Zibby Owens: Karma Brown is the best-selling author of four novels. Her debut novel, Come Away with Me, was a Globe & Mail Best 100 Books of 2015. A National Magazine Award-winning journalist, Karma has been published in a variety of publications including Self, Redbook, Today’s Parent, Best Health, Canadian Living, and Chatelaine. Her latest book is Recipe for a Perfect Wife: A Novel. Karma lives just outside Toronto, Canada, with her husband, daughter, and a labradoodle named Fred. When not crafting copy or mulling plot lines, she is typically working out, making a mess in the kitchen, and checking items off her bucket list with her family. Her nonfiction project out early ’21 is called Time Change.

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

Karma Brown: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I’m sorry it took us so long.

Karma: You know what? It’s been crazy.

Zibby: It’s true. There have been some world events that got in the way, some changes and everything. Anyway, here we are. I’m delighted to be talking to you, finally.

Karma: Me too. Me too.

Zibby: Your most recent book, Recipe for a Perfect Wife, for listeners who might not know what it’s about, would you mind giving a quick synopsis?

Karma: It is a dual narrative book. It takes place in the 1950s. The other character, you visit her in 2018. The book takes place in the same house. These two women live in this house, but sixty years apart. There is a cookbook that the modern-day woman discovers that had belonged to the 1950s housewife. Within those pages, she finds some secrets about the life that this 1950s housewife lived in this house that she’s now living in somewhat reluctantly as she was dragged from Manhattan to the suburbs. Their lives intersect through this cookbook. It really is an exploration of women and marriage and being a wife and looking at how far we’ve come from the fifties, if we really have come that far. It was a really fun, interesting book for me to write.

Zibby: I had one of those cookbooks from my mother when was a little girl, the Betty Crocker old-fashioned one.

Karma: Yes, I have that one.

Zibby: I have it. It had my grandmother’s notes in it and all the rest. I treasured that growing up. Every so often I would pull it out and look at the pages and all the pictures of what moms used to look like.

Karma: I know. I still have those books. I actually have this thing for vintage cookbooks. That was one of the inspirations to write this book in the first place. I also loved all those notations. My mom puts notations in her cookbooks. My grandmother has done that. Some of these cookbooks I have that are not family cookbooks, also looking at the notations in those books and imagining what those women’s lives were like way back when. It’s sort of like you’re panning for gold, information about these women and how they lived back in the fifties and sixties.

Zibby: It’s so crazy when there’s an object that passes through time. My engagement ring was a vintage piece I found in this shop in Charleston, South Carolina. I wear this ring. Actually, I copied it. At first, it was the actual ring until we found out it was cracked. Anyway, I had it and I was like, so who is this woman? Who was she? She wore the same exact ring. What was her life like? It all feels like a movie or something. Speaking of movies by the way, congratulations. I saw that your film and TV rights were acquired for this book. That’s amazing. Congratulations.

Karma: Thank you. It’s exciting to imagine them having a life outside of the pages. I’m often asked, who would you cast these characters as if you were casting the movie? Honestly, it’s the worst question to ever ask me because for all of my books, I never know. I don’t see them that way. I see them very clearly, but not as celebrities. I like to always ask, if anyone has an ideas, let me know because I am terrible at this game.

Zibby: I’m wondering maybe — now I’m blanking on her name. Who’s the one who’s married to Ashton Kutcher?

Karma: See, this is why I’m terrible at it.

Zibby: I’m not good at it either.

Karma: I’m not a celebrity follower. What is her name?

Zibby: It’ll come to me.

Karma: She was on the ’70s Show with him, right?

Zibby: Yeah, somebody like that because the PR job ahead of time, I view her as being all put together and running around. Then wanting to shift gears and become a novelist, it has to be somebody cosmopolitan enough, worldly enough. That was my first instinct, but I am really bad at casting too.

Karma: We’re both bad at this. We just won’t play that game.

Zibby: Sorry, I’ll stop the game right now.

Karma: It’s not our job anyway, so it’s okay.

Zibby: No, it’s not our job. I loved, by the way, there was such a perfect, relatable moment, at least for me, when the main character — why do I always blank on the names of all the main characters? I can remember all the details.

Karma: Nellie and Alice.

Zibby: Alice. When Alice relocates to Greenville and leaves her job and her mom is like, “How’s your vacation going?” and she’s like, “No, I’m going to be a novelist,” that is just so classic. It’s a little passive-aggressive, what’s up with you? I just loved that detail, by the way.

