KJ Dell'Antonia, IN HER BOOTS

KJ Dell'Antonia, IN HER BOOTS

Former editor of Motherlode and author of the instant New York Times bestseller and Reese’s Book Club Pick, The Chicken Sisters, KJ Dell’Antonia returns to discuss her latest novel, In Her Boots. KJ and Zibby talk about the exciting new episodes coming up on her #AmWriting podcast, the effect her book How to be a Happier Parent has had on her own parenting, and what she finds hardest about writing. KJ also shares how she is prepping for an upcoming speech on the importance of reading whatever you like and when she’s currently reading (besides a book on how to give a speech).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, KJ. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss In Her Boots: A Novel.

KJ Dell’Antonia: Thanks for having me. I am delighted to be here and to be back.

Zibby: I know you were last here — I feel like it was pretty early on in my podcasting time.

KJ: It was very early.

Zibby: I appreciated your coming on then about How to be a Happier Parent. I loved all your advice and really took it to heart. Of course, since then, not only do you host “#OnWriting,” but you became a Reese’s book pick. Now you have In Her Shoes. It’s just amazing.

KJ: I’m having a really good time. I’m the rare person that can say these last couple years have been pretty good.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about what In Her Boots is about if you don’t mind?

KJ: I don’t mind at all. I will do my best. I have vowed to never write a book with such a complicated plot again, but I think books with complicated plots may be my thing. We may be stuck. I like to say that In Her Boots is the story of the adult we hope we have grown into, the child our mothers will always see, and our terrible, terrible fear that our mother is right, which I experienced deeply while traveling a little for the book with my mom. Also, it was very weird to say that in front of my mom. She’s not here now. Although, listeners may hear my dogs, who are here. Anyway, it’s also more fundamentally about Rhett. To understand Rhett, you have to know where Rhett comes from. She’s a MacGyver-like person, super handy with her hands, super good with engines and mechanical stuff, also a reader and a little bit of a writer. Mostly, she lives in the world, not in her head, which is actually a little different from me, so that was fun to write about. Rhett has spent the last twenty years as a solo traveler. She’s been out in the world. She’s been making new lives for herself over and over in different countries, establishing herself. She has become Instagram-famous. She’s become an influencer for exactly that. She got in early in Instagram. Never sends picture of herself. It’s always her travels. She is the icon of women who travel solo.

She also wrote a book about it. She didn’t want to put her own name on her book because, reasons. She put a different name on it. She calls the alter ego of her book the Modern Pioneer Girl. It is her, but it’s also who she wants to be. When Rhett is given the opportunity to head home — she’s ready. She’s forty. She wants to inherit her family farm. Her best friend convinces her that it’s also time to take over this persona, to be the author of this book, to really own who she is. Rhett agrees. She’s asked to be on the Today Show, which is every author’s dream, as you know, or any of the morning shows. They’re all great. I picked that one because it’s the well-known one. She’s asked to be on the Today Show. Jasmine, her best friend, dresses her up. They head out. When they get there, they hear the voice of the other guest that morning, and it’s her mother. The only person in the whole world, the one person she cannot really be herself in front of, in her own mind, is her mother. Fortunately, from Rhett’s perspective, Jasmine is standing right there. The person who’s hosting them doesn’t know which of them wrote the book. When the person says, “I love the Modern Pioneer Girl. Which of you is it?” Rhett grabs Jasmine and says, “It’s her.” Jasmine, for reasons of her own, lets this happen. It should just be a one-off. This is all in the first few pages of the book. It’s a prank. They’re known for this stuff. They’re best friends. This is what they do, dumb stuff together. Then they sort it out.

