Kristan Higgins, PACK UP THE MOON

Kristan Higgins, PACK UP THE MOON

Kristan Higgins, the bestselling author of twenty-one books, joins Zibby to discuss her latest novel Pack Up the Moon. Kristan shares how her personal experience with grief has shaped her entire life —and, notably, her marriage— and inspired a number of her stories, including this one. She also tells Zibby about how she became a writer when she realized that her love for reading and romantic comedies could be coupled to tell the stories of normal people. Read Kristan’s essay “Preparing for Widowhood” on Moms Don’t Have Time to Write here.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kristan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Pack Up the Moon and a million other things.

Kristan Higgins: It’s so nice to be here.

Zibby: It’s so nice to have you. Let’s start with your most recent book. Can you please tell listeners what Pack Up the Moon is about?

Kristan: Pack Up the Moon is the story of how to be married, how to take care of your spouse, how to prepare for death. It’s the story of Lauren and Josh Park, a newlywed couple. They have everything going for them. Josh is this super genius, on-the-spectrum medical device engineer. He lives this very closed-in life. He works for himself. He has three people that he loves in the world. Then he meets Lauren, who’s the complete opposite. She’s bubbly and outgoing. They fall in love. They get married. They’re both just kind of blown by how great life has been to them. Then about a year after their wedding, they discover that she has a terminal disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, twelve syllables of doom, they call it. It’s about, what do you do with the rest of your time? How do you look after the person you love the best? Then how do you get through that time after they’re gone? In a way, it’s Joshua’s story more than Lauren’s because Josh is living in the present. What Lauren has done to help him through this year, because he is so reliant on her for this new life that they had, she leaves him a letter for every month of his first year of widowhood. She gives him a job in each letter to kind of lure him out into the world and outside of his comfort zone and try to help him step back into life.

Zibby: It really was amazing, in the book, the relief that he felt when her friend Amanda brought over the letters. He realized that even though she was gone, he would still be hearing her voice from beyond and that he had something to do and that she wasn’t — there would still be dribs and drabs of her throughout that he could cling to, which is so important. Even in the book, you talked about how the grammar has to change. She isn’t my wife. She was my wife. You have to kind of adjust to that. I feel like this idea of the letters almost softened the blow a little and made me personally be like, I totally need to do this. Everybody should do this for the people that they love. When am I going to do this? I don’t know. I’m going to have to put it in my calendar. Write letters, postmortem, whatever. It’s so true, the comfort that that can provide.

Kristan: In a way, Lauren is torn about it. On the one hand, she thinks, he’s definitely going to need me more than ever after I’m dead. It’s this conundrum of how to look after him. On the other, she thinks, am I just prolonging his grief by popping in every month? Of course, in Josh’s mind, no. This is his lifeline. I think about my own death all the time. Everybody has a hobby. The other day when my son was still home for the summer, he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m just updating my funeral instructions,” as one does. That’s a document that I’ve had since I was twenty-three. I’ve had some profound losses, like every human. My dad died in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver. Life changes in that instant. Then a few years later, I lost a baby. I know that feeling of, I will never be happy again, I don’t even remember what happiness is, when you lose something. Your life changes so profoundly. There’s this question of, how am I going to get through all of these days? There’s so many days to get through. Then I think at some point, you make that choice of, how are you going to be for the rest of your life? Are you going to be a constant open wound? The answer is, yeah, sometimes, absolutely. You don’t get over people. You just learn to carry their memory and their loss more easily and with more strength, maybe.

This is what Lauren is trying to do for Josh. Josh is a great person. He’s very loving. He’s a little bit different because he has difficulty reading people. Because he works alone and he has that little, tiny circle, Lauren knows she’s going to need to push him out of it and find more people for him. A lot of her tasks in these letters are just getting him out into the world. The first one is, go grocery shopping. He’s so happy that she knows — she says something like, if I’m correct, you haven’t showered in days. You have this stubbly little beard that an eighth grader would grow. Your vegetables are melting into one big vegetable. He’s like, yes, you’re right, honey. It’s like she’s here. He’s so elated to go out and do something for her to make her happy. Then the jobs kind of progress in import throughout the book. We also learn a lot about Lauren because her story’s told backwards. The last time we hear from her is the first chapter of the book. She’s about a week away from dying. She knows things are changing. She can feel it getting closer. IPF is a lung disease, so it can be very erratic. You can have good days. Then you can have days when you need to be rushed to the hospital. She tells her story from that day backwards so that by the time her story is done, we learn how she’s met Josh and the kind of impact that meeting him has had on her. Both their stories end on this note of hope for the future and excitement for the future and this gate into a new phase of life.

