Katie Russell Newland, A SEASON WITH MOM

Katie Russell Newland, A SEASON WITH MOM

Before Katie Russell Newland’s mom died, the two planned to visit every Major League Baseball stadium in the country. After overcoming health issues of her own, Katie decided to finally complete her mother’s wish. Her debut memoir, A Season with Mom, tells the story of Katie’s journey in the form of letters to her mother documenting what she learned about herself and their relationship, and has already been optioned by Kaley Cuoco’s production company!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss A Season with Mom: Love, Loss, and the Ultimate Baseball Adventure, with forward by Peyton Manning, which is quite impressive.

Katie Russell Newland: Thanks, Zibby. Thank you for having me today.

Zibby: Of course. I love the epistolary form of this memoir. It’s like a memoir in letters versus a memoir in essays. It’s so great. There aren’t that many books like that these days. Tell me about how you decided to do it like this. Did you write these letters as you went on this trip? Did you, in retrospect, take your experiences and make them into letters? Tell listeners the whole premise of the book and how you pulled it off.

Katie: Like you said, A Season with Mom is a memoir in photographs and letters about a journey I took to see all thirty Major League baseball parks in one season. There’s one letter for each ballpark, so there’s thirty letters to my mom. I chose to write it that way because I felt like letters are an intimate language. I wanted readers to feel like they were sort of eavesdropping on our relationship. I did not set out to write a book when I did the journey. It was only a few years later that I made the decision to do it, so I certainly didn’t write them as I went along. I was journaling along the way and posting on Instagram some. It was sort of my entry into social media when I did the journey. One thing that a lot of readers have asked me is, did I write them in order? I didn’t. I didn’t write each letter as they are in the book currently. I went where the emotion was or where the energy was. I wrote them in a different order and at different times.

Zibby: That’s interesting. I would’ve thought it would’ve been chronological too. First of all, how did your mom pass away? You mentioned you were thirty-two at the time. Tell me what happened there. Then I want to hear about your own illness which you wrote about, which I hope you don’t mind going into. I always like hearing all the dramatic bits.

Katie: No, of course. It was certainly the genesis of the book and the journey, so it’s an important piece. My mom and I actually had a dream to go see all thirty Major League ballparks when I was a kid. My mom was an exuberant personality. She was a go-getter. She was spontaneous. She was everything that I wasn’t. Cubs and baseball were the one thing that bonded us. I grew up in New Orleans. We followed the Cubs because WGN televised all their games. That was our special bond that we had. Being one of six kids, it was my way into getting some attention from her. One summer, we decided to go see the Cubs play when I was thirteen. We were eating at Harry Caray’s restaurant. She turned out of the blue and at the top of her lungs shouted, “Let’s go see all the ballparks!” The whole restaurant turned. I was mortified, as many thirteen-year-olds are by their mom. I sort of hid behind the menu. Secretly, I was kind of excited and wondered, are we going to be able to do this? We started on our journey. We had seen about ten ballparks. Unfortunately, when I was about twenty-nine, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She passed away from that a few years later. Three years after she passed away, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and melanoma. I think it wasn’t until those two life-altering experiences that I realized, why hadn’t I done that dream we wanted to do? Life is short. Facing my own mortality, I was determined to start living my life and following those dreams I had. I thought, you know, I’m going to go and do it. I went on the journey in search of my mom and to understand my mom and process her death. In the end, I sort of found myself and learned a lot about who I am and what I want out of life. That’s what the book is a lot about.

Zibby: Wow. You mentioned that when your cancer was in remission, you got a nerve disorder. Tell me what that was like.

Katie: It’s called Lhermitte’s sign. My oncologist, I remember telling me, “This only happens in one or two percent.” Don’t quote me on the percentage, but it was a very low percentage of people who got it. She’s like, “Oh, you’re the lucky one.” It’s when radiation gets to your spinal cord. About three months after treatment, I was back in Austin from having lived in Houston and going to MD Anderson every week. I thought, yes, I’m going to go live my life. I’m so excited. I was in the middle of a PhD program. I needed to write my dissertation. Three months outside of my treatment, which is typically the onset of Lhermitte’s, I would get this shock down my body every time I would hang my head. Even my oncologist was like, “Not a good idea to run.” Some people have fallen when they try. I wasn’t really exercising. I wasn’t moving. In some small way, it was a gift, as I try to find the gifts in every moment, even the challenging ones. I sat in my seat for three or four months and wrote my dissertation, but it wasn’t fun, especially when I felt like it was time for me to go live my life.

