Kelly Corrigan, TELL ME MORE

Kelly Corrigan, TELL ME MORE

Zibby Owens: I am so beyond thrilled to be sitting here today with Kelly Corrigan who is the author of four consecutive New York Times best sellers including Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say, Glitter and Glue, The Middle Place, and Lift. She has been called the poet laurate of the ordinary by HuffPost and the voice of a generation by O Magazine. Kelly is currently the host of The Nantucket Project, a live event series and podcast. She is also the host of “Exactly” at KQED radio station. She is an accomplished columnist with essays in O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, and Good Housekeeping. A graduate of the University of Richmond and San Francisco State University, where she received her master’s in literature, she currently lives with her husband and two daughters.

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

Kelly Corrigan: Thanks. I’m psyched to be here. This is a killer room we’re sitting in, if you guys could see it. I’m going to say there are seven hundred to a thousand books in my eyesight right now. They’re all arranged by color, which is how I have my books at home. I feel really, really comfortable in this space.

Zibby: I’m so happy. As I was telling you, I’ve been following you for years because I’ve reading all of your memoirs forever. This is such a treat for me to have you here where I have sat and read all your books. It’s very cool. Tell Me More is your most recent book, Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say. Can you tell listeners what this is about? What made you write this particular book?

Kelly: I had written my first book, The Middle Place, which is about my father and I both having cancer at the same time. It came out in 2008. Since then, I had written Lift and Glitter and Glue. Then this new editor that I was working with, his name’s Andy Ward, and I went out for sushi at Blue Ribbon Sushi in New York.

Zibby: Love.

Kelly: I was telling him about this argument that I got in with my husband about the difference between saying “I’m sorry” and saying “I was wrong.” It was my contention that saying “I was wrong” involves a level of humility that “I’m sorry” just doesn’t somehow have. Maybe it’s because as parents we force our three-year-olds and four-year-olds to say “I’m sorry” four times a day that by the time they become adults, it can be a cheap, perfunctory statement. “I was wrong” is a big, bold, incredible thing to say. At this dinner table I was saying to Edward, “If you were really in a tense situation with somebody that you’re in a permanent relationship with, they could stop everything if they were just to say, “You’re right. I was wrong.” There’s nowhere to go from there. The fight’s over. That got us wondering, what else do you have to be able to say if you want to be in big, juicy, satisfying relationships that last for decades and decades? We started to work out this list.

My father died. It’ll be five years in February. Then after my father died, not long after, my friend died. Her name was Liz Laats. She had three kids. I gave the eulogy at her service. I gave my father’s eulogy. In the process of writing those and thinking about what it is that it all comes down to, it became crystal clear that it’s just about these relationships. That combined with this funny conversation I had with Edward made me think this is actually a really worthwhile undertaking. If it’s all about relationships, which I’m entirely convinced it is, then how do we do them? I’m not a self-help kind of gal. I don’t have that background or the expertise. I just went looking for stories that I thought totally underlined these big aha’s that I have had over the course of being married and being a mother. At one point, I had seventeen different things that I was learning to say. Then I had whittled it down to six. Then we ended up with twelve.

Zibby: What got left on the cutting room floor? What’s something you learned to say that didn’t make it in?

Kelly: A huge, huge thing that was left aside because it was too big for the book was “You can go,” which is what I said to my dad when he was dying. Telling that story in the way that it deserves to be told was running at seventy pages. Some of these chapters are eight pages. At some point, it was starting to become obvious to me. Then Andy Ward, my editor, said, “This really deserves its own space. Once you get to it, that’s all anybody’s going to remember. This is going to be the book about your father dying. I don’t want to overshadow everything that comes before because it’s so useful. It’s so fun to read. Let’s set that aside.” We did. I have this, now it’s two hundred pages, of that story in great detail of what it felt like to be in that three-week stretch.

Zibby: Is that your next book?

