Zibby Owens: I’m thrilled to be here today with Kathleen West who is the debut author of Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes. She’s a middle and high school teacher and a lifelong Minnesotan, which I don’t think I’ve ever said before. She holds an English degree from Macalester College and a master’s degree in literary education from the University of Minnesota. She currently lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two sons.

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

Kathleen West: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: Congratulations. Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes is your first novel. So exciting.

Kathleen: Yes, it is. It’s so exciting. I’m really happy about it.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what it’s about?

Kathleen: Absolutely. I wrote this book about that impulse that I have as a mom, and that many moms that I know have, to step in and take care of the problems in their kids’ lives. The scenario in this book involves a helicopter theater mom who has lost her sense of boundaries, a progressive English teacher who comes under fire for her curriculum, and a social media scandal that ensnares them both.

Zibby: What inspired you to write this? Did anything like this happen to you? To one of your students?

Kathleen: I have been a teacher for twenty years in Minneapolis, all at elite suburban schools and independent schools. I’ve thought a lot about parenting in my life. This scenario did not happen to me. However, my oldest son, who’s a tenth grader now but was a sixth grader when I started writing this book, tried out for a musical called Ellis Island, which is the same musical in the novel. As he was trying out, I was very excited and wanted him to get a part. I definitely had to check my Julia Abbott impulses during that process. I thought, oh, I’ll just go down and ask the drama teacher how that read-through went or see if he remembered his choreography. Every time, I was like, that would be a bad idea. That would be crossing a line. The day that the cast list came out for the sixth grade Ellis Island that my son had tried out for, my teaching neighbor asked me, “Are you going to go down and look at it and see if he was cast?” Once again, we laughed about this. It seemed like it might just be harmless, but we both knew that it would be crossing a line. Then we had a fun time imagining all the moms that would do it, would come into the school and push the kids aside and look at the list. That’s what Julia Abbott does at the beginning of the book. That was the first scene that came to me for this novel.

Zibby: But you were already in the school. You were already teaching in the same school.

Kathleen: Yes, I worked there.

Zibby: I feel like that wouldn’t be so bad.

Kathleen: Maybe not, but I just think an adult in the space with the kids — the results of the middle school play audition should probably be processed by the middle schoolers first, I think.

Zibby: Okay. You’re probably right. I think you know where I’m skewing on the parenting spectrum here. I don’t want to reveal my helicoptering too much. It became this scene of total humiliation because Julia Abbott, while she’s peeking at the cast list, accidentally ends up elbowing one of the students. It’s caught on camera and social media and goes viral and all the rest of it. She’s not as mortified, perhaps, as she should be. It becomes a whole thing. Of course, her kids are beside themselves.

Kathleen: She thinks it will be just a minor thing. Then the way that it looks on the video is extreme. It is indicative of the attitude that she has had in her parenting for a while. Her community really latches onto that incident and blows it up in a way to highlight other ways that she might have overstepped in previous years.

Zibby: How do you know where the line is?

Kathleen: That’s a great question. I think parents have to really consider that. It gets really blurry, especially because things can tend to spiral. You hear five of my friends are doing this kind of tutoring. This must be the thing that I should do. All of these parents that I’ve heard of emailed the school about X, and so I should also email the school about X. I think in society to be seen as a good parent, people expect you to be constantly advocating for your children. You want to be seen as a good parent. What I try to remember for myself is that dealing with rejection and failure and disappointment, those are really normal life experiences. If I can let my kids have those experiences and recover from them and bounce back in a normal kid way, that will serve them better in the long run. In terms of a hard line, I don’t think there is a hard line. I try to just evaluate every parenting situation that I have one at a time. What would be the best thing for my kid in this situation? What would be my best thing in this situation? What would be the consequences of letting them just feel the pain of failing a test versus asking for the retake? etc.

Zibby: What do you think is the role of the school? I know in this you’re the teacher, but you’re also the parent in your own life. One of the characters, obviously, is a teacher. One is a parent. The school, and even the headmaster, gets involved. Different people are influenced in different ways about the casting. What should the school do, especially when they feel that parents are encroaching on the territory, and maybe particularly donor parents encroaching on the territory?

