Jo Piazza, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win

Jo Piazza, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win

I’m really excited to be here today with Jo Piazza. Jo is an award-winning journalist, editor, travel writer, author, and podcaster. She has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Elle, Glamour, Maire Claire, and many others. She has appeared on CNN, NPR, Fox, the BBC, and MSNBC. She’s written seven books, both nonfiction and fiction, including her most recent, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win and How to be Married. She also recently launched a podcast with the How Stuff Works network, which is now iHeartMedia, entitled “Committed” in which she explores the factors that affect marriages. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a master’s in journalism from Columbia and a master’s in religious studies from NYU, Jo currently lives in San Francisco, but is moving for a little bit, with her husband, son, and large dog.

Welcome to Jo.

Jo Piazza: Hey. Thanks for havin’ me.

Zibby: Thanks for doing this. Your latest book, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, is timed just perfectly. Did you have the idea for this book in mind for a while, basically what happens to a woman running for the senate, or did the cultural zeitgeist push you in the direction of exploring the rise of the female candidates? How did you come up with this idea?

Jo: During the last presidential election cycle I really started thinking that I wanted to do a book about a female candidate, not just because of the female candidate but because of all female candidates that were running and how the media treated them. The original plan was for it to be a satire. Then election day happened, and the entire world changed. The world became a satire. I couldn’t really write that book anymore. I knew that it had to be a stronger character-driver narrative so that we could really see women who lead and women who should be elected to office in fiction because they just don’t exist. We don’t see them in fiction. We don’t see them on TV shows. We don’t see them in movies. Female characters that are politicians tend to be one kind of person. They’re a shrew, a bitch, or they’re an idiot like on Veep. I wanted to show a real, ambitious, likeable woman politician. The book changed. It’s a long answer to the fact that I had the idea, and then everything kind of went to shit, and the whole book became something different.

Zibby: I feel like most books tend to take a meandering path like that. There’s always some story behind it.

Jo: I’ve never ever finished with the book that I started out with.

Zibby: Outlines be damned.

Jo: I’ve gotten better at outlining. I used to not outline at all. In the very beginning when I first started writing, I would sit down and just go. Now, I’m a pretty meticulous outliner.

Zibby: Whatever you’re doing seems to be working.

Jo: It’s working. It is for now. People are reading the book. That’s all I can hope for.

Zibby: Did you do a lot of research for this book? Did you talk to women senators or women running for office? Did you just wing it?

Jo: I did so much research for this book. I’m a journalist by trade. I approach all of my fiction the same way I approach my journalism. I actually interviewed more than a hundred women who had run for office, were running for office, or who had run campaigns. The book was super research-intensive. I think that made it a lot better. There’s no way to wing politics. One of my goals with the book, first to show a woman candidate, but second was to make people walk away feeling a little bit smarter about the political process. I think that we’re exhausted by the new cycle. A lot of people, myself included, with the news cycle we’re like, “You know what? I just want to check out. I’m so sick of all of this.” I wanted the book to give people a reason to check back in. It was really important for it to be accurate in terms of the politics.

Zibby: Did you time it intentionally knowing that the midterm elections were coming? Was that happenstance?

Jo: I did. I’m an evil genius in that way. We are going to come out right ahead of the midterm elections. If all goes to my evil genius plan, our TV show version of Charlotte will come out in time for the presidential.

Zibby: Ooh, I didn’t know there was a TV version. That’s exciting.

Jo: There is going to be a TV version. We actually haven’t announced it yet. We will be announcing it hopefully in the next couple months. All of the TV cogs are in the works.

Zibby: That is really exciting. Did you get a say of who plays Charlotte?

Jo: I did. I got my first choice. She actually chose us, which was amazing. It all happened very organically. Hopefully I can tell you more about that in the next month or so.

Zibby: Perfect. Now, I’m even more intrigued.

