Zibby is joined by the co-founder of Zibby Books, Leigh Newman, to celebrate the pub day of her new short story collection, Nobody Gets Out Alive. The two discuss Leigh’s childhood growing up in Alaska and which memories with her parents and friends influenced elements of her stories. They also talk about the differences between writing memoirs and fiction, how Leigh got her start in the publishing industry, and what makes their publishing home so special.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Leigh. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Nobody Gets Out Alive, your story collection.

Leigh Newman: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: This is so funny doing a podcast with you because, obviously, we work together all the time. This is in a whole new way. This is just so funny.

Leigh: I know. We can’t pretend that we don’t know each other.

Zibby: Who are you? What’s your story?

Leigh: It’s kind of better, though, because I feel like I can tell you real things. I guess I can tell real things to anyone, but you’ve known me for a while. You’ve seen me work really hard on this book. It didn’t just come out of nowhere, just like I watched you with all the reiterations of your memoir, and one version and then another version and then the draft and the cover. It’s kind of a special podcast for me.

Zibby: When we were in LA, you’re like, “I’m going up to my room. I’m just going to write. I’m going to write. I’m going to work on stuff. Goodbye.” Now it’s a book.

Leigh: I know, I am one of those people that it’s like, I can be public and have a great time with a friend, but then the time — my whole body goes into shutdown mode. I need those three hours in the morning where I don’t talk to people and I just write, and then at night too.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Obviously, I know you’re an amazing editor, which is why you’re the editor-in-chief of Zibby Books and why I trust you more than anyone on the entire planet to edit. You are such a good writer.

Leigh: Oh, my god, thank you.

Zibby: The Alcan, an Oral History, it’s not even a short story. It’s a story. I was like, this is a novel. I just read a whole novel in here, and I wanted more.

Leigh: I cannot believe they let me do that. Honestly, I’m surprised that someone didn’t say, that’s not a short — I’ll just explain what it is. It’s five parts. It’s a road trip of five different people from different perspectives. What I really started to do was — I’m really fascinated by the Alcan because it’s this huge, long, historic highway that goes between Alaska and the lower forty-eight. I drove it with my dad a long time ago. We had a really good time, actually. We were driving this big truck. It was the opposite of this trip where these people are suffering. There were weird moments on that trip where you’d realize, if we don’t get gas, we’re going to end up abandoned on the side of the road because there’s just not any more gas for 250 miles. I grew up in Alaska in the bush. I grew up in a different time, too, where you’d be in a plane — we would fly into the middle of these remote areas. There was no cell phones. There was no satellite phones. There was just nothing. If you got in trouble, you could set off a beacon. We did get in trouble on quite a few occasions. You just had to figure your way out of that situation.

I had not spent a lot of time in a car because there’s no roads in Alaska. Driving the Alcan was actually kind of a new experience for me because I’m not used to being in a car in areas where there’s not human habitation. I know that’s a strange thing to say. When I started writing the story, I knew I wanted to have a lot of female people because I feel like a lot of times when we’re talking about the wilderness or we’re talking about the frontier of Alaska or the frontier of the West, it’s a male narrative. It’s a cowboy narrative. I wanted it to be about women because I am one. That’s my experience. It’s the experience of a lot of girls who grew up with me in Alaska. I started with a mother with two kids. Then I had two best friends. Every twenty pages, I would switch until it ended up being an eighty-page story. I don’t really know how that happened, but it did.

Zibby: But so good, so good. Also, having read your memoir, Still Points North, when you see you literally taking off to getting salmon and flying in a plane just with your dad and doing all these — I would say outdoorsy, but that demeans it in a lot of ways.

Leigh: No, that’s all right. I think it is.

Zibby: For a New Yorker, we’ll call it outdoorsy lifestyle. Then to see this, I am glad you said that about your dad because I was like, is this something that happened to Leigh?

