Zibby Owens: I’m so excited to be here today with Laura Zigman who’s the author of Animal Husbandry, Dating Big Bird, Piece of Work, Her, and her latest novel, Separation Anxiety. She has been a contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and HuffPost. Her novel Animal Husbandry was made into the movie Someone Like You with Ashley Judd and Hugh Jackman. She produced a popular online series of animated videos called Annoying Conversations and was the recipient of a Yaddo residency. She currently lives with her husband, son, and dog.

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

Laura Zigman: Thanks. I’m thrilled to be here.

Zibby: We were just talking a while ago, a year ago. I read the news that Laura’s book, Separation Anxiety, had been picked up for a book deal in Publisher’s Marketplace. I was doing this very short-lived video called The Highlights where I was talking about all the really cool things in the book industry for the week, which I ran out of time to do. Anyway, I mentioned Laura’s book deal in the video and posted it. She wrote me back right away, which was cool. Now here we are. The book is coming out. It’s just so exciting.

Laura: It’s so exciting because that was my first time having anything to do with a book in fourteen or fifteen years. It was my first thing on social media because back when my last book was published, Facebook wasn’t even out. Twitter wasn’t out. It was Myspace. It was really exciting to see something on Instagram. I’ve dated myself right away.

Zibby: I know, I was going to say.

Laura: So sad. Maybe I shouldn’t have.

Zibby: No, don’t be silly. I’m pleased I could bring you into the modern era. Now you’re just crushing it all over. Separation Anxiety, what inspired you to write this book? What is it about?

Laura: Separation Anxiety is about a couple who can’t really afford to get divorced, and so they have to live together and stay in the same house. They live in separate parts of the house. The cover for their newly teenage son is that one of them snores. Of course, it’s Judy who snores, but she blames that it’s Gary who snores. He sleeps in the basement in a spare bedroom. It’s also about Judy who has gotten to a point in her life at fifty, where a lot of us get at that age, where loss seems to be the prevalent thing. She’s lost both of her parents. Her career has gone downhill. She can’t seem to get things going. Obviously, her marriage is challenging. Her son is now a teenager who becomes the typical quiet, secretive, kid that she can no longer snuggle. In that emotional space, she one day looks at the dog and decides to start to wear the dog in an old baby sling that she never even wore her son in. She was cleaning out the basement to try to declutter and suddenly finds a sling and thinks, oh boy, I’m going to put the dog in there. That’s her form of self-comfort.

Zibby: Did you do that?

Laura: No. This is where fiction comes in. My fiction is, I call it semi-autobiographical fiction. It’s always based on things that I’m going through or that friends of mine are going through. I had gotten a dog late in life, eleven years ago. I didn’t grow up with animals, pets. My family was allergic. When we got a dog eleven years ago, the lights went on. I finally understood what it meant to have that kind of support, not actually a support dog for me, but it really became one. Even though I never actually wore my dog in a sling, I feel like I wore my dog. My dog, whose name is Lady, was with me during a lot of really, really difficult times. When both my parents got ill, I had my dog with me at the hospital or the treatments or whatever. In all phases of my life since then which are challenging in different ways, the dog is a huge part of it. Again, I never actually wore it, but now I see that there are slings. You can buy dog slings. Margaret Cho wears her dog in a sling. She has a chihuahua, I think. She is on the red carpet with her dog in an actual dog sling. They make them. I didn’t know it.

Zibby: You need to brand them. You need to make your own.

Laura: Next year.

Zibby: Next year, yeah. That’s your brand extension.

Laura: You can help me with that.

Zibby: Sure.

Laura: When I wrote this, I didn’t know there were dog slings. I just kind of came up with it. I thought, that would be so nice to carry my dog around, actually carry her with me.

Zibby: There’s something nice about having something pressed up against your heart.

Laura: Like a baby, except not anymore.

Zibby: Yeah, like a baby. That’s why people are like, “I can’t wait to be a grandmother just to hold a baby again.”

Laura: I know. It’s very comforting.

