Katie Hafner, THE BOYS

Katie Hafner, THE BOYS

Former staff writer at The New York Times Katie Hafner joins Zibby to discuss her debut novel, The Boys, which grew out of a conversation she and her daughter overheard on a vacation years ago. The two talk about Katie’s thoughts on her own twist ending, why she wanted to work with a smaller publisher, and her love story with her late husband. Katie also shares why she warns writers to be careful when writing memoirs and why it was so freeing, as a journalist and non-fiction author, to make up her own set of facts.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Boys and your career and your other books and everything else.

Katie Hafner: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: First, tell listeners what your book is about so we have a frame of reference.

Katie: This is always the, what is your book about? First of all, it’s my first novel.

Zibby: I know. Congratulations.

Katie: I’m a journalist. I like to say I’m a journalist who just got an idea for fiction and ran with it. Before I knew it, I had a book. It’s what I’ve come understand is called the relationship genre. In fact, you could narrow it down to the troubled relationship genre. It’s really about the challenges of relationships, particularly between people who are opposites and particularly during a pandemic, even though the pandemic is more of the backdrop and definitely not the centerpiece of the story. Then it’s about adding children to the mix and how children are often intended to lubricate the rough edges of a relationship. They can also serve to be one more source of friction. It’s that writ small in this relationship between my two main characters.

Zibby: One of your characters has two brothers, right? Isn’t that what it is? Two brothers come. They become their foster children.

Katie: One the characters actually — they should be the brothers, but they end up — the main character’s named Ethan. He’s very socially awkward but in a very endearing kind of way. He falls in love with this woman named Barb. They get married. They’re really opposite. She’s very gregarious. She’s very outgoing. He gets very worried about having kids for reasons I won’t go into. He’s totally neurotic about it. She talks him into it. They can’t have kids, so they adopt. First, they take in these foster kids. That’s who the boys are. It’s these two kids. Imagine taking in these foster kids from Russia.

Zibby: I know. I thought about that, by the way, from Ukraine. I was like, I could just take a few Ukrainians.

Katie: Yeah, a couple kids from Russia. They don’t speak any English. Then the pandemic comes. He gets overly attached to these boys. That’s when tragedy sets in. It drives her away, Barb. You don’t really know what to make of her in the first half of the book. Then after she leaves, he takes the boys on this bike trip to Italy. You know those upscale bike trips where they take everything —

Zibby: — I’ve seen pictures.

Katie: They take all your luggage and everything. He takes the boys on this bike trip to Italy. Then that’s where there’s a twist. That’s where this reveal comes in. I think it’s what’s getting the book some early attention. How did she pull off this reveal? I didn’t know how I’d do it when I started, but I figured it out. The reveal comes pretty late. It comes in the last third of the book. Then you see the rest of the story through — have you seen the movie The Sixth Sense or Get Out?

Zibby: No.

Katie: No. That’s right, you have four kids. Moms don’t have time to watch movies. The Sixth Sense is this very famous movie where you don’t learn until the last minute of the film what was going on for the first hour and fifty-nine minutes. This is a little bit like that because you want to go back. In The Sixth Sense, you want to go back and look for the clues. Same with the movie Get Out. That’s what this is. It’s a little sneaky.

Zibby: You’ve written narrative nonfiction books, memoir, everything. What was it about this? Which part of this converted you to becoming a novelist?

Katie: The way I got the idea was that my daughter and I, who’s now in her twenties, we were on one of these bike trips. Something happened one night. Someone said something. I can’t tell you what it is because that would give it away. My daughter turned to me. She said, “Mom, that’s a novel.” I’d written maybe one short story in my life that never got published. It was in college. I said, “You’re right.” You know how most people would say, “You’re right. Maybe Ann Patchett would write something like that”? I thought, why don’t I try it? Zibby, my imagination went a little crazy. You’d hear this story and you’d think, what could possibly have been going on to create this situation? I just thought, you know, why not? I’ve been a journalist for a very long time, most of that time with The New York Times, kind of tyrannized by facts, getting stuff right. You wake up in the middle of the night and you think, oh, my gosh, did that name Carol have an E at the end? Are we going to have to run a correction? I have had some really embarrassing corrections. You just hated it. The corrections are just so frightening.

