Lauren Marino, BOOKISH BROADS: Women Who Wrote Themselves Into History

Lauren Marino, BOOKISH BROADS: Women Who Wrote Themselves Into History

Zibby speaks to award-winning author and founding editor of Gotham Books Lauren Marino about Bookish Broads: Women Who Wrote Themselves into History, a vibrantly illustrated celebration of 50 fierce, trailblazing female writers who dared to write about their experiences when the world tried to silence them. Lauren reveals the inspiration behind this project – knowing that female writers have been wrongfully overlooked since the first ever novel was written and wanting to finally recognize their contributions. She also talks about her successful career in book publishing and reveals the books she worked on recently and is immensely proud of.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lauren. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Bookish Broads: Women Who Wrote Themselves into History.

Lauren Marino: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It’s nice to talk to you again.

Zibby: You too. As I was just saying, I was introduced and learned a lot more about women who I thought I knew a lot about but obviously did not. I was particularly interested in Mary Shelley’s story, who had eight million bad things happen to her, which I had not realized, before she wrote Frankenstein. You really cover so many amazing women in the book, and even things like how romantic novels started and Joan Didion and Octavia Butler, who just opened a bookstore in LA also. It was just so interesting to hear especially when there was so much against women before. Why don’t I let you talk? You say the rest.

Lauren: I love that you started this podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Moms don’t have time to write books either. Yet both of us have done it. For me, being a bookworm my whole life, being in the book business, being an avid reader, always being a writer and keeping journals — I read an article where the ALA, the American Library Association, had done this study where they gathered information from libraries all over the world about the books that were the most circulated. They sent out a list of the top one hundred books. Only twelve of them were by women. That didn’t make any sense to me because I know in the book business that eighty percent of books are purchased by women. I know that women are bigger readers. I went down this rabbit hole of googling “top one hundred books” and It was the same twelve female writers that showed up in the top one hundred books over and over again. I said, why? Is this an algorithm problem? Why aren’t all the female writers that I’ve been reading my whole life showing up here? It’s Jane Austen. It’s J.K. Rowling. It’s the Brontë sisters. It’s the same books and the same authors.

I started doing research. I had a blast doing this. I started out with a list of the writers that I wanted to research. It was mostly my favorite writers. As I started doing research, I started learning about more and more writers. I learned about, the first novel was written by Lady Murasaki in tenth-century Japan. If you were a lit major like I was, they say it was Samuel Johnson or Richardson which wrote the first novel. No, it was actually written by a woman. I saw how these female writers stood on each other’s shoulders and how every writer took the work of the female writers before her. I got to study and go down the rabbit hole of rereading some of my favorite books and learning the stories behind these women. I also learned about a lot of other female writers. I had a great time. I could’ve written a book that was a thousand pages. I could write ten more books. I didn’t even get to cover most of the women I wanted to. This book was never meant to be encyclopedic.

As I was going through the writing process and the research, it ended up becoming sort of a history of the female experience. Even today — I think it’s changing. The female experience has always been diminished. Even books by women writers have been diminished. You remember the whole era of chick lit. If you write a domestic novel, if you write about your experience as a woman, or you write something about being a mother or having children, or romance, it’s chick lit. Just that title alone is saying the female experience is not valued. I wanted to honor these women, the incredible contributions that they made to literature. I wanted to bring other readers to them, so I have suggested reading after each of the essays. I also wanted to inspire other aspiring female writers. The obstacles that these women faced were so tremendous that for me to say, “I’m a single working mother with two kids. I don’t have time to write,” Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf weren’t even educated. Jane Austen went to school for a month. Her sisters and her mother did all of the housework and the gardening so that she could write her books. If you didn’t have either a supportive father with money who was going to educate you or if you didn’t have a governess, if you don’t have access to books, how would you ever learn how to become a writer?

There is a story in here of the writer who joined the — you had to join a convent in order to get an education. You looked at your mother, who had twenty-four children in a row. Women were pregnant or taking care of children their whole lives. You were married off in puberty, probably to a man much older than you that you didn’t know. How are you going to write books? I just love how they found ways around all of these obstacles and were so passionate about expressing themselves and expressing their experiences that they found a way. Some of these books have been a little lost history. Obviously, I found out enough about them to do the research for this book. I was able to find things like Aphra Behn’s work and read some of it. She was a great playwright. When she died, they destroyed her reputation to kind of eliminate her from the canon. I just wanted to honor them and also show other women that no matter what you think you’re dealing with, your experience is valuable. There are ways to get your story out there. Your obstacles maybe aren’t as bad as some of the ones that other women had to deal with in history. It’s meant to be inspirational as well as educational.

