Lisa Donovan: I’m glad to meet you.

Zibby Owens: I’m glad to meet you too.

Lisa: I admittedly have been so far up my own ass with this book for the last three or four years. I am just finding spaces where I’m like, I can’t wait to read this blog. I can’t wait to watch this. I’m just glad to know of you now. All of the connections that get made when you come out with a book are really special, so I’m glad to know that you’re out there.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice. I feel like I’ve gotten to know so many people. I used to be a big reader anyway, but not like this. Now every memoir, every book I open, I get to know so much about people that our paths might not have crossed in life. Now look, it’s like magic. I love it.

Lisa: It feels like a really special time in that arena. I was just talking with someone. We were having a little pre-interview. He happens to be a really good friend of mine. We were just talking. I said, one of the really great things about this has been making connections with other writers. There have been so many women writers who’ve written memoirs this year. They’re all so different. Phyllis Grant is a really great example of someone who came out with memoirs that are very parallel. We’ve never met, but we’ve kind of looked at each other like, how have we — obviously, we know. We were both doing what you just did this morning, which is juggling it all and creating this career and creating these lives for ourselves and our families. We kind of are all coming out of the woods at the same time like, there you are. I knew you were out here. I was just too busy to find you. Now we’re telling similar stories, but in really different ways. It’s really special. It’s a really neat time.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Even earlier today, I did podcast with an author, Alyssa Shelasky, who wrote a book called Apron Anxiety. It intersperses recipes and stories. Then Phyllis Grant also has been on my podcast, and you. I’m loving all these food, memoir, growing up, and experience. If this were real life, I would say let’s all get together. I’m going to do an event with you guys, but you know.

Lisa: That would be great.

Zibby: Someday.

Lisa: I really hope that we can put a pin in all of those things and really make them happen next year. It’s been very nice and relaxing to be able to do this from my desk and my bedroom. That’s been a nice energy restorative experience. Whereas the traveling, I used to travel a lot as a chef, it really starts to take its toll on you when you’re traveling four and five times a month, especially when you’re flying. I was definitely getting a little threadbare in that way. I really want next year to be — I’m trying to keep a little ledger of every time I say that or someone says that to me, like, event with Zibby and Phyllis.

Zibby: Will you please put it in? We could something now. I just feel like it’s not as great. It’s not the same as when you get a group together. I love pairing people who have so much to discuss. Please write it down.

Lisa: An energy in a room is so nice. I’m really starting to miss that zeitgeist of people talking together and an audience listening. Admittedly, at the beginning of this, I was like, phew, I don’t have to sit on a stage and talk about myself. Now I’m kind of like, but look at all these people that I can sit on the stage with and talk about what our work is. It’s going to be a great opportunity. I’m keeping notes. I’m trying to remember all of the plans that we’re dreaming of now and make them happen next year.

Zibby: Put me at the top of the list. Once the floodgates have opened and we can all come rushing forward and planning stuff, can’t wait. Tell me more about writing your book. Tell me about when you decided your life would be a book. Then how did you take everything that happened and put it on the page?

Lisa: As cliché as it sounds, I think I’m one of those weird people that always was a writer even when I was a kid. That’s how I processed things. I’m just a writer. Whether I’m good or bad is to be determined, but that’s how I process my experiences. Did I ever think I was going to write a memoir of this caliber as far as personal exposure goes? No, not even close. I think that there was a time in the world that changed and became available where I started to realize that I knew I was going to use — there are plenty of stories in my life that are great material for storytelling and that are good stories in and of themselves. In my head, I thought, that’ll be for a novel. That’ll be for short stories. That’ll be for screenplays. That’ll be for my creative process later in life. I’ll use all these interesting characters in different ways as a writer. Then the world sort of changed. I left the restaurant industry and had a real significant experience, a personal experience, with myself of, the word is getting so overused, but a reckoning with myself of the ways in which I tried to maneuver the world and the ways in which that was effective and then the ways in which I know it was damaging to me and other women around me and the acquiescences that we make and the stories we don’t tell, the stories we don’t even share amongst ourselves as women and how private and shamefully secret a lot of these stories become for us as we move through the world.

Really started to take apart what the parallels were between the acquiescences and this very patriarchal infrastructure, patriarchal and racist system out in the world that we all try to ladder-climb in with this self-accountability of what I was doing to bring power to that world by keeping these things so private and carrying all of these things as if it were some sort of burden. My own life was a burden to the world. The space that I was going to take up with my stories was burdensome for the world. We get these ideas of the ways in which women are supposed to be accommodating. I really started to get frustrated by the boundaries that I had to live in because I was playing that game of not being burdensome to the world. I wrote the essay about the restaurant industry. It got categorized as a sort of Me Too essay in the larger zeitgeist of the conversation that was happening at the time. That was a moment for me where not only did I realize how good it felt to get all of that language out of me, the response was really interesting to me. How much people seemed to need to hear those small stories that were contained within that essay was a real awakening for me.

