Lauren Edmondson, LADIES OF THE HOUSE

Lauren Edmondson, LADIES OF THE HOUSE

Lauren talks with Zibby about her pandemic pregnancy and her “second baby of the quarantine” — her novel, Ladies of the House. She discusses growing up around politics, what it takes to modernize Jane Austen, and her relationship-status with writing.


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

Lauren Edmondson: Thank you, Zibby. Thanks for having me. It’s a thrill and an honor.

Zibby: Aw, it’s exciting for me too. First of all, I have to say congratulations on your baby who I saw on Instagram. That was not long ago. He’s three months or something now? No?

Lauren: He’s two months.

Zibby: Two months. Clearly, I can’t even do math. I don’t even know what month we’re in actually now.

Lauren: I could be wrong. There’s a chance that he’s three months. This actually gives me an excuse to put on some mascara, throw on a pearl. I haven’t been doing that for many weeks. It felt good.

Zibby: Welcome back to the land of the living here.

Lauren: Thank you. I can’t promise you that I’m wearing pants with buttons, but I’m getting close. I’m closer than I was.

Zibby: I am not wearing pants with buttons. Is that a requirement? I don’t even think I have any pants with buttons. I have one pair of jeans. The rest are basically pregnancy-type pants even though my last child was born six years ago. Faherty has these pants now that have the same band as maternity pants which I always wished somebody would make as regular pants. Now I wear those if I wear pants at all.

Lauren: It’s much needed.

Zibby: Anyway, that was too much information about my wardrobe and your wardrobe. I really just wanted to say congratulations on your baby and how impressive it is that you have a book coming out so soon after a baby came out. You’re launching both these things into the world at basically the same time. How is that going? What did you know first, the book date or the baby date?

Lauren: The book. I found out I was pregnant the day that — I live in Virginia. The day that our governor announced the lockdown in Virginia, I took a pregnancy test. I have a four-year-old daughter. Her school closed. I was going through the early days of the lockdown as well as my early days of pregnancy. I had a lot of feelings about that. My lovely editor, Melanie Fried, and I were working like crazy trying to get the final edits done before we had to submit the book. That was such an intensive process. I have this memory of my laptop on my lap, my ginger ale and saltines next to me, and the television on and my daughter just bouncing on the couch over me and over my computer. I had such tunnel vision. I just didn’t even care. I was like, don’t touch my keyboard. Whatever else you do, I don’t care. That was a lot of television for her in those days. She watched one particular show. You have kids, so you know they get into these cycles where it’s their favorite thing and their favorite episode. She was really into this show on Netflix in those early quarantine days.

Zibby: What show?

Lauren: Sorry?

Zibby: Which one?

Lauren: It’s a show on Netflix called True. I don’t know where she found it. It had all those bright colors.

Zibby: I’m just always looking for good stuff for my kids. Anyway, so she’s watching True. You never know.

Lauren: It’s probably a little too young for her. It has a very distinctive opening credit song. Now she watches it not as much as she did back then. I have this physical memory of the nausea and the anxiety and the sweat, the flop sweat of trying to get this novel done. I have to leave the room because it just brings back — almost like smell triggers memory, that sound triggers the memory of those early panicky, dark days of my pregnancy.

Zibby: Wow. That’s a way to start it off. Although, I have to say — and I want to talk about your book and not spend more time on this. The idea that you can actually have an entire pregnancy in lockdown is kind of amazing when I think of what I had to show people when I was out and about in the world with all the varying sizes of the different pregnancies. Maybe it’s a blessing some way. Back to Ladies of the House, your second baby of the quarantine. Can you please tell listeners what Ladies of the House is about and what inspired you to write it?

Lauren: Ladies of the House is a modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility. The novel starts as Sense and Sensibility did with this family that’s mourning the loss of the patriarch. In Ladies of the House, the recently deceased Senator Gregory Richardson has, it turns out, died in a rather inglorious way that leads to a pretty big scandal in DC and the nation because he had been a very prominent senator. The scandal lands squarely on the doorstep of the women that he left behind: Daisy, his oldest daughter who had followed him into politics; Wallis, his youngest daughter who is the outspoken progressive of the family and had just returned from a couple years teaching abroad; and his wife, Cricket, who not only has to deal with losing the man who she spent her life with, but also now reckoning with the fact that this man was a liar and a cheater and a thief. These women have to, even though this man, the center of their solar system for so many years, is dead, they still have to deal with this mess that he left behind and pick up their lives, pick up their love lives, their careers, and try to figure out where they go from there both individually and collectively as a family.

