Lee Woodruff, IN AN INSTANT

Lee Woodruff, IN AN INSTANT

In 2006, Lee Woodruff’s husband Bob Woodruff —a prominent ABC news anchor at the time— was severely injured while reporting on the war in Iraq. Immediately, life changed for their family and Lee began to document everything, partially as a recounting of events for Bob if he survived and partially as a history for their four children if he didn’t. Lee talks with Zibby about what life was like while writing her 2007 book, In An Instant, and what life has been like for her, Bob, and their family in the years since its publication.


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

Lee Woodruff: I am so happy to be here. First and foremost, I fell in love with you over your name before I ever listened to the podcast. I’m honored.

Zibby: Great. I will thank my parents for that. Excellent. I reached out to you because I read your first book when it first came out. When was that? 2007 or something?

Lee: Very good, yes, In An Instant.

Zibby: It was forever ago, but I’ve sort of kept tabs on you this whole time as subsequent books come out. I feel like you’ve written forwards for other books. I feel like I see you everywhere. You’ve just been taking up a little space in my brain. When I saw you were doing an event with someone I knew, I was like, oh, let’s try this.

Lee: Awesome. Listen, we’ll talk about that, maybe, because you’re supposed to be interviewing me, but so impressed with the way you’ve just taken books on and made them — they’ve always been cool, but this mantel is passing to your generation of, keep reading, which is amazing.

Zibby: Thank you. I love reading. It’s just sort of evolved this way.

Lee: Wait, before I forget, congrats on selling the memoir. Big deal. Very excited. Let me know how I can help.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s really nice. Yes, I’m hard at work on that. I’ve written forty thousand words, first draft. It’s due in September, so I have to kind of crank it out. It’s really fun. I’m learning a lot.

Lee: Good for you. Congratulations.

Zibby: Thanks. For people who don’t know your story, tell everybody what happened. Tell everybody about Bob and what happened with him and how you decided to write a book and your foundation and just the whole story, if you don’t mind.

Lee: I am happy to do that. My husband is a correspondent for ABC News. Fifteen years ago, he was — I started marrying a lawyer. It’s a long story, but it’s all in the book. We got married and moved to China. Tiananmen Square happened. Bob spoke Mandarin, so he was out translating and got the journalism bug. He was like, “This is what I want to do.” He was not a great lawyer because he’s the most disorganized person in the world. That began a series of moving. When you’re a reporter and you want to move to the next level, you move all over the place. Ultimately, in 2006, Bob was named the anchor, with Elizabeth Vargas, of World News. We moved back from London. He’d been doing the weekend anchoring. This thing that he’d worked for all of his life, and myself as well, came true. Six weeks later, he was in Iraq for the nineth time. He’d been embedded for the war and everything else. A bomb went off like it does almost every day. He really should be dead. He took shrapnel to the face. His skull was blasted open. Luckily, thanks to the incredible work of the military and the medics, he was airlifted out of there in the middle of a war zone. They got his skull off within an hour to save his life. So began my journey into the world that so many soldiers and airmen and marines and their spouses, of course, have lived in. Sitting in a hospital in Bethesda Naval, Bob was in a coma for five weeks. Everybody was pretty much telling me he will probably never work again. He may not speak. No one really knows.

Fast-forward to this miracle guy who is back reporting today doing all kinds of things. Would he tell you he’s the same person? No. He struggles for words sometimes and literally has a plastic skull on his head. He’s a miraculous person. Now, what do we do as moms and spouses when the bad thing happens? Somebody like you and I probably pick a pen. My only thing that I could control during this whole thing, because I couldn’t unwind the tape, was to just pick up a pen and start writing. That was the only control I had in my day, that journal. Fast-forward to Bob starting to get better and coming home. Then people who knew that I was a writer said, “Would you ever want to write a book?” I was like, “I have this eight-hundred-page thing.” I was never going to write a memoir. I always wanted to write fiction when I finally got to a period where I thought kids would be old enough and I could write. It was Bob’s doctor who said, “All of these young men and women are coming through this hospital with these kinds of injuries, and nobody out there in America knows that is happening.” That was back in 2006. “So you need to write a book about that.” That’s what In An Instant became.

Zibby: Wow. That’s no pressure or anything, to tell that story on behalf of all those families, oh, my gosh. What was it like when you first found out? Can you go back there and talk about it for a sec? What was that moment like when you heard? What was it like going to the hospital? What was it like?

