Kristin Van Ogtrop, DID I SAY THAT OUT LOUD

Kristin Van Ogtrop, DID I SAY THAT OUT LOUD

“Whether you’re dealing with your muffin top over the waistband of your pants or friends who die too young or careers that blow up or slowly shrivel or whatever, you have to remember you’re just lucky to be here.” Former Editor in Chief of Real Simple and author of Did I Say That Out Loud Kristin van Ogtrop joins Zibby to talk about the importance of a self-chuckle, what it was like to start a new career later in life, and why she will always love print magazines.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kristin. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Kristin van Ogtrop: It is my immense pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: As I’ve just been telling you, I keep recommending your book already even though it hasn’t come out yet. I read it while I was in bed with COVID. I tried so hard to read books and keep my interest. I was having a really hard time focusing. Your book was perfect because the essays were bite-size and so funny that I was literally laying there in bed like, ha ha. I really appreciated the humor and the wit and just the way you packaged up all these essays and tied them up at the end. It was just great.

Kristin: Thank you. There are writers who really love writing. Then there are writers who really love publishing. I’m a writer who really loves writing. We have something in my family called a self-chuckle, which I’m accused of all the time, which is basically when you do something to make yourself laugh. Writing, for me, the best part sometimes is when there’s a little self-chuckle that my family can make fun of me later for. It was a lot of fun to write. Sad sometimes because there’s some sad things in the book too, but fun, a lot of fun.

Zibby: I love the self-chuckle. I literally just said to somebody yesterday at this desk, I was like, “I think I just do all this stuff to make myself laugh.”

Kristin: If you can’t, what is life for? If you can’t make yourself laugh and if you can’t laugh at yourself — I mentioned this a little bit in the book. My dad is a very funny person who laughs a lot. I listen to your podcast, Zibby. I hear, you have so much laughter in your voice. My dad is the same. He laughs a lot. He laughs the hardest at himself when he does something really stupid. It’s just such a nice quality in a person to be able to laugh at yourself when you’re an idiot, which is a lot of the time.

Zibby: Your dad is my favorite person. I want to meet him. He sounds so funny. The way he handled when you swallowed the fork, he was like, “Could I just leave a fork on your pillow?” You’re like, “No, Dad, you cannot do that. That would not be funny.” Then at the parking garage where he’s like, “Yep, this is my daughter. She swallowed a fork.”

Kristin: I could go on about this forever. I’m proving the point as I’m saying this to you, but my dad can talk to anybody and will talk to anybody about anything. He won’t stop. Unfortunately, I’ve inherited that characteristic which bothers my children to no end.

Zibby: He sounds so much like my stepfather Howard who is the same way. You’ll turn your back and next thing you know, he knows everything about the caddy’s mother. He finds out things about everybody. Everybody loves Howard. He’s one of those guys.

Kristin: I try to tell my children — you’re a mom of four. I write about my kids a fair amount in the book. They’re boys, so they have kind of a reluctance to talk to people sometimes. Not to sex stereotype, but I’m going to do it. I’m always trying to tell them, when you talk to people, you learn things. You talk to strangers, and you learn things. We had this thing a few summers ago. We did a house swap with a cousin of mine who lives in Holland. She came and lived in our house in New York. We lived in her house outside of Amsterdam. By day four, my oldest son said, “Mom, if you tell one more person that we’re doing a house swap with your cousin, I’m going back to New York.” The cheese shop and the wine shop — anyway.

Zibby: I totally understand.

Kristin: It can be a useful trait, Zibby, but it can be a really awful trait too. I own both.

Zibby: I like that trait. My future — I don’t even know how to say this. My father-in-law’s fiancé is also from Holland. They stayed there for the entire quarantine. I’ve been hearing nothing but Holland stories. The fact that you were there, I feel like now this is all these different parts of my family. The part I really loved in particular — I loved a lot of the different parts. The opening story was just one of the funniest scenes ever. The parting scene when you’re leaving the magazine and how the talk about the rise and fall of the magazine industry, and as someone who loves magazines still — I interned at Vanity Fair back in nineteen-ninety-something because I’m really old — and someone who’s watched this whole thing in dismay, the way you wrote about it was so poignant from your perch at the top of the whole thing. I was hoping you could just talk a little more about that and even the scene at the end where you’re hugging everyone and crying and hoping your boss falls off the stage and that whole thing. Just maybe talk a little bit about how you feel about what’s happened with magazines in particular.