Karma: For Alice, she had this big career in Manhattan that was really important to her. Things fall apart for reasons that I won’t talk about now because it gives away some stuff in the book. She ends up holding that secret about what’s happened with her career. Everyone’s thinking, then, that she’s quite content to go and become this housewife in the suburbs and let her husband go to work. She’s going to stay home and take care of this really old house that hasn’t changed much since the fifties and have babies and do her thing, that next part of her life. But really, she’s hanging onto this huge ambition that she has. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t just leave because she has this thing happen with her job and ends up moving. That’s really part of the theme through the story too. What do women do with this ambition? How can you have that huge career ambition and also have a family? Can you make those two things work? I don’t believe you can have them at the same time. That is my personal feeling. Sometimes something has to take the top position, and they just switch back and forth. For me, that’s personally what has been true for me in my life. I think this idea of trying to have it all at once puts a lot of pressure. It’s really hard to do. I’m sure there are people making that work. Good for them. I personally have found that a really tricky balance.

Zibby: Yes. I’m sure a zillion women will agree with that statement, the complexity of that. I think your book also, though, not only the role as a wife or a mother eventually or whatever, but I think it’s also how these two women handle pain, physical and emotional, and how that shifts in terms of how much they share with their spouse, how much they take on themselves, and how that looks across generations too. Maybe talk a little more about that or if that was intentional.

Karma: I think that they are living very different lives. Really, Nellie, who’s the 1950’s character, is quite confined by her generation. For her, independence is something she desperately craves but is very difficult to get because of the nature of the way that things were within marriages back then. Her journey through the story is getting that independence and figuring out how to do that for herself in 1956 when nobody is really figuring that out, women anyway. For Alice in 2018, she’s a very independent woman who is in a relationship with someone and has a marriage. How do you keep that part of yourself when you couple up with someone, when you merge your lives together? How do you keep that independence? In a lot of ways, I think that Nellie is sort of the talisman for Alice around that idea of figuring out how to maintain your sense of self and how to maintain that independence and cope with, as you said, both physical and mental pain through that, but as an individual. That was a big lesson for both of the women through the story.

Zibby: Let’s now pivot to your personal life, if you don’t mind. Now that we’ve had five minutes, I feel like I’m entitled to ask you your innermost secrets.

Karma: Oh, you can ask me anything, anything at all. No secrets here.

Zibby: It’s so funny. Well, it’s not funny. I was reviewing all your different novels and all the different themes. I was like, why are all her books somehow about either car crashes or losing babies or intersecting lives? What is it? Something must have happened to her that this is the theme that she keeps coming back to over and over and over again. Then I went into your personal essays and I was like, oh, my gosh, I’m a moron. Here it is right here. It explains everything. Your essay for Self magazine about your being one month into a relationship with the man who became your husband and finding out that you had a rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cervical cancer and having to figure out how to cope with that and eventually what happened with your sister, oh, my gosh. I know you’re working on some sort of nonfiction book. I’m really interested in hearing what that is. I was like, I want a whole book on this experience. I left that article being like, tell me more. Tell listeners about what happened to you, and then start writing that book.

Karma: Okay. I have written elements of that book. In my second novel, The Choices We Make, it is about two best friends. One of them ends up carrying a baby for the other one. Before Recipe for a Perfect Wife, I wrote tearjerker books. It is a tearjerker book. Not everything goes according to plan. For me in my personal life, my sister was our surrogate. We had a much happier outcome in a sense that we had no major traumas as we were going through that. Just to back up a little bit about how that happened, when I was thirty, I had just met my husband. Well, he wasn’t my husband then, obviously. I just met this new guy. He was very young. He was only twenty-six at the time, which I thought was far too young to be serious about. Then a month into our relationship, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the cervix, which is a very rare place for them to find it. What that meant is that I wouldn’t be able to have children naturally. We had to do a quickie IVF cycle. It was funny because I had been dating him for probably a month and a half at this point. I was at the fertility doctor. They were asking me all these questions and giving me my options about where to get the sperm from because you need sperm to make embryos. They said, “We have a book you can flip through and choose sperm, or you can get some from someone you know.”

