape to investigate. One thing grows out of another, as you know. It’s interesting. You never know what you’re going to be up against and how you’re going to find the right words or the right form to get there.

Zibby: Wow. I’m so sorry about your sister. I’m very sad that I didn’t have time to read that memoir. I did research it. It sounds like you did it in a really unique way, basically inhabiting her mind and telling the story from her point of view and how she got to that point. I don’t know if you can talk even a little more about that book because I have to go back and read it.

Jill: Thank you. I’m very excited because my publisher, Atria, is reissuing History of a Suicide for a tenth anniversary. It’s coming out in November. It comes with a preface by Andrew Solomon, who’s somebody whose work I so admire. I’m very happy that that book will be more visible because, as you probably know, during the pandemic, so many young people have been suffering. Sadly, the suicide rates for younger people are rising. My hope is that my book could show people who are suffering, the wounds that are left behind by the survivors and offer some sense of hope. It was a long process. That took me about ten years to really work through that memoir. I recently read it for audio.

Zibby: You must have been sobbing.

Jill: I was very lucky that I had these two wonderful young men directing. One was doing the technology. They got me through it. I just felt like I had to narrate it. I didn’t feel like somebody else should narrate that story. Time helps. I’m glad the book is there to document that process.

Zibby: By the way, you brought my book up. You make it sound like I was trying to hawk my book to you. You brought it up.

Jill: I did. I’m so impressed with what you do, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. I lost one of my best friends from high school to suicide. I did write about that in the book. I don’t know about your sister because I haven’t read it. She had developed mental illness over time. It was excruciating to watch that and not be able to really help. It is a unique form of loss, but all loss is horrific.

Jill: I’m so sorry. I know how difficult that is. I felt so deeply for my sister’s best friends who suffered her loss.

Zibby: You’re so empathetic at that time to be even feeling for them when you are going through this such immediate loss. Do you feel like — some people say, I’m glad this happened — not really. Not, I’m glad, but because this happened, at least I got this new perspective on life. I realized that life was short and to grab the bull by the horns and do X, Y, Z. Do you feel that at all? Do you feel like it changed your relationship with life?

Jill: It definitely changed my relationship with life because I realized, naïvely, that you never think something like that is going to happen. For me, I came to realize how vulnerable people are and that some have more of the resources to be able to get help when they are suffering. Others, for whatever reason, can’t, or at least at that moment can’t. I think the loss of my sister did make me more empathetic, obviously, as a person and also more aware of how fragile life is and also more committed to the idea that as a writer, this is what we have to offer. I don’t know how I would’ve suffered that loss without being able to put it into words. More and more, I feel like we’re living in dark times. Yet we’ve got these authors who can somehow take us into a different experience or shed light on our own experience. I think that’s what it has given me, Zibby, more than anything. There’s a larger purpose beyond just ourselves.

Zibby: Absolutely. I do feel part of the urge to write about it, about loss — I’ve interviewed so many people who — I love those types of books myself, witnessing people go through something horrific and rising from it. I like a lot of different stories, but something just so deeply resonates with that. I think part of it is to work through it yourself as the writer, as the person, as the feeler. I think there’s also this compulsion once you realize this big secret that we have to treat life differently. You want to wake everybody else up and be like, no, no, no, this is literally the most important thing. I’m going to tell you my story so that hopefully, you will also wake up without having to go through a loss like this. Look what happened. Look what could happen. It’s a warning, but also intended to be motivational for other people. I think that’s part of why people who have gone through these things want to share them, to say, look at what can happen. Don’t squander the day.

Jill: Right. Yes, I agree with that. I did an event with a writer, A.M. Homes, who has the book called The Unfolding. We did this event together at McNally Jackson. Our books are so different, but we realized that both of us were kind of writing about the patriarchy and how it has influenced us as women; hers really through the lens of creating a character who is very conservative, like kind of a Steve Bannon character, and how that affects his family. Of course, my novel is much more about how the patriarchy has affected this one character. My point is that after our reading, people came up to us and said, wow, we need novels to show us that this still exists. We think that it’s still somehow easier for women to get published, to get their books out there, but there still are some deep scars. Back to that point of even what a novel can do to awaken us as readers and to allow us to see that those engrained scars or scars that give you, ultimately, some agency…

Zibby: Jill, tell me about your career in publishing also. You’re not just a poet and a memoirist and a novelist. You are the upper echelon at Norton. How has that been? You must have been working in publishing all along. What is it like now being the person who is choosing the books and making the statements and all of that?

