Katherine May, ENCHANTMENT: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age

Katherine May, ENCHANTMENT: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age

Zibby speaks to New York Times bestselling author and repeat MDHTTRB guest Katherine May about Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age, a lyrical, profound, and warm guide to feeling less burnt out and disconnected and more in tune with our beautiful surroundings. Katherine describes how she came to be an author–it involves years of denying her calling and even once, as a teenager, throwing out all of her poems. She also talks about her own experience of being overwhelmed and stuck in a reading block and then shares some of the magical little memories and moments that brought her back to herself.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katherine. Thanks so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age.

Katherine May: Thanks for having me. I’m really glad to be back.

Zibby: Actually, this is perfect because in Zibby’s Bookshop, we just started a new shelf. We had an opening in the Celebrate Who You Are section. There were all these different identity categories, like Jewish, LGBTQ. We had one left. I was like, how about anxious? That’s how I identify.

Katherine: That’s a whole identity. I know I’m not allowed to interview you, but I’d love to know what it’s like to have a bookstore. Does it feel really good?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, it’s the coolest thing ever. It’s so fun just to sit in there. Then people come over. They’re like, which books should I buy? They show me a couple in a row. I’m like, this is the most fun I’ve ever had. Somebody yesterday came over with four books. She’s like, “I can only buy two.” One of the books was One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’m like, “You have to read that. What are you talking about?”

Katherine: I think it’s every writer’s dream, isn’t it, just to have, basically, a house of books? You get to roam through them and show them to people. That’s just ideal.

Zibby: It is. It is amazing. I should have a residency where somebody gets to just sit there every day, like an author, and come in and be the person to recommend books. I think I have to figure out a way to start that. You can be our first fellow.

Katherine: You know what? We’d all get emotional. We’d just be sitting there crying. It would be really embarrassing.

Zibby: Actually, this is apropos of some of the things you write about in Enchantment, which is that for a while, you were having trouble reading at all. You brought this up in the beginning. Then it courses through the book until it culminates in this beautiful chapter on your inability to read. Talk a little bit about that and what that experience was like. Are you over it at this point?

Katherine: That felt like a dark confession when I was writing the book. I thought, god, can I actually say this to the literary people? What will they think of me? It does seem that that happened to a lot of people either during the pandemic or afterwards in the aftermath when the burnout began to set in. I just found that I couldn’t turn my attention to a book. It was constantly glancing off. At the same time, I’d lost that desire that I ordinarily feel towards pretty much any book, that sense that there were all these different things that I was desperate to read. That had gone. It felt like such a change to me, and so empty and desolate. I really had to take a step back and think very hard about how to reconnect with that desire rather than the habit because the habit had gone. I did realize that I think over time, my reading had become more about obligation quite often rather than passion. I think that happens to a lot of us in the industry. We get loads of proofs sent through. We want to help everyone. We want to keep up with our industry. We forget to do the reading that is soul-drenching and also the reading that’s just fun. I desperately needed to get back to that.

Zibby: It was nice to see because you don’t often see in a book when someone’s like, I’m on Twitter. I’m on Instagram. Now I’m on Twitter. Now I’m checking the news. Here I am back on Instagram. You feel vindicated because you are actually reading this in a book. For the reader, it’s like, I get that. I’ve been there. Look, I’ve triumphed over that enough to just read the words that are on this page. It’s a very meta experience.

Katherine: It’s a way of complimenting the reader. It’s like you’re reading the book that I couldn’t manage to read myself at the moment. Hopefully, it makes people feel good.

Zibby: We talked about this just for a second, but I really feel your writing — not that I feel this. This is fact. Your writing is just so incredibly beautiful and poetic. Each sentence and each analogy, each everything, everything is so carefully thought out. It seems carefully thought out. It makes you think about things in a new way, even the scorched pages of the burnout and just the way you write about that in such a sensory way, which also is interesting because you talk in the book about your late-in-life autism diagnosis and overstimulation of senses and balancing all that. Yet in the writing, it’s so sensory. I don’t know, maybe they’re related.

