Kerri Maher joins Zibby to discuss her dramatic, thought-provoking, and inspiring new novel, ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS CALL, which draws inspiration from the real-life Jane Collective, the underground women’s health organization of the 70s that offered reproductive counseling and safe illegal abortions. The two talk about the complexities of women’s health issues, historical authenticity, and marital relationships. Maher also describes her writing journey, from numerous unpublished manuscripts to finding her niche in historical fiction, stressing the value of a supportive writing community.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kerri. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss All You Have to Do Is Call.

Kerri Maher: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: Does anybody ever just sing the next line? “And I’ll be there.”

Kerri: Not yet, but events are to come. Fingers crossed for that.

Zibby: There you go. Hopefully, someone better than me at singing.

Kerri: Believe me, no one wants the song.

Zibby: All You Have to Do Is Call, tell listeners what this book is about, please.

Kerri: This book is a novel that is loosely based on the women of the real-life Jane Collective who operated an underground women’s health clinic in Chicago before Roe. They offered safe, inexpensive abortions, among other women’s health services. They offered pap smears and some birth control counseling and some STD testing. Really, what they became known for was the safe abortions that they provided. They started as a referral service in the late sixties. Gradually, they took over the process to offer the abortions themselves. It was this women-helping-women health organization. I sort of took the idea of the Jane Collective and set it in Chicago and used some of the milestone moments of Jane but made my characters entirely made up. These women are figments of my imagination. They are not based on the real women. I always want to flag that for people because my first three historical novels were biographical fiction. They were about Grace Kelly and Sylvia Beach, who were real women. The characters in this novel are not real.

Zibby: You pointed out in the note that there were originally seven or eight. Now there are seven women, and so it wasn’t exactly the same and all of that.

Kerri: Right. For people who are versed in Jane lore — the author’s note is the ultimate mea culpa for historical novelists. It’s like, here are all the ways in which I didn’t follow the historical . If you were to check my facts, these would not align, and I did it on purpose. I went to the Historical Novel Society conference a few years ago. The keynote speaker was Dolen Perkins-Valdez. She gave this amazing speech about how we all do our homework. We are conscientious writers, but in the end, we are going to make shit up. The room stood up and cheered.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love that. That’s so awesome. What drew you to this topic? What drew you to the Jane Collective?

Kerri: This is such an interesting question. Of course, this book is entering this very unfortunate and weird moment in the history of reproductive justice a year post-Dobbs. I actually got the idea for it way back in 2018, the before times in many ways. I was driving to meet a friend for a movie. I was listening to NPR, as I usually do if I’m not listening to an audiobook. I heard this amazing NPR narrative news story about the women of the Jane Collective. As they were talking about the story, I just went, what? They did what? Part of what is remarkable about the real-life women of Jane is that they were women, very young women actually, with no special medical training who learned to give this one procedure to women in their hours of need. This was just really remarkable to me. I was like, what? Someone like me did this? I stopped the car and immediately was like, has anyone written about them? You fire up Amazon. You’re looking for other novels. No one had, the cursory search I did at the time. I knew I had to write about them. It was a journey from that moment to this moment. In some ways, it doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but it felt like a lot of time as I was living it. At that time, The Kennedy Debutante, my first historical novel, was about to come out. I was working on my second historical novel. I didn’t know how I was going to get to write this really pretty different kind of book, but here I am. I feel really grateful and lucky that we’re here now.

Zibby: It’s amazing. One of the things, in addition to the abortions themselves and that whole subplot — not subplot. Plot. What am I talking about? I feel like there’s this undercurrent of desire within a marriage that I found really interesting where women and men, maybe their feelings are not as aligned after several years of marriage. Is this person cheating? Is this person not cheating? Why is this person paying attention to me? Why isn’t this person paying attention to me? What can I do? What am I doing wrong? All of this self-doubt that I don’t feel like we get enough of, necessarily, in fiction for long-married people, how they feel about all the sexuality involved in that. Tell me a little more about that because I found that to be very interesting.

Kerri: Thank you for asking me about this. I’m forty-eight. I was married for a long time. I’ve been divorced for about five and a half years at this point. I’ve had subsequent relationships. I have married friends. I have long-married friends at this point. I have other women friends who have been single and partnered and broken up. I feel like over the last ten years especially, I’ve had some really fascinating conversations about what sex is like in midlife and the truth of that. One of the emerging themes — I was so happy when a man on their podcast, “You Can Do Hard Things,” also was really up-front about this. Being the woman in the marriage and being the one who is more amorous than your husband, which we’re not socialized to feel is the “right way,” that was a dynamic I really wanted to explore in this novel. I got to do that in the Patty/Matt marriage. I knew that that was going to be a component of their story. I don’t want to say too much about that because I don’t want to give away any spoilers.

