“People will ask: ‘But you love your kids, right?’ Of course, I love my kids— that’s not the issue. We don’t have to always say that when we are talking about how hard it is to be a mother.” Karin Tanabe joins Zibby to talk about her sixth novel, A Woman of Intelligence, and how it portrays motherhood in the 1950s. The two discuss some of the shocking historical events that were featured in the story, the influence Karin had on the cover art, and how writing, like all art, requires time and practice.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Karin. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss A Woman of Intelligence.

Karin Tanabe: Thank you for having me. I’m excited.

Zibby: I really loved this book but also loved this outfit, by the way, on the cover.

Karin: Thank you. You know, I’m going to admit, the art department at St. Martin’s almost killed me because I made them change the bag four times. I was like, not the right bag. Still not the right bag. It was perfect. Honestly, the cover looked just like this. We changed nothing except the bag.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love it. I love the wallpaper or that pattern. I feel like I should’ve been born at this time. I like these clothes more. I think I would’ve done well then.

Karin: Yeah, the clothes are unbelievable. Though, I have to say, the maintenance to look that good all the time seems exhausting.

Zibby: That’s true, but there was less to do. You didn’t have to do emails.

Karin: I know. Email is the reason we don’t do our hair every day. That’s the reason.

Zibby: Pretty much. If it weren’t for email, I would look like this right now.

Karin: I would look exactly like this right now.

Zibby: Your book, do you want to tell listeners what it’s about? I kind of hate asking authors this question, but I do think people want to know. I could just summarize it. Either way.

Karin: No, I’m happy to summarize it. Basically, I like to call it a book about a woman who really loses her way through motherhood in the 1950s, who had a sparkling career as a translator at the UN, and then kind of gets locked in this domestic cage, as happened so much in the fifties. She hits rock bottom. She really is in the throes of what we now call postpartum depression. There’s really nowhere to go but up or very down. She’s had a moment and she’s like, I need to do something with my life. I’m in a very bad place. Right at that time, she’s approached by the FBI to spy on a former lover from her college days who is now pretty high up in Soviet intelligence. She decides to do it, starts lying to her husband, starts spending less time with her children. It really gives her a new lease on life, a new identity. She really finds herself again in that role and having a purpose outside of the house. I hope it resonates not just with mothers, but anyone who’s wanted to redefine themselves in their lives, who looked in the mirror and have said, this isn’t the person I want to be. What can I do to get there?

Zibby: I love it. All the feelings about motherhood could be today. This could be on a blog, my friends at coffee. They transcend time, some of these feelings, especially the way that they are not so openly discussed. Midway through the book when she’s talking to her mother-in-law about what it’s really like — why do people not talk about it? Why is it so hard to have kids, and so soul-sucking at times? Now I feel like it’s a lot more socially appropriate to wallow and admit it. Although, not a hundred percent. You could joke about it. Then I feel like she didn’t have an outlet. Here’s this super smart woman, knows like a thousand languages, and has all this ambition and talent and beauty and drive. Her gorgeous husband on Fifth Avenue just wants her to hang around the house and take care of the kids.

Karin: That was the case for so many women in the fifties. All these highly intelligent, educated women got their degrees or were very smart on their own and then were locked in their houses. I think the hardest thing for me looking back on that time is you were supposed to be fulfilled. You had to be fulfilled. If you weren’t fulfilled by that role, something was wrong with you. I can’t imagine having been in that position. What you said today, I think there’s a lot more room to talk about how, for some women, being a mother isn’t totally fulfilling. It can be very, very hard. I still think there is this stigma around talking about it. Every time I’ve talked about it, people will be like, but you love your kids, right? I’m like, of course, I love my kids, but that’s not the issue. We don’t have to always go in, “*I love my kids,” when we are talking about how hard it is.