Katherine: That could be true. I think there’s a kind of ledger for me. Anything that I give out, it takes off somewhere else. I know mine is very sensitive compared to other people. Maybe — I say maybe. I know this for a fact. All the best part of me flows into my writing. It often does leave very little left for other things, to be honest. I’ve spent myself on the writing.

Zibby: Then you also say in the book, this very sad part when you were younger and you threw out all your writing, which kind of broke my heart. Can I read this little section?

Katherine: Yeah, please.

Zibby: First, you talk about how people found it cute when — you said, “‘A poet, eh?’ the adults would say and raise their eyebrows. I knew they were laughing at me, but it was friendly enough. Everyone enjoys a little pomposity in prepubescent. It’s adorably naïve, and they figured that life will knock it out of you soon enough.” Then people start laughing at you. Then you said, “I’d like to pretend that this is the point I decided to nurture my ambitions in secret, biding my time until I could burst forth into a kinder world where people understood me. Instead, I stopped writing. I took all my beautiful notebooks filled with turquoise-inked poems — okay, I regret the turquoise now — and bound them up with sticky tape, wrapping it around and around like a spider interring a fly. They were humiliating things, and I wanted to make sure nobody else could read them. I kept them on my shelf like that for a while wondering if I’d be tempted to cut them open and take back my poems. I never did. After a while when my connection to them felt sufficiently severed, I threw them away, burying them deep in the kitchen bin underneath the greasy butter wrappers and vegetable peelings. I can still remember the relief I felt when the trash collectors came the following Monday and took them. They were irretrievably gone. I had pulled off the perfect murder, but they haunted me like revenants.” That’s just so good.

Katherine: It’s the truth as well. I really thought I was done with writing. I really thought that I’d come to this very adult realization that writing was a silly thing to do. I wanted to ditch the humiliation in the way that lots of teenagers will maybe try and get rid of the evidence of their early crushes, the really embarrassing pop stars or something. I did that with my writing. I felt so ashamed of it. I felt like I’d carried on being a child for a little too long. That captures it the best, I guess. Then of course, as I became an adult, I realized that all of my play lived there. That was how I played. I’d lost play. I’d lost that whole universe that I could step into not just to rest, but to have that complex world woven around me. It was very hard to get it back then. It was very hard.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Katherine: It’s okay.

Zibby: You say later, you said, “But then if I wasn’t a writer, what was I? It felt a lot like nothing.”

Katherine: I was one of those people — I was the first generation in my family to go to university. I didn’t really understand what university was for, and so I’d never thought further than the actual degree course. When I left university, I literally didn’t know what to do next. I had no desire towards anything, except I kept thinking, oh, I’d like to write a book about — no, we don’t write books. That’s not what you do. I drifted around for ages. Eventually, I trained to be a teacher. It was only when I finished my teacher training — I did an on-the-job training where I was teaching while learning. The person who assessed me said, “Okay, so what are you going to learn next? You’re in the habit of it now. You’ve studied really hard for two years. What are you going to learn next?” That’s when I took a writing course.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I promise I’ll stop just reading your beautiful words. Here’s the last sentence I’ll read. “Writing kept coming back to me, punching its way out of whatever grave I dug it. It loomed insistent at my window. It rattled my door. I just couldn’t kill it. There was no silver bullet, no stake, no incantation that would slay it. Writing had plans for me, and my resistance was futile.” Oh, my god, I’m obsessed.

Katherine: It may not surprise you that the first stuff I wrote was ghost stories.

Zibby: It’s true, there is something very haunting about a lot of your sentences.

Katherine: There we go. It’s interesting, isn’t it? On one hand, that chapter is about what happens when you deny a calling. It doesn’t go well. You can’t deny a calling. It does come back for you. Maybe that’s a way to test if it’s true. Also, I think — I don’t know how to say it. There’s something in there about, maybe it wasn’t so bad to burn all that stuff down in the first place. Maybe that was okay. I still burn down loads of my writing. I still reject much more than I ever publish. I think that experience of getting rid of all my teenage writing taught me that it’s okay, that there’s always something else to come back. I actually can’t stop it from coming back. Ultimately, it’s given me a kind of trust in the abundance of creativity.

