Zibby Owens: Hi, everybody. I recently did an Instagram Live with Lena Dunham who probably needs no introduction, but she was the creator, writer, and star of the HBO television series Girls from 2012 to 2017 for which she received several Emmy nominations and two Golden Globe Awards. She also directed several episodes of Girls and became the first woman to win the Director’s Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing of a Comedy Series. Prior to Girls, Lena also wrote, directed, and starred in the semi-autobiographical independent film called Tiny Furniture for which she won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. Now most recently, Lena has written a book throughout the coronavirus pandemic called Verified Strangers. It’s a serialized book in which she released a chapter or two a day and even let readers who read it on Vogue.com choose what would happen to the main characters, which is really awesome, especially coming from the number-one New York Times best-selling author of Not That Kind of Girl. It was a huge thrill to interview Lena and talk to her about books and everything else. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Lena Dunham: Hi!

Zibby: Yay, it worked!

Lena: Hi, Zibby. Oh, my god, I was so scared. I was like, my technological inabilities are going to ruin this. I’m so happy to see you.

Zibby: You too. Oh, my gosh, I’m so glad.

Lena: You’re my favorite book queen and book fairy. You’ve been such a big part of my isolation, listening to your voice. It just means the world to be here with you.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you’re so nice. Thank you.

Lena: I just have to say what you do, lifting writers up, especially female writers, it’s already hard enough for anybody to get their writing heard or seen, and the way that you host and welcome talents, not to mention what an amazing writer you are yourself — I read your piece about your hysterectomy and related deeply. I just feel really lucky to be on this Live with you. I even brushed my hair.

Zibby: If you brushed your hair, then I know it’s going to be fun.

Lena: How’s it going in your beautiful book room?

Zibby: Thank you for saying all that. That was really, really nice of you to say. Thank you. I’m so glad that you’ve been listening to my podcast through the pandemic. That’s amazing.

Lena: I love it.

Zibby: I have been reading Verified Strangers, or I had read until it ended. Oh, my gosh, I cannot believe you’ve actually been writing that real time. Is that really true? It’s too good.

Lena: That’s so nice of you to say. I reread it, and there are definitely some incredible clunker sentences in there, so thank you for saying for so. I have to say my first reaction when I heard we were going to be stuck inside — obviously, we all thought it was going to be a shorter period of time at first. We were all like, this will be a little experiment. Obviously, it’s been much more complicated and tragic than that. I just thought about the idea of serialized storytelling. I had just recently been reading about Charles Dickens and the fact that through the Cholera outbreak of, I believe, 1854, he was writing a serialized novel. It’s a form so many — he did it. That’s how Middlemarch was written. Stephen King’s written that way. It just seemed like an amazing thing to try and kind of an Olympic exercise to put yourself through as a writer. I will never say a snarky word about a blogger, a journalist. They can say whatever they want about me for the rest of time. The amount of content those people are slamming out, I will never snap back.

Zibby: How did you do it? How did you even come up with the plot and the structure? There was so much. The idea that the audience could weigh in, that was brilliant.

Lena: Thank you. I just wanted to do something, honestly, I missed the — when I had a TV show, and hopefully I’ll have one someday again, the connection that I had with my audience every week, even though we weren’t necessarily responding to them, every season, of course, their thoughts about the characters and ideas leaked into my work. I missed that connection to an audience and that connection through character. I feel like so much so in this day, we’re connected to personalities, whether it’s influencers — I feel like I know you. I do know your husband, who I’m obsessed with. We feel like we know real people. I sort of missed that sensation of feeling like you know a character. From that, I tried to think about someone who was relatable to me, but I also really wanted to give myself the challenge of writing someone who wasn’t me. Ally sort of came to me. She’s way cooler and cuter and also sometimes messier than I am because I spend more time in my house. I also just wanted to play with the concept of a romance novel. I used to have this really, I remember, a stupid, snotty attitude about thinking of romance as chick-lit or unserious. Then I realized I had actually been colonized by the very ideas that the world wants to impose on women. I actually think what I love about romance is it allows for fantasy and it also allows for self-reflection. The idea of a character who was having all of these various types and styles of lovers thrown at her and the way it confused her inner world, that was really exciting to me.