Zibby: Wow, so many things. First of all, with the errand to the grocery store, I thought it was so moving how you had him forget his wallet and that the clerk realized that Lauren had passed away and was like, no, no, don’t even worry about it. In the midst of grief, you forget all the normal things. You can only do so much. Remembering a wallet sometimes seems like the hurdle. I just loved that detail, the types of details that you have everywhere, which are so real and so relatable and so just on point. Second, to all of your losses, which I had known about before, but still, I’m just so sorry. I know it was a while ago, but it doesn’t matter. I’m just terribly sorry. To your point about the funeral, I too have a document. I also think about this all the time. I think about my death constantly. It’s terrible. Actually, I ran into a girlfriend recently. I always think about it in terms of the funeral and all of that and the aftermath. She worries about it in terms of, who will find her and how? I had not worried about that yet. Since our conversation, now I worry about that too.

Kristan: I know. So much to think about.

Zibby: So much to think about. I totally get that. I get the, just once you’ve had loss, it’s so present that you can’t get past it, but it can improve your life too. It’s all of these things.

Kristan: You don’t want to reduce it to, I’m a better person for having loved and lost, because it’s so much more complicated than that. At one point, Lauren says, I’m not going to be an idiot and say that I’m glad that I have this terminal disease, but it is part of my life, and I love my life. It’s always that, you don’t want to glamorize dying in a young person. I think it can go very maudlin and sanctimonious very quickly. I worked really hard to keep Lauren normal and to have her have her meltdowns. She’s not a saint. She’s not all-knowing. Like the author, she loses her dad at a young age. It kind of introduces her into this world of adulthood. I think that one of the biggest hurdles in becoming an adult when you’re in your teens and twenties is — for a lot of people, their first loss comes in early adulthood, whether it’s a beloved grandparent or a parent or a classmate driving wildly or something like that. It really shapes the adult that you become. It really does. Grief and loss is something that every human experiences. Grieving is love. It’s the purest form of love, in a way, because you knew how lucky you were. A friend of mine just lost her dad. She’s like, “I miss him so much.” I said, “He deserves that. That’s a sign of your love. That’s because he was a great dad. You don’t need to shy away from it or like so many of us Americans try to do.”

Zibby: How old were you when you lost your dad?

Kristan: I was twenty-three, in college.

Zibby: You wrote this beautiful essay for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write called “Preparing for Widowhood: We’re the happiest couple I know despite the fact that I’ve written his eulogy four times.” You wrote it in April. It’s so beautiful. We’ll include the link in the show description for this. Can I just read the couple opening paragraphs? It’s so good. You wrote, “My father died three years before my wedding, killed by a drunk driver while stopped at a red light. It was a random, preventable, horrible death. Until then, my life had been just fine. But suddenly Dad was gone, and everything changed. My mom fell apart. I became the de facto head of the family, the older daughter, the one who lived nearby. My sister was still in college, utterly heartbroken, and my brother distanced himself from the rest of us, cloaking himself in his life out of state and his then-fiancée’s family. I handled everything from my father’s business to the court case against the drunk driver to taking care of my mom. I became a true adult while my mom became a ghost, so wrecked by grief she was lost in it. It felt like I lost both parents the day my father died. And then I got married.” Oh, my gosh, it’s so good. Then you said, “We were young and happy and healthy, and I immediately started preparing for young widowhood. Weird? Sure.” So moving.

