Zibby Owens: I’m here today with author Julie Valerie who is the debut novelist of Holly Banks Full of Angst. She currently lives in Virginia with her college sweetheart husband and their four children. By the way, we’re being filmed today by Sandy Kenyon of ABC News. Hopefully you’ll see a clip of us in the feature that he does about “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” soon.

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

Julie Valerie: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: Debut novelist, this is very exciting.

Julie: It’s so exciting, yes. It’s a very exciting time.

Zibby: Can you tell listeners, please, what Holly Banks Full of Angst is about?

Julie: Holly Banks Full of Angst is a laugh-out-loud debut novel that was written for anyone who is trying to live the perfect life and learning the hard way there’s no such thing. It features Holly Banks as the main character. She is a less-than-perfect mom searching for mostly happy in a pretty good life.

Zibby: I love the scene where she drives to school in her pajamas and it ended up as front-page news in her community. That is perfect. The idea that I would have to be on the news for doing something like that is so terrifying. How did you come up with this idea? Is this reflective of your own community at all?

Julie: It’s tricky. I wouldn’t say that anybody in particular in the novel is based on a specific person within my life. Everybody that my children go to school with are lovely and wonderful. Everybody wants to know, “Who’s Mary-Margaret? Are you Holly? Is Jack your husband?” No, I would say that while specific moments or aspects of things and people and places and experiences I’ve had have inspired the novel, it is completely a work of fiction, for sure.

Zibby: You have four kids. Your daughters are in college. How did you end up writing a book right now? Why this book?

Julie: I’ve always wanted to be a writer since I was young. I’d fill up spiral notebooks writing my own books. I can’t believe I’m actually coming out with this. I remember being in fourth or fifth grade. The teacher would assign a book report. I was probably cheating. Maybe this is early seeds of being a writer. I would completely make up the book. I’d make up the title. We’d have to draw a picture of the cover. I’d make up the characters, exactly what happened. Somehow, I always sailed through those assignments. I would get a hundred and everything else.

Zibby: Your teachers didn’t figure out the books did not exist?

Julie: They did not figure it out. I was in the third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade pulling this off. I say to myself I was either lying, yes, of course; cheating, perhaps, yes, definitely; or creating my first fictions. It was my favorite assignment of all because I could create a book. I’d almost recommend to any teachers who may be listening to give their students that option because it would allow some of the writers within the room to create their first book through the book report.

Zibby: Okay, but if my kids are listening, do not create fictious book reports unless that’s the assignment, please. Thank you.

Julie: I know. That is for sure. Fast forward to college. Probably the inciting incident for me that was the moment that I said, “I need in. I need to find out what this is. What is writing fiction? How do I do it?” was a weekend during a college. I was at a friend’s house. I was reading Winnie-the-Pooh, the classic book written by AA Milne, not the Disney version of it. I could not believe how real that fictional reality was. I had long ago given up the belief that my stuffed animals were real, that they were talking and walking. That had left me in childhood.

Zibby: That’s good.

Julie: Yeah, that’s good. That’s very true. Through the pages of this book, Winnie-the-Pooh, a bear of very little brain, and Piglet with all of his anxieties, and Eeyore always losing his tail, they became absolutely real to me. I couldn’t believe that I was reconnecting with a part of my childhood that believed my own stuffed animals were real. Here I was in college, and it was happening all over again. I cried when Christopher Robin left the hundred-acre wood. I needed to know how that happened. What alchemy was in place? I picked up the book, and I remember zeroing in on it and getting really, really close to the ink on paper. I remember thinking, this is black ink on white paper. This is twenty-six letters and a set of punctuation marks. Yet I have been completely and utterly transported into a time and place and into an absolute belief. All of these characters are real. They’re all living and operating in their world. I am now a part of it. We’re together. I thought, what is this? I want in.

Zibby: I love that, by the way. That’s amazing. That’s the best description, that alchemy. Go on. That was amazing.

