Laura Munson, WILLA'S GROVE

Laura Munson, WILLA'S GROVE

Zibby Owens: Laura Munson is the author of Willa’s Grove, her debut novel. She’s also the author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is…: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, which is a memoir based on her New York Times Modern Love essay which was so popular it actually crashed The New York Times website. How about that? She founded a writing retreat in Montana called the Haven Writing Program. I hope you enjoy our conversation. I sure did.

Laura, thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Laura Munson: It is my pleasure to be here, Zibby. Thank you so much for inspiring people to read books and support their local bookstores. Thank you for supporting authors.

Zibby: My pleasure. If anybody, by the way, who’s listening wants to see us live, they can go to our IG TV interview which is on my IG TV channel. They could watch our little interview that we did a few weeks ago. Just shouting out to that. Anyway, your latest book is called Willa’s Grove. On the cover, it says, “Four women. One week. One question,” which is like, oh, my gosh, I have to open up this book. Can you please tell listeners what the book is about?

Laura: Sure, I’d love to. This is a book about four women who are each in a major crossroads moment of their lives. As a result, they’re isolating and hiding and pretending like so many of us do when we’re in those crossroads moments because we’re afraid of being judged or we feel guilty or ashamed. Finally, one of the women, Willa, the protagonist, reaches out to an old friend and she spills it. Her friend comes up with this idea that perhaps they should have a week away from their lives and they should invite people who are also at major crossroads moments all looking at the question that we’re all looking at right now, which is, so now what? These four women get together. The recipe that they follow is one that I hope others will too. Willa invites her friend Bliss. Bliss invites her friend Harriet. Harriet invites her friend Jane. Each of them has at least one good friend. They convene in Montana for a week. They help each other find their answers to, so now what? They do so by having those conversations that we all need to be having and so often aren’t. That’s the question. Four women. One week. One question. The question is, so now what?

Zibby: That’s awesome. It’s such a great encapsulation of women’s friendship, even just the reticence at the beginning for people to want to start spilling, the fact that the women didn’t even really — they all thought about canceling the trip. Then they finally got there. Of course, all the different personalities start coming through from someone who wants to pop open champagne to someone who wants to basically crawl under a rock. Everybody has their own take on how to do it. Yet of course, the book unveils how everybody gets so much out of the trip. The greatest part about this book is that you actually lead these retreats yourself. Tell me more about that.

Laura: In no way is that book about a writing retreat, but it is absolutely inspired by the last eight years of my life which has had a very surprised chapter in my life because suddenly, I became a teacher. I’ve always been a writer and a mother and a horse person and a city girl even though I’ve lived in Montana for thirty years. Something happens when people gather in these intimate safe circles, especially when they’re there for the expressed intention of having some sort of result. I’ve been leading — let’s see. I’ve got six different programs now. I’ve got a thousand alums of my programs. It is ranked in the top writing retreats in the US. I’m really proud of it. A few years ago, I was able to start the Haven Foundation which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Haven is able to serve people in a very demographically diverse way. That just makes for a richer circle of people and self-expression. That’s really what we’re doing at Haven whether you’re doing the advanced program for book writers or the initial program or working with me one on one or doing a writer-in-residence. What ultimately Haven does is help you raise your self-awareness. It helps you to find the intuitive nature of what it is that you have to say. You can turn a phrase or twist a plot or have a fabulous command of the English language all day long, but if you don’t have your finger on the pulse of what’s behind what you have to say, it will never build that bridge to the reader.

Every single time I lead one of these things, the group says, “We’re your best group, right? There’s no way it could be this great every time.” I just have to break the news to them that it is over and over and over again. That’s what I wanted to capture in this book. There is some writing in it. In fact, I’ve been leading workshops and using some of the writing prompts that the women in the book use later on in the book. In no way is it a writing retreat, but it is about what I call bridge community. I think sometimes you have to leave your daily community in order to, as the poet Emma Mellon said, I love this, allow yourself to be spelled differently. I think that’s what that people do when they leave home and they hang out in a safe circle with new people who are kindreds but aren’t in each other’s daily lives so that they can more authentically bridge back to the people in their community and their family and friends. In no way is this book a call to action to not rely on the people you love in your life during hardship, but it is a call to action to seek new community. Right now, we’re doing it online, aren’t we?

Zibby: Totally. This is sort of like what happens after the bachelorette parties. Do you know what I mean? I feel like there’s a time in your life with all the weddings when you’re in your twenties or thirties and you’re meeting all these friends of friends all the time. Then it stops. You go into your mom circles, but it’s not the same as before when it’s a one degree of separation. Your writing community, your book community — not book community, but your retreat in the novel, it’s like the continuation of that in a way.

