Lara Love Hardin, THE MANY LIVES OF MAMA LOVE: A Memoir of Lying, Stealing, Writing, and Healing

Lara Love Hardin, THE MANY LIVES OF MAMA LOVE: A Memoir of Lying, Stealing, Writing, and Healing

Zibby interviews literary agent and New York Times bestselling author Lara Love Hardin about her heartbreaking, tender, and hilarious memoir, The Many Lives of Mama Love. Lara shares her jaw-dropping story–from suburban soccer mom to heroin addict to prisoner to successful literary agent and ghostwriter. She explains how her Vicodin addiction started, what it was like to lose everything (including her children) and go to jail, and how she rebuilt her life after hitting rock bottom.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lara. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Many Lives of Mama Love, your memoir.

Lara Love Hardin: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, what a joy. I watched your entire TEDx Talk, which was riveting and amazing. You are so sensational and have such a powerful story. First of all, I want you to tell listeners the whole thing. Not the whole TED Talk.

Lara: I was born… No.

Zibby: A summary and then when it became a book as well. Take it where you want.

Lara: I’ll give you the story of the book, which is kind of the whole story. Well, it’s not the whole story, but you know. It’s really the story of being a suburban soccer mom. I have four children, four boys and two stepchildren. I had six children. I became addicted to opiates, first pain medication and then heroin. I ended up pleading guilty to thirty-two felonies, spending a year in the county jail, and basically losing everything and everyone that made me who I was. I was no longer mom, wife, little league coach. All the things were gone. Then when I got out, as I said in my TED Talk, jobless, homeless, carless, friendless, without my children, all I had was a whole lot of shame and an MFA in creative writing, which I had gotten in my twenties. The second half of the book is really the story of reentry and trying to move past the worst thing I’ve ever done and the worst version of myself I’ve ever been and rediscovering my love of writing and reading and working at a literary agency, this crazy story, and working with some amazing people in the world like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, becoming a ghostwriter where I was kind of hiding in the acknowledgments of books, and really thinking if I was good-adjacent I could prove to myself and the world that I was good, or more good than bad. It’s a crazy story. The reason I did the book is because objectively, I was like, that’s a crazy story. The subtitle is A Memoir of Lying, Stealing, Writing, and Healing. It covers all of those things.

Zibby: Then you end up doing an Oprah Book Club pick collaboration. You’re like, here we are at lunch. Oh, my gosh. Can you take us through how you went from MFA in your twenties to heroin?

Lara: That old story. The first line of my book is, “Reading was my first addiction.” I had a fairly traumatic childhood, a lot of addiction and alcoholism in my family. I always thought I could out-educate myself from that. I thought education was inoculation. If I just focus on school, which I always loved — I went straight to college three thousand miles away from home. I grew up in the East Coast. I went as far away from home as I could, went to college, went straight to graduate school. I had three boys in four and a half years right after my master’s degree. I was in a really unhappy marriage. My husband was cheating on me. I’m not someone who ever learned to say, hey, I think I have a problem. I need some help. I’m depressed. I think I was really depressed. I had in my head that I was just going to have this Leave It to Beaver family — I’m aging myself — this fairy tale, perfect family, perfect mom, perfect thing that I didn’t have growing up. The problem with having this sort of imaginary perfect world in your head is when reality doesn’t match up, it’s really hard. I was depressed. Back in the nineties before the opiate crisis was a crisis, Vicodin was handed out in little samples packs. Oh, your ear hurts? Here’s some Vicodin. Oh, you’re going to have your teeth cleaned? Here’s some Vicodin. Oh, you’re having a baby? Here’s some Vicodin after.