Lee: It was very surreal because I got the news in Disney World. I was down there with my kids shooting a TV pilot. I thought it was the wake-up call. It was right exactly at seven o’clock when I had set up a wake-up call. That was super disorienting. I basically got the call that said, “He’s been injured. He’s going into surgery. We don’t know if he’s going to make it. You need to tell your family as fast as you can. We’ve all been holding this news internationally because we want to respect the families.” I just flipped into what I call in the book, general mode. I just went into, okay, I’ve got four little chickies. How do I show them that this — I can’t fall apart. You know that as a mom. You’ve got all your little ducks behind you. They’re watching you. Literally, I was just saying this the other day to somebody. I physically felt my heart break. Everything that I’ve read about you — I listen to you and how much you love your husband and your family. Bob is my best friend. I literally just felt it crack. Then I just thought, okay, girl, pull this together. You got to get them home. You’ve got to get over to Germany and see what’s left of him. You’ve got to figure this out.

Zibby: Then what happened?

Lee: We are resilient, we people, we women especially, Zibby. We get it done. We’ll get it done. We’ll fall apart later, but we’ll get it done.

Zibby: In the moment, sometimes there’s not really a choice. What are you going to do, just lay in your bed in Disney World?

Lee: That was my favorite line. People were always like, I don’t know how you did that. I couldn’t have done it. I’m like, Valium and Jack Daniel’s sounded pretty damn good some days, but that’s not going to get me anywhere. I’ll just be an addict on the couch. Then I won’t be winning any motherhood award on that one, for sure.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I have a new thing called Moms Don’t Have Time to Grieve, which is a support group and a column in this magazine that we’ve started. Not magazine. I don’t even know what to call it. Medium publication. There are so many moms who are going through grief of some kind. I know it’s not grief specifically, but it’s also for people who are going through an illness or of a spouse or a loved one. It’s that suspension of time when the regular world keeps spinning forward and you’re like, no, no, I’m in this alternative universe of doctors and hospitals and whatever. Time is now divided into different chunks. My life is totally different. How do you deal with that when you have kids? There is this, you don’t have a choice. You have to just get up and go. I know, obviously, your kids are older now. What about those moms?

Lee: The ones who just don’t have time to grieve?

Zibby: Just what do we do as moms? Obviously, there’s no choice. You have to function. You have to take care of them. You have to get food on the table or whatever. Having lived through this, is there any advice you have for moms who are going through all of these emotions while also trying to raise their kids and have them not be —

Lee: — The really important question is — I think sometimes we try to protect our kids too much. I think our children need to understand there’s some fine balance, and we all have to find it as moms, between being real with your children and showing them that you are sad, but not blowing sunshine around so that when they do hit their own hard part of the road — we all will; we will all lose parents; we will all struggle somewhere — that they understand that you can be low and then come back up again. I remember my daughter who’s now twenty-eight was just so close to her dad and so worried, so anxious. She would say to me, “Is Dad going to be okay? Is he going to be the same?” I said, “Honey, if I told you an answer on that, I would be lying. I don’t ever want to lie to you because I want you to always believe what I have to say. I don’t know the answer, but I believe in my heart that your dad will be okay.” I think I said something like, “I believe that God will make Dad okay.” Let’s put it on a higher power. Let’s spray it out there wherever we can. That sort of worked. I wanted her to know that I would always tell her the truth but that I always left a door open for hope. I think as moms, we need to find a way to do that. My grief just leaked out. I was great at crying in the car, great at crying in the shower, unexpectedly crying in a Verizon commercial, some of that crazy stuff. The amount of truth I told the kids about what I thought the future would look like or how I felt that day sort of depended on their ages. We have a team A and a team B. There’s six years difference between my daughter and the twins who are now twenty-one. They were five at the time, which is amazing. They were sort of like, “Daddy has a boo-boo” kind of level. Then the other two who were watching the story on CNN before I could tell them what happened, which is pretty horrible, had a much greater understanding.

Zibby: I have the same thing, by the way. I have twins. I have a six-year gap, but my twins are older.

Lee: No way!

Zibby: Yeah, I have two sets, the littles and the .

Lee: How old is your oldest?

Zibby: My twins are, they’ll be fourteen in a couple weeks. My littles are seven and a half, almost eight, and six. The next one, they’re seventeen months apart. We have the same .

Lee: I look at your life, I’m like, how is she doing all of this? I can relate because people used to say that to me. They’d be like, how are you doing all this? If you want to get something done, give it to a busy mom, right?

Zibby: Exactly. Also, I’ve stopped doing lots of other things. I’m getting help from so many people on so many things, friends and family and my nanny. I’m getting lots of help. I have a team helping with work. I’m not doing everything.