Zibby: Totally. I couldn’t decide who I wanted her to end up with. I wanted to understand why the guy left. You left so many —

Lena: — People voted constantly in a way that I didn’t think they would go. I learned to stop preparing chapters because I absolutely never knew what was going to happen. What I loved was how consistently the audience purely surprised me. I also was actually thinking a lot about Far from the Madding Crowd, the Thomas Hardy book, and the way that even though it’s this really dense — I think he’s a deeply feminist writer. Even though it’s this really dense piece of literature, at its core it’s really about a woman choosing between three lovers and what the choice she makes says about her. I loved using that classic format but letting other people weigh in. You are amazing. I don’t know how you do it. You read the first two chapters and were like, “By the way, here are a few little linguistic things that your editor missed.” I was like, you have a billion kids, a podcast, you’re writing your own book, and you just managed to make my novel better and copy edit it.

Zibby: No, stop it.

Lena: You really did.

Zibby: Stop. I read so much right now. I didn’t realize when I started this whole project — I’ve always loved to read, but I didn’t realize it was a muscle that you could develop so much. I thought it was a fixed skill, like, I read at this pace, full stop, but not true at all. I’ve been getting better and better.

Lena: I took a speed-reading class in college. It was the best thing I ever did. What I wanted to ask you is you started this because books are your passion, but once it became something that you did for a job, did your relationship to reading change? Do you have your work reading and your pleasure reading? Do you separate it? Is it all about just bringing to your listeners what excites you?

Zibby: It’s all about bringing what excites me. I don’t read anything I don’t want to read. I don’t want to recommend things if I’m not excited about them too. Obviously, I can’t love every single book. I’m sure you feel the same way.

Lena: That’s just not how it goes.

Zibby: But there’s something about it that really speaks to me. Maybe it’s something really cool about the author. Maybe it’s a unique structure. There’s just always something interesting, I feel like. No, I don’t view this as work. This is totally fun for me, and it isn’t really work.

Lena: That’s amazing. Making your pleasure your work is amazing. The fact that moms can read too, moms don’t have time to read, you’re instilling in your kids that, actually, reading is self-care. Reading is a way to disappear. I don’t know if your kids are rebelling or they’re becoming book lovers too, but it’s amazing.

Zibby: Aw, thank you. They run the spectrum. Authors are just so accessible to them in the way that I always wished they had been for me. I feel like when we were growing up — well, I’m much older than you are. When I was growing up, it was impossible, really. I would write letters to authors who I thought were amazing, but there wasn’t really a back and forth. Now with Instagram, I still feel like a kid in the candy store that I can go in and see all these amazing authors and where they’re having breakfast.

Lena: That’s so cool. Oh, my god, I remember writing a fan letter. The first one I wrote was to Nikki Giovanni, the poet, and looking up in the book where her publisher was.

Zibby: Yes, that’s what we did. I did it with my mom.

Lena: I wrote them to Judy Blume. I was like, I will get into contact with these people. Did you ever get a form letter back and it broke your heart?

Zibby: I started, actually, one relationship with an author where we became pen pals. Her name was Zibby O’Neal. She lived in Michigan.

Lena: She had the same name as you.

Zibby: She had the same name as me. I was like, oh, my god, there’s a Zibby in a bookstore, and freaked out about it. She ended up coming to New York and taking me for tea at the Plaza when I was in fifth grade.

Lena: That’s one of the best stories I’ve ever heard. Tea at the Plaza is also, as you know being a follow New York girl, I loved — I read an article where you described going to school with your little bag and your loafers. I could so see. It made me think of, do you know the Madeleine L’Engle book Camilla?

Zibby: Yeah.