Everything would be fine except that when Rhett gets home, she discovers that her mother is completely in control of whether or not she can inherent her family farm. Her mother thinks she’s done basically nothing for the last twenty years. Her mother is deeply worried, for reasons of her mother’s own, about the effect that owning the farm will have on Rhett. She thinks it will drag Rhett down, as it did Rhett’s father. She wants to save Rhett from this terrible fate. Also, she just doesn’t think Rhett’s capable, but she’s super, super impressed with whoever wrote that book, which, of course, she thinks is Jasmine. It goes on from there. The thing that I really love about it is that there’s no obvious or easy course for Rhett. So often when you’re reading, you’re like, just tell him how you feel. Just stop doing such-and-such. Just do this. Just do that. There’s no “just” for Rhett in this situation, which, granted, she has created for herself. If she tells, she’s not going to inherent the farm. If she doesn’t tell, she’s not going to inherent the farm. She’s got no easy way out. That’s where we join her. That’s what the book’s about, Rhett really finding her way to be herself in the world and seeing what that gets for her.

Zibby: While trapped in a corner, essentially.

KJ: While trapped in a corner, exactly.

Zibby: Backed into a corner, I should say.

KJ: Of her own making, which is the best kind of corner in books.

Zibby: Yes. Sometimes I feel like I’m there myself in my real life.

KJ: Always, really.

Zibby: Amazing. By the way, I could just listen to you talk about books forever.

KJ: I could talk about books forever.

Zibby: It’s pretty awesome. You should just summarize all day.

KJ: I have to give an actual speech to the Kansas Book Festival. Giving actual speeches, it’s sort of a thing. It’s one thing to get up and talk. It’s one thing to talk on a podcast. I could do that all day. It’s one thing to get up and have a conversation with someone. Once they call it a speech, it’s like, ahh! I’m sitting here with Talk like TED so I can get ready.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s awesome.

KJ: The first chapter is like, be sure to talk about things you’re enthusiastic about. I was like, oh, check. I’m going to talk about reading for fun. I’m going to talk about why we should read what we want to read and not what other people think we should read, with some caveats. I’m so excited to do that.

Zibby: Give me a test run. Practice some of your material.

KJ: I haven’t made any material yet other than just to go ahead and embrace the things that you love in reading and the things that you look for when you turn over the back of the book. If you flip over the back of the book and it’s witches in a bakery solving murders and those are your — just go ahead. Buy that. If somebody’s like, “No, you really need to read this very serious YA novel in which everyone dies,” and that’s not your jam, you don’t have to. Then the thing I’m excited to really go on with there is that you can still expand your reading horizons while you read what you love. If you have noticed that your bookshelves are only white women — I’ve certainly looked at my bookshelves and gone, ooh, ouch, I didn’t mean to do that. You don’t have to go out and find the most serious books about intrinsic bias that you can find, unless that fascinates you, in which case, go grab it. It is interesting. Go find a book about witches solving murders in bakeries that was written by someone who’s a little different than you. Go from there. Take what you love and broaden your horizons within it. I’m excited. I’m excited to put that together. I’m deciding on titles and jokes.

Zibby: Do you feel like people feel just totally pressured to read books they don’t want to read?

KJ: I do, actually. I think a lot of us feel the echoes of our academic experience and feel like, this is too much fun. This can’t really be reading. I’m enjoying it. Or we differentiate. We’re like, I will read this for fun, but I will read this because it is very serious. Sometimes you want to read that stuff. The other piece of what I’m trying to say is, yes, read about serious topics, but open the book and make sure that it interests you, the voice, the flow, the way that it’s presented. That’s going to be different for everyone, what works for you. That book that you have to read is just going to sit there forever dragging you down and then making you feel like, apparently, I don’t like nonfiction. That’s probably not true. You probably just don’t like that piece of nonfiction.

Zibby: Do you think that people should read both fiction and nonfiction? Are you cool with just reading all fiction?

KJ: I’m cool with just reading whatever you want to read. If that is all romance all the time, by all means. If that is all genre fiction, if that is all fantasy, go for it. If it’s nonfiction, then apparently, you’re a dude. That’s fine. That is very much statistically true. Men read a lot of nonfiction. The weird truth — you probably know this, but I didn’t. A lot of people don’t. Nonfiction is way more popular. It sells way more copies than fiction. More people read it, both men and women. I had no idea. I would’ve guessed the opposite because I’m somebody who reads and loves novels. Although, I read and love nonfiction too. Certainly, the shelves behind me, it’s probably seventy-five percent fiction.