I remember really clearly — my kids were little. I had three little kids. I took a Vicodin for something, and it made me feel joy. I felt not depressed. The way opiates work in my brain is to give me energy and excitement like caffeine. I was like, oh, okay, I can pretend my marriage is okay. I can pretend that life is going the way I had planned it. One turns into two to have that same feeling and so on and so on. Jumping way ahead, I struggled with that on and off. I would quit a million times and think, I don’t have a problem because I can quit. Taking two Vicodin a day turned into taking sixty a day. It’s just a crazy amount. It’s a crazy amount of tolerance that you build up. My first marriage, when that broke up, I got married to my second husband, who I had my fourth son with. He was struggling with addiction. One time, I found some sticky brown stuff on our — we’d moved into a new home in this cul-de-sac and bought a business. I found this little sticky stuff. I called a friend. I was like, “What is this?” I had no idea what it was. There were lots of other struggles going on at the time. I was going to volunteer at my — my kids all went to a Montessori school. I was going to volunteer to do an arts and crafts project. On the way there at the red light, I was googling how to smoke heroin. How do you do that? Later that day, I tried it.

Zibby: Wait, what was the sticky brown stuff?

Lara: Oh, sorry. It was black tar heroin. It’s not something he did. He had started doing this. I googled how to smoke it and started smoking it. Then in the course of ten months, my life was over. The police came and arrested me. My youngest son was almost four at the time. He was the only one home, so Child Protective Services took him. It was really this race to get him back, but I was in jail. You only had a year because of his age. It was traumatizing for the entire family. My face was on the front page of the paper. One of my older sons was in junior high at the time. He said that newspaper was in every single classroom all day long every class he went to. That’s a quick summary.

Zibby: Then I go on your Instagram, and there are your beautiful boys all grown up. You’re all happy and doing all these great, wonderful things. I’m like, oh, my gosh, how far did she come in so fast?

Lara: It feels fast, and it feels really long at the same time. We were just on a family vacation, ten people, last week. We just got back. There’s moments like that. We were in Maui. I was sitting there. When I was in jail, I remember this — when I first got there and I didn’t know jail politics — I didn’t know how to function there. I didn’t know what the rules were. Regardless of my crimes, I’m a rule follower. I was like, where’s my orientation?

Zibby: Where’s the packet?

Lara: Where’s my list of amenity? Where’s my welcome brochure? I remember this one woman who was in a locked call, she had a postcard. On one side, it was a Hawaiian island. I don’t remember which. If I were making it up, I could say it was Maui, but I don’t remember what it was. I remember looking at that during that year so many times and just being like, I’ll never go there again. That’s over for me. There was a moment last week when we were in Maui. I was looking at all my boys — some of them had partners — and my stepdaughter. I was like, oh, here we are. There’s still moments. It seems like just yesterday. You can see I still get emotional about it. That year and then the years after — rebuilding a life is not the easiest thing to do with a criminal record, for sure. Sometimes when I’m like, I don’t want to want the dishes, or I don’t want to mop the floor, I was like, at least I’m doing it for my own family, not thirty-two women in jail. It did create a lot of gratitude that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. That still feels like yesterday sometimes.

Zibby: The fact that you got to such a low point that you were like, life’s not worth living, to such joy, it’s really incredible, the trajectory. Then to be able to write about it on top of all that is yet another gift. It’s not just the amazingness of that experience, but to be able to beautifully put it into words and tell your story and get it out there, especially since you work in words and help authors all the time. Tell me more about your firm, which by the way, sounds really cool. I was like, this is amazing. They help authors all the way through. Tell me how Doug took you under his wing. Your memoir division, I’m like, wait, tell me everything.

Lara: It’s a crazy story because I was maybe — it was 2011, so a couple years-plus out of jail and really struggling to get a job with a record and get a job, meet all of the court requirements. It’s a really hard system to navigate when you’re on probation. You’re trying to meet all the requirements. I started working for this company called Content Divas. It was like, write 1,600 words a day, blogs, SEO blogs. It was crazy because they were travel blogs or ten blogs about how to — I was trying to find metaphors for savings accounts. A savings account is like — just writing. It was really good experience to write quickly every day. Very little money. I was struggling. How am I going to pay rent and pay court fines and all of these things? I saw a Craigslist ad for a literary agent, part-time assistant. I was like, an agency that’s working with Desmond Tutu is advertising on Craigslist? Pretty sure I might get murdered, but I’m going to call. I called them. The ad was pretty old. “Is this job still available?” They’re like, “Yeah, but get your letter in quickly.” It was a long list of questions, qualities, way over the top for a part-time assistant job. I was like, oh, this is a fun writing exercise. I answered it honestly. I didn’t say, by the way, I have a criminal record.