Kristin: I’ll start by saying we still read magazines in this house. Although, it’s interesting to look — your kids are younger than mine. My oldest is twenty-five. I’ve watched him mature as a reader. I look at him and I think, you’re the reason the magazine industry is on the decline. People his age — he reads novels on his phone. It’s bananas to me. I do still read magazines. As you and I were talking about a couple of minutes ago, just that tactile experience of, we used to say of holding something in your hand and feeling it as you’re reading it, there’s just something in the connection between your brain and your hand that’s very satisfying. We used to say at Real Simple — sorry, no. Well, two things. Real Simple has this matte paper. It’s printed on matte paper. When you would go to focus groups, the readers would basically pet the page. They loved the paper. It wasn’t shiny. It didn’t feel like it was yelling at them. It so reinforced the mission of what the magazine does, which is to make women and some men feel calm.

Dick Parsons, who was the CEO of Time Warner when I first got to Time Inc., said the magazine industry will survive as long as the three Bs remain, bed, bath, and beach, which was something I think we quoted a lot and he said a lot. Although, now we’ve all found clever ways to take digital devices to all three of those places. It was such a great job. As I talk about in that essay in the book, I talk about how I landed in magazines after being an incredibly clueless twentysomething. It was like I just kept throwing stuff at the wall to see what was going to stick. I ended up at Vogue because I met somebody at a wedding. I don’t write about this in the book, but the reason I ended up having an interview at Vogue was totally random. When I got there, not knowing anything about fashion or caring about fashion, I was like, oh, my god, these are my people, not fashion people so much. To be a magazine editor, certainly at that time, you’re like a professional dilettante, which is amazing. If you’re a person who’s got kind of a short attention span, which I think I do sometimes, and just interested in a ton of stuff, it’s a great — journalism is a great career for that, but the magazines. If you combine that with a strong visual sense — this is kind of a rambling answer, Zibby.

I worked in a bunch of different places. Then I ended up at Real Simple. The thing for me that was so great about that job was it took who I was as a person, being raised by a home economics-major mom who taught me how to bake a cake and trim a hamster’s toenails or a guinea pig’s toenails, but someone who was relatively ambitious and loved going to an office and a professional dilettante, and combine all those things, it was that magic thing where the thing you’re doing and your skill set are so perfection aligned. I feel so blessed to have had that job. The thing about when I left was just that I knew — maybe the added blessing of the job was when I was in the job, I knew how amazing a job it was for me. There were frustrations, sure, as there are in every job, but I had a ball. The reason that essay is — well, I don’t know. I think of it as the only kind of angry essay in the book because by the end, I was just super pissed off. I looked at my company, which was run by men even though the products we were creating were mostly consumed by women, and looked at the decisions they made based, I thought, often on their personal preferences and biases in terms of where they were investing money to grow different brands, and I felt like my brand, because we published recipes and did so much that was in the domestic sphere, was regarded as kind of less than or something. Are we allowed to curse on your podcast?

Zibby: Curse away.

Kristin: We made a shitload of money for that company. I thought, okay, give us some love. I’ll just say one last thing. For a long time in my time at Time Inc., we had a female CEO. The way Real Simple was regarded in her years — Ann Moore was her name — was really different than when we had a male CEO. That just felt really, really frustrating. By the time she left and the men took over more fully, I also had been in the job for a long time and just felt like I wasn’t as good at it anymore. The challenges that arose toward the end of my time at Real Simple were not ones that I either had the energy or the skills to face and overcome. It was time for me to leave both for me personally and for the sake of the magazine. Now there’s a fabulous editor, Liz Vaccariello. I’m probably mispronouncing her last name. She’s a lovely woman. She does a great job. She’s just the right person to be running that magazine.

Zibby: It sounded like you were up against a lot, all the job cuts you were forced to do and the painful goodbyes. It was just so nice to see that real connection at work because people don’t often talk about the real relationships that you have with the people you work with and how it is — people are like, it’s my work family. Your essay really spoke to the heart of it. You could tell that it was a special place to work. You could tell the pain in having to let people go. There’s a real human cost to all of this. It’s a human cost on relationships and just how you feel about yourself and all of it. It’s not money. I don’t know. It was just a nice way to highlight that element of it, I thought.

Kristin: I loved the people that I worked with there.

Zibby: I know. You could tell. Anyway, switch gears a little bit. I just wanted to read this quote from you if you don’t mind. I loved this paragraph that you wrote about aging and life. I feel like this sums up so much that was in your book. You said, “Yeats knew that things fall apart and the center cannot hold. My center cannot hold either, which is why I’ve got back fat and a muffin top above the waistband of my pants,” which looking at you, I find hard to believe.

Kristin: You’re not looking at my pants.