Kathleen: It’s really challenging for school administrators to maintain their values or maintain the school’s mission statement, especially when you’re working in an independent school. This school in Minor Dramas is a public school. I’ve also worked at independent schools where you’re tuition driven. These families are investing a lot of their financial resources in the school. They feel entitled to a certain experience because of that. I think what happens a lot of time is that the teachers and the administrators have one idea of what’s best for the kids, and the parents have a different idea. They both care super intensely. That’s where the conflict comes up. In terms of what a school should do, I think that it’s really important for a school to have a clear mission statement and a clear set of policies and then to gently coach parents about how they think each situation might be best handled. I think it’s natural to have disagreement around that kind of thing.

Zibby: I feel like there should be — you know how a lot of schools have — well, at least some of the many schools my kids go to, we have to a sign something about the behavior of the kids.

Kathleen: Yes, I think that’s really important.

Zibby: But it doesn’t often address the behavior of the parents and how involved they should be. I feel like maybe schools should just nip it in the bud by…

Kathleen: Yeah. My last school has that, a document that is just like — I don’t remember what the official title of the document is, but it says a protocol or a chain of communication. It has a list of what the teachers are expected to do as well, so what a parent can expect from a teacher and then what a teacher can expect from a parent. I think having a document like that can really help both sides.

Zibby: Tell me more about the writing of this book. Also, I want to know what your students think about this book in your community. Are they rallying behind you and getting totally fired up that one of their teachers is —

Kathleen: — Yes.

Zibby: Yes? I would think so. Let’s talk about that.

Kathleen: I wrote this book. I’m forty-one now. I started thinking about writing a book about five years ago. Before that, I had just kind of cruised through my life. I’d wanted to be a teacher. I became a teacher right out of college. I got married and had two children. Then all of a sudden, I was in my late thirties. I hadn’t written that book yet. It kind of started as a New Year’s resolution. I thought, this is the year I will reclaim my writer identity. I will practice writing a book. In that first year, I worked on a totally different story that was a multigenerational family saga, really not good and highly autobiographical in probably some inappropriate ways. That went back in —

Zibby: — That sounds really good to me.

Kathleen: I just think I wasn’t the right writer for that at the time. I’ve read some great multigenerational family sagas, and mine was not one of those. Then I had that spark of an idea around the sixth-grade musical. That project went away, and this project was born. To make time to write with my full-time job and my kids, that just became really early morning endeavor. My writing time was 4:45 to 6:15.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What time would the alarm go off? 4:30?

Kathleen: 4:42. Then I would roll out of bed.

Zibby: Wow, and start writing right away? There’s not even time for coffee.

Kathleen: I think I probably started typing around 4:51 or something like that. I did that weekdays for three years.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What time do you go to bed at night?

Kathleen: Between nine and ten probably, so not very late. Other writers I know are night people. They can stay up after their children and do it then. That just wasn’t my way. Writing the book was great. When I worked on it, I talked about it with my students a lot. I think it added a sense of authenticity to my teaching in my writer’s workshops with my kids. I would put little segments that I was working on into my mini-lesson and talk about how I had revised that part of what my goal was for that part. It was great for me too as a writer, thinking about how stressful the publishing process can be, because the kids would say, “Are we going to be able to get this in a bookstore? Are you going to get it published?” I would be able to tell them, “I can’t control that. I don’t know. That’s not really the point of writing the book. The point of writing the book is to see if I can do it and to work on my skills as a writer.” Having to talk them through that reminded me of that as well. It was great. My teaching community, they were very excited when I announced that the book was going to be published. Then when I told them about the plot of the book, many families said, “Oh, no. You wrote a book about me.” I feel really good about the arch of the characters in the book and the helicopter mom in the book. It’s not based on any one real person. I would never want any parents to think that I had skewered them in the book. It had always been my goal to be a teacher. It’s been such an honor to be part of these families’ lives. I want people to feel good about themselves when they’re reading it.

Zibby: I would think that was so neat if one of my teachers had a book come out.

Kathleen: They’ve all been really excited. Some of the students that I had even closer to the beginning of my career have reached out. That’s been really fun and rewarding too.

Zibby: How did it work with getting it published, getting an agent?