Zibby: It is really salacious in the way you portrayed even the scandal and the dinging on the cell phone as the scandal — you have the scandal break during a memorial service, which is brilliant. You have all the dinging and everything. Then the family has to all figure out what each of them knew. That scene was also hilarious. The way it all gets introduced, you can’t stop reading it. It’s very engrossing. The tone makes you as an author feel very likable. You’re very funny. It’s great.

Lauren: Thank you. Good.

Zibby: I feel like when you talk about a book being based on a classic like Sense and Sensibility, there might be this misconception that this is trying to be a modern-day, flourishy, more literary classic. This is a super relevant, today, your best friend is telling you this story type of book.

Lauren: That’s perfect. That’s exactly the book that I set out to write. Austen was hilarious, laugh-out-loud funny. I remember when my daughter was just born. This was four years ago. She had a terrible acid — not acid reflux. She just had reflux. After every time — did this happen to one of your kids?

Zibby: It did. Almost anything that happens to somebody’s kid has happened to one of my kids, I’ve realized by this point. Yes, one of my kids had that.

Lauren: Yes, you’ve run the gamut, so you know this. After they feed, you have to hold them upright for twenty minutes. I had a lot of time on my hands, so I just ended up reading as I was holding her. I read aloud, Pride and Prejudice. I found myself just giggling.

Zibby: Wait, you read it aloud to her?

Lauren: Yeah.

Zibby: Huh. Okay. Amazing.

Lauren: Like I said, I had a lot of time on my hands. I just found myself giggling and laughing. Sense and Sensibility too, some of the stuff that comes out Marianne’s mouth is just so funny. At least, my goal for trying to do Austen justice was trying also to capture that lighthearted, giggly, girlfriend dish-y kind of story that I’d argue she should be just as well-known for, of course in addition to the themes that are still resonate two hundred years after she was writing.

Zibby: I have to admit, I have not read Jane Austen lately. I feel like I can’t even say that on a literary podcast. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read Jane Austen. Maybe if I need a good laugh from two hundred years ago, I’ll pick that up in my spare time, but I’d much rather read your book right now. That’s better. I just had one quick question. You had a scene in the beginning where Daisy decided only to wear certain colors, which I thought was also genius. Is that something that you have ever considered? She went to a fitting room and only decided to wear, from that time on, grays and creams and blacks and something else maybe. I don’t know.

Lauren: That’s not something that Daisy and I have in common. I just felt like it was such a telling part of her character that she had made this decision to really edit her wardrobe in this very meticulous way just for ease. She’s the chief of staff for a senator, so she’s working eighty, ninety-hour weeks. She did it for ease. She also is, unlike her younger sister, and this is true for Sense and Sensibility too, she’s much more comfortable in a supporting role in the background standing in the wings. That’s where she feels most comfortable. It would make sense to her that she has a very muted color palate that she gravitates towards.

Zibby: It made me want to go upstairs and just toss out all the clothes that are not in a specific color scheme because how much easier would that be? I do that if I pack. I’m like, I’m only going navy or I’m only going black.

Lauren: I know. I found myself gravitating to a lot, like what I’m wearing right now, a lot of blue, a lot of chambray. Ina Garten and I have that in common. I wish I could be like Ina Garten. I find whenever I’m in a shop — well, not so much anymore, but I’m always reaching for a really nice denim shirt. It’s just really comfortable.

Zibby: I have a chambray denim dress that I got that Instagram ad kept sending me over and over again. Finally, I was like, I just have to get this. Then I got it. It’s great. In case you don’t have it, I’ll find the label and send it to you.

Lauren: Please do. Please do. I’m a sucker for Instagram targeted ads.

Zibby: Right? They’re actually good. I don’t know how they do it.

Lauren: They’re listening to us, Zibby. That’s how they — .

Zibby: Oh, they’re listening right now? Okay, Instagram, chambray shirt round-up please.

Lauren: I’m going to open Instagram after this interview and I’m going to be like, that’s the dress that she was talking about.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. If that happens, I can’t even. That’s crazy. Let’s go back. You wrote this book with such an insider-y voice. You knew the ins and outs of everything. Tell me how you got all this information. Take me back a little for your own backstory. I know you went to Williams. I know you live in Virginia. I don’t know all that much else that you haven’t revealed in your bio and other public places. Tell me a little more about your background and how we ended up here today.

Lauren: I grew up slightly outside the beltway in Northern Virginia. Both my immediate family as well as the collective region that I live in are immersed in politics twenty-four/seven. My mother still works in local government. My father has served in various positions in Virginia. I have memories of my parents hosting local politicians in our house growing up. Politics, for me, I always conceived of it as a force for good. I never had the, DC is the swamp kind of outsider — I never did. I always thought this was something that we aspire to, honorable leadership. When I was in high school, I interned with then a senator from Montana. All of the scenes of Daisy and her boss and the staff in the office, I got that because I was fortunate enough to work there for a time and see how — I was really a low, low level intern. I walked the senator’s dog and sorted mail. At least I got a lay of the land of, this is how a senator’s office looks in the inside. That was very helpful when it came to writing the book.