Zibby: Okay, fine. That’s true. Thank god for Zoom. “But I try to laugh because back fat and a muffin top and chipped paint and imaginary dinner guests are insignificant frustrations, minor indignities in the grand scheme. Middle age is full of them. There are so many things that are much, much worse. None of us knows how life will turn out, and even if we forget everything else — who is Yeats again? — we must not forget that. So let’s just feel happy to be here, to cry sometimes when the occasion calls for it, but to laugh as often as we can. That is enough because consider the alternative.” That’s so nice. I love that.

Kristin: Thank you. Thank you for reading that. I think it captures what I hope is the spirit of the book. By the time you reach your forties and fifties and sixties, if you’ve led a relatively healthy and lucky life, which many people have and, knock wood, I have been lucky enough to, eventually, mortality becomes — it used to be an idea. Now it’s a presence. You have to get up every day and say, man, I’m just really — there was a moment after I had my third child. I had turned forty-three. I was in my suburban house. The baby was two weeks old. My parents were visiting. Our basement flooded. I was nursing and exhausted and whatever, not exactly a spring chicken as a new mom. I was just so like, whatever. You know, you’ve been through this. Then it was my birthday a few weeks after the baby was born. I was turning forty-three. The basement, the flood waters had receded. Whoever came to fix it helped. I got up and I said, “Today’s going to be a good day.” My parents in unison said, “Every day is a good day.” I’ll never forget that. They didn’t rehearse it, but they both just — that’s their mindset. I think that’s what I tried to capture in this book. Whether you’re dealing with your muffin top over the waistband of your pants or friends who die too young or careers that blow up or slowly shrivel or whatever, you have to remember you’re just lucky to be here. You got to make the most of it. As we were talking about before, laugh when you can. Hopefully, laugh at yourself the hardest swallow a fork among other things.

Zibby: Wow. I love how you track the passage of time with these little moments like the tripping of your son banging into the thing with the scooter or skateboard, as my kids are literally scootering downstairs all morning and messing up my house in real time as I’m reading this book. It’s true. Then you have that moment later in the book where you’re sitting there and it’s so quiet in the house. You’re like, now I miss that. I feel like it’s just such a relatable moment. I’m divorced and remarried. Every other weekend, I have this quiet where I’m like, oh, I miss that. I feel like I get this preview of empty-nester-hood every other week. I have appreciation when they’re here. I try to if it can last ten days. There is the fleetingness of the whole chaos. That scene with you sitting there typing and you know you’re typing the essay you’re writing, it was just so poignant and .

Kristin: I was sitting on my front porch. Nobody was home, which is so rare. Particularly now in COVID, my house is packed. My adult sons are both living at home. My youngest son who’s almost fourteen, he’s here. Obviously, my husband’s here, and the dogs. There’s that tension that you feel, I’m sure, with your kids for ten days. You long for the moment when you have a little bit of headspace. You long to be alone. Then when you’re alone, you’re like, oh, I’m lonely. I thought I wanted this. That’s why that moment on the porch in that essay is nice because I know it’s going to end. I’m there by myself. I’m really happy. Part of the reason I’m happy is because I know that the people are going to come back. I don’t know what happens, Zibby. I don’t know what happens when they’re really gone. I think that’s part of why I had a third kid after a big gap between number two and number three. I didn’t want that part of my life to be over.

Zibby: I have a six-year gap as well. I have two sets of kids. I get it. There is a lot of meaning to the whole thing. Not to sound trite, but this is what I’ve really created in life, is these kids. This sounds ridiculous.

Kristin: It’s not ridiculous. Those kids are what are going to carry you through as you get old. You hope.

Zibby: Some of them might.

Kristin: I know. Listen, you have a girl, right?

Zibby: I have two girls.

Kristin: You have two girls. I only have boys. Sometimes I think, oh, man, I am so screwed. Again, sex stereotyping. I’m one of three girls, as I write about a little bit in the book. I look at the relationship that I have with my parents. It is so close. It’s very strong and really dynamic. I think part of that is because we’re girls. Am I allowed to say that out loud? I hope with the three boys I at least get one decent daughter-in-law. I think my odds are pretty good.

Zibby: I think so. My dad is one of three boys. One of my uncles totally stepped up and took care of my grandparents.

Kristin: Really?

Zibby: Yeah. My Uncle Mark, he did everything. It’s not like anyone appointed him. He just was so devoted and managed everything. They were always completely loved and supported until the end. I think somebody just always emerges from the group.

Kristin: Was it clear always that that was going to be Mark?

Zibby: Not until later.

Kristin: Not until he was needed?

