Katie Sise, OPEN HOUSE

Katie Sise, OPEN HOUSE

Katie Sise walks Zibby through her winding career, from actress to jewelry maker, to becoming a TV host, a ghostwriter, and, finally, the writer we know her as today. The two cover everything, from their mutual love of attending open houses to how to find time to write when home with young children.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Open House and so much more.

Katie Sise: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited.

Zibby: Yay! Katie, you’ve written many books, YA, adult. Now you’re in this new thriller genre. You are a jewelry designer, former actress, a mom. You’ve done a zillion things. I’m so impressed. Let’s start by talking about Open House if you don’t mind. Just give readers the top line on this book. Then I want to delve into your whole life.

Katie: This one is about a crime that happened ten years ago. A girl named Emma walked into the woods on her really bucolic, beautiful, Upstate New York campus, and she was never seen again. Her disappearance has haunted her family, and especially her sister and her parents, of course. For her sister, it’s always been this thing that she felt like — she had this almost magical thinking feeling that she was the only one that was ever going to be able to get to the bottom of it. She’s gone away for college. She’s incredibly bright, her younger sister who drives the book, Haley. She comes back to Waverly, the fictional town based on an area very close to where I live, that her sister has disappeared all those years ago. What happens is, when you open the book, you find that Emma’s bracelet has been found in a part of the woods where it really shouldn’t have been. The police often thought that she could’ve jumped and caused her own death in some way. The location of what’s found means that that’s not possible that that could’ve happened. It hurtles on from there. Haley has to get to the bottom of what has truly happened to her sister. We go back and forth between the present-day time where a lot of the players who were there that night that Emma died are now adults — we see them in college during the book and their behavior then. Then we see them now as these high-functioning adults in this beautiful, bucolic town. Haley has to interact with them. They, of course, were all, in some way — we find how they were involved, if they were involved. It’s this piece that Haley has to get to the bottom to.

Zibby: Very exciting. I have to say, I listened to this in the car with my twins who are almost fourteen. We were all rivetted at what was going on. As I was listening, I was wondering about your own experience with grief and loss because the scenes between the sisters — not between them, but as one sister is mourning the other and that feeling of not knowing and the loss — even, there was one line you had about how she had to escape. She went to Stanford to escape the grief that her parents were coping with. Of course, it happens to the whole family. I just wanted to hear a little more about that one element.

Katie: I’m from a very big Irish Catholic family, so we have had a lot of death. There’s been so many of us. People have died young. People have died too young. People have died a bit later where it’s easier to cope with. Of course, all these different things go into my experience of grief. I almost think more what it is, is that I write about what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of losing someone that I really love. I’m sure you relate to that as a mom. Before I had children, I had people that I loved, of course, so, so very much. It was so hard to lose them. I’m particularly close to my sister. My sister is also same age difference as Emma and Haley. My sister is also — she’s a nephrologist. It was fun to write Haley as a med student because I feel like I went through med school with my sister. Not really. I didn’t have to do the hard part of it. I was often with her at some point during the day. Those days, we both lived in New York City then. I enjoyed writing that aspect of her. People have asked me that before. They’ve been like, how did you write about this grief piece? One of the things that’s helpful about having that experience of when you really delved into characters when I was younger and I was doing all these different things is I find that I’m so afraid of it that I have to write about it. I’m so afraid of any kind of grief and loss that it is in all my work.

I’ve even had times where I’ve thought, should I just try to write something really happy like people meet and they fall in love? Maybe they have one obstacle to overcome, but it’s all good. I just find that I do keep returning to this subject. I think that I have to write about the things that scare me. Even in one of the themes that is in the book, particularly with Josie, without giving too much away, is that element of jealously. I find even in little ways I am afraid of — one thing that I will steer away from if I sense it in a relationship is any type of female jealously makes me nervous. Then I found that in her, I wrote about that. She is so jealous of Emma, that Emma has Noah back in college and all these other things. I find that sometimes the scarier things to me aren’t necessarily the boogeyman in the woods. It’s more these things that can happen in everyday life. I keep returning to it, which means that sometimes when I write, I am unsettled. Then there is a little bit of an element of when you face something head-on and you actually sit in it for a while and feel uncomfortable. Sometimes that’s helpful, maybe in some way, or maybe I’m torturing myself. figured that out yet.