Leigh: No, it’s totally fiction. I did write that memoir. I’m glad I wrote it. I don’t have any regrets. I really liked the seven or eight years I spent basically just writing nonfiction. I wrote the memoir. I worked at Oprah. I wrote essays every week. I wrote things for The New York Times. It was validated and made me feel like a writer. There are advantages to both kinds of writing, but I think I finished writing for nonfiction. I wrote one essay for this book that’s going to come out next week with Oprah. Fiction is like, you can make things up. You don’t have to worry about telling the truth. With nonfiction writing, that can be a lot of pressure. I’m sure you felt like that memoir — how do I make this moment true? What happens if I get it wrong? Why can’t I just make this story more exciting? Actually, in fiction, I was like, oh, my god, I’m free. I need a moment here. I don’t have one in my own personal life, so I’m going to make it up. I’m allowed. For me, that was like, . I really enjoyed it.

Zibby: I feel like that’s also intimidating. You can just make it up. It could be anything in the world. You could make up anything. If you have the confines of your actual life story, then you can pick it. It’s like decorating a house versus building one from scratch.

Leigh: I totally agree. That’s why nonfiction was easier for me at first. This is not my first try at fiction. I wrote a story collection that a lot of the stories had been published. It didn’t feel like a book to me, so I never even submitted that anywhere. Then I wrote a novel that was truly awful. I did. I can’t help it. I had two kids. I was writing a novel. I think the writing was good, but the story was not together. When I went into memoir, it was a relief. There’s some guardrails here. You know what I mean?

Zibby: Yes, that’s a better way to say it.

Leigh: I don’t have to come up with the plot. There is even now — in fact, sometimes you’re like, anything could happen. Oh, my god, anything could happen. How do I narrow it down? One trick I’ve learned is that — I’m not sure if I really know this or not. It’s coming to me right this second. I’ve never thought about it before. The guardrails of the story are what you create in those first seven or eight pages. If you’re writing a story about a trip up this remote highway through Canada with a mother and daughter, then maybe a martian will not come into that story. Anything could happen. I guess maybe a UFO could come into it, but probably not. Probably, I’m just going to stick with the mother and daughter. I think that’s how you keep it from becoming paralyzing and overwhelming. At least, that’s how I’m going to. Even within the realm of no UFOs, no vampires, no — I would probably say in a road tip story, too, no car crashes. That’s too obvious or something. Also, it’s too unwieldly. What do I do with a car crash? Do people die? I don’t know why that feels harder to deal with than just people having their regular drama. In this case, the mother is overwhelmed by a child with special needs, and I want to say a little bit abusive, maybe. These two friends, who are also traveling, two best friends — I actually really wanted to write about best friends because that was my favorite — certainly, that’s the longest narrators in that long story. I just remember how in love I have been with my friends in your twenties.

Zibby: Yes.

Leigh: I do know that you know because I read your memoir. Even in my grade school or in high school — I had this friend, Katie Matty, I was in love with her. Everything she said was funny. We used to laugh so hard. I still have friends like that. My best friend Elizabeth, I get hurt laughing when I’m with her. I always know that I’m in love with someone when I laugh at everything they say. It takes a while. We’ll be friends for a year. Then all of a sudden, everything they said — you could say something like, let’s put coffee in the coffee machine. I’d be like, oh, my god, Zibby. It’s just how I understand love. I do feel like a lot of times I see it as that love should only be romantic or love should only be sexual or love should only be about marriage. There are so many, obviously, stories about marriage in this collection. I would say that’s ninety percent of the book. Maybe that’s why I carved out this space to talk about female friendship when you’re twenty-one years old and the world is so huge. You don’t know what you’re doing. Those girls, to me, felt like — we’re going to go to Alaska. They had no idea what they were doing.

Zibby: It was so funny, though, when they were at the restaurant. One of them said — what did she say? Are these clams fresh? The waitress is like, oh, okay, now I know what I’m dealing with here.

Leigh: It’s true. The first thing when you go to remote Alaska or Canada, they’re going to give you Nescafé. I don’t know what that is. I also hear that happens in Africa and other places I’ve traveled in Asia. The coffee is Nescafé instant crystals. There’s going to be powdered milk. Everything is canned. There’s these certain foods you just know, oh, okay, I’m home.