Zibby: Not until he was needed. I thought it might have been my dad, but no such luck. I know all the siblings really appreciated that he did step up. I’m sure one of your sons will become your Uncle Mark of the family.

Kristin: I hope so. You’ve given me hope.

Zibby: So tell me just a little about writing this book. When did you write? I know that one essay you wrote on your porch. Do just write catch-as-catch-can? Do you sit down and write in big blocks of time? What’s your process like?

Kristin: When I wrote this book, I did it in a couple of different stages. Part of it, I wrote when I was between leaving Real Simple, leaving the magazine industry, and then joining InkWell Management where I’m now a literary agent. I took a two-year break from working. I was writing. My friend Jim, who’s a novelist, has this phrase that I mention in the book, actually. He said, “I needed to write with no attachment to outcome.” Just sit down. I tried writing a novel, which wasn’t very good. I was going to write a book about our dog who ended up drowning, which is one of the essays in the book, and trying to make a parallel between that and the loss of my career and the loss of the dog. It didn’t work. I sat down and wrote with no attachment to outcome. Because it was in that two-year period, I mostly would sit at the kitchen counter after I had taken my son to school and I had the house to myself. Then I started working again. I wrote some of the essays in that two-year period. I didn’t really have a process. Once I was working again, I needed to really find dedicated moments of time. I would get up at six in the morning or something. I would write for an hour and a half before anybody got up. Then when I was finishing the book, I would go to this Chopt back when one could go to — you probably still can go to a Chopt, right? There was a Chopt on 41st Street between Madison and — what’s after Madison? Lexington Avenue?

Zibby: No. Park. Park or 5th.

Kristin: Yeah, not 5th. Park. That shows you how long it’s been since I’ve been back.

Zibby: That’s embarrassing. You can’t even admit that. I’m going to have to delete that part.

Kristin: There’s a Chopt. I would walk down Madison Avenue from my office. I would make a left on 41st Street towards Park Avenue. There’s a Chopt there. I would sit there for an hour with my laptop and a salad, and I would work. That was my process. It’s not super organized. I have a friend who watched the movie Little Women, a young friend. She’s like, “Did you have a special outfit you’d put on like the main character in that movie?” I was like, no. I have a laptop.

Zibby: Wait, so what it is like now being an agent and transitioning to that new career?

Kristin: It’s great. I feel super lucky to be able to make such a big transition at a fairly late stage. I think a lot of the skills are really compatible. The mechanisms for delivering writing are obviously different, but the skills are similar. The skills you need to be a good agent are fairly similar, a lot of them. It’s sort of like peeking behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz or something. You kind of like and you don’t like what you see when you look behind that curtain. It’s interesting. It’s harder than I thought it would be, but I think that’s good for me. It’s good to be humble.

Zibby: What’s the hardest part?

Kristin: There are just so many books. You know this. Books are your world. There are just so many books. It can be hard to get a publisher to be interested in a book that you feel really has potential. That’s probably the hardest part. The hardest part is working with a client who is entrusting you with his or her publishing future and not meeting success. That happens to any kind of agent. It happens to relatively new agents like me. It happens to agents who have been doing it for thirty-five years. You don’t always succeed. That part’s kind of hard, but it’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s fun. You can be a professional dilettante. That part’s really good. You can work on the stuff that interests you. That’s really cool.

Zibby: That is really cool. That’s amazing. What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Kristin: As an agent or as a writer myself?

Zibby: Do both.

Kristin: As a writer, I would go back to that advice from my friend Jim. You should just write with no attachment to outcome. Just sit down and write. Don’t wait for some muse to fly in the kitchen window and land on your shoulder. It’s never going to happen. It might. I feel like a lot of, certainly, new writers or young writers think that the clouds are going to part and something’s going to happen. It’s going to just come to them. They don’t realize you have to sit in front of that laptop or that piece of lined notebook paper in front of you and just start and see what happens. That’s what I would say as a writer. Then as an agent, I think that when I look at writers who are successful or authors who are successful in getting published — I’m talking now just specifically about book publishing, not about magazines or newspapers. It’s like a three-legged stool. You need talent. You need discipline. You need confidence.

Confidence needs to take the form of polite persistence. If you’re an unpublished author and you’re either looking for an agent or you’re trying to self-publish or you’re going directly to a publisher, you really need to practice polite persistence because for agents and even more so for book editors, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. They get so many submissions. Then you need discipline, going back to what I said before. You have to just sit down and do the work. It’s a job. Then talent. When you look at successful writers and those three things, talent, confidence, and discipline, different people have different amounts of each. You have to know where your weaknesses are and then push extra hard on those other two things. That’s what I would say. Everybody’s different. I was reading in The Times Magazine over the weekend, the profile of Ishiguro because he’s got that new novel coming out. He was talking about how he walks around for two years thinking about his book. Then he spends another god knows how long plotting the whole thing. I thought, wow, that is so amazing, but not everybody works that way.