Kristan: That’s my paradigm, sadly, is looking at my mom who was forty-seven when my dad died. My husband’s a firefighter, so that doesn’t help. If he’s late from work, I turn on the news and start looking for the fire where he might be or the horrible wreck. He learned long ago not to come home late without telling me. The first time he did, I was just certain, I was certain — we had young children at the time. There’s no reason he wouldn’t call to say, I’m stuck on a call, or something like that. By the time he got home, I was so tightly wound. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m writing your eulogy.” I just burst out crying. He was like, “I’m so sorry.” I think that grief is such a beautiful emotion because it is such a representation of love. Also, as a writer, it’s so complex. It’s so layered. There’s all those anger, denial, bargaining pieces of it. Also, it’s not like, okay, it’s been six months, I should be feeling better now. It’s not a straight line. It’ll turn around and smack you when you least expect it, sometimes decades later. Yet again, it’s something that we all have to deal with, we all carry, and so I wanted to write this book.

I was on the beach here in Cape Cod in February a couple of years ago. It was bitter, bitter cold. The wind was howling. I was wearing a parka and sweatshirts. I was freezing cold. It was six degrees out. My dog and I were there. We see this guy standing at the edge of the water. He’s wearing a windbreaker because we’re Yankees. We don’t like to admit there’s weather. He didn’t have a hat on. I was like that little kid in A Christmas Story in his snowsuit. There was this guy just staring out at the ocean and not moving and not affected by the weather and the wind. I thought to myself, he looks like the loneliest man in the world. I want to write his story. I want to save him. I decided to write about a young widower who has to — I’ve done this before. I’ve written widows and widowers. This is my twenty-first book. I’ve never walked a person through that immediate time, and also with the knowledge that your spouse would die, facing that. One of the reasons I did that was because I like to write about difficult subjects, things that we tend to look away from sometimes. One of my books dealt with body image and weight and women and how hard it is for us to come to accept ourselves when we’re in a society that worships bodily perfection and also food.

Zibby: Wait, which book was that?

Kristan: Good Luck with That.

Zibby: Good Luck with That. All right, I’m ordering that now.

Kristan: It features three women who met at weight loss camp as teenagers and their different journeys. One of them dies of complications related to obesity in the early chapters. Then with this book, when you see a young person with a terminal disease, what do you say? People say a lot of dumb things, which was really fun to write about. Oh, my god, my uncle had that. It was horrible. He died. He didn’t even look human at the end. Heaven will have another angel. We don’t like to just be with this very difficult, sad situation. As someone who has planned her own death many, many times, I think, if I did have a terminal disease, what would I want to leave for my family? What kind of memories? How could I work that best? Lauren gets to do that. She doesn’t know when she’ll die, but she knows she’s not going to be too old. There’s a purity of having to come face to face with that. You’re all stripped away. You have to look at, okay, so I have a few years. What am I going to do? It’s hard. It’s sometimes heartbreaking. She teaches us, the author included, how to get through it, how to do it, how to do it well with your loved ones first in your mind. I always say my books make you laugh. They make you cry. They make you laugh again. This one makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you cry harder, then makes you laugh again.

Zibby: Let’s go back to the twenty-one books. You are the only author, by the way, who has a downloadable PDF link of all your book titles because there so many. As someone learning about you, that was very helpful. It’s amazing to even keep track of so many books. How did you start writing novels? When did you know this is what you were meant to do?

Kristan: I didn’t know. I never thought about being a writer. I certainly never thought about being a writer for a living, as a career, because it’s not the kind of career you can say, I think I’ll be a novelist. You can be a hobby novelist. You can plan for that, but to have it be your day job… My kids were little. I was a stay-at-home mom. My husband was working the two jobs that most firefighters work. My son was in nursery school. I did the math and thought, okay, I have three more years before he, the younger child, will be in full-day school. Once he starts full-day school, I’m going to have to contribute somehow to the family finances. Yet I wanted to stay home. I was like, what could I do? I have very few life skills. I could clean a house, which I did. I thought, well, I’m a fast typist. I also thought, I read a lot, so I could write a book. How hard could it be, right Zibby?

Zibby: Piece of cake. Come on.