Julie: Thank you very much. It changed my life. The reading of that book changed my life. I stood up from that book and that chair. I said, I need to figure this out. I got way obsessive on studying everything I could about the craft, reading every book available, in all my free time going to writers’ conferences, going to writing classes trying to figure out how it was done. I started a manuscript that I maybe three months ago officially pulled out of storage and burned in a beautiful way. It was the first manuscript. I call it my MFA. It was the manuscript that has nothing to do with Holly Banks or the Village of Primm. It was the manuscript that I learned my craft. It’s where I made my mistakes. It’s where I tried things and explored and made horrible mistakes. It’s a terrible book. It’s the type of manuscript that you hope, oh, gosh, I hope nothing happens to me. They come upon it, and they’re going to wonder, “What is this? This is terrible.”

My husband used to tell me when I would get frustrated with that manuscript, he would say, “Don’t write that. That’s not you. You should write what you’re writing in your emails.” I had a number of emails about mom life that were funny. They were kind of going viral in our social group. He was like, “You need to tap into that. That’s what resonates with you. You’re a funny writer.” I was trying to write a serious novel, but I think I’m more for humorous novels. He said, “Write what you write in your emails.” Then I remember thinking, that is the craziest thing, looking at email and saying, how do I take an email and build that into a whole storyline? There was a kernel of something in there. I think it was a kernel of truth, the truth that I was living and my friends were living in motherhood that needed exploring. Then I set the other manuscript aside after many, many years and started with my twenty-six letters and set of punctuation marks, black ink on white paper. I started letter by letter, word by word building out the story that eventually became the first book in the Village of Primm series, Holly Banks Full of Angst.

Zibby: There are more books?

Julie: There are more books. It’s all in my head. There’s a whole village. There’s multiple storylines. I have lots of books developed. Some of them are more fleshed out than others. I see other women within the village having other storylines. I’d really love to, especially in book two, the aftermath of book one, start to explore the relationships and women and who they are and what their stories are.

Zibby: I love that. Are they all going to rhyme?

Julie: I don’t think so, no. In fact, there is a title for book number two. It is The Peculiar Fate of Holly Banks. Holly Banks carries the title in book one and book two. I’m not sure about what’s going to happen yet for book three. Her name is in the title, but no, they are not rhyming.

Zibby: I don’t know. Holly Banks, I’m going to start thinking about titles for you, not that you asked. I’m going to anyway. This fictious village of Primm, you have a whole community. You have worlds going on in your head. You’ve written this book, all of your letters. Then what happened? How did you get it to be on the bookshelves?

Julie: Very good question. Strange enough, the first writing of Holly Banks Full of Angst was written in second-person point of view with Mary-Margaret as the only person speaking because she is a very difficult character to write and to get correct. I use her for satire. I use her to expose truths. I use her to look at, exploit, examine, explore things that we do to each other as women. I use her for humor. There’s a lot of things happening with Mary-Margaret. She came from a question I had in my mind of, is she in my head? Do we all have a little bit of Mary-Margaret in our minds? We are trying to do our best, give our children the perfect live, be the best mom ever. It’s that voice inside of our head that we need to silence. Holly struggles with the voice of Mary-Margaret. Holly struggles with finding her own voice in the face of Mary-Margaret. I see Mary-Margaret and Holly as aspects of the mom personality or persona a little bit. I know that I definitely relate to Holly Banks. I am as flawed as Holly and then some.

