Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Laura Hankin who’s the author of novel Happy and You Know It. She’s written for McSweeney’s and HuffPost among other publications. The viral videos that she creates and stars in with her comedy duo, Feminarchy, have been featured in NowThis, The New York Times, and Funny or Die. She grew up in Washington DC, attended Princeton University, and now lives in New York City where she has performed off Broadway, acted on screen, and sung to far too many babies.

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

Laura Hankin: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: This is so funny because — I hope it’s okay to say this. Laura was formally a children’s playgroup musician in addition to being a Princeton grad and all the rest, wrote this book, Happy and You Know It, which is about a children’s playgroup musician. As she got here, it turned out my previous podcast guest was a mom who she used to sing to, which is so crazy.

Laura: I remember always being like, that woman’s really cool. I hope I run into her again someday.

Zibby: It’s just so funny. New York is such a small place.

Laura: It is.

Zibby: It’s really crazy.

Laura: We had said that maybe you and I had crossed paths in that world at some point.

Zibby: We must have.

Laura: I think so.

Zibby: I hope I was well-behaved.

Laura: I’m sure you were.

Zibby: I remember with my first kids, when I took them to music class, I was like, what should I do? Should I be picking them up now? Should they be on my lap? What should I do with this little shaker thing? Every movement, I was so stressed about. By the time I got to my fourth kid, I was just like, he’s lucky to be in class.

Laura: He’s fine. Crawl around.

Zibby: Anyway, back to your book, Happy and You Know It, I gave a little snippet, obviously, but tell listeners what this novel is about, please.

Laura: I shall. Female friendship, I think, is so fascinating, particularly when women are thrown together not because of some deep connection, but because of some circumstance like being new mothers in the same neighborhood. In Happy and You Know It, a failed musician who has been kicked out of her band right before they get famous ends up taking a job singing to a playgroup of new moms and their babies on the Upper East Side. She gets drawn into their lives. Meanwhile, the mothers, who outwardly present as very perfect but are inwardly dealing with all sort of anxieties and worries about new motherhood, they grow to love this musician as well. Her presence begins to reveal some of the undercurrents in the playgroup that everyone’s been trying to avoid acknowledging.

Zibby: Which is very juicy as the plot thickens, as the novel goes on. One of the things I liked the best about this book was the depth of all the characters and all the backstories that you paint for all of them and then how you get to watch the interaction of all of them knowing all these things about them that maybe they don’t know about each other. As the reader, you get this inside knowledge into why, maybe, people are acting the way they’re doing. How did you come up with all these different characters and their very detailed and super interesting life stories up to the point of becoming moms?

Laura: Thank you. It was a bit of trial and error, for sure. I actually had a false start to this book. I was very lucky in that I was working with an agent from the beginning. We would brainstorm. Then I would go forth and write. Then I would present pages to her.

Zibby: Hold on. Maybe I should back up and just say, what came first? Was it the characters? Did you have an idea for the story? How did that come about? Then maybe get into the characters.

Laura: All right, circle back.

Zibby: Circle back. Sorry about that.

Laura: What came first was this idea of what would happen if a playgroup musician got too entwined in a playgroup? That actually happened in large part because I was doing this job as a playgroup musician. More specifically, there was one time that I was hired to do a playgroup meant for lonely new moms to connect with one another.

Zibby: Was that really how it was marketed?

Laura: Yeah.

Zibby: That’s so sad.

Laura: I mean, I don’t know if they said, lonely new moms, come forth. But yeah, the purpose was, you’re a new mom. You don’t have any new mom friends. Come make some while somebody sings to your babies. I showed up at this location. A new mom and her baby showed up. We sat there and we were waiting for all of her new mom friends to arrive. Just nobody else came. It was very sad.

Zibby: Aw, the lonely new mom was even lonelier.

Laura: I know. It’s the universe being like, you’re destined to never have friends. We started talking and she was so cool that I was like, I wish I could be friends with her, but our paths are never going to cross again. They never have. It got me thinking, what would happen if we were sort of forced into one another’s lives on a regular basis? That’s how I began writing the book.

Zibby: Got it. Okay, now you can go to the characters.

Laura: At first, the book really was this character study just of the musician and this one lonely new mom.

Zibby: Is this Amara? The basis for Amara? Or no?

