Kristen McGuiness, LIVE THROUGH THIS

Kristen McGuiness, LIVE THROUGH THIS

Zibby interviews book publisher and bestselling author Kristen McGuiness about LIVE THROUGH THIS, a modern-day western about a mass shooting and a woman who must face her complicated grief in order to avenge her husband’s death. The story is inspired by McGuiness’ connection to gun violence and the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. It explores themes of trauma, love, marriage, motherhood, and female friendship, aiming to emotionally galvanize readers against gun violence in America. McGuiness also discusses her career trajectory, including working in traditional book publishing, ghostwriting, and eventually starting her own independent publishing house, Rise Books.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kristen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, Live Through This, which by the way, I thought was a memoir until I started reading. I was like, her name’s not Jane. It’s a novel. Thank god.

Kristen McGuiness: You were like, wait a second, I don’t remember reading about this.

Zibby: I know. Then I got to the main event. I was like, no, no, no. I figured it out within a page. I was like, oh, I don’t know why I thought it was a memoir. Anyway, I just want to start by saying — I know we had coffee and we got to know each other. You told me about your book. You are a really good writer. I’m sure you know this. You’re really, really good. I was so delighted to read it and be like, wow, she is a really awesome writer. Just wanted to tell you that.

Kristen: I appreciate that. Thank you. I should say we had a fantastic event, actually, at Zibby’s last night. That’s why I’m in said hotel room, because we were at the bookshop with Jen Pastiloff. It was amazing. We had such a fantastic time. It’s Zibby day. Then it was funny because the post-its Lauren Schwarzfeld, who’s our director of publicity at Rise, that she gave me were these ones, My What If Year. I didn’t realize that until I was going on with you. She literally handed me these. I’d been using them in the book. She was like, “That was from Zibby’s first book launch.” It’s all Zibby right now. It’s very funny.

Zibby: Thanks for living through that. Tell listeners about your novel. Then I really want you to explain your whole career trajectory and all the amazing things you do and everything, but first, the book.

Kristen: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. Before we started, I said, “I have kids,” and then laughed. I was like, oh, yeah, that’s why we’re doing this, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read.” I think that’s why I wrote this book, was because I do have children. Like a lot of us living in America with children and the epidemic of gun violence, I just hit a place of, what can I do? It was 2016. Like a lot of us, I feel like it’s almost like hurricane season here where there’s just a rash of mass shootings. You feel like you can’t even go outside. It, for me personally, felt like it kept getting closer to home. There were quite a few shootings that I had personal connections to. About six months before, actually, my mother’s partner, his brother was shot and killed by a coworker. He was the CEO of a tech company in Chicago. His CTO came into the office and killed him. Gun violence was feeling really present in my own personal life, but then culturally, obviously, watching it just all around us. I was lying on the couch with my one-year-old baby, who’s now an eight-and-a-half-year-old young girl, but she was a little babe at the time, trying to get her to go to sleep and scrolling on Facebook, as we did back then. Now it’s Instagram. I was scrolling on Facebook, and the Pulse shooting was happening.

I just asked myself, what can I do? I knew I had one quality skill set, which was writing. I decided I’m going to write a book about it. There is a mass shooting that’s at the center of the book. Initially, the shooting took place in chapter eight. Both from a narrative perspective, but I think actually, it’s helped from the talking about it perspective, we moved it up to chapter two, which really allows it to not be a secret. The main character, Jane, is a survivor of that shooting. It’s a lot of about navigating both the emotions, obviously, of that — she loses a loved one in that shooting. It’s a very horrific, traumatic event, not surprisingly. Also, after the fact, she’s not only navigating grief, but then she’s navigating a new public platform, which many — not all survivors, certainly. There are plenty that don’t end up with a public platform. Again, I wrote this in 2016, so it was prior to Parkland. Then I watched it happen live with the kids in Parkland, who now have all said there was an additional trauma of also becoming political celebrities in the aftermath when they were still in the grief and trauma of what they had survived. It’s a lot about that but also about love and marriage and motherhood. Last night when we were at Zibby’s, we talked a lot about friendship, which is actually a core piece of the book too, and especially female friendship. I know for a lot of us, that’s what buoys us. That’s what keeps us going even in the hardest times of our life.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I couldn’t watch it live last night, but I am going to go back and watch because I want to get to know Jen better, and I can’t wait to hear what you had to say in the event. There was a moment in the book right after the horrific shooting where Jane is shell shocked with her mom getting in the car and decides to speak to the waiting mass of reporters and just said, guns do this. Her mom’s like, why did you say that? I feel like it’s this big turning point, to your comment about the victims having to take on these other identities. I feel like for her, that was a moment where her life — obviously, her life had been shattered and went in a different direction moments before. I feel like for her and perhaps for all the other survivors, there’s that question of, do you come forward? What do you say? Do you want to have to speak out? It’s so obvious. Then your own personal life is shattered. I don’t know. I feel like that was such a pivotal moment for Jane, at least.