Zibby: I worked, actually, at a new baby — at Mount Sinai Hospital when I was high school. I volunteered there once a week every afternoon. I got to just hold the babies.

Laura: Oh, my god, that’s so cute that you did that.

Zibby: There was this one down syndrome baby who got abandoned at the hospital. I formed this whole attachment, so I can relate to that feeling of wanting the dog next to you. By the way, when I was reading this, I was in this very posh Beverly Hills hair salon actually getting my highlights done. It’s all coming full circle.

Laura: And they’re beautiful.

Zibby: Literally, four women came up to me and said, “Is that really a dog in that sling? Tell me about this book.” Great cover.

Laura: I love it too.

Zibby: It’s funny you said this book is about a couple that can’t afford to get divorced, which obviously is one of the main plot lines. It’s also about the separation anxiety of a child growing up, which I feel like, to me, is super relevant. I have two twelve-and-a-half-year-olds. I was hoping I could just read this passage which got to me, and then you can talk about it. “I’m fifty when I head down to the basement. My son is thirteen. He no longer wears matching pajamas or explains the virtues of buttermilk Eggo waffles compared to homestyle or holds my hand when we cross the street or walk through a supermarket. He no longer begs for Legos, pulling me into the store at the mall pointing at the boxes, jewels on the shelves, gifts waiting to begin. It’s hard for me to believe those moments ever happened, that I was ever in the middle of that love and time and possibility, and that now I’m not.” I’m about to cry. “Life eventually takes away everyone and everything we love and leaves us bereft. Is that its sad lesson?” How can you read this passage and not want to cry? Tell me about writing this passage and the feelings behind it.

Laura: I started writing this about four years ago. It was a tough time because I hadn’t been writing in a long time. I had a massive case of writer’s block for years and years, and so I was really out of the game, out of the business. I saw all my friends were publishing. I was happy for them. I really finally got back and decided to, in between other things I was doing to earn a living, to try to write this novel. I had no interest in writing just a really light, fluffy book, especially once politics changed. Once I was in actually writing it, it took me three or four years to write. The world took on a really deeper, more serious tone. I wanted to be real and talk about what it feels like to be in your fifties with a marriage. All of us, if you’re married, most people have challenging marriages, whether they admit it or not or whether they resolve them or not and stay together. Most people, if you’re married, you have a challenging situation. If you have kids, they grow up and that’s hard. Of course, it’s not as hard as people who actually lose their kids, but you do lose that version of your child when they turn into a teenager. As you know, you’re used to, you go in their room at night and you say goodnight, and they tell you everything. They talk and they talk and they talk. You know every single thing they’re thinking about. You know what they like, what games they want to do. Suddenly, they stop talking, especially boys. They’re socialized. You can raise them however you think to prevent that, but it’s just a stage. My son is now nineteen. We talk a lot now.

Zibby: So they come back a little?

Laura: Oh, yeah. I’m really lucky. I know friends of mine whose kids, they go through that phase and then they come back. It’s really hard when you’re facing it. It’s such an abrupt — it’s like all of a sudden, this wall comes down. It’s really sad to have that because you miss that real connection, that opaque feeling.

Zibby: You wrote another passage. Then I’ll stop making myself cry here. “Every day, I try to square the fact that I don’t know, can’t know, will never know everything crossing his mind the minute it crosses it the way I used to because he used to tell me and doesn’t anymore. Sometimes even the dog isn’t enough to keep those molecules from coming apart.” It’s so sad.

Laura: That same feeling of, it’s just a change. I think when you get to a certain point in your life, and some people have a lot of loss in their — I had friends who lost parents and friends really early on. It’s not necessarily that it happens in my phase, but a lot more friends die. Your family starts — you know. There are funny parts in the book.

Zibby: I know. I’m making this sound maudlin and depressing.

Laura: No, but it’s real. That’s when friends started to get sick and my parents and all that stuff. It is those seemingly smaller things like being able to go into your kid’s bedroom and have them blab. When that stops, it’s like, ugh, I can’t take it. I’m going to put the dog in a sling.