Zibby: Me too. The thing with nonfiction, A, you can learn, obviously, but B, there’s something in it for you. Oftentimes, I think people are buying a nonfiction book because they are trying to solve a problem or get through something. Here is the solution packaged up. Mission accomplished.

KJ: People read nonfiction that don’t think they would be interested in a novel. Maybe if they picked up the right one or the one that also addressed that problem, they would be. That’s definitely true. More people are going to grab The Magical Joy of Tidying Up, which is not quite the title, but you know what I mean, because they want to tidy up or they want to imagine that they’re going to tidy up, which is a lot like tidying up, only easier.

Zibby: It’s like you. You bought the TED book because you’re doing a speech.

KJ: I bought it years ago for different speeches, but I grabbed it off my shelf. Yeah, this is hopefully going to solve all my problems. Basically, it’s going to write this for me. That’s my plan. Here, have a pen, book.

Zibby: This other book just came out about all the speeches that were never given, but they were written. Have you heard about that book?

KJ: No, I haven’t.

Zibby: I’ll send it to you if I can find it.

KJ: Okay, cool.

Zibby: Back to your book, when you’re writing fiction, you obviously are a lover of fiction, so you can just channel all of that in. There’s this part talking about writing that I just wanted to read, which I dogeared. Now where did it go? Hold on one sec. It’s about ghostwriting, essentially. Wait, where did this go? Hold on, KJ. One sec. I just had it turned down and was reading it. Anyway, it was about Emily talking to a ghostwriter and how she needed help. She had a gift for finding the moments that ended up changing her life and getting those onto the page. I was wondering what your thoughts were about other people helping. Do you need help? Have you worked with a ghostwriter? Tell me about that relationship as you know it.

KJ: I need so much help. I’ve never worked with a ghostwriter, but I definitely work with editors and book coaches. I think ghostwriting is much more common for people who have an interesting life but aren’t necessarily the one to write about it. I don’t think we even call it ghostwriting. James Patterson maybe doesn’t — I don’t want to malign anyone. There’s someone that really a hundred — he writes kids’ books. I think it is James Patterson. He doesn’t even pretend. He comes up with the ideas, and then people help him write. That’s a different — that’s when you’re an industry, not necessarily an individual writer. What I have had is book coaches like Jennie Nash. I know that you know her. I think you’ve had her on the show. She really taught me how to do this. If there’s one thing I could go back and say to my baby writer self when I thought I couldn’t write fiction, it is that this is a learnable skill. Reading and loving fiction is one thing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually — it probably teaches some of us how to write it. Whatever element really speaks to you, it might teach you that. For example, writing dialogue in the form that appears in books comes really naturally to me because I’ve probably read more dialogue than I’ve heard. I’m a very fast reader and spent a lot of years huddled up in my parents’ house reading books and not talking to people. That comes really easily to me, but the structure of a story does not. That’s what Jennie really taught me, was how to make sure there was a core and not write — I’ve already told you I really like to write really complicated plots. You should have seen the plot of The Chicken Sisters when I first took that to Jennie. It was like a tree with all the branches and roots and sister trees next to it that were all wound up and probably talking through their roots. It was crazy. She really taught me to find the one story and stick to that and the things that were closest and most important to that.

Zibby: I think structure is really difficult.

KJ: It is so hard.

Zibby: Especially to build it over so many pages and keep it going. It’s one thing in an essay or a shorter — it’s just over all that time.

