Zibby speaks to author Kelly McMasters about The Leaving Season, a nuanced, heart-wrenching, and astoundingly gorgeous memoir in essays about “leaving”–a place, a job, a home, a version of oneself, and, particularly, a marriage. Kelly describes her life before, during, and after her divorce, revealing that it ultimately helped her as a mother. She also talks about the bookstore she opened in rural Pennsylvania (and the heartbreak of having to close it), the financial struggles she has faced in the past, and the book she is working on next.

The Leaving Season is the September pick for Zibby’s Book Club!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kelly. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your memoir, The Leaving Season: A Memoir in Essays.

Kelly McMasters: Thank you so much, Zibby. I’m thrilled to be here. It’s really exciting.

Zibby: As I was just saying to you before we started, I am a hundred percent obsessed with this book. It’s the best book I’ve read in so long. It’s so good. It’ll be the September book club pick for Zibby’s Book Club. That’s great. Also, we’ve started all these local chapters, so now people can read not just virtually, but all over. Hoping to grow that even more by September. In fact, if anyone listening wants to start a book club chapter, you can email and start your own chapter. We’ll give you all the tools you need. This book is so good. Everyone has to read it.

Kelly: Thanks, Zibby. That means the world, especially as somebody who has traveled some similar roads.

Zibby: I also really love Maggie Smith’s book. I was on Instagram and watching — obviously, you were at her event and supporting her and loved her book, as did everybody. I do feel like the two of them go hand in hand, those two books. In fact, if anyone is ever getting a divorce, this should be the gift package. Okay, here you go. Just read these two books. End of story.

Kelly: I love that. Yes, Maggie’s book is amazing. I was so thrilled when she read mine and wrote her beautiful blurb for The Leaving Season. I hope maybe what you’re talking about is that both books, even though they are covering some really difficult terrain, ultimately, they are stories of hope and renewal. That is what I think I needed when I was going through the divorce especially, what I still need every day even though I’m way past it. That’s what I hope that this book can ultimately be.

Zibby: Yes. It’s about reinvention. It doesn’t have to be divorce. It could be anything you’re going through that didn’t go the way you thought or for anyone who’s felt like there was a time in their life when they were kind of losing themselves a little bit for whatever the reason, career, loss, relationships. There’s so many ways we lose touch with ourselves. This is all about getting back to it, and hers in a way. Maybe I should back up. Kelly, why don’t you tell listeners what The Leaving Season is about?

Kelly: The Leaving Season is about just that, the fact that leaving takes a very long time. There are so many different types of leaving, which is what you were just talking about. There’s leaving jobs, leaving places, leaving homes, leaving a self behind, and of course, leaving marriages. When I was putting these essays together — they are individual essays. Although, they can be read altogether as one cohesive story. That is really what I realized. It was a collection of moments when I should’ve left, didn’t leave, left when I shouldn’t have, all of these different types of leavings. When I was going through the divorce and people would hear that I was divorced or going through a divorce, their number-one question was always — they would pull me to the side of either a wedding or a PTA event and say, how did you know it was the right thing to do? How did you know you had to leave? The other point of the book is, A, there’s no one answer, and B, that answer is always changing. I think that’s true for every type of leaving.

Zibby: You also made a good point when people were asking you, which I personally found as well, that it’s mostly about their needing to figure out what they should do about their own relationships. In fact, I’m almost positive I dogeared this page because I love what you wrote about it. I actually did dogear this page and was staring at it without seeing everything right in front of me. I’m just going to read this. “Was there a moment you knew you wanted to end your marriage? This is the question everyone always asks, the still-married ones, after one too many glasses of wine at the PTA fundraiser, at the ladies’ lunch after chaperoning the first-grade aquarium trip, in the corner of the patio at the neighborhood Fourth of July party, alongside the dance floor at weddings. After a while, I came to understand that they were really asking about themselves, matching their experience with mine, pulling a measuring tape around my ribcage and then circling their own to see how close the numbers fell.” It’s poetry. It’s so true. I’ve tried to explain the same thing. The way you wrote that, I would never have thought to compare it to a measuring tape around my ribcage. Beautiful. So beautiful.

Kelly: Thank you so much. I think people both wanted the numbers to match up and to not. If you know, you know. You don’t need somebody else to tell you. Yet you don’t want it to be true. If you know you have to leave, the hardest thing is admitting that to yourself. Once you do, there’s no turning back. That’s the hardest part, is actually moving through it and making that choice and saying it aloud. That’s terrible. Very close to that section, I talk about feeling like I’m in Divorceville, this one-horse town that is just the same. My amazing editor, Jill, she loved that section. For a period, this book was called Divorceville. Ultimately, the book, like you said, it’s for somebody who’s going through, has been through a divorce, but also, it extends beyond that.

