“I gave myself permission through the book to explore the questions I would’ve been terrified to ask in real life. I think that’s the gift of writing.” Zibby is joined by Lauren McBrayer to discuss her first adult novel, Like a House on Fire, which was already a Belletrist Book Club pick. The two also talk about how Lauren’s initial desire to write a memoir metamorphosed into her writing the story of her future which inspired her to leave her marriage and come out as a lesbian. Lauren also shares how the two main characters came to her fully formed exactly three years before the book’s pub date, the moment she knew she needed to make changes in her life in order to find happiness, and why she decided to make the shift from YA to adult fiction.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lauren. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Like a House on Fire: A Novel.

Lauren McBrayer: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I don’t think I’ve read another book lately where within just a few pages, I’m like, oh, I would be friends with that person writing this book. There’s a scene in the beginning where you have this job interview. The frazzled mom is like, I just need to get out of the house. Can you hire me so I can just get out of the house? I was like, that is perfect.

Lauren: The experience I’ve had talking to readers is women who are doing the juggling act, who have kids, who have careers or had them or are trying to figure out what to do. Maybe they’re going back to work. There is an affinity for the experience, but I find that there are plenty of readers who don’t have that experience of Merit, who sort of think she’s all over the place. She’s really selfish. Why does she have this internal monologue that she doesn’t communicate to her husband straightforwardly? I think moms who are in it, we recognize ourselves in her. At least, I hope. That was the intention.

Zibby: Are there people without internal monologues? Is that a thing?

Lauren: I think there are. I think there are people who don’t want to acknowledge ambivalence about parenting. We all love our kids. Maybe we don’t all love our kids. We hope that most of everyone loves their kids. I love my kids, but there are moments when it’s a real struggle for personhood and identity and sanity and mental quiet, all these things. I think that Merit is a woman who’s just, with us the reader, really honest about her experience. I think that there are women who relate to that and some who maybe don’t or find that challenging or off-putting or whatever.

Zibby: The other great part is that her prospective boss, and then her boss, finds it hilarious. That’s the other good thing. She’s hysterically laughing and texts her for drinks immediately. It could’ve gone the wrong way, I guess is what you’re saying. She could’ve been horrified.

Lauren: But no, she gets it. The thing that I’m trying to do in that first interview scene — setting up for people listening, Merit —

Zibby: — Yes, I’m sorry. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Lauren: Yes. I have been, lately, calling Like a House on Fire a midlife coming-of-age. It’s the story of a woman named Merit who’s in her late thirties when she we meet her. She’s the mother of two very young kids. She’s coming back to the workforce after taking several years off to both raise her two boys who are little and then also pursue a career in fine art, which is her passion, her creative joy that she set aside in her twenties to be an architect. When she had kids, she wanted to get back to doing a creative thing, so she leaves the workforce to paint and raise her kids. Neither of those things work out quite as she thought. She has a failed gallery show. She fails as a painter. She realizes that if she stays home with her two kids, who she does love very much, she might go insane. She decides to go back to work, in part for those reasons, but also because her marriage is struggling a bit with the financial pressures her staying home has caused. She thinks going back to work as an architect will reinvigorate both her own life and also her marriage.

The first chapter, she’s in the interview at this new job working for this incredible Danish architect named Jane who’s twenty years older and fabulous and has no kids and lives this, from Merit’s perspective, aspirational, liberated life. The two are an odd pairing. The novel is a story of their relationship and the intimacy that develops between women when there is no expectation, which is what I wanted to create, these two characters who, on paper, will not be close friends and certainly will not be friends outside of work and certainly won’t potentially fall in love. That first scene with Jane, Merit is bringing her tired-mom self. Her kids have been up all night. She says she feels like her eyes have been washed in bleach. What happens in that interview is, without really trying, Merit wins Jane over. There wasn’t a lot of effort. Merit’s not amazing in the interview. She doesn’t say anything particularly funny or witty or smart. Jane just gets her from the outset. They click the way some people do. That’s the beginning of their relationship that develops over time and involves wine and oysters and cake pops.

Zibby: Are you having an event or did you have an event already with all of those elements involved?