Zibby: I would not have the predicted the ending of the story. It seriously felt like a whole novel in and of itself. I found myself relating to all the different people in the story. The mother is really struggling. I think for any moms who are struggling with anything, you reach that breaking point where you’re just like, we have to get to school on time. I can physically still pick you up, so I’m going to just grab you. We’ve got to get out of the house. I feel like for many parents, you’re always sort of on that line of losing it and wanting to just snap yourself because it’s so out of your control. Your kids’ behavior can sometimes just — they don’t do what you want them to do a lot.

Leigh: One of the haunting moments of my entire life was in skiing. My older son is such a sweetheart. He’s the sweetest boy in the world. He was a very easy child. His stepbrother was not. His brother drove me to insanity. I love that kid, but pushed me right to the edge of personality disorder. My older son was such a sweetheart. We were skiing. We somehow got on something that was difficult. He was maybe three or four. It’s very steep. It was icy. I grew up in Alaska. Everything was life or death. I said, “We have to ski down it.” He was like, “I just want to take off my skis.” Literally, Zibby, I lost my crap on a level. I was like, “There’s no such thing as taking off your skis. You cannot walk down this mountain. I cannot leave you here.” I went on and on. I was one of those crazy people. I feel like I should’ve been arrested for talking to this kid. Of course, he made perfect sense. He was afraid. Take off the skis. Walk down. I couldn’t envision a reality where you could just take off your skis and walk down a mountain. I’ve actually apologized. Once a year I’ll be like, “Remember that time I yelled at you when we were skiing? I am so sorry. I was so wrong.”

He thinks it’s funny now. It was, but I remember being unable to make a good choice because I was so blinded by my frustration and my fear and my past. I just wasn’t in reality, I don’t think. I think that’s for her too. This mother has economic pressure. She’s got no money. Her kid has all these problems. It’s the seventies. No one’s diagnosed them. He’s really problematic. Some of that stuff actually is — there’s always this intersection between fiction and nonfiction. How did I know about — I waited tables. That’s how I knew from the waitress. The road trip, yes, I took a road trip with my dad down the Alcan. Most of the pressure that I would think of from — our road trip was a happy — oh, let’s stop and have a burger. I used to take these crazy road trips with my mother because she was really into driving. She’d be like, “I woke up this morning, and I thought we should go to the Grand Tetons.” We lived in Baltimore, Maryland. She would drive all the way to the Tetons. We would get out and look at the Tetons. Then we’d get back in the car and drive all the way home.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Leigh: I know. I’m not into road trips for that reason.

Zibby: My kids this morning literally — my daughter said to me on the way to school, she was like, “What’s a joyride?” I was like, “A joyride is when you go in the car for no reason and just have fun.” She was looking at me like, what?

Leigh: I know. Isn’t that weird? People used to do that. On Sunday afternoons, they’d be like, let’s go for a drive and look at the country. No, I don’t ever want to do that.

Zibby: Not having a destination blew her mind. Then why would we be in the car?

Leigh: I even have trouble taking a walk without a destination. I will organize an errand. I’ll be like, let’s go for a walk. We’ll walk the dog. I have all these dogs. I’ll stop at the dry cleaner. I’ll pick up something at the pharmacy. Then I’ll come back home. That’s a walk to me. If not, it’s a hike. I will go on a hike. That’s a different thing. The hike has a top of the mountain. That’s a goal-oriented thing. You get up there and reach the top. Then you go back down. It’s not just an amble.

Zibby: Just going for a walk seems like, where would you go? How long would you go? No.

Leigh: It’s like Wuthering Heights.

Zibby: I have a landmark in mind. Then as I go, I’m like, okay, I’m here, so I’m like —

Leigh: — That’s part of why you’re a writer. I do think when you’re writing, you want to think that you can amble all over the page. One of the things I really think is super important in a short story or even in that long story is pressure on the story so that you want to turn pages, that you care. It was a serious goal for me. The three things I wanted out of our books we publish and any book I publish for myself, I want there to be beautiful sentences and language. I want there to be a story, a reason — do they get to the restaurant? Do they run out of gas? Do they pick up those two girl hitchhikers? In every case. That’s a question of, really, plot and story, real storytelling. Then I want it to have a lot of heart. That’s what I call heart. It’s not a great word. It’s not a very literary word. I want there to be emotional stakes. I want someone to feel sad. I want them to laugh. Actually, what I want is both. I’m really going for a kind of humor which is, you’re laughing, you’re laughing, you’re laughing, and then you’re devastated. I think that’s the best story. Well, no. I like all the babies. I love all the babies.