KJ: It really, really is, and so it’s so key to have these signposts for every — I also like the traditional plot things where you’re like, the inciting incident and the midpoint and the “all is lost” moment. I like to know what those are. Those are signposts. Jennie’s a real genius at the core of each either chapter or scene, just depending on how you’re approaching it. To have a list that’s like, she finds out Mike is — I don’t want to spoil anything in my own book. She finds out or her mom tells her such-and-such, to have the one line for every scene and then to know why it’s there is really important.

Zibby: You have all that laid out ahead of time?

KJ: No. That would be great. That would be an excellent way to do it, but no, that is not the way that I do it. I’ve only done this in full maybe four times, once for the book that no one will probably ever see and once for the one I’m about to try to sell and then twice for the ones that you can see on the shelves. I don’t really have a method. I hope to someday have a better method. Mostly, my method seems to be, I know where we start. I either know where the plots ends or I know where the person ends. Then I have to write a bunch of stuff to get to the point. No, I don’t really end up with that core what each thing is about and what’s important probably until I’ve drafted it. Then that’s what I use to revise. It’d be great to do it the other way. I think that would be very efficient. It’s not a thing I have found a way to do.

Zibby: But maybe less fun.

KJ: Maybe. I don’t know.

Zibby: I don’t know. Next time. What are you working on now? What’s the book you’re trying to sell now?

KJ: It is easier to describe. It is witches in a small Marfa-like town in Kansas with a deck of stolen tarot cards and a lot of family secrets.

Zibby: Awesome.

KJ: I’m back to setting it in Kansas, which I’m delighted by. I grew up in Kansas, so I like to give Kansas its due.

Zibby: Amazing. In addition to all your writing, you are cohosting “#OnWriting.” What’s the latest there? What exciting or interesting things have happened on the show lately? What do you take out of the show to then inform your own writing?

KJ: It’s “#AmWriting.” On Writing is Stephen King’s book. You’re the second person today to say —

Zibby: — I’m so sorry.

KJ: That’s okay. It’s kind of funny because, you are, you’re the second person today to say it that way. It’s “#AmWriting.”

Zibby: I knew that.

KJ: Which is a hashtag we totally made up and proprietarily own and you can’t use now. I’m kidding. We stole that off the internet. Everybody uses it, and so it’s fun to have it be our podcast. This summer, we did a thing called Blueprint for a Book using Jennie Nash’s Blueprint for a Book. We did ten episodes that, if you listen to and follow along with each ten episodes — you don’t have to do it live, real time. They’ll always be there. You will come out with what I just said I rarely have to start with, which is a thing you can use to start either a nonfiction book or a fiction book that will really help you to know where you’re going. I really think it could save you a year of twisting and turning around things, or at least six months. I love that. Also, yesterday, we just interviewed Emily Henry. That won’t come out until fall because it’s going to come out after the Blueprint is done. It was a really good interview in which we talked about exactly what you and I were talking about a minute ago, which is reading for fun and writing the things we love to read. I didn’t even know, but Emily — we think of her as an overnight success from Beach Read. She had three YA novels, as she describes them, sad YA novels about serious things, that just didn’t turn out to be. I loved finding that out. Then we loved talking about how writing fun is hard. We talked about that. It was a really good one. It was a good interview.

Zibby: Awesome. Why is writing fun hard?

KJ: Easy reading is hard writing. It really is. I’m not saying it’s harder than writing literary stuff. I’m sure that is also hard. All writing is hard. As Emily said, a thing that drive us in our day-to-day decisions, which is exactly what we talked about on the podcast — for example, a thing that might drive me is, if I’m on a plane and I’m in the window seat, I would be really uncomfortable asking the person to move, and so I might make all kinds of decisions. As Emily was talking about, I’m making all these decisions because I want to avoid conflict. Many, many women are like that. To put that into a book, your person needs to have a real reason that they want to avoid conflict. You need to make it realer than real. It needs to be bigger than our individual real personal experiences, or at least than most of them, in order for us to want to follow along and really embrace that person’s travels and troubles. You want to take something that’s an experience that we all share, like maybe avoiding conflict or being afraid to tell someone how you really feel, and need to turn that into something big enough that we can see it and watch it change and enjoy the process and yet also feel like it’s a thing that could happen. There’s a lot. It’s hard.

