Zibby Owens: Lara Prescott is the author of The Secrets We Kept, an instant New York Times best seller and a Hello Sunshine Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick. The Secrets We Kept is Lara’s debut novel and will be translated into over thirty languages and adapted for TV by The Ink Factory and Marc Platt Productions. Lara received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. She studied political science at American University in Washington, DC and international development in Namibia and South Africa. Prior to writing fiction, Lara worked as a political campaign consultant. Lara’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Hudson Review, Crazyhorse, and more. She currently lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, son, cats, and dog.

Welcome, Lara. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Lara Prescott: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: The Secrets We Kept, by the way, I read this on my iPad. I kept taking all these screenshots of quotes. My husband was sleeping next to me. This is a few days ago when I was finishing it. Every so often I’d be like, . He’d shoot up in bed. I’m like, “It’s another really good quote.” There was lots to commemorate or whatever the word is. I know this was an instant best seller and everybody probably knows what it’s about, but would you mind just giving a quick summary for the people who might have not heard of your book?

Lara: The Secrets We Kept is a work of historical fiction. It’s based on the true story behind Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and how it was used as a weapon during the Cold War. My book really focuses on women behind the story, so a group of CIA secretaries and Boris Pasternak’s real-life mistress and muse, Olga Ivinskaya.

Zibby: I saw on your website, you were actually named for Lara in the book?

Lara: I was. My mom’s favorite film is the 1965 adaption of Doctor Zhivago. It’s also one of her favorite books. She always reminds me to tell people that because she’s like, “I loved the book first.” I was named Lara after Boris Pasternak’s heroine in Doctor Zhivago. It was this kind of name that I hated growing up with because everyone would always pronounce it wrong. We had a Larra who was a couple years older than me in school, so all the teachers called me Laura instead of Lara. I was like, “Mom, couldn’t you have just put a U in my name?” She’s like, “No, that’s different.” It wasn’t until my adult years that I started actually correcting people and saying, “No, my name is Lara. This is how you pronounce it.” Now my mom thinks it’s her fate that led me to write this book in the first place.

Zibby: As every good mom does. You have to take responsibility for every good thing your child does.

Lara: Absolutely. I probably will do the same.

Zibby: I had the same thing in school, by the way. My nickname was like an albatross. I had to always explain and how to spell it. That’s why I ended up naming my kids things that nobody could mess up. That was my one criteria.

Lara: That’s smart. My son’s name’s James, so it’s pretty easy.

Zibby: That’s even easier than probably my kids. He’s so cute, by the way. Your Instagram is a love letter to your son. It’s adorable.

Lara: He’s extremely adorable and photogenic. I feel like since the quarantine it’s one of the things that gives me joy. I usually hadn’t posted a ton of pictures of myself over the years. Now I’m constantly taking photos of him.

Zibby: I noticed that. I was like, I am literally watching a mother falling in love with her child in this feed. It’s all about work stuff, blah, blah, blah. Then it’s like, kid a hundred percent of the time.

Lara: It was cat content, then puppy content, , and now baby content.

Zibby: Now the paperback is coming out. That’s exciting. You’ll have to put a few posts about that.

Lara: Yes, the paperback is out as of a couple days ago. I had to show everyone the new cover. I have it, the new cover in paperback.

Zibby: I love it.

Lara: It’s exciting. It’s such a different space to be quarantined at home, but I feel like the opportunity to talk to podcasts like yours and also Zoom into book clubs has been really fun for me, especially as a new mom because I can just come out. I’m in this little shed in my backyard. I can just come out and have the quiet space of my writing shed but also do interviews and do books clubs for people in Japan, which I did a couple weeks ago. It’s a positive thing that’s happened with everything that’s going on.

Zibby: You should come to my book club if you want. I have a virtual club if you’re interested.

Lara: I’ll do it, yeah. The paperback actually has new book club questions in the back, which is great. It’s actually my highlight of publishing a book, is to be able to speak to book clubs. Libraries has been really fun. In addition to just the regular bookstores, it’s much more of an intimate and interesting environment. People really get in deep with a book with book clubs, which I think is just so fun and provocative too.