I remember I was at the welfare office with my son, who is five now. When you have a drug conviction, you can’t get any cash welfare. You can’t get any benefits because that’s just the law. I was kind of appealing that. I got a phone call sitting in a miserable office trying to entertain a toddler who is miserable surrounded by people who are all miserable. I get this call. “Can you come to this job interview in an hour?” I think I’d been waiting two hours. It was like, do I go to the job interview? I had a car that didn’t go uphill. Do I go to this job interview? Do I stay here to try and get some food stamps or something? It was one of those decision moments. I was like, “Okay, I’ll be there in an hour.” I didn’t know who I was going to get to watch Cayden. I was not dressed for an interview. I went there. I got the job with Doug Abrams, who had been an editor at HarperCollins and started his own literary agency. He immediately had me editing a Tutu biography and working on a book proposal. I remember googling, Word, how to do track changes. I started working there. I immediately started ghostwriting or collaborative writing for an author. I told Doug, “I have this –” He’s like, “What do you think of this proposal?” I had this idea about how to structure it. He was like, “Hold on. I’ll conference you in with the author.” I remember being like, I can’t talk to an author. It was this panic situation. I said my idea. It was just like, “Okay, great. You’re going to work on it with him.” It ended up selling in a big auction. Then I was just off and running doing all the things to run a literary agency and collaborating. I think I collaborated on twelve books in seven years there, or ten years.

Doug never asked me at the beginning, do you have a criminal record? If I just met you on the street, it’s not the first thing you’re going to think. Hey, do you have thirty-two felonies by any chance? It’s not the first thing you think. He didn’t ask. I had kind of a “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I was going to be honest if he asked, but it wasn’t something I was going to volunteer. We were in the office about — I’d been working for a few weeks. He had, very trusting, immediately handed over all his passwords and all his things. I was just like, okay, I’m going to do this job so well. This is my chance to rebuild my life. He was talking to an author, Dick Bolles, who did What Color Is Your Parachute? That was one of the books our agency did. They were saying now people google their employers, talking about a new edition of the book. As we were sitting there, Doug googled me. I remember that moment. I was sitting at my desk. It was just like the air changed. I looked up. He was looking at me with this look of horror on his face because he googled me, and that front-page headline popped up. He was like, “I didn’t call your references. Go home. Come back tomorrow. We’ll talk about it.”

I left there, and I was so ashamed. I was like, I will never come back. I can’t come back. I spent that night not sleeping. I was like, I’m going to go back and just tell him that I’m sorry I put him in this situation, that I’m still as brilliant today as he thought I was yesterday. He was really amazing. He said, “I can’t work with someone like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and not walk my talk.” He kept me on. Then we ended up building the agency and growing and growing. Then just last year, I left and started my own agency. It was quite a journey. I was keeping a secret the whole time from all of these amazing authors — you can see on the wall here — that I was working with closely. I was so afraid that people would google me or find out my past. The first author I told was Bryan Stevenson. We’re working with very non-judgy people, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. We’re going to India. That was a business trip to work on The Book of Joy. I’m not sure I’m going to be let in the country because I have a criminal record. I was just in fear that whole plane ride and not knowing and then afraid the Dalai Lama was going to see in my soul and see I was bad.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What was that conversation like, telling Bryan Stevenson?