Lauren: Not the cake pops. I should have. That’s a great idea, Zibby. Could you have told me that before the launch party?

Zibby: That’s why I would’ve gone, is for the cake pops, is why I’m asking.

Lauren: In the novel, they’re laced with pot at one point. Maybe I should’ve done that. No, just kidding.

Zibby: Well, maybe two different sections of the party. How did this novel come to you? This is your first novel. Tell me about the whole thing. Did you always want to write? Where did this come from? Is this your first novel actually or just the first published novel?

Lauren: It is not my first novel actually and also not my first published novel, in truth. I published three young adult novels.

Zibby: I’m like, it says it’s her debut.

Lauren: They’re clever. They say adult debut. I wrote three young adult novels under my maiden name, the last of which came out in 2017. They were HarperTeen books. They were radically different than this novel. This felt really different voice-wise and tonally and content-wise. It is my adult debut. Also, it’s just so different that it felt like the right to do for the marketplace too. I didn’t want any twelve-year-old teen girls picking up this novel. Trigger warning, it’s for adults. I had written these three young adult novels. After my third, which came out in 2017, I knew I did not have another YA book in me. I felt, with clarity, whatever I had been doing or saying for the teen readers, there just wasn’t another story in me. There was a bit of a creative desert that happened after that. In part, it was, the book came out. In part, it was that I just had my third child. With every kid, it gets exponentially harder, as moms know. I was dealing with that and the depletion that came after that. I just wasn’t sure what I wanted to write.

I had this feeling that I wanted to write a memoir, but I didn’t have anything to write about. I wasn’t sure what the memoir would be. I wasn’t self-important to think people need to hear from me. It was this instinct to write something that was deeply personal. I was on a girls’ weekend with some women, one of whom was a close friend. The rest, I didn’t know very well. I fell asleep by the pool reading Conversations with Friends, actually, and woke up with these two characters, Merit and Jane, in my head. I could hear them speaking to each other clearly. Their names were different then, but they were so fully formed as characters. I saw what I thought was the arc of the novel. It was the same sort of setup. They meet, and the age difference. In my head initially, it was a one-night — they cross over and then realize the friendship’s too important. That’s what I thought I was writing. I just was like, this is interesting. This feels different. I started writing. It literally just poured out. It was very clear. I knew what I was doing. I didn’t need to plot it or outline it the way I had with my YA novels, which were heavily plotted. I knew everything that was going to happen ahead of time. This, just organically, these characters told me who they were and how they felt about each other and also that their relationship would not cross over for just one night. They were like, what do you think we’re doing here? We’ve come this far.

In the process, maybe six months in — it took me about a year to write this book. Six months into it, I could no longer ignore that there were deeply personal strands in my own life that had been completely in my subconscious. I’m not exaggerating to say I literally had no idea that there would be anything personal in my own life that would be motivated by this book. There came to a point where I realized, oh, I’m writing a memoir of the future. I’m writing something deeply personal that hasn’t actually happened. It’s not something that will happen. I guess it’s like an alternate history or my alternate history or something. It enlivened me. That’s the only word I can think of. I came alive in the process of writing this book, which was extraordinary, but in the wake of it, husband, some dramatic life changes similar to the ones Merit makes in the novel. It was birthed out of this desire to write a memoir. I thought, in the beginning, it was the biggest leap creatively I’d ever taken. I was like, I’m going to write about a woman who falls in love with a woman. I don’t know anything about that. By the end of it, I was like, oh, she’s me. Why didn’t anybody tell me that along the way?

Zibby: So does this mean you have fallen in love with a woman?

Lauren: I haven’t fallen in love with a woman, but I have left my marriage to a man of fifteen years and am dating women and living life as a queer person, which I never would have imagined. I came up with the idea for the book three years to the day before it came out. My pub date selected by Putnam was April 26th. April 26th, 2019, was when these women arrived in a thunderclap in my mind. In three years, I went from one version of myself to a radically different one, all motivated by a book. I gave myself permission through the book to explore the questions I would’ve been terrified to ask in real life. I think that’s the gift of writing. I encourage people to just write the story. Write it metaphorically. Write it completely fictionally. Just give yourself permission to let your imagination run wild. See where it takes you. Be prepared. It might take you somewhere you don’t expect.