Lena: It’s about a girl finding herself, uptown New York City, and takes places — Camilla was in an era before you, but I was like, that’s so glamorous, especially because since I live downtown, I always really idolized — I thought uptown girls were really sophisticated and knew more because you were near museums and glamor. Then of course I’ve heard now, my friends who went to school uptown would be like, I thought you guys were so cool.

Zibby: That’s what I was about to say. I was about to say I thought the downtown girls were the coolest thing ever. The boots and the clothes, it was like a whole nother world.

Lena: I was never the boots girl. I was always the girl following the boots girl, which is probably why I’m a writer and not something else. I’m curious, now that you’re writing, and I’m so excited to read your book, did you always think of yourself as a writer?

Zibby: Lena, I am supposed to be interviewing you. You are now trying to interview me.

Lena: It’s a dialogue.

Zibby: You’re so funny.

Lena: But I’m curious.

Zibby: Did I always want to be a writer?

Lena: Did you think of yourself as a writer? Or did you think of yourself as a reader and being a writer came next?

Zibby: I always wanted to be a writer. My grandfather published this little book I wrote in third grade. From the minute I could hold a pencil, I was writing nonstop in journals and all the rest. To consider yourself a writer — I mean, you can consider yourself a writer. You have a number-one New York Times best seller and all the rest. You’re obviously a writing genius. I feel like I can’t really call myself a writer. Actually, I interview a lot of authors who say the same thing. I’m like, right, but you actually have three books on the bookshelves.

Lena: You know what? I used to think it was a female thing. Then I read that Saul Bellow had such a bad sense of imposter syndrome. He couldn’t even get things done. I just think there’s something about — because it’s such an impossible dream to have people read and relate to your work, it can be really hard to say the words “I’m a writer.” I know that it’s definitely taken me time and effort to be able to really say that’s my job. It’s interesting. When people ask me, “What do you do?” Even though I do different things, I direct and I act, I always say writer because I feel like writing is the generative force behind all of it. It’s the thing that makes the rest of it run. I’ve never felt luckier than to have an imagination than in this time. I feel like books and imagination are the things that are definitely getting me, besides my loved ones, are getting me through this quarantine period. It feels like an especially poignant time to think about and recommend books.

Zibby: What does writing do for you? What do you love about it? Have you always loved it? Is it a way to make sense of the world? Is it more an escape? What does it do for you?

Lena: I’ve always loved it. I always joked that I wanted to be a fashion designer until fourth grade and then I had a career change. I think for me the thing about writing is, and I think a lot of writers feel this way, I always, always felt like I was observing the world, like I wasn’t fully engaged. There was some part of me, even if I was in the middle of a party talking and laughing, that was in the corner watching trying to understand. That’s the part of me that’s a writer. That’s the part of me that’s always there. Also, when I’m writing is weirdly when I feel most present. I’m working on a new memoir right now. It’s almost like I can feel more present in my memories writing them than I did when I was in them. That, to me, it can be painful, but it’s also the great gift. The fact that writing always allows you, no matter where you are, to create — when I make a movie, I collaborate with thousands of people, or a TV show, throughout the process. You know, your husband works in film. If I’m doing a project that requires online engagement — you can write and literally suddenly live in a totally different space just by picking up a pencil. I think I figured that out.

I wrote a novel in fourth grade. Everyone has one of these. I recently found it. It was about a boy who lived in the ruins in India because I’d heard once there were some ruins in India, I did not do good research, and has to save his friend from a snake bite. I remember I was in fourth grade and thought people didn’t like me. For that period of time, I was in the ruins with this kid who was lonely but much more successfully adventurous than I was. It gave me that sense of connection and purpose. Writing’s done that for me ever since. It seems like this is how it is for you. It’s also a way to frame your experience and understand what you’ve been through and also try to reach a hand out to other people and ask, do you know what this feels like too? For me, being read and having someone understand or exchanging a book with someone that we both love, reading someone else, that’s the way that I know how to feel understood.