Lara: It was interesting. He’d asked us to come to Alabama to see if we wanted to work on The Sun Does Shine with Anthony Ray Hinton. We’re at breakfast. Doug’s like, “Lara, would you tell –” I’m taking a bite of eggs. “Would you tell Bryan about your past?” This is my secret. I think the world’s going to end if I tell people. It’s going to hurt the reputation of Doug and the agency. I told him. He was just like, “Thank you for sharing. That’s so great that you have experience. That will help to working on the book.” It was that moment where my past became a selling point. When Doug was selling the book, he was saying, “Do you know how hard it is to find an MFA who’s been incarcerated? We have the greatest collaborative writer.” I was like, how am I a selling point now? It was such a switch in my brain of what I imagined would happen when people found out. Ultimately, no one was judging me as hard as I judged myself, or more unforgiving. Some people judge me. They still do. No one was as hard on me as I was on myself, ultimately. I was working with a woman, Evy Poumpouras, who was doing a book. She’s a former secret service agent. We’re working on her book. She’s talking about all the bad guys that she’s catching in law enforcement and stuff. I was like, I should tell her about my past because she’s kind of working with a bad guy, in her definition. She was amazing. She’s become one of my closest friends.

Zibby: She was on my podcast, or maybe an Instagram Live. It was during the lockdown.

Lara: Oh, really? Her book came out in 2020.

Zibby: I don’t remember, but we had a nice conversation. That’s crazy. Then why did you leave that agency? Sorry, I’m jumping all over. I’m dying to know your whole life story and your career story and all of the stuff. Why did you leave that agency? Tell me about your new agency and your clients and all of that.

Lara: My new agency is True Literary. I like the name because it’s not only — I don’t just focus on memoir, but that is my sweet spot, specialty. If I’m not reading fiction personally, then I want to read memoir. It’s my favorite genre in nonfiction because I think there’s no other way to hack empathy other than memoir. You’re never closer to another person’s brain. I don’t know of another way besides reading a first-person memoir of somebody.

Zibby: Listening to the audiobook of the first-person memoir.

Lara: There you go.

Zibby: Maybe that’s the only other.

Lara: I narrated my audio, so we’ll see how that turns out. I just wanted to work at an agency that was true to me. Idea Architects is an amazing company. Doug’s my agent, a really close friend. I felt like as I was growing and changing, it was just time for me to go out on my own and do my own thing and really focus on the books I wanted to focus on. As things get bigger and bigger, you have other things you need to focus on in an agency to support that. I just really wanted to work with — I loved working with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama and working on all those books — the Silvia Vasquez-Lavados of the world.

Zibby: Oh, my god, such a good book.

Lara: It’s just really focusing on the voices I want to focus on and building my own thing. I’m not the youngest person, but I feel like I’m just getting started, in a way, with the new company. I used to own my own business. It’s a nice feeling, a nice way to work for me.

Zibby: Amazing. I love it. How does it feel knowing all this behind-the-scenes stuff about book publishing and all of it? Now your own book is coming out.

Lara: It’s funny because even — I’ve talked to authors, so many legends, at different stages of the book selling and writing and production and launching process. I am the worst. I am doing all the things that I tell them not to worry about. Even the editor calls — it was amazing, the book sold at auction with a lot of big houses. Up to the first day of editor calls — I was picking up one of my sons at the airport. I was on the phone to Rachel Newman, who’s another agent at Idea Architects, just sobbing in the parking lot. I’m horrible at this. I don’t know. All of the craziness that you do when you’re feeling vulnerable. I’ve always had a lot of empathy for my authors, but I definitely have a lot more being on this side of it. It’s weird. It’s weird to have a publicist when I’m advising on publicists, or to do promotion. I’m really great at hyping other people and advocating for other people. I’m not so great at doing it for myself. We’ll see how it goes. It is just a whole other thing.

Zibby: Then the writing process itself, what was that experience like? When did you fit that into everything else you were doing and all of that?

Lara: I took a little sabbatical off work last winter. The book sold in June. The manuscript was due the following June, a year to deliver the manuscript, to write it. I took seven weeks off in mid-January to mid-March and wrote the full draft of the book in seven weeks, first draft. I was like, I have to go away to do it. I can’t be at home with my family. I can’t be at work. I have to be in a completely different time zone to actually be away from my family and work. I was like, where do I want to go in the world? I went to Thailand by myself last year for seven weeks and wrote the book. It was hard. It was hard to relive all that stuff. It was not the rainy season in Thailand, but literally, when I was writing the darkest chapter of the book, there was a thunderstorm shaking the house. It was a monsoon. I was like, am I controlling the weather with my darkness? In my mind, I was like, I just have to get a first draft done in this time. I literally finished it on the plane ride home. I changed planes in Doha and wrote a chapter on the layover and then spent quite a bit of time with my editor, Eamon Dolan at Simon & Schuster, rewriting. I’m much better at first drafting. Rewriting or the editing part was harder for me. I had to go away. I was still selling books, so I was doing editor calls at one AM Thailand time. I really had to get space around me to get it out.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’ve said oh, my gosh fifty times.