Zibby: Can we back up and go more into your life a little more? Then we can come back to the book. You wrote these amazing books many years ago. How did that all happen? Why was there a big break? What was it like being so successful then? Then what is it that happened, I know you said your parents passed away, that made this last decade so painful for you?

Laura: I had kind of a weird trajectory. I worked in book publishing in New York for ten years. My last job was at Knopf. I was a book publicist. That’s why I was early today.

Zibby: Thank you.

Laura: I’m always early. I did that for ten years. I was always writing in my spare time, of course which there really wasn’t because my job was very time consuming. Then at a certain point after ten years, I moved to Washington because I was tired of New York. I got a job at the Smithsonian. I was home at five fifteen every day because, you know, government. I ended up going back to a novel I had written a draft of. I redid it. That fall, I sent it to an agent. I got really lucky. It was sold in the States. It was sold in about twenty-five countries. It sold to the movies. I had one of those experiences where I was very quickly able to quit my day job. It was fantastic.

Zibby: Wow. That was which book? That was Animal Husbandry?

Laura: That was Animal Husbandry. That really started my career. I had three more novels published. Two of those other ones were optioned. My third novel was optioned by Julia Roberts. My fourth novel was optioned by Tom Hanks for Nia Vardalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Because Hollywood is Hollywood, those things, for various reasons, didn’t happen. Then we moved to Boston. I met my husband in DC. We moved to Boston. We had a son. I’m from Boston. We ended up buying a house accidentally like a mile from my parents. I never wanted to move home. It was sort of one of those weird — Freud says there are no accidents. It clearly wasn’t an accident. We ended up living in my hometown, which was probably a bad thing. That started a kind of regression. I probably shouldn’t have been living right there, but it was nice. My son was little. My parents were around. They would babysit. I could write, that kind of thing.

My career started to have little — things would go wrong or things wouldn’t happen. Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then my parents got sick. You sort of think, oh, I’m just going to crank out a book every year, every two years, every three. What you don’t ever take into account is stuff’s going to happen. You’re going to have years where you can’t write where things are happening in your life where people are sick where you have to tend to things. The creative process is very delicate. There were just years where I was like, I can’t write this year. Time was going by. At a certain point, I shifted into ghostwriting. It sort of happened by accident, but I shifted into ghostwriting. Then I really liked ghostwriting. It was a way to earn money. It was a way to work really closely with someone and get their story. It’s a really interesting process to me. You clock all these hours with them and get them to tell you stuff that they’ve probably never told anyone, if you’re lucky. Then you write their story. There was a relief to that where I didn’t have to produce my own stuff. Then I longed, at some point, to go back to my own writing, but it took a really long time. I mean, it took a long time.

Zibby: Are you allowed to talk about what the ghostwriting things were? Is it a secret?

Laura: Most of them are not secret. I worked with Wendy Davis who was a Texas state senator who filibustered in her pink sneakers. I loved her. I worked with Eddie Izzard, who’s the British crossdressing actor, on his memoir. I’m working with somebody right now, I can’t say. She’s kind of a big star. It’s like that, and other stuff that I’m not named on. It’s really interesting to me. I really like doing my own stuff too. It was really nice to get back to that.

Zibby: What about writing essays or freelancing? Was it just you didn’t want to tap into any of your emotions?

Laura: I wrote a piece a couple years ago. A friend of mine, Lisa Bonchek Adams, a lot of people, probably, listening to this podcast remember her, she died of breast cancer in 2015. She had a huge blog. She kept in touch with a lot of people on social media. She was quite young when she died. She was from Darien, Connecticut. I wrote a piece about her in Salon. That was the first piece I’d written in ages. I just wasn’t writing. It was such a leap. I had no confidence. I hadn’t done it in a really long time. Then I had worked for a tech company, a startup. That went under. About a year after that, I was ghostwriting a few different things. I finally decided with the encouragement of my good friends in Boston, especially Alice Hoffman who said, “You just really have to try,” I ended up going on Craigslist and finding that I could rent an office by the hour. I was renting a shrink’s office in Harvard Square because I couldn’t afford office space. I’d even go to Starbucks, but I wanted a dedicated, so I would rent this shrink’s office when she wasn’t there, Sundays and part of Mondays.