Zibby: It’s this whole, what if? What if this happens? How would I handle it? As you find in life, no matter what life throws at you, somehow or other you handle it. You just do. You get through it. Your characters are doing that for you.

Katie: Even that idea of, what would someone do? I think that that’s why all of us love — most of the women and men I talk to, we love TV shows for that reason and really good books for that reason. Characters are put in these really extraordinary circumstances. My characters, I feel like I know them really well. I feel like they’re like maybe some of my — not like my friends, but someone that I would see at drop-off. I wouldn’t know their inner life. I would see them at preschool drop-off. I wouldn’t know their inner life. I wouldn’t know their circumstances. Particularly in this book, Priya, I really enjoyed writing this — I don’t know if enjoyed is the right word. I felt like I really wanted to write this character who experiences this , which I think all of us have to different degrees or most people have to different degrees. For her, staying married to Brad, part of that is — sure, she could find a therapist. She could find a psychiatrist. To feel so unsafe in your own mind and to have somebody there as this doctor who is, every day, monitoring her moods, making sure she’s okay — her number-one driver is to stay with her son.

I love Priya’s relationship with her son. She just loves her son so much. I obviously relate to that. I love my sons. I love my daughters, of course, so much. I feel like that’s her number-one priority, is to stay healthy, to stay on track, keep her mind on track, to not have that sort of breakdown that she has much earlier with Elliot when he’s one. She talks about that a little bit, to not go there again, to have this sort of breakdown in a school parking lot in front of all these parents when she has to sit down, has a panic attack, can’t get up. He’s with her. Someone tries to pick him out. To have that be your ultimate fear, that somehow your kids are going to be taken away and to then be in this marriage where there’s this person who you think this person’s keeping you on track, how much would you stay through? I think I would stay through a lot, truly, if that was my situation. That’s why I felt like she could put all her suspicions about them and some of his transgressions aside and try to make it work for that long.

Zibby: I was kind of chuckling, although I probably shouldn’t have been, when you wrote about Priya and having the panic attack and bending over and trying to deal with herself and how a kind mother came to try to take the baby away, and so she lunged. You said something like a ferocious animal or something like that. I’m like, that’s not going to endear her to the moms either.

Katie: Here we are trying to all keep it together at drop-off and not cry. Then you lunge at a mother. That’s about as low as preschool drop-off has gotten in a while.

Zibby: Yet I miss preschool drop-off so much now with COVID times. My kids are finally out of preschool. There’s so much great stuff in your book. There’s the suspense and the inner workings of the mind. I’m so glad you brought up the medical stuff because I was wondering when I was listening about how you knew all of that. That was a lot. Even the identification of the body and how she names it Susie, it all felt so real. You can feel her walking down these halls where there’s been this trauma in the past. Yet she comes back to it. She’s pulled back to her family home and the scene of the crime, literally. Of course, the open house thing, I am obsessed with open houses myself, oh, my god.

Katie: Me too.

Zibby: Every time we have free time, we go to an open house.

Katie: So do we. I think that there is this idea sort of along the theme of you go — at least, I do. When I go into these open houses — I just wrote an essay about this. It turns out I’m terrible at personal essays.

Zibby: I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that at all.

Katie: I’ll email it to you. Since you love open houses, I will give you this essay. I haven’t even sent it — anyway.

Zibby: Send it to me. I want to read it.

Katie: I will. I will absolutely send it to you. It talks about this idea because my husband and I do the same thing. We love to go to open houses. I think what it is, is that one of the things for me is you imagine almost — not only is it so beautiful, this other home — perhaps it’s not. Whatever it is you find there, you imagine yourself. It’s like a new life. You wonder, what are the people like that live there? What would I be like if I lived there? which is a lot of what writing is. My agent also loves real estate. We had this conversation. He did once say to me, “You’ve got to have something at some point that has to do with your obsession with these open houses.” My poor real estate agent was like, “I can’t believe you set a book in an open house. I have to go to these. You made me read this.”

Zibby: On the other hand, maybe it will help your agent because other people who might not share our habit might start doing that. Who knows?