Zibby: It could be called And You Thought it Was Hard. It’s great, too, because it gives us a look at — when you pick up a book, you don’t necessarily immerse yourself in what was going on at the time. It’s so important to keep that context. Aside from the copyright date, it’s not always hitting you over the head, when it was written, what was going on, the environment. It just totally changes your thinking. It’s the same thing with art when you go to a museum. Even what you were saying about building on what came before, it’s the same thing. We’re all constantly kind of in dialogue to the point where everybody on this podcast is a response to something, maybe. It’s all related.

Lauren: Yes. This is meant to be a fun book and to bring people — I wanted to tell the stories behind the storytellers. That was really my mission. You know. Being a book lover, you always want to know, what made that person write that? Where did that come from? What inspired them? You read Carson McCullers. It’s so dark, the Southern gothic. Then you read her story, the rheumatic fever. She was this brilliant prodigy pianist. Then because of her illness, she wasn’t able to do any of that. She became a writer instead. She was in pain her whole life. She died young. You see what was going on in her mind in order to create those books. Jane Austen, a favorite, to satirize the importance of marriage for women because it was really the only option. Those books, they’re so beloved, but they are also satirizing what was going on at the time. They wanted their voices to be heard in societies that didn’t really want to hear them. Even Zora Neale Hurston, her work — she’s so incredible. She was this anthropologist. She was down in Haiti doing all of this research. Her and Langston Hughes did this whole ride through the Deep South when it was very dangerous for two Black people to be driving around like that. She kept a gun taped to her leg. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, she was writing in this Southern Black vernacular.

She was deeply criticized for doing that. Again, the male critics kind of shut her down. She died. She died with fifty dollars cleaning hotel rooms, totally unknown. She had an unmarked grave. It wasn’t until the seventies when Alice Walker rediscovered her and brought her to the world and really honored her — now my daughter in high school is reading Their Eyes Are Watching God. It’s interesting how writers get lost and then they become re-found. Octavia Butler, she was a prophet. She was dyslexic. Her mother was a housekeeper. She really struggled to get herself educated. She wrote some of the most incredible science fiction. She made all of these predictions in her science fiction. She won a MacArthur award. She was valued, but her books didn’t really sell in her own lifetime. Now you see Parable of the Sower hit The New York Times best-seller list. They’re reissuing all of her backlist. Readers are finally finding her and her genius. She did a lot of that kind of end-of-the-world dystopian science fiction. All of these zombie movies and The End of Us, in a way, that all came from the work that she was doing. I just want people to value what these women have contributed to our culture.

Zibby: Amazing. We need a contemporary Bookish Broads. It would be interesting, your picks for who people will remember in the next couple centuries and why.

Lauren: It’s hard. You know as a writer. You work with the publisher. This book, it’s illustrated. I tried to have fun illustrations to make it appealing to young people, who are so visual, and just to show — even Zitkala-Ša here, who has also been kind of lost to history, she was taken out of her home as a Lakota Sioux and stripped of all of her language, her culture. She became this incredible violinist. She was the first female to write stories in English about being a Lakota Sioux, about her Native American tradition, and told those folk stories and the stories that up until then had only been oral histories. I’m digressing. Yes, who would be the writers of today? I would love to do a book like that, but I don’t know that I can predict it. I love that in the publishing world, we’re finding and honoring now, all of these contemporary voices that have not really been published before. We’re seeing people from all different cultures and backgrounds and all over the world telling their stories. In storytelling comes empathy and comes understanding and cultural understanding. I think that the contemporary writers are going to be from all different types of backgrounds. Certainly, Zadie Smith would be in there. I wanted to put Zadie Smith in this book, but there’s only so much time and space. Like I said, this wasn’t meant to be encyclopedic. It sort of followed organically. The structure of the book and the writers I chose, they showed up on their own, in a way, in my research.

Zibby: Lauren, talk about your whole experience in the literary world and how you even got into that to start that led us to here.

