Zibby is joined by Lee Kravetz to discuss his latest novel, The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. The two talk about how Lee’s experience working in a mental hospital inspired him to write a fictionalized version of Sylvia Plath’s story, what his experience was like working in publicity at Penguin, and why he decided to write this story from the perspective of three different women. Lee and Zibby also share why it is so magical to connect with authors whose work you loved reading and which writers they have befriended as a result of reaching out.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lee. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” We’re going to discuss The Last Confessions of Sylvia P., your latest novel.

Lee Kravetz: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: We were just chatting before we started filming about my color-coded bookcases, but I wanted to hear more about your experience working at Penguin and what that was like going in the book room. That is so cool.

Lee: The mystical, magical book room. I’m probably talking out of school here, but one of the best parts of — there’s a lot of great things about working in publishing. This is before I got into the writing side. I was working at the behind-the-scenes side. You get to work with amazing authors. You get to work with amazing people putting books together. It’s probably very well-known that you don’t get paid a heck of a lot of money when you’re in book publishing, certainly not at the beginning. The best part about it is you would go into the book room. The book room had shelves and shelves of books that were about to come out or books that had just come out. One of the benefits was you could go through and you could pick out all the books that you wanted. It was sort of like a kid in a candy store. It was incredible. Every time I move now — this has been, gosh, fifteen years — there’s thousands of dollars’ worth in book weight you have to move from place to place. It’s wonderful. I loved those times.

Zibby: So you’ve actually paid for the books a hundred times over by moving them.

Lee: That’s exactly right. The joke was on me.

Zibby: It’s a collaboration between the moving industry and the publishers.

Lee: You sell books any way that you can. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. I was just commenting because your shelves behind you are like the stuff of fiction. I don’t know anybody who has shelves like that in real life. They’re beautiful.

Zibby: Thank you. I have to say, they used to be very disorganized. By the way, since I started this podcast four years ago, now I have eight zillion books that I didn’t used to have. I used to have a lot of books, but not like this. This isn’t the only room that has books. During COVID, I came in here. I took all of them off. I had to touch every book. I put them down here. Then I spent a day reorganizing that. I haven’t touched it. That was over a year ago.

Lee: I can’t believe it just took you a day.

Zibby: Maybe two.

Lee: What you do, though, is that you do get all those books that come your way.

Zibby: Oh, it’s amazing.

Lee: It is.

Zibby: It’s amazing. I get to open packages every day. Talk about kid in a candy store. This is a dream gig.

Lee: I know. People are just sending you books all the time. It’s incredible.

Zibby: Then I don’t even know what to do with them. Actually, outside my office, I have a library cart full of the books that I’m not covering. Every so often, we donate them to Housing Works downtown. There must be a better system. I will talk about your book, but back up for a second now that we’re already chatting about all this stuff.

Lee: This is great.

Zibby: How did you end up in book publishing as a start, anyway? Did you always love books? Where did you grow up?

Lee: All that fun stuff.

Zibby: Just give me a quick sketch.

Lee: A quick sketch, it’s not a joke, I’ve always, always loved books. My dad got me into it when I was very, very little. I’d watch him read. We’d go to the library. He’d pick out these novels. He’d lay on his sofa and read. I’d just watch him read. I’d ask him what he was reading. It was just something I always knew that I wanted to do because I could connect with my dad in that way. My doctor’s a doctor, not literary. He’s very, very well-read. That’s just how we really connected. Cut to, years later, I’m offered a job. True story. I’m offered a job to be a producer at America’s Next Top Model. I was like, okay. I’m in New York. I was offered the job. The same day, I’m offered a job to work at Penguin to be — it was in the publicity department, bottom rung of the publicity department. I took it. I couldn’t wait. It was the job that I wanted to do.

Zibby: You have now endeared yourself to every non-model-ish woman, which is 99.9 percent of us out there, so thank you for that.

