Zibby Owens: Julie Clark is the author of The Last Fight, her latest book, and also, The Ones We Choose. She also writes weekly for The Debutante Ball. She currently lives in California.

Welcome, Julie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Julie Clark: Thanks for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: Could you please tell listeners what The Last Flight is about?

Julie: It is the story of two women who are desperate to escape their lives for very different reasons. They meet at an airport and decide to trade plane tickets thinking that that will give them a way to vanish once they land in their unknown location. When Claire, my main character, gets off the plane in Oakland, she sees that the plane that she was supposed to be on crashed. She is now in Oakland. She has this other women’s name, her identity, her purse, her keys. She realizes she has an opportunity to start over as somebody completely new. What she doesn’t know is what that other woman, Eva, was running from. She slowly starts to figure out that Eva was not honest with her in the airport in what she told her about what was going on. It’s a dual POV. It goes back and forth between Claire in the present time moving forward and Eva in the past. We see what leads up to that moment with Eva at the airport and what was going on with her.

Zibby: Wow. How can you not want to read it after that description? When I first heard it, I was like, you have to find out what happens. It’s edge of your seat. That’s awesome. It also has a lot of relationship drama. The beginning is a lot about what you do when you’re in a relationship that’s with an abusive, more powerful man and you feel kind of trapped. I feel like a lot of women can relate to feeling that trapped-ness, if you will.

Julie: Definitely. When I started writing the book, it was 2017. I had the idea for a long time. When I was finally ready to sit down and start writing it after my first book had launched, it was right at the beginning of the Me Too era. All of these women were starting to come forward with their stories. Watching Dr. Blasey Ford talk to congress about what her experiences were, watching these women in Hollywood come forward against mega-producers, it just felt like, to me, nobody was believing them or they were discounting them or they were blaming them and saying things like, “Well, you shouldn’t have been there. You should’ve been smarter.” I had a hard time with that. A lot of women I know had a hard time with that because we’re not always able to control the outcome of wherever we are. A lot of that time, 2017, 2018, even in 2019, a lot of that time was really immersed in the book and that feeling of powerlessness that you have when you don’t think anyone will believe you or you’re not sure.

Zibby: To be feeling that way and be in pain too, that’s a recipe for hopelessness.

Julie: I didn’t really want my characters to be hopeless. I also wanted to be really mindful that the stories that we tell about women these days, it’s really important what we put on the page. I didn’t want either of my characters to be broken in a way that was — they’re not crazy. They’re not unreliable. There’s a lot of unreliable female narrators. They’re super fun to read because who doesn’t like to watch a good train wreck? I am a teacher of children. I want girls to grow up and see strong women on the page. I wanted to make sure my characters both had agency. They both had a plan. Claire worked very hard on a plan to get out. She was really smart about it. She was really savvy about it. Even though it fell apart at the beginning, I don’t think that’s a spoiler to say things don’t go as planned for Claire, she still had a plan. I wanted to show characters who, when things don’t go their way, they pick up and make a new plan because that’s what most of us do. That’s what the women who I’m friends with do. When things don’t go our way, we say, okay, five minutes to feel sorry for yourself and then let’s make a new plan because we’ve got to keep moving forward.

Zibby: I read in your beautiful Instagram post about how you had gone through a period of time where you had to make a new plan. Do you want to talk more about that period of time in your life?

Julie: In 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was caught early, thankfully. It was something that I’d always been afraid of. My best friend had died in 2012 of breast cancer. I was always like, oh, my god, what if it happens to me? I’m a single mom. I have two boys. It was always something I was so scared of, and then it happened. It’s like, oh, my god, now what? You really do get right with the universe or god or whatever you believe in. You make yourself right with that very quickly. You learn that there are things you cannot control and that you can sit on the ground and scream and cry and say, why me? This isn’t fair. But why not me? Why should things be fair? It was really a powerful time in my life. I learned a lot about what it means to be afraid and still move forward. It was transformational for me personally. I’m very privileged in that I have a good job. I have good health insurance. I was able to take time off work and go on disability. It was such a privilege to be able to step out of my life in that way and just focus on myself and my kids and keeping everything as normal for them as I possibly could. I know not everybody has that privilege. I was very appreciative of being able to do that. I really focused on my mental health and my physical health and just slowed everything down. Literally, if you imagine life as rapids where everything’s happening so quickly and you can’t miss this and you can’t miss that, you’re just stepping out of the water and sitting down on the shore and just watching it all go by. There’s a definite power to being able to do that. I’m not always successful at that.