Kelly: I’m not really sure. When I write a book, I’m also committing to two fairly significant book tours. There’s a hardcover tour and a paperback tour. The last time with Tell Me More, they were each twenty cities. It’s a huge undertaking. Reading even just the little bit about my dad and Liz that’s in Tell Me More, I can never get through it without choking up. It gets heavy. It’s very easy for me to imagine sharing the pages somehow. Through an email to subscribers is really the way I’ve thought about doing it. I have six thousand people who ask me to send them emails very so often. I thought, maybe I’ll just share it with you guys. Maybe I’ll just send it to you in little pieces. That way I don’t have to tour with it, which feels excruciating to me. I don’t know quite what will happen to it. I’ll definitely find a way to share it. I’m not sure which. I can’t imagine just plopping it up on Facebook. I was imaging that this email thing might be an interesting way to do it because these are people that feel super connected to my work. Maybe that’s the most personal way to share it. It feels funny to try to commercialize it. I can’t imagine being in a meeting at Random House talking about what the cover should be.

Zibby: What if you did an audiobook?

Kelly: I thought about an audiobook. I’ve thought about a podcast where I could read some and then talk some about what it feels like now to look at those pages. It’s been almost five years. Grief is such an animated force. It’s not stable. It’s not static. I’m right in the middle of trying to figure out how to share that stuff in a way that’s helpful to people. It would definitely, definitely, definitely be helpful. If I had had something — I was just starving for people’s stories, detailed stories of letting somebody go, when that was happening to me. After it happened, I read H is for Hawk. I read A Grief Observed. I couldn’t get enough of really intimate, thorough telling of that story. What is it to lose somebody that you don’t know you can be in the world without?

Zibby: I would hate to think that the stumbling block of the tour and the travel is going to prevent this beautiful book from coming out. There’s got to be a way. This is not for me to figure out. I’ll let you figure it out. Maybe there’s something you could work out with the publisher or something. People are going to buy it anyway. Maybe you’ve gotten to a point, you don’t have to tour as much. I don’t know. You figure it out.

Kelly: Maybe we’ll just do it on this podcast.

Zibby: That would great. Yes, use my podcast.

Kelly: I’ll do it episode by episode.

Zibby: Yes, at the beginning of every episode, I’ll read —

Kelly: — Isn’t it called “Moms Don’t Read”?

Zibby: “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” It’s perfect.

Kelly: We’ll just read it to you.

Zibby: Done.

Kelly: Done.

Zibby: Perfect. We can hang out every week. You could read a little bit.

Kelly: I would come back to this room.

Zibby: Then you don’t have to buy your own microphones.

Kelly: This room is pretty gorgeous, I’ve got to say. If you ever get invited to come to this room, you should come to this room.

Zibby: That’s very sweet. That’s probably why I can’t motivate to leave it. Let’s talk a little more about what’s in this particular book as opposed to the next one that I want to help market. As you said, you wrote beautifully about — you didn’t say you wrote beautifully, but I’ll say you wrote beautifully about your dad and your friend Liz’s loss. One of the things was how you almost made part of the book as if you were talking to her, like, “Here’s how it happened after. Here’s how it was with your kids. I told you I’d watch out for them. Here I am watching out. Here’s what happened,” which was heartbreaking but so moving.

Kelly: That chapter is called Onward, which is definitely a thing you have to be able to say as an adult in the world. There is a time to accept things and keep moving. It is not always as easy as we wish it was. I had written this completely different story for that. What I thought was that I had already told you, the reader, enough about Liz and that there was a sense of completion there. Then I had this other story. The other story was too excruciating. I have this great friend. His name’s Jim Morrison. His wife and children were all killed in a plane crash. He has found a way to stay in the world and to be a lovely person to sit next to. It’s astonishing to me and all the people who know him that he’s able to be so giving and to receive other people’s lives which are so easy compared to his. Somehow, he can still have compassion for your, by comparison, quite small problem. I had written a lot about him, like thirty pages about him. A friend of mine, Ariel who is mentioned a lot in the book, she’s a therapist. Her daughter and my daughter are great friends. She and I walk together once a week. She’s really very wise. To the extent that there’s anything in this book that you feel is wise, you should attribute it to Dr. Ariel Trost in Oakland, California. She really helps me understand what is universally true about what I’m saying, what’s particular to me. She’s an early reader of mine. We talk a lot. She grounds it in a much larger body of understanding and research than I have access to.