Zibby: That’s also beautiful. This is great. I’m just going to sit here and listen to you all day. Have you ever done anything with the poet and author Maggie Smith?

Katherine: Yes.

Zibby: Have you had a conversation? I want to go back and listen to it. I feel like the two of you have similar —

Katherine: — Yes, I did. She was on my podcast about maybe two years ago now. Time flies really fast. Maybe one year. Of course, she’s completely wonderful. Actually, she’s coming back onto my book club in June. I had to get her back for her new memoir, which is incredible.

Zibby: It’s so good, oh, my gosh. I’m going to go back. I’ll put in the show notes of this, the episode of you two talking.

Katherine: Thank you.

Zibby: There’s something just so poetic and deeply soulful. The two of you get it against the world in the way you use words, both of you, in different ways, though. I feel like her sentences are more sparse. You’re more . Anyway, both .

Katherine: Mine are much more baroque than hers. She has this ability to capture the heart of something and to cut right through. She’s an incredible writer.

Zibby: Amazing. I was happy to see that by the end of Enchantment you were reading Braiding Sweetgrass. I was like, this is good. She’s back to reading.

Katherine: I am for sure back to reading, actually. Do you know what brought it back? Finishing that book. It’s really funny. I was stuck in a place. As soon as I closed those edits, you exhale when a book’s finished because they’re such a huge part of your psyche for the whole time that you’re writing them. There’s always this sense of — maybe it’s just me — this sense of struggle with them. Not bad struggle, but I feel like I wrestle them into place in lots of ways. As soon as they’re gone, I do a big exhale. In that exhale, the next thing that I wanted to know about came right into my head, and I just started reading again. It took longer for me to get back to fiction, I have to say. I still struggled with fiction until maybe six months ago when I wanted that state of mind again. It really did feel like a huge block for me.

Zibby: I feel like sometimes when I’m having trouble getting into fiction, I switch gears and read something really funny, a really funny novel.

Katherine: That was exactly how it happened for me. Yes, that was exactly it. Completely. I started asked people for funny novels. One of the things that I’ve noticed about fiction in the last few years is it does get evermore serious. There’s a missing gap for a bigger group of comic novels and satire and that clever levity that tells you so much about society but makes you laugh with it. I don’t think we’re publishing enough of those at the moment. I started asking around. I got to read a few. It just made me really happy.

Zibby: I have to say, I might have to selfishly send you this novel that I just wrote that’s coming out next April because it is funny social satire and all of that. I was like, I just want to write something that makes me laugh. Then I found this other book that I just finished — I don’t know if you’ve read yet — by Jane — I don’t know why we’re talking about other books. I’m sorry. Jane Roper’s book is The Society of Shame. Have you read that?

Katherine: I haven’t read it. No, I have not.

Zibby: It’s coming out next week. By the time this airs, it’ll be out. Literally, I was crying laughing in the first chapter. I didn’t even know it was supposed to be funny. I just picked it up thinking it was whatever, another book. Then next thing you know, I was laughing so hard. I had to read it out loud to my husband.

Katherine: Wow. Okay, I’ve written that down. I wonder if part of the problem during pandemic lockdowns was that we lacked that recommendation, that flow of, “I love this. Have you read it?” and pushing books into each other’s hands and the way that enthusiasm is contagious. I do think that hit me really hard. I found that across my whole cultural life. I just didn’t care as much as I normally did. It really affected me.

Zibby: I feel like the pandemic was the ultimate in robbing pleasure. It took away the pleasure that we got from all of the things. The perfect part of it is that it literally took away our sense of smell and taste, which is the biggest sense of pleasure ever. I remember trying to shove a cookie in my mouth when I had lost my sense of taste. I was like, do I still eat it? I’m not getting any pleasure, but maybe my brain knows somewhere that it tastes good.