Lee: It made so much sense. I wanted to be a writer my whole life. I wanted to be around writers. Before that, I worked at PBS. I worked in children’s programming. I wrote on TV shows. My heart was always there. I was like, well, I could go into producing, but gosh, I really want to do book publishing so bad. I spent the next five years working in different publishing houses and working with some of the most amazing authors. You can’t even imagine the people that would walk through the office. It was incredible.

Zibby: Give me a couple sneak peeks like we’re in .

Lee: Some sneak peeks. George Saunders walked into my office one day looking for the men’s room. He’d walked in, said, “Hey.” He was looking for Riverhead. Then he was like, “Is there a men’s room around here also?” I was like, “Yeah, sure. It’s over to the left.” He says thanks and walks off. I’m like, that was George Saunders. Oh, my god. Even more than that, I remember taking the train Uptown where I used to live on the Upper West Side, and I ran into Philip Roth one night who was just walking down Broadway. I sort of secretly trailed him from 86th to 82nd Street. He had a new book coming out. I was like, I wonder if he’s going to do a reading at the Barnes & Noble that’s right over there. I secretly trailed him down the street, as one does.

Zibby: Yeah. Of course, he’s just wandering around the Upper West Side.

Lee: That’s what he’s doing. He wound up stopping at a newsstand and pulled up a Newsweek that had covered his new book. He was reading the review. I was like, that is such a Philip Roth moment. It was great. Then I walked off. If you’re looking for it, you’ll find literary greatness everywhere, but in New York especially.

Zibby: That’s the thing, though, about authors. I’ve been trying to figure out if this is a problem authors want solved or I just want solved myself. You can be in a room — I’ve gone to these New York Public Library amazing galas and all this stuff. I’m like, I know that there are people next to me, I’ve probably spent hours inside their heads reading their books, but I don’t recognize them right now because I just don’t. I don’t know what they all look like. I could tell you the spine of their books, but who they are… It’s crazy.

Lee: I have to say, there’s something really cool about that. I’ve worked in entertainment. Before I started doing this, I worked in the writing side of entertainment for TV and film. If you’re somebody who really appreciates that sort of world, getting close to anybody who’s doing that is very tough. One of the most wonderful things about authors, and I’ve known this since from the beginning, is that you can reach out to them and talk to them and still connect with them on a human level in a way that — there are celebrity authors, but you can still reach out to them. I have this little thing that I’ve always done. Every time I read a book I really love and there’s an author that I just fall in love with, like Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon or any of these sort of guys — twenty years ago, I started doing this. They used to have their emails on their website. A lot of them don’t anymore. At the time, they did. You could reach out to them. You could say, I loved your work. I loved your novel. I just fell in love with everything that you said. I love these characters. They would write you back. To this day, I still get those sort of emails back and forth. I have that little thrill that comes my way. You just reach out to people, and they write you back. That’s one of the great things about authors in general, is that they still really want to connect with their readers. It’s such a loving relationship between author and reader.

Zibby: It’s true. We are cut from the same cloth. I started doing that when I was ten years old. I would write. My mom helped me call a publishing house in Michigan to look up someone’s address. I would handwrite the letters. I ended up in this pen-pal relationship with an author whose name was Zibby Oneal. She was a middle-grade author. I was like, oh, my god, the only other Zibby in the world who’s an author. This is amazing. We would write back and forth. After a couple years, she was coming to New York. She came to my apartment and picked me up and took me for tea at The Plaza. I wore my fanciest outfit with shoulder pads because it was the eighties.

Lee: I just got chills. That’s awesome. What a great story.

Zibby: It was really amazing. We kept in touch for a long time. It made all the difference. It’s just so great. What I do, it’s the coolest thing ever, and I’m sure with you at Penguin. I remember reading Jill Santopolo’s novel a couple years ago, The Light We Lost. I was literally in bed sobbing. I don’t cry that often in books. I remember just sobbing. I was like, I don’t know her. I know I’m interviewing her to come, but I’m sobbing, I have to tell her. I DM’d her. She wrote me back. I was sitting there in my bed with the tears still on my face being like, this is amazing.

