Zibby Owens: I truly enjoyed interviewing Kerry Kletter about her book East Coast Girls. Kerry Kletter holds a degree in literature and is the critically acclaimed author of the young adult novel The First Time She Drowned. She also has an extensive background in theater having appeared in film, television, and on stage. She lives in Los Angeles and adores her friends, her partner David, dogs, neuroscience, funny people, Montauk, surfing, and French fries. East Coast Girls is her first adult novel.

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

Kerry Kletter: Thank you for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: East Coast Girls. I’m talking to you, you’re in Santa Monica, California. Your book takes place in Montauk, which is way closer to me here than you all the way over there. How did you end up writing a story that takes place a lot in Montauk, or at least several trips there? Tell me about writing the book in general and what’s it’s about.

Kerry: First, I’m from New Jersey. I did move to the West Coast, but I’m from New Jersey. My dad has a house in East Hampton. I spent my summers there since I was about sixteen. It’s a very meaningful place to me. That’s how it ended up taking place in Montauk. Then you want the book pitch?

Zibby: I’ll take the book pitch. I have the book. I read the book, but for everyone else who has not had the luxury of flipping through it.

Kerry: East Coast Girls is about four girls who grew up together. They have this almost familial bond because they came from families that weren’t particularly loving or functioning very well. They found each other and became a pack and kind of raised each other. Then they get to high school and this terrible thing happens to them one night, just a totally tragic thing. They never talk about it. For the next twelve years, they never talk about what happened. Their lives are all derailed in different ways because of this thing that happened to them. Their bond is a little bit fractured because of it. They decide to go back to the last place that they were truly happy, which is these summers they spent together in Montauk when they were girls, and see if they can sort of get back to their own innocence and their connection to each other. Of course, things don’t always go as planned. Therein lies the story. The secrets start coming out and things happen.

Zibby: I know why you set it now where you set it. How did you come up with the idea for the plot?

Kerry: For the plot, that’s interesting. I wanted there to be a shared trauma. I’m always wanting to write about trauma. My first book was about trauma. On some level, even if it’s a beach book, I want to explore that idea. The reason I had them have this shared trauma is because I wanted to explore the different ways that people respond to trauma and how their different responses, they ways they cope with that, the defense mechanisms they develop, start to interfere in their relationships with other people. I think that happens to us all the time where our coping mechanisms, our defenses, cause friction in our relationships. It’s because we can’t see the pain that’s driving the behavior. I wanted to have these girls who are all of a bit of mess because of what happened — they have conflict with each other because of it. They have to come to a place where they can really see each other again, see each other’s hearts and see what’s driving behaviors. That was why I came up with that shared trauma. Then the reason that I picked that particular trauma is because something similar happened to some people that I knew in college. I kind of extrapolated from that, obviously changing a lot of things.

Zibby: I wanted to know, your attraction to writing about trauma, usually, I feel like if an author is doing that, it comes from some place of trying to understand something that’s happened to them or whatever. Can you tell me any more about what happened in college?

Kerry: That didn’t happen to me. It wasn’t me that that happened to. My attraction to writing about trauma is from my own childhood, basically. I just had a traumatic childhood. I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy. I gave the girls some issues. Hannah, who I consider the main character, I gave her some of the issues that I’ve struggled with. She’s me in some ways without therapy. I think I’m always trying to figure things out because of what happened to me in terms of, how do you excavate your true self and dismantle dysfunctional coping mechanisms? I think it’s a lifelong process. As I’m trying to work through things, I’m hoping that the readers will resonate with some of the issues that I’m trying to work through and that can we sort of find the way out together.

Zibby: Your last book too, The First Time She Drowned, also confronted trauma, as you mentioned. It was about a daughter who spent time in a mental institution and then how she dealt with her mother after she came out. Tell me about writing that one. I’m just so curious about whole oeuvre, if you will, what inspires you to write about this, if this mother-daughter thing is something that you’ve been grappling with yourself.

Kerry: Absolutely. I’ve grappled with a mother-daughter thing. That book was really about what they call in psychology the designated patient. What that is, is that when there’s a really dysfunctional family, a lot of times there’s one kid who the family projects all the dysfunction onto. Then that kid acts out. Then the family points to that kids and says, you are the problem. That’s basically what happens in The First Time She Drowned, which is this incredibly dysfunctional, abusive family. The most sensitive child, which is usually the designated percent, begins to act out because of the dysfunction. They hospitalize her. That is so interesting to me, that whole dynamic of the designated patient because I think we see it in society all the time. I think that we’re always sort of creating somebody who we can identify as the problem when usually it’s a much bigger thing.