Kristen: The thing about that moment is that she refuses to take off the clothes. That’s not a political statement. She’s just traumatized. I have not personally gone through this, so it is truly fiction. I know that anytime you’ve lost someone — I just know that from losing loved ones. It’s almost like you don’t want to change clothes because then that means the thing happened. It’s almost like that first moment of moving on. It’s that first time you go to sleep and you wake up in the new reality. She’s terrified to get out of the clothes. They’re trying to get her out of the clothes because we’ve never seen that before. We actually don’t see survivors post-shooting. I spoke with a friend who is an emergency doctor about what that triage looks like and what their protocols are. She kind of gets — she’s not supposed to. She gets out of that urgent care where they’re holding folks after the fact just to take statements. When she comes out, she’s drenched in dried blood. I sort of love that. Didn’t love, but I loved depicting a scene that we don’t usually get to see, which makes the violence truly really visceral, not just for the reader who’s reading it, but in the story itself for the camera people who take her picture. It’s why she ends up going viral, much to her dismay. That’s not her intention at all. It is this quick decision that her mother, who’s both politically conservative but also just conservative in behavior and is like, why would you do that? –” Jane’s like, I have no idea what I’m doing right now. I’m not even functioning. It ends up really snowballing into something much bigger than she anticipates.

Zibby: Yes, involving the president, in fact, much later. Could not snowball any higher.

Kristen: The cameo of the unnamed president. I will say that did come from reality. In writing the book, I reached out to a couple of people who were survivors of shootings, one who was actually in a shooting, another whose husband, who had died in the San Bernardino shooting, a man named Ryan — I can’t remember Ryan’s name offhand right now. Ryan’s husband was shot and killed in the San Bernardino shooting, which had taken place in 2016 and which was definitely one of the shootings that inspired me to write the book. When stories got out, his husband had actually protected two coworkers in that shooting, two women who had children, in fact. He sent them out of the area and closed the door, and he ended up getting shot. When that news report came out, it was a viral report about that shooting, about this man who saved these two women’s lives. Ryan was interviewed. Ryan ended up going viral himself and was interviewed in all these articles. He had news trucks down his street. He began to actually develop agoraphobia much later. He ended up having really horrific psychological consequences between the grief and the public reaction.

He was actually invited to the State of the Union as Michelle Obama’s guest. He went with First Lady Michelle Obama and then met President Obama and had a moment alone in the room with both the president and the first lady and had this real moment of, if I could say anything, what do I want to say? He said that he got so nervous. He didn’t take advantage of that opportunity. That really stuck with me. I wanted this character to also have that same moment where she’s alone in a room with the president. What do you say in this one chance that you have to speak to the most important person on the planet and beg? Which is what she does. It was based off of Ryan’s experience where he said he just shut down and literally was like, these hors d’oeuvres are great. I think he said, these canapés are great. Then he didn’t know how to pronounce canapé. Then he just went into a death spiral of, I said the word wrong. He was awesome. We actually met at the memorial for the victims of that shooting. He shared a lot about his husband but also what he had gone through in the aftermath. He has a cameo in the book as a bartender. I really wanted to honor his experience, too, through it.

Zibby: Wasn’t this very traumatic, even just researching and writing? I love books that make me feel. This book completely made me feel. I was holding my heart. The whole scene was so real. So real. I hadn’t read a first-person account in this language, in this way. I know it was fiction. What was this like for you to have to piece together and talk to so many survivors? I know you’ve had experience directly. Still, this is a tough pond to wade through of horrific information.

