Zibby is joined by editor and author Liz Scheier to discuss her debut memoir, Never Simple, which details the complex relationship she had with her mother. The two talk about the steps Liz took to paint as full of a picture of her mother as she could, when she found the time to write while raising two kids under two, and how her experience as an editor helped her as a writer. Liz also shares what she’s learned about parent-child relationships overall, her thoughts on elder care after arranging as much security as she could for her mother towards the end of her life, and which parts of her story she decided not to share in the book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Liz. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Never Simple: A Memoir.

Liz Scheier: Thank you so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure to be here.

Zibby: I was starting to tell you before we recorded that as soon as this book came in, I was like, I want to stop everything and read this. This is a book that if I were in a bookstore, this is a hundred percent the book I would pick up. Then it did not disappoint in the slightest. I really, really enjoyed it. I actually listened to the whole thing, which I didn’t think I would, but I did. Every back and forth to my kids’ school was you walking with me, so thanks.

Liz: Wonderful. Thank you. I thought the narrator did an amazing job. Amy Landon, she has such a talent.

Zibby: She did. Was that a debate, by the way? Did you consider narrating yourself, or you were like, no thanks?

Liz: I used to work for an audiobook publisher back in the day. One of the main lessons I took away from that is that just because you can write does not mean you can perform. I certainly knew that to be true about myself. This was definitely a job for a professional.

Zibby: Got it. She did a great job. It was really wonderful. For those who are not familiar with Never Simple, could you explain a little bit about your memoir? I read — was it on your website somewhere? You said you took a break and decided you wanted to write, but you decided not to write about your mom. Then two years later, it was all about your mom. Let me hear that whole story.

Liz: Absolutely. The memoir begins on a particular otherwise uneventful day when I was eighteen when my mother came into the room to drop two bombshells. Number one, she had been married most of my life to a man I had never heard of, and number two, that my father, the man she had told me was my father, was a complete fiction. She’d totally made him up, fake story, fake pictures, fake name, fake everything. The memoir unspools from there, my journey to find out who this man actually was and what else that had been going on in my house growing up was completely fictional. I sat down to write this story when I came back from maternity leave with my second child. My kids are fourteen months apart because my husband and I are not so bright. I had two kids under a year and a half at home, and so the only time that I had free was the magical hour of lunchtime when I had both childcare and nobody tugging at my sleeve needing anything either at home or at work. Two days a week, I went to the gym. Three days a week, I sat down to work on this writing project. It took two years because that’s not a lot of time. The lesson there for me was that incremental work really adds up and that you can make something good out of small work.

Zibby: Not to mention that two years is not a particularly long time to be working on a memoir. I don’t feel like that’s out of the normal realm.

Liz: It’s not. Overall, it was easier than I thought to get that work done. A lot of things that people told me about having kids and becoming a mother turned out not to be terribly true. One thing that was absolutely true was that you learn to prioritize really quickly because your time is so limited that you have to make time for the things that matter to you.

Zibby: Give a busy person something to do. Boom, boom, boom. I know. I’m like, just put it on the stack. The machine is on. One more copy from a busy copy machine makes no difference, really, in the long run. Tell me a little bit about how you wrote it, those consecutive days, or nonconsecutive days, rather, where you were working on it and then the final structure in terms of timeline. I’m always so interested in, where do you start? What is chronological? What isn’t? How did you decide on the timeline and all of that?

Liz: I sat down to write it in — spoiler alert — what would be the last year of my mother’s life when she was insecurely housed. I was spending hours every week talking to lawyers and the police and case workers and whomever she’d run afoul of at that moment. At first, it was just somewhere to put all the fear and concern and love and rage and everything that comes into taking care of an elderly mentally ill parent. The first parts of it were all around that. The second half of the book is really about that kind of care scenario. Then she died a year into the project. I looked up, and I had half a book. I had fifty thousand words. I thought, wow, this is not a therapy project after all. This could really be something and maybe be something that would help other people in similar positions. I took that section of the book and thought, what do you need to know to make this make sense? What do you need to know about her life to know how someone starts as one of the first women lawyers working in New York and ends up about to lose your apartment? The book progressed along those lines of how to make this a story that hung together.

Zibby: I loved how you did a little detective work along the way to try to figure things out once you got that news. You were like, how were we surviving here on the Upper East Side? How was all this working when she wasn’t working? Where was the money coming from? All your deep dives and setbacks and the disappointing call with the sister, I kept rooting at every step. No, make this rewarding for her. What’s going to happen now? The way you wrote about your mom when her health was starting to decline that weekend where you were out of town on Fire Island or something — you came back. She had been on the floor for twenty-four hours. You had to get her back into bed. All the details around that moment, that was heartbreaking. Oh, my gosh.

Liz: That’s part of the story that I hope will be helpful to other people. No matter what the circumstances are, elder care is challenging. We live in a country where it is ruinously expensive. The system can be Kafka-esque. It is just really challenging to get good care for someone who is in those last years of their lives. Then you throw these complicating factors into it. It can be dramatic and difficult.