I was like, hey, I have this new boyfriend. Maybe we can make this work. It wasn’t casual. It was fast, but we were really quite in love already. They were asking me questions about him and his birthday and his middle name. I didn’t know his middle name. I called him and I said, “This is the deal. I need to figure out what I’m going to do.” He was like, “Okay, let’s do it. Let’s just do it and have faith that we stay together and this all works out. If we don’t, I want you to have the opportunity to have, genetically, your own children.” Anyway, it all worked out. I couldn’t carry a baby, but my sister stepped in. One of those embryos which was frozen for five years was put in my sister’s uterus. She became our oven for nine months. My daughter, when she was younger, she used to like to say that she was five years older. She would say, “I’m not eight. I’m thirteen,” very all-knowing because she technically was conceived in 2003 but was born in 2008. We have our one little miracle baby. My sister was our surrogate. I have been cancer-free for a long time, since 2003, so seventeen years. It did all work out in the end.

Zibby: Wow. It was just so amazing how your sister, you said in one of the articles how immediately she was like, “I’ll be the uterus for you. I’m stepping in.” She already had two little kids of her own. She was just like, “I’m in.” Then she did it.

Karma: She’s quite bossy, actually. She was quite determined to do that. It’s an amazing gift for someone to do that for you because I wouldn’t be a mother. I mean, I might be a mother in a different way, but I wouldn’t be a mother to this child. For me, it’s a really special thing. As for the themes of my book, I had this life where I had all these plans. I was thirty. I was young. I had just finished journalism school. I was in a new relationship. I am a very motived, ambitious person. I was clear about what I wanted to do. Then I got cancer, and my whole life flipped upside down. My books are all really about women who are in situations that are challenging, perhaps the most challenging. We meet them on the most challenging day of their lives. Then they not only survive, but they thrive through that experience. That has been an ongoing theme for me through all my books. That’s what I’m interested most in exploring in my novels anyway.

Zibby: Wow, that’s just amazing. I thought it was so neat, you said something like how you used to be so much less anxious. Then you had such a great expression. You once dreamed of being a war correspondent, but now you’re someone who sticks to the speed limit.

Karma: It’s true.

Zibby: That’s so interesting, just this idea that now you take on all the anxiety that the situation brought. Some people are born more anxious. Then they get through something like this and they’re less anxious because they realize, okay, I’ve been worrying my whole life something bad’s going to happen. It did. Now I’m okay. They become more fortified. You went into it already totally confident and rah-rah and then had this setback. Now you’re more cautious. It’s just sort of interesting how people deal with a trauma, essentially.

Karma: I think when you have a trauma like that, it never goes away. I’m cancer-free, but that experience lives me. It has shaped who I am from that time. It shapes all my decisions because life is precious. Everyone knows this. When you have been a through life-threatening experience, does it become more precious? I don’t know. You suddenly realize the whole why-me thing. Everyone, I think, has a moment of thinking that, but then very quickly you’re like, well, why not me? Why wouldn’t it be me? Once you have that happen, the realization that it could happen again, bad things happen even when you do everything right. That is a very unsettling thing to live through and really understand deep in your core. I spend a lot of time now trying not to be anxious about things and to enjoy life. I had once gone to a therapist who was like, what do you think about this fact that you’re going to worry about your precious life for the next ten years and worry about all these ways that it could be turned upside again? Then you’re okay because the reality is you probably are going to be okay. You will have spent this decade worrying and marinating in this anxiety. Are you really enjoying your life when you’re doing that? That did resonate with me. I try to remember that. The worry does fade. It does get easier. As you said, someone people are natural worriers. I just came to that place a little bit later in my life. Maybe I’ll flip back the other way and I’ll be skydiving when I’m seventy. I doubt it, but you never know.

Zibby: These why-me moments and these traumas and the things that happen that make you aware of the fact, not just intellectually, but feel that life is short, they make you into different much more feeling-type people. You don’t wish this upon anybody. I wouldn’t wish a cancer diagnosis or anything like that. However, I think the aftermath of some of those experiences makes the rest of life so much richer. It sharpens the colors. That sounds so cheesy. I just feel like it changes the tune. It’s like on a piano, the two different things start playing versus just one hand playing. I don’t know.

Karma: I think it does do that. You’re not naïve about things anymore. I think you can bury in your head in the sand a little bit, especially when you’re young, and think that bad things don’t happen, people don’t get cancer. It allows me to also be more empathetic with other people and to understand what to say and what not to say and how to sit with someone in a tough time instead of trying to just brush it away or make it better somehow by not talking about it. I have learned how to be more empathetic towards what other people are going through. It doesn’t have to be cancer. It can be anything. People have lots of different experiences that can be quite traumatic. I am not a silver linings person. I don’t know that I ever have been. While there have been things that I have learned because of this, I would always have rather not had it happen. I don’t say that my cancer was a good thing because I just don’t see it like that. It would’ve been nice not to have to go through it. However, there are lessons and learning in that that I now have that I’m grateful for and appreciative of.