Zibby: Have you found writing these books to be therapeutic for you as well as your regular therapy?

Kerry: How much therapy can one person have? Yeah, I think so. I don’t think that’s the intention. My intention is always to hopefully give words to experience so that other people can feel seen and validated and maybe find some sort of healing or understanding in the books. They say that one of the ways that people become mentally healthy is through creating narrative of their own life. I think you’re doing that a little bit when you’re writing books. Yeah, I would say that that’s probably been therapeutic, though it was never my intention for it to be.

Zibby: You’re a really lovely writer. Even just some of the analogies in the first pages of the book, like how the girls are all in a little picture booth together and they’re at the fair and just the way you write about it, even your opening sentence which I wish I had in front of me, but just the way you draw the reader in and describe a summer day, all of it, it involves all the senses, the way that you write. You really feel immersed in that scene. How did you learn to write? When did you start writing? Tell me about your process, all of that.

Kerry: I think I was always writing to a certain extent. I really became a writer out of — when I was in high school, I was this very rebellious kid because of what I had been through. I had this English teacher who I tortured. I tried to get out of her class and went to the principal and said, “Get me out of this woman’s class.” She came wheeling up behind me and said, “Don’t you dare let this student out of my class.” We spent the next three months torturing each other. She had us write an essay. I wrote an essay about an ogre of an English teacher and how a student, I believe, chops her into pieces, something that you’d probably get arrested for now. It was meant to be funny, but it was definitely meant to be a dig at her. She loved it. She read it out loud to the class. Then she called me in afterwards and she said, “I think you’re a writer.” No adult had ever really said anything positive about me, so I kind of clung to that. It took me a really long time to have the resiliency to actually write a novel because I had to have a real growth mentality about it. I was in that state of if somebody criticizes it, then it’s not good. I had to grow up enough to get to, actually, criticism is awesome and exciting because then you can get better. That’s sort of how that happened. Then what was the question? What’s my process with it?

Zibby: Yeah. How did you hone your craft?

Kerry: I read a lot. I was attracted to a certain kind of lyrical story, lyrical language. I just kept looking at that. I think I had an instinct for it and just would underline sentences in books over and over and over and again and try to figure out how the writer came to that and really just was self-taught, mostly. I was an English major in college. Mostly, it was just reading a lot. Then when I wrote my first book — . I wrote my first book. It took me three years to write it. I sent it to an agent. She said, “I love the writing, but there’s no plot.” I was like, oh, my god, a plot. I had no idea I was supposed to put a plot in a book. Then I had to go back and learn how to do a plot. That book actually ended up taking about fourteen years to write. I had three jobs and a neighbor who was blasting music twenty-four hours a day. It took about fourteen years.

Zibby: How long did this one take?

Kerry: This one took about three. I’m getting faster. I really love to hone sentences. Especially if you’re writing about trauma, I have this desire to still make things pretty and hopeful. It’s almost like a counter to the darkness, I think, to have sentences that are vivid and pretty. That takes a while because I’m just constantly honing that.

Zibby: Where do you like to write?

Kerry: In my bed. I pretty much don’t leave my bed, so everything gets done there. My friend and I, who’s also a writer, we joke we’re like those old people in Willy Wonka who never get out of bed. That’s pretty much me.

Zibby: That is my ideal day. That’s a dream day.

Kerry: I don’t have children, so I have the privilege of doing that.

Zibby: I am divorced and remarried, so on days when I don’t have the kids — I don’t have them today, for instance. Well, now I got up early, but yesterday I could do all my work in bed until ten in the morning. That feels like a huge luxury. Usually by ten, I’ve had an entire day. I’m ready for dinner. When I don’t have the kids, yeah.

Kerry: When I see moms, I’m just like, oh, my god, I don’t know how.

Zibby: I don’t want to pry into your personal life, but I’m so interested. Feel free to just not want to talk about it, but you keep referencing the trauma in your early childhood. I just am wondering if you feel comfortable talking about what happened. I would love to listen. If not, do not feel bad saying no.