Katie: What the essay is about also is we just sold our house and bought a new one. You can imagine that during all that time I’d written this book. Now I’m having an open house. My imagination is already so run away with all these scenarios that could happen. Now I’ve thrown a body into the situation. I’m just like, oh, my god, this is not a good thing to write about when you’re about to do it. I have thought before that I think real estate agents mostly are — maybe. I’m not sure how it breaks down between gender. Of course, any gender is vulnerable when you’re somewhere expecting to welcome people in the door who you don’t know and you’re standing there by yourself. Something about all those things together seemed to work as to have that be the big set piece.

Zibby: Katie, tell me about how you wrote this book. You have three kids. How old are your kids?

Katie: Four. I have four.

Zibby: You have four. I’m so sorry.

Katie: No, that’s okay.

Zibby: How old are your kids?

Katie: My oldest is about to be ten. My second oldest son is seven, just turned seven. Then I have twins. I begged for my third baby and got twins. I went on a campaign, all the reasons that we had to have a third. We just had to. Finally, my husband said, “All right.” I went to that sonogram. I had my son with me. I had my youngest son because at that time I didn’t really use babysitters. I’ve since discovered the beauty of babysitters. I used to only write when they would nap. With the boys, I wrote when they napped. I’m a pretty fast writer. That’s one thing I’ve got going for me. I usually will sit down, and I just write. I just get it down. It’s got to get done. It’s like going to the gym or something. It feels good. It’s an escape. It usually goes pretty quickly. I went to the sonogram. You know how it is. You’ve gotten enough sonograms, you kind of know what you’re looking at. My three-year-old was with me. At the time, he was three. I said, “Don’t say the word pregnancy in front of him. He will understand. He’s three. He’ll understand. Please just don’t use the word baby, pregnancy.” He thought he was watching some cartoon that was blurry or something on the screen.

She has the thing on there doing the thing. I see two small people, what I thought was that. There were these two. I’m just watching her do it. Now, she knows that she’s been given words like we’re playing a game. She’s been given words she can’t say. We’re talking about the weather. She says, “So do twins run in your family?” I said, “No. Do they now?” She said, “Yes, they do.” There they were, my two little girls. They’re the dreamiest, funniest — they’re almost three now. They’re amazing. It was such a surprise. That night, I came home. I texted my husband. “Everything’s okay. I went to sonogram. Everything’s okay.” I didn’t want to tell him while he was at work or over the phone. He’s budgeted the rest of our lives. Will we be able to send them to college? Then we got home that night. I made sure that he had some of my very, very mediocre/poor cooking just so he wouldn’t faint or something. He had dinner. Then I went out and broke the news. They’re amazing girls. We’re crazy for them. It’s all really wonderful, but it was quite a surprise.

Zibby: Wow. I had twins first.

Katie: That’s right.

Zibby: My twins are almost fourteen, it’s so crazy, thirteen and a half, fourteen almost. Then I had two other ones. Anyway, we can talk twins another time. Crazy. Wait, so now how on earth did you do this? Tell me.

Katie: The girls would nap in the beginning. When this book was getting written, the girls would nap from about nine to eleven or nine to ten thirty. That is actually, thank god — I’m not writing War and Peace either, so I feel like maybe it is what it is. I write an hour and a half a day, and that’s it. When they go to preschool, I’ll do more. I’ll have nine to twelve. Generally, what I do is write in the morning. Now we have a wonderful sitter. If I need to do some writing, I’ll do it in that two-hour clip. I can’t really write more two than hours. I don’t know what it is, but I need to just do it and get it done with. Then it’s done for the day. I might work up back to the point — I started off ghostwriting for a series. I’m not allowed to say what series it is. I used to ghostwrite. That was the best training in the world because you had to write a book in between six to eight weeks, a sixty-five-thousand-word book. You just had to get it done. You sat down. I would shoot for two thousand words a day. Now I shoot for a thousand. If I can do a thousand, I’m done. As you know, books are generally anywhere between seventy to ninety thousand words. What I always tell writers is even if you can just get a thousand words a day, you can have a book done in seventy days. Then you go back and edit and do all your stuff. It’s less of a mountain sometimes than I think it’s made out to be because you just get it done. Even if the first draft is really not great, if you can commit to either five hundred or a thousand words a day, it’ll get done.