What she said about the Jim Morrison story is, “This stands out for several reasons. One is because it’s utterly horrifying. Most people don’t know someone that that’s happened to.” Everything else in the book, people know someone that that’s happened to. She said, “The second thing is that’s the only chapter that’s reported. You didn’t live through that with him. You met him after. Everything you’re telling us is almost as if you’re writing an article about him. It stands out for that reason. If you want to keep it in, keep it in. To me, I feel like it also deserves its own place. It’s separate thing.” I thought that was a pretty good observation honestly, the idea that it was the only part that was reported. I set it aside. I was afraid to tell Jim that I was setting it aside. I didn’t know how he’d feel about that. We still feel like we’re going to do something with it, so I think he feels good.

Zibby: We can talk about that media plan next. I’ll weigh in on that in a minute. Go ahead.

Kelly: He’s an amazing human being. Then I had this hole. I wanted to get to this point about “Onward.” Then I said to Edward, “I think I solved my problem today.” I had just recently spent time with Andy and the three kids. I had observed so many things that I thought Liz would love to see. For instance, they have this very enormous juicing machine. It’s this giant metal thing. You use this hand-crank to juice beets and carrots. Then you put all the herbs in there. It really does make an incredible glass of juice. It also makes an incredible mess. The juice-to-mess ratio, for me, is way out of whack. Also, just the sheer size of it, it needs its own cabinet to live in. Anyway, Andy and I saw that the same way, that this is a whole lot of drama for not that much juice. To Liz, it was this great joy. She really took pleasure in making the juice. She had a very thoughtful opinion of it, that she was showing her kids, “This is where juice comes from. When you go to Joe’s Juice and you get some beet juice, this is what happened before that. Here’s how many oranges it takes to make a glass of orange juice.” She was really hopeful that she could somehow show her children how much work went into the things that we might be enjoying too casually.

Also, she was a believer in food as medicine. Medicine in and of itself was a topic that she’d spent a lot of cycles thinking about. She was sick for seven years with ovarian cancer. She tried a lot of things, Western and Eastern. She did eighty-eight rounds of chemotherapy. She tried all of the things that you’re supposed to try on this side of the Atlantic. She also talked to nutritionists. She did a lot of reading. She was a very smart woman, really well-informed. Sure enough when I was there, Andy was making this juice with the kids. He and I shared a look across the table. I knew he knew what I was thinking. When I went home, I wrote her this letter. I said, “Look, you’re never not going to be here. That is going to keep hurting. You’re not going to be there when they get pregnant. You’re not going to be there when they get engaged. You’re not going to be there the day they get married. You’re not going to be there the day their husband loses his job and they freak out. There’s a lot of loss ahead that’s unavoidable. I am not minimizing this. I want you to know that these people are doing as well as these people could be doing. There’s a lot of love in that house. There’s a lot of joy. They still laugh. They still run around. They still like to play the same games. Nothing’s been destroyed in the wake of your loss.” You just don’t know. You wonder, if we all played Euchre together when you were alive, do you never want to play Euchre again? Do you want to Euchre every day? Do some of you want to play it and others of you can’t believe that you would play that game even though she’s not here? There’s four people living under one roof. They’re all doing this grief thing in their own rate and their style. The potential for conflict there is terrible, it seemed to me.