Laura: It is. I want people to read this book and say, I want to throw a Zibby’s grove or an Elizabeth’s grove, and then do the same thing. Invite a friend who’s in a crossroads moment. She can invite a friend, then she invites a friend, and then convene somewhere and help each other. One of the things that I love about this book is that it’s not prescriptive. Once I finally allowed the characters to write it, they had to have these conversations that I didn’t necessarily want them to have. I think most fiction writers know that’s true, that when they truly know their characters, the characters write the book. They wanted to talk about what was supposed to happen and then what actually happened. Something tells me that anybody who goes away for a week on a retreat likely has different answers for what was supposed to happen and what actually happened. One interviewer said, “Did you think there was too much conversation at the beginning of the book?” I said, “I think that anybody who thinks there’s too much conversation in this book is the exact person who needs to be having those conversations.”

Zibby: That’s an interesting piece of feedback. I’ve never felt like that. I love dialogue in books.

Laura: Me too. These women, they are being brutally honest. Even, like you said, a few of them are resisting it. I have found that when you resist something, that’s usually where you need to go. That’s what they do in the book.

Zibby: Totally. I love — if I could just read this one paragraph. Willa’s talking as she has recently lost her husband, which we find more and more out about as the book goes on, but is also dealing with the aftermath, even the financial aftermath, and trying to save her town, really, and all the rest. You have this moment where she’s confiding in her friend Bliss. You say, “Bliss, I have no idea what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. And you know as well as anyone that it’s killing me to pack it all up. There are half-empty boxes in every room. It’s a mess. I’m a mess. I don’t know this person I’ve become. I wake up in the morning and just feel this low ache in my chest, and I can’t shake it. Every night I hope that when I wake up it’s going to be gone. But when I open my eyes in the morning, even before I open my eyes, I know it’s still there,” which by the way is sort of how I feel about now. Like I’m going to open my eyes and our world will be back to what it was. We’re recording this while we’re in the coronavirus era. This is such a great encapsulation of grief and just when your life gets turned upside down which so many people can relate to, especially now.

Laura: Right. When I wrote this book, and it took me about eight years to write it, never did I think its theme would be so timely. I was crushed because I was out on book tour. I had been planning it for a year. We had to call it midway. It was so amazing to watch this book deliver its message. One of the things that was so interesting, Zibby, I was doing a poll across the country. I was in New York, Boston, Chicago, and then Minneapolis. Then I was on my way to the West when I went home. The poll showed something so interesting to me. I was asking people, “Raise your hand if you or someone you know is in a so-now-what moment right now.” About half the room would raise their hand or maybe three-quarters. Now everybody would. Then I asked people just to call out what they thought were those so-now-what crossroads moments in our collective. It was fascinating to me. The top three were career, relationship, and parenting. What I thought was so interesting about it is that it’s no surprise that we go through so-now-what moments all of our lives, that’s what life is, but I think it is new news that we isolate what we’re in them. What I figured out, and I didn’t even realize this in writing the book, was that those top three things are things that we sign up for. We choose our partner. We choose our career. We choose to have children. If things go wrong, of course there’s going to be shame and of course we’re going to isolate. I think right now more than ever we need to be connecting. I love that you’re doing what you’re doing because it allows us to do just that.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s nice. So eight years to write this book, tell me a little about that process. How did you get yourself to keep at it and not give up?

Laura: The one-word, non-elegant answer is obsession. I graduated from college in 1988 and realized I was a writer, much to my parents’ chagrin. I’ve basically just been nose down writing since then. I’ve written probably twenty-four unpublished books. Some of them are even good. I’ve got about eight that are lined up ready to go. I’ve mostly written fiction, but I’m known for nonfiction and essay writing. It was a delight to not be the main character when I was out on the road in that book. There’s sort of a more in-depth question about writing — I work with lots of people who want to write and who are word wanderers. I think you really have to love the process. Some people are out there saying that you have to write every day. I disagree with that. I think that you have to create a flexible writer in yourself. I think that you have to find a practice that works for you based on who you are, not how someone else does it, based on your responsibilities and your habits and your personality, and to be kind to yourself if you don’t write every day. Like I always say, I’ve raised flexible children. I like to believe that I’ve raised a flexible writer in myself. I often will say that writing is my practice, my prayer, my meditation, my way of life, and sometimes my way to life as it was in the time depicted in the memoir I wrote. You have to love the process. That’s what I teach how to do, I hope.