Zibby: I hope I didn’t make it sound like it was a good thing that you had gone through that.

Karma: No, you didn’t.

Zibby: Okay. I did not mean to suggest anybody actively look for bad experiences to happen them.

Karma: No. I do think some of that silver lining stuff — people say that to me all the time. You wouldn’t have this, that, and the next thing if you didn’t go through that. I’m like, yeah, but I might have other things that I lost because of that. Cancer takes a lot away. Any terminal, not terminal, but potentially life-threatening condition or experience, it takes stuff away. I don’t think you said that at all. That’s not how I heard what you were saying.

Zibby: Okay. Phew.

Karma: I just like to do the, yeah, I’m not a silver linings person. Maybe, again, when I’m seventy. Maybe then when I’m sky diving, I’ll be a silver linings person. We’ll see.

Zibby: Maybe so. We’ll wait. I’ll look up and see what I can see. The one quote I just had to read, and this is from your Self article, you said, “I would not be a mother to this child who with her arrival took the hell of our experience leading up to her, crushing it into a tiny ball and dropped it down a deep, dark well where it can no longer break my heart.” That is beautiful. That’s just a beautiful sentiment, a beautiful sentence. I just had to read it.

Karma: It’s true. I was quite sad not to be able to carry my own child. I think for people who want to have children, they would understand that, or who have children and have been able to have — I know pregnancy is not amazing for a lot of women, but I always was sad that I couldn’t do that. My mom had said to me, “Don’t worry. Once the baby’s here, you won’t care how she got here. You won’t miss that part because this is the best part.” She was wrong, but I can tuck that away. I think that’s what that quote is. I have her and all the amazing things of being a mother that I can now experience, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t still heartbreaks that have to be just put down that well and left there. They don’t go away. They just maybe go to a dark place where you leave them buried.

Zibby: Or you take little sprinkles of that and put it in novel after novel after novel, which is another way of getting through and coping and making sense of experiences like that that don’t really have a good place to go.

Karma: It’s true. It’s sort of like therapy to some degree. It’s cathartic to be able to do that.

Zibby: Tell me about your writing process and how you come up with ideas for your books and then how long they each take. You’ve written five novels already?

Karma: Five, yep.

Zibby: Amazing. That’s a lot. Tell me about your process a little more and how you maintain this level of output.

Karma: I maintain the level of output because my daughter didn’t sleep. The truth is that she used to get up at three thirty, four in the morning for years and years. I finally got to the place where I could no longer watch Dora the Explorer at four o’clock in the morning. I thought, I need to do something with this time. She’s okay. I don’t need to really be with her for every moment of that morning time. I started writing in the early morning. It’s a habit I still have now. She sleep trained me. Now I can’t sleep in. She sleeps in, but I can’t. I get up around five, between five and six every day, and I write. It’s quiet and peaceful. No one needs anything from me. The rest of the world has not woken up yet. That’s when I do the majority of my really creative writing. I save the emails and the other busywork that authors have to do for later in the day when she’s at school even though she’s not at school right now. COVID time is like, who knows what’s happening and how I’m actually ever going to write another book. That’s really been my process from the beginning.

I never wanted to be a writer. When I went to journalism school, I wanted to be a news broadcaster. That was what I was planning to do. Then I was diagnosed with cancer on my very last day of journalism school, and everything switched. At some point, I thought, maybe I can write. It’s a career that I have and be home. I don’t have to move to Northern Ontario and try to get a job in a small town and live up there away from my family. It just became a job that I thought I could do. I one day thought, maybe I’ll try writing a novel. I wrote it. It was awful. Then I wrote another one. That one was not good either. My debut was actually my third book written. I guess I’ve actually written seven, no, wait, eight novels. Just two of them will never see the light of day.

Zibby: Seven, right?

Karma: Wait, seven? You’re right.

Zibby: Two unpublished, five — .

Karma: This is why I am not a mathematician or a scientist. I can’t do math, even simple math. Yes, seven. It feels like twelve some days. As for where the stories come from, I read a lot. Because I’m a journalist also, I spend a lot of time scrolling through news stories and looking for interesting human stories that way. That’s how I have found or had an idea perk up for my stories. Recipe for a Perfect Wife was different, though. It came out of those cookbooks. I just had this vision of, what was life like for these women? These cookbooks were really a legacy. They were often given to women at their wedding showers. Then those cookbooks would get passed down through the generations. At a time where women really didn’t have much of a voice outside of their home, it felt like this really interesting legacy of what mattered to them and what they were doing and how they were really using their voice through their cooking and through these recipes. I just had this image of Nellie in the 1950s trying to choose a recipe. She’s this quintessential housewife. On the surface, she looks very much like the housewife we would imagine from the fifties, but what did her life look like underneath that? That’s where it started.