There was an easy plot out that I could have taken in that marriage that I didn’t want to take because I see that so much in fiction and all media, really. I really wanted it to feel different and feel like a different kind of exploration of romantic, sexual love in a long-term relationship. That was Patty and Matt. Then we have Veronica and Doug, who are having a different set of issues. She’s pregnant for most of the book, which presents its own set of romantic issues. Then of course, they’re having real, meaningful disagreements about the work she’s doing while she’s pregnant. One of the challenges that I ran into in exploring all of these relationships was how to make them satisfying to a twenty-first-century reader without being anachronistic. These characters don’t have the therapy speak that we have. They don’t have the benefit of all the podcasts and all the things that we listen to about adult relationships. I’m like, okay, so how do I do that? There were a lot of drafts, for this reason and others, of this novel.

Zibby: There are so many different characters and viewpoints and relationships and interweaving stories and perspectives. You bounce from rooting for this character to that character. It’s hard to pull this off.

Kerri: It was hard. I’m not going to lie. My first three historical novels were one character, one central character. It was one narrator. In the Grace Kelly, it was a dual timeline. I hadn’t juggled three points of view, ever. I have five unpublished novels before The Debutante.

Zibby: Really?

Kerri: Yeah. I always like to flag that for people because I don’t want to ever come across as — I’m, what people say, the twenty-year overnight success. I wrote my first unpublished novel in the fifth grade. I wrote and wrote and wrote. After college, I wrote. I wrote three novels. They got me various things along the way. I got into graduate school with one of them. I got my first agent with another one of them. None of them sold until Kennedy. That was the sixth novel that I had written. Actually, the very first novel I wrote out of college had three points of view, but I didn’t braid them together. It was really a new challenge for me, but it was fun. When you’re a writer, you don’t want to do the same thing with every book. You want to set new challenges for yourself. You want it to feel fresh and exciting. Juggling the three characters in this case was the thing for this novel.

Zibby: Very cool. I love that. Thank you for sharing that about your past because it can be quite deceiving when people see overnight successes and all of that. Sometimes when people ask me some of the main takeaways from this podcast, that is one of the things, is that you should never expect your first novel to sell. The first novel is teaching yourself how to write a novel, period. That’s it. The second is how to write it better. The third is, maybe this could be good. Sometimes you can sell the third one. Every one is practice. Don’t expect it to be the one. How could it be? I’ve written a bunch of novels that are tucked away.

Kerri: It’s such an important message. I don’t think, honestly, published writers can reinforce this enough. There are enough stories of the lawyer who wrote their first novel by getting up at five in the morning, and then they sold it. It’s not like that never happens. It’s just not actually the norm. Most people toil away. I don’t understand these writers because I’m not one of them, but I have friends who have toiled away on the same novel for ten years and then sold that. I could never do that. I spent those ten years writing three novels and trying out a bunch of different genres and seeing what felt right to me. No word was wasted. Every single word is a learning experience. As you said, you’re learning how to write a novel. It’s an apprentice novel. I remember when I was twenty-three years old writing that first novel. When somebody said that to me, I flipped out. I was like, no, it’s not.

Zibby: Oh, yeah. I was like, no, no, no. Mine’s good, though. Until I was racked with insecurity about it. It’s that curious tension. It just is what it is. The six novels that you set aside, also historical fiction? Did you always gravitate to that?

Kerri: No. Kennedy was my first go at historical fiction. It’s totally amazing to me that it took so long for me to figure out that I should try historical fiction. My first novel was a serious work of literary fiction that I wrote right out of college. Then I went to graduate school. That novel got me into graduate school. I went to graduate school. I got an MFA in fiction writing. I wound up rebelling against having to only read Philip Roth and Don DeLillo and everyone. I was like, I’m going to write a romance novel, so I did. I took that one summer, I read a bunch of romance novels, and I wrote one. I was under the mistaken impression that they would be easy to sell. It was not easy to sell. Oh, my gosh, I self-taught myself so much about plot and character development. I think romance novels no longer have the bad wrap that they did when I was trying to write one. They’ve come a long way in the world. That was a huge learning experience for me. My third novel was a mystery in which, mainly, I found out that I am not hardwired to be a mystery novelist. It requires a certain kind of logic and also darkness that I can’t quite access. I’m just saying it out loud. Then I wrote two young adult novels. One of them was a paranormal. One of them was a contemporary. I was very immersed in the world of YA for a little while. I ran a literary journal.