Zibby: It’s really wonderful the way you’ve taken that experience and shared it and are using it to help people.

Julie: I hope so.

Zibby: I don’t mean to in any way compare your personal struggle with breast cancer to the world pandemic now, but some of the things you were saying resonate with what people are saying now in that everybody is forced to do just what you’re saying, spend time with their kids, be at home. Sit at the edge of the water and watch the world go by.

Julie: I think it’s very comparable. It’s a very scary time. As you know, New York City is hit especially hard. I have friends there who are not feeling well. It’s scary. It’s very scary. Here in California, we’re hit hard, not nearly as hard yet as New York is. There is time to go for walks with my boys and watch them play with the dog. It is very reminiscent to me of that time, personally, to just stop doing everything and just think about — every time I started to feel really stressed or really worried, I would always get in the habit of stopping and saying, in this moment right now, right this moment, I’m okay. I’m okay. I don’t know what’s going to happen five minutes from now. I don’t know what’s going to happen five days from now, but right now, I’m okay. That really helped me a lot. It helps me now every time I start hyperventilating as I go on Twitter and I’m like, oh, my god, I can’t read this anymore. What are they doing? Deep breath. There are some grown-ups in charge, maybe not the grown-ups we’d like to be charge, but there are some people who are in charge. Just take a deep breath.

Zibby: I think this is one big exercise in mindfulness. This is the mindfulness community being like, ha, I got you all to try it.

Julie: I definitely think that’s true. I’m doing a lot more meditating than I have in a long time. It’s reminding me again of, wow, that really works.

Zibby: It’s so funny. I mean, not funny, it’s scary and awful, but it’s funny too. You have to find the humor. Otherwise, how do you get through?

Julie: You don’t. Then you make yourself sick, literally. Stress causes illness, I think. It weakens your immune system. Then you’re right where you need to be, or you don’t want to be, I should say.

Zibby: I read that. I knew that, obviously. I know that. When I was reading lists of how to prepare as this whole thing was going down a couple weeks ago, they were saying how stress, as just what you’re saying, is such an immune suppressant, really. I was like, I can’t afford any immune suppressants around my kids right now. I just cannot be stressed about this. I have to drink water and move my body and do all those things that I usually ignore. I have to do.

Julie: Luckily, you have lots of time to.

Zibby: Yeah. Yet still, some days go by and I’m like, huh, those twenty minutes of exercise, when was I going to fit that in?

Julie: I know. It’s 9:37. Time to meditate.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Going back to your book for a second, when you were writing this book, tell me what your process was like. I know it’s your second book. I’ve heard that writing a second book is way harder than writing the first book, this sophomore panic attack or something that happens to people. Did you find that, or not really?

Julie: No, because it was a totally different book from day one. My first book was definitely upmarket women’s fiction. It could be categorized as a family drama/suspense, sort of, but not really. You’d have to turn it sideways and squint with one eye, and then maybe, but sure, let’s say that. This one is just totally not that. It’s domestic suspense. I had to figure out how to write that. That was new. My process, I’m noticing with the second book and now as I’m working on the third book, it’s different every time. With The Last Flight, I wrote the first draft in probably three or four months. I knew exactly what I wanted to have happen. I knew exactly where I wanted it to go. I knew exactly how it was going to end or how I wanted it to end. I just needed to get everybody from A to B to C to D to the end. Then I would go back and refine it. I thought, that’s how I work. That’s how I work. I read an interview Celeste Ng did about her sister who’s an engineer. The engineer moto is first you make it work and then you make it elegant. I was like, that’s what I do. I’m a, first you make it work and then you go back and you really refine it. You make it elegant. You get all the language and character and backstory and emotion on the page after you’ve blocked out the scenes. Then you know what? Guess what? With book three, I’m not working like that. It’s different every time.

Zibby: It’s kind of like building a house. Not to bring up more clichés, but it’s true. You can’t decorate at the beginning. First, you have to figure out where the walls go.

Julie: Right, and the plumbing and all of the stuff that you don’t really want anybody to see, which are the story beats and the turning points. You don’t want anybody noticing those. You just want them experiencing them. It’s a little bit like that.

Zibby: Did you actively learn how to write this type of book, a domestic suspense book? Did you read an article or take a class? I know you’re a teacher yourself, but it’s a unique genre. It has some formulaic elements to it to create drama.