The one that’s gotten the most public attention is the story Howl Palace. That was one that, it won this Paris Review prize. I think it was in Best American Short Stories. It’s embarrassing how much one — it’s like my little protégé story that went off without me and said, ha ha ha, I’m going to Harvard, or something. That little story won all these prizes. I can’t tell you how hard I worked on that story. I worked on that story for, I want to say, six or seven years. Many of the versions of the story have zero — it’s not even the same people. The only thing that’s the same about that story with Howl Palace is the dog. There’s this crazy Labrador. It’s wrecking everything in this woman’s yard. They were different women. There were neighbors involved. There are still neighbors involved with the dog. When I finally cracked it open, it was because I found that it was this old woman who had this dog. It was funny. She was a funny old lady. She had five husbands. She was serving moose hotdogs to people who wanted to buy her house. You were laughing. Then I don’t even think I realized how sad it was until the end. Then I wrote the sad ending. Everyone keeps saying, they say, oh, that ending is such a surprise. That was a surprise to me too. I think most of really funny writing, like when I read David Sedaris and I laugh so hard, but then it’s also really sad. They thought he had a speech impediment just because he — the school was awful to him. It was a hard life. He had that really thought-provoking essay about the pedophile who lived in this French town where you’re laughing, and then you’re like, gross. That’s so upsetting. I do think I have veered into that territory.

Zibby: Interesting. It’s like what we were talking about yesterday in terms of books to acquire and short stories and editing and whatever. You’re like, no, no, no, a short story is a whole nother thing. It is the hardest thing to edit. You have to be so careful with the words and the plot. You don’t have as much space. You have to be so careful. I just love that, the attention you have to — and then how you can just keep doing it over and over again with the stories in this collection.

Leigh: I do feel like it’s a little bit like music. You figure out the form. In a good story, I always start with a sentence. It’s got to be a sentence, to me, that goes, oh, there’s — it’s not a sentence about character or what’s happening. I’m trying to find the story Nobody Gets Out Alive, but I don’t even know what page that’s on.

Zibby: This opening sentence is, “My brother and I didn’t grow up religious.” Nobody Gets Out Alive is, “Getting past the mastodon took planning.”

Leigh: Right, “Getting past the mastodon took planning.” I already have a mastodon. I have a woolly mammoth in the first sentence. There’s a lot of places to go with that. A mastodon is interesting to me.

Zibby: I don’t even know what a mastodon is. Is that embarrassing?

Leigh: No, that’s actually something that is surfacing. Part of that story was talking about global warming in Alaska. It is true, all of these dinosaur bones are surfacing right on the snow. You can literally pick them up. You don’t have to dig for them or anything because the ice is melting. Throughout the collection I was, in each story, a little bit, talking about global warming and what’s happened with oil culture just because the landscape has so radically altered. When I grew up in Alaska, there was no such thing as spring. We call it the breakup. We lived on a lake. The ice would break up. It would go out to sea. I really do want to write a novel called The Breakup. It’s a little bit of an obvious metaphor if was not a marriage that broke up. It still does that. It’s just that winter would last sometimes until the end of May, the beginning of June. Now it comes so much easier. I was at the Artic Circle two years ago. The breakup was happening in April. Where was that? My brother was like, “Don’t bring your ski pants. It’s warm out. There’s no snow on the ground.” I was bewildered. The same thing with the summers. The summers are really hot now. That same summer, I think it was ninety degrees. That never, never happened. The one thing that totally freaks me out is that we just did not have fall. There’d be three days in August. All the leaves would fall. There’s very few leafy trees. Those leafy trees that we had in our yard, they would literally fall off in about two days. That was the end of fall. All of a sudden, it was winter, and snow started falling. Now there’s a real fall. It’s really pretty. You go hiking. It’s vibrant and red leaves and mushrooms. Actually, September is a great time to go to Alaska because the tourists are gone. You can go hiking. You can go flyfishing. It’s a beautiful time to look at the landscape, but it always freaks me out a little bit. I did write about the fact that we have a fall. It lasts weeks now.