Kerry: There’s sort of specifics that I can’t really say. I never want to hurt anybody, even people who have been abusive, because I feel that they’re abusive because they’ve been abused. Things happen to our brains sometimes that create limited capacity for things like empathy. There was a lot of child abuse. It was every form of child abuse. That said, when I think about my childhood, what I think about, and I think this is why East Coast Girls is what it is, what I think about are the witness-bearers. I think about the friends who saved me through those times. I don’t really think about the difficult things that happened. Probably my most important memory from being a kid was being eight years old — it’s so vivid to me. I had a friend come over. She wanted cookies. I called down to one of my parents who was in the basement doing laundry. I said, “Can we have some cookies?” This parent did not like the fact that I called down to the basement instead of walking down to the basement, and so responded with a string of expletives and insults. My little friend, eight years old, turned to me with the most intense expression on her face. She said, “Kerry, that’s child abuse.”

It was the most important thing that ever happened to me because the expletives was nothing compared to what was going on. To have somebody say, this isn’t you, this isn’t right, this is something that is happening to you, gave me a sense of fight for the rest of my life. When I think about my childhood, what I think about is my friends. They rallied behind me. Everybody knew what was happening. They came to my aid. They took me into their homes. It was just incredible. To this day, they are my family. They are the people that mean the most to me. When I write a book, my entire town shows up. It’s just unbelievable and so moving. That’s what I think about. I don’t want to think about the bad stuff because everybody goes through it. The people who save us, that’s the stuff that, to me, is really meaningful.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much for sharing that. I’m so sorry that all of that happened. I’m so glad you had people. I’m so happy for that moment with that girl. Is she still a friend of yours?

Kerry: She is, yeah. I was lucky. I think most kids don’t ever get that, somebody who bears witness and says, this isn’t okay. That’s the most important to thing, is to let people know that what they’re experiencing isn’t right. That is why we have to speak up about things.

Zibby: Wow. Well, on to lighter topics, then you became an actress for a while. I looked you up. You were in Lethal Weapon 4. Is that right? Is that the same you?

Kerry: I was in Lethal Weapon 4. I was in Swordfish with John Travolta and Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry. I did stunts on that as well. I did a couple of soap operas and stuff like that.

Zibby: What kind of stunts?

Kerry: In Swordfish, I don’t know if you ever saw that movie, but there’s these hostages that are in bomb vests. They’re taken on a bus. The bus gets flown through the air by a helicopter. The way we had to do that is we had to go into an airport hangar. They took two sixty-foot cranes and lifted the bus up on the two cranes. Then they let one side go so that we were swinging hanging in the bus. We’re strapped in. It was terrifying because what happened was a stunt guy right in front of me, his strap broke.

Zibby: No!

Kerry: Yes. He went tumbling all the way to the back of the bus. There was a sixty-foot drop to the concrete underneath. The only thing that saved him was that there was a person sitting there. They hit each other. They both had to go to the hospital. They were okay, but broken bones. The movie made us do another take after that. That was my stunt career. I was one and done.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Kerry: It was crazy, but it was really fun. That set was really fun. We were on the bus shooting so many hours a day. It was John Travolta and Hugh Jackman. One day I got John Travolta to do the, “You’re the one that I want.” Then all the hostages would lean out in our bomb vests. We’d lean into the aisle and go, “Ooh, ooh, ooh.” We had a good time. After that movie, I was like, you know, I don’t think I want to do this anymore. Hollywood is very masochistic. You’re just kind of always trying to prove your worth. If you’re a woman, you have to worry about aging and all these things. People are sort of climbing each other. It just was not an environment I wanted to be in. And so I thought, I’m going to write a book. I sat down one day and I wrote the first sentence of my first book, which is “My mother wore the sun like a hat.” I had no idea why, but I was like, I guess this is the first sentence. Fourteen years later, it stayed the first sentence and everything else changed. It was after that movie that I was like, I think I need to pivot here.

Zibby: Yeah, I think stunt doubles with broken bones might not be a lifelong career path. Wow. How about now? What are you working on now? What are you in bed writing?

Kerry: I am working on a book about an actress who is publicly shamed and who retreats into solitude to escape the world. I’m writing it because I’m really interested in that whole idea of public shaming as a corrective measure. I have very complex opinions about it. I’m trying to work through them, about how I feel about it. Mostly, I think I’m not for it in some of these situations where it’s a minor thing that happens and we as a society pile on and say, you’re a bad person. I think that is, again, because of my childhood. When you grow up in an abusive home, you get very black and white thinking. This person is good. This person is bad. That’s something that I’ve had to dismantle my whole life to get to the point where people can do bad things and not be bad people. I always want flawed characters who have redemptive qualities. That’s what I’m working on right now. Who knows?