Zibby: Take me back a little bit to how you started off. How did you get in the literary world? Tell me about the acting. Just give me a timeline of what happened here.

Katie: I went to school at Notre Dame. I went thinking I was going to either be a — I always wanted to be a writer, but I figured, okay, I’ll go, I’ll get my degree. I’ll do something like be a — I think I studied sociology for a little while. Then somewhere around sophomore year, I loved acting so much, I’m like, I’m going to be a theater major. I broke that news to my parents, which was conversation. They’re hugely supportive, but they were kind of like, oh, my gosh. That was really helpful because all those years I studied all this writing and all these characters. You had to know that in every scene your character wants something. I always think about that now with writing. What does that person really want if every moment we’re walking into a room with somewhat of a goal or something we want? All that scene study and really getting into characters and dialogue really was so helpful for now. I did that there. Then I graduated. I loved doing plays at Notre Dame so much. I am a workhorse. I have many flaws, but I love to work. I love to work at something that I love. I’m not good at cleaning my closet. I was always a terrible intern places. I could never make the fax machine work. I had an internship at MTV. I was so bad at my job that they were like, just sit in the corner and read some scripts. You’re not the intern that’s super helpful. You can’t make the VHS tapes work.

I graduated. I came to the city. What I really missed while I was acting was — when you go from doing all these plays that you get roles in and you get to be with your fellow actors and you’re rehearsing — it’s so fun. I got to the city. You went on auditions. You would, all day, have this one audition where you got to say one line about how creamy the yogurt is. The part where you’re really working, working, working doesn’t happen. I barely got jobs. I definitely did some plays. One night, no one came to it. I had that happen. We did The Importance of Being Earnest with my friend who’s also now a writer. She’s a memoirist. We were playing Cecily and Gwendolen. No one showed up. We were just like, do we do the play for no one? I think we did. I don’t know what happened. Then I got some random roles in independent films and things like that. I loved it, but I just was like, I got to do something else. Then when I was twenty-four, I was working in this little boutique. I was making ten dollars an hour working as the salesgirl. In the way that you do when you’re twenty-four and you have all this gusto — I’m much more vulnerable now. I’m sort of like, oh, can I do that? Can I get in that canoe, or will it tip over? Now I’m a different human. Back then, though, I didn’t have kids yet. I was twenty-four. I said, I could make jewelry just like this. Not just like this, but I could make some jewelry. It’ll be fine. I’ll just try to make some jewelry. I made some jewelry. It was terrible.

One day, I was wearing a piece at my job. Someone said, “I like that.” I was like, “Oh, it’s on sale for a hundred dollars,” which I came up with off the top of my head. It was somewhat expensive to make it. It wasn’t that I was trying to rip the lady off. It’s more that I hadn’t set up something where I would really even — usually in that situation, a boutique owner, who is still my really good friend, god willing — luckily, I should say. Then she said, “If you’re selling your jewelry, just –” She was so nice. She was maybe five years older me at the time. Well, still is since that’s how . She said, “Clear off a shelf. You can sell your jewelry here.” I made all this jewelry. For some reason, it totally took off. Celebrities started coming in and wearing it. Kate Winslet came in. She’s my favorite person in the world. I was so nervous. I couldn’t tell her that it was mine. She was just like, “This is so lovely.” I was like, “I saw Titanic twelve times, in the theater. Not just twelve times.” She bought a piece. All these big stars bought it. Then all these magazines started covering it. It was one of those strange occurrences of how sometimes you don’t set out to do something. It was almost like the jewelry was an afterthought. I was like, I really want to be a writer or an actress. That’s what I want to do. The jewelry was the thing that actually happened.

Then I started going on being a TV host. I had only done acting, but TV was a pretty natural switch. You can go and make up something about some pair of pants that you could match with a shirt and this pair of earrings. I went on as a style expert in places. I cohosted this show on the Home Shopping Network, which was so fun. I was twenty-nine. They would fly me down to Florida. It was the height of my whole life experience. It was so fun. They did your makeup. You got to have snacks in your green room. I love snacks. It was great. Then from there, I thought — the one thing that kept sticking out to me was, if I hadn’t done the jewelry thing, if I had just said, no, that’s not what I’m going to do, I’m a writer, I’m an actress, I’m not going to try something different, none of that would’ve happened. I felt like there should be a book about making your creative way as a creative person and saying yes to a lot of different things to see what sticks and see how it happens. I wrote this proposal for a book called Creative Girl, which did sell. It sold to Jennifer Kasius at Running Press.