Zibby: That is amazing. It’s like finding your voice through these women’s voices. Then you actually acted on — that’s so great. That’s amazing. I think it’s amazing.

Lauren: As another warning to people, there is infidelity in the novel. As you can imagine, people have strong feelings about infidelity. There was some publishers, actually — as my advice — do you have any advice to aspiring writers? I was like, don’t write about affairs. Harder to sell. The infidelity, for me, in this novel was a — it’s not a device. That sort of minimizes it. I needed Merit and Jane to, like I said, have no expectation. If you think that someone you meet, there’s a potential for a romantic future, all of your decisions are guided by that inkling, even if it’s just in the back of the head. The old When Harry Met Sally concept of men and women can’t be friends, if it had been a male boss and female employee, you’re always thinking, is there something between them? I need Merit to be married. I needed Jane to be married at the outset. I needed Merit to never have considered that she could fall for a woman or, certainly, be attracted to one. It became the constraints of the novel to allow me to give these women that complete lack of expectation that they would end up together. I mention that just because it’s funny that there is infidelity at the center of the novel, but it’s not really a novel about an affair. At least, that wasn’t how I was constructing it, if that makes sense.

Zibby: I feel like there are so many books with infidelity. Is it because it’s written by a woman? Is it because the infidelity is with a woman? I feel like that’s such a common thing in movies, in books. That’s just one of those devices.

Lauren: Esther Perel says estimates could be in the eighty percents, of people who have an affair. It’s a very active part of the human experience. Yeah, there are tons of stories with affairs. There are publishers, understandably, or editors in particular, that are really reticent. Actually, at Putnam, the first editor we submitted to was like, “This is an amazing story. I don’t publish infidelity. Here’s a colleague who I think will like it.” Little tip for writers.

Zibby: Interesting. Very interesting. Wow. How do you feel? You have a whole new life. You’re an adult novelist. You’re dating. You’re not the mom at home wondering what to do. Now what? How do you feel? Are you excited? Are you scared? Are you happy?

Lauren: All of the above. D, all of the above. It’s a terrifying but exhilarating experience. Like Merit, I didn’t feel like I had any reason to be unhappy five years ago, three years ago. I had three healthy, wonderful kids. I had a kind and decent, hard-working husband. I had friends, community, a life, a job, all these things. I was really asleep at the wheel. I couldn’t look inside because I didn’t want to figure out why I was so unhappy. I’m predisposed to happiness. I’m not a melancholy person. I’m sort of like, all it’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s great. Speaking of internal monologue, a turning point for me was in early 2017. Actually, maybe early 2018. I went to a family fun night at my kids’ school. My older two were involved in the, I’ll call them festivities. It’s madness. It’s one of those color wars. They have the chalk. We all care about toxic things. Surely, this can’t be good for their lungs. It’s artificial colors sprayed all over them. They’re screaming. There’s loud music. It’s hot because it’s summer in LA or May in LA. I had my youngest in a stroller. I’m pushing him around. I realized — I don’t know if other moms feel this way who work. I have never felt completely at home with the moms who stay home full time because they have time to network and chitchat and spend time together, so they have a close-knit group. Then there are the really busy, high-powered career moms who work all the time and have a support system for them. I was this flexible-schedule creative, but I also had a day job. I just never felt like I had school moms who were close friends.

Anyway, I’m pushing the stroller around at this event. Everyone’s talking. People seem happy, laughing. I realized all of a sudden that I had no thoughts in my head. I was like, who am I? Where did I go? I’m not thinking anything. I’m just pushing this stroller and looking at these screaming children. It kind of woke me up. The realization, I was like, this isn’t me. I’m not this person pushing a stroller with no thoughts who’s just shuffling around in bad jeans. Where did I go? I think a lot of moms have that moment of, this has been great. I love being a mom. I love being wrapped up in my kids’ lives. Then at some point, I’ve gone too far. I’ve lost myself in these roles. I think particularly if we’re a wife and a mom and we have a job and we have a creative pursuit and we try to be a good friend and we show up for people, we’re involved in charities, we’re so involved and we’re playing so many roles that the me-ness of me got cut off. For me in that moment, it was like, who am I? I need to get myself back. I think that was the beginning for me to really start to ask questions. I think that’s why I wanted to write a memoir. I need something that’s deeply mine. I need to feel like I have something to say. Life now, it’s, in a lot of ways, the same. I’m still the same mom. My parents have had a more difficult time with the transition. I’m like, I’m not going to suddenly present as a different person. I’m still the same me. Things feel different but, in a lot of ways, the same. Doing the same stuff, working the job, writing the books, raising the kids, being a friend.