It was a real moment for me to realize that there’s power in telling our stories. There’s power in talking about sexual assault at a time when it takes forty women to bring one man down in our culture. That problem in our culture and society rests solely on the fact that we acquiescence and keep these stories to ourselves for so long. There’s no space for us to have the conversations about rape and abortion and about what it means to be a woman in all the ways, beautiful ways, connective ways. It just felt like a really great opportunity to finally share what was a very true experience for one woman in the world. The more we can start opening up those spaces, I think that’s how we can create societal change about how we treat women in this country. I didn’t realize I was going to ever write a memoir in this capacity, but it happened. Here we are. I look really forward to writing some fiction and some things that are a little less making me feel completely exposed to the world. There’s that level of it too. I do understand, for me, why this was important. It’s also difficult to lay it all out there bare.

Zibby: There’s a lot in there. Some of the scenes, I was just like, oh, my gosh, Lisa, I can’t believe it. The one with your ex and the baby on the bed, I won’t go into it, but my heart was breaking for you, and then the way that his mother even handled your relationship after and just all of it.

Lisa: The trick of those kinds of stories is how frequent and common they are for women out in the world. Here I was, this figure of note in my arena, in my industry, and viewed as someone was no nonsense and strong and independent and hardworking and created my own — all of the strong, independent woman tropes surrounded me. I thought, it’s really kind of messed up that no one truly understands how a strong woman is built. They think that we just appear. I really wanted to give some language to what creates and builds these strong women out in the world. It’s oftentimes, in fact, probably never ease and because they just plowed their way through. No, there was definitely something to build that strength and that power and that ability to manage greater circumstances that I think people just assume you were born with.

Zibby: It’s like people working out in the gym. I’m envisioning this muscle man type of weight area of a gym. You can walk in. People have different baselines. You have to go through the pain of lifting for anybody to get stronger. You can be relatively strong, but in order to really get strong, you have to put in some sort of tissue-breaking hard work. For emotional strength, it’s exactly the same. It has to come out of somewhere. You have to break something down to build it back up again, unfortunately. I wish it hadn’t have happened to you that way and all the rest. I have to say, when I started reading your book, your table of contents and the way that you structured each chapter, the title and the accompanying food, was so brilliant that I took a picture of that page. I have been meaning to post it, but of course I haven’t remembered to do so. I get such a kick out of well-structured and creative, clever formats. I really loved how you did that.

Lisa: Thanks. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have chapter titles. Then it just started happening really naturally where each chapter sort of became an essay in and of itself. The two words that had each chapter became for me almost like an outline. It just helped me stay on both a thematic structure as well as a feeling of that time. I’m glad you said that. Thank you. It just came about naturally. I was like, well, I’ll just keep it.

Zibby: I loved it. When you were writing, take me through the writing process. You had these titles. Did you have a list of all of them first and then you filled in it, or as each one came? What was the writing process like? Were you sitting right there? Where did you write all this?

Lisa: This is where I did it all, and sometimes on the ground in a puddle. The writing process was — it’s the first time I’ve ever done anything this big. I’ve written a lot of essays. I’ve written a lot of larger format sort of things, but I’ve never written a book. Obviously, it’s my first book. It was an interesting process because I had to learn to be messy, and that’s not something I’m good at. I can be. I am messy in my creative efforts, but I oftentimes don’t share that. The part that was so hard about the writing process for me was presenting disastrous work to my editor so that we could work out of it. I spent a lot of time in those early months of starting this book being really cloistered and really trying to edit myself before I gave it to my editor. It took me some time. That’s just a result, I’m pretty sure, of working in a pretty high-stress kitchen being a pastry chef. My standards for what I’m willing to present are very high. I hold myself to a very high standard when I’m engaging with another professional. In a kitchen, for example, if you’re the pastry chef — if you’re a cook or a sous chef, it’s a little different. As the pastry chef, as the chef of my department, I would get ideas and I would do all of that messy work very privately. I would figure it out and do the math and make all the equations work. Then when I had something that felt as close to finished as possible, that’s when I would say, hey, I need you guys to taste this. It’s going on the menu soon. I would take notes. Then I would tweak and do that kind of stuff.