Jo: What I can say is the process was so interesting. I had a ton of meetings in Hollywood, mostly with men who would throw out names for Charlotte of women who were thirty. Charlotte is a forty-seven-year-old mother of three. They’re like, “Yeah, but this woman can play old.” I’m like, “We’re not going to work together.”

Zibby: I’ve heard you have to stick to your guns and what you really want. It’s easy to get pushed around.

Jo: You really do. I get it. Everyone in Hollywood looks the same age. Still, it was very important to me that the character Charlotte Walsh be played by a woman who was actually Charlotte Walsh’s age.

Zibby: Now, I’m going to start brainstorming who you picked. I’m going to see if I’m right.

Jo: You’ll know soon enough. I will text you.

Zibby: One part of the book that I found super interesting is Charlotte’s relationship with her husband. I know you’ve also written a whole book on marriage, which was also fantastic. I’ll talk about that in a sec. How did you decide to illustrate this particular strain of tension between them? Despite how far women have come in so many ways, there always seems to be an issue when the woman is the breadwinner or the more powerful in the relationship. When Charlotte had her husband turn down that board invitation in Silicon Valley so that he could stick around Pennsylvania more and he was not really happy with that, it’s such a great scene. Another great scene, when the magazine article came out about her and there was a photo of Charlotte looking all powerful with bright red lipstick, her kids at her feet, then her husband’s in the back cooking, and he is not at all happy about that and is like, “What the fuck? She makes me sound like a gigantic pussy,” and starts taking on an internet troll. How did you come up with this particular dynamic? Is that also research-based? From friends? Tell me all about that.

Jo: I’m just seeing it more and more often. I’m seeing more women who are either the breadwinner or they’re in a position that’s much more powerful than their husbands. With a lot of them, they’re married to good men. They’re married to men who would call themselves a feminist. Yet it still grates on them. My husband and I flip-flop back and forth between who has the big job, and who does more of the stuff around the house, and who takes care of the kid. It’s been hard for us too. My husband is the most feminist guy you’ve ever met. He read all the Judy Blume books when he was a kid. He cried at Flubber. Still, it’s hard for him. I wanted to show that dynamic, especially with a woman running for office.

It’s funny because the publisher, originally one of the titles they wanted to call this was The Candidate’s Husband. Oh, hell no. No. It’s not about him. On the campaign trail, it always becomes about him, much more so than when a man in running, no one really cares about his wife all that much. When a woman’s running, everyone wants to know what her husband thinks of her platform. Who’s watching her children? How does her husband feel about her running for office? It was really important for me to show Max’s side of this. A lot of marriages also don’t survive the campaign trail. I interviewed a lot of husbands of women who were running or women who had run in the past. They said it was the hardest thing their marriage ever went through, harder than buying a house or having kids, which is the usually the hardest things in a marriage.

Zibby: What do you think about politics in particular? Is it how exposed everybody is?

Jo: It’s how exposed everybody is. It’s the fact that you get your guts ripped out on a daily basis. Your whole family gets exposed to scrutiny. You have no privacy anymore. You become a very public person, and also the rigors of the campaign trail. You’re spending ninety percent of your time fundraising on the campaign trail, which is a soul-killing occupation. It wears a marriage down. A lot of marriages don’t survive it.

Zibby: You certainly learned a lot in your book, research for How to be Married and going all over the world learning from different women. I love your approach. “Hey, I’m getting married. Let me get all the data I can from everyone.”

Jo: From everyone.

Zibby: Everyone everywhere.

Jo: Yahoo! Travels were sending me all over the world as an editor. I had no idea how to be married. I still really don’t. It’s funny. I reread How to be Married the other day now that we’re three years in with a sixteen-month-old. I’m like, “Wow. Those people sound so cool, those people who were just travelin’ around the world without any responsibilities and kids.” It also holds up. The advice is helpful to me and I’m the one who lived the advice three years ago.

