Leslie Gray Streeter, BLACK WIDOW

Leslie Gray Streeter, BLACK WIDOW

Zibby Owens: I had the best time talking to Leslie Gray Streeter who is an award-winning columnist and pop culture critic for The Palm Beach Post where she has worked since October 2002. She’s a graduate of the College of the Journalism and University of Maryland College Park. She wrote a beautiful, happy, sad look at being a widow called Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like “Journey” in the Title. If that sounds funny, you can get glimpse of what she’s like. I had so much fun talking to her and also doing an Instagram Live. If you would like to watch, you can go to IG TV, @ZibbyOwens, and check out what it was like for us to chat in person.

I’m so sorry. I knew you were sitting there waiting. I’m so sorry. I’m just going to put this up on this thing so I don’t have to hold it. Who is on your mug?

Leslie Gray Streeter: These are people who used to be on All My Children. This was from when All My Children was first canceled by ABC and they did these live traveling things. These were dudes that were on All My Children. My husband bought me this mug because we both watched All My Children. He’s the kind of dork that would drive me and my best friend to the casino to see them. He didn’t actually get to go in because I only had two tickets, but he hung around and bought me a mug. There you go.

Zibby: That’s amazing. My husband actually just told me that there’s a new memoir out by someone from General Hospital. He’s like, get this guy on your podcast.

Leslie: I love it. I love it.

Zibby: By the way, I feel like you don’t have to tell me what kind of guy your husband was because having read your book, I feel like I know a lot about him, and that doesn’t even surprise me. Your book was so great. Thank you for writing it and sharing it. Do you have a copy you could hold up?

Leslie: Yes, I do.

Zibby: I, of course, left mine in the room next door. Great cover. Great title, by the way, so funny, I mean, the whole package.

Leslie: What’s so funny is usually when people say, “What’s your book called?” I’ll say it’s about grief. They’ll go, . I go, “It’s called Black Widow.” They laugh because they’re like, “Is it inappropriate to laugh at that?” I’m like, “No, because it’s true, black and widow.” They go, “Oh, okay.” Then they kind of know what the book is. It’s a funny book about a serious thing. It goes back and forth because I think that’s what life does.

Zibby: I was describing it. Who was I describing it to? I started to say funny. Then I was like, now I feel bad saying that it’s funny because it’s about grief. I was like, should I not call it funny? Is that inappropriate? But in fact, it was funny. You have a great sense of humor. You saw the humor in these really not-humorous situations.


Zibby: I am sure a million people have said this to you, but I am so sorry for your loss and the suddenness with which it came and all the rest of it.

Leslie: Thank you. I appreciate that. Obviously, doing this book and being sort of in a widow place all the time — I’m at the point, it’s been almost five years, it’ll be five years in July, where I feel like I’m on the helping side of it which is a great place to be because you don’t feel so desperate and awful all the time. I’ve been doing a lot of Zoom stuff with widows’ groups and with mourners and that kind of thing. You would be surprised how much people laugh in those groups. When something crappy happens to you, sometimes there’s nothing else to do, sometimes in a gallows depressing way, but it’s always good to have that. I think that in this time where we are right now, where we are grieving, even though we’re grieving people who have been lost and we’re also grieving the life we knew a month and a half ago and we’re grieving our vacations and our ability to go sit at a bar and flirt with cute people — oh, that’s just me. I think that that’s sort of the space we’re in. I’m like, I can talk about that. I don’t know a lot about math or driving, I’m really bad at it, but I know a lot about grief and about being funny. I figured I might as well write about that because I don’t have anything else.

Zibby: I’m impressed you could even find a negative way to spin this enterprise, seriously. Come on, but yet self-deprecating all the way. For people who don’t know what your book is about, can you explain the —

Leslie: — It’s a memoir about the first year of my widowhood in 2015 when my husband Scott died very suddenly, as you mentioned, of a heart attack. It goes literally from the moment that I’m supposed to be at a happy hour but I’m trying to buy a gravesite and not really knowing what’s happening to the next year, which is almost a year to the day because god’s timing is funny, where our son’s adoption was finalized. I guess late July won’t suck all the time for me. There’s good and bad stuff. That’s what the book is. It’s a flashback to our love story and how we got together and that kind of thing. I break the fourth wall occasionally. I talk about god and sex and drinking, which are the really cool fundamental parts of life, I think, and try not to get fat as a widow and then being okay with being it, and just friendship and family. My mom moved in with me as my coparent, so that’s a sitcom right there. I feel like if that hadn’t happened to me, I would’ve hopefully been clever enough to write this kind of thing, but I don’t think I ever could’ve imagined that all this stuff would be packed into one year. That’s just one year. It’s been five since he died. That was a real eventful year.