I think I went into this book with that idea of, I have to get this right before I show it to her. It took me some time to get out of that training that my brain was used to. Once, she brought me closer and she was like, “You just got to brain dump, brain dump, brain dump.” There was a lot of stories that just came out. I just let them come out. Then we found our structure from there of, look, what’s our overall conversation here? For me, it was really important to make sure that the conversation was significantly and nearly entirely about how women engage and find and love and care for each other and all of the complexities of that. I’m really intrigued by the ways in which women move around this world together. It feels like we are all part of this — it makes me think of, what’s in the ocean? The channel that moves through the Gulf Coast, the Gulf Stream. It kind of feels like we all have this similar movement around this world and we all are tethered to this way of experiencing and communicating. There’s something really powerful about that. There’s also something very painful about that because of these shared experiences and traumas and things that we experience as women that, frankly, men I think can’t understand on some level. It’s not like men do not experience trauma, but I think women have very different experiences in the world. We’re tethered together in all of these ways. That, to me, I really wanted to talk about the complexities in which women move through this world together and alone.

Everything became, is it useful to have this? Is this story useful to that bigger picture of talking about the complexities of how women engage with one another and also what I’m hoping to pass to my own daughter and how I’m hoping to leave her with less of all of this generational undoing and unlearning? That is a huge priority for me. That was a huge priority for the book. Also, just keeping to those themes. Then structurally, what happened was I just started taking each chapter like it was its own short story or a short essay, its own essay. Then after we compartmentalized it that way, we started to do a little bit of weaving so that they didn’t feel so chopped, like it didn’t feel, hopefully, like a short story collection. What we wanted was to weave them together. It was an evolution of how we could best get all of these things to work as a whole. It was a really beautiful experience. I have two editors. They’re both women. It was just this really special, really truly wonderful experience. Penguin Press has been one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. I hope I can write for them forever. It’s a really, really special house. I’m very proud to be one of their writers. They have taken such good care of this book. I can’t even tell you. It’s amazing to me.

Zibby: I’m so glad. That’s wonderful. Has your daughter read this book?

Lisa: Parts. She’s fifteen. She’ll be sixteen in a few weeks. She’s picking it up and putting it down, picking it up and putting it down. I think they’re nervous. Both of my kids are a little nervous. My son is twenty. He’s like, “Mom, I love you.” We had a lot of talks before as I was writing these stories just about his comfort level and what he was comfortable with me sharing. For a while, it was mine and his experience. He’s like, “No, I don’t feel like that was my experience. I feel like this is wholly your experience. You worked really hard to make this not a thing I even have to recall. I feel so incredibly removed from any of these stories.” He was fully supportive, but he’s also not quite ready to read the book. He’s like, “I think there are just some things I’m not ready to know.” I’m like, “That is totally fair.” Maggie has read, I don’t think she’s read it all the way through, but she’s cherrypicked some chapters. I actually don’t think she’s made it to the last chapter, which is interesting because that’s the part that when my husband read it, he just was sobbing.

I’m going to cry. He was like, “This is such a gift for her. It’s going to be something that she keeps. She can revisit her whole life. It exists forever now. She can look at this when she’s seventy and know this was something you felt when she was growing up. It’s the best gift.” I was like, oh, my god. You don’t really think about that. You’re not really thinking about your audience. There was a lot of retroactive — if you think about your audience too much, you’ll never write the book. You’ll just be obsessed with, who’s going to think what of what? It was really important to me to not blame anybody or indict anyone, even people that deserved blaming and indictment. It was really important for me for this to be about my own work, my own internalized undoing and unlearning and really taking some things apart that, yes, I can assign blame to. I think my grandfather takes the biggest hit here. It was really important to me to make this about what I learned and how I moved forward from these experiences. I hope that the messaging makes its way with ease. There’s always more time to write books.

Zibby: Are you already thinking about your next book?

Lisa: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: Yeah? Memoir? Fiction?

Lisa: No. One memoir is enough. I shouldn’t say that. The next memoir doesn’t have to be quite so guttural. When I think about Ruth Reichl and Nora Ephron, I think everything will always be a little obviously reflective of my own life. I value that so much in how women tell stories. I have plenty of material to use. I’m working on some other projects that are not nonfiction. It’s exciting for me to take these stories and have a little bit of freedom. There’s lots of rules with memoir. You have to really hold yourself accountable in every — well, you hold yourself accountable, hopefully, as a writer anyway, but you’re holding yourself accountable to truth and fact and data. You worry about, am I getting this right? Am I remembering? I was talking with Dave Chang on his podcast last week. He wrote a beautiful memoir. He sent it to her sister. His sister emails him saying, “David, I love you. I don’t remember it this way at all, but I’m glad that you had a space to write it.” There’s that experience of what truth lives in each experience for each individual. You’re faced with that reality of everyone’s having their own personal moment that is very different than the person standing next to you. Memoir keeps you in these really rigid boundaries of making sure you’re holding accountability to truth. Whereas if you’re doing nonfiction, you have a lot more freedom. You get to play a little bit more. It was a good first exercise. Eventually, maybe I’ll write more memoir. I would love that. I’ve gotten all the hard stuff out of the way, hopefully, knock on wood. Right now, it feels really good to be in a space where the creative part of my brain really gets to play and create character profiles.