Lee: It’s wonderful. I did that with Joanna Rakoff, who wrote My Salinger Year.

Zibby: Actually, I was just on a Zoom with her right before.

Lee: Oh, you were? This is hysterical.

Zibby: She’s on my advisory board for Zibby Books. I have a publishing company now.

Lee: I know. I heard. You’re doing amazing stuff.

Zibby: She was just on the Zoom, which is why I brought it up.

Lee: It’s really funny because, same sort of thing. I read My Salinger Year. I had heard about it in galley form, so I got in galley form. I wrote her. Actually, I DM’d her also. She wrote me back. Not only are we doing events together, but actually, we’re hanging out in Boston and stuff like that. It’s that sort of relationship you have with people who are just — it’s something you can’t really even describe. It’s such a wonderful thing.

Zibby: It’s true. The books I read where I’m like, oh, my gosh, I would totally be friends with her, back in the before-podcast days, I would just and close the book and maybe write a note or a letter or something. That would be the end. Now these have become some of my best friends. It’s crazy.

Lee: Isn’t it amazing? Now you’re writing. You have two books now, right? Am I wrong?

Zibby: Look at you doing your research. That’s very nice of you. Thank you.

Lee: It’s very, very cool. You’re doing some really amazing stuff. It’s a small literary community that goes deep. Of course, I know what you do.

Zibby: Thank you. Okay, should we mention your book here?

Lee: I guess so. We could talk about it.

Zibby: We could bring it up. First of all, how did you come up with this idea? Tell listeners about — now I’m going to remember that we have people listening to our conversation — the basic premise of the book and how you decided to come at it from all these different angles.

Lee: The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. is the story of how Sylvia Plath came to write her famous novel, The Bell Jar, and the way that several people influenced her and the way she and her novel influenced them as well. The story cascades throughout history. It’s about thirty-five years that it encapsulates. When I wrote the book, I knew that Sylvia was going to be the center of the novel, but it wasn’t going to be specifically about Sylvia. It was really going to be about the people who influenced her, but more important, the people that she influenced as well and all the different ways that she influenced them in the way that art and literature is supposed to. That was really the impetus behind it. I came to this story originally — here I am. I’m glad we started talking about Penguin because I’m working at Penguin. I’m about to turn thirty. I’m getting, basically, a crash course in how to write because I’m surrounded by these amazing authors. Of course, I’m not publishing anything at this point. I’m trying. I had a heart-to-heart with my dad. He was like, “Lee, I know you really want this, but it’s just not panning out. It’s time to grow up.” I was like, “Dad, you’re right,” so I decided to go to grad school. I go to get a master’s in counseling psychology. I’m going to be a psychologist. There I am. I’m doing my thing. During one of my rotations in my postgraduate work, I’m actually working in a mental asylum, a mental hospital. It happens to be, just coincidentally, the same mental hospital than Ken Kesey worked at when he was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There’s something in the air. There’s something going on.

I’m walking in one day. There’s a kiosk with a bunch of paperback books for all the patients who are there to read because it’s kind of a boring place to be when you’re hospitalized. There’s The Bell Jar. It’s just there on the kiosk. I had read it before when I was really much younger. I loved it. When I was rereading it this time, something clicked. There was something about it as I was rereading it. I realized it’s not just the story. The Bell Jar is a thinly veiled memoir, even though it’s a novel, about Sylvia Plath’s time in McLean Hospital. As I’m reading it, I’m realizing, also, there’s a parallel story underneath it. It’s really also the story of the birth of confessional poetry. That just clicked. That just was like, there’s something there, this idea of confessional poetry starting not in a university town, not during a time of upheaval or political upheaval. It was a poetry movement born in a mental hospital. You got Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, all of them were diagnosed with bipolar or manic depression back then. They were all hospitalized. They all, during this very brief period of time in the mid-fifties and late fifties, all congregated in Boston, Massachusetts, and were writing confessional poetry. I was like, that is incredible. That was the story I wanted to tell. I really wanted to get into how this movement started in a hospital.