Julie: It does. I’ve talked to a lot of friends who write exclusively in this genre and had a lot of help and a lot of critique partners who are very experienced in this category to give me tips. My agent was great too. I worked with an outside editor who’s also very good. I had a lot of outside help to teach me how these things are supposed to go. A lot of it is just done by instinct, by reading a lot in the genre. I was heavily influenced by Tana French and heavily influenced by Megan Miranda. Sally Hepworth is another one, Lisa Jewell. I just literally immersed myself in these authors and these stories and studied it to see, how do they pace it? Even down to, I noticed that there’s five-page chapters. Interesting. Okay. I didn’t do that. I can’t. I don’t think I can write chapters that small. There’s definitely scenes that they do, moves that they make. As a teacher of writing, I’m already thinking through that lens because all of what I do when I teach writing with students is, we study exemplars. We study books. We do author studies. I’m already really used to looking at books like that. It’s easy for me to see those author moves that are maybe not so explicit to straight-up readers.

Zibby: What grade do you teach?

Julie: Fifth grade.

Zibby: Fifth-grade English, wow.

Julie: Fifth grade everything.

Zibby: Fifth grade everything? Oh, my gosh.

Julie: Yeah, everything.

Zibby: I have two sixth graders right now.

Julie: Oh, my. Twins.

Zibby: Do you feel this extra layer of pressure teaching what you’re trying to do?

Julie: No, because I keep my teaching and my writing life very separate. I never want anybody in my school community to feel like I’m not bringing a hundred percent to my teaching day. As a parent myself, I want to make sure my kids are — their teachers are showing up every day with a hundred percent of their attention on the kids and the teaching. Every now and then I’ll bring in a revised page or a chapter. I’ll say, “This is number twelve.” It’s covered with marks. When I say, “It’s time to revise your writing,” they read it through once, change a word, turn it in. It’s like, that’s not really what I meant. I do use things like that, but mostly I don’t. Since I don’t write for kids, I try to keep them separate.

Zibby: What’s your new book about?

Julie: My new book is about a struggling author who is the daughter of famous literary icon who only ever wrote one book, much beloved in the literary community, and deceased, unfortunately. She’s guarding a secret about him that would absolutely shatter everything everybody believes to be true about him. On the eve of her memoir about him that’s being released alongside the fiftieth edition of his iconic book, an anonymous blog post comes up that basically says that everything the world believes about Frederick Solomon is wrong. Over the next eight weeks, it’s going to dismantle all of the lies. My main character, Trixie, is trying to figure out who this is. How do they know? What do they know? Everything that she believed to be true is also not true.

Zibby: Wow. How are you coming up with these great ideas? They just occur to you like a dream, or what?

Julie: No. I wish I dreamed my ideas. They kind of just occur to me. Just when I start to panic about, oh, my god, what am I going to write next? an idea comes up. I think, oh, okay, there it is. Usually, I need about a year to just let it sit in the back of my head. I think about it on my walks. I talk about it with some writing friends and a little bit with my agent and let it percolate. It’s one at a time. I don’t have a notebook full of ideas. I don’t have lists or notecards or anything. It really is literally one idea at a time. If I don’t know what it is yet, I know it will come. I just don’t know yet, but it’ll be there when I need it.

Zibby: That’s a lot of confidence in the universe. I like it.

Julie: I do have a lot of confidence in the universe.

Zibby: I know. It’s really great. It’s refreshing. It’s awesome. You might as well. Why go a different way, right?

Julie: Yeah. I’m a big believer, the universe will always give you what you need the moment you need it and not a minute sooner, so chill.

Zibby: I feel like I’m going to have to come to you for my fill of Zen-dom. I can’t even speak. Oh, my goodness. I just wanted to read a quote or two from the book. You wrote, “It’s a complicated grief, not just the loss of my name and identity, but also the life I once hoped I’d have. The death of any dream deserves to be mourned, all its intricate facets touched one last time.” Do you feel like you have personally had dreams you’ve had to let go of? Do you just feel like this is something the character would undoubtedly be feeling?

Julie: I think that, definitely, everybody has dreams that they thought would happen and don’t happen the way they want them to. I think that there is a fine line between wallowing in that and honoring it, like what Claire is doing there, and saying I accept that these are mistakes that I made, I accept that I’m going to lose something as a result of those mistakes, and to just give it one last squeeze and then let it go. It’s easier said than done, though. I think we all have regrets.