Laura: Actually, no, it was a totally different mom. Amara was just a supporting character, as were Whitney and Gwen and all the others. They were all pretty interesting. There were a few interesting things going on with them. Whenever I tried to write their backstories, those came pretty easily. Meanwhile, I was banging my head against the wall about this one lonely new mom whose name was Kitty. I showed it to my agent. She, in the kindest possible way, was like, “You know, I love a lot about this. I love the playgroup musician. I love Amara. Do you think that your main mom is boring and shouldn’t be in the book?” She was so right. I went back and rewrote entirely and bumped up all these other mothers who were more interesting to me anyway. That’s how they all came about.

Zibby: Then when you were writing, there were so many intersections of different characters and events, how did you structure this book? It sounds like you rewrote it. Obviously, you rewrote it. You just told me that. The original vision, did you have an outline? Did you have sticky notes? What was your process like?

Laura: I know that people tend to separate writers into the outliners and the people who just fly by the seat of their pants. I truly feel like I’m somewhere in between in that when I’m writing a book, generally, I’ll have a very general sense of the arc of it. I’ll kind of know the beginning, kind of know the end, know maybe three or four big set pieces throughout, maybe know a twist or two as well even if I don’t know exactly what it is. Then I really need to get to know my characters more just by writing them and putting them in situations. Then usually about halfway through writing a book I’ll stop and reread it and be like, okay, now I understand what is happening for the rest of this book now that I know what the characters would do.

Zibby: Wow, very cool. How was it writing — this is your second book. Your first book was called The Summertime Sisters?

Laura: The Summertime Girls.

Zibby: Summertime Girls. How was it going back? What was that experience like versus this one?

Laura: It was really interesting. I had never tried to write a book before The Summertime Girls. I had moved to New York. I was trying to be an actor. I just needed some other creative outlet that I could control. I was like, let me try writing a book about female friendship, my favorite theme.

Zibby: Your friends must be so flattered.

Laura: I hope so.

Zibby: Or scared.

Laura: Or scared. They’re like, when are you going to write a character based on me? It was very much my learning-how-to-write-a-book book. It was a quieter coming-of-age story. It had a small printing. I was very lucky that it got published. It was never going to be a big commercial book. Then going into this one knowing that it would be more high concept was both really exciting and really scary. It was like, I’ve figured out how to write characters. Now let me try to write a plot with twists.

Zibby: The plot was really good. It kept unfolding. Back to the playgroup situation, as an Upper East Side mom of four kids, you sort of make fun of the Upper East Siders. We’ve been taken to task more by other authors, so I wasn’t offended or anything. Is the musician from another world who comes in bound to dislike the people? Is there anything as a host you can even do to endear yourself to anyone who comes and performs for your kids? Do you know what I’m saying?

Laura: I totally do.

Zibby: How can you not shoot yourself in the foot here? You made fun, kind of, of them being too friendly and being like, “Come on in. Have some wine. What can we do?” Then you make fun a little of the people being rude, sort of. What do you think?

Laura: When I was doing the job, I just really appreciated when people treated me like a real person who they acknowledged had other things going on besides just singing to their babies. When Claire comes into this situation as the musician, she is prepared to hate these women for a few different reasons, one of which is that she has worked in this situation before and the women have treated her like she was invisible and just talked over her the whole time. Also, she just doesn’t want to be there because she’s supposed to be famous. She’s supposed to be playing SNL with her band. Instead, she’s having to go back and do this job that she had to do years ago.

Zibby: By the way, I wanted to then hear the song. I feel like you should write the song because you perform and all this other stuff. You should just write that song.

Laura: I think I should.

Zibby: Then that song should go on and be a hit. How perfect circle would that be?

Laura: Ooh, a tie-in. That’s a lot of pressure to write the hit song. I could make it happen.

Zibby: Well, you could give it a shot, or some song.

Laura: I definitely had a little melody that I would sing to myself as I was writing it, but it’s not good.

Zibby: Maybe that’s even better if it’s not even a good song. Maybe it’s just funny. You should just record it. You should do a little YouTube and put it up there.

Laura: Okay. I’m going to put this on my to-do list. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Anyway, sorry, go on.

Laura: Claire comes in with all these prejudgments of these women. Then on their end, they have judgments of her too. They assume that she’s just going to be sort of sweet and nonthreatening and uncomplicated. Then also, they’re all judging each other in the playgroup as well even if nobody really wants to say it, but because they’re all competing to be the best mother of all. It’s this whole judgment soup until they’re able to actually get to know each other as people. I think just acknowledging that someone is a full and flawed human being is helpful. It’s tough. When I was working as a musician, I always wanted the women to ask me about myself, but I wasn’t exactly asking them about themselves either. I think sometimes it’s hard to have that conversation of, so are you just a playgroup musician? Are you just a mom? Both of those choices are totally fine. It just feels awkward to ask about it and open it up.