Kristen: I think what was the most traumatic part of it was how many times I’d be working on it and a mass shooting would take place. There was a moment I remember — it does take place in 2016. Then the main character ends up at the Women’s March in Los Angeles. She speaks. She ends up getting this public platform, again, much like the kids from Parkland. She ends up speaking at the Women’s March. I was writing that scene the day after the Las Vegas shooting. I had planned to write that scene. I was at a hotel to write that scene. I wake up, and literally, the news is coming through of the worst mass shooting, actually, in American history. I was like, this is so weird. What is this? What timing? By the time I was done with this book, I was so used to being in the middle of writing a scene, editing the book, working on the book with a mass shooting on the TV in the background that it wasn’t even weird anymore. That was probably the most traumatizing part of it. I was editing when Uvalde happened and the Buffalo shooting happened. It’s not even like, oh, what crazy timing. It’s just, this is what life is here now. That was probably the most traumatic piece of it, was to realize that it’s not a coincidence anymore. It’s just a chronic state of being. That was really the hardest part, was to be working on it for so many years and in the process, just watching it continue to happen and with no real change, which is what the book is a lot about.

One of my dear friends blurbed it, Gina Frangello. In that blurb, she was like, “Make no mistake, this is a call to action.” Truly, that’s why I wanted to write it, much like Shannon Watts created Moms Demand. I had a one-year-old. I was like, I don’t have time to do that. That feels very hard. Little did I know writing this book would end up being just as hard. I was like, I could write a book. Really, it was. It was that idea of, how do we emotionally galvanize us to not go numb, to demand action, to demand real change around assault weapons in this country? No matter what our political views are on gun ownership — I personally am not against people having private gun ownership. I don’t believe there’s any reason to own an assault weapon. As I say, no one protects their home with an AR-15. That’s just not a reality. Especially if you have children, you’re not going to use a weapon that would spray bullets all over your house. No one would do that. Anybody who owns a gun would say no. Why do we keep that weapon around? If it’s just for recreation, why do we have a recreational thing that’s also a weapon of mass destruction? That was really what the book was about. This is a real low-hanging fruit. For some reason, administration after administration, no one does anything about it. It shouldn’t be that hard of a thing to fix, especially when it causes such devastation.

Zibby: Do you align yourself with any of the nonprofits who tackle this? I know you can’t start one, and that’s totally fine. I know there are many. Are there any you support or endorse? For people listening, if they want to make change after reading your book, where should they go? What should they do next?

Kristen: I’ve long been a supporter of Moms Demand and Everytown for Gun Safety, which are the same organization. Moms Demand is a part of it now. Next week, I’m actually doing an event in Chicago on October 24th with Pastor Brenda Mitchell, who’s part of Everytown and Moms Demand. She lost a son to gun violence. She’s actually been a head of their DEI initiatives. I’m a book coach, and she’s a private client of mine. It was wild because we started working together, and I had no idea what she did for a living and what her work was. Then I found out, and I was like, “Can we do an event together?” I sent her the book immediately. I think there’s a lot of great organizations that are doing good work. I also think it’s about us really, especially when we have the president we currently do, and I certainly hope he gets another term, really pushing him to see where executive orders can be done around assault weapons, especially around manufacturing and importation, that are things you can control through an executive order. You can’t control sales and possession, but there are things that can be executive ordered to curtail the amount of assault weapons in this country. At this point, we have more than enough.

I do think there’s things that we as individuals can do. Everytown has been around for a long time and been doing good work. Sandy Hook Promise is another wonderful one. Uvalde and Sandy Hook, as parents, obviously, that’s — and even Parkland. I always remember — I can’t remember his name now. One of the fathers from Parkland, his great tragedy in his daughter passing away that morning was that he didn’t kiss her goodbye in the morning. It was just a busy morning. She left for school that day. That story, just the fear in your heart. My kids never walk out the door without a kiss in the morning for exactly that reason. I’m like, “You will never leave this house to go to school without that formal goodbye,” sadly, because I don’t know what could happen there. Again, as a mom, that’s what inspired this. I just don’t want to live in a world where I have to have that fear when I put my child in the car every morning to go to school. It shouldn’t be. Most developed nations look at us like we’re absolutely insane. They’re like, what is wrong with you people?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Kristen, talk a little bit about how you got into writing, also publishing. Talk about Rise, the whole thing. Everything you’re doing is really cool. Tell everybody who’s listening about it because they need to know.