Zibby: It’s just so crazy to me that this is how you grew up. Yet here you are just bouncing around New York City.

Leigh: I know. Me too. I find it very weird.

Zibby: If you were wearing an Alaskan-type outfit, as I imagine, with some sort of boots and — you would know that you came from somewhere else, but you look like everybody else. Do you know what I mean?

Leigh: I know. When I came to New York, I said, oh, look at — you didn’t know me when I first came to New York. I was a rube. I still am a rube at heart. I feel like people look at me, even no matter what — I’ve got the clothes. I know how to handle myself. I mean that in the best of ways, that I will always be a rube. I actually like that about myself. I don’t want to change that much. I was so bewildered on how to dress and what to do. I did not understand anything for my first five years here. I remember I tried to get a job. This woman who was at the publishing house — I was soon to be fired because I was the world’s worst assistant. One of the very successful assistants was like, “We’re all going to this weekend.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. I was buying clothes at The Salvation Army or random chain stores like Strawberry and just putting it all on. I didn’t know what to do. It’s okay. I kind of embrace that part of me.

Zibby: Wait, explain — you grew up alternating somewhat, your mom in Baltimore, your dad in Alaska. You went to Stanford. What’s the quick version of your life story here?

Leigh: I really lived in Alaska until I was about eight or nine. Then my mom and dad divorced. My mom, on a crazy road trip, drove me out of Alaska to Baltimore. That road trip was even crazier. We went to Mexico and everything. She just loves to drive. She always says, “I should’ve been a trucker.” I’m like, get me out of the car.

Zibby: Have you read Mothertrucker?

Leigh: No, I got to read that.

Zibby: Oh, my god, I’m going to give it to you. You’re going to love it.

Leigh: From that point on, I would live every three months with my mom and then go to my dad and then go back to my mom and go back to my dad. School was arranged so I mostly went to high school in Baltimore. When I was with my dad, my dad was like, “Oh, my god, you’re here. You’ve had to be living in that –” what he would call the East Coast elite. I love him. He was like, “Not the East Coast elites.” He’d be tossing me into an airplane. We were going caribou hunting. We were going fishing in remote areas. We were going rafting down these crazy rivers. I remember one summer he was like, “I bought this cabin.” It’s true, we lived really off-grid. We had a cabin in the middle of the wilderness. He was like, “Now we’re going to build it. We’re going to build a sauna.” We would just go into the lake and collect rocks. There’s this thing called visqueen. It’s plastic sheeting. We made this big pyramid of plastic sheeting. We found an old barrel stove from an abandoned hunter’s cabin. We set that up. We literally just made this sauna. An Alaskan sauna is, you go sit under this visqueen. You pour hot water over yourself, and the steam comes up. It’s actually really amazing, but it’s not like the saunas that you’re going to see in civilized Norway with the people with the beating sticks. We lived that kind of life. I think he was really, really committed to me not forgetting how I grew up and not becoming this kind of person that could not handle herself. I learned how to shoot a gun at a very young age, five or six. I thought that I learned how when I was eight or nine, but my dad was like, “No, because the bears were a very real thing.”

I’ve never had to kill a bear. Thank god. I’ve never been attacked by a bear. Your first impulse when you have a bear is, of course, not to shoot it. You don’t want to kill an animal. You want to back out of there, which I’ve done many, many times, been like, oh, hello Mr. Grizzly. You are also on this river with me. I will just now be backing away. Quite frankly, against what they say that you’re supposed to do, I have run my butt off. I have just been, oh, my god. That feeling never changes when you run into a giant brownie fishing and it looks at you and says, oh, hello. You just run. I have run so many times that I’m truly embarrassed. I don’t know why I’m alive. We had a bunch of situations where I’d be left alone at camp. Especially behind our cabin, there was just so many brown bears. Even just to get to the outhouse, you’d walk through these raspberry bushes. I was always singing. I loved to sing Christmas — I love Christmas in general. I love to sing Christmas carols. As a kid, I would sing Christmas carols or showtunes from Evita. I loved the Evita record; Kenny Rogers. Just so that they would know that you’re coming so you wouldn’t go through the bushes and then run into them. They don’t really want to be involved with you.