I thought, okay, in fiction, it’s like, how old is she? I don’t know. How old do you think she should be? It’s very different. I’ve written six previous books of nonfiction. Everything has to be correct. However, I can say that my life as a reporter has informed this book to no end. For a while, I’ve been writing about older adults and loneliness, which is a huge problem among older adults, especially those who live alone. I just ran with it in this book. I made one of the main characters a psychologist who studies the phenomenon of loneliness among older adults. I did a big story for The Times about it a few years ago and decided to turn that into part of the book. I think that a lifetime of reporting helps a lot because it grounds — I think that it’s very perilous to try to write fiction if you’re a journalist because it’s so liberating. A lot of journalists kind of go off the deep end. There’s this famous New York Times reporter who shall remain unnamed who, years and years and years ago, wrote this incredibly raunchy book. The first pages are like, ew. You don’t even want to touch it. He’s this shlubby little guy. You’re like, whoa.

Zibby: It is troublesome to see inside some people’s imagination and have it not be expected, necessarily.

Katie: I know, very troubling. Oh, my gosh, yeah. It was like, get me out of here. He’s a prime example of someone who was too unrestrained by the fiction. Fiction can be, for journalists, both liberating and paralyzing because anything can happen. You can go anywhere with the story. I needed to kind of know what was going to happen so that I wouldn’t go too crazy. That was an interesting exercise.

Zibby: How long did that whole process take you?

Katie: About three years. I thought it would be easy because it’s like, oh, you just make it up, versus nonfiction where you’re reporting. You’re traveling. You’re in archives. You’re interviewing a hundred people. For very, very different reasons — there’s continuity. There’s the plot. There’s the seeding of the story. You know the whole thing. Then I had to drop the clues at the beginning of the book. Then I had to wrap it up plausibly in the latter half of the book. I had to make sure that the reader didn’t lose faith because there’s so much of a leap of imagination the reader is then asked to take. It went through a lot of drafts. Then when Cindy Spiegel, in her reincarnated Spiegel & Grau — she read it. She said that when she read the reveal, she just started to laugh. She just said, what? That’s why she wanted the book, which isn’t to say it didn’t need a total overhaul, which it did and it got thanks to her. She’s a genius. She just gets it. She understands fiction. She understands story. She understands characters. I think that one thing that I didn’t have a problem with was dialogue. I’m a reporter, so I’m quoting people all the time. I know what actual real people have said.

Zibby: Wow.

Katie: I know. It’s been a journey.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Spiegel & Grau is a publisher that just launched last year, their first books, right?

Katie: Right.

Zibby: What made you decide to go with them?

Katie: I had been at, it was then Random House, now Penguin Random House. It’s so easy to get lost in the Random House machine. I’d been at Simon & Schuster. I’d been at Scribner and then at Bloomsbury. I thought, I just want to go with a really small house. I was thinking a literary house. I just didn’t want to do that again with the big people. They’ve gotten even bigger. They’ve consolidated even more. They have their stars. In fact, Cindy Spiegel and Julie Grau, they had wanted this memoir that I wrote, Mother Daughter Me, that Susan Kamil at Penguin Random House then bought. They said to me later that they always considered me the fish that got away, which is nice to hear. When The Boys came to Cindy’s attention, she wanted it. She took it knowing it needed a total overhaul.

Zibby: I have to go back now and read your memoir. Tell me more about your memoir.

Katie: I would counsel people to think very hard before embarking on a memoir. The memoir was really a tough one to write. It was about three generations of women under one roof, so my mother and my daughter, who was a teenager at the time, and me. That’s why it’s called Mother Daughter Me. We brought my mother to live with us in San Francisco. I was a single mom. My husband had died. My daughter and I were like the walking wounded. I thought it would be this wonderful thing. It was such wishful thinking. It was a total fairy tale. Oh, we’ll all live together. It’ll be our year in Provence. It was a year in purgatory and then pure hell. It didn’t go well, partly because my mother didn’t raise me, so you build up this fantasy of the mother you think you have. It wasn’t the mother I actually have, which isn’t to say she’s, in any way, a bad person. I had superimposed my fantasy on who she would be living with me. I think my daughter did the same thing. We yearned for family. We had lost her dad. It was an unmitigated catastrophe. She ended up moving out. It’s very upsetting. She was very, very upset by the book and doesn’t speak to me.

Zibby: Really?

Katie: Yeah. She kept the lawyers at Random House very, very busy for quite a while. That’s why I’m saying to people —

Zibby: — Interesting.