Zibby: Let’s back up. I know I jumped into your life towards the most recent parts where you wrote this novel because it just came out. Actually, you’re quite known for a Modern Love piece that you wrote years ago which ended up becoming a New York Times best-selling memoir called This Is Not the Story You Think It Is…: A Season of Unlikely Happiness based on that Modern Love essay. Tell listeners a little more about the essay, why it was such a shock, and then how it became such a popular book.

Laura: It was a shock to me. I have an incredible agent. She had been shopping some novels around. We’d run into some problems because I hadn’t developed a platform. I wrote my way through this difficult time in my marriage. I applied so much of what I had learned as a writer dealing with rejection over the years to a marital crisis. Really, that book was about how the mind both serves and sabotages us. The idea was that we don’t have to become emotional victims because of the things people do and say to us. At the time, I heard the words nobody wants to hear, which is, “I don’t love you anymore.” No one wants to hear that. My agent read it and said, “I love it, but we need to work on your platform. Why don’t you send it to Modern Love? Why don’t you write the short version and send it to Modern Love?”

Of course, like anybody who’s submitted to Modern Love, I’d been rejected by Dan Jones there several times. I now owe my whole career to him. In an act of utter desperation and surrender, I wrote an author statement. I had never done that in all the years. This is what I wrote. It says — it’s still on a Post-it by my computer in my office. “I write to shine a light on a dim or otherwise pitch-black corner to provide relief for myself and others.” I never realized that I was writing out of a place of service to others. I have to believe that that informed how I wrote that essay because I had an hour before I had to pick up the kids from school, and I just banged it out. I sent it Dan Jones at Modern Love. I didn’t even pitch it. I think I wrote, “See what you think about this one.” He took it. That little essay went crazy viral. They tell me that it temporarily shut down a New York Times website with the comments.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Laura: I know. If I could do that again, right? That essay was published all over the world. In fact, my favorite bit of fan mail — this is something I love sharing with people who are afraid to write memoir because they’re afraid to write past the fear of exposure, which I can completely understand. I heard from a woman from Tel Aviv. She said, “I’m a blind woman from Tel Aviv. I’ve never been married, nor have I ever had children. I heard about your essay. I downloaded it. It helped me get through the greatest loss of my life. That was the death of my seeing-eye dog to cancer.” Isn’t that amazing? I think when you’re willing to be honest and emotionally responsible on the page — I never exposed my husband outside of what he was comfortable with, nor did I expose my family. It was really about my journey. I think it crosses genders and race and culture and ethnic groups and goes from my little office in Montana, my heart, to someone else’s out there. That’s what writing memoir and personal essay does and why I still do love to write in that genre. It helps people know they’re not alone.

Zibby: It’s so true. As someone who likes to write essays, but more than that, someone who reads essays, there’s nothing that helps more than reading an essay and thinking, oh, my gosh, me too, or that totally helps me or makes me feel seen or makes me understand the world a little better. It’s just such a gift. I feel like the personal essay is such an important connecting device, really.

Laura: I agree. That’s what I tried to do with Willa’s Grove even though it’s fiction. I tried to create conflicts for each of these women that are really relatable and questions that I have too. I like to say none of these characters is me, and none is anyone I know. However, they are all of us. there’s a lot of people that are reading right now, so I’m getting feedback. People are saying, thank you for asking that inconvenient question or having that one character share her dirty secrets or her inconvenient truths because I need to go there and I’ve been afraid. Just being with those women helped me to not feel so alone. That makes me happy.

Zibby: That’s awesome. There’s one other part of the book, if you don’t mind, that I just wanted to flag. They are playing this little game where they all go around the room and talk about everything they used to feel ashamed of but they’re not. All the girls — girls? All the women have to say a phrase. For example, they go like this, “Shame that I’m rich and didn’t work for a penny of it. Shame that I’m afraid to be alone. Shame that I’m a hermit. Shame that I’m broke. Shame that my kids are ungrateful. Shame that I’m afraid to let go of my house. Shame that I let ambition ruin my life. Shame that I’m ungrateful. Shame that I will go down in history as the motivational speaker antichrist.” That’s so awesome. That just speaks to the humor that courses throughout this book too. It’s all these funny little moments interspersed with some of the sad, heartfelt moments so that it ends up with everybody just feeling completely understood.