Zibby: Yes, far beyond it. That’s something that you do so well, is take the ordinary and just make it so beautiful. What you said about debating leaving or when you were trying to decide, there’s that one moment when you saw the house for sale in your town. You were like, what would my life be like if I lived there? I think you wrote down the number and just kept it for a little bit. That moment of you looking at the house and how we all imagine these other lives, what if?

Kelly: My life would be perfect if I could only… The book takes place across three particular landscapes. We start in the city. We move to the country. Then we end up in suburbia where I still am. I think that also happens with the excitement and possibility of moving. I’m a professor as well. The beginning of school, the end of every August, whether it’s for my kids when we go school supply shopping or for myself, this year, this semester, I will be organized. I will not get behind. I’m going to be great. I’m going to be a different person. You would think after forty-seven years that I would know myself by now, but no. The right pen is going to change everything. Similarly, we play tricks like that within our relationships. The problem isn’t us. It’s where we’re living. It’s the damn house renovation. It’s the dog. No, it’s you. That’s really difficult to come to terms with and to then think, all right, what part of it is me and not the other person? What do I need to do about that?

Zibby: Wow, it’s so amazing. Why did you decide to name your ex R.? I feel like it’s similar to the Dani Shapiro technique of naming.

Kelly: That’s a really good question. For me, this book, and I hope readers will feel this too, is about me. My children are present. He is present. Plenty of other people are present. Ultimately, while this is a divorce story, I actually like to call it a love story. Every divorce story begins as a love story. It ultimately turns into a love story with myself in a strange way. I fall out of love with my husband, but I fall in love with this possibility of motherhood in a way that I did not understand could be possible. Again, it’s a personal story. This will not be the same for everyone. In my experience, I was only able to become the mother that I think I had the potential to become once I left my marriage, once I became a single mother. I was so afraid of becoming a single mom. I didn’t think I could handle the kids on a normal day on my own, much less every day on my own. Yet once that happened and I was able to really interrogate and ask the questions — what kind of mother do I want to be? — rather than just responding and reacting all the time, that turned into a really beautiful relationship. In that way, I wanted to keep the spotlight in that area. I do think that I give the reader a sense of who R. is and was. It’s not that he’s effaced on the page or a ghost or anything like that, but he’s not the point. It’s not about him, ultimately. It’s about the changes that I went through, the new observations that I was making, and the way that those came to play. We owned a bookshop. I’m so excited for you.

Zibby: Yes, I was going to mention that. I couldn’t wait to talk about it.

Kelly: That bookshop was amazing for so many reasons. That was perhaps the most heartbreaking part, having to leave that bookshop. That bookshop showed me who we were and who we could never be. In that respect, I did feel like it was best to leave him with an initial. He has presence. My children are also not named. That was intentional. That way, the story is trained on my narrator as a chronicler, which is sort of how I wrote my first book as well. That’s an important point of view in nonfiction that I feel comfortable in. It’s not necessarily that the spotlight is on me, but that the observations come through me and only me. It is observed. It is first person in every way.

Zibby: Interesting. That’s good. Some people have a different name. They change the name or don’t have a name. It was a very literary, beautiful convention. I liked it. It was great. Of course, the spotlight is on you. It’s so immersive. You even give us just every sound and feeling. I feel like I went into nature, which, of course, I didn’t. I was sitting inside reading this most of the time. Even your musings on why suburban trees don’t smell — when you’re in a playground, why are you not smelling trees? When you go out into nature, that’s all you smell. Just all these little thoughts which change the way you see the world. Wait, go back to the bookstore because I loved that section of the book. I wanted to talk to you about it and all the relationships you made with the people there and the ones you lost. I don’t want to give things away. That was an amazing part of the book. Tell me a little more about that experience and looking back on it, how you feel. I mean, I read it.

Kelly: It was, like many things in my life at that point, a very last-minute decision. A friend had a space. We were in rural Pennsylvania. I imagine the cost analysis was very different than, for example, when you had to put your bookstore together. It was a dollar a square foot. We had 250 square feet, $250 a month. It was not a terrifying venture in that way. Although, then I had to learn, okay, how do I make an LLC? How do I have a relationship with Ingram? All of those crazy questions. Of course, I had a life in books for many years before that. Never as a bookstore owner, which is very different. I ran a lot of readings. I ran KGB reading series and reviewed and wrote books and all of that. I knew that this was a dream that I maybe thought might occur when I was eighty but never actually be a business that I could have. What really cinched it for me was — I grew up in a town without a bookstore. I just lived in the library, essentially. It was where I had my first job. My children then were going to grow up in a town without a bookstore. I realized not only would this feed me, but it would feed them. I had this idealized image in my head of them walking to the bookstore after school with their backpacks and coming in. Obviously, they were very little when this began.