Even if I sat there and stared at my phone, I was like, this is my dedicated time. I’m not going to ghostwrite today. I’m not going to food shop. I’m not going to this. I’m not going to that. I’m going to sit here and try to write. Luckily, over the years I had always been doing a little bit of something. For instance, in 2012 I had made friends with Jennifer Weiner online. That summer, she said, “Come to the Cape.” She’s goes, “Come. I want you to get back to writing.” I wrote a screenplay which my agents loved, but it never sold. I was able, a couple years later when I rented the shrink’s office by the hour, to take pieces of that script, little pieces, and sort of have something to start with. I always say when people are blocked, whatever you do is not wasted. Even if the script didn’t sell, it felt at the time like, ugh, waste, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t at all because years later I took pieces of that. It was a completely different story, but I was able to use pieces. It got me going. Nothing’s ever wasted.

Zibby: Do you feel like writing is something that you either have a gift for or not? Can it evaporate? It sounds like you were worried that you weren’t a good writer anymore. Whereas you felt confident you were a good writer back when all the deals were happening. Do you think you can just suddenly not be a good writer anymore? Is it something elusive?

Laura: It is elusive. It’s confidence. Someone said that to me a certain point, and it finally clicked. I think there’s something in the book about it. It was Norman Mailer, or someone said there is no such thing as writer’s block. It’s a crisis of confidence. If you look around, there are books that are better than other books, and books that are less good than other books. It doesn’t matter. People might think they’re really good. They publish their books. They write. I remember someone saying to me, a good friend of mine was like, “Just write another book. It doesn’t even have to be good.” What’s really, I think, very delicate, is the sense of yourself. Do you have the confidence? Do you feel like you can take criticism? When you have a book out, you have to take the good with the bad. I’ve had some really nice — I’m on a lot of lists for 2020. I’m sure there’s other stuff coming. You have to brace yourself. You have to not really believe the nice things because then you have to kind of shut down that part of yourself that really absorbs the negative stuff. It can get very negative. That part can be very affected by the outside. It’s hard to protect yourself from that because it’s a public thing. The flipside is you want people to read the book. Every now and then I go on Goodreads even though my friend Julie MacLean was like, “Do not go on Goodreads.” Every now and then, of course, I look at Goodreads. I’m like, I get it. I’ll see a review that’s not so great. I’ll be like, I can see that. I don’t like it, but I get it. I can understand or whatever. You also don’t have to really take it that serious. It’s one person’s opinion, but it is affecting.

Zibby: There are very few books that I feel like everybody likes. Usually what you like in a book is something that’s speaking to you. People have all their different conversations in their own heads. How could something possibly — I don’t know.

Laura: It’s totally subjective.

Zibby: It’s totally subjective. That’s interesting, having to steel yourself, hopefully not too much because I thought this book was fantastic, as I’m sure everybody — back to the book for a minute now that I’ve pried into your life story. I also found it interesting in the marriage that you depict, that Gary, the husband, has an anxiety disorder. You tell it from the point of view of the wife and how she manages to live with someone with an anxiety disorder. What the takeaway from that was, you write, “I often wonder as I do right now, if I’d known how Gary and his anxiety might eclipse me, whether I still would’ve married him. If I’d known how hard things would be now, would I have made the same choice? Would he?” Doesn’t every married person ask themselves this question?