Laura: You know what’s funny? I love that you pulled that out of the book. While I say that none of this is autobiographical, you can bet that writers mine their lives. That’s part of what we do even if we’re writing sci-fi and the character sprouts wings and flies out the window. Even Stephen King, when he wrote Cujo, probably was still somehow mining his psyche. That scene is the closest to something that really happened in the whole book. I was sitting with three friends in a cabin the woods in Montana, and we started talking about shame. We just started going around the table like that. Shame that I… Shame that I… Shame that I… It was this great chorus of truth. I’ve got goosebumps right now. I had to put that in the book because what if we were that real more often? I think right now with COVID going the way it is, people who would have resisted this book or even resisted some of the things that come out of these women’s mouths even a few months ago or a few weeks ago are having to be real right now. They’re having to really expose how they’re feeling. That’s why I’m happy this book came out now even though the tour got canceled. I think it could never have been more timely than for it to launch right now.

Zibby: It’s true, but still. I also feel like this is such a movie. This is such a Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton all sitting around the cabin total movie. Was it already optioned? Is that in the works?

Laura: I hope so. I don’t have a movie deal. I have a couple friends who are movie producers. I’ve sent the book to them. I’m just sort of hoping that they’ll grab it. What I love about this book is that it doesn’t sell out. Whoever writes the script to it, if it does become a movie, I think would have a real blast with it because, to me, it’s very real. These women are very real. Like I said, their conflicts are really real. They’re willing to go to the heart of the conflict. If we don’t do that, how are we ever going to find resolve? This book in no way is tied up in a pink bow at all at the end. Sometimes I feel sort allergic to those movies or books about four women in a cabin in the woods. I’m proud of the way this book ends. I’m proud of how deep these women are willing to go. Yes, I would love for it to be made into a movie. Wouldn’t that be fun? I’ll take you to the Oscars. How about that? That’s my oldest dream right there.

Zibby: That’s a dream of mine too. I’ve always hoped to go to the Oscars, but who knows? So what is coming next for you? Are you going to write another novel? Did you love this process enough to do it again? What do you think?

Laura: Yeah. I’ve written, like I said, many novels. I’m working on a book right now about the power of authentic self-expression. It all is based on what I’ve seen for the eight years leading Haven. I want that book out there. It’s not just about writing. It’s about what I was saying before, tapping into your intuition. That’s what’s next. Normally, I’m in my high retreat season right now. Those are obviously canceled. I think I’m going to take the next month and really focus on that book. Then I also have a memoir that I wrote a year ago all about empty nest. I think that’s a conversation a lot of people aren’t having. A lot of women are in menopause and empty nest and alone, if they’re divorced or single mothers, for the first time in their lives, and they’re not having those conversations. The book is full of those conversations. It’s a sad book for me to read.

Zibby: Awesome. Do you have any advice? You probably have more advice than anybody I’ve talked to now that you lead all these writing retreats and all of that. Do you have any parting advice for aspiring authors?

Laura: Oh, sure. Let’s see. The first thing is read. Please read. Read outside of your genre as well as in your own because often you can see things outside of your own genre that you can’t see in the one in which you write. Also, just take tons of notes in your books. Never lend them out to anybody because they’ll think you’re crazy. Just treat them like your textbooks. Like I said before, you got to love the process. Then here’s something. A lot of people are using this very lofty phrase, including me, find your voice. What does that even mean? To me, when you’re in your voice, you know it because you lose track of time. Even if it’s dark or difficult material, it flows. That’s what I want people to start paying attention to. That’s when you’re in your true voice, when there’s ease even if it’s not easy. It also really helps to write a one-line statement about why you write in the first place, knowing that it can change season by season in your life. I’ll leave with mine again because I think it’s helpful. I write to shine a light on a dim or otherwise pitch-black corner to provide relief for myself and others. I’m telling you, the minute I wrote that, I have to believe that that’s why that essay came out. The book was already written, so I was able to get a publishing deal with the great and almighty Amy Einhorn. I was very lucky to work with her. The rest is history.

Zibby: Wow. That’s amazing and such an inspiring story. Also, good to note that you should have a book in the wings when you pitch Modern Love because you never know.

Laura: You never know. The essay was made into, not one of their Amazon Prime films, but they did do the podcast, which was really fun. They allowed me to go on and talk to it years later because a lot of people misunderstood that essay. It was really fun to be able to represent the message. Hopefully, that’s another bit of advice for writers. Whatever you’re writing needs to stand alone. Once you put it out in the world, it’s between the book or that essay or that poem or that short story and the reader, and you got to let go. That’s hard to do. Final advice would be find somebody who can help you. You should not do it alone. Writing is done in solitude, but it is born of community. That’s part of why I lead retreats.

Zibby: Love it. So great. Laura, thank you so much. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for doing my Instagram Live show. Thanks for just being such a source of inspiration.

Laura: Oh, triple you’re welcome, Zibby. Thank you for all that you’re doing in the world. We need more people like you. Thank you.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so sweet. Bye. Thank you.

Laura: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Laura Munson, WILLA'S GROVE