Zibby: What is your relationship like these days to baking and chef-dom and creating and cooking and all of that?

Lisa: It’s always going to be my first love. Writing is so much a part of who I am that it doesn’t even feel like a vocation or a hobby. It feels so much a part of, again, just how I process and move through the world. Baking is really truly one of the first vocations and crafts and tactical work that I fell so in love with. That, I recognize in my husband. He’s a ceramicist. His affinity and his education and his passion for the material is so familiar to me in the way that baking feels for me. It will always be that for me. I will always have a very deep visceral response and connectivity to baking. The food world is in a hard place right now, in a great place in some ways. They’re having really important conversations about food justice. All of these things are incredibly important and timely and necessary. Not to say I’m peace-ing out because it’s getting hard. That’s not what I’m saying. I feel like it’s a good time to let some younger people have the space in that world. There’s a lot of really great energy happening from the twenty to thirty-five-year-olds coming up. They’ve got a lot to say. I am so happy to sit and hear what they are bringing to the table. I don’t know that you ever age out of a conversation like that, but I am also self-aware enough to know that I’m learning a lot from these younger writers in the food space.

This quarantine has been a really great opportunity to chill out and listen and read and learn. Some of it, I’m really excited about. Some of it I think still needs some work. I am really glad to be in a space where I’ve earned the opportunity to do work in a different way. I was always out in the streets. I was always front line of the hard conversations. I’m not scared of those things. I’m also getting to an age now where I want to do something that’s a little bit more dedicated to something that builds and cultivates, and even in a really private way. I’m getting really comfortable with wholly being a writer, not a chef writer. It’s been a real joy and partially a relief to hear people say, “This shouldn’t even be in a food memoir category. It’s hard to even call you a chef now because your writing seems to be so much your focus.” That’s been really nice to hear because that’s sort of been my goal. You can’t cook in a kitchen forever. I never made sense with the banks or the investors of how to open my own space. In this time, I’m really glad that I’m not saddled with trying to — so many of my best friends are trying to keep things from just completely falling apart right now. It’s a really hard time to be a chef and a restauranteur.

This lockdown, this quarantine time has given, I think, a lot of people the space to really refocus what their intentions might have been before life carried them away. I feel like I’m in that space. I don’t think I ever would’ve given myself permission to stop cooking as a private chef or doing consulting or developing recipes unless the world had sort of made me stop. Just this little amount of time away from my perpetual insecurity of not losing potential income, I will never not have that. This time’s even turned that on its head. You realize we don’t need as much as we thought. We actually need a lot less than we’re working so hard for. If the tradeoff is getting to work in my yard ten hours a week or getting to go on long walks with my husband or cuddling up with the dog for an hour a day, okay, I’m down. That’s a good trade. I’ll do it. I think my relationship to the food world is one that will always exist, but I definitely can actively say I’m working hard so that I can just write full time. Again, I’ll probably always write about food in some way or my experiences as a chef because I think that’s the well from which I draw my writing material. I want it to transcend this food media conversation. I’m growing less interested in that and more interested in making something beautiful out of the same kinds of conversations and making more cultural experiences for people than hardnosed, fuck it all. That’s starting to feel less useful to me than it once did.

Zibby: Lisa, thank you. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for sharing all of your amazing thoughts. You have such a soothing, centered voice. I feel like I could just sit here and listen to you forever. Maybe a podcast is in your future. I feel like you should take it on the road. That could be really fun for you.

Lisa: The world is all of our oysters now. We can make happen. Why not?

Zibby: Why not? Have a great day.

Lisa: It was nice to talk with you.

Zibby: It was so nice to talk to you. Please keep our event on the top of your list.

Lisa: I will.

Zibby: We will do it. Now it will be one of my post-quarantine goals.

Lisa: Good. Take care of yourself.

Zibby: Thank you. You too.

Lisa: Talk to you soon.

Zibby: Okay, buh-bye.