Kristen: Absolutely. You and I are very reflective of each other in what we are doing and have done. It’s really funny. My primary background was in traditional book publishing. I started out at Simon & Schuster. I worked in publicity at St. Martin’s Press very briefly but moved over to editorial at Simon & Schuster. Then I worked in film development for a little bit and then moved back over to work at HarperCollins with , who was a very prominent publisher back in the day. Still is, but she was at the height of her powers during that time. Then I wrote my first book and got into the world of ghostwriting and did that for many years and then, as I think a lot of people do, began to — I was always editing and helping people with book proposals. That was kind of my bread and butter for a very long time. A few years ago, I started a book coaching company called Rise Writers, which is still in existence. I have group workshops for memoir writers and book proposals. I’m hoping to start a fiction one. I have private clients, the ones that are more likely to get book deals that I often help to secure agents and publishers.

What I realized was not everybody was going to get a traditional book deal. That just wasn’t going to be possible. We both know what that world looks like. It is very, very hard. Actually, last week, we were in New York. We were at an event with Gretchen Rubin who said the hardest thing is getting an agent. That stuck with me so much because it’s so true. I think people don’t realize how hard that process it. It is. I just saw, as a coach, I had a lot of amazing writers who I loved — I loved their stories. I loved their books. I also knew there was no way they were going to get a traditional book deal, and so I wanted to create a home for them. I began Rise Books. I started my own small independent publishing house, much like you. In fact, Zibby and I already met because I interviewed her for a piece that I am writing about the rise of the smallish publisher. I like to say we’re like independents with big ambitions. Independent publishing, historically, though there have been some really big ones — Hay House, Sounds True. Shambhala. It’s not that there aren’t big independents out there. Certainly, in the fiction world, the same. I know that there are also many who have struggled that became nonprofits or ended up attaching themselves to universities. I think that we’re part of a generation that, we do see ourselves as direct competition to traditional big publishing.

I wanted to show that a book could be a platform in and of itself. I think that does come from — I joke I started out in book publishing twenty thousand years ago because that’s how long it feels. It was pre-social media. It was 1999 when I started. The internet was still this — Google had just begun. It was not an era where having any kind of — there wasn’t social media. There were brand-name authors that everybody knew. They were household names. Then there was a whole swath of authors that no one had ever heard of before. They were given book deals simply for the quality of their stories and their writing and who they were and our belief in them to sell their book. I wanted to take it back to 1999 and create the same kind of energy around books. The book can be the platform. It’s a way for people to build out all the other pieces of marketing the work and how we share and how we build community in the world. I was saying this last night, actually, at Zibby’s. I think that’s why books are so important.

Zibby: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Kristen: Just keep writing. It really is. I think a lot of people think that there’s some fast-and-quick road to — some people do. It’s not to say. Some people do have a fast-and-quick road to getting published. That can be part of it. I think that for a lot of other people, if it doesn’t happen immediately, they think they’ve failed or they’re not a good writer or some other lie we tell ourselves. I was joking the other day. I did an event with Rob Bell. I was saying writing is a really dumb idea. For a lot of people, there usually isn’t money on the table for it. It’s this thing you do in your free time. There’s no guarantee you’re going to be successful. There are a lot of people in your life that are probably like, that’s a cute hobby, maybe you should do something else. I think that if you believe that you have a story to share, you have to keep going with it. It’s why I ended up publishing Live Through This on Rise Books. I didn’t build Rise Books for Live Through This. I built it for other authors. I had signed about three authors and was trying to sell Live Through This. I had an agent. I got an agent. We weren’t getting that immediate yes. I was like, you know what? I’m not going to stay in the badlands of silence that happens in book publishing where you get a couple rejections, and then you just wait forever for responses. It’s a really tough place to be. That silence is where the writer’s brain is like, shouldn’t have done this anyway. I was like, I don’t have to do that. I actually created something. I decided to go first because I figured if I screwed it up, the author couldn’t hate me that much. I also realized it’s also the story of being a writer. It really is about persistence. Just keep going. If you believe in the story you have to share, don’t worry if it takes a lot of time. That can be a beautiful journey in and of itself. I think it’s just, enjoy the journey of writing. Take it for what it is. Don’t give up on it. That’s how you end up with one of these.

Zibby: Kristen, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for this beautiful, thought-provoking, action-inspiring novel and for all that you’re doing. Thanks.

Kristen: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Bye, Kristen.

LIVE THROUGH THIS by Kristen McGuiness

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