Zibby: It’s sort of funny. If you said to people in all these different jobs, okay, and now I’d like you to put aside this job and you are going to become a full-time, live-in nanny, they’d be like, I’m not sure I have the skill set for that. I don’t know, I’m not always that patient. Hmm, I might really miss whatever. That’s not the job I picked. Yet that’s essentially — I know they’re your own kids, but the skill set involved, the skills you need and the actions you take when you’re at home with your kids, which I was for many years, all of a sudden, you’re like, what about all those other things too? Where do they go? Where does it all go? Sometimes I look at what I’m doing now, even, and I’m like, but I wasn’t doing anything at all. I was on the floor every day with the kids. Where does all that extra energy go? I’m not surprised that — what’s her nickname? — Rina gets depressed. It’s like you’re an injured athlete. You’re an athlete who can’t do their thing.

Karin: You’re an injured athlete, and you’re supposed to be fine with it. I think that’s the main issue. It’s like, oh, you’re benched from the thing you spent all this time and energy learning how to do, but don’t you love it? She has a friend who just adores motherhood. She’s like, isn’t this just the greatest thing that ever happened to you? Rina’s like — she doesn’t say it at the time because you couldn’t say it, but she’s like, it’s really truly not the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.

Zibby: There are different parts of you that get fulfilled. The love you feel for your kids, that will fill my heart forever, and my soul and whatever, but it’s not necessarily going to fill my mind every minute. It should be okay to dissect those two. Yes, this is amazing and full of love and has changed me forever, but it’s not ticking that box. Something is still empty that can’t get filled. It’s like having two gas tanks in two different cars.

Karin: Totally. I think sometimes when you love your kids so much, which is wonderful, you don’t pay attention to loving yourself. I certainly did. You wake up one day. You look in the mirror. You’re like, what happened to me? Where did my own self-love go? Where did the person who I was before kids go? That’s something that I really dealt with and emotionally put into the book. You’ll read a lot of that.

Zibby: After I read the book, I went on your Instagram. I was like, all right, how old are her kids? What phase is she in? Are they still this young? What’s going on with her?

Karin: Zibby, they feel like they’ve been babies forever.

Zibby: They look a little older now, though. How old are they?

Karin: They’re a little older. When I was writing it, they were three and four. Now they’re four and five. Rumor has it they grow up and life gets a little easier.

Zibby: It gets very different. I’m now finally out of preschool. I have six and eight and fourteen and fourteen. It’s different in a new way. It’s not as physical, which I think is nice, these moments where she’s getting all the bodily fluids of her kids all over her. Oh, my gosh, the best scene in the whole book, I think, is when her son gets injured. She doesn’t know he has glass in his knee. She’s just standing there. She just can’t motivate herself to pick him up. Of course, then the husband sees. I totally understood that. I could just so put myself in her shoes in that moment, and then the external judgement, how it’s so not fair. No one saw what she went through except us as the reader. We get it. Still, nothing becomes excusable.

Karin: I think every mom has had that moment. I remember my son was a baby and my daughter was two. I was trying to take her to preschool. I had one of these big double strollers. She just was raging so much that it tipped over in a crosswalk in the middle of one of the biggest streets in Washington, DC. I was like, ahh! You kind of don’t know what to do. It’s so overwhelming. Obviously, you want to pick your kids up out of the street. I remember all these people watching me and nobody helping me, just everybody looking at me, embarrassed for me or not wanting to look at me because they didn’t want to help me. I wrote a line in the book that says, a woman of young children, you’re in a ring of chaos all the time. You walk into a restaurant with your four kids. No one wants to be seated near you. No one wants to listen to your family. It can be very tough.

Zibby: I had the same thing. I had the double stroller. I had to go down two steps. I was by myself. We went down the first step. Then it caught or something. I was like this about to fall over myself. The kids were just dangling from their straps. I was like, help! Who’s going to help me? A stranger is going to come rescue me on this — anyway, I finally figured it out. It’s no fun. Yet you took all that emotion and then you made it this whole other story with intrigue and sophistication. I loved that. It’s not just like you’re sitting around moping about the mom condition, if you will. You took us all on this interesting ride. I feel like when I think about 1950s housewife, I immediately go to the suburbs. That’s the trope or whatever. You hardly ever read about 1950s housewives on Fifth Avenue. What was that like? As an Upper East Sider myself, I’m particularly interested in, what would that have been like? Okay, interesting. In New York, as it is now, you just are constantly with other people and seeing what you’re missing. I feel like maybe in the — I don’t know. What did you think about this time period in the city versus what we kind of hear about elsewhere?