Kathleen: That part wasn’t as hard as some of the stories that I’ve heard. I think there are a few factors about that. I waited a long time in my writing life to try to pursue publication, so I think my skills had grown. I also approached it with a real detachment. I thought, well, I’m going to try to get an agent. I probably won’t get an agent. I didn’t feel like I was hanging on so, so tight. I think that helped me. Also, the timeliness of the subject matter of the book I think really helped. You can’t predict what’s going to happen. You can’t predict that Felicity Huffman will pay thousands of dollars to get her kid into college. I think having parenting in the zeitgeist is really helpful to the book now.

Zibby: Definitely. You must have been so happy reading the paper, like, oh, look at this. This is perfect.

Kathleen: I felt bad, of course, that it was happening.

Zibby: I know. You had a funny post from your blog, which you kept forever.

Kathleen: Forever.

Zibby: I had so much fun peeking through the different years. This is from November 2006.

Kathleen: Oh, wow.

Zibby: This is about parent-teacher conferences. You wrote, “The first of the conferences with the sophs –” the sophomores, I’m assuming.

Kathleen: Yeah.

Zibby: “– sophomores’ parents were pretty fun, except for the one where the mom questioned my qualifications, my assignments, my judgment, my choice of reading material, and my ability to connect with kids all the while pounding the table and chanting, ‘He does not get B+s.’ It’s true, I could’ve lived without that one.”

Kathleen: Yes. I can’t believe you found that in there. I remember that conference.

Zibby: Did that really happen?

Kathleen: Oh, yes. One hundred percent that happened. That was the same mom — I mean, she was very upset. Later that spring, she — I had a great year with that kid. He really enjoyed the class. We had a super good relationship. I think she ended up feeling sort of sheepish about that conference towards the end of the year. She ended up writing me a note at the end, so things turned out okay. Things happen like that all the time in teaching. Those are the things you remember. It’s probably one out of one hundred conferences that’s like that, or maybe five, but not more than five out of a hundred. Those are the ones, still fifteen years later, I could recount the entire thing. What you’re supposed to do if you are in a conference like that — for that conference, I was at a high school. I had a line in front of my table. You’re supposed to do your two-minute conference. It’s super short. If it goes wrong, you’re supposed to stand up and say, “It’s obvious we’re going to need more time. Let’s reschedule.” She came around the back of the table when I said that and was in my space. After I finished, I got her to leave my area, I actually had to tell my line to wait. I had to go to the bathroom, compose myself, and come back. That one was pretty traumatic.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. It’s so funny because I feel like so many teachers, and maybe I’m just speaking for you, go into teaching for the love of kids and love of education. Yet you have so much parent management as part of your job. One of my kid’s schools, they have to take a whole day off so the teachers can write the reports to send to the parents, like a report-writing day.

Kathleen: Yes, we have that too.

Zibby: Do I care that much about these reports? I know my kids. Give me the five-minute rundown, and let’s all save that whole day.

Kathleen: I didn’t imagine that parent management would be part of my job. I decided to be a teacher when I was eleven years old. It was really what I wanted to do. I even saved all the handouts from my English teachers going through high school in a little filing cabinet labeled by book title. I didn’t use that stuff, obviously, when I got into the field. It didn’t occur to me at all that parents would be a major part of my job until I actually started in the classroom. Like I said before, I can understand it, especially after my own kids were born. Then I had this empathy infusion of what was really going on when they were calling me, and this overwhelming love and fear for my children. I do get it, but it’s not my favorite part.

Zibby: You’re also a huge reader. You have a huge Goodreads following. You’re always coming up with your favorite books and lists and things like that. Tell me about your love of reading and what types of books you like the most.

Kathleen: That’s a great question. I was a super voracious reader as a kid. Then in those busy years of having my job and my kids and blah, blah, blah, I kind of lost that reader identity. The year before I had my New Year’s resolution to reclaim my writer identity, I had my fifty-two books a year New Year’s resolution which I’ve continued on through the years.

Zibby: You need to send me your New Year’s resolutions because they’re inspiring such great things.

Kathleen: Well, that one is always the same.

Zibby: Next January, you just send me an email about whatever yours is.