Zibby: Totally. I completely agree. This is your debut novel. You met with the most success probably a book could have. It swept the world by storm. What was that feeling like? I want to talk more about the actual book. Describe the writing process and how it was when you were going through so much research and traveling to Russia and going through all these documents and doing all this stuff for, tell me how long, and then having it become a success. Just take me through that journey.

Lara: It’s kind of still hasn’t hit me exactly, everything that’s gone through with the book. I started research in 2014 because my dad sent me The Washington Post article that the CIA had finally come out with all of these documents detailing the mission to smuggle Doctor Zhivago back behind the Iron Curtain. It had this been rumor for years and years and years, decades. Finally, they released these documents. It was that same day. I see this article. I start reading all the documents on the CIA’s website. There’s about a hundred of them. I knew. I think I sent someone an email, I was like, “This is going to be the novel I’m going to write.” I started a lot of research before I even started writing it. By fate, I actually got a fellowship at the University of Texas. I still live here in Austin, Texas. I went to the Michener Center right around that time. That gave me uninterrupted time to write and work on the novel, three years’ worth. Otherwise, I probably still would be writing this novel. I don’t think I would’ve gotten through it so fast because I was working and just able to write in the mornings or the evenings. This gave me this time to just really push it out.

I sold the book in 2018. Began the research in 2014. As you’re working on these things, especially for debut authors — this is my take at a second career. I had worked in Washington in politics for a number of years. This was my true love that I was going back to. You really don’t have hopes that it’s even going to be published. I had zero hopes. In fact, I knew this was my thesis to graduate the Michener Center. I hoped that maybe someday someone would read it, but I just didn’t realize that there would be any interest. I’d had some people, some agents and stuff, say no one’s really interested in Russia more. You go through that rejection as a writer. It’s just part of what happens. When it did sell, it sold so quickly. It went to auction.

At the time, I felt like I was in a haze. I had no idea that anyone would be interested, let alone all these editors that I just dreamed to work with and now was talking to on the phone. It was really a whirlwind. I almost felt sick or nauseous while it was happening. I felt the same way when Reese posted about my book. I just felt like, is this happening? It feels very separate from my own life as a writer just working by yourself in sweatpants for years and years. All of a sudden, it’s out in the world. It’s still something I think I’m coming to terms with, the duality of the writer and then now your book’s out and you’re the author. It’s an interesting mix. I think it took me a solid year to even come to grips that it was coming out. Then it’s being published in thirty different languages. Traveled all over the world for the fall tour. A lot of my tour got canceled in the spring because of COVID. It’s almost a much-needed break right now to start working on a new book.

Zibby: Do you feel a ton of pressure now having to start a new book after all this?

Lara: Yeah, I do. I do, but I think I feel the pressure because — I mean, I felt the pressure before this. It’s just a different type of pressure. The life of a writer is always some sort of anxiety lurking in the back of our minds. When I was writing the book, I was like, oh, my gosh, I took a chance on a new career. I had to quit my job and do all this, move across the country. Will it pay off? Will I actually write the book and get it published? Now the anxiety is more, I have a readership now. I want to write a book that people are going to enjoy, but also something that I’m passionate about and comes from my heart. I’m actually thankful that I am not on the line for another book right now. I can take my time in thinking about what that passion is and what I want to say and then really, really work on it. I guess there’s always that little bit of pressure. You reach one milestone, and there’s always something else above you. I try not to think about it. I really try to separate myself from the business of writing and leave that up to everyone else. For me, I really just want to make myself proud and write something that I’d want to read. I do feel pressure to accomplish that.

Zibby: There was so much in your book, the political prisoner aspect and just feeling like — you could feel her skin wrinkling and what it felt like to be starving and on that bed. Gosh, you just so put me in that moment. Obviously, I haven’t trudged through the snow and I haven’t lived this type of life. It was so immersive. It felt like I really was experiencing it. You also have a love affair. What happens when you love someone who’s married to someone else? How do you reconcile that? Even her relationship with her children and when she sent them into Moscow and stayed back, that also is breaking my heart. Then the typist pool and what that’s like and the relationship with men and superiors at work, you hit on every theme imaginable. It’s amazing, all the different experiences wrapped up in this one book. How did you do that? How did you figure out what to put in, how to tell it, the dual time, east and west? Tell me about the structuring of it and how you came up with that.