There’s a little bit of Mary-Margaret in all of us, at least the pursuit of perfection and wanting to do our best, but also beating ourselves up when we don’t achieve what we set out to achieve. She was the voice inside my head that I needed to hear. I wrote her in second-person point of view. It was only Mary-Margaret. There was no other character. I was imagining myself as the reader as the other character. When she would speak to me, I would just put a couple of dash marks to hold the spot of how I would’ve responded to her. I wrote an entire first draft just with Mary-Margaret talking so I could hear what Mary-Margaret wanted to say. Then I went in and rewrote the whole thing in first person, present tense, this time adding Holly so that I could understand who Holly was. I became Holly and the I point of view, “I did this. I did that,” as Holly so that I could get Holly’s voice correct and mix her with Mary-Margaret. Then I eventually changed the first-person, present-tense manuscript into third person, past tense.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You’ve written this book like fifty times.

Julie: Yes, I’ve written and rewritten and rewritten it and hopefully honed the craft and captured the essence of two very different women who have to interact with each other. I needed to hear the voices inside me. I needed to hear the parts of me that are Holly and the parts of me that are Mary-Margaret. I needed to explore motherhood and what it means to be a woman and how we Holly ourselves, or how we Mary-Margaret ourselves, or Mary-Margaret others. I needed to explore those two women. I ended up writing this book multiple times and in every single point of view that there is. I even managed to go from present tense to past tense. It was crazy nuts.

Zibby: How do you, Julie, not as Holly or anybody else, how do you deal with the constant pressure for perfection as a mom? I’m sure everybody has a Mary-Margaret in their lives who makes them feel terrible. What do you do?

Julie: I can’t say that I have figured it out. In the writing of this book and watching Holly’s journey, I have come to realize that we have some sensitive points. Holly’s at a threshold. She has just moved to the village. She is a fish out of water. She is an underdog. She has moved to a place that there are established hierarchies and rules and established families and people operating. She has no idea where she is. She’s feeling completely lost. She is at a milestone in her daughter’s life. It’s the first week of kindergarten for Ella. Holly is also facing letting her child go into this unknown world. She’s really not even equipped to guide Ella in this world because she is new as well. I remember when my first child left me and went to school. Left me? Went to school. I remember feeling the dividing line that something had changed. Since she was born, she had been mine. We did our day together. I was kind of in control of the whole world. Then I let her go into the world. She hops on public transportation in the form of a bright-yellow school bus. Off she goes into the school world where she’s gone for the day. I don’t know where she is, what she’s doing. Is she okay?

The scene where Ella’s getting out of the car is really important. Sometimes that’s extremely scary for a lot of children. They’re leaving the safety of their mother. There’s a lot of threshold. I know for myself right now as a debut novelist, I’m at a threshold personally. In two weeks, that’s my official pub date on my very first book. I feel like I’m putting Holly Banks Full of Angst onto a yellow school bus and sending her out into the world. I know that I’m at a time where I’m more sensitive, a lot like Holly, because I’m at that threshold. There is a milestone. I feel unsteady. It’s uncertain waters. Will the world be kind to Holly? Will the world be kind to me? How do I navigate this? When I feel nervous, I think to myself, what did you tell Holly when you were writing the book? This is a book that at its core is about self-acceptance. This is a book that at its core says, you might consider giving up on the pursuit of perfection. It’s not possible. It’s not realistic. Quiet the voices inside your head. You are good enough. Do your best. Love your family fiercely. You will be okay.

Zibby: Thank you. I thought you were talking to me. Are you talking to me?

Julie: Yes, it’s true. Good, I’m glad. I was hoping Holly would be relatable. She’s flawed. She really takes a lot of punches in this first week, as we all do in life. That’s what life does. She tries really hard, as I think most women do. It’s a high-stakes game, motherhood. We love our children fiercely. It’s incredibly important. It’s also an incredible task to take a very young person and then somehow mold them and shape them into a great person and see them into adulthood. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to wish we could do things over. We’re going to hope for forgiveness, the kind of forgiveness Holly has to give her mother Greta.

Zibby: Who is a great character too, by the way. I loved every time she came in. I felt like I was watching a sitcom. The door would open. In would walk Greta. I’m like, oh good, another scene with Greta.

Julie: I’m glad you said that. Thank you so much.

Zibby: She’s great.