Zibby: I love her. She’s so nice.

Katie: She’s lovely. She shepherded me through this book. I found my agent that way. My agent is still my agent now. He’s the most wonderful human on the whole planet. He’s wonderful. That all helped. Then I wrote a novel. I was like, this is the best thing ever, getting up, writing in your jammies, and just getting your stuff done. You don’t need anybody else’s permission to work when you write. You just need a computer, which is a big privilege, a computer and a space and time. All those things are not the easier to get. If you have that, you can write something. I thought, now I want to try this. I wrote a novel after that, but it didn’t sell. I was heartbroken. It was a 350-page paranormal romance, and it didn’t sell. I was, at that point, so stubborn. I was like, I’m going to make this work. This has to work. I got to figure out how to do this because this is the best job. At that point, I was twenty-nine/thirty thinking about starting a family and thinking this would be the best job versus flying down to Florida and filming a TV show. It would actually be a really wonderful job to just, when your child naps or whatever — I didn’t really know at that point what it entails. I thought this would be something I could do. I just kept writing.

Then I got a job doing the ghostwriting. I wrote three books that were not under my own name. One was a revision. Two were ones that I fully wrote. Then because of that, I got the attention of an editor at HarperCollins named Alessandra Balzer who’s a wonderful, wonderful person. There was a woman named Brenda Bowen. She had this idea for a book called The Boyfriend App. She gave me one line. She was so free about it. She was like, “What if there was this book about a girl who creates a boyfriend app on her phone and it can get her any guy that she wants?” She was so laid back about it. She said, “Go. Take it and run.” I wrote a proposal for that book. Brenda and I presented that book to Alessandra. She bought in a preempt, which was so exciting. That’s sort of where it started. That book was a two-book deal. I did The Boyfriend App, The Pretty App. Then Alessandra signed me up for The Academy, which is a book that came out in 2018. I did that all while the boys were little.

We moved up to Westchester. I started to feel more like an adult. I wanted to write about adults. At this point, I was a mother. I was married several years. I just wanted to write about adult things. I was taking a break. I had a huge revision on The Academy. My agent said, “Just take this summer and go write the book that you want to read.” He’s like, “I just want you to sit down, write the book that you wish you had this summer to read.” I wrote We Were Mothers in six weeks. Open House took me a bazillion years to write, so sometimes it doesn’t happen. We Were Mothers was one of those magical ones where I couldn’t wait to — I don’t outline on purpose so that I don’t know what happens. Then I can’t wait to see what happens. The characters sort of do their own thing. I just quickly write it down. They often will surprise me and do strange things and say strange things and things that I didn’t see coming. In Open House, the person who ends up doing it — I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, but I had gone the entire book thinking that it was someone else. Then all of a sudden, they were down there. You know what happened. Then it felt like, that’s what it is. Then I went back. I felt like, that’s the book. I showed my agent. He was like, “That’s the book. That’s the ending. That’s it right there.” He says what he says when he’s down there and all that stuff. I went back and added some things to that character to hopefully have there be some meat there and some other things going on that would make you think, yep, that could happen.

We Were Mothers went quickly and sold to Carmen Johnson at Amazon Little A, who is wonderful. Then she signed me up for Open House. Then I have another book with them called The Break that’s going to come out. It’s in 2022. I think it’s fall of 2022. I have to check that. It’s about a mom. She goes to give birth in a New York City hospital. She has a traumatic birth. She can’t remember the birth and, often, much of what leads up to it. She has a terrible birth, which has happened to, frankly, a decent amount of my friends. It felt like something that I wanted to write about. I think it’s really under-talked about. In this thriller, I’m hoping to talk really respectfully. I’m hoping to do it well, to talk about maternal health and people needing help and not always getting it and all the things that go into the postpartum period. She comes home with her beautiful baby girl. Her sitter, who’s a twenty-two-year-old, she’s an actress. She’s much in the same position that I was in when I first arrived in the city. She has this sitter. I also babysat a ton when I got to the city. Rowan, my main character who’s thirty-four, accuses June, the sitter, of harming the baby when June has not.