Zibby: It’s crazy, especially when you tell it from the point of view in the hospital, and even some of the treatments that were done at the time, which we wouldn’t really think about now, and the analysis of the patient. You had this one scene with the shock treatments. Let me see if I can find it. I turned it. Of course, now I’ll lose it now that I finally had it open and whatever. Anyway, it was really great.

Lee: Trust me.

Zibby: About when they were debating, should they still do it? If I can’t find it, I’ll just read you something else. I’m giving this one more second. I swear I had this open. Oh, you know why? Because I put the whole cover jacket on it, and that’s why I couldn’t see. I’m just reading you this one passage from the hospital. They’re describing the treatment. I’ll just start here. “Behind the bed is a number dial with a voltage symbol that lights. It is at this moment each session that Miss Plath appears most tormented, not with terror, but with shame. Her eyes close, and at the press of a red button, her back arches and her shoulders strain. The violence rages through her and mollifies into small, melodic spasms. Though she is out, her body continues to fight, to kick, to drum against the mattress. When the internal wave crests, her muscles ease. She remains still like this for another thirty minutes. As promised, I sit by her side and wait for her to wake. The clicking of the clock’s second hand mirrors her delicate pulse. Do I believe the treatment is effective and affords Miss Plath a semblance of inner stillness? I do, and yet it remains a shallow inner peace. Despite fleeting flashes of euphoria that follow each session, her depression deepens. She remains contemptuous, self-critical, and withdrawn.” What a scene. You can just see it, oh, my gosh.

Lee: If you read The Bell Jar, she talks a lot about the horror of getting electroconvulsive shock therapy. The thing about ECT is that it works. It does work. It does work, but it’s awful. It’s awful. There’s a character named Dr. Barnhouse, who is actually a real person. Dr. Ruth Barnhouse is Sylvia’s psychiatrist, her doctor. She realizes, both in real life but also in the novel, that these things aren’t working. They offer a very short window of inner peace. She sort of takes it upon herself to find new methods. A lot of them are unconventional. These methods are actually the very thing that draw Sylvia back into herself and teach her how to read and to write and to actually become the poet that we all know and love today.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Thank goodness for people who care about patient care in a real way. I actually also worked in a mental hospital. I wanted to be a psychologist. I worked in an adolescent inpatient unit. That was tough. I was twenty, so they didn’t care what I had to say. The hospital landscape, it’s all tough. People are there because this is their last hope. I’d want to fall into a bed of M&M’s or something. This is not the warm and fuzzy place you need when you’re feeling your most vulnerable and weak emotionally, I think, but whatever.

Lee: No, I think you’re absolutely right. That was one of the things that intrigued me. There’s this whole thing about psychology. When you think about psychology, you think about the negative side of psychology, but there’s actually a lot of positives too. Freud talks about sublimation. It’s a defense mechanism. The idea behind sublimation is you actually take all of the pain and angst and depression that you have and instead of denying it or burying it, you pour it into something wonderful. You pour it into art, is specifically what he talks about. That’s one of the things that really intrigued me about the idea of Dr. Barnhouse teaching Sylvia to pour all of her pain and anguish into her writing. She literally grabs a pencil and shows her how to write. When Sylvia, in real life, shows up at McLean Hospital, she can’t read or write anymore. She’s in that sort of state. I think through art, through writing, through literature, we can actually grow and thrive and become our better selves, sometimes even by showing the worst version of ourselves, which is what confessional poetry was all about. It was this idea that you talk about the grief and the ugly thoughts and the pain and anguish. You pour it into the page. Then all of a sudden, you have a poem like “Lady Lazarus.” It talks about her suicide attempts, but it changes the way that we view the world as well. We also find our own inner sense of empathy. It’s incredible.