Katherine: I don’t think we’re, still, talking enough about the losses that we experienced there. In addition to all of that, we then got into a situation where we felt guilty for taking or receiving pleasure because we were so conscious about how much other people were suffering. That made it hard too. That was another layer on that great big block that I felt, for sure.

Zibby: Totally. In Enchantment, by the way, I want there to be, in this cover — I looked at it very closely. You can imagine me just studying your cover, a moron over here.

Katherine: With a magnifying glass.

Zibby: I wanted to find peels of your grandmother’s orange hidden in the design.

Katherine: I don’t think they’re there, but maybe there’s a configuration of the little stars somewhere that you can see it. Lauren, who designed it, is very smart, so it wouldn’t surprise me.

Zibby: If I was designing the cover… No, I’m kidding. It’s a gorgeous cover. I feel like that’s also such a lovely metaphor. I don’t even know if metaphor’s the right word. When you talk about her orange peeling was sort of your own meditation and how that would stop and be the only ritual in a day and just the orange peels falling and all of that, how you referenced that was really beautiful as well.

Katherine: Thank you. That was a lovely moment to write. Some things feel like you’ve just really got to express them. I was a little worried that it might seem insignificant or dowdy somehow. There was a magic to that for me that seems to transmit. That’s what’s amazing about the reception of it. It seems to really transmit to other people when they read it. I posted a video a couple of weeks ago on Instagram of me peeling an orange. The comments are beautiful. So many people remembered their grandmother doing the same. There’s something about that generation, how they appreciated things that seemed so ordinary to us. They obviously had a different meaning if you’d lived through the war, for example, in the UK, and rationing. You hadn’t been able to have things like oranges for a very long time. Then you get them back. They’re actually quite magical little things in that sense.

Zibby: Don’t you wonder, who’s the first person who was like, “I think I’ll take this off and see what’s under here”?

Katherine: Yes. I think humans just put their hands into everything they do.

Zibby: I have to admit I did not scroll back into your Instagram. I’m sorry. I only read the book. Now I have to go back and check out that video. My grandmother didn’t do that, but I feel like my vision of her is her sitting at her kitchen table every afternoon scrolling through the TV guide back in the day. She would always be sitting there flipping through to figure out what we’re going to watch that night.

Katherine: Do you know what? My granddad had this beautiful habit that nearly made it into the book but didn’t quite, which was that if you went on holiday, he would — did you used to get Ceefax, the text service on TV? I don’t even know if you even got this. It was like the internet before the internet. You pressed a button, and you got text information.

Zibby: No.

Katherine: Okay, so this is a very British reference. You’ll probably end up cutting this because it’s too obscure.

Zibby: I’m not cutting anything.

Katherine: I’m going to have to explain it really carefully. It was called Ceefax or Teletext. You pushed a button on your TV, and you could see the news. You could select the page. You could see the news. You could see the weather. You could see the sports results. It was all the kinds of things that granddads like. You could also see all the flights landing in Gatwick. If we went on holiday, Granddad would sit with the page open on the information about where flights had landed and wait until the information turned to “landed” from your plane being in flight. When you got home, he’d say, “I watched you land on the Teletext.” It was so lovely. He was a former airman, so I think he was thinking a lot about planes.

Zibby: I love that. That is so sweet. Oh, my gosh, little granddad. He would have a field day with all the aviation apps now.

Katherine: I can’t imagine. Honestly, he would be insane with the whole thing. He’d be so excited.

Zibby: I guess my grandmother would just be sitting there on the guide page in cable scrolling down. What are you working on now? Are you writing anything new?

Katherine: I’m just beginning to think about it. I need the previous book to come out. A big thing for me is having conversations around the books, actually, and hearing how people perceive them and what meaning they make out of them. It all feels like a big exchange to me. I couldn’t get anywhere until the first few people had started talking to me about the book. I do have the seeds of an idea that I’m just beginning to draw up. I’m also working on an audiobook about the midwinter period. I’m going back to winter, first of all. That will be not this winter, but the next that that’s coming out. I’m still deep into winter, but this is maybe a little bit of a mix between Wintering and Enchantment.