Zibby: That’s a lot to go through at a relatively young age. Why did you end up writing this? Why is this coming out now? Why are you ready now? How did it happen today?

Katie: I think it happened organically. As I said, I had no intention of writing a book. Actually, I’ve always wanted to be a children’s book author. I was attending conferences with agents and editors to pitch my picture books. I would tell them the story. They’d say, “Yeah, yeah, that’s cute. That’s a lovely story, but the story you really need to tell is the baseball story.” I kept getting signs from the universe. Three years after my journey, people would still reach out and write to me. It seemed like it had hit a note with people. I thought, you know what, I think I need to follow the signs. If I’d learned anything from the baseball journey, it was to get quiet, to get still, to listen to what’s coming in from the universe. I taught myself how to write a proposal and went off and wrote it and found an amazing agent. I feel like it was really lucky. Also, I feel like I have gotten better at learning, what’s my next move? from the baseball journey.

Zibby: You saw an actual game at all these places, right? You have who’s playing who and the whole thing.

Katie: Yes.

Zibby: Look at how cute.

Katie: That’s actually my niece too. She looks so similar to me.

Zibby: I know. I was like, is this you as a child, or what? Oh, my gosh.

Katie: People have said, I love that picture of you as a kid. I’m like, that’s not me.

Zibby: All of your chapters are centered around certain lessons that you learned from those places, from everything from being calm to being grateful, all of that. Were those obvious to you when you started writing the chapters? Which of those things do you feel like you actually still do and incorporate in your life?

Katie: It’s such a good question. I had no idea that that would be the framework that would come out. What I did was, because I had just spent seven years in a research program, my qualitative researcher self came out, and I went back to all of the images I had taken. I had thousands and thousands of images. I stepped back and I looked across the data. I started to see what themes emerged at each ballpark. For me, I think that was important because I was close to the story. I needed to detach from it a little bit in order to see what was really there and what would resonate with readers. That’s what I did. The themes emerged from that qualitative research look across the images. I actually selected the images first before I did any of the writing, which I thought was kind of interesting. When I went to write the letters, I didn’t actually know what story I would use. When I approached the writing, I used a lot of spreadsheets and had a big outline and plan. When I actually went to write the letter, I let all of that go. I was open to whatever the writing would uncover as I was in the act of writing. Yes, there were certain stories I knew were important in this journey. I didn’t actually know where they would go in the book or when they would see themselves. In that act, I just realized, and what I learned by going through the whole thing, and my mom was trying to teach me my whole life, was, just be, Katie. Just be. Let go and be. Be present. Be in the moment. I think that’s what the whole message of the book is. I thought, oh, that’s what it is. It’s these little “be” themes. Be in the moment. Be present. Be compassionate. My parents were always teaching me about compassion and giving to others. I think that’s how it emerged. I certainly didn’t set out for that to be the case, but that’s what it became.

Zibby: What did you get your PhD in?

Katie: Language and literacy in the education department. I work with students who want to become teachers, so how to teach reading and writing to elementary kids.

Zibby: Did you end up doing that at all?

Katie: I did. After I returned from the journey, I went back to UT and was a clinical assistant professor there and did that work and loved it, every second of it. As anyone who’s a teacher knows, it’s a full-time job beyond nine to five. If I were ever going to write the book, I knew I had to step away in order to do that work. I’m not great at boundaries and helping others. I thought, let me give it a shot and take some time off and do it. It ended up working out.

Zibby: How long did it take to write the book?

Katie: I actually wrote a large percentage of it during the pandemic. In some ways, it was a gift to have that time and space to be in my chair. In other ways, it was challenging. I don’t know about you, but it stifled my creativity a bit, not being in community with others and talking about ideas. That’s where I generate thoughts and ideas in writing, is talking and in connection with others. It was an interesting space, as I’m sure most authors have talked about, to write in the pandemic.

Zibby: It’s so funny. In some ways, I don’t feel like much time has gone by since then. Then everyone, recently, I’ve been interviewing is like, I wrote this during the pandemic. I’m like, okay, clearly, a lot of time has passed because now I’m reading what everybody was thinking or doing then. It’s kind of interesting.

Katie: It is interesting. You did a lot of writing during the pandemic, right?