Zibby: It was helpful to me too. It’s always good to go through a little refresher course. You get married and people give you some random advice here and there. It’s always so trite. This is such actionable advice. At the beginning, some of the things you picked up on, “Talk about things that make you feel uncomfortable and itchy and happy and sad and strange. And walk around naked, but don’t lie around in your sweatpants.” Then you said, “The key to it all is that a good marriage isn’t about shit always going right. It’s about the times when shit goes wrong, very wrong,” which I thought was really interesting and illuminating in some ways. You had a number of things go “wrong” during your first year. Do you think you learned more from the people you talked to about it, or from what you went through, or both?

Jo: I do think both. Our marriage comes out stronger every time the shit does go wrong. Sometimes it’s just the worst. The newborn phase for me was the worst, and for Nick. It was hard for Nick to adjust to being a dad. It was hard for me to adjust to being a mom. The lack of sleep made me a monster. I’m now coming out the other side of it. I’m like, “Oh, wow. I like you so much more now that we went through that. I know you so much better.” The advice was also good. I love what you said. So much advice that you get about marriage is trite and lame. People were really open and honest with me, which was nice. People also like to talk about their marriages, which is really interesting. You get someone going on marriage — I’ve learned that from doing the podcast, “Committed” — and they’ll talk to you for hours and hours. You’re never going home. You won’t get away from them.

Zibby: Tell me about your podcast. It’s amazing. I like to listen to it as I’m falling asleep. I’m totally in these relationships. It’s amazing. How did you get into that? Was it your idea to parlay the book into a podcast? How did it all come about? How do you like it?

Jo: I love it. Doing the podcast is the most fun that I’ve had in journalism in ten years. How Stuff Works actually approached me. They were like, “Hey. We love your book. Would you want to do a podcast?” I was like, “I think so.” I had no idea how to do a podcast. I love podcasts. Podcasts and the first season of The West Wing are what got me through breastfeeding and pumping the first three months that I had my son. I also knew that if I was going to do a podcast, I wanted it to be a really good podcast. There’s a lot of really shitty podcasts out there.

Zibby: Not like this one though.

Jo: No, not like this one.

Zibby: Present company excluded. Good. Go on.

Jo: Exactly. Both of the people having this conversation have excellent podcasts.

Zibby: There we go.

Jo: I knew that I wanted it to be really good. How Stuff Works agreed. They paired me up with this wonderful producer because I had no idea what I was doing. They built me a podcast studio in my storage unit in my basement, literally where we store our skis, and taught me how to make a podcast. It’s been awesome. We have told some incredible stories. This week’s episode was a guy who was about to propose to his girlfriend and then got in a basketball accident and was paralyzed from the shoulders down. We’ve gotten the most response from any episode from this week’s episode. People are hungry for real stories about real marriages. It’s nice. It’s great. I love the podcasting.

Zibby: I think sometimes people are more willing to open up about marriage to people they don’t know as well. With your friends in your circle, sometimes it’s harder. Do you find that? If somebody came and asked me random questions, I’d be more inclined to talk about it than with another mom at my kid’s school or something.

Jo: I do. Totally. It’s interesting because not for me. I’m so used to talking about my marriage that sometimes maybe I talk about it too much. I was at dinner with a bunch of other moms the other night. I started talking about something about Nick that he does that annoys me, the fact that he’s the trash police. If I throw anything out that he thinks is useable, he’ll take it out of the trash, so I only throw things away when he’s out of town. I threw out these slippers. He’s like, “What’s wrong with these slippers?” I’m like, “They’re dead slippers. They’re broken, dead slippers.” He’s like, “I can fix these.” I was like, “Oh, my god.” The other moms were kind of taken aback that I was slamming my husband to them. I thought about it. Wow, they’ve never opened up to me about anything in their marriages. Yeah, I agree. I think that it’s easier to talk to a stranger about your marriage than the people in your circle. You also want the people in your circle to think everything is great all the time with your marriage. I just happen to be a person who points out all of the things that are wrong with my marriage all the time, and the great things. It’s important to talk about both.