Zibby: You wrote a whole advice book on writing for younger authors. That’s so great. The cover is so cool, by the way. It’s this loud mouth. I might get it for my kids. I have sixteen-year-old twins.

Kerri: I’m actually, on my Substack right now, replying to each of the chapters in that book.

Zibby: That’s interesting.

Kerri: I published it ten years ago. Shocking. One of the things that I think is valuable about that book to anyone, young writers or old writers, is I wrote it before I had sold a novel, so it’s very much from the — it’s like a writing memoir. It’s like a Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott, type of book, but it’s from the perspective of someone who hasn’t “made it” yet. I think that perspective is valuable for people as they’re trying to see their way through the weeds of the writing life.

Zibby: Interesting. You’re in Massachusetts. I have heard that in the Boston area particularly, there’s this big community of writers and people who have really been helping each other out. Tell me about how your writing community has helped you.

Kerri: My first writer friends in this area were young adult folks. They’re two of my best writing friends and early critique partners still, a woman named Diana Renn and another woman named Kip Wilson. They also both worked on the literary journal staff with me for many years. We’re really tight. Once I entered the world of historical fiction, now I’ve gotten to know all kinds of new and interesting people. Jane Healey, who wrote The Beantown Girls, among other novels, lives nearby. Ginny Pye, who’s got a novel, The Literary Undoing of, I think it’s Vanessa Swan, is coming out really soon. There’s all kinds of people here, and contemporary novelists too. When I did the Grace Kelly book, I was paired by a wonderful local bookstore with Laura Zigman. Have you had her on the show?

Zibby: Yes, several times.

Kerri: She writes contemporaries. They put me as this historical novelist and her as this contemporary writer together for this lovely evening “dinner with the writers” thing. We just had the best conversation. She had just come out with Separation Anxiety. As I’m talking to you, I’m sitting here petting my dog.

Zibby: My dog — oh, she’s downstairs. Usually, my dog’s right behind me.

Kerri: Needy dog. Are you, right now, in Southern California?

Zibby: Right now, I’m in New York. No. My kids go to school here, my little kids at least. They’re not so little. I’m here most of the time.

Kerri: I’ve watched your opening of your bookstore in Santa Monica with great interest because I grew up in California.

Zibby: That’s right. I read that.

Kerri: My family all lives, now, in Orange County, Irvine.

Zibby: Got it. Yes, I read you always consider yourself a California girl or something like that.

Kerri: I do. Where did you grow up?

Zibby: I grew up right here in New York a couple blocks away.

Kerri: Oh, okay, so you’re a real New Yorker.

Zibby: I am a real New Yorker, native New Yorker, but I really feel like I would be living anywhere I grew up. I’m here because it’s my home, not because it’s New York.

Kerri: Right, I get that. A hundred percent.

Zibby: That’s what makes it hard to leave even when I feel like perhaps we should.

Kerri: I lived six wonderful years in Brooklyn. It was lovely to be young in Brooklyn.

Zibby: I lived downtown when I was younger in New York, for a little bit at least. What are you working on now?

Kerri: I am at the very early stage of historical novel number five. The working title is Summer of Love. It’s a dual-timeline novel set in California in the 1960s and the 2010s, so going back to that idea of new challenges, dual timelines, a little bit of a contemporary mixed in with my historical. It’s about a family who owns a winery. The early part of the novel is set against the backdrop of the counterculture revolution in San Francisco, so Summer of Love. I was under the mistaken impression for a long time that the Summer of Love, that term, referred to 1969, but it’s actually 1967. It started with Vietnam War protests in San Francisco, actually, in the spring. It became this incredible set of concerts in the Haight-Ashbury that summer of 1967.

Zibby: I thought it was ’69 too. Look at that. I got some history in here today, in addition to the history in the book.

Kerri: That’s why we do it.

Zibby: Are there other people that you want to profile or little, dim ideas that you keep tossing around? There must be tons.

Kerri: There’s one that I feel too superstitious to talk about. I floated this idea to my agent once. She sort of sighed. She was like, “Every writer has one of these ideas.” It’s too big to describe. We haven’t figured out how to describe it. We’ve been carrying it around with us for decades. I have one of those. Otherwise, I’ve been really lucky. I have those five unpublished novels, so I got those out of my system. I got those characters out of my system. I’ve gotten to write about three amazing real-life women and now then this set of characters. As difficult as it was to make these women up out of thin air, I think that’s where I’m going for now. I’m not tossing around many other biographical novel topics right now. So many writers are doing it so well. So many fabulous women have been written about. We’ll see. You never know. Life is long. We read, and we get inspired by the strangest things. All You Have to Do Is Call came from a news story I listened to. Who knows where the next idea is going to come from?