Zibby: I had this one friend who I had been close friends with for two years and in the trenches with and did not realize that she used to be a psychologist. Sometimes you get so into the day-to-day with people and you don’t go back to people’s pasts even. I knew everything about her kids. Everything of the moment I could tell you about her, just not anything major about her past.

Laura: Before the kids, I’m sure that was how she defined herself in so many ways. It’s like the characters in the book. Every once in a while, some of the more minor mom characters in the playgroup, I’ll just drop in, this character majored in psychology and spent years studying it. This one was a lawyer. It does not play into their everyday interactions.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about your performance life mixed with the writing life. Have you always wanted to be an — tell me, how did you get here? Tell me about your group that you perform with, Feminarchy.

Laura: I grew up, and my two main loves were reading and performing. I was very much one of those kids where I always had a book in my hand, to the point where my parents at one point had to be like, “Laura, you cannot read while you’re walking down the street because you don’t stop at the streets. We would prefer for you to grow up, please, and not get hit by a car while reading a book.” I never really thought of myself as a writer beyond occasionally writing some fun little stories and terrible poems because I was so focused on acting. That’s why I moved to New York. Learning that I could write and do that on my own really helped keep me sane. I’ve gone more into that as my main thing now. I still definitely — if somebody asks me to be in a show, if I’ve worked with them before and they ask me to be a show, I love to do it. I’ve performed in some really wonderful musicals for children, which has been great. Yes, I write comedy and comedy songs with my friend Dominique. We have a duo, Feminarchy. We do live shows around the city. Then we also make videos online.

Zibby: Did you ever go the whole audition route?

Laura: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: Yeah? That whole thing? Yes?

Laura: I did some very weird shows in New York, for sure. I did a rock opera. I did a site-specific show in a graveyard. It’s an interesting world. It’s nice to have more control as a writer. Whereas when you’re going the auditioning route, you wait in line for a long time. Then you go in and you sing for twenty seconds, and that’s it.

Zibby: Did you ever think about teaching acting to kids? Did you just perform music?

Laura: I did some. Actually, I did some really wonderful teaching artist stints where I would go into a school and help the kids turn a book into a play. Then they would perform it.

Zibby: That’s so cool.

Laura: It was the best. They were so creative too. They would be writing these song lyrics that were so funny. I was just like, the children are the future.

Zibby: If you ever want to get back into that, give me a call. I have a very eager future, want-to-be actor/singer, whatever.

Laura: You do, really?

Zibby: Well, I have two, but one has potential. No, I shouldn’t say that. I’m just kidding.

Laura: Let’s hope they never listen to this episode.

Zibby: I’m just kidding. No, I’m just kidding. I might have to delete that. I’m just kidding. One thing I found funny in the book also was Whitney, one of the main characters, has this whole life as an influencer on Instagram and manufacturing this perfect life and taking all these products which have various results. How do you feel about the mom-stagramers, or whatever you want to call it, hoking products through exploiting their lives in a way?

Laura: I think that there are a lot of very fun aspects about Instagram. It also really has the potential to make us all feel pretty terrible about ourselves. It’s like candy. You eat a little bit of it, and it’s nice and you feel good. Then if you are binging on candy for hours and hours, you feel very bad. It’s so easy to look at these people and wonder why you can’t be as good as they are and why you can’t be sparkly and have this perfect life and you don’t have hundreds of commenters talking about how much they love you and your family, and you’re perfect. I wanted to explore that from the side of people who were looking at it, like Claire for example. Then I wanted to explore it from Whitney, the alpha mom’s side, as her following begins to grow and grow. For her, the reason that she gets into it is because she has so much anxiety that she’s not doing motherhood right. Every time she posts a picture and the likes start flooding in, she feels like maybe she’s not going to screw up her kid. Maybe her marriage, which is a little shaky, is actually as perfect as people are saying it is. It turns out to not be a sustainable, long-term solution for making yourself feel good. People on the internet can turn on you very quickly.

Zibby: Yes. Thoughts on adultery, this is sort of a big question, but I just wanted to know given — I won’t give anything away. Let’s just say, what are your own personal thoughts on this topic?

Laura: Again, not to have anything away, there may or may not be an adultery subplot in the book. I think it’s fine. There’s an adultery subplot in the book.

Zibby: You can say may or may not. Then they’ll find out. Maybe it’s just a random question.