Zibby: Absolutely, yes. I think there’s nothing better than opening up how you feel and then just being like, am I alone in this? Does anybody else feel this way? Even on Instagram, every so often I’m like, am I the only one having a total panic attack about crazy hornets coming to invade New York City? Can I really take another thing? Why does this make me want to cry? Then everybody else is like, no, I get it too.

Lena: The beautiful part of the internet is that it’s brought some of that connection. When I was a kid and I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, I was like, I didn’t know other people had these thoughts. That’s the same way I felt in high school when I read The Bell Jar. It’s the same way I felt when I got older and I started engaging — I just reread Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. All these writers who I went, oh, my — not to mention poets where I went, oh, my god, your brain is occupying the same kind of level. It’s a place for us all to meet. I think that’s, for me, what’s so joyful about it.

Zibby: That’s a great way to say it. It’s completely true. It’s like the only way people can really let their guard down and share what’s going on and connect.

Lena: It’s interesting because both my parents are artists. My mom’s a photographer. My father’s a painter. I know that for them, those mediums do the same thing for them. I love to paint. I love to watercolor. There’s a totality for me. Everyone just loves their form of expression. There’s a totality for me to the form of writing. I just find books comforting. If you look around my room, there’s piles of books and crap everywhere. I almost need to organize them, like, my dramatic friends are over here. My funny friends are over here. That’s something that I can remember childhood for a moment. I have everything from the biography of Ellen Montgomery to a book about neuropsychology. One of my best friends, Bill Clegg, has a book coming out called The End of the Day that’s gorgeous. I just keep it by my bed because it reminds me of him. They’re living all around me.

Zibby: I’m interviewing him. I’m excited.

Lena: You are? He’s one of, truly, my best friends in the world.

Zibby: No way.

Lena: That book is so — have you read it yet?

Zibby: No. I started it. I read his first book, but not second book.

Lena: Have You Ever Had a Family is incredible, and then obviously Portrait of the Addict. He’s been a huge force in my writing life.

Zibby: Really? I didn’t even know that.

Lena: He’s my first reader a lot of the time. What I love is I haven’t seen him in six months now, but his book is by my bed. I clutch it to myself.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice.

Lena: That makes me feel good. What are you literally reading right this second?

Zibby: I am reading Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True again because I’m interviewing him next week, which I’m really excited about.

Lena: Zibby, that’s a good get.

Zibby: I’m excited. I keep getting offered these amazing things. I’m over the moon these days. His book is going to be — this Sunday the 10th, probably the day this is coming out, at night, his book is being made into an HBO limited series. I’m going to watch it. Then I’m going to interview him next week.

Lena: He really is a big one for me because my grandmother, who’s like my best friend, she was from Connecticut, the part of the world that Wally Lamb writes about. She was obsessed with him. I remember sitting and taking her Wally Lamb, reading She’s Come Undone and being in third grade and being like, I don’t think this is appropriate for me, but I’m going to read it anyway. His books had such importance in her house. They meant so much to her because I think she felt very seen by him because he understood the psychology of the region she came from. Wally Lamb’s a big one to me because he was the start of adult books. I remember a few of the writers who started off for me the idea of adult reading and how sneaky and proud I felt. He’s a big one. That’s an amazing one to reread.

Zibby: My introduction to adult books was Judith Krantz because my mom would just put these romance books by my bedside because I would fly through all the kids’ books. I can’t believe some of the stuff I was reading.

Lena: I still think about some of the stuff. I just remembered because I re-watched this movie. Susanna Moore has a new novel out. My parents knew her, and so somehow I got my hands on In the Cut, which is a sexual thriller that, close your ears for a second, I think involves a woman having sex with a dog, but definitely involves discussion of it. I recently re-watched In the Cut, the movie. I thought, I cannot believe — thank god fourth-grade me literally just didn’t know what any of it meant. I would be like, that whole part was confusing, because thank god there was enough inuendo that I didn’t know about the full-on S&M that was occurring. I do love that my parents sort of went — my parents were strict about what I could spend on. They were strict about what I could watch on TV. When it came to the bookstore, especially the Strand, literally nothing was off limits. If I came up and I was like, I want to read this history of modern news, they were like, okay, because they just couldn’t see what could be bad about a book. That’s, for better or worse, what raised me. I was just remembering — did you ever go through the phase where you read One Last Wish books, the ones about all the girls with terminal illnesses who go to camp to have a last wish?