Zibby: Wow. To shift gears for two seconds, as we said, I started off by talking to you about How to be a Happier Parent. Now you’ve had all this career success. Not that you hadn’t already as Motherlode editor. You already were super , but you know what I mean.

KJ: Good things have happened for me. It is true.

Zibby: Does that make you a happier parent? Do you feel like you’re a better parent? Has it affected it at all, your parenting?

KJ: The possibly ugly truth about me is that I’m a gold-star kind of girl. I know that you are too. I like to get accolades from the outside world. It is hard for me to rely only on my own assessment of my achievements. Yes, absolutely, my life is much easier and better when if someone says, have you written anything I’ve heard of? I can say, yeah. Maybe you haven’t, but I can tell you things that will make you go, oh, she’s not just a — yes, that makes me happier. Again, I would like to be someone who can just put value in the journey, but the truth is that I like success. There’s that. Has it made me a better parent? It probably just makes me more pleasant. Early in my kids’ lives when we had moved out of the city and I had been laid off and lived in a place where it was going to be hard for me to get a job in any industry, let alone my chosen industry, I found myself feeling really weighed down by the kids and the experience of parenting and feeling like it was all anyone thought of when they looked at me. It’s been great for me to have the other things. I think I could’ve found that in any satisfying — there are other things that I love to do, my work with animals, my cooking. I could have taken one of those things and also — the key for me was not letting my identity be entirely wrapped up in my kids, which doesn’t mean that I don’t love them, obviously. If anyone wants to read a great book on exactly what I just said, then you need the book This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch.

Zibby: You put that on my —

KJ: — I did. I put it in your Instagram.

Zibby: Why? I actually haven’t read it.

KJ: Oh, my gosh. You have a treat in store for you. I’m so excited for you. It’s little. It’s not a book about Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s a book about someone finding something that they loved and feeling stupid about loving that thing, which was the show Sherlock and the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, and then exploring why they couldn’t just throw themselves into this thing, which is, after all, just about fun, and then taking that even one step further and exploring, wait, why is this thing that interests me, which really is no dumber than being interested in, say, soccer, why is this so dumb in the eyes of the world and, more importantly, in the eyes of me than something — it’s fine to be obsessed with golf. Why is it fine to be obsessed with golf? Why is it fine to be a male Star Trek cosplayer and not a woman who’s super interested in Sherlock? It’s really good. It really ends up exploring why, in particular, we as women struggle to do things that are only for us. That’s kind of my whole topic, is why we, and especially as women, have such a hard time figuring out what will make us happy. I was delighted to find this really different nonfiction, if you like that kind of thing, approach to exactly the same topic that I really love talking about. It’s super funny and super fun and very distracting on an airplane, all those things.

Zibby: Getting all these extra book recommendations here. I love that. Any final “#AmWriting” tips?

KJ: Final “#AmWriting” tips. It takes forever. Don’t stop. If you’re writing an eight-hundred-word essay that you haven’t been able to get anyone else to read, keep reading essays. Keep looking at the way other people structure them. Take that structure. Apply it to your own. Same goes for books. If you are trying and trying to get it out there and trying to get something done, tear up other people’s books. Look at the structure. Try to find out what you don’t have. Don’t stop. Don’t stop before it’s as good as you want it to be. There, that’s my advice.

Zibby: I love it. That’s perfect. There you go. That works. KJ, thank you. This was wonderful.

KJ: Thank you.

Zibby: It was nice in your metaphoric boots for a minute in your little office and in your mind while we hear all these great thoughts. Thank you.

KJ: Thank you so much. It’s always super fun to talk to you.

Zibby: You too. Thanks, KJ.

KJ: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

KJ Dell'Antonia, IN HER BOOTS

IN HER BOOTS by KJ Dell’Antonia

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