In the opening scene, I’m shelving books. I still have my youngest in a BabyBjörn, basically. I’m trying to figure out, if he naps this long, what can I do when he’s attached to me? What can I do when he’s not? It was beautiful and improvised. Childcare in the country is as difficult as it is anywhere else. That bookstore became such a community in a way that I didn’t know that I needed. I know exactly what you mean about the people we lost. That was, gosh, ten years ago, almost. I just completed the audiobook a few weeks ago. When I read that section, I just wept. I wrote it. I knew what was coming, but it still gets me every time. That came out of a column that I wrote for The Paris Review Daily called Notes from a Bookshop. I started this little monthly missive about what it was like. When I came to the end of that, I never wrote the last one because it was too heartbreaking to say we’re closing. It always felt unfinished. When I came to this book, I knew that that was going to be the center. I knew that I would have to write the end. That was probably one of the hardest parts.

Zibby: That’s another leaving. By the way, my store’s only 823 square feet. We have a great deal on the space. Not as great as that. The owner really wanted a bookstore, so we have it far below market, which is wonderful. Already, having the community spot is so huge. The gratitude from the community is out of this world. This is part of a giant city. This is a section of LA as opposed to a tiny town that would crave a bookstore. I take it so for granted growing up in big cities that there are bookstores.

Kelly: Same. I did too. When I realized I had to drive nearly a hundred miles to get to The Golden Notebook, which is one of my favorite bookstores in Woodstock, that’s a really long drive. It does, it affects the culture. I realized the only books that I was finding were from the library or the old church book sales, and so every book that came into the house had that funk, that smell of other people. Still, I have a whole section in my bookcase of those books. The idea of choosing and then having a new book and being able to support a writer whose books are coming out right now and then just walking into a room and knowing that you’re going to find someone who wants to talk about books with you is incredible. Likely, you’re going to find other things in common too.

Zibby: Yes. Book lovers have something in common. It’s a whole subset of people, which is great. You wrote a lot, also, about struggling financially to make all of this work. You wrote about it in detail and with such compassion for yourself and for anyone in the same situation. Even if you’re working three jobs and even if you’re doing everything right, it’s impossible. It’s like a tsunami heading your way. You just feel powerless. Talk a little bit about that and how it felt to write about it and just how you feel about it, the whole thing.

Kelly: Thanks. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about that. That is something that is really important to me in terms of my life as a writer as well as the economics of a bookshop, as well as the economics of being a single parent. I think people are terrified to talk about money and the realities. The secrecy that’s shrouded in that I felt drowned me in shame. Then when I did start talking to people, I realized, oh, my gosh, not only is that not abnormal, am I not doing something wrong, other people are feeling the same thing. They might have some suggestions that can help me. That is really important, just being open about that kind of stuff. In my writing life, I’ve tracked ideas about poverty and shame and working class. I grew up in Shirley. That was my first book. That relationship between working-class shame and the feeling of powerlessness really felt familiar when we moved to the country. In the city, it’s a little easier to pretend.

I write about this. We were living in an artist loft with no hot water and no shower or anything like that. I’m showering at the gym around the corner. Then we would go to a really fancy dinner with a collector. In New York, it’s a little easier to pretend because you can do a lot with a little. The magic is on every block. You can sort of figure things out and improvise in a way that you can’t in the country. In the country, the beauty is all around you naturally. I felt so rich just walking out into this tangle of raspberry bushes and these little and being able to see and smell and feel this gift of the wild that I didn’t have in the city. People there were struggling in a way that did remind me of when I was growing up in my hometown. It affected people similarly in their hearts and in their brains, and so feeling less than. I don’t want to attach shame to it, but for me, when — I still have those damn yellow cards that they handed me when we had to go on assistance.