Lee: Still, you have to think about all this. It’s your voice. It’s your concept. It’s a lot. I’m proud of you.

Zibby: Thank you. I work around the clock, but I don’t feel like it’s work. It’s so much fun.

Lee: Exactly. You love it.

Zibby: I have to remind myself to stop. I have to force myself to stop.

Lee: How great is that, though?

Zibby: I know.

Lee: Here’s something you said. I’m going to make it about you for a second. In your blog, you talked about when you heard that your book was in the window at Barnes & Noble. The first thing that you said is, “I grabbed a kid.” I heard that. The hardest things we moms do is figure out, how do we keep our fire lit inside of us and keep something that sustains us? It sure as hell isn’t motherhood. It’s going to be a long time before they have their own children and come back and thank us like I did to my mom. You figured out how to sustain it and then keep the rail of the mommy thing going too. That’s the biggest trick, I think, in this life for women.

Zibby: I don’t know that I would’ve been able to do it or have the perspective if I hadn’t gotten divorced and remarried and have that time. I also don’t want to set it up that I am this superwoman. I do have time to breathe every other week. I credit that with everything. I remember who I am. I sleep. I need that.

Lee: I love that you said that because none of us are superwomen. There’s so much pressure on us to pretend that we are. You’re getting it done. How about that?

Zibby: Thank you. You’re an inspiration. So you’re writing to feel better for yourself. You decide to turn it into a book. Tell me about how happened then and then the subsequent books and how it felt to have the story really public, how to be a writer, how to be a best-selling writer. Tell me about that whole part, and still with the trauma sort of lurking overhead.

Lee: Probably like you, I just felt compelled to write. I also was writing for Bob. If he did wake up, he would want to know what happened, as a reporter. Life in a hospital moves so fast. I was also writing for the kids because I thought if he doesn’t make it — I was actually writing our life story. The book is really a love story, in a way. It’s a story of a family. It goes back and forth in time from us meeting and our life leading up to the event, leading up to his injury. There are a lot of fun moments in it. They’re all the stories of our life. In fact, I found the original manuscript the other day. So much is cut out of it, as you will find out. I thought that was a turtle.

Zibby: Oh, sorry, it’s my dog.

Lee: I love that. Hi, baby. We realized it needed Bob’s voice. When he woke up, he couldn’t really write, but he had written all these things leading up to it like when he was embedded. Then eventually, he was able to dictate to me for his chapters. The story just poured out of me of everything. There was a little bit of bidding war, I guess. When I worked with Random House, Susan Mercandetti was my editor. She just was able to cut away and keep it close to the story. Interestingly enough, I remember people were kind of pissed at the time. They never said it outwardly to me. It was sort of like, well, I wasn’t in the book. I was just a sentence or a mention. It’s been really fun to go back and look at the original document and see that everybody was in there. You have to make choices, obviously, as an editor. The book stuck to us, pretty much, and the story of recovery and injury. Everything that was left on the cutting room floor were a lot of fun things. That became the next book. Then they came and said, “What would you like to write next?” That was a book of essays, some are funny, some are more serious, just about life, about being a mother, about being a wife, a sister, a girlfriend. A lot of that was extracted from the parts that had to get cut from this eight-hundred-page whatever it was, vomitorium of words and stories. That was fun too. That was a happier book.

It was interesting because people will say, I feel like I know everything about you. You know this, but I would think to myself, no, you don’t. There is so much that I didn’t say, couldn’t say, wouldn’t want to say. You never want to injure a family member in a book. It’s a fifteen-minutes-of-fame moment when you publish the book, but it’s a lifetime of someone’s hurt feelings. I feel like I did an okay job. Anytime I would put anyone in the book, I would send it to them and make sure that this represented them. Fast-forward, Dan Harris is an ABC reporter. He wrote the book 10% Happier. Funniest story ever, Bob and I introduced Dan and his wife to each other. We were out to dinner once. Dan was like, “I’m thinking about writing this book.” It was about getting addicted to drugs and stuff. We were like, “Really bad idea. Don’t do that for your brand and your image.” Of course, the book’s a giant best seller. Dan’s hatched this whole meditation business. He was writing about us in his book and how we introduced him. He was like, “Can I say this about you?” He said something like, “She’s a great ribald woman.” I’m like, “Let’s talk about that adjective. I need to select my own adjective.” Definitely, give people the choice to pick their description or at least look at what you’re going to say about them if you’re writing memoir.

Zibby: That’s a good tip. I’ll store that away. I’m trying not to write about that many people. I just wrote one section. I was like, I should probably send this to this person because they’re probably not even expecting to be in this book.