Lara: That’s okay.

Zibby: This is all just so awesome. How do you make sure that the drug piece and the addiction and all of that forever stays at bay? Do you worry about that?

Lara: I don’t overly worry about it. It’s been fourteen years now, so I feel pretty good. For me, the rock bottom I hit was so below any rock bottom I ever could’ve imagined that that was enough. I have a lot of — I’ve done a lot of work — a lot of self-awareness to know if I’m feeling squirrely or antsy. So far, so good. Fourteen years out. I used to need to take twenty Vicodin to call PG&E to make a payment arrangement or to have a conversation. I know we’re not in person, but looking someone in the eye and doing all of that, that sort of fear of connection has left me, I guess you would say. If I start thinking it’s a good idea, I know who to call and how to get help. I’m not afraid to ask for help anymore, which is a gift for me.

Zibby: What is your one piece of advice that aspiring authors should know?

Lara: That’s a good question. I think that ultimately, if you have a great story and you’re a great writer, to just believe in that more than all the voices that are like, it’s so hard to get an agent to email back. It’s so hard in publishing. It’s who you know, and whatever. I really do believe that great stories that have universals for people in the world, whether it’s a novel or memoir, a big-idea book, if it’s for the greater good, I really believe — and it’s great writing, of course — that you’ll find a way. Everyone has trauma. I think there’s gold in that to share, to inspire other people, to help other people. I think there’s a lot of gold in that.

Zibby: Have you ever taught a class? You should teach a Zibby Class. We offer a class platform.

Lara: I’d love to. I taught creative writing when I was getting my MFA at UC Irvine and a class at UC Santa Cruz. It’s funny, I just joined a memoir-writing class as a speaker at the University of Washington with this amazing author, Putsata Reang, who teaches that. I was like, oh, I guess I have a lot to say about memoir writing . That’s on my side hustle list, probably.

Zibby: Amazing. I’m going to email you after this. Even just mining trauma for gold, that sounds really interesting.

Lara: It’s always a fine line because there’s exploiting the trauma. Finding the gold in it, I think it’s — memoir, for me and for the authors I’ve worked with who have trauma in their memoirs — The Sun Does Shine, he was thirty years as an innocent man in jail, in prison, in death row. I think that there is gold in the inspiration of that even if it’s just like, wow, if someone can get through that, I can get through whatever my thing is. I just think there’s a lot of amazing stories out there. There’s a lot of ordinary people with extraordinary stories. That’s kind of my jam.

Zibby: Amazing. I’m going to connect you to the class platform with this woman, Darcey. I am also going to keep my eyes peeled for anything you submit.

Lara: I will hit you up.

Zibby: Thank you so much. This was so inspiring. Your story is amazing and inspiring. You are just a total rockstar.

Lara: Thank you so much. Hollywood read all my trauma. They’re like, this is hilarious.

Zibby: I forgot to mention that. I saw that. Bad Neighbor or something, right? The Bad Neighbor?

Lara: The Neighbor from Hell and Other People I’ve Been was the original title of my book. Titles change, as you know. This is the right title. Awesome.

Zibby: Amazing. Congratulations. When is that coming out, by the way?

Lara: I don’t know. Writers’ strike, so we’ll see. It takes years. We’ll see.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Lara: Thank you.

Zibby: Take care.

Lara: Thank you so much. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

THE MANY LIVES OF MAMA LOVE: A Memoir of Lying, Stealing, Writing, and Healing by Lara Love Hardin

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