Zibby: I love your story, how you felt like you — what was the word you used — that you conjured up your husband, that you wished for him in so many ways. Then you just happened to meet him on some random beach in Aruba or something. I probably got that wrong.

Jo: I did. I conjured him. I’m a witch. I met him actually on a boat in the Galápagos Islands, which sounds totally fake. Sometimes I lie if I don’t feel like telling the story. I’m like, “We just met on Tinder.” We were both journalists travelling to the Galápagos — I was working for Yahoo!, Nick was working for his own website — and fell for each other on this boat. Then we got engaged three months later. It’s like a crazy romantic comedy.

Zibby: Maybe it will be. Is that in the works?

Jo: It is in the works. I’m talking to people about both a scripted and unscripted version of How to be Married. I never trust or believe that anything is going to happen in Hollywood. Charlotte Walsh is a little bit further along. We’ll see if How to be Married does indeed become a romantic comedy. I miss the old romantic comedies. I’m so excited that they’re starting to come back. I actually emailed my agent a couple days ago. I wrote this really bad first novel — I call it my practice novel because I was trying to see if I could write fiction — called Love Rehab. It’s really bad in an awesome way. It’s pure chick lit. It’s kind of trashy but also kind of feminist-y, edgy. Now that rom-com is back, I emailed my agent. I was like, “We should totally turn this into a movie.” She’s like, “All right. I guess we’ll try.”

Zibby: That’s awesome. You said in an article for Forbes that you think podcast clubs might replace book clubs all over in America and that you’ve started to see that happening. Tell me more about that.

Jo: I see the numbers for how many books we sell. I’m a good position. Thankfully, people are buying my books and reading my books. They’re such a small fraction compared to the downloads we get with the podcast. We were at a million downloads three months in for “Committed.” That’s where the audience is right now for storytelling. Podcasts are a lot easier to digest. You can do them while you’re doing other things. I am seeing a lot of podcast clubs replace book clubs. It’s kind of the same muscle too in terms of absorbing a story. I don’t think that book clubs are going anywhere. Hopefully books aren’t going anywhere because I have no other skills. I am seeing an uptick in the podcast club. I kind of love it. An episode of a podcast, they make you think the same way that books do. They’re a little bit more assessible, especially for busy moms, than sitting down and reading an entire book. I’m all for it, especially if people wanted to listen to “Committed” and then go talk about it.

Zibby: I’m sorry to jump around a little bit. You wrote an essay for Elle called “I took a solo vacation from my new baby, and it felt absolutely fucking wonderful.” I laughed out loud just even reading that. You left your three-month old son for two nights under the pretense of finishing the edits on your novel. Really, as you say in the article, “What I really needed were two nights of uninterrupted sleep to try to make my brain function the way it did before hormones and lack of sleep drove a truck through my prefrontal cortex.” Then you went on to say, “Parenting, I have come to learn, is mostly about being terrified of doing everything wrong all the time, googling manically, hating everything google tells you, and then winging it,” which I just loved. That’s so perfect.

Jo: It’s true. I stand by all those words that I wrote. I’ve since left him. I went to New Zealand for two weeks and flew my mom to San Francisco. Her and Nick took care of him. He’s fine. He ate some dirt, but he’s all good. I fully advocate for getting rid of your kid for a while. I think it’s really important.

Zibby: Do you think having independence to maintain your own identity has helped you as a mom? I know there’s all this controversy, not controversy, but heated difference of opinions when it comes to being a mom and how to be a mom and everything. By going away, do you feel like that set the stage for you and you knew how you wanted to do it?