Lara: The structure was probably the most mind-numbing thing to write or to think about. When I was writing the first draft, the first draft I just was writing anything that came to my mind, storylines. It was almost like character sketches. What would Olga do in this situation? What would Sally and Irena do in this situation? and really discovering them. My first draft was double the size of the final draft. That’s unfortunately I think how I write. I keep thinking, next time I’ll be able to just zero in on the story and write it, but no. I think I write really long and then I find that structure. I had the fortunate mentorship from Elizabeth McCracken. She was also my thesis advisor. One thing she gave the advice was, after my first draft and I had this massive document and all of these different explorations, she said, “Take it and maybe even print it out. Start writing on notecards or writing on a whiteboard, all the beats of the story so that you can then piece them together.” The finished project that goes back and forth and all these different character stories weave together, that came with the second and third draft. That was not the original form. It was more of, I wrote for Olga for fifty pages and then Sally and then going back and forth. That was very interesting to do. She was right. When you take it out of the Word document and you see it in a physical form, whether notecards or on your wall — I have this picture of me with notecards all over the wall — you can really start piecing it together and weaving it together. It was probably what I’ll do for the next novel. I’m not sure if I’ll have so many narrators. It is interesting to find the actual beats of the story. I don’t outline ahead of time. It comes second.

Zibby: So many of the things that you wrote seemed so specific, even when someone’s walking down a hall and you’re like, then they get to the elevator. Wait, the elevator’s not working. Wait, we turn right. Was that all true?

Lara: Yeah. A large portion of that was true. For Olga’s section of the novel, she published her own story in a book called A Captive of Time. She documents every step of the way, what that interrogation of was like and how they shipped them to the gulag and what working on the camp was like. That particular section, I would have to go back, it’s all fictionalized, but the beats of being taken down the hall and to the elevator and the almost psychological warfare they’re playing with her and toying with her before they interrogate her is all true. For the Eastern side, I tried to use as much of those facts as possible. If there was any documentation of what happened or quotes, I tried to weave that in as much as I could.

Zibby: Wow. Did you go back and read Doctor Zhivago again? Had you read it?

Lara: I’ve read it numerous times. I definitely read it while I was writing. I think I read it twice during the different drafts. I haven’t read it since I’ve finished the book, which I think will be an interesting thing to experience. I probably will take a couple years off from rereading it. It’s one of those books that I’ve read every couple years since I was a teenager.

Zibby: I’m not sure if I ever read it. I know I watched the movie. It was one of my mother’s favorites too. Now I feel like I need to go get that book. I feel like your book was Doctor Zhivago with a little bow around it that’s a perfect, like, here you go. It’s just so neat when you have a book kind of about another book that’s a historical work in and of itself. It’s very neat. Then to have your own thoughts and feelings and experiences with it and then your family connection too, it’s amazing.

Lara: It was something I was cognizant of because I didn’t want people to have to have read the book before my book. I wanted to, if they haven’t read it, inspire them to read the book or see the David Lean film or just kind of experience it in another way after mine, which is something fun with historical fiction. Anytime I’m reading historical fiction or watching a movie, I always am like, I got to look this up. I got to read more about this and see what really happened, what didn’t, what was fictionalized. That’s part of the fun of it.

Zibby: Even all the little details like the paper towels stuffed into the back of someone’s dress because it was so hot, I just love it. It was so vivid. You could put yourself in anyone’s shoes, which is the height of empathy. That’s the great part about fiction, that you get to be in someone else’s head, and especially from a historical perspective. Anyway, it was very neat.

Lara: Thank you. That paper towel scene was loosely inspired by my own going to interview in Washington, DC. I think it was in July. I was walking to K Street. I was sweating like crazy. I had been all dressed up for my first interview. I was like, no! I jumped into a Starbucks and mopping my forehead. That had a little base in my own life.