Laura: Maybe. I certainly did not write it to encourage everyone to have hot, hot affairs with very inappropriate people. What I wanted to do was to explore how someone could, little by little, make a decision that they never thought they would be the kind of person who would make that decision. For the character who may or may not have an affair, I did not agree with what she was doing. I thought it was a very bad decision. I also understood exactly why she made it. She was someone who, really, her whole life had been taught that being desirable was incredibly important. Now all of a sudden, she’s a new mom and she’s not being seen in the way that she’s used to being seen. Her husband, who’s always treated her as this precious thing, is not being particularly kind to her. When she meets a man who is seeing her how she feels like she used to be seen, she’s able to, little by little, delude herself into thinking that maybe he was actually supposed to be the love of her life and they married the wrong people. What I want to do with that subplot and also with a lot of the characters in the book is have them make decisions that I would not make but always have it come from a place of empathy so that I really knew why they were making those decisions. I supported them even as I wished they had made different choices.

Zibby: Do you feel like it’s important to write likeable characters? I know there’s some debate in the writing world about this.

Laura: I think you always have to like your characters even if they’re not “likeable.” You have to find something in them that you really relate to even in the most, maybe, ruthless decisions that they make. I personally like to have my characters always be doing it for a reason that I can really understand and really get on board with, whether it’s protecting their family or protecting their sense of who they are.

Zibby: All right, I’ll buy that.

Laura: Thanks.

Zibby: What is coming next for you? Do you want to write more books? What’s your grand vision? I know you’re still — I’m not going to say anything about your age. I feel so old in comparison. You were talking about what number reunion this is for college. I’m just going to let it go. It’s okay.

Laura: It’s fine. I’m working on a new book now. It’s the first time I’ve ever written a book on a deadline, which is a fascinating experience.

Zibby: Wow. How much time do you have?

Laura: I have two and a half more months before a draft is due. I think it’s going to be doable. I just recently had that point that I mentioned earlier where I was halfway through and I was like, now I understand how the rest of this book is going to go.

Zibby: Can you say anything about it?

Laura: Sure, I guess with the caveat that I could turn it in and —

Zibby: — It could change.

Laura: Yeah.

Zibby: What it is now.

Laura: It is about an undercover journalist who infiltrates this top-secret, women’s-only social club of the elite millennial feminist women of New York. They’re all very into astrology and witchcraft. It goes from there.

Zibby: Interesting. Love it. Have you read anything good lately? When do you find time to read?

Laura: I love to read as much as I can. I recently have been on an Ann Patchett kick. I’m almost done with The Dutch House. I read Commonwealth, which I loved and thought was so beautiful.

Zibby: I loved Truth and Beauty. That was good.

Laura: Oh, yeah. I read that one too recently, those letters.

Zibby: When do you like to write? When do you like to read, rather? not write.

Laura: I read a lot before bed. It’s such a nice sacred ritual to me to just, at the end of the day, get in bed and read for even only ten minutes. It’s a really nice way to end a day, I find. When do you like to read?

Zibby: I have to read before bed. It’s a must-do. You always have time, however long I can stay awake. I always read while I’m putting my kids to bed, like after they’re in bed but during the pop-outs when they come in and out. I read while I’m working out. Says a lot about my workouts, hence my current state. Perhaps if I didn’t read, I might be in a different size.

Laura: Stop. I like to read on the subway too. I always forget that it makes my subway rides so much better. Then as soon as I do start to read on the train, I’m like, oh, yeah, this is great. This is a great way to spend forty-five minutes instead of trying to refresh Twitter when I don’t have any service.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Laura: Yes. I think the number one most helpful thing is to find a writer’s group or just friends who are also writing, people who can help keep you accountable, keep you moving, and also whose feedback you trust. You can share your pages with them. Then they get really excited about your book and your characters. You can really help each other. Writing is so great. It’s so nice to be able to play around in your own head. At a certain point, it’s helpful to know if that makes sense to anybody outside of your head. Also, at a certain point, it’s nice to have socialization. Finding a group of people who you really trust who can do that for you, it’s my number one recommendation.

Zibby: How did you find your group? I’m assuming you’re in a group. How did you find yours?

Laura: I am in a group. We actually took a screenwriting class together, a screenwriting workshop. Over the course of the workshop, I remember being like, their feedback is really good and they also seem really nice. Once the workshop was over, I asked them if they just wanted to get together every few weeks and share our material. Now we get high tea and talk about our characters. I think it’s also very helpful because then once you do get a deal, hopefully, you’re used to taking notes. It makes your editor love you because you know that what you’ve written is not going to be perfect. You are in the headspace of wanting to make it better.

Zibby: That works. Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Laura: Thank you so much for having me. This was really fun.

Zibby: Good. I’m glad.