That’s also really changed. When I was little when we were living in so many remote areas, the bears were not aware of you as a food source. They did not want much to do with you. If they did, it was like — I remember one time we woke up and this black bear was pawing at our tent. I can’t believe this is true. I’m going to tell you the truth. My dad and I were like, oh, let’s go back to sleep. We literally went back to sleep. It went away. We were really tired. It was really early in the morning. We knew he was there. He was going, . That’s what they sound like. It’s not like we were laissez-faire, but we actually love to sleep. You know that about me. I go to bed at ten. I wake up at eight. My dad’s the same way. At seven thirty, he’s like, “That was a big day.” I think it must have been five in the morning. We were like, I’m too tired to deal with that. Let’s go back to bed.

I did this article on this guy, Dick Proenneke. He’s a famous guy on NPR. He did this Alone in the Wilderness documentary about building his own cabin. I hiked out and stayed in his cabin. I was alone in the wilderness. There are bears everywhere there. They have learned what people are. They love things like toothpaste. They do. It’s food to them. It’s got sugar in it. They know what tinfoil is. You have to be so much more careful about — we would just tie our food up in a tree. I’m embarrassed that we traveled like this. We would open up a float in our plane and just dump our salmon in there. It’d cool off in the water. Nowadays, I feel like a bear would be like, thank you. I’m going to just eat your plane. I’m going to eat all that salmon too because it’s easier for me. Humans have put so much garbage — they have so much more access too. Many people in Alaska have helicopters now. They can get into all these places that you can’t with a small plane. Also, tourists, there’s just so much more tourists that are coming up. That’s good for the state. That’s good. There’s also just more roads. People go hunting on the road now. They just drive. They get out of their car. They put on a vest. They go caribou hunting. There’s not that many caribou left. The caribou see the people coming. They’re like, we’re running away from you now.

Zibby: You think they don’t hear that car?

Leigh: When I grew up, you always hunted a caribou. You ate that for winter. I’m not a bloodthirsty hunter. I would only hunt things that you would eat. We grew up where you’d go out in your plane, you’d get out, you’d walk to the caribou, and you’d kill the caribou. They did not really know who you were. There was hundreds of them. It’s like cows. We would process that meat and make hot dogs out of it, and hamburgers. We had a big freezer. We ate it all winter. That wasn’t weird. That was normal life. Now I feel like that’s changed. My dad doesn’t do that anymore. I certainly don’t do it. I’m going to tell you I’m not really into hunting. I’m not good at it. I’m not committed. We also used to go duck hunting. We shot all our own ducks. That still goes on. We ate all our own food. My dad was always like — this was long before this new movement. Now in New York, I guess people are like, eat the whole the animal, but we did. We ate everything on the animal. Then we saved its skin. We dried the skin. We made a carpet out of it. We made a hat.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Leigh: We did.

Zibby: It’s amazing.

Leigh: I’ve made my kids pluck ducks with me. I want them to understand that the food just doesn’t come to you out of nowhere. One of my sons is probably going to be a vegetarian. That’s been heading towards me. I’m okay with that. I support him. Right now, he’s pretty much a vegetarian, except for bacon. Okay, fine. Whatever. I’m like, “You’re not really a vegetarian. You understand that, right? You eat bacon.” Whatever. That’s the little lie we live with. I do want them to understand what food is and that it doesn’t just spit out of a —

Zibby: — Whole Foods.