Karin: One of the big themes is seeing what you’re missing. I think in the suburbs, there’s certainly that sort of, oh, mom taking too many happy pills in the suburbs because she’s so bored, but I think sometimes not seeing all this stuff all the time can be a little helpful. I remember when I first had a baby. I walked through the city on a Saturday morning and saw all these young women having brunch. Just the rage I felt against these poor, innocent women, I was like, damn all of you able to have brunch. I’m in pajamas, unwashed hair, and this baby who hasn’t slept all night. I was like, what I wouldn’t give for brunch. It’s a hard part for Rina. She sits at her window on Fifth Avenue and watches people a lot and thinks about, I used to be this woman. I’m so far away from this woman now. Also, just the pulse of New York City post-war, there was such an energy. Things change. It was the Cold War then. There were other difficulties. This, we made it out of the war, there’s this jubilance to the city which she experienced when she was a UN translator. Now she’s cut off from it. That’s tough for her.

Zibby: Even all the men and how you describe their whole raging social life and all the available people looking to meet her, and the party, all that stuff, I was like, ooh, that sounds like fun.

Karin: When I did my research, it sounded like so much fun. It’s sort of like the way people talk about what life will be like after the pandemic or even after you get vaccinated. I remember going out and just being like, this is amazing. I have a new lease on life. It’s exciting.

Zibby: The problem with that is that not everybody’s vaccinated. I still felt that too, but the war’s not over yet.

Karin: Right. It is definitely not over.

Zibby: But it’s coming back.

Karin: Hopefully, soon.

Zibby: I hadn’t heard about the Long Island Rail Road crashes.

Karin: Yeah, me neither. It’s sort of terrifying, right?

Zibby: Yeah.

Karin: Don’t read this book on the LIRR. Safety measures have gotten better. That came up because the United Nations used to be on Long Island, which I didn’t know.

Zibby: I didn’t know that either. Would’ve spared us a lot of traffic, by the way, for UN week. It wouldn’t be bad if it were still there. Just saying. Okay, keep going.

Karin: Move it back out . Before it was in the heart of Manhattan, it was on Long Island. The people who worked there took the Long Island Rail Road to get to work. One year, there was this horrible crash. Reading about it, people were saying it was just a sardine can filled with blood. I was like, well, that sounds horrible. It’s also another reason Rina’s husband wants her to stop working. He’s saying, now you’re pregnant. This is dangerous. You’re going to quit your job anyway. This is just another reason to quit now.

Zibby: It’s so ironic too. He really wants her to quit and everything. He’s this big-shot pediatric surgeon and all the rest. He’s spending his whole life taking care of kids. All she wants is for him to take care of their kids. She cannot get him to focus. It’s so cruel, really.

Karin: That’s one of the reasons I made a surgeon with kids, was to show, I’m willing to spend all my time with these kids because it’s my job. My own kids, they just need to be raised by my wife, and that’s fine.

Zibby: Not so fine. Wow, super interesting. Oh, wait, I wanted to ask you about the bruising. What was up with that? I’m not explaining myself — I’m speaking so informally.

Karin: I know what you’re talking about.

Zibby: Rina has a coping mechanism, which is digging her hands into her legs and also sometimes digging in her fingernails, and to the benches. She has all this pushing. Now she gets bruises. Her husband, at one point, finally is like, what are we going to do about this? She didn’t even know he kind of even noticed. Where did that come from? Tell me about that.

Karin: At the time, people didn’t really talk about postpartum, but she’s in it. She’s really it. For her, it’s self-harming. It’s a coping mechanism to take the pain of her mind and put it into her body. When I’m anxious or really nervous, it’s something I do to a lesser extent. I’ll go on a run or I’ll have to sprint down the block or something to just move the brain into the body. It’s definitely taken from habit I’ve had for a while, but she takes it an extreme where she really is self-harming. I also wanted to do it to be like, she’s trying to get her body back, not in a “I want to get my body back to look great” sense, but in an ownership way. She was pregnant back to back. She’s been breastfeeding for years. She has these kids clawing on her all day, as we all know when we have young kids. She just wants to possess herself again. That’s definitely part of that journey.