Jill: I feel so fortunate to be an editor at Norton. I’ve worked here my entire career, basically, in publishing. It’s really an honor to be able to find authors and writers and nurture their books and watch their works come into being. I’ve worked with some incredible poets for our Norton Stellar Poetry list. Then I also edit some wonderful fiction writers and nonfiction writers. I have to say it’s almost like continuing to have an education way beyond graduate school. I was trying to write an essay about this. What happens when the editor becomes the author and her book is about to be published? I was just thinking about how when it’s my turn, everything I know about the publishing industry suddenly kind of vanishes. I’m just new kid on the block again hoping her book will get some attention. It’s really very weird. It really makes me totally understand how my authors feel the month or two leading up to publication and then the month or two after. Then once their books are out there, it’s total freedom again. You don’t feel you have to worry anymore. It is an interesting perspective. As a writer, I sometimes do wish that I lived outside of New York and could just have blinders on and not think about the hype and the aspects of the business, but that’s not how my life turned out.

Zibby: You mentioned earlier your book had been published by Atria. Why not publish with Norton?

Jill: A long time ago, I just thought that that would be too weird because it would almost feel a little bit like self-publishing. I’d be in the meetings. For me, I don’t think that would work well. I think it’s good to have that separation. I really do have developed boundaries between myself as a writer and then as an editor. I think that’s really important. When I show up for my job, I have to be there completely for my colleagues that I work with and my authors.

Zibby: That makes sense. What are some books you’ve edited lately that you’re excited about or that you’re working on now?

Jill: Right now, I was really thrilled because one of my authors, Mary Roach, her book Fuzz is, for the fourth week, on The New York Times Best Seller list. That’s in paperback. That’s very exciting. We just published a wonderful novel by Lan Samantha Chang called The Family Chao. Here it is for you to see. It’s out now in paperback. Obama picked it as one of his favorite books of the year. That was so exciting. I’m just looking around at my bookshelves here in my office. I published a fabulous novel by Kirstin Valdez Quade called The Five Wounds, which won the Center for Fiction award.

Zibby: I’m actually on the board there.

Jill: Great. What a great organization. I also have a novel that I edited that’s on the longlist for the Center for Fiction award called Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Chen. That is so original. Then in poetry, I published this young writer, Roger Reeves, his second collection called Best Barbarian, which is on the National Book Award Longlist for Poetry this year. It’s been a really exciting season for me. Another poet that I brought to Norton years ago, Joy Harjo, she was poet laurate for three terms. We have her new book out called Poet Warrior, which is wonderful. I’m very rich in talent here.

Zibby: That’s great. So inspirational to be in all these books and everything for you as a writer too, right?

Jill: Yeah, it really is.

Zibby: Wonderful. From all of your experience, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Jill: I think that my advice would be to trust yourself as a young writer, to trust your own vision and not feel that you have write what you think is fashionable at the moment. Everybody has their own story to tell, whether it’s through fiction or poetry or nonfiction. Find that story. Just going back to what I said about Stanley Plumly, my poetry teacher who passed away a few years ago, sadly, the one thing that he told me when I was eighteen or nineteen years old was in his poetry workshop. He told our class to write what hurts. For me, that opened the door.

Zibby: I’m writing that down.

Jill: There’s a certain sense of urgency if you’re really writing from that place within you that needs to be heard. It doesn’t mean that it has to come out even autobiographically. You’re just tapping into the essence of who you are. It sounds a little woo-woo.

Zibby: No, it doesn’t. I get it.

Jill: Good. I feel like that’s been my guiding light through my projects. In The Deceptions, I really was trying to capture this character who’s in this crisis and what it means to be a mother and a wife and also to be a writer and the whole stew of it. Each book, when I think back, was kind of inspired by a particular need of mine to investigate. That’s the advice I would give.

Zibby: Love it. Jill, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I know. I told you it’s fast.

Jill: This was so fun.

Zibby: Goodbye. Thank you.

THE DECEPTIONS: A Novel by Jill Bialosky

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