Zibby: That’s right. That’s why you have to just be out and about. The best things are not at your desk. You’ve just got to get out there. Tell me a little bit more about your writing process and where you like to work. Are you at your desk now where you get your writing done? What’s the whole process?

Kerri: No, this is my Zoom place. I’m chair with a TV tray, believe it or not, with up. I really like doing things in front of the .

Zibby: It’s gorgeous.

Kerri: That was the cover of The Paris Bookseller. I’m very comfortable here. I kind of move around. I live in a pretty small condo. I have a secretary desk in my bedroom — it’s big — which I bought with the idea that I could close it. It just looks like a dresser. Do I ever close it? No. I do a lot of my writing there. Sometimes I write at my kitchen table. Sometimes I write on my couch, which is to my right. As I get older, the couch is less and less of a good idea. My back is not super happy with that choice. I’m really a morning writer. I’m not an early morning writer. I need to get up and caffeinated and get the dog walked. I try to use those first two or three hours of the day to actually get the writing done. It’s very hard for me to push it to the rest of the day. I have discovered — I want to know your answer to this question too because you are juggling a lot. One of the things I’ve learned about myself repeatedly, as if I forget and I have to relearn it, is that if I let everything else expand to fill the day, it will, the emails, the parenting, the teaching, whatever, all the things. Suddenly, it’s seven PM, and I haven’t done any writing. I’m definitely not going to write after seven PM. Whereas if actually clear the deck and just say, nine AM to noon is for writing, period, and put my blinders on, magically, everything else does actually get done. Sometimes I don’t get to the gym, but pretty much, everything can still get done. How do you do it?

Zibby: I’ve only written one novel while I’ve been doing all the other eight million things I’m doing. I literally had to take days away. I had to get out of my environment. I had a much harder time doing that than any other kind of writing, which I do anywhere, around the kids, on a plane, in the doctor’s room, whatever. For fiction, I had to be like, I’m taking this day. I couldn’t even just take a morning. I had to take, a couple times, bigger chunks of time. Then I caught up the next day or I caught up that night. Like you, I can’t do anything at night. I’m sort of useless, except for emails. I have to set it on a calendar and see it, see the blank space there so that I know I have the room to take a break and come back and take a break.

Kerri: Yes, I put it in my calendar too. If it’s not in my calendar, then I haven’t really committed to it.

Zibby: Yes, which is why I don’t get to the gym anymore.

Kerri: I know. We can’t actually do it all. Apropos of this novel, I wanted to know if this idea of women doing it all, could I use that phrase? No, that phrase didn’t come into the public consciousness until the 1980s. That idea of women trying to have it all was later than this book.

Zibby: Interesting. Maybe that was better, so they weren’t even trying.

Kerri: I’m just planting that seed there for people who are going to read the book. They can know that that phrase did not exist for these characters.

Zibby: I know we’ve already talked about great advice. If you had to leave listeners with some parting advice, for aspiring authors in particular, what would it be?

Kerri: Find your people. That’s the thing that I tell everybody. The biggest difference anything has really made along the way for me is having other writer friends at different stages of their careers. People who are further along would be, kind of, mentors to me. Also, and really importantly, having peer friends who were slogging it out with me. I could text them or call them when I got a rejection that particularly hurt, who would swap manuscripts with me and give me comments. I would give them comments. Just all the things writers do for each other at every step of the process. Now I’m really lucky, I have writers all over the country. All I have to do is call them.

Zibby: I love it. You should start a phone tree called All You Have to Do Is Call with authors who agree to be on-call for aspiring author questions. You should do an All You Have to Do Is Call day of aspiring authors and recruit all sorts of published authors to be there for a hotline.

Kerri: What a great idea.

Zibby: Wouldn’t that be fun?

Kerri: That would be so fun, yes.

Zibby: I can see the whole branding with this whole cover look and feel and all that.

Kerri: There was a moment when we were talking about covers, I was like, “Couldn’t we have a phone on it with a long cord?” It never worked out. I love the cover. I wouldn’t the world.

Zibby: I love the cover. It’s really great. Kerri, this was so fun. Thank you so much for chatting. I hope to meet you in real life.

Kerri: I would absolutely love that. Thank you again for having me on the show.

Zibby: My pleasure. Have a great day. Bye.

Kerri: You too. Bye.


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