Zibby: Interesting. Tell me about your process and everything. Also, so you have a book that’s being turned into a movie as well as we speak. What’s going on with that?

Karin: It’s been a slow journey. We’re not aided by COVID at all. My third book, The Gilded Years, which is about the first black graduate of Vassar College — I also went to Vassar. She graduated in 1897, passed as white. Then her roommate, at the very end, found out she was black, hired a private detective to follow her family around, and tried to keep her from graduating. It was a big scandal at the time — this was 1897, of course — a true story, and then a story that kind of got forgotten over the years. I ended up turning it into a book. It came out in 2016. It was almost bought. We had all these great Hollywood calls. I was so excited. Then everybody disappeared. I was like, but Hollywood, where did you go? Then almost two years later, a year and a half later, my agent called me and was like, “Reese Witherspoon called. She wants to buy your book.” I was thrilled that none of those other people had bought it because then Reese couldn’t have bought it. Sometimes things happen for a reason. That’s exciting, very exciting.

Zibby: Wow. What stage is it in now?

Karin: I think it’s still in rewrites. It was written, rewritten, still there. Hopefully, we’ll get moving faster now that — well, who knows? I’m not going to say anything about Hollywood. Hopefully, it’ll just keep moving forward.

Zibby: Timing is — I know that’s so trite. Timing is everything. I feel like there are forces at work when we want something and it doesn’t happen then. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. It feels like it’s never going to happen, but it might. It just might not be in that form at that time.

Karin: Totally. I’ve learned patience. A Woman of Intelligence is my sixth book. I’ve really learned that a lot of is, you just focus on the product and the next product. You try to make them good. They’re out there. Whatever happens, happens. The more books you have, the more opportunities you have. It’s kind of out of your hands. Once it’s optioned, it’s not like you can just call them every day and be like, so, Reese, how about that movie?

Zibby: Update???

Karin: There’s a voice in my head that’s like, Karin, let’s be sane. You keep yourself from doing that. You just never know. I hope this one ends up on the screen eventually. It’s obviously a very emotional journey for me. We shall see about that too.

Zibby: Are you working on another book now?

Karin: Of course, another pandemic baby. I have a book that’s due at the end of August. I’m writing that quicker and quicker every day.

Zibby: Can you say anything about it, a little sneak preview?

Karin: It’s set in the 1970s. It’s set in 1977 in Los Angeles. It’s just fun. Honestly, it is a celebration. It’s sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It’s fun. I think after writing A Woman of Intelligence and the amount of my own personal journey, pain with motherhood that I put in, I was like, okay, that has been done. Now I need to attend the party. This book is fun.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I can’t wait to read that. Where do you have the characters living in LA?

Karin: Mostly, just in the heart of LA on Sunset Strip, is where a lot of the action happens. There’s a vintage store that one of my characters owns on that street. I’ve also been going to parties and shopping through my mind in this book.

Zibby: Awesome. I used to live right off that strip for a couple years right after college. It was super fun, right there.

Karin: I’m sure it was super fun.

Zibby: It was very fun. I was like, if I’m going to move to LA — it was for this boy I was dating. I was like, we have to live somewhere that’s as New York as possible.

Karin: Not Calabasas.

Zibby: I never even went to the valley. I was like, I have to be able to walk. I have to walk to a bookstore. That sounds awesome. Any advice for aspiring authors?