I was the first in my family to go to college. My parents were so supportive. We had a beautiful home and upbringing full of love. My dad said, “You don’t have to get married. You are enough on your own. You are going to college. Education is the number-one thing.” I really did, at a point, feel like I would just float off after college on this golden cloud. Everything is good now. I did it. I made it. That’s not what happened. When I suddenly was handed these yellow cards and I realized, oh, my gosh, I’m back where I started, in a way — yes, I had three jobs. I opened a bookshop. All of these things were going so well, really. I have this beautiful home. I thought, okay, something needs to change. That was a really important moment for me to not just change financially, but look at everything. Everything did change from then on. I probably have four jobs now. I think that’s just the nature of what I’ve chosen to do. I’m a professor. I’m a writer. I run all these little things, these half jobs.

Zibby: What are your other half jobs? After the book, I was like, I want to know every single thing about her. I want to know what she’s doing now. I want the full postscript of the book.

Kelly: Oh, my gosh. I direct a program in publishing studies. I am a teacher. I’m a professor of English, of creative writing, mostly nonfiction. Then I also am a freelance writer. I also am a book writer. I also am part of this educational nonprofit that’s run in my town. I’m a mom. All the stuff. I also edit and do private editing clients and things like that that most writers do to make it work.

Zibby: And you edit anthologies.

Kelly: And I edit anthologies. I forgot about that. Yes, I love doing that work. That’s the thing. I love it all. I wouldn’t change it. Some of that, again, goes back to community. The education community here is incredible. The community of women writers through the anthologies is incredible. I feel so fortunate. I would love to own a bookstore again at some point. I can’t add that right now. That, of course, is also still on my list of dream jobs.

Zibby: Amazing. I want to figure out a way so that anybody who wants to open a Zibby’s Bookshop in their town, they just franchise it, and I have a kit or something so that it’s easy for people. I don’t know. That’s my big dream.

Kelly: Zibby, I love that idea. Oh, my gosh, wow.

Zibby: I could just put the wallpaper I use, make them all kind of look the same-ish. Not exactly. You get to curate the books, but it has to be in a new way, in an interesting way.

Kelly: That’s a great idea.

Zibby: I think books are just a way to talk about life and feelings and each other and connect. It’s all just a shorthand, really, so having a space to do that. Are you writing another book? What’s going on with that?

Kelly: I’m waiting to hear about a few grants that will help me write the book that I think I want to write. I will just say yes. My great-grandmother was in vaudeville about a hundred years ago when we like to think women had it much worse. We couldn’t vote yet. We had all of these difficult circumstances. She was such a modern woman and really wild and incredible and performed with Mae West. She was the kind of vaudeville where she was funny and not sexy. She was smart, funny. I have this old journal of hers. She made some decisions that wound up erasing her from our family tree. It had to do with the choice between work and her children. I’m trying to, first, find the real story because I’m not a hundred percent certain that it is what I think it is. I think it’s really interesting in 2023 where we think we’ve kind of busted through all of these ways that women were historically held down, and in many ways, what I’m finding looking back at her history is how free she was and how not unlike me. We made different decisions. The cost of female ambition, choices in motherhood, they all are still the same in some surprising ways.

Zibby: That sounds great.

Kelly: Thank you.

Zibby: I have to go back — I was with Joanna Rakoff this weekend at this retreat that we did. I was raving about your book. She, of course, was like, “Have you gotten to this part?” I was like, “I’ll let you know.” I kept going. She was saying, “You have to go back and read her first book. It was so good.” I was like, “Okay, okay. I’ll go back.” I’m almost out of time here. I can’t believe this. I feel like I’ve been wandering in this podcast because I want to talk to you about so much in this book. I just hope that listeners can get the sense that I am so excited about your book and think you are so talented and amazing. I am so rooting for you in everything now that we’ve gone through this whole journey with you. I can’t even explain it.

Kelly: Zibby, thank you. I just want to say that I really appreciate you sharing your journey, especially the single mom part that you have been so open about in places like Instagram. That really helped me. I hope that, in many ways, this book would be, for example, a perfect Mother’s Day gift because it celebrates a motherhood that isn’t often freely celebrated and talked about. I just want to thank you for being a part of normalizing that, of making that not something scary to divulge and talk about. Thank you for sharing.

Zibby: Sure. I don’t know if my husband would like me being called a single mother. He feels like he’s such a part of things.

Kelly: Solo mom.

Zibby: You know what I mean. I get it. Congratulations. I saw you’re doing your event with Leigh Newman at Books Are Magic. I’m going to try to come if I can.

Kelly: Oh, my gosh, that would be amazing.

Zibby: I really want to come. Have so much fun. I hope this gets all the success in the world.

Kelly: Thank you. Thank you so much for the news. I’m so excited. I’ll see you in September.

Zibby: I’ll see you in September. Bye.

Kelly: Bye.



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