My observation of them as a foursome is that is couldn’t be going better, which is to say it is excruciating and yet there is joy. There is connection. A thing that Liz and I talked about a lot — we talked about things that I’ve never talked to anybody about because nothing will make you more honest and more of straight shooter than the potential of death. What she said about Andy was, “I’m really afraid that he’s not going to know how to do this.” He’s not particularly patient. That’s a really high requirement for parenting. She was the patient one. There were things that she did that she was not sure he would be able to do. I agreed with her. I did not talk her out of that feeling. I did not reject it out of hand. I accepted it. I internalized it. I mirrored it back to her sincerely. He has a big career. He started a company. The company went well. He’s the center of attention in every room. He’s a great storyteller, big personality. He’s not the guy who notices that one of his kids is starting to get a sty in their left eye. That would not be his nature. He’s definitely not noticing that someone’s not eating their dinner or that someone went to bed early. There’s a lot that you have to be scanning for as a parent. Somebody’s got to be scanning for it. The way they worked out their relationship is she said, “I got it.” She was very good at it, very capable, very tuned in, very sensitive.

The thing I really, really wanted her to know was he’s doing it. He’s doing this thing that we weren’t sure he could do. He is such a good student. He always was. He went to great schools. He was a great athlete. He was a college swimmer. He was a great businessperson. He is not a person who’s going to get beat by something. In fact, probably that’s why his wife having incurable cancer was so maddening for him. It was the first thing he couldn’t learn his way out of or strategize his way out of or build a team to get his way out of. He did it. He is like mother and father. He’s really quite good at it. He’s really on his feet now. It’ll be four years very soon. For at least a year and a half, he didn’t call Edward, he called me. He said, “Just tell Edward I don’t need to talk to dads right now. I’m trying to learn how to be a mom. Those dads, they don’t really know.” I’m like, yeah, no shit. Then he said something like, “The dads keep calling me saying, ‘C’mon, let’s go out for a guys’ night.’ I can’t afford to be hungover. I’m a mom now.” I was like, there we go. You should go on tour and just say, “Ten things I learned trying to be a mom.” There is a difference. It’s so gratifying to hear it. There’s a letter to Liz in Tell Me More. It’s the chapter called Onward. It’s just, “Here’s what’s happening. It’s working to the extent that it can work.”

Zibby: Do you believe that she knows? Do you believe that she, in some way, knows the content of the letter, can look? Do you believe in that?

Kelly: No, I don’t. I wish I did. The thing I believe, though, very strongly is that there’s a lot of her that’s still here. To be with her children is to be with her. It’s like it’s all been sprinkled all over all of them. Her youngest son looks so much like her. It’ll give you the shivers. He’s very kinetic, constant motion. Every now and then, he’ll just let me stare at him. I am convinced that he knows what I’m doing. Of course my dad’s still here, so much so. There’s so many things I do every day that are part of Greenie. All of that, there is a distribution after a person dies, for sure. I think it’s their loss. I think it’s her loss, what she doesn’t get to be with us. We get to be with her in a weird way that’s insufficient but is what it is. She doesn’t get to be here. I don’t think that she knows. I don’t. I would be thrilled to be wrong. I’d be thrilled to discover that I’m shortsighted and a fool.

Zibby: I’m sorry. That was so personal. I didn’t mean to ask. I wonder. People have all these different beliefs and feelings. Sometimes I feel like I try to convince myself that people are still around, all these people who I’ve lost who I love. I know maybe it’s not true. Intellectually, it makes me feel better. What else do I have other than how I’m feeling about it, in a way? It’s only in my mind. I can trick myself, maybe. It almost seems unfair, the people who pass away without having children. Then are they still as sprinkled around? Do you know what I mean?

Kelly: I don’t know. Certainly, the parent-child relationship is singular. There are probably people in the world who had a deep relationship with my dad who every now and then might pass the police officer manning the crosswalk and say, “Hey, how you doing? Have a great day.” That’s really straight from him, that you would have that urge to splash around some positivity.