Zibby: What is your day job aside from this?

Lauren: I work in the TV business. I do what we call business affairs. I was a lawyer. I went to law school and did legal for film and TV for many years and then crossed over to the business side. I negotiate. I basically buy books for TV shows and negotiate the deals for writers and directors and actors, so business side of TV and then creative side of publishing.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Maybe I’ll send you my memoir. You can see what you think.

Lauren: Oh, my gosh, I’d love it. I would love it. I’ve been anxiously awaiting, to be clear.

Zibby: There are a lot of thematic similarities in our stories of life, which went into literature. You said, I didn’t want people to think I was important enough. I felt like I needed to write the memoir, too, not because I was important in any way. I wasn’t, but just that there was something about the story I had to get out and that you feel like people will relate to and all of that. Also, I’m forty-five now, but I made all these big life changes just before forty. I always wonder. It’s like the sliding doors of my own life. What if I had stayed on that path? I’m on a radically different path. I certainly wouldn’t be here doing a podcast talking to you. There were so many experiences and people I’ve met. Then it just makes me think, all the people listening who can be inspired by a book like yours, Like A House on Fire, and the stories of people who — there’s so many people, like you say, who are sleepwalking and feel trapped or just, woe is me. Okay, everything’s fine, but is it? We only get this one chance.

Lauren: I so appreciate that about you. I can relate to this too. When I see it, I’m like, oh, I get that, the, I came up with an idea today. I saw you’re going to bring back “Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight.” It’s like, I came up with an idea today. There is no time like the present to do this thing. I can be like, that would be cool if I brought that podcast back. Maybe I’ll do that next year when I’m less busy. You’re never less busy. Zibby Owens is never less busy. The moment is now. This is my life I have. I have to seize the moment. I think for women — it was definitely true for me. Forty was the thing. Forty was the year I told my husband I wanted a divorce. Forty was the year I moved out. All these things happen to women at this point in life because it’s this reawakening for so many of us after we’ve done all the things that society tells us we’re supposed to do. We got married. We earned money or did something to contribute to a family. Then we had children. Now we’re set. We’re going to ride that out for the rest of our lives. For some people, that’s perfectly satisfying. The rest of us are like, oh, wait, I’m happy I did those things, but there’s so much more I need to do. For a lot of people, they can do it in the context of the existing marriage, the existing life. For me, I needed to make these changes. I needed to make these changes. Everyone in my family is more alive now. We were all a little bit — even the kids, the subtle deadness of a mom with no internal monologue — people worry a lot about my kids, but my kids are doing great.

Zibby: When I told some people that I was first getting divorced or whatever, they were like, but your kids. My kids are amazing right now. My kids are great. They’re better than ever. Who knows? They’re having a happy mother, happy, fulfilled, excited. I wake up excited every day. I can barely even sleep. That’s not lost on kids. The potential, also, that you can just do whatever — I don’t mean it like that. That came out wrong.

Lauren: We’re liberated. There’s a freedom there, and not a freedom to behave badly or make bad choices or hurt people, but that you’re not stuck in life.

Zibby: Even just the creative side of it, even just, look, you can write a novel. Look what I just did. I just wrote this thing. Now it’s out in the world. You guys can do this too. If I could do it, you can do it. It’s a powerful message.