Katie: I know. No wonder I wanted to write fiction, right? Plus, I had so many dodgy characters in my own life. I had a super terrible childhood where my sister and I were taken away from our mother when we were very little. I was in the stepfamily from hell. It was terrible. There were so many dodgy characters in my life. I was going to write a novel — tell me what you think of this — where everyone is a good person at their core. I think that what a lot of people say is that goodness writes white, i.e., bland. I just thought, you know what? Let the other people write the dark books. What do you think? Do you like edgy stuff?

Zibby: I think everybody being nice and good is interesting. Not everybody has to be malicious as long as there’s some sort of conflict.

Katie: There is a conflict. There’s a conflict between these really good people. The reader is misled into thinking that Barb, the wife, is nasty. Then you get it that she’s really good.

Zibby: This is like my husband only wanting to hear good news for a while.

Katie: Same, same. I’ve started subscribing to Nice News.

Zibby: I just had on a podcast — it’s not called Nice News, but it’s similar. I’m blanking on the name. Good News Nation, maybe. Anyway, it’s all posting about good news. I like that. We need a little bit more of that in our lives.

Katie: If people want to go live in Ethan and Barb’s world for — it’s a quick read, a couple days. Why not? Then we can worry about the fact that nobody can get an abortion anymore.

Zibby: Exactly, oh, my god. Wait, can I ask how your husband died? You don’t have to answer.

Katie: We had met growing up in Western Massachusetts. Our fathers started a college in Amherst, Massachusetts, together, Hampshire College. We met when I was ten and he was eleven. We were together on and off through high school. He came and found me when I was older. We got married. We had our daughter. When he was forty-five — perfect health. He had just had a physical. He had perfect blood pressure, perfect cholesterol, ran five miles a day, played a lot of tennis, and was on a treadmill. Classic story when he was forty-four. Our daughter was eight.

Zibby: He had a heart attack?

Katie: He had a heart attack.

Zibby: I’m forty-five, and I have an eight-year-old. This is terrible.

Katie: It’s terrible.

Zibby: I’m so sorry this happened to you. It’s terrible. It’s really terrible. I’m sorry.

Katie: Thank you. It’s been a while. I think it’s the fact that he can’t see her. She has blossomed unbelievably. She just got her MD and is starting her residency. She’s a star. She’s beautiful. She looks one hundred percent like him. She is him in so many ways. He and I had named her after someone we went to high school with in Amherst. We have moved on. I’m remarried to someone who I adore. He read my novel, this person I’m married to now. He must have read it twenty times.

Zibby: Aw.

Katie: I know. He doesn’t even read. How many books have you read in the last year? Oh, twenty. Well, it was the same one. It was a manuscript, but twenty. It was all different each time, a little bit different.

Zibby: That’s really funny.

Katie: It is very funny.

Zibby: Where do you live?

Katie: We live in San Francisco, but I’m talking to you now from New Hampshire because we have a summer house in New Hampshire. We’re here now. He has a job that is not very mobile, so he has to go home tomorrow and go back to work. He helped me bring the dog out. He’s at UCSF, which is a really great medical school. He’s chair of medicine there. He’s so proud of her, of my daughter.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. After all of your whole writing career and everything you’ve gone through, is there anything you wish you’d done differently? Do you feel like it was meant to be that now the novel is coming out?

Katie: My stepsister, who I’m still very close to, she just read it. She said — I should read it to you. She’s great. She has a wonderful critical eye. She used to be the literary director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. She said, “You have a novelist’s sensibility, my dear. Plot is your new best friend.” Isn’t that nice? Thank you, Julie, for saying that. She pointed out a few inconsistencies, which I won’t dwell on here. I said, “Yeah, I kind of knew about that, but I was just so tired.” Maybe I’m gilding the lily here, but I think I needed to wait all these years to write a novel just because I need that store of knowledge and wisdom. I think I would’ve written Kafka-like, dark stuff in my younger years. Now it’s like, why do that? As I’ve said, let other those other people be dark.

Zibby: We’re sticking with the good. Amazing. Katie, thank you so much. This has been really fun. I think you should put “Plot is your new best friend” up on the fridge or something like that. I just love that.

Katie: Thanks, Zibby. Congratulations. Is your book called Bookends?

Zibby: It is.

Katie: What’s the subtitle? I can’t read that there.

Zibby: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature. I talk about all the other books I’ve read along the way through the in my own life. I’ll send you a copy if you want. I’m trying to send it to all the guests on the podcast.

Katie: Yes, please do. That’s great. It’s wonderful. Congratulations.

Zibby: Thank you. You too.

Katie: Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Katie Hafner, THE BOYS

THE BOYS by Katie Hafner

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