Leigh: Right. Wegmans. It was scary for them to take the feathers off the duck and then clean it and then eat it and do that. We did that with Grandpa too. He was like, “It is a little scary now that I think about it.” I remember him having — we’d have huge fights, especially in my teenage years. I was like, “You’re a killer. You’re an animal killer.” I became a vegetarian for five years. Oh, god, the poor man was pulling out his hair. I would sit outside. He’d say, “You have to pluck the ducks. You’re the youngest person in the family. That person does that.” I would just sit out there with duck after duck hating everybody. You know how when you think in the garage –

Zibby: — I was shucking corn, so we had quite a different —

Leigh: — That’s what I’m saying. It’s the same thing. You’re like, nobody loves me. I have to do all the hard work around here. My dad’s a killer of birds.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Wait, but still, how did you get from that lifestyle here?

Leigh: My dad had a rule. When it was time to go to college — you can go to college in Alaska. One of my brothers did his master’s in Fairbanks. My dad has these rules, which I think a lot of dads do or parents do. He was like, “You need to go to a big college. You need to go someplace else in the world. It cannot really be on the East Coast, the environment like your mother had. It cannot be Alaska.” I chose California. I applied to every school in California. There’s not a single one I did not apply to. I’m also nervous. I was nervous about getting into college. It all worked out really well for me, to my astonishment. I remember my guidance counselor laughed at me when I told her what I was doing. I was like, I’m just going to do it. What do I have to lose? When I got to California, I met all these people from New York City. A lot of them had gone to all different kinds of high schools. They were all so smart and funny. They also really liked things like writing and theater, which I loved. There were not very many people at my college that liked the humanities. It’s a very small group. I didn’t know that either. I actually did not know what I was doing with colleges. It never occurred to me to research what the college was known for. My college, apparently, was known for being a doctor and being a senator and being a businessperson and being into tech. It was the huge Silicon Valley tech thing. I’m not good at a single one of those things, and so I kind of bonded with all these people.

Then I would go home during the summers to Alaska and hunt and fish and hike and work at Garcia’s restaurant as a waitress. I’d always have ninety-five jobs. I had a big truck that I drove around. My friends would all go to New York City. They would do internships. I didn’t even know you were supposed to do an internship. I don’t know where I was. I seemed to have missed the memo where you figure things out in general. Then they would come home. They’d have all these great parties. They would all be kissing each other and going to someplace called The Dublin House on the Upper West Side. One of them had a big apartment in New York City. There was all these pictures and all these shenanigans. I was like, one day, I’m going to get to go to New York and have fun with all of these amazing people. When I graduated, I went to New York. Not a single one of those people came to New York. I was alone here. I had one friend in the whole city, Rohan Sippy. That’s it, and he wasn’t from New York at all. He was from India and Detroit. I did want to be a writer. I thought, oh, writers go to New York. I don’t think that’s true anymore. I think I could’ve just gone to Alaska or gone to Seattle, stayed in California with the rest of my class, and it would’ve been fine. I would’ve been a writer. I literally knew nothing about writing. I did not know any writers. Even the writing classes they had in the college, I had two or three teachers, and they didn’t really engage with you because they just — it’s different now. You had to for the class. There’d be twelve people. I’m going to be honest. My writing was not that good, and so I don’t think they were like —

Zibby: — I don’t really believe you, but okay.

Leigh: I don’t think any of them thought, let’s take Leigh Newman under her wing and make her my protégé. I think they were like, that was nice, dear. Thank you so much. You don’t know how to write a story. Go on with — I would write them these impassioned emails. They’d be like, thanks. They didn’t say, come, or I’ll introduce you. I didn’t know what literary magazines were. I knew nothing. Maybe that’s a good thing. It took me a long time to figure it out, longer that it should’ve. I just came here. I worked at Reader’s Digest in the research — not even the real Reader’s Digest; the part where they just make books on how to garden. I just did whatever I could that was related to words. I would take any job. I worked in an antique store.

Zibby: Then somehow, you ended up at Oprah.

Leigh: Yeah, I worked really hard. That’s one thing. I think that was different. I think that, actually, my work ethic is crazy. You know that. I know your work ethic. I learned. I learned how to magazine-edit. I learned how to internet-edit. Even what I’m talking about with writing stories or those three qualities I want out of an experience — I guess the fourth quality for me, too, was — writing about a world like Alaska that’s so fully realized, it’s like you went there and you come back. As a reader, I really wanted feeling. Many people write without setting. They’re very good writers. They’re writing about ideas. For me, I want the full world. Every sentence should be loaded with smells and with trees and with details and things unique to that place. A lot of that was that learning process of learning how to do your job and then learning how to do your job as a writer.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Then you went from Oprah, you started Catapult. Now here we are at Zibby Books. It’s so crazy. It’s so awesome.