Of course, I came of age during Clinton. That was very much on everybody’s mind. That was a turning point to realize, oh, this search for power, even if one is trying to be altruistic and wield their power for good, it gets really thorny because of our human condition. It can do funny things to people. Daisy says it later someplace in the novel. She says power doesn’t corrupt, it just amplifies what’s already there, which I think is very telling. We see it again and again. Daisy also says, at some point she says the only thing uglier than politics is love. When politics and love collide, it can get messy. I had this all in my head for a long time, these themes of politics and power and gender. I put those aside for years. After I went to Williams, I lived in New York, actually, for many years. I worked at the New York Botanical Garden asking people for money and donations which was deeply uncomfortable for the WASP-y-ness of me. It was there where I thought and decided to get my MFA. I went to Sarah Lawrence. I worked. I continued working as I got my MFA. I started work on this novel which became my first novel, not this one, but the one that eventually got me Sarah Phair, my wonderful literary agent. She took me on as a client. We went out on submission. Weeks turned into months. She called me and in the loveliest way possible was like, “So we’re not getting any nibbles. Do you have anything else?”

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about ideas as being these living butterfly-type creatures in the ether that sort of choose the people that they want to land on. I really felt that. I felt that way with this current book. As that door closed on the novel that didn’t sell, I was actually not that disappointed because I had this idea chirping at me on my shoulder. That was to retell Sense and Sensibility in DC. We have so many wonderful retellings of Pride and Prejudice, but not so many on Sense and Sensibility, which I find kind of odd because it is so resonant for us today. The things that Austen was writing about, especially for women, is still so meaningful. I think there’s so many lessons still to be gleaned from her. My agent, when she asked me, “Do you have any ideas?” I said, “Ooh, I do. I have one.” This was in 2016, 2017. We had just had this major presidential election. I was very, very curious about what Austen would think about that and what that meant for women, and women in power, and the kind of rules that still confine us and how many of those rules are made by men and the patriarchy and also women buying into, hitching their wagon to that star. That curiosity just followed me into the book. We went through many, many revisions. I felt like, especially that first draft, I was working through a lot of feeling around that time. The first early draft had Daisy on a white horse riding the streets of DC smiting her enemies. It was a vengeance story. My amazing editor was like, “Hmm. Maybe you want to just turn the volume down a bit on the smiting of the enemies. Why don’t we look, as Austen did always, to hope and to love and to connection?” Of course, that was the right answer. That’s what the book eventually became.

Zibby: Then you just sat and wrote it? How long did that take?

Lauren: Once I started, it was a year and a half that it actually took me to write the first draft. Then it went out on submission. It was bought fairly quickly, but then Melanie and I did a solid year of really intensive edits. The editing process was way more rigorous than I thought. I was like, I’m just going to change a word here; thesaurus, change an adjective. That was not how it went. It was a steep learning curve for me. Luckily, I had an editor who was very generous with her time that walked me through this process because I really had no idea what the ins and outs of publishing was. You’re launching a book. Has anything surprised you about this process, about this business?

Zibby: It’s all surprising. I have a current round of emails going around about something that I’m really trying hard to change. I’m like, this doesn’t make sense to me. Everyone’s like, but this is how it works. I’m like, well, I don’t know. Yes, it’s a lot of .

Lauren: I know. The business side of it was illuminating to me. I thought back to this whole process. I thought back to my time at Williams when I was writing very angsty short stories in my fiction workshop classes that were taught by Jim Shepard who’s the great American short story writer. On one of the first days of freshman seminar, he was like, “If you can think of anything else to do in your life, do that.” I was like, “Oh, crap, I can’t think of anything else.” Then he gave me hope. I was not the best writer in his class. It was very, very clear to me very early on. I was not the star. He also said this. He said, “If everybody who had talent wrote a book, we would be swimming. We’d be doing the breaststroke down 5th Avenue through novels. This business is not necessarily about talent. It’s about work. It’s about the slog. It’s about the grind. It’s about taking the work seriously.” He described it as a romantic relationship. He was like, “A couple hours a week devoted to this craft, what is that? That’s not a relationship. That’s not a relationship worth having. You got to take it seriously.” That advice has stuck with me for many, many years.

Zibby: I love that. Wow. I am clearly just off on a romantic fling right now then. I am definitely not in the —

Lauren: — Much like Ross and Rachel, I am on a break from my writing right now. I thought the break would last like four weeks. It’s lasted much longer than that.