Zibby: I feel like there’s an undercurrent of feminist message to the book as well. I know in the introduction, or maybe it was a dedication or something, you were saying to your daughter, you haven’t finished doing the work for her yet. This is a step. Was that conscious? Tell me about that angle of it.

Karma: People have asked, wow, this book is really timely, why this book now? I’d been writing this book for five years before it was published. The realities of what women are going through now were true five years ago and ten years ago. We have come far from the fifties in a lot of ways, but we still have a long way to go. It was important for me in doing — I could’ve written the whole book from 1950s perspective and from Nellie’s perspective and just had that story be the story, but what I wanted to do is to look at the difference between those generations because we think we’re so progressive now. In some ways we are, but in a lot of ways, we are not. I wanted to take Alice’s character in particular — it’s much murkier than it is with Nellie’s character. I’ve had a lot of hate mail about Alice, which I’m not surprised by. I knew that going in because, as I said, her story is murkier. She can come across as more selfish and self-centered. I feel like with her, she’s going through this dilemma. She’s young. She’s making mistakes. She deserves to make mistakes. It takes two to tango, as they say. Her husband in the story, I get messages about how amazing her husband is and how she’s so selfish. I want to say, no, he’s not perfect. He’s manipulating things as well and keeping secrets as well. I don’t know why Alice is the one who always gets — she’s viewed as the enemy in the story versus him. I find that really interesting. Every time I get a message about that, I don’t respond because that’s the rule, but I do want to say, why do you villainize her and not him for doing things that are quite similar?

I felt that while I was writing it. I do think that that is where we are in society still, where women don’t get to make the same mistakes that men do. They don’t get away with it the same way. I wanted to put that in the book. I’m a wife. I stay home. I work from home. I do more of the traditional, stereotypical things. I do most of the childcare, the doctors’ appointments, the grocery shopping because logistically it’s easier for me because I’m home. It’s important for me with my daughter especially because she has commented before, “You’re the dinner-maker. What’s for dinner?” I always say, “Look, just because I’m female does not make me especially qualified to cook a meal.” I need her to understand that being a wife and being a mother and being a woman, they are all really different things that all live within the same person. That’s what I was trying to do with Alice and looking at Nellie. I get it. She’s a little bit confronting for people. I have other people who love her. They really resonate with what she’s going through. I find that the older generations, like the seventies-plus, and the younger ones, like the thirty-five and under, really resonate with Alice. It’s that middle-age time where people are just like, her husband is so nice. Why is she being so mean to him? It’s fascinating. It has been fascinating.

Zibby: Aside from not responding to hate mail, what is your advice to aspiring authors?

Karma: I read a lot. I think if you don’t read and read a lot of different things like fiction, nonfiction, different genres that maybe are not totally your thing but you should give it a try, I think you have to read all the time, a lot, as an author. Write as much as you can. Be clear about why you’re writing. There are some people who want to write because they really desperately want to be published on the shelves with a traditional publisher. There’s other people who write to maybe work through a trauma or work through a part of their life, and perhaps publication is not the most important thing to them. It’s to really understand why you’re writing. To stay connected to your story, you need to write regularly. Also then, know when to give up and start something new. There are people who will say never give up, never give up on anything you’re working on. I think sometimes you have to give up. That’s why I have two books in a drawer that will never see the light of day. They weren’t the right story. They were practice books for me. They were helping me hone the craft and learn how to write a book that was going to get all the pieces I wanted in but also would be really great for the reader too, that reading experience. It’s just, you’ve got to practice. It’s like anything. You have to practice your craft and know why you’re doing it.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you, Karma. I’m so glad we finally got together. I wish I could sit and talk to you for a lot longer.

Karma: I know. It went by so fast.

Zibby: I know. I looked. I was like, oh, no, it’s been too long.

Karma: Thank you so much. Great questions. It was really nice chatting with you today.

Zibby: You too. I hope we can find a way to keep this up or meet in person or something.

Karma: Me too. Yes, one day let’s meet in person. We’ll have a nice drink somewhere and chat not through our screens. That sounds wonderful.

Zibby: I would love that. Yes, that would be nice.

Karma: Take care.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Karma: Thanks so much.

Zibby: Bye.