Leigh: Also, maybe when you grow up differently — I think about it. I was trying to be a writer. I thought you go work at a big company. You work there. Actually, that did not work for me very well. I think I am totally comfortable with just being like — I know I’m comfortable because I’ve done it. I usually worry extensively before I do it, but yet I’ve done it over and over again. I’ll be in a situation. I’ll have learned a lot, and then I’m done. I quit. They’re like, “Where are you going? Where’s your new job?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” Then starting companies from scratch —

Zibby: — Oh, no, don’t leave.

Leigh: No, I’m not going to go. We’re just starting our company. We’re just starting our journey. You and I are making this together. It’s not working for a big company where you’re like, okay, I was an associate editor. Now I’m going to be a senior editor. Then I’m going to be editor-in-chief. I’ve had those conversations. At Oprah, they sat me down and said, “Do you want to be editor-in-chief one day?” I was like, “Absolutely not. Thank you so much for thinking of me. I really appreciate it. I’m so grateful. I would kind of love to do it, but I’m not ready to run a big department and talk to these people.” There’s a lot of things that go into that that involve emailing and presentations. I don’t know how PowerPoint works. When it’s your own company, there’s all kinds of freedoms and ways to interpret things. It’s so imaginative. We’re imagining what we want for our readers and what we want for ourselves and what we want for our team. It is very creative. I don’t feel like I have to learn all these skills that I don’t want to learn in order to be able to survive and not get fired and say things I don’t mean in order to not fired. I feel like that happens. I want to tell the truth kindly, but I don’t want to say things I don’t mean.

Zibby: We get to make up all the rules. It’s pretty cool.

Leigh: That’s true. We get a lot of help from the people that we…

Zibby: Last question. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of your life. I would love to sit here and listen to the whole — we’ll have to do a part two or something. For aspiring authors…

Leigh: I think you have to fall in love with the form that you’re writing in. I actually think a way to drill it down and make it so it doesn’t take you — it took me too long to become a writer. I can say that right away. I did not read enough and I did not study enough to figure out how to — I was reading, but I wasn’t reading in the right way. For example, when I decided to write this book, I read every book of short stories that have been published pretty much ever. I have hundreds and hundreds of books. As I was writing it, I only read short stories. That way the form, even though it has myriads of ways of things, got into my consciousness the way, if you were writing music, you’d say, am I going to write a symphony? Am I going to write a minuet? Am I going to write an opus? I don’t actually — I’m not in —

Zibby: — A rap song.

Leigh: Yeah. That kind of got into my thing. I thought about the stories that I did read. I called them mother stories. I would go back and look at those stories. Then it would help me come out with it. I’m writing a novel now. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I am reading and buying every novel. I stagger into bookstores, collect novels, and I read them. It really is saying, oh, there are similar traces. All these novels are so different, but what’s the kind of one that I find that does have story, that does have heart, and does have language? It’s not enough for me to write an idea book. Some people can. It’s extensional. I want there to be a beginning, middle, end. I want that for myself. I’m just studying how people do it. Then how would I do it? If you’re an aspiring writer — same thing with memoir. I did not read enough memoirs when I wrote my memoir. I would’ve done things differently. I feel like you just got to gorge and not be afraid. I know I used to be afraid that if I was reading other things by other people, it would affect my voice, but that’s not true. You have your own voice. It will come through. The more I absorb information about what other people are doing, the better I’m able to make the choices I want to make to create the book I want to make because I’m literally learning from the masters.

Zibby: Amazing. Leigh, I’m so excited for Nobody Gets Out Alive. It’s so good. You’re such a good writer. It’s really amazing. I can’t wait for this to be a smash hit.

Leigh: You’re a good writer too. I can’t wait for your book.



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