Karin: Don’t do it. Just kidding. That was my dad’s advice to me.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Karin: I know. He was an editor for The Washington Post Book World, for the book section. I grew up just surrounded by books. Honestly, how could I not become an author when that’s how you grow up? He was like, “Here’s my advice. Don’t become a writer. You’ll be overworked and underpaid.” He wasn’t wrong, per se. It’s like if both your parents are hockey players and you played hockey your whole life and they’re like, don’t become a hockey player. You’re like, but what else would I do? My advice for aspiring writers, I think my advice is, at first especially, maybe always, quantity over quality because you can always get quality later. I think people get scared when their first drafts are bad or their first couple paragraphs or pages are “bad.” They think, I can’t do this. Look at these sentences. They’re not as polished as I want them to be. You just got to kind of spit it out and then fix it later. I just sent my draft of my new book to a friend. She was like, “The beginning’s great, amazing.” I was like, “Well, I worked on the first four chapters for so long because that’s what I sent to my editor to read early. It probably falls apart later because I haven’t had time yet to work on it.” I always liken the process to painting. You have to do a sketch first. The Mona Lisa didn’t look like the Mona Lisa when it was just a pencil or whatever, charcoal, I don’t know what they used back then, drawing. It just takes layers and layers and layers. Don’t be afraid to write badly. Try to write a lot. Try to write every day. Don’t be intimidated by extremely good books. If you read a book and you’re like, I could do never do this, then pick up a really bad book and just be like, actually, I can do this. No problem.

Zibby: I’m writing a memoir now. It’s also due at the end of August, by the way. I have a draft I just sent in this weekend. As I was working on it, I read Suleika Jaouad’s Between Two Kingdoms. Have you read that book?

Karin: No, I haven’t. I’ve heard only great things.

Zibby: Oh, my god, it’s so good. It’s such a beautiful memoir. I shouldn’t even say this now. I emailed my editor. I was like, “I just read Suleika. My book is terrible. It’s nothing like this book. This is the best book I’ve ever read. My book is as if I’m talking to a friend just like this. I don’t have that story.” She’s like, “That’s okay. That’s not your voice. That’s not your story.” I was like, okay, I’m just going to keep going. I can’t tell that story. I’m not her. She’s amazing. I’m glad I can read it, but we can’t all write every book we want to read. We all have to write the books we can write. My profound advice from halfway through this.

Karin: I would give that advice too. Be genuine to your voice. I remember I tried to write once, a book set in the South. I am not from the South. I have never lived in the South. I’ve spent very little time in the South, so I don’t know what possessed me to think I could write something set in the South. I live in DC. I go to Virginia, but it isn’t the South-South. It did not work. Luckily, I’m able to self-edit enough that I was like, wow, this is horrible. You will never see a book from me set in the South because I don’t know it. I can’t do it. People from the South would be like, wow, you’re definitely not from here. I’m not saying you have to know your world so intimately or anything. Once you start with a voice, it just has to feel genuine enough.

Zibby: Totally. I think you should figure out how to sell some of these dresses or have a party where we all show up wearing this dress. Maybe you’ve already done that and I wasn’t invited because I’m just meeting you now. Maybe you wouldn’t have wanted to invite me anyway. We should go to Tavern on the Green in these amazing, color-coded outfits with the gloves and the whole shebang and have it be a costume party or something.

Karin: I would love that so much. The only rule is that all of your clothes must be the exact same color. She has a yellow dress, yellow gloves, yellow coat, and a yellow bag. I’m just going to assume she’s wearing yellow shoes. I remember getting it and being like, that’s a lot of yellow, and then being like, and I love it. I think it really pops. I am all for this. I have not had any parties or any outings as glamorous as that lately.

Zibby: There we go. Okay, in the fall. It’ll be fun. Invite all your intelligent friends.

Karin: All my women of intelligence.

Zibby: Are you a woman of intelligence? Come to this party. Not like you need more help on marketing this book.

Karin: No, I’ll always take help.

Zibby: Congratulations. It was really fantastic. I truly enjoyed reading it. It was great to meet you.

Karin: It was great to meet you too. Good luck with your memoirs. I can’t wait to read it.

Zibby: Thank you. They won’t be like Suleika’s.

Karin: Amazing in their own way. That’s what you always have to remember. Think about all the books you like and how different they are. That’s a good way to look at it.

Zibby: That’s true. All right, talk to you soon. Bye.

Karin: Bye.



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