Zibby: I love your classroom scene where the poems are first coming up and getting met with all of this, whoa, what is that? This is amazing. And the workshopping. When you think about it, now, that is what songwriting essentially is, is confessional poetry put to music. That’s really what a lot of the people today who are super famous, that’s what everyone’s doing. We’re all just trying to find our way into it.

Lee: You bring up a really great point. Think about the music of the 1950s. It’s got the Buddy Holly stuff. You got some of the blues stuff. Compare that to some of the confessional lyrics that we’re getting today. My young daughter, she’s almost ten. She’s listening to music that is all about heartache and grief. The reason that happened is because Sylvia Plath and her cohort started writing like this. It was so different than everything else that was coming out at that time. There was a huge amount of rejection from the general public. Even within the poetry world, in the literature world, you can’t write like this. You can’t talk about this sort of stuff. Yet they did. It really did change everything.

Zibby: Even how Prozac Nation and Girl, Interrupted — those were some of the leaders of even the confessional memoir. Even that wasn’t done that much before.

Lee: That’s exactly right. Those came out, I think, in the late nineties. Those changed everything too. Prozac Nation is incredible. Girl, Interrupted, I think about that opening scene all the time. It’s a beautiful, beautiful memoir.

Zibby: All thanks to Sylvia Plath.

Lee: Oh, Sylvia.

Zibby: Did you read Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz in your research and stuff?

Lee: I did. It’s in my collection over here somewhere. Yes, I did.

Zibby: Gail Crowther, maybe. I had her on my podcast.

Lee: It doesn’t sound wrong. It sounds right. You know what? Here’s the thing. When I go to the Ritz, I’m definitely having the martinis. That’s what I’m doing.

Zibby: Yes. I had invited her — I said in my podcast — this is whenever that came out. I was like, “Can I please come to the Ritz and have martinis?” Now we have to open up the — if I ever get back to Boston, please come. We’ll have a Ritz — but you’re not in Boston. Where are you? You’re on the West Coast?

Lee: I’m in San Francisco.

Zibby: Okay. Well, next time we’re all in Boston.

Lee: We should just meet up in Boston and do this. We should do the round table thing all over again. We should go to New York. We’ll just do the Algonquin Round Table.

Zibby: Great. Yes. Perfect.

Lee: Are you in LA, or are you in New York? Where are you?

Zibby: I’m in New York, but I go to LA a lot. My husband basically works out there, so I go back and forth a lot.

Lee: You’re bicoastal.

Zibby: I’m bicoastal. I’m divorced and remarried, so I have these weekends without the kids.

Lee: Oh, my god. I don’t want to say something uncouth, but it sounds like you’re doing really well. What a life, books around you, living bicoastal, having weekends off. Moms really don’t have time to read.

Zibby: I promise I work really hard.

Lee: I know you do. I’m kidding. I know you are. It’s incredible stuff. It’s good.

Zibby: I like, by the way, in your book, that you have the whole thing with a little mystery to it because that always really propels a plot when you’re trying to figure something out. How did these papers get into this house where they were discovered? How does the reader go along with it and figure it out? I found that also very captivating as I plodded along. Plod is the wrong word. As I went along.

Lee: No, I think plotted along. Plotted. This is the funny thing. Someone asked me one time, why are you writing from the perspective of three women? It’s a little bit of a touchy subject. I’ve thought about this a lot. Part of it came down to, how were these people affected by Sylvia? Who were they? I had Dr. Barnhouse, which made a lot of sense to me because she’s a psychiatrist who really truly helped Sylvia in her early days. Then you have this rival many years later, her literary rival who had to be so similar to Sylvia with just a little bit of a difference that the rivalry would be real. Those two were going to be women. The third, which takes place in modern times, which is the mystery you were talking about, I couldn’t crack that one. I couldn’t crack who that character was. I went through iteration after iteration. At one point, it was one of the aliterate brothers who discovers the manuscript in an attic. Then it was somebody who was going to steal the manuscript. It just changed. It kept on changing. It kept on changing. At some point, I realized that whoever this character was had to be sort of me in the novel because I was coming into this almost as a novice to Sylvia .