Zibby: You told it in such detail. I feel like I was there. When you were debating what you called the crypt of how to bury your husband, instead of it being like you’re sitting there crying, you just find the craziness in all of it, which is relatable moments, really.

Leslie: I was talking to someone the other day about it because people don’t really think about — they don’t want to think about grief. When you look back at funerals you’ve been to, memorial services or whatever, if you’ve thought about it, something happened like somebody showed up in an inappropriate dress or somebody’s ex-wife they didn’t think was going to come showed up and there’s whisper, whisper, whisper, or someone brought the wrong thing to the shiva, whatever it is. There’s stuff that makes you go, mm-hmm. Not only does it make it tolerable, it’s the stuff that makes it human, that makes you remember that you’re still breathing and that you can get through this. That’s how I’ve always written. I think that I didn’t really have any choice but to process this experience that way and to focus on what’s — not like in a desperate, slipping on a banana peel funny sort of a way. It was more of a, these are the things that I noticed. I wrote them down on my phone or I went and jotted things down in a never-ending file in Word or I just remembered it. As a columnist, I remember things in detail that way, fortunately. I’m sure there’s stuff that I forgot. I have a friend of mine who reminded me, she goes, “Why wasn’t this in your book?” I forgot that my first birthday after Scott died, my friends gave me a cake that said, “At least you’re still pretty,” which is so funny. It’s rude in a really funny way. People that love you know how to talk to you and what to say and what’s going to go make you go, ha-ha! That’s what my life is. That’s the people I surround myself with. That’s what I wrote about.

Zibby: Do you still write for The Palm Beach Post? I should know.

Leslie: I do write for The Palm Beach Post. Right now, I’m writing from home, as everyone is. I just wrote about our big music festival every year that’s been canceled because everything is canceled. That was what I did this morning. You were mentioning before in your previous interview about everything that we used to do that we left the house and now we’re doing it all in the house, and are we going to actually get to the point where we need to do a lot of the stuff? Am I going to want to go and stand in a music festival next to a bunch of drunk people? Am I going to want to go just interview random people this close to their face again? No. I don’t know when that’s going to happen again. Right now, I think we’re getting a lot of what we need to do at home. I’m not working any less hard. I’m just working differently. I kind of like it, honestly.

Zibby: I know. Sometimes I wonder if this whole thing had happened at a much more social time in my life, like when I think about younger people or when I was in college, I really depended on my social scene, versus being at home with my kids and I had already gotten to a place where I would be happy not to ever leave the house after eight o’clock at night again.

Leslie: Absolutely. It was so weird, I was talking to — I was on a widows’ group thing yesterday. There was a gentleman who lives in Manhattan who is older. He lost his wife a couple months ago. He said, “I got to be honest –” This guy’s a physician. He goes, “My physician brain is very attuned to what’s happening with COVID, but my widower brain doesn’t care because I don’t want to talk to anybody anyway. I don’t want to leave the house. I don’t want to have to deal with people stammering about how they’re sorry and trying to feel weird about it. I wanted to be in this cocoon. I’m sorry, obviously, this is happening, but if it was going to happen, it’s a good time for this to happen with every other bad thing that’s happening in my life.” I, on the other hand, released a book into a pandemic. That was fun. I had all these things to do. I was supposed to be in New Orleans last weekend. I’m supposed to be, in two weeks, reading at the Edgar Allen Poe House in Baltimore. None of these things are happening. I was supposed to be at BookCon, which is now going to be online. I had all this really great stuff happening, and it’s not. I can’t really do anything about it. It’s not personal. When grief happens, I would have these melodramatic moments where I would be like, god, why did you do this to me and forsake me? Thunderclap, thunderclap. Stuff just happens to people. It wasn’t personal. It didn’t set out to ruin my life or anything. It’s just what happened. I think that we’re all kind of going through that right now. What’s happening is what’s happening. We have to figure out how to best deal with it and not be so — being melodramatic is fun, though. I enjoy it.

Zibby: It can be. Another element of your book that I found really interesting was how you wrote about the fact that you had been married to a white Jewish man as a black Baptist woman, that came up a lot in so many different scenarios in the book, and how in some ways there were a lot of commonalities and then in other, there were these horrible moments where people at restaurants refused to believe you were on the same check. I loved how open you were because I hadn’t really read anything that specifically open about interracial marriage.

Leslie: What’s so interesting to me is that I wanted to make the book about being a widow from my perspective. It wasn’t a book just about, in a very eighties-movie-of-the-week way, interracial relationships were everything, and the movie is about conflict or the differences, whatever. It’s just the way my life is. We had a lot in common, like All My Children. We had things that were not in common, like our races or our religion. Those just kind of go into our story, not in a neon sign way, but that’s just part of my life. I think that there were people who read it who were like, does it have to be so much about race? I’m like, yeah, because that’s part of what it was. It’s not about race, but it is in a way because that’s part of our existence. Also, it’s a way that people responded to us when we walked into a room together or did not respond because they didn’t think that we were together because they’re dumb. It was 2015. It’s like, uh… Some people don’t think about that.