Zibby: When you were writing this book, how do you get into this headspace where you’re going back through the losses and all the pain and everything else, and then stand up and go pick your kids up from school or something? When do you do your best writing? Where do you like to do it? How do you manage those transitions?

Kelly: Not very well. There’s nothing about my process that anyone else should ever try to adopt. It’s very sporadic. There are long periods of very low production. Also, it’s hard to see yourself. I don’t necessarily know how I’m getting things done. It never feels to me like it’s happening. I’ll say to Edward, “I think I’m finished.” He’ll be like, “What? When?” It’s like, “I don’t know. I had a little burst.” Something will be more or less the same for eight or nine months. Then all of a sudden for three weeks straight, I’ll start going around tightening all the screws and filling things out and seeing where this thing should go and figuring out why it’s even there in the first place. Therefore, I can write a transition that makes the whole thing click together. It’s like that.

One thing that I’m starting to understand about me is that a lot of times when I’m in a really deep conversation, I’m collecting and testing. I do this thing called The Neighborhood Project. It’s the best part of my life right now. It’s small groups of people, friends. Someone raises their hand and says, “You can come to my house.” We’ll watch a short film. It’s twenty, twenty-five minutes. Then we talk for an hour and a half. There’s no cell phones. It’s totally confidential. Then we come back the next month and do it again. I’m in two of these groups. I’m in one in Southern California of a friend of mine. I don’t get to go very often. When I go, I learn so much. Then I’m in one in my little town. We just had it. We have ours on the third Saturday of every month. We all go somewhere at nine o’clock. You’re not allowed to put out a whole bunch of food or whatever because we don’t want any burden for anybody. It’s just a box of coffee.

Zibby: Nine AM?

Kelly: Nine AM. PM? I’m in bed by nine PM.

Zibby: I was about to be so impressed. Wow, that would be amazing.

Kelly: I don’t even what nine PM is. Last night the debate was at nine PM. I’m like, nine PM? I can’t stay up for that. We watch these short films. They’re seven-minute documentaries or whatever about all sorts of different things. After the genocide in Rwanda, this law of Gacaca took over, which is the law of the grass hill. A person who had perpetrated a set of crimes against a family would say in front of the community, eyeball-to-eyeball to the remaining family members, “I killed your brother. I killed your mother. I put their body in this latrine. I raped your daughter,” the whole thing. They come completely clean. Then that person decides whether they want to forgive them or not.

Zibby: So nice and light?

Kelly: Some of them are really light and funny. There was this one about this guy, Wayne White, who makes this hilarious art. It was the story of, how did he come to make this art? It’s really extraordinary in the literal sense. It’s extra-ordinary. He tells his story. It’s a gas. He worked for Pee-wee’s Playhouse and made puppets and stuff. It could be about just about anything. The people in my group I have such high regard for. They’re such interesting — my group in Oakland is all women. The one in LA is co-ed. When you’re listening to their stories, the more you listen the more you realize where the points of intersection are. That helps me understand what ideas I want to lean into on the page. It helps give me the confidence that this isn’t going to completely miss when I put it out there because I kind of put things out there in these groups. It will resonate. People will talk about it. They’ll add something interesting to it, as people do in great conversations. The problem is — the whole reason The Neighborhood Project exists is because there’s not that many great conversations happening right now. People just aren’t making the time.

They’re also responding to current events. This is more universal. These are themes about forgiveness or humility or curiosity, stuff you could’ve been talking about five hundred years ago in a completely different society. That’s a relief. That really helps me understand — the nicest thing people ever say to me about my books is, or if I give a talk or something, they say, “Exactly. That’s exactly how I was feeling. I could never have put it that way. I’ve never been able to put words on it. That’s exactly how I felt.” I feel like I get to “Exactly” in conversation first. Then I can write more confidently. All it’s doing is, some kind of validation conversationally gives me the confidence to even bother trying to write it. If I’m toying with something, then I’ll discover myself floating it conversationally. If it generates interesting conversation, then I think, oh yeah, that’s good. I’ll definitely keep going on that. I’m working on a novel right now. It’s a little bit like reticular activation. Once you buy a red Jetta, then all you see on the street are red Jettas. Everything that comes up in conversation, this is such validation for this novel. This is exactly what I’m talking about.