Lee: Definitely, send it. Give them some controls. Then you ultimately have the controls. I think people just want to feel like they had a voice somewhere in there.

Zibby: It’s true, very true. Tell me a little more about what you’re doing now and how all of that led to today. What happened in between?

Lee: A lot happened. Before Bob got injured, I was starting to do some TV stuff. I’d always been a writer, but mostly magazine articles and other stuff. I’d been in marketing, communications all my life. Our book came out. It was one of those — everybody wanted to know what had happened to Bob. We had gone black. Honestly, that’s one of my proud moments as a mom because I could see early on, a lot of messed-up people in TV. There’s just a lot of ego and everything else. We chose to live out of the city. We didn’t do the whole social thing. I didn’t want my children to feel like they were any different just because their dad was on TV. I think it was shocking to all of us when this happened and he got injured, just the attention. I was not prepared for that. I know that sounds really stupid and naïve, but that was not my husband. That was a different sort of person. We just completely laid low. We laid low because he was still putting his words back together. He was still learning how to talk again. It was a very slow and scary process. He was missing a skull for three months. I could never touch his head, but if I did, I would’ve, I guess, felt his brain under his skin until that was ready to — gross — happen. When the book came out, I think there was a lot of curiosity about Bob because we had kept him hidden. We had so many funny moments, Zibby. He ended up in a New York rehab hospital. We had to give him a fake name. We called him John Steel, like man of steel. You can’t kill this guy. Blow him up, give him a fake head. The doctors would be like, “Okay, John Steel.” Bob would just be sitting there, no recognition that that’s his name. Many, many funny moments, which somehow mostly ended up in the book.

The book came out. It went right to number one, I think because people wanted to know what happened. These were the days — it started with the Oprah appearance. That really launched a speaking career for me and, of course, for Bob. So a couple more books. I unhinged from some of my marketing clients, moved into this career of that, became a contributor on ABC, and then when Gayle King started at CBS, got hired to be a contributor there. Then the babies went off to college. I thought, what do I want to do now? I’ve been writing other stuff. My novels haven’t quite worked. I have never leaned completely into it. I will do that someday. I’m sort of having fun with work, so I keep working on stuff in the background and writing other people’s forwards. I reignited something that I had done earlier on in my career, which was communications consulting, media training for all different clients because everything is external communications today. Podcasts and webinars, we’re all showing up in this way. There are tips and tricks to just be better at it, to be more concise, to answer difficult questions, to answer the question that you want. I have been having so much fun with a lot of different clients from philanthropy to business, to finance, to education, to tech. I’m loving it right now. I feel like I’m the old lady in the kids’ — I work with all these young people. They are keeping me hip on what’s happening. It’s really fun.

Zibby: Wait, what should I know? I never took a marketing course on how to be —

Lee: — You are just doing fabulous.

Zibby: No, no, I mean — .

Lee: No, you’re great. Some of it is just body language. None of us have torsos and legs today, so there’s a different way to show up on the Zoom screen. We need to be more animated. We need more emotion, more engagement. If I were doing a confrontational interview right now, if you were a politician who’d gotten in trouble, you don’t know what question I’m about to ask you. I’m just about to tell you I have a tape of you nude with someone else’s husband. You’ve been going like this because this is what we do when we tell people that we’re listening. You are just playing right in as I’m talking. I’m setting it up. You’re nodding. So just some of those little things we don’t think about with body language and words. Most people overtalk.

Zibby: Now I have to stop nodding.

Lee: You’re doing just great.

Zibby: Most people overtalk?

Lee: Yes. We just keep talking and talking because we haven’t prepared the beautiful piece that we should’ve said. The front comes at the end. If we think about our messaging or you’re doing your book tour and you’re getting ready to do that, I will give you a free session.

Zibby: Amazing.

Lee: How about that?

Zibby: That sounds great.

Lee: That’s my gift to you.

Zibby: Thank you. Yes, I will absolutely redeem that. I was asking to benefit everybody listening in case there were tips and tricks, but yes, I’ll take it for me.

Lee: There are a lot of tips and tricks, but they’re so particular to the person, so many of them.

Zibby: Hard to generalize. Do you still write in a personal journal, diary type of way for yourself? Do you still turn to that, or not really?