Rowan experiences this huge break, thinks her baby has been harmed, starts to scream at June, and looks down and sees that her baby is right there in the bassinette and is completely fine. June leaves the apartment. The neighbors have heard that there has been a kerfuffle. I want to set it in the West Village of Manhattan, which is where we used to live. Everybody knows your business, sort of, out in the hallway especially. The neighbors have heard what has happened. The next day, June goes missing. Of course, Rowan is suspected. Rowan will need to piece her mind back together, this postpartum mind back together to be able to figure out what happened to June. I’m hoping to tell it from both of their perspectives. That’s what I’m doing now. I’m about maybe forty, fifty pages into Rowan. Then I’ll switch into June. You’ll see her six months before and leading up and what’s going on in that whole world between everyone that’s in it with all the other men and women that are in it. We’ll see. It’s nice to have work. When you’re a creative person, it’s nice to be signed up for something because you know that, okay, the next two years, at least I can work on this. I’m employed. Those are things, obviously, to feel very grateful for for anybody. When you’re creative and you don’t have a consistent paycheck, it’s nice to feel like I know what I’m doing for the next two years.

Zibby: That’s amazing. What a story. I feel like I’m so inspired by your whole trajectory and your energy. It’s awesome.

Katie: I’m inspired by your trajectory and your energy.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love it. Amazing. Wait, do you have advice for aspiring authors?

Katie: My biggest is just to write every day. What I think people forget is when you first start writing, it’s often really crappy. I was in a class when I was twenty-eight. I kid you not, I didn’t know whether you put the question mark — I remember this vividly. I’m twenty-eight years old. I don’t know how I didn’t learn this. I didn’t know that you put the question mark inside the quotation marks. I was putting it outside. This is only twelve years ago. I feel like when you start, sometimes it’s crappy and the first one doesn’t sell. If you really want to do it, you just keep doing them. The other thing that I always like to remind people is — when you hear this from someone who’s published, you’re like, oh, come on, yeah, right. First of all, the publishing thing is one thing. It’s also nice to be paid for your work. That’s for sure. Also, writing a whole novel and letting people into world is by far the most gratifying thing to me, the fact that you listened to this book and you know these characters who are so real to me. My favorite part of every single book I write is I send the first draft to my dad. It’s by far the best part. It doesn’t get better than that day. He reads it. Of course, he loves it because he’s my dad. Also, he talks about the characters like they’re real. He says to me, “Do you think that this would happen, or should this happen?” That conversation, I look forward to the entire process that I write a book. Remember that people that are close to you are going to read the story whether it sells or not, so just sit down and write the first one. Then keep writing it until you get where you want to be. Either somebody picks it up or you self-publish it or you do what you want to do with it. If you really love to write, I think you just do it every day. If it’s helpful to set a word count, it is for me, I say do that too. Then you can quickly get to your goal of having a finished book.

Zibby: Awesome. First of all, we have to get together after this because we have just so many things in common. So many additional questions I want to talk to you about, but we’re almost out of time. I can’t believe it. I cannot wait to read your next book, or listen to it. I am thrilled to have connected with you. I am just so excited about this whole thing. I’m so energized that — everything you say just validates so many things that deep within me I believe. You just have to keep going. The first novels are usually terrible. If you love it, you’ll just keep doing it. How real characters are is something I’ve been mulling over. All day, I talk to people about their characters who they believe are basically real people. I want to now have a party for just all the characters. I feel like I know these people really well.

Katie: Sometimes I think one of them is going to walk in. I wouldn’t even be surprised. I would just get her a coffee, depending on which character it was. Some of them, I would not buy a coffee for.

Zibby: That’s true. Got to be careful. Amazing. Katie, thank you. I’m excited to follow the rest of your career. We will definitely be talking more. Thank you for coming on the podcast.

Katie: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for all your author support. What you do is awesome. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye. More soon.

OPEN HOUSE by Katie Sise

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