Zibby: No, but I wish I had.

Lena: They were teenager romances that took place between a kid who had leukemia and a kid who needed a heart transplant. They were these tragic, teenage, Nicholas Sparks, doomed romances. They were my obsession. For whatever reason, all I wanted to read about was kids with grave illnesses falling in love at camp. I would dream about them at school. Now I look back and I’m like, that is the craziest genre, especially because it was meant for kids. There’s something for everyone.

Zibby: I was all into Sweet Valley High. I’m in a different generation here. The books I wanted to read were perfect, blonde, high school prom queen in somewhere random, a life that I was not ever going to live.

Lena: I loved that too. I also had every single book in The Baby-Sitter’s Club series. My favorite, which I still reference a lot, was one called Boy Crazy Stacey which was about when Stacey had too many crushes and it turned into a problem. I also remember thinking — kids are so weird. I thought Stacey was cool because she had diabetes. I was like, Stacey’s special because she has diabetes. Now as an adult chronically ill woman, I understand that nobody wants diabetes. It was almost like thinking braces or homework were cool. I was like, Stacey’s mature and hot and she has diabetes. I want to be just like her.

Zibby: Maybe you had some sort of premonition or that something was off or you were trying to work through some sort of medical —

Lena: — Maybe, that would be so good.

Zibby: Seriously.

Lena: I was like, god, I feel like a real Stacey. Then I recently mentioned it to my friend. She was like, “I was a Claudia because she wore funky earrings and loved junk food.” The things we remember are amazing.

Zibby: How is your health? Are you feeling okay?

Lena: I’m feeling really good. Thank you. I’m home in Los Angeles, which has been amazing, surrounded by my pets and my books. I swear, this sounds crazy — I was living in a rental house in London, and very lucky to be there, for work. I brought a pretty substantial stack of books for travel, twenty or thirty, but was reading a lot on my Kindle, which I do adore because it’s a magical window into all books ever. I swear that when I get back into my house and my books are on the shelf, the stabilizing effect — the first thing I do is walk around the house and just shuffle them into nonsense piles. Only I understand right now why the books that are in a stack over here — it’s so random. Only I understand why a book called No Happy Endings is next to The Land of Men is next to the new Susan Orlean book, except it’s just about a feeling. That’s where I know they must be together.

Zibby: I feel like I gave you some of those books. Didn’t I?

Lena: Yes, you did. Oh, my god, some of them are Zibby books. Hold on one second. I’m just finishing up an Instagram Live. I just got a knock. I think it was my dog being naughty.

Zibby: That’s too funny.

Lena: But you did. I have my tote from you which once I can leave my home again will be full of groceries.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I miss the grocery store. That’s the hardest thing, is not having access to normal food. Woe is me. We’re very blessed.

Lena: I just want to say thank you because you really influenced me to bring writing and serialized writing into my quarantine. When I got your bag of books and started listening to a podcast at a really, really perfect time where I wasn’t feeling so well and I needed it, I felt such a lifeline to you. Just to get to talk to you is so fun. I can’t wait until I’m interviewing you about your book.

Zibby: You might have to wait a while. Thank you. Thank you for saying such nice things. Thank you for talking books. I could talk books with you forever.

Lena: Me too. Tell Kyle that I love him because he’s the most positive and joyful person alive and should have his own reality show.

Zibby: It’s true. He absolutely should, yes.

Lena: You’re the best, Zibby. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you, Lena. Thanks for coming on.

Lena: I’ll talk to you soon. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.