Lauren: I moved to New York after school. I wanted to get into book publishing, but I did not know a soul in New York. I always say it was like I had just fallen off the turnip truck.

Zibby: Where were you from?

Lauren: I grew up in Cincinnati and New Jersey. I went to school in Providence. I was like, what do I do? How do I become a book editor? This is my calling. I sort of knew it. Even at school, nobody had ever done it before. Back then — this is how old I am — you had to take a typing test because the entry-level positions, you’re basically an editorial assistant. That title, it’s a lot of grunt work. I was a really good typist because I had written my thesis. You had to retype it every time you made a change. I was a very quick typist. I got the highest score on the typing test. I got work with a literary agent, Kathy Robbins, who handled a lot of incredible journalists. I had studied the Romantic poets. I was writing a thesis on Lord Byron’s five-hundred-page poem, Don Juan, and in the library every weekend. I learned by working for Kathy, all about nonfiction. I fell in love with the nonfiction world and with investigative journalism. I made a decision early on that I was going to pursue nonfiction as my profession, for my professional life, and that I was going to keep fiction as my great love.

When I go on vacation, I travel with a suitcase full of books. I try to read a book a day. In ten days, I will cram in all of the books that I didn’t get to read during the rest of the year. What I love about being a nonfiction editor is that it’s like being in school for life. Writing this book, it was like getting my PhD in female literature. I’m always reading book proposals. I get so many book proposals. Because they’re nonfiction, they’re cutting-edge. They’re great thinkers, great minds, people either writing about their own experiences, whether it’s publishing memoirs and entering worlds that I would never otherwise know about, or working with these people on the cutting-edge of research in psychology or neuroscience. I’m constantly learning. I’m constantly stimulated. The book world is very competitive, so I don’t get to sign up all of the books that I want to, but I do get to read all of these proposals. That’s really fun for me. You never ever get bored. Never get bored in this work. I know you’re publishing. Your first books are just coming out now. You have a lot of great female writers. I think you’re doing a lot of fiction, right?

Zibby: We’re doing fiction and memoir. Yes, thank you for saying that. Proposals are fun, but we don’t do nonfiction like you. I feel like I learn a lot through people’s stories, as you were saying proposals. What are some of the books that you’ve worked on that you’re really proud of or that changed you in some way or a project that you feel a lot of pride about?

Lauren: There’s such diversity in the books that I publish. If I have too many memoirs, then I just start doing neuroscience so that I’m not stuck in the same world. I published a book in the fall called Hysterical by Elissa Bassist. It’s about voice and women’s voices and how she lost her voice and got very, very sick as a result. She did all this research and tried to find out, why am I getting all of these physical ailments? She has back pain. She lost her voice. She had these horrible headaches. She couldn’t get out of bed. She explored how, as a female writer, she had felt shut down. She felt like her voice wasn’t being valued in her relationships with men, at work. It wasn’t until she found her voice and started to express herself that she got her health back. She looks at how the medical industry — it’s sort of a medical mystery, but through this lens of, when women shut down their voices, they get physical symptoms from that, and the importance of self-expression and how women’s voices have been shut down. It’s sort of like what happened with Bookish Broads. It’s sort of the same story, but it’s the modern version of it. She talks about The Little Mermaid. I have a daughter. We watch The Little Mermaid over and over. Everyone loves The Little Mermaid. If you really think about it, it’s the story of a girl who loses her voice, gives up her voice in order to get the prince. She grows legs and gets rid of the voice so that she will appeal to him. No one ever looks at that part of the story. You don’t want to be Ariel. You don’t want to give up your voice for a boy. She looks at pop culture.

Zibby: Someone should write Ariel’s memoir.

Lauren: Oh, my gosh, yes. That’s a great idea.

Zibby: Wouldn’t that be a good idea?