Zibby: Everyone has been there. Everyone has been drenched and not known what to do about it and had to hide this very physical thing when you’re not supposed to look sweaty. Somehow, it’s like a thousand degrees, so what are you supposed to do?

Lara: That’s the best part about Austin. You never really have to dress up compared to when I lived in DC. It’s very laid back.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about the big-screen adaptation of this book.

Lara: Right now, they’re looking to develop it for television, a limited series on television. The latest I heard is the pilot script has been written or is being worked with right now. They have the screenwriter. They’re looking to build out a writing room to further look at the rest of the series. They have a director. I’m not sure if I can say who is who right now, but it’s in the works for television, which is pretty cool. It seems like the best novel adaptations, in my opinion, in the last few years have been with television. You have Little Fires Everywhere. You have Normal People, of course Handmaid’s, all of these different things that you can have so much more room to work with compared to film.

Zibby: I feel like before, miniseries were not cool. Nobody wanted to watch a miniseries. It reminds me of PBS, not to say there’s anything wrong with PBS. The branding of a miniseries is so different from now a limited series is what everybody wants to do. That’s all I want to watch.

Lara: Absolutely. I don’t know who rebranded it to limited series, but it sounds more maybe exclusive, like, I got to get it because it’s limited. Yeah, it used to just be called miniseries. There’d be a miniseries adaption. Television has changed so much where you have prestige television. You can digest it all at once if you want to on different platforms. It’s changed so much in the last five years alone.

Zibby: Do you feel like you have learned anything from some of your characters about relationships or love or anything? What have you learned from that? Or maybe you haven’t. I don’t know. What do you think?

Lara: I’m interested in different themes of loyalty and the different forms that love takes and how it changes, and changes people over time. Even if love is one way from the beginning, what is like ten years later, twenty years later? Especially with Olga, her falling in love with this very famous, powerful man and how the relationship dynamics changed throughout and the power shifts, I think you learn how love or relationships in general are never one way for the end of time. It’s always evolving. I think that was something I was interested in exploring through both Olga, but also Sally and Irina’s relationship and how even if it’s a brief relationship can change the course of your life or change your direction. That’s something that even now, I have a four-and-a-half-month old and I see this different version of myself and different version of my husband. It brings us to a different level of the relationship. It’s just constantly changing. That’s something I’ve learned more than what I used to think. It has to be one way. It has to be perfect. It’s not evolving. Especially through Olga’s relationship, I see that a lot.

Zibby: I think you timed your baby perfectly. Having a child, especially your first child, requires a complete stopping of regular life. Usually, you have to take yourself out of the chaos, but now everybody’s at home. It must be perfect.

Lara: My son is adopted, and so we did not know when this baby was going to come. In fact, we thought it would be probably now or in the fall, is what we were given as an estimate. That did not happen. We got the call. Everything changed almost overnight. This was in February. Then a couple weeks later, we were quarantined at home, but we were already been quarantined with this baby. That’s something that I feel there is a lot of joy in just being at home with him and having maybe more entertainment that he’s there and you have someone to take care of. I couldn’t go on tour. I’m just home. It’s been difficult because family and friends haven’t been able to come and help and see. At the same time, it’s been wonderful in that way.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so nice.

Lara: You can’t go anywhere anyway. I wouldn’t be taking him anywhere in hundred-degree Austin heat right now anyway. Maybe to the backyard pool, but that’s it.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Lara: My biggest piece of advice is do not think that every sentence you write has to be perfect when you write it down. I think people who are aspiring to that level of perfection can achieve it, but you’ll never get there because you’re focused a sentence, a word at a time. It might deter you from the momentum that experimenting and making mistakes can give you. For me, I’m trying to remind myself of this right now when I’m working on this first draft of a new novel. I just say keep going. Keep going. Get the end. It’s much easier to look at three hundred pages that are full and fix those pages than the blank page. Just don’t give up. It takes a long time. You’ll get there.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you, Lara. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” especially as a new mom. Thanks for taking me through the snow-filled gulag and all the rest and a hot Washington, DC and just making a totally transformative experience through your novel. It really took me places, and I love that. Thank you.

Lara: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Thank you. Bye.