Zibby: I did, yeah.

Katie: Your anthology came out.

Zibby: I did a lot of reading and writing and interviewing and crying and all the rest. It’s so cool. I had a friend from college, actually, who, this was their — I should put you in touch with him. He did the same thing. He toured all the stadiums. He’s wonderful, one of my oldest friends.

Katie: Did he do it in one season, or over time?

Zibby: I feel like something happened and he had to postpone or something. I don’t know. It was going to be right after college. I feel like he waited.

Katie: I love that.

Zibby: It was definitely a goal. I was like, oh, great, she did it. Do you like to read a lot? What do you like to read? Did any of the books you read during this time inform how you approached this book or anything like that?

Katie: Oh, yeah, definitely. I think we all lean on authors for mentor texts in how we write and our ideas. Certainly, there was a little bit of Brené Brown quality in the way I approached it, the qualitative researcher part of her. I’m a huge fan, obviously, as many people are, of her and her work and the way she talks about relationships and compassion and how to cultivate those things in your life. There was that piece of her work being based in qualitative research that sort of guided me in a lot of ways. I think that oftentimes, whatever I’m reading at the time shows up in my writing. It’s fascinating. It doesn’t matter what it is or why I grabbed it. I don’t know. I’ll start reading, and it somehow shows up in my writing, whether it was during this book or in journal entries or in social media posts. I feel like words and authors come to you at the exact time they’re supposed to.

Zibby: I love that. I always hope that’s the case. I’m just going to keep putting it out there and see what happens. Are you going to do more books? What’s your plan now? Do you want to go back to teaching?

Katie: I certainly want to get back into classrooms. My life’s work has been around kids, centered around children’s literature. I’m actually working on a picture book, which is very exciting, which is a fictionalized retelling of A Season with Mom about a little girl and her mom who go to the ballparks. She’s named Wrigley. You have to find out whether she strikes out or she has the follow-through to see it come true. I’m working on that, which would be a dream of mine to get back into schools with kids and reading and doing that work. That’s going on. Then I optioned the movie rights, actually, to the book right when the book came out. I feel very fortunate to be able to do that. That’s exciting, and not only to option it, but that it’s with Kaley Cuoco. She’s just such an amazing actress. She’s so talented. More than that, I didn’t know her, obviously, prior to her reaching out, and she’s just such a kind human being. Her whole team, they care about the world and people. It’s one thing to write a work of fiction that gets optioned. When it’s your life, that is super scary and anxiety-producing. To have Kaley and her team and her production company, Yes, Norman, take it under their wing has just been such a bright light. I’m very grateful.

Zibby: Wow. When you said you optioned it, I thought you meant you optioned it yourself.

Katie: Oh, no. Kaley optioned the rights.

Zibby: Got it. I was like, oh, that’s interesting. Do you have to option your own rights? Maybe this is a whole thing. I was going down a whole intellectual spiral there.

Katie: No, no. I know nothing about the industry. I’m a first-time author. All of this is new to me, so I wouldn’t even know how to go about doing that. Yes, Norman Productions, which is backed by Warner Bros., and Kaley optioned the rights. It’s super exciting.

Zibby: That’s great. It’s really exciting. That is so cool. Amazing. Are you still going out — maybe this is a stupid question. I don’t follow sports at all anymore. I was going to say, are you going to baseball games? There are baseball games on, right?

Katie: Yeah, they’re back.

Zibby: Okay, good. Great.

Katie: They’re back to full capacity. My husband and I just got back from the San Diego area. We went to the Padres games. I talk in the book about the Padres. They have a long history of not really doing well. They’ve, in the last two years, really built a great team and an exciting team. We got to go see that game. The contrast between watching a Padres game with my husband this year compared to when I watched during my baseball journey, it was just such a stark contrast. It’s kind of a reminder to readers, too, that life, in some points, are challenging and difficult, but beyond the hardship is light and opportunity to go after your dreams. With the Padres, they were so down. They were not very good. Now all of a sudden, they’re just fantastic. It was fun to go see an actual live game given that we haven’t been in public much in the last year and a half.

Zibby: I used to go to baseball games a lot as a kid. My brother was a huge Mets fan. I’m going to date myself here. We were huge fans of the 1986 Mets. We would watch the “Let’s Go Mets Go” videos all the time.

Katie: I love it.