I wanted to present — there’s no “the book” about these things. Literally, Tembi Locke who wrote From Scratch also was married to a white man who also died and wrote a book about that experience, about being a widow who was black, but it’s a completely different book. There’s no one experienced way to do it. I love that both of these books exist in the same place because everyone else’s gets to too. Joan Didion gets to exist in the same place . Everyone gets to do that and have their stories told and not be thought of as this is definitive only of this experience. I’m glad that I was able to do it. I’m glad that people got it and that people didn’t say, this is about a black person, so I can’t read it. I loved the hell out of Year of Magical Thinking, which had nothing to do — I read it before I was even widowed, so it had nothing to do with my experience at the moment. It was just a really beautifully well-written book. My book is super on the other side of elegant. That was an elegantly written book. My book is cussing and drinking and making out with people. It’s not the same book, but it’s a similar experience. I hope that there’s room for all of it.

Zibby: I’m sure. I obviously have not read From Scratch. I’m sorry because I have heard of it, obviously, from the Reese’s Book Club. I don’t know. I didn’t want to read that. I wanted to read this. Make of that what you will.

Leslie: Thank you. It’s really a beautiful book. She wrote a blurb for the back of my book. It’s so funny because when that happens, every time you get one, you’re like, for real? You ask all these people. You send it out into the universe. There was some people that I knew. I know Laura Lippmann a little bit. I know James Patterson, which is a whole other thing. I know Rob Sheffield. Tembi was a friend of a friend who had told her that, “I know someone who’s written this book.” When I reached out to her — and she was literally the last person. It was past the deadline. She goes, “Is it okay?” I’m forwarding it as it’s happening. I’m like, “Yes, it’s going to be okay.” I really needed that validation from another widowed person. It was cool. It’s a great book. It’s not funny, but it’s beautiful. It’s like Year of Magical Thinking in a travelogue with Eat Pray Love and Under the Tuscan Sun but with black people.

Zibby: Okay, I will put it on the list. I will put it back on the list. I’m sorry. I know. There’s so many great books.

Leslie: Your podcast is about moms having time to read books. You have not to apologize for not being able to cram everything in the world in. Give yourself permission. I do all the time. I go, I don’t want to do that, and I do.

Zibby: Have you read, by the way, Nora McInerny’s books about being a widow?

Leslie: Yes. She’s also on the back of my book. I’m so glad that I read her book after I wrote mine because I would’ve thought, oh, no, am I stealing from her? She has a similar irreverent sort of a, I’m a total mess and I don’t know how the heck I’m doing this, but I’m out here and I have to keep children alive and stuff so I have to do . We have different approaches to that. Both Hot Young Widows Club and No Happy Ending, which is hilarious, the follow-up, it’s hilarious and sad and brutal. She’s super hard on herself but in a really funny, real way like your friend would be. I cannot say enough good things about her.

Zibby: Me too. She’s hilarious, and also with the grief and the funny. Now I feel bad we’re doing a round-up of all these other grief books. We should be talking about your book. How long did it take you to write your book, by the way?

Leslie: Oh, gosh. There’s how long it took to write it when I thought I was done and then when my editors thought I was done. That’s a whole separate process. I think I started writing the first chapter about being in the graveyard, I wrote a month or two after Scott died to get it off my chest, literally, because it felt like it was on my chest. That was ’15. I think I finished a first version probably in ’18, so two and a half years. That’s when we sold it. Then I sent it in. They were like, oh, edits, edits. It was done-done sometime last year, but I thought it was done sometime in 2017/2018, . It took about a year and a half, two years to complete it. As James Patterson said to me once, “Everyone doesn’t need to know everything that you know. Everyone doesn’t care about everything you write.” I was like, brutal but true. It’s like the kill your darlings thing. When something like this happens — I know that you interview memoirists like your previous guest. It’s so hard when everything seems super important to you because that’s why you wrote about it, and then someone else comes back and says, do we need this part? There were one or two things where I was like, yes, we have to have that. I can curse on this show, right?

Zibby: Yeah, go ahead.

Leslie: There’s a line in the first couple pages where I said my life was a great sparkly clusterfuck. Editors kept taking that out. I would write it back in because I thought it was funny. I’m easily amused. To me, that’s what it is. When you’re in that thing where something bad has happened and it’s super, super, capital-B bad, but it’s so spectacularly rotten and awful that it seems special somehow, that it didn’t just blow up a little, it blow up a lot, and you’re like, damn, that was really impressive how much my life just blew up right then, that’s what it felt like. I fought for that. There were some chapters where I could tell it was raw because I was super angry about stuff, like the scene when we’re in the hospital. People in the hospital were not nice to me. I wrote a lot of really pointed things that honestly should’ve been kept in a journal somewhere because they came off as angry. It’s angry enough. I am glad that it was edited. I went back and rewrote some things that were more on the bewildered tip rather than just be, I hate this person so much right now. It wasn’t necessary. Editors are really good. Otherwise, it would have been five hundred pages, and nobody wants that.