Zibby: Interesting. Maybe one day we’ll get to summer. We can always hope.

Katherine: I doubt it. I’m unkeen on summer.

Zibby: That’s funny. Where’s your favorite place to write? Do you go into some little nook in your home? Tell me about that.

Katherine: I’m a very fidgety writer. I like to write in lots of different places. The place I write least of all is at my desk because it feels like work to me if I’m writing at my desk. I write on the kitchen table. I write on the sofa. I write in bed. I write in cafés. I write in our little local coworking space, which I actually quite enjoy even though it’s a bit noisy. That sometimes helps to block out your conscious mind a bit. I’m very itinerant. I don’t have very many solid routines, but I do write best first thing in the morning. That’s the one thing that’s consistent to me. Quite often, if I’m trying to really get some progress made, I’ll get up at four thirty. I’ll have a lot done by seven.

Zibby: Wow. I love when I hear that. That’s amazing. Wonderful.

Katherine: I’m just not a night person, though. I hear loads of people that write very late. I can’t imagine ever doing that. That’s so far away from what I understand. I’m definitely an early morning person.

Zibby: At night, I’m all about intake, not output.

Katherine: I’m more about sleeping.

Zibby: I read a lot at night. I watch things. I read things. That’s it. I can barely write a sentence. Although, I write emails all through the night. In terms of anything with any heft to it, I don’t.

Katherine: I certainly couldn’t make any sense. I’m done for after eight o’clock. You can’t get any sense out of me at all after that point. I’m just over as a person by then.

Zibby: True. Maybe if we didn’t wake up at four thirty, we’d be in better shape at night.

Katherine: That’s it. You choose your end of the day, ultimately, don’t you? Mine is definitely the four thirty end. I can’t do both. Some people can. My dad is extraordinary for that. He’ll get up early and go to bed late and do four hours sleep and feel really refreshed. I am not that person.

Zibby: No. Is there anything that’s come out of your — I want to say fame, but I feel like you’ll poo-poo that. All the success that’s come out of your recent books, which are so personal and so intimate and now so out there, I was just wondering if it’s shifted anything in you or anything’s come out of it that you were surprised by or anything like that.

Katherine: I’m surprised by the fame bit, really. I’m not particularly well-known in the UK still. That’s just how I like it, honestly. As you discerned, I’m quite uncomfortable with the idea of being well-known. It’s not really what I’d seek out. I love living a very quiet life and never really wanted people to stop me in the streets to talk about my book. Nonetheless, that happens. I got to a point in the pandemic when — I was quite visible on the beach. People were reading the book. So many people stopped me in one day that my husband took over and said, “I’m so sorry, she’s intensely uncomfortable with this,” and sort of backed me away. I couldn’t say anything. I just didn’t have any words left. It takes a little getting used to. It takes a little getting used to learning how to deal with that with good grace and not to run away from people or to dismiss what they’re saying by going, oh, no, you don’t feel like that about my book. Don’t be silly. You have to learn how to take a compliment. Also, you really have to learn your boundaries, too, because there’s a lot of need out there, and I’m not the right person to fulfill those needs. The last three years have been a huge learning process for me and a huge adaptation, without a doubt.

Zibby: I love this image of husband as handler.

Katherine: I would get to the stage where I was just kind of standing stammering looking like a rabbit in the headlights. He’d be like, “Okay, thanks very much. Katherine’s delighted that you liked her book, but she’s really not great with people,” which is very true.

Zibby: I love it. Katherine, thank you so much. Thanks for this really fun conversation and for your beautiful books and words. I can’t wait to read absolutely everything you write going forward. Now I’ll go back and scroll your Instagram for a while and not read.

Katherine: Go and look at oranges. Thank you so much. It’s been so great to talk to you and a really fun conversation, as always.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.

Katherine: See you later. Have a good afternoon. I know you’ll be doing loads of busy things now.

Zibby: That’s okay. This was such a . Bye, Katherine.

Katherine: See you later. Buh-bye.

Katherine May, ENCHANTMENT: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age

ENCHANTMENT: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age by Katherine May

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