Lauren: The people who are responding really well to my novel and the people who will respond to Bookends — this idea of, you’re not trying to be aspirational in a prescriptive way. What you should do if you’re unhappy in your marriage is fall in love with a woman and leave. No. You’re like, here’s my unique story. It’s not a memoir, but here’s this slice of a character and her journey. The thing you connect to is desire. I don’t necessarily even mean romantic desire. Here’s a woman who decided what it was that she wanted. It wasn’t what people told her what she wanted, what she should do. It’s the not societal roles prescribed to her. Oh, this is a thing I want, whether it’s a new career, it’s a person, it’s to go live in Paris, whatever it is. There’s something that connects of seeing a person identify what it is they want and who it is they really want to be. Like you said, happiness is contagious, or contentment anyway.

Zibby: I also think people respond a lot more to hearing a story, whether it’s a novel or a memoir or just sitting there telling your story. That inspires more change, I think sometimes, than, let me give you the six steps to making your life better. People are too smart for that. That is good too because people need to know the path to achieving things. Not to rain on the parade of those prescriptive-type things. I do think there is something from the dawn of time where storytelling is the thing that connects us all, in a way, and really hits home. That sounds so obvious and stupid, but anyway.

Lauren: No, but it doesn’t. I think that the grayness of stories, that things can’t be black and white in a story — it’s not as simple as, do X, Y, and Z, and all these amazing things will happen. There’s a line in the novel where Jane says to Merit, “There’s beauty and loss in every direction.” I think that that’s true in life when we make decisions. You have to accept the loss with the beauty. What stories do for us is they allow us to really sit in the nuance of — there’s no right or wrong, at least in my perspective, of what Merit should do. It’s just what she did. It’s just who she is. Sometimes we become the worst of ourselves in order to eventually be the best. I believe that about people. At one event, a reader raised her hand and said, “I love this book. I loved who Merit was when she was with Jane, but when she was home with her kids and with her husband, I just really didn’t like her.” I was like, “Great. Glad you had an emotional reaction. Also, Merit didn’t really like herself.” That’s sort of the point. She didn’t want to be the whiney nag shuffling dishes and snapping at her kids and rewarding them with TV when they haven’t earned it just to make them be quiet. That’s real life. At least, it is in my house. We’re not always exemplars. We’re human. I think there’s something beautiful in that.

Zibby: Totally. I know we’re almost out of time. I feel like I want to sit and have coffee with you or whatever, so maybe we’ll have to continue this offline at some point. Are you working on another novel or project? Then what’s your advice for aspiring authors?

Lauren: I am working on a new project now. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done because, unlike Like a House on Fire, this one is dancing in front of me sort of elusively as I’m trying to grasp it and be like, wait, what is it? What is it? I’m trying to let this story idea just reveal itself. I’m having to be very patient. It’s the story of a woman who, like Merit but different, her whole world falls apart. For this character, it was not of her own doing. She’s left to figure out her own personal history and who she wants to be. The key for this book I’m working on is the backdrop of California and using colonialism and how religion impacted the history of California and indigenous people and how that’s a metaphor and a parallel to the patriarchy. Women’s bodies are colonized by male-dominated society just like California was colonized by male-dominated religious society, and the parallels between those things. I want to look at the ways in which we assimilate as women and as conquered people and what that does to culture. That’s the book. It’s a monster, but I’m working on it.

My advice to aspiring writers would be, believe in the story. I’ve never actually given this advice, but it just came to me now. Believe that the story is worthy and exists outside of you and that you’re not responsible to figure out what it is. You’re just responsible to tell it the best that you can. The problem with that is I get in my own head. I’m trying to muscle it. How can I figure out? I got to figure out. Every time, every experience of writing anything, whether a short essay or a novel, it reveals itself. If you sit there and you’re patient and you’re a student of the idea and you ask it questions, it’ll reveal itself. It’s not really up to you. Your job is to just, butt in chair, write as many words as you can. Then come back the next day and do it again. Just trust that the story will live whether you figure it out or not. It’ll figure itself out.

Zibby: I love that. As my husband says, it’ll all unfold organically.

Lauren: Exactly. You’re like, great, honey.

Zibby: Everything as it should. Lauren, this has been so fun. I’m so glad to have stumbled on you and your book. Well, not stumbled. You know what I mean. Connected with both the book and the person. Thank you. This has been really interesting.

Lauren: Thank you for having me. It’s been great.

Zibby: My pleasure. Bye.


LIKE A HOUSE ON FIRE by Lauren McBrayer

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