Kathleen: Here it is, Zibby. This is what I’m going to do. Okay. When I was teaching — this year, I’m not teaching for the first time in a long time. I read a lot of middle grade and young adult books because of my job. That’s a really favorite category of mine. I read a lot of so-called women’s fiction like my own book. I read pretty widely. I try to make sure that I have a balance of nonfiction and fiction. I try to read literary fiction and thrillers and mysteries. I like that. There’s not too many genres that I’m not interested in. I would say that I don’t read a lot of historical fiction. I’m not a huge reader of that genre, but I will. If there’s a book that everybody is talking about, then usually I want to be a part of it. I’ll read it.

Zibby: When do you find the time to read?

Kathleen: I read every night before bed. It does really motivate me now. I’m revealing a little bit of my personality. Like the New Year’s resolution, if I say I’m going to do it, then I will do it. I’m behind right now. I’m a book behind on my book a week. I know that in the back of my head, and so that might make me change my plans a little bit. I might turn off The Bachelor or something before the rose ceremony and catch up the next day so that I have time to read a few more pages before bed. I just put it into little spaces, if I’m waiting for my kids at their sports practices or whatever. I do audiobooks too. That really helps. Those count for me in my total.

Zibby: Of course they count.

Kathleen: Yes, I love them.

Zibby: I mean, they’re the same books oftentimes, or new great books. That’s great. When you were writing, it is always in the same — do you have a ritual? It sounds like you’re very programmed. During these morning periods, desk? Kitchen table?

Kathleen: No, couch. There’s a couch. I have a family room that’s attached to the kitchen, so that would be where I sat. I have a little blanket that’s made out of sleeping bag material. This is a lot of detail about the —

Zibby: I like it.

Kathleen: I just roll out of bed in my pajamas and usually put on a sweatshirt, sit in the same place on that couch with my blanket. When I first started, I had a four-hundred-word quota. I had to get that done within that time. If I didn’t, then I would have to find another time to get up to four hundred, so during recess or something at school or whatever, a spare moment. I needed to get it in. Then once I practiced for a while, four hundred became pretty easy to accomplish. Then I would up it to six hundred or whatever as I went. It is kind of a relief now. This year, I’m writing full time. It’s a relief not to have to do that or have that kind of very strict mentality, word count and minutes and all of that. I have a little more flexibility which is really nice.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Kathleen: I just turned in a draft of my next book. I’m pretty excited about it. I’ve been telling people the big difference is about the kids. I love writing about kids and teenagers. In Minor Dramas, I have two teenagers that are point-of-view characters. They are really perfect. They do everything right. They have their own values, fully formed personalities, great people. It’s their parents that are making all the mistakes, and their teachers that are making the mistake. In my second book, I really started to think about what happens when the kids make mistakes and how those mistakes impact parents’ reputations. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. If you get your kid’s report card and it’s all A’s or something, you feel like you’ve earned some mother-of-the-year points, like, I must have done a great job this semester. If your kid’s hockey team wins their game, then people tell you congratulations. I wish, as a mom and as a teacher, that we could separate ourselves a little bit more from our kids’ identities and our kids’ failures and accomplishments. In the second book, I have kids making big mistakes and parents thinking about how that impacts their relationships and their reputations.

Zibby: Interesting. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Kathleen: Yes. I think that you should just do it. If people tell me, “I think I’d like to write a book,” my advice is just start it. Just start it. Just keep writing it even if it’s terrible. That’s my thing. I still do have a word count in mind for the day. I don’t have to do it within in a really short period of time anymore. If I just give myself permission to write something terrible, then I can usually get through it. It’s so much easier to fix something terrible than it is to start fresh. Just write down the bad stuff.

Zibby: Do you have a clue of what your next New Year’s resolution is going to be?

Kathleen: I’m trying to think. I’ll still have my fifty-two books. That one has been in every year. This year instead of setting a specific goal for 2020, my goal with the book coming out and with so many things I can’t control with the book coming out — I can’t set a goal of X number of people to buy the book, for instance. I can’t make that happen. I told myself my resolution this year was to take one thing at a time. It’s kind of an anti-resolution. It’s not really like me, but that’s what I’m doing.

Zibby: But you need it.

Kathleen: I need it, yeah.

Zibby: That’s great. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Kathleen: Thank you for having me. This is so fun to chat with you about this. Thanks.

Zibby: Congratulations again.

Kathleen: Thank you.