Zibby: I knew everybody on that team. Actually — when was it? A couple years ago, maybe, within the last five years, I was in an airport and I ran into Darryl Strawberry, who was on the Mets at that time. I freaked out. I was like, I have to go talk to him. I don’t usually talk to anybody I see who’s famous in any way. I went right up to him. I was like, “Oh, my god, I loved you in 1986.” We got our picture taken. It’s so embarrassing.

Katie: Aw. Do you still have that photo?

Zibby: Oh, yes.

Katie: I love it. You’ll have to send that to me.

Zibby: Okay, I’ll send you the photo. I didn’t like the photo because I looked bad in the photo. I’m like, oh, but my arm. It’s so silly.

Katie: We can find all kinds of reasons to not like photos of ourselves, right?

Zibby: Ridiculous. Yeah, but that was a highlight. There’s something about being in a baseball stadium and just chilling out and being outside and the smells and the sounds and how rare it is that something exciting happens. You all have to get up. I get it. You can go and not even watch. It’s a really great place to be.

Katie: It is. It’s sort of a meditative experience. It was certainly a meditative experience for me doing the journey. I think that what you’re talking about with baseball with the sights and the sounds and a feeling of being connected to one another — it doesn’t matter who you’re sitting next to. You don’t know when you go to the game, who’s going to be surrounded by you. It doesn’t matter your religious preferences, your political beliefs, even your team affiliation. They could be rooting for the other team. In that moment, you feel connected to the people around you. I think that’s a such a powerful thing and such a thing that we need right now, is to feel connected to people that are different than us. I think baseball and music does that. That’s the appeal, for me at least, for being at a baseball game.

Zibby: What do you think your mom would say now if she read the book?

Katie: That’s such a good question. I think she would be super excited. More than anything, I think she would just be proud of me. I think that she would be proud of the patience that I had during some really challenging times. I think she’d be proud of my persistence in actually completing the dream. Dreams often fade over time. They lose their original inspiration. Life nudges us to go in a different way. Oftentimes, we think that dreams can’t happen, but maybe they can. Maybe they can be reimagined. The dream my mom and I had certainly was not going to happen in the way in which we dreamed it. In the end, I was able to reimagine it. I went on a journey of a lifetime. It was bigger and better than anything I could’ve ever dreamt up myself. I think that’s what she would be proud of.

Zibby: Aw, that’s great. Last question. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Katie: Oh, gosh, lots having just entered this world. One thing that I think is really important and was important for me is, know your process. Stick to it. Be competent in it. No two writers write the same. If you’re someone who writes in the morning or if you need it to be fifty degrees in your house when you write — I have a friend, an author here, who always has this scarf that she wears when she’s writing. We live in Austin, Texas. There is no need for a scarf, ever, in Austin, Texas, except for when we had the big freeze recently. That’s about the only time in the last twelve years I’ve been here that you might need a scarf. She wears her writing scarf every time. Are you someone who writes with an outline and then writes off of that? Are you someone who’s a free writer? I think that no matter what it is that you need to make your writing happen, just stick to it. Trust in it. If you trust in the process, I think magic can happen.

Zibby: Awesome. Kelly, thank you. Thanks for coming. Oh, Kelly. Katie. I’m so sorry.

Katie: No worries.

Zibby: Earlier today, I just had a call with somebody. We were trying to schedule something. I was like, “Well, my book’s coming out in February.” They were like, “We thought it was coming out in November.” I was like, “Oh, god, you’re right.” I can’t even open my mouth today. Every word I say has been coming out the wrong way. It’s just going to be one of those days. I’m sorry.

Katie: We all have them.

Zibby: Obviously, I know your name. I’m so sorry.

Katie: No, you’re fine.

Zibby: Katie, thank you for coming on. I think your mom would be really proud of you too. I think it’s amazing. If my kids were to do something like this, it would mean absolutely everything to me.

Katie: Thank you. Thank you for what you do for especially new authors, but all authors. I’ve listened to your podcast a lot. It’s so great. I’ve listened to some of my favorite authors on your podcast. The idea that I would actually be talking to you right now is just such a dream. Thank you. I’m super grateful.

Zibby: You’re so welcome. Thanks for saying that. Have a great day.

Katie: Bye, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye, Katie.

Katie Russell Newland, A SEASON WITH MOM

A SEASON WITH MOM by Katie Russell Newland

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