Jo: Yeah. Everyone has an opinion about how you’re supposed to be a mom. I think you’re supposed to be a mom however works for you and whatever keeps the baby alive. It’s really important for me to still have my own life and my own passions outside of being a mom. We didn’t have any childcare for the first year because we lived in San Francisco, the land of no nannies. Nick and I traded him off for the whole first year. I was with him so much that I did need some breaks to remember what it was like to be me.

Zibby: I’m actually divorced and remarried. I get these every other weekends off. I feel like I come back a different person. It’s hard. It’s painful and it’s hard, but I do sleep and I do —

Jo: — Of course. You miss your kids. I fantasize about that sometimes. Not that I want to divorce my husband, but if Nick and I did get divorced, then I would get a break every other week. That could be kind of great. That happened to one of my girlfriends. Then the guy that she married was like, “I want to have a kid.” So she gets this break, but then there’s also a baby there. You really have to time that right.

Zibby: I already had four kids, so there are no more kids coming for me.

Jo: People actually don’t like it when I joke about divorcing Nick. I get so many nasty comments when I say those kinds of things. I’m just joking. I only think about it once a week. It’s not a big deal. Everyone thinks about divorcing their husband.

Zibby: I can’t tell you how many people have been like, “That sounds like a good arrangement. I might to think about leaving.” They’ll even say it in front of their husbands. “Maybe we should get divorced.” I’m like, “Are you kidding? You’re kidding? You’re not kidding?” There’s always a little truth.

Jo: Let’s see how that goes for you.

Zibby: You also wrote a lot about how you took a genetic test and found out that you are a carrier of the gene that your father ended up ultimately passing away from, muscular dystrophy. Obviously, when you’re a carrier, you can pass it on to your child. You wanted to have a baby and get pregnant at the time and had a whole debate over what to do. Ultimately, as you have a baby, you decided to go for it. You wrote about it so beautifully and openly and honestly like the rest of your work. I wanted to hear more about you and Violet in the office finding out your results and the whole scene when you tried to process it.

Jo: It was so hard. It was such a big moment. It’s interesting now that it’s three years later and I don’t think about it as much. I’ve shown no symptoms or signs of the disease so far. In fact, I’m going to the neurologist next week just to check in about it. My dad started to show symptoms in his forties. I’m thirty-eight. We also haven’t tested Charlie. We will at some point, but also probably not until the healthcare situation in this country is a little more ironed out. I don’t know how I feel about him having a preexisting condition on his record, a preexisting condition for something that may not even happen to him. He may never show symptoms of it. That makes me nervous. It was such a hard thing.

We wanted to know our options. How could I not pass this gene on? We talked about doing IVF. What we found out is that we wouldn’t be able to separate the embryos for this specific gene. We wouldn’t be able to test until twenty weeks. At that point, I personally didn’t want to terminate a pregnancy. We rolled the dice. We don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m okay with the not knowing. For me, knowing that I’m a carrier, I try to be as strong as I possibly can. I take care of myself a lot better than I used to before I knew. In that way, it’s kind of a blessing, the knowing.

Zibby: It’s a whole new world with this ability to predict for yourself, for your children. How much do you want to know? How much do you want to know about them? When should they pick? If we find out, if we take all the tests for them when they’re babies, what if they didn’t want to know? There’s so many too-big questions to ask on a Thursday.

Jo: Right. How would you change your life knowing, is the thing? How would they change their life knowing? It is nice to have some things that are unknowable. With everything we know about genes now, there’s still so much that we don’t know. There’s still genes that turn on or never turn on at all that cause a lot of these illnesses. You could be disrupting your life for no reason. If it taught me anything, it’s just live your life every day because right now’s good. I just can’t worry about the future.

Zibby: Plus, not to be morbid, you could get hit by a car tomorrow. I think about this. I’m going to waste all this time worrying about early Alzheimer’s. I always go back to this.

Jo: Exactly. I’ve decided at least for now, I’m just not going to worry about that. We’ll let Charlie make that decision. If he wants to be tested, he can, as long as we have a sane person in the oval office or if we live in Canada. I think about living in Canada a lot lately. I actually just found out that Canada allows for anchor babies. If you have a baby in Canada, you can then get Canadian citizenship. All right. Let’s just go deliver in Canada next time I get pregnant.