Zibby: It’s very timely. I was just talking to my husband about this. The Me Too movement was one thing, started by Harvey Weinstein. Now everybody on Instagram is shaming everybody for being racist. Everybody’s coming out with this, and what did you say? There was a CEO whose emails to her company from 2017, one or two emails are now all over Instagram. I’m not defending that person by any stretch, but it’s like, is this going to be the next thing? Is this going to be the next way where people are going to — today, this person came out because of her email or his email. It seems like the doors are open. I’m just waiting to see the cascading effect of what happens here.

Kerry: I think that we have to give room for people to grow. It’s not that they might not be doing these things. I’m sure they are. I think we all have to explore our own racism growing up. Just like I’m still dismantling sexism in myself having been raised in this society, I’m sure that there are things that I have to investigate, and that we all do. We have to give people room to grow. I remember this moment when I was twenty-one. I was a real jerk at that age. I was still a little bit messed up. This was huge to me. It really taught me something about how people change. I was driving in a parking lot. There was hardly any parking spaces. I saw someone going for a parking spot, and I took it. I pulled in. I took it. I was very angry at the world at that time. The woman pulled up. She was an older black woman. She pulled up to this jerk twenty-one-year-old who took her space, just so rude. I got out of the car. I was ready for her to yell at me. I’m sure she wanted to yell at me, but she took a breath and she said, “Honey, your car is sticking out a little bit. If you pulled it in — I’m just worried that somebody will hit it.”

I was so shamed by her kindness. You know what I mean? I knew she could have attacked me. She was pointing out what I had done, but instead of responding with the righteous rage that she could have, she was kind to me. I changed so dramatically from that moment that it is literally like two different people. It shamed me to my core. It made me realize that I was acting extremely narcissistically in the world and that I did not want to be that person, that I wanted to be like her. I think about that. When we’re shaming people, my biggest question is, is it effective? I’m just not sure that it’s effective if there isn’t a balance of giving people room to grow. It’s not that we can’t be shamed. Shame is a useful emotion. It’s just I would like to see also, how can we get you to a better place? I’ve done stupid things in my life. I would hope that people would give me a second chance to be better because I always want to be better. I think that’s probably most people. That’s kind of where I stand on that.

Zibby: This is none of my business, but I feel like you have a best-selling memoir in you that you need to write. I would love to read it. If I were a publisher right now or an agent or somebody representing you, I would say start working on your memoir because you will help so many other people get through it. I think you should think about it.

Kerry: All right, Zibby.

Zibby: In your spare time, not that you need my advice. Speaking of advice, what advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Kerry: First, I would say develop a growth mentality because criticism is your best friend, but it’s really hard. Being a published writer is really difficult. My first book, not only did it take fourteen years to write, but then it took two and a half years to sell. One of the best things that I learned from that was — I was standing on the beach in Montauk thinking, what if it never sells? What if I spent fourteen years writing a book thinking that this was my destiny and it doesn’t sell? I looked around. I looked at the surfers in the water and my boyfriend on the beach. I realized that I would be okay. I had done it. I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody else. I didn’t have to be special. I didn’t have to have a sign attached to me that said published author. I would be okay. It was worth it just to do. I thought that was a really helpful thing with publishing because you are going to experience so much rejection. You think that once you get published it ends, but it does not end. I don’t know if you’ve seen Goodreads, but there’s always somebody who’s going to reject you on Goodreads. I think you have to go in knowing it’s really hard. Giving yourself room to feel that pain, you will develop a thicker skin, but also to not expect that you’re just going to get it right out of the gate. You’re going to have to revise and revise and revise. That is the cool part because it’s about mastery. It’s always trying to achieve mastery, and you never will. I think that if you can get excited about criticism — in my mind, the people who succeed are people who can take criticism and who are tenacious. That’s it. There’s so many amazing writers out there. I feel like if I can do it, anybody can do it. You have to be tenacious. You have to be able to be willing to grow. That’s it. And read a lot. Please read a lot.

Zibby: That’s great advice. Thank you. Thanks for coming on my show. Thanks for letting me completely invade your privacy with all my intrusive questions and all the rest. Thanks for spending your early morning in LA with me.

Kerry: This is great. I loved it. I know that you’re writing a novel, right?

Zibby: Ugh.

Kerry: Listen, Zibby, I’m really good at editing. If you ever want to send me anything, I’m happy to give you notes. I hope you keep going because I think you have a book in you.

Zibby: Thank you. I think I might give up on that book. I don’t know. A conversation for another time.

Kerry: I’ve done that a million times.

Zibby: Thank you for that offer. Careful what you say, though. I might take you up on it.

Kerry: No, I’d be happy to. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on. Have a great day. Bye.