Zibby: I thought the way you handled that scene, though, in the hospital when you were kind of losing it at somebody and then giving yourself permission to lose it at this person, I thought it was interesting how you did that. You didn’t just lose it and let it go. You had commentary. You checked with your friend.

Leslie: What’s so funny is — and you know this. As women, we do that all the time. We’ll say something to a waiter. Immediately, the waiter leaves, we’ll go, was I too hard on that person? Was I too whatever? That’s in a normal situation, like bartenders and waiters and the woman who’s taking too long to check you into your flight. Was I hard on her? At this moment, I just felt — I used the word untethered. I could feel all of it rising out of the ground. The spike was gone, and the hot air balloon was gone. I knew that I should probably care. Then I decided I didn’t care because that was her job. I don’t ever want to make anyone feel bad about themselves. I think if you get to focus on how you feel the moment where you’re being told your husband is dead, it’s probably that moment. No one else to feel catered to. It’s like, but how do you feel, person with the bad news?

Zibby: Honestly, one of the most impressive parts of the book to me was that your husband got up in the middle of the night to check on your son and came back in and started hooking up with you, and you did. That’s impressive to me. It’s like three in the morning. More power to you. I’m glad you seized the moment.

Leslie: Can you imagine how awful I would feel to this day if I hadn’t, if I’d gone, eh? I always say that it’s just like when people die and you go, oh, my god, if I had just called her back when she called, we would’ve made up, or it was weird last time when we left and I didn’t do that. Literally, there was no doubt how we felt about each other at that moment because we were making out. His cousins think it’s hilarious. There’s something that didn’t make the book. There used to be this show on A&E, I think, called Sex Sent Me to the ER. His cousin, whose birthday it was, his cousin Kenny who did The Jeffersons singalong at the funeral, Kenny drives up from Fort Lauderdale and says to Scott’s body, “Dude, if you had just survived this, you could’ve been on that show.”

Zibby: What’s coming next for you? Do you want to write more books? You’re obviously still a journalist.

Leslie: I do. I want to do a lot of things, all of them involving writing because I don’t know how to do anything else. Every once in a while, I would go — I auditioned for The Voice a couple times, did not happen. I was like, I’ll do something new because journalism. Then now this is all I know how to do, is to write things on paper. I’m working on a book right now, in the very early stages, of fiction actually. It’s a rom-com. Of course, it has elements of middle-aged black people in love. There’s widowhood. There’s all that kind of stuff too. It’s based on a screenplay I wrote by longhand in a notebook twenty-something years ago and never did anything with. This is just those characters old. No one knows who they are because I never did anything with it. It seems real personal to me. It’s like, I have this sitting here, I might as well do something with it. I’m recycling.

Zibby: Perfect. Love it. That’s great. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Leslie: I do. First is just to write. When people say they’re aspiring writers, if you write, you’re a writer. I think most people, what they mean is, I aspire to be paid for writing. I aspire to be admired for my writing. All you have to do is just start writing. There’s never been a better time, particularly right now because people are home and looking for things to read, to, even though blogging isn’t as big as it used, have a blog, to do something really cool on your Instagram, to write poetry, to get stuff out there. I think people are looking for connection, real solid human connection. If you’ve got something in your heart that you need to write that will connect to people, I think this is a perfect time to do it, to follow writers online, not to ask them for anything yet, but just to follow them and see what they do, to read everything. What you were saying in the previous interview was just about reading. I have to piggyback on what she was saying. This is such an amazing — I’ve always loved the title of your podcast and of this Instagram because it speaks to such a specific experience and need that moms and everyone have even when you’re busy, to do stuff. I think people like you who love books and who love words and who want to keep people reading and writing are so important. I think it’s encouraging to aspiring writers that these platforms exist. So thank you. Thank you for being able to do that. I mean it. It’s true.

Zibby: Thank you. I love it. I get to talk to great women like you who I might not have gotten to talk to, and Nina. It was a great day. Thank you so much for coming on. Thanks for sharing your innermost life in your book so that people like me could sit in my bed at night and enjoy it. Honestly, it’s a gift. It’s really a gift.

Leslie: Oh, my god, thank you. I really appreciate it. If one person is moved by it, then it was worth it to write it and to go through the, oh, my god, I’m writing this, to do it. I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care.

Leslie: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Leslie Gray Streeter, BLACK WIDOW