Laura: I think they do. I’m sure my husband asks questions about me as well since I’m not the easiest person to live with either. I’ve known a lot people, and certainly in my own experience — when you’re dealing with a mental health situation or emotional issues, there’s a lot of sense out there, it’s like, ugh, enough. You should leave. He should leave. You should go. If you’re talking about a physical illness like cancer or some kind of physical illness, you would never tell someone who had an ill spouse, “That’s enough already. They’ve had a relapse? Leave.” It’s a whole different thing when you’re dealing with marriages with one person who’s struggling. I know so many people in this position. I myself have been in this position at times. It’s very hard where you’re trying to do the right thing for your person. That’s not to say every marriage, you have to stay together. People split up all the time. People live good lives after that. It’s what’s right you and what’s right for your situation, but there is just — you’re up against a sense that you’re supposed to leave.

I thought one of the most interesting things, and I open the book with this little quotation from Esther Perel. She’s had TED talks about — she’s a couples’ counselor. She has a more elevated title than that. She has this great podcast about couples’ counseling. One of the most interesting things that she said that I heard was that she said it used to be that there was shame when people got divorced. Now there’s shame when they stay together. If you’re in an imperfect union, and most of us are in some fashion, there is this sense of, ugh, you could find something so much better. Now, that’s not to say that — there are times when you really need to leave. That’s not what I’m saying. There are times when it’s really gray. There is a sense that you have to explain yourself, like why you’re staying. I think Judy also feels like, does she want to stay? It’s complicated. Anyone who’s been married knows, on both sides.

Zibby: Do you think there’s anything that people like Gary can do to help their spouses? There are a lot of people who have anxiety disorders or depression.

Laura: Oh, yeah. Gary just happens to smoke a lot of dope. A lot of people are responsible. They see shrinks. They go through different kinds of behavioral training to do things for anxiety. It’s just that in this guy’s case, his go-to is the freezer where he keeps his pot. That’s just his thing. Most people I know do that, but do other things too.

Zibby: Tell me a little more also about Judy’s feeling of invisibility at her age and how she walks around and feels like no one notices her. They notice the stroller. They notice the dog. They don’t really see her. I feel like there’s a lot these days about how you get to a certain age and people just don’t notice you anymore.

Laura: They do. It’s like clockwork. You’re young and lovely. Wait until you get to be — I swear to god, it’s on the day you turn —

Zibby: — I’m not so young, but thank you. I appreciate that.

Laura: There is a sense — everybody looks better now because forty is the new thirty. There’s also this pressure. You’re supposed to look amazing in your sixties. There is an evolutionary biological imperative where — it’s like the male gaze. They know you’re not fertile, I guess, in some really ambient way. You get to a point where you either start to sense that or you just are exhausted by life. Then you start to wear boxy clothes, the whole thing. There’s a scene in the book, but it would happen to me where I would be at Trader Joe’s where they talk to you, everybody. You go through the line and the guy is always like, “Oh, I love this curry. This is the best ice cream.” Then you get to a point where even at Trader Joe’s, they talk to the woman in the front of you. Then they get to you, and they’re just yawning. That was like, okay, wait a minute. There is a point where everything really shifts. Then there is also a piece of that where it’s a relief where you are invisible. You can walk down the street past a construction site. Nobody says anything. That’s kind of nice. In the old days, that didn’t happen. You walked down past a construction site, and someone always had something to say. Now there’s a relief and a bliss in being invisible. You can just dress however you want. You can wear a dog. I remember I got my hair colored one day. By the time I was done, it was raining out.

Zibby: This is back to the highlights. I should have this sponsored by a hair color.

Laura: This is all about hair.

Zibby: I have to find a hair color .

Laura: I got the gray covered. By the time she was done with me, it was raining out. I live in Cambridge, so it’s not like New York. Nobody cares what you look like anyway. I didn’t have an umbrella. She didn’t have an umbrella, so she gave me a shower cap, just a really crappy shower cap. She was like, “Are you going to walk home like that?” I was like, “Oh, yeah.” I walked all the way home with a shower cap covering my hair because it had just been blown, and I didn’t care. First of all, nobody looked at me. Also, I didn’t care. Now, if I were thirty, I would never have done that. I would never have walked home with a shower cap. That’s part of this back and forth. You want to be seen. Then sometimes you don’t want to be seen. It’s a shift. It goes back and forth.