Zibby: Whistler, you could go skiing. There are great places in Canada.

Jo: There are some really nice places in Canada.

Zibby: I know we’re almost out of time. In terms of your writing process, when do you get all this stuff done? You write articles and books. You have a new, exciting, two-book deal that you just signed. When are you doing all this? What’s your process like?

Jo: For my novels, I make myself write between a thousand and four thousand words a day depending on how fast the book has to be done. Right now, I’m at the thousand-word mark for the new book that I’m doing with Christine Pride for HarperCollins. I make sure that I get that done before I do anything else because there’s only so many words that I have in me a day. After that, I’ll switch to the next most important thing which is whatever article I’m working on for a magazine or a newspaper. I just finished one today for The Wall Street Journal. Then after that I’ll do mindless crap, emails, stuff like that. I have to get the important work done first because I won’t be able to do them later. It’s interesting. I read for about an hour, sometimes two or three, before I go to bed. I write a lot then. My brain goes into a state where I start getting ideas. I write a lot of things longhand. Then the next morning, I’ll put them in the document.

Zibby: I hardly ever hear that anymore. Reading, yes, but writing longhand.

Jo: I get a lot of interesting inspiration when I’m writing longhand. There’s actual piles and piles of yellow legal pads by my bed while I’m writing.

Zibby: Have you read anything really great lately? Not to put you on the spot. What are you reading right now?

Jo: I finished Curtis Sittenfeld and Lauren Groff’s short story collection. I usually hate short stories collections. They usually feel like someone’s like, “Look at me and my MFA project,” but they were both spectacular. I loved both of them. If I want to just relax before bed, I actually read a thriller. I don’t write thrillers, so I can just enjoy them and I’m not thinking about, “How am I structuring my next novel?” I can let my brain relax a little bit. I just read Cross Her Heart, which was the Book of the Month pick. It was good. I was going to email Book of the Month. I think they should’ve had a warning that it includes child rape and the murder of a two-year-old baby when you selected that as your book club pick. Didn’t know, and kind of freaked me out when I started reading it.

Zibby: I get that. As a closing, do you have any advice to aspiring authors out there? Any failures you’ve overcome to achieve everything you have or just advice in general?

Jo: I do. I actually gave this to someone last night. People tell me every day that they want to write a book. A lot of powerful men in tech tell me they want to write a book. They’re always like, “Once I quit my big, powerful tech job, I’ll go to a cabin in the woods. That’s when I can really write my novel.” I wrote my last novel with a newborn attached to my boob sitting on the toilet most of the time. God bless you and your little cabin, man. The best advice that I give to anyone that says they want to write a novel is I want you to sit down every day and write a thousand words a day. If you can do that for a month straight, then you’ll be able to write a book. If you can’t do it for a month straight, you probably don’t want to be a writer. Writing is a habit. Writing is a muscle. You get good by doing more of it. That’s really my best advice. See if you can do it before you declare yourself a writer. I actually didn’t declare myself an author until last year, until I was seven books deep. Now, I’m finally comfortable saying I’m an author. Before that, I kind of felt like a fraud.

Zibby: Before I talked to you, I mistakenly skyped another Jo Piazza, who was not you. They’re like, “Who’s this?” I was like, “Is this the author Jo Piazza?” They’re like, “Oh, no. That’s someone else.” They knew you were an author. They knew who you were.

Jo: Great. I love that Jo Piazza.

Zibby: Thank you so much for taking the time to be on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and share all your experience. I really, really appreciate it.

Jo: Thanks for having me. This was so much fun.

Zibby: Thanks a lot. Take care. Bye.

Jo: Bye, Zibby.

Jo Piazza, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win

Jo Piazza, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win