Zibby: I thought I saw that you were doing a second novel. Did I make that up?

Lauren: No, I’m supposed to be.

Zibby: Oh, okay. All right.

Lauren: I’m supposed to be. I will get back to it. I know. It’s calling to me. It’s sending me late-night “You up?” texts. I will absolutely get back to it. We will get back together. It’s just post-baby, I forgot between baby number one and number two, how much you just can’t think. You can’t string a sentence together. I also forgot how much they need to eat and how often. I guess that’s why we have multiple children because we just forget about this stuff.

Zibby: Yes, and maternity leave. Hard to impose your own maternity leave. Writing is something that you feel like, of course, you could do. You just have to hit different keys on the keyboard and you’ll be writing versus emailing or something. What’s to stop you? You don’t have to go anywhere. I mean, pandemic life too, but even before, it’s a job that is so self-motivated. It’s sometimes harder to say, I’m taking a real break. Harder to justify for obviously hardworking people like you.

Lauren: It’s that justification without — I think it’s acute for us too as women, just the back of your mind of, what should I be doing? Do I need to be doing more? What can I add to my day?

Zibby: That’s not even the back of my mind. That’s at the very front of my mind. That is my prefrontal cortex. It’s like a Post-it on my forehead.

Lauren: Yes, exactly. I feel an immense amount of guilt just sitting around.

Zibby: You’re not just sitting around. You’re raising a human being.

Lauren: That’s true.

Zibby: No, seriously. It feels like you’re sitting around, but your body and your mind are preoccupied with sustaining human existence. It’s no small feat. No, I’m serious. It’s not the same, so give yourself a break. There will always be time to produce more words.

Lauren: Thank you. Can you send a quick email to my editors saying that exact thing?

Zibby: Yes. I’ll just send her this audio file.

Lauren: Perfect.

Zibby: What is that next novel about? Just a one-liner.

Lauren: It’s inspired by the Vanderbilt family of Newport. I don’t want use a Law & Order, but I was inspired by this ripped from the headlines. The Vanderbilt family, the generations — I don’t think they were even called Vanderbilts anymore. They lived on the top floor of The Breakers, one of the famous Newport mansions, as a condition of willing The Breakers to The Newport Preservation Society. A couple of years ago, depending on who you listen to, they got evicted from this ancestral home. I have a fictional family in Newport that is kind of dealing with the same thing and trying to figure out, what is legacy? How do you go forward from that? That’s what I’m noodling on right now. We’ll see how it goes.

Zibby: I love that. That’s really fun. The homeless Vanderbilts, I like it. Very cool. I know you already gave advice from Jim Shepard, but if you were giving advice just from you on writing or to an aspiring author — I feel like we can already take so much from this conversation, but just as my always parting question, what would you say?

Lauren: Take it seriously. I’m totally plagiarizing from Jim Shepard, but it’s the advice that I’ve taken with me thus far. Have faith in yourself to just do the work. Just because you feel like, at the end of the day, you’re reading your pages back and you’re like, oh, my god, this is the worst thing, this is the worst thing I’ve ever written, I do not deserve to be published, nobody’s going to read this, you can just get up the next morning and hit delete or, as you said earlier, just start pressing keys. That’s what the work requires. That’s the totally unglamorous part about creativity. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this too. I certainly don’t know any tortured artists. I know creative people who are just working really hard even when they don’t want to, even when there’s really good bad TV on. They’re hitting those keys.

Zibby: Wow, I love it. I hate to stop this podcast because I feel like I could chat with you all day, but I should. Thank you for coming on. Thanks for your great book. It’s so fun. Fun maybe is the wrong word. It’s really enjoyable. It’s a great, enjoyable, totally entertaining read. I really enjoyed it. I really did. I’m excited it’s coming out.

Lauren: I’m so glad. I want it to be fun. There’s so much seriousness and just heaviness going on around us. To be able to just giggle with characters that you feel like you know and you want to be friends with and characters who love each other, those are the kinds of books I want to read. Hearing that you thought that this book was successful in that way is just awesome.

Zibby: I want to read those books too, so I did. Awesome. Thank you.

Lauren: Thank you. Good luck with your book launch. I’m so excited for it. I hope these next couple weeks are smooth for you. I’m excited to celebrate you when your book comes out.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so sweet. You too. You’re February 9th, right?

Lauren: Yes, so just a couple weeks before you.

Zibby: One week.

Lauren: Oh, my gosh. Yay, February birthdays.

Zibby: February birthdays.

Lauren: Thank you so much, Zibby. Be well.

Zibby: You too. Take care.

Lauren: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

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