Zibby: What have you found makes things sell versus the things that don’t sell?

Kristin: Oh, gosh. At the end of the day, it’s really talent. In publishing now, people talk a lot about platform and authors who need a platform. Early on in my agenting life, so now a little over a year ago, I went out to lunch with Susan Kamil who was this beloved — at Random House, and unfortunately passed away probably six months after she and I had lunch. She’d been around forever. Everybody loved her. She was maybe a little bit older than I am, maybe early sixties or something. I actually can’t remember. I was saying to her, “What did book publishers do before platform was a thing?” She said, “We just acquired things on gut instinct.” I was like, can we go back to that? Can we do that again? If you’re an aspiring writer and you’re not a person with a gazillion Twitter followers or Instagram followers or some very successful presence outside of your writing life, you just need to be an incredibly great writer or if you’re doing an illustrated book, have something that’s so unique that people just can’t look away. I don’t know, Zibby. That’s not really a very good answer.

Zibby: It was a good answer. I think that’s great. I think it’s neat to have the insight from an agent’s perspective. I don’t actually get a lot of agents on the show, really, because most authors — actually, I had Bill Clegg on the show. It’s really an interesting perspective. I just started this fellowship. I’m doing four women memoirists a year, two to four. This year, I picked four. I’m going to help them with the whole process of writing their great memoirs and everything. I’m interested in that process on their behalf as well because I’m going to have them go through the whole thing. It’s just interesting to hear. I’ve already picked them based on talent and the stories that I think they have to tell. Once you have a great story to tell, shaping it is just part of the picture. You can’t fake a story.

Kristin: Can I say two quick things?

Zibby: Yes.

Kristin: Now I’m thinking about Bill Clegg. You could have fifteen agents on your show, and you’d get fifteen different answers. I’m just one, obviously. Two, in terms of memoir — when I first started working at InkWell, Richard Pine, who’s one of the three partners at InkWell, who’s my agent, we were talking about memoir. He said, “You realize, right, that if you look at The New York Times Best Seller list –” Oh, no, actually, an editor at Simon & Schuster said this to me. Priscilla Painton, who’s an editor at Simon & Schuster, said, “If you look at The New York Times Best Seller list, basically one memoir a year makes it onto the list.” Bear that in mind. It’s hard. Selling a memoir’s hard. Then what Richard said to me, Richard Pine, was, “When you think about memoir, it really competes with literary fiction.” A lot of people have memoirs that they would like to publish. The bar is so high. You’re smart to pick the people based on their talent. You look at a book like Educated. That’s an outlier. My one last piece of advice to aspiring memoir writers is if I had a dime for every time I got a pitch from an aspiring memoirist who said their book was either like Wild or Eat Pray Love, I would be a gazillionaire. Everybody thinks their books are like Wild or Eat Pray Love. We need to find some new examples. Anyway, that’s kind of a long monologue. There’s nothing better than a good memoir.

Zibby: I also think it’s, what’s your goal? Maybe your goal is not to get on the best seller list. That’s not everybody’s goal. If you can share your story and affect people’s lives, even if you affect two people’s live profoundly, I believe that’s worth doing. That’s somebody’s entire life. I think people have all sorts of different goals.

Kristin: Even if you write it and you have it, you have it for your family.

Zibby: Yeah, that too.

Kristin: You’re right. You can’t overlook that.

Zibby: I think somewhere between two people and the best seller list.

Kristin: That’s the sweet spot.

Zibby: That’s the sweet spot. Sorry, I know we ran a little long. I feel like I could talk to you forever.

Kristin: Ditto.

Zibby: continue this offline and in some format at some time. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for truly entertaining me and making me think and feel and laugh and cry. Those are all the ingredients for a great book. I truly appreciate it, and for also being a guide. I love books that are by people who are just a little bit older than me, just a smidge, so that I know what’s coming next, like a trusted older sister or something.

Kristin: I probably should’ve told you the parts to skip, actually.

Zibby: No, don’t be silly.

Kristin: Thank you, Zibby. This has been a huge pleasure and an honor to be on your show. I love what you’re doing. I’m really happy to have been here today. Thanks.

Zibby: Thanks. Have a great day. Bye.

Kristin: You too. Bye.

Kristin Van Ogtrop, DID I SAY THAT OUT LOUD

Did I Say That Out Loud? by Kristin Van Ogtrop

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