Lee: I don’t. That was, I think, my compulsion to make some sense of the thing that made no sense. I had journaled through life. I go in bursts. If I could not sleep, I would be further along in the writing that I want to do. I have a novel started. I have a part two to In An Instant because everybody always asks, what’s the after part like? The book really ends with Bob coming home from the hospital and still putting it back together. I am really trying to be thoughtful about how you write about the after part because it’s so not perfect. It’s so filled with warts. Yet it’s very human. We all struggle in relationships about various things. Nobody’s perfect. I think COVID has laid a lot of that bare for a lot of people. We see behind the curtain. I just need to figure out, how do you write about that in way that could give so many people who find themselves in the after part of something some hope but also some realism and do it in a way that preserves everybody’s dignity? That’s big ask.

Zibby: Have you read Love You Hard by Abby Maslin?

Lee: Love her. She’s one of my buds.

Zibby: Oh, good. Great.

Lee: I actually, in taking notes to think about this book, went back to Abby’s book, circled all the stuff that at the time I was like, yes, yes, yes, I felt this, this is so true, and then sent her an email. I was like, “God, Abby, let’s talk.” There’s just this expectation when someone has an injury, and it’s an internal injury, there’s an expectation that everyone says to you, oh, you look so good. You’re thinking, okay, that just muted my ability to tell you if I’m having a hard day or if I’m sad or if I’m missing something. It’s a beautiful book. Anybody who’s ever experienced any kind of loss, she’s a really good writer.

Zibby: She is very good. I was going to connect you, but now I don’t have to. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Lee: Oh, gosh, I think there’s never been a better time to be a writer. There’s so many wonderful outlets for your work. The old funnel system, which was really hard to get your agent and do all of that — just keep writing. I think the hardest part about being a writer and finishing a book is, who are your first readers? Who are the people you turn to that can give you honest feedback? The hard part about that is if you turn to six different people, you will get six different answers. Somewhere in there, you need to find the one North Star that you believe in, but you also need to decide what it is that is important to you. Ultimately, you have to override. My last book, which is called Those We Love Most, is a novel. It started with phone call I got. I was in Kansas City, of all places, doing a speech. I’ll never forget. I can still see the hotel room. A girlfriend called me. She said, “Lee, oh, my gosh, in my town, this old man just –” Sorry, it wasn’t an old man. That was my town. She was one town over.

A young kid had been in a car early in the morning, was not drinking, but there were empty beer cans in his car. A little boy rolled off the sidewalk with his bike and was killed. She wanted to see if I could talk to the parents. I said, “I can’t right now. I’m going downstairs to give a talk, but let me do it later.” I remember walking down the stairs or the elevator and just thinking, all of the lives that rippled out and got hurt from that one thing. That became the basis for my novel. It was looking at four different lives and the secrets that we keep. The boy had died. The mother went in his room. She hadn’t been able to feel his presence. Then she had this dream sequence, this vision of the boy leaving his room and winding around the trees. It sounds kind of cheesy. My editor was like, “I don’t know about this part.” She was not a mother, fabulous editor. In fact, she has a book coming out, Christine Pride, with Jo Piazza, has a great book coming out.

Zibby: They’re coming on. They’re coming on my podcast.

Lee: I am hugely of Jo’s from her podcast. Love that. Christine is solid gold.

Zibby: Jo’s already been on. She’s coming back on. I have the book here somewhere. Yes, I’m excited.

Lee: I just read it. It’s really good. Anyway, she was ten years younger, not a mother. I said, “You know, Christine, I’m going to fight for this segment because if you were a mom and your child died, you would want to be visited in a dream and know that they were okay. I need this piece to stay in.” That was the override that we were talking about. I really did just give you like twenty paragraphs there. Can you believe I reconnected that whole thing to your question?

Zibby: I knew it was coming.

Lee: That’s the point. At the end of the day, you’re the boss with your book, with your writing.

Zibby: Love that. Lee, thank you. I could talk to you all day. I feel like you have so much wisdom and experience. Maybe we can meet for coffee or something.

Lee: Zibby, we’re going to meet for coffee someday. You’re just delightful. I’m so thrilled you’re doing what you’re doing.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks so much.

Lee: Keep being a mom and finding all the ways that we can still be our woman-ness while we’re being our mom-ness.

Zibby: Keep grabbing my kids. Throwing them in Ubers when they should be doing their homework.

Lee: No, those are the memories they’re going to remember. I look like some creepy person in the dark here. I’m sorry about that.

Zibby: No, you do not. You look great. Stop.

Lee: I look like the Predator. I’ll be on you, girl.

Zibby: You’ll be in my dream sequences. Have a great day, Lee. Thank you so much.

Lee: Keep writing. So nice to meet you.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Lee: Buh-bye.

Lee Woodruff, IN AN INSTANT

IN AN INSTANT by Lee Woodruff

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