Lauren: Oh, yeah. Then Ursula, of course, then you have the old hag. There’s these stereotypes in literature and in how women are portrayed, and in pop culture. I just want to bust those up. That’s a book I’m really proud of. I have a book called In the Weeds that I published that I really love. It’s a heartbreaking story. Tom, the author, was Anthony Bourdain’s director and producer for ten years. He lost his boss, his mentor, and his best friend. It’s his story of trying to figure out what happened. It’s really behind the scenes of what it was like working with Tony and making that show. It’s behind the scenes of television and traveling all over the world and seeing all of these different cultures. That book has done very well and continues to do well. He brings Tony alive in this very human way. He’s also taking you into all of these cultures. I always love books about entering different worlds and different cultures and books that examine pop culture and culture and try to say, why do we see things this way? How can we look at things differently? I always like to have different perspectives. Those are the kind of books that I really enjoy.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I interviewed Laurie Woolever about her book, World Travel, with Anthony Bourdain. Then actually, today, I saw that she has a new book coming out. It’s more of a memoir, but it also talks about her — you’ll probably like it too — behind the scenes. Similar, except her own addiction. It sounded good. Laurie Woolever on the mind. Anthony Bourdain type of day. Now that you’ve done Bookish Broads, will there be a continuation? You have a huge intellect. You just love to learn. What are you interested in diving into next?

Lauren: I’ve written three books. All of them are about strong women. They’re such different women. I wrote a book about Jackie Kennedy and how she used fashion as diplomacy in the White House. She took what she had and really became powerful using what women had at that time. Then I did a book about Dolly Parton, completely opposite end of the spectrum.

Zibby: I saw that.

Lauren: That book, What Would Dolly Do?, I wrote when I was going through a divorce. I was really having a rough time in my life. I was like, I need some inspiration. She kind of came to me and was like, get yourself together. Just learning about her and her optimism and how she gives back and how she’s this huge literacy advocate — people have a certain idea of who Dolly Parton is. I think that’s changing now. They sort of look at the hair and the boobs. As a songwriter, she’s written five thousand songs, some of the Great American Songbook. She’s this wildly successful businesswoman. She was a trailblazer in country music and the music world. People don’t see that. They see the persona. She’s smart. She’s strong. She’s a writer. She stays optimistic through all sorts of trials and tribulations. She supports other people. I wrote about her from that perspective, inspiration. Then of course, the Bookish Broads. Right now, because of my job, my career, it’s impossible for me to write. Maybe when the children go off to college. Right now is not the moment. An idea, when the time is right, will come to me. I always find strong women that I admire. I’ll read an article. I’ll have an experience of some kind or even sometimes a dream. Then I’ll be like, oh, let me research this. It’s usually something that stimulates me that I go research. I’m like, wow, there’s a lot more to this story than I realized. Then the book comes from there. We’ll see. I don’t know.

Zibby: How old are your kids now?

Lauren: She is a sophomore. She’s fifteen. He is seventeen. He’s going off to college in the fall. I’m preparing for that.

Zibby: Aw.

Lauren: I know. It’s like a year of empty-nest syndrome before the empty nest even exists. It’ll just be the two of us. Then she’ll go off. We’ll see. Then I’ll have to write another book to keep myself company.

Zibby: I have twins who are fifteen. They’re at boarding school. My daughter texts me night and day all day long, I feel like more so than if she was in my house. Maybe you’ll get closer. You never know.

Lauren: I know when I travel, my son will text me and be like, “Could you order me Murray’s Bagels?” I’ll be in California or New Orleans or South Carolina or somewhere. I’ll be ordering Murray’s Bagels for him. Once a mother, always a mother.

Zibby: Exactly, I know. I’m like, what hockey jersey? Could you just do this? Could you order it?

Lauren: I’m also publishing Tough Titties by Laura Belgray.

Zibby: I just met her.

Lauren: I’m very excited about her book too. That’s coming out in June. Her husband calls it the loser Sex and the City. Again, it’s a strong woman who took this winding path to become her authentic self and to become successful, but that didn’t really happen until she turned fifty. I love that at any age, you can evolve. You continue to grow. You can become a writer in your fifties, in your sixties. I’d like to think I still have many more books in me. It’s just, as a woman, you can’t do everything all at once. You can do everything one thing at a time or two or three things at a time, as you know very well.

Zibby: Excellent advice. Lauren, thank you. It was so nice talking to you, nice learning more about these bookish broads and your journey to getting them on the page. I just adore the illustrations too. Your illustrator is Alexandra Kilburn. Amazing. Bookish Broads, so awesome. Thanks for the preview of upcoming titles and recent titles and all of that too.

Lauren: Great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Lauren: Bye.

Lauren Marino, BOOKISH BROADS: Women Who Wrote Themselves Into History

BOOKISH BROADS: Women Who Wrote Themselves Into History by Lauren Marino

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