Julie: Holly’s a film school mom. She’s graduated from film school. It was important to me to try to capture a feeling of being on camera, a feeling of movies, a feeling of you’re seeing this picture played out on the big screen because that is authentic to the main character.

Zibby: I was wondering when I read it, do you have a film school background? Do you want to do screenplays? You even have some of the dialogue formatted as a screenplay mixed in with the novel, which was really cool.

Julie: I get asked that a lot. I would say no.

Zibby: I hate asking questions that people get asked a lot. I’m sorry. I’ll come up with a better one.

Julie: It’s been a lovely question. When they’re saying, perhaps, is it rings true to them that Holly as a main character had gone to film school and that they enjoyed the pieces of the novel that slips into screenwriting. The novel isn’t told sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. There is text messages. There is emails from an online sidekick. There is scriptwriting. There’s a recipe spelled backwards. There’s a lot of different devices used to tell the story. No, I did not go to film school. I will say that I do read screenplays. I love the craft of storytelling. I will study commercials and try to figure out how a five-second, thirty-second commercial is told through storytelling. I love watching other mediums. I’m practicing in the world of fiction and literature. I also love watching movies. I love reading the screenplays. It’s a great place to study dialogue, to study pacing, to study story structure. I learn a great deal from the work of others. I do study it deeply.

Zibby: Do you believe that writing amazing fiction is something that can be learned? It’s something that can be taught and learned, or that people just have that special alchemy that you referred to, to make words into sensational stories? Do you believe it’s something that can be taught?

Julie: I definitely believe it can be taught. If you have the passion inside you and the burning desire, you might be able to strike some more chords with your reader, some universal truths, and some authenticity. Certainly, the passion helps. You need the passion to sustain yourself because it takes a long time to write a novel. There’s a reason why many first novels take many, many, many years. You have writers like myself who have gone deep and try to learn everything there is about the craft and then still had to write their first book, which technically is their second book because the first book was just burned in a bonfire, but they had to write this first book in first-person, second-person, and third-person point of view. There’s that learning curve that always comes. The passion sustains you. It can absolutely be taught. Most of the learning comes in the actual writing. I would say to any writer, if you have questions or problems in your story or in your writing, the answer usually reveals itself during the process of writing. Writers write. Get in. With the words, you will find the answers.

Zibby: Wow. How did you find a publisher for this?

Julie: I ended up with a publisher that was my first-choice publisher. I had all fingers and toes crossed when the submission went in. It came out good for me. I’m very, very thrilled. I’m extremely thrilled with the editor that I’m working with. She is phenomenal. I love my agent. I feel solid in the team that I have around me. That’s been fantastic. Debut novelist, I had no idea what was happening in the last year. Going through the different revisions, developmental edits, copy edits, the cover coming together, the prepublication promotions, this whole experience of this last year is the first time I’m experiencing any of this. It’s a stepping out. I wrote this book in the middle of the night between ten o’clock at night and four o’clock in the morning. I would write it on the sidelines of baseball games, softball games, when my kids were doing activities. If I was in carpool line, I would grab a few minutes. A lot of this was written in the wee hours of the night in my pajamas and very, very private moments. All of a sudden, I’m now experiencing a very public experience around something that I did in a private space. Most of my friends don’t even know I’m a writer. My closest friends know. In my school, I think most of the moms have no idea. They might find out soon.

Zibby: What is your biggest fear? This book is about to come out in the world. What keeps you up at night?

Julie: Where do I begin? It all does. I wrote this book not for a wide audience, not for the marketplace, not for a large audience. I wrote this book with one person in mind. Whenever I talk about it, it makes me cry. She was my inspiration. She was who I was speaking to. She was why I gave up sleep. She was why I played with syntax and looked at all my words and slid them into different places and tried to figure out if I take this word and give it a different function in the sentence, will she like it more? That person, that woman, is somebody I feel as if I’ll never meet. She is the woman who has had a really bad day. She is a woman who needs a hug. She is a woman who needs to know — this is why I always want to cry. She needs to know that she is loved. She is great. She’s doing her best. That’s all anybody can ask of her. When I was writing the book, I wrote only to her, laser-focused on her. I thought to myself over the last months, definitely in the last year, I wonder if I’ll know when I meet her, thinking that she was a singular person.