Zibby: It’s always nice to know that all the bad stuff in our lives can actually be used to become great books. I had coffee with a friend the other day. She’s like, “I don’t think I could ever write anything because nothing that bad has ever happened to me. I feel guilty, but my life has been pretty easy. That’s why I can’t think of anything to write about.”

Julie: For me, it’s my imagination that causes problems but also gives me really good writing ideas. I’ve always been a rather fearful person. When I was little, I was always afraid of being kidnapped. I was always on the lookout for, who’s that person? What’s going on with that panel van? that kind of thing. As a mom, I’m also very paranoid. Now it’s not so much what’s going on with that panel van, but it’s like, boys, do not walk next to a panel van. Here’s why. I also think that it helps me imagine all of these what-if scenarios. With Claire, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of, could somebody really disappear from their life, like literally vanish without a trace without any federal help from witness protection or something? Could you really do it? I have a friend who used to work for the FBI. I called him up. I’m like, “How would somebody get a good passport, a good ID so that it’s not questioned?” He said, “The Russian mafia’s the way to go. They’re the only game in town.” You just go from there. I have a character who, for whatever reason, wants to leave her life. Why would she want to leave her life? For a while I thought, maybe she’s a bookie. Maybe she is tired of the life, tired of the game. Then you go down a lot of dead ends of, well, then I’m going to have to find a bookie and talk to a bookie. Then I’m like, back up.

Zibby: I’d rather talk to a privileged New Yorker or something like that who could relate.

Julie: I think so, yeah.

Zibby: That’s a much more pleasant conversation. No, I’m kidding. No offense to any bookies listening.

Julie: Definitely don’t want to offend the bookies.

Zibby: One more quote I wanted to ask you about. The tagline that you came up with for the book, or that it’s in all the advertising, it’s not really a quote, it says, “With your back against the wall, would you be brave enough to take the chance you’re given?” I was wondering, did this come from the things that have happened to you? Did this come from getting through breast cancer? Were you born with this skill? Or does it not relate to you at all?

Julie: The skill to take the chance I’m given?

Zibby: Yeah.

Julie: Oh, no. I’m a total chicken. If somebody approached me in the airport and wanted to trade tickets, I don’t care what song and dance she was telling me, there is no way I would be trading tickets with her. If I was running from what Claire was running from, maybe I would, but I don’t know. I don’t know that I would be brave enough. That’s why I write the characters that I write because I like to write people who will do things that I can’t or won’t do. That’s the fun part of reading, is going along for a ride that we would never in a million years take ourselves. No way. That’s what great fiction does. No, I’m not brave. There’s no way. I would probably let that chance pass me by. I’d be too scared, I think. I don’t know.

Zibby: Me too, by the way. I would be waiting at my gate a half an hour early, ticket in hand. No one’s allowed to go to the bathroom for thirty minutes before we board.

Julie: That would be me too, actually.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Julie: Just keep doing it. Keep writing every day. Write every day. I write in the morning, very, very, very early in the morning, for two hours before my kids get up before I have to get ready to go to work because I’m useless after work. There’s no way that I can write after teaching a full day and making dinner and getting homework done with kids and making sure everybody’s where they need to be. Then sit down to write? There’s no way. I get up very, very early in the morning. I can tell you that in two hours a day you can write an entire book in a few months. It’s possible to do. Do that. Find a writing community. Find critique partners. There are tons of places online that you can go for support, for classes, for conferences. Even in a pandemic, you can do that. Make some writing friends. Read a lot of books. You don’t need to have an MFA to write a book, get an agent, sell a book. You just don’t. If you want to, do. That’s great, but you don’t have to. Just write every day. It’s kind of predictable. It’s predictable advice. Everybody says that.

Zibby: No, everybody has a unique point of view. What you just said a minute ago, I was thinking to myself, oh, I need to write that down, how we read for something that we would never do ourselves. See, I already can’t remember it, but it was really great. I’ll rewind it. Something that you would never do, you write because you can’t or won’t do whatever emotion is required. That’s really interesting.

Julie: Definitely.

Zibby: I want to do a psychological study. I’ve interviewed so many authors at this point. I was a psych major. I feel like I want to do the correlation between different, maybe, anxiety disorders and authors. There is such a high correlation. I feel like this is why I have found my people because I understand what everybody’s saying suddenly as opposed to consultants.

Julie: We’re all pretty neurotic and anxious. It’s generally true.

Zibby: It’s great. I love it.

Julie: Lots of fodder here.

Zibby: Anyway, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Julie: Thank you so much for having me. It was a blast.