Zibby: Can you say what the novel’s about?

Kelly: No.

Zibby: Nothing?

Kelly: No.

Zibby: Do you know when it’s coming out? Is it already scheduled?

Kelly: I think it will come out in early 2021.

Zibby: That’s soon. That’s not so far.

Kelly: A year from next year.

Zibby: That’s exciting.

Kelly: It is. It’s the most comfortable I’ve ever been in a creative project. I’m so confident that this is worth doing, that it’s worth reading, that it’s worth talking about, that it’s core enough to everybody that everyone should have an opinion about this question I’m putting out there through this story.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I cannot wait to read this. What a teaser. Thank you for that. Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors? I know you’ve already said a lot of —

Kelly: — I just did a thing. I don’t know if anyone’s ever heard of this thing. It’s called She Writes University.

Zibby: Yeah, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” sponsored your class.

Kelly: You did? Great. I think it’s available. You can just get it. It’s an hour and a half of me sharing everything I know about writing nonfiction. That’s available to you. I do think that being in your document every day has a certain unappreciated value. Every time you open it, you’re making this tiny commitment. Not opening it is like not getting on the scale. It’s like you’re afraid of something. You should really make yourself open it. It keeps it alive in your subconscious, which is super valuable. There’s a lot that we know that we don’t know we know. There’s a lot of weird odds and ends of conversations and observations and feelings and life experiences that can all swirl together if we just keep that activated, keep the question open in our minds. To do that, it helps just to read a chapter every day. Most people, once you open the document, you’re not going to be able to resist. You’re going to noodle around in there and do something. There’s always a little activity that can match your mood. Writing on a blank page is one kind of mood that you might be in. Another might be really fine-tuning some editing. Another might be — this thing I’m doing right now for this novel is so fun. I’ve made this little paper book that I sewed the spine of.

Zibby: Now you’re just bragging about these skills. That’s enough now. Thank you.

Kelly: So fun. I shot it right through the sewing machine which is set up in our house. Now I have this little sewn paper book. It’s a reference guide. The girl in this novel is born in 1994. Every page is a different year. Sometimes I’m in the mood to remind myself, what was the number-one song? What won the Oscar? Who was president? What was the biggest scandal? Who won the World Cup? When were the Olympics? What was the cultural catchphrase that year? and map that against the life of this character. That’s a kind of activity that’s actually moving me forward in the process. It’s all work that has to be done. Even if I’m not in the mood to create from scratch, like write the next chapter, I can find something to do that will move me forward. That’s another reason why I think it’s really valuable to be in the document every day. Every day means Saturdays and Sundays too.

The last thing I’ll say that I think is really encouraging is that even at thirty minutes, it can be really effective. I know from reading books out loud at readings for ten years that there are these million-dollar lines. It’s the best line you’ve got in a whole chapter. That might easily come to you in one of these quickie sessions. You could be in a document for twenty minutes and find the line. The words might come to you just right. It’s the whole punchline of this whole passage that you wrote. You can live off that for years. When I’m reading out to loud to people, I know when I’ve got one of those lines coming. It’s so fun to see it there and think, I can’t believe I’m still getting the hit off of that little line that was one of those twenty-minute drop-ins where I was like, I know what I’m going to say. This is so funny. That’s another gift. Small little pockets of time can actually be very high yield.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you so much for sharing all of this with “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate it.

Kelly: Bye, ladies.

Kelly Corrigan, TELL ME MORE