Kristan: I thought, I’ve read thousands of books. I’ve always loved romantic comedy. I’ll write that because everybody likes that. I wanted to write about regular people, not super billionaires or famous people. That’s not in my wheelhouse. I wrote a romantic comedy about people who could be your friend or your sister, the guy you know from high school. I gave myself three years to get it published. I did get a contract. Then I got another contract and another and another. At some point, I looked back and said, wow, I’ve been writing for fifteen years. I’ve been published now for fifteen years and writing for eighteen, which is a generation. It’s kind of crazy. My daughter remembers the time before I was a writer. My son does not. He was . It worked out shockingly well. I think that there’s a couple things about being an author. Your success is not up to you. You could write the best book in the world, and it could flop. You could write the best book in the world and sell a hundred copies. There’s a lot of luck in publishing. There something called right book, right time. At the time, I had the right book at the right time. It was a word-of-mouth hit. My publisher kept offering me contracts. I think my third book was my first best-seller. I remember my editor telling me that. I’m like, “There must be a mistake. I think they counted wrong.” You can never really expect success. Of course, your popularity can wain and rise. I’ve been really lucky. Here’s a secret. I hate writing books for a living.

Zibby: What?

Kristan: Eighty percent of the time, it’s misery and self-doubt. You think, I can’t believe I have three hundred pages to go before this thing is even pretending to be a first draft. The twenty percent of time, I love so much, when your book finally takes shape and characters are three-dimensional. They know what they’re doing and thinking and how to take on their problems and what to say. It’s so rewarding, but it takes a while for me to get there.

Zibby: Wow. You started this conversation with this horrible “how do I get through all the days?” feeling, which is relatable, sadly, to so many. Look at the way you’ve gotten through the days by helping so many other people get through their days. It’s really amazing. The way you write about grief and friendship and your podcast and how you’re helping friendships with crappy friends and everything, it’s really amazing. I just think it’s awesome. What is your next book? Then what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Kristan: My next book is called Out of the Clear Blue Sky. I think it will be another summer release. It’s set here on beautiful Cape Cod. It’s about a woman who learns, the night before her own child’s high school graduation, that her husband is going to leave her at the end of the summer when her kid goes to Montana two thousand miles away to go to college. In the space of a night, her whole future crumbles. She goes a little crazy. She becomes kind of obsessed with her husband and his new wife, which is fun, not in a healthy, benign way, but in a way like, how can I mess up their lives without breaking the law? It’s a book about that midlife crisis that women have when their babies go to college. You think, gosh, for eighteen years, or twenty-five years or however long it is — I know you have four kids, right, Zibby?

Zibby: I do.

Kristan: By the time the last one goes to school, you will have been mothering for so long. You think, what am I now if I don’t have to pick up a kid or go to a track meet or piano lessons or something like that? How do I fill my time? Then when Lily’s husband leaves her, she’s doubly reeling. That’s a much funnier, lighter book than Pack up the Moon, which was a very emotional book. Then my advice for new writers is twofold. It’s, believe in yourself because every writer was unpublished once. That is the universal truth of writers. Whether it was Stephen King, who almost became head janitor instead of author, or Nora Roberts or Jasmine Guillory, all these wonderful authors, they were unpublished once. They got rejected numerous times, I’m sure. You have to believe in yourself. You have to develop a thick skin because the industry is very tough. On the other hand, you also have to get over yourself because you are not this diamond dropped into the world meant to change the industry and be heralded. Your readers will decide if that’s true, not you. You need to work really, really hard. Compare yourself to the best authors in your genre. Study them. Learn from them. Keep trying to be better. I think that that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been successful, is because I am so hard on my own books. That whole eighty percent of hating them gets me to that twenty percent of, I think I know what I’m doing here. The book is really clicking along.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. I’ve been trying to remember what you said about all those years of being a mom, and then they’re finally out of the house. There was another book I read recently where there were a bunch of women in a nursing home. Whenever four o’clock or three thirty would come around, there would be this sense of, we should be somewhere for pickup, and everything. It just didn’t go away, ever. That made me think of that. Anyway, Kristan, I’m so glad to have met you. As you’ve been talking, when you said you don’t want to romanticize grief or what it does to you, I don’t want to do that either, but I feel like when you’ve gone through loss and can talk about it and relate to people, without loss, you still have the beautiful trees, but with the loss, you get to see down into the root structure, further and further in. The tree still stays the same, but you have a new appreciation for all of it and a deeper understanding of it.

Kristan: Beautifully said. I agree .

Zibby: That’s what I came up with. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for Pack up the Moon. Thank you for writing for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. I hope we can stay in touch and meet in person sometime.

Kristan: Me too. Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Kristan: You too.

Kristan Higgins, PACK UP THE MOON

PACK UP THE MOON by Kristan Higgins

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