I’ve come to realize, especially in the Instagram community of bookstagrammers who have been incredible and lovely to me — they are like guardians and guides and sweet, sweet souls that I want to have a big slumber party with that have walked with me on this journey. I’m starting to realize that that woman I was speaking to, she pops up in different places. There was a review that was written that really touched me. I thought, there’s the seed of that woman I was writing for. There’s a bookstagrammer that brought my book and introduced my book to Belle down in Disney. I thought, there’s the seed of that woman that I was writing for. I’m starting to realize that while I wrote for one woman and I will always write for that one woman, she will appear to me in small pieces throughout my life and throughout this journey. I love finding her. I love connecting with her. It’s what feeds my soul and what inspires my every word.

Zibby: There are a lot of those women out there. On any given day, I could be one. You can be one. Everybody has rough days. You’re speaking, and I love that, speaking to that one person, but she represents all moms, everybody.

Julie: All of us. That’s the universal truth of motherhood. It’s a very difficult job. Again, it goes back to the high stakes. We desperately love our children. We desperately want to do a great job. Then we have to perform at that very high level day in and day out, every single minute, for years and years and years. God forbid we make a mistake or we’re tired or we snap at our kids or we forget to tuck something in the backpack. We sometimes think this is going to be catastrophic. We just all need to catch our breath. We need to be better resources for each other. We need to tap our inner Holly Banks, our inner spirit animal, our sense of forgiveness and self-acceptance. We need to be kind to each other and support each other.

Zibby: Maybe it could be Holly Banks Devoid of Angst.

Julie: Yes, Holly Banks with No Angst.

Zibby: Angst-Free Holly Banks.

Julie: Exactly, that would be lovely. Wouldn’t that be nice? That would be great.

Zibby: Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors? I know you’ve already put a lot in there that I will certainly not forget.

Julie: Thank you. This is going to sound very strange. I would say beware of when you are thinking about the oak tree because that’s not your job. Don’t think of the oak tree. You have to focus on the acorn. The oak tree will overwhelm you. If you are an aspiring writer, as I am and will continue to be for the rest of my life, I would lose myself in bookstores. I would be surrounded by oak trees. I would be surrounded by finished trees that have been written and rewritten and have gone through a team and has been published and brought to market. Don’t judge yourself against finished product. Don’t judge your acorn against the oak tree. Also, the oak tree can be very overwhelming. Oak trees happen and they begin by the acorns. It’s easier to control the acorn. It’s smaller. You can hold it in your hand. You can carry it in your pocket. You can pull it out. You can, acorn by acorn, letter by letter, twenty-six letters, a collection of punctuation marks, one word after the other, focus on the acorn. Watch your thinking and your emotions. When the oak tree arrives and it starts to overwhelm you, you need to pull back and catch your breath and say, my job is this acorn. This acorn is all I am responsible for at this moment, this word, this thought, this one reader, this one acorn, this one woman I’m speaking to. You really need to pull it down into that simple, simple level. Otherwise at least for me, I can be swallowed up by the oak tree.

Zibby: That was beautiful. You can tell you’re a writer.

Julie: It comes from the heart.

Zibby: I can tell. That’s also amazing. Thank you, Julie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for sharing not only your craft knowledge and the process, but all of this really energizing and from-the-heart mom advice.

Julie: Thank you. The work that you do, Zibby, is so important. I love, love, love your podcast. I love listening to the conversations with the authors. You really bring something very special to what you do. Your acorn is beautiful. Please continue.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s so sweet.