Zibby: These guys were not like you.

Lee: No. Those guys were very, very different. You do have this curator who knows enough and starts digging deeper and deeper and deeper. The more she starts digging into the history of this manuscript that shows up in front of her which may or may not be the real deal, all of a sudden, a mystery sort of opened up in front of me. I was like, that has to be the narrative drive throughout the entire book. Are these real? If so, how do they wind up where they wound up? What does it have to do with the modern-day curator? Also, this mystery has to lock in all three storylines. I just set myself up for a huge amount of work and trouble to figure it out. Then all of a sudden, it clicked. I was like, this mystery, the mystery has to drive the whole thing.

Zibby: It was very cool. I liked exactly how it worked. It was very cool. I learned a lot. The echo effects of that whole time period are so alive and well. Basically, thank you to Encanto, the movie, so that my almost-nine-year-old daughter has stopped singing things like this, like Taylor Swift and all the TikTok songs and whatever that’s derived directly from Sylvia Plath and this book, and is finally back to kid-appropriate language.

Lee: Yay for Encanto. It’s very funny. My daughter, she was like, “Encanto, everyone’s watching it. I’m not into it.” Now she’s watched it fifteen times. She’s like, “I’m still not into it, but I still got to watch it again.” She’s loving this too. It’s a thing.

Zibby: I’m like, she’s learning Spanish. This is great. Wait, what are you working on next? What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Lee: Oh, boy, that’s a mouthful. I am working on a new novel. I’m not going to go too much into it because I keep things pretty close to the chest or the vest or whatever the phrase is these days.

Zibby: The rugby Henley whatever.

Lee: That’s exactly it.

Zibby: Keeping it close to the Henley.

Lee: That’s what we should start calling it.

Zibby: That’s a good title.

Lee: Keeping it close to the Henley.

Zibby: You can write that one. I’ll give it to you.

Lee: Are you sure? Okay, but I’m giving you credit. You definitely .

Zibby: I’ll take a line, not even a line, in the acknowledgments somewhere. It’s fine.

Lee: I think that’s fair enough. That works. I think it’s a good compromise. It’s in the vein of historical fictional. It takes place in New York. If you could see my desk right now, it’s just an explosion of maps, narrative maps and things like that. As far as advice for up-and-coming writers, you know what I would actually say? I would say, treat it like a business. Treat it like a business. Treat it like work because it is. There’s the passion. There’s the art. I wake up every day. I take my kids to school. I come back home. I put my shoes on. I sit down, and I work every day. I work from 8:30 until 6:00 at night.

Zibby: You go barefoot to drop-off?

Lee: I go barefoot to drop-off, but at work, you’re always wearing shoes. That’s really it.

Zibby: You write from 8:30 to 6:00? Writing?

Lee: Every day.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Lee: Every day. I thought everybody did it that way. Apparently, they don’t because I get that sort of response from my friends too, like I’m nuts.

Zibby: You’re not nuts to work that long at your desk. It’s just, being in a manuscript and tapping into that creativity for that long, it’s a lot.

Lee: It’s a lot. I’m sure I’ve missed out on some major — apparently, there’s been a pandemic. I just lifted my head up. I was like, where is everybody? That’s really it. I would give that advice, which is to treat it like work. Learn the craft. I think that was the difference. My dad was right. He was like, “Lee, you got to start growing up and being serious about something.” At that point, I started realizing, you know what? It’s not just that you can love what you do, which is super, super important, but if you really think of it like learning the craft and sitting down and doing it every single day, you’re going to get somewhere. You’re going to start moving forward. I’d probably say that to my seven-year-old self, anyway.

Zibby: Thank you. Excellent. Lee, this was so much fun. Thank you for joining me today. I hope that we can meet up with Gail and have our martinis in Boston sometime.

Lee: That sounds amazing. Thanks for having me on. This has been super fun.

Zibby: Good. Have a great day.

Lee: You too. Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Lee: Buh-bye.



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