Zibby: Now that you’re back in the writing world, less than invisible in this industry, quite the opposite, are you happy to be back? Are you like, “Thank god I found my way back here. Now I’m in my happy place. I’m writing again. I can’t wait to do more stuff”? Is that how you feel? Is it more complicated than that?

Laura: It is more complicated. On the one hand, I’m beyond thrilled. I never thought I would finish that book. I never thought it would sell. I ended up at a great publisher, Ecco. They’re great. Everything’s great. I have a great agent. No complaints, zero. I’m just completely thrilled, and I’m nervous because I haven’t started another book. Every time you do something, you think you can’t do it again. I just did it. Now I’m like, I can’t do it again. I’ll never do it again. I know I will, but it’s very hard to write a novel. When you get to the end of one, you’re just like, wow, I can’t believe I did that. Then the idea of being able to start again, because you know — it was my fifth novel. I’ve written other books too. You just know how much work it takes. You know how many drafts. When you write the first twenty pages, you think you have it. Then you’re like, no. You write the first hundred pages, you think you have it. It’s like, nope. I used to show my husband my pages. He used to write for The New Yorker. He’s a really skilled writer and really smart reader. He only had the best intentions when he read different versions of this. I remember at the beginning he was just like, no. I’d go back. He’d be like, no. Then finally he was like, yeah. It finally was on the road. It takes a while. It takes draft after draft. You’re trying to get the voice right, first person, third person. What’s the plot? It’s hard, but it’s great. I have another idea for something. I hope that one of these days I get started on it.

Zibby: It’s so funny because you would never think that you’re plagued by all this insecurity. You just go to a bookstore and you look at people’s books. You’re like, wow, they’re so accomplished. That’s amazing. Yet after all this time you can say, oh gosh, I don’t know if I can do it.

Laura: I think it’s a myth. I think it’s a myth that everybody is just like — I’m looking around this beautiful room of yours with all these books in it. Sure, there’s some people more confident than others. I think most writers, and most writers who aren’t published yet, feel that. It’s normal. Everybody faces that. Just because you have published doesn’t mean you’re going to publish again. For someone who had the career I started out with, to then not have anything come out for fourteen, fifteen years, that happens. There’s lots of people publishing right now, same thing, long stretches. I find those people really interesting.

Zibby: Me too.

Laura: It’s challenging. You just have to push yourself each time.

Zibby: I feel like you’ve given so much advice throughout this conversation. Any other advice to aspiring authors, people maybe starting out with their first book, aside from how hard it is? Maybe more encouraging.

Laura: I do some coaching for people in my spare time. I think a lot of people who are aspiring think that if they don’t write every day or if they look at Instagram and it’s like #AmWriting, they’re supposed to be writing every single day and if they’re not writing — there are all these rules. I go for years without writing. Obviously, don’t follow my example. What I mean is I’ll go for months without writing. Then I write a lot. There is no right or wrong way. It’s just what’s right for you. There’ll be periods where you can’t write. You’re either busy with your family or you’re busy with other work or you’re busy or just can’t. There are other things you can do. You can read. You can keep a journal. You can try to write a script. You can do all sorts of different things even if you’re unable to tap into that writer voice that you want, and also just remembering that nothing is wasted, nothing. If you’re keeping a journal, you might be able to go back and use something. There might be something in there that you could start with, start a story with or start a novel with. Nothing is wasted. Just because you don’t have pages or you don’t have a manuscript or you’re not doing it every day, just do it anyway however you can.

Zibby: Love it. If anybody wants to hear more of Laura and me sitting and chatting like this, we’re going to be live at the Streicker Center at Temple Emanu-El.

Laura: I’m so excited.

Zibby: Me too. It’s May 5th?

Laura: Yeah, I think so.

Zibby: May 5th, something like that. It’ll be on my website all over the place. Come see us in person. Thank you so much for coming in.

Laura: Thank you, Zibby.