Zibby: It’s also hard when you have such a complicated relationship. Then all of a sudden, they become needy. It’s such a power shift. You have to, in that moment, decide, am I stepping up or not? How does that make me feel? Can I forgive all of the stuff? I’m projecting.

Liz: Can I forgive? How does it affect my own family? When I started talking to some of the social workers, there was always an assumption that she would come to live with me if her housing situation didn’t work out. My mother could be quite violent even in her later years. At the time, I had a one-and-a-half and a two-and-a-half-year-old. I was trying to picture what our lives would look like if I could never leave them alone with her when she was awake. Ultimately, my husband and I decided that was not an option. I don’t know if that was the right decision. I don’t think I’ll ever know. Honestly, if you gave me those years back to do again, I would probably make a different decision about every single thing, and half of it would still be wrong.

Zibby: Really?

Liz: Yeah, because there’s really no way to know if you did the right thing. The hard thing about elder care is that, especially as busy, overachieving people, we always think there’s the right answer. There’s the good thing to do. If we just hire the right lawyer or tick off the right box on the to-do list, we can make the right decision. With these circumstances, there is no right decision. There’s just the least worst. It’s figuring out how to identify the least worst.

Zibby: I’m in no position to judge, but I still think your obligation becomes to your kids. You wrote so much in the book about the really scary times you had with your mom and the time where there was a policeman there, and she whacked your head against a door frame. They were just like, all right, have fun, and left you guys alone. It’s so devastating. To even have that as a possibility around these creatures who also depend on you, that’s a risk.

Liz: It is, yeah. Something I tried to do in the book was to paint the whole picture of someone who is living with and struggling with mental illness. My mother could be very violent. Living with her could be difficult, as you have just noted. She was also really brilliant and really funny. She gave me a lot as a parent. She really tried the very best she could. It’s just that her very best was not great. She didn’t have any resources to be a better parent. I tried to build a story around her to really show all of the sides of her. She wasn’t a villain. There was no mustache twirling, no hand steepling à la Mr. Burns. She was just a person who didn’t have the ability to do what the world had given her.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to suggest she was a bad person. I hope that’s not how that came across.

Liz: Oh, no, not at all.

Zibby: I don’t want to give things away in the book. The scene where you realized why she had reacted so strongly when she caught you at home with a boy when you should’ve been at school and you finally understood why that was such a trigger to her, it’s such a gracious act. It helps the reader understand things too. I feel like you did a very good job in the whole picture of her.

Liz: Thank you. That’s my hope.

Zibby: Which is not easy when it’s a mom with eighteen million experiences you have with her. What did you decide not to include? Were there things that were too — most of the scenes you wanted, did you end up keeping in about her?

Liz: I kept in as much as I could. I wish I had known more about her life that I could’ve included, about her young life. The only living person, as I was writing, who had known her at that age was her brother who was suffering with a brain tumor and actually died a few months ago. Those stories were not really available to us anymore. That’s something I thought about a lot when I was writing the book because the history she gave me was not always true. That’s one of the reasons we don’t know about history, is because it’s misrepresented to us. A lot of it is also just gone. If you don’t have a memoirist in the family, these stories can just disappear as people pass on from the earth. One scene that I originally tried to write about and ultimately could not was that in my mid-twenties, she came to me and said, “I am going to be evicted. I have run out of money. You need to move in with me so that I can stay in the apartment.” I did move in with her and lived in her living room for about two years. My mental health really took a pretty hard crack during that time. After about two years, I finally said, I have to prioritize this even if this does turn out badly for her. I left. I found out later that that had been not true. She was fine for the rent. She had just wanted to keep me closer to her. When I think back on that time, first of all, I think of my mid-twenties self so falling to pieces and also think of how I’m still pretty angry that that happened. I was just not up to the task of relating that with any kind of sensitivity or objectivity at this stage.

Zibby: Wow, that’s very interesting. I feel like you provided a foil for your relationship with your ex-girlfriend, Laura, and her mom and how enmeshed their relationship was. Tell me a little bit about that and even how you processed watching that codependency play out in real life.

Liz: My ex was a woman I was with for about eight years. Her parents were divorced. Her father was living, but she and her mother were very close. At first, I think I understood that to be the perfect relationship. They’d call each other in times good and bad and all of that. As time went by and I saw that whenever Laura would get off the phone with her, sometimes she would cry because her mother had said something sort of kindly cutting to her and that she would be afraid to make certain moves in her life without her mother’s approval although she was well into her thirties at the time, I realized that there are a lot of ways to have a difficult parent-child relationship. They’re all complicated. The world is not hurting for the stories of complicated parent-child relationships. That made an interesting contrast to me, the ways in which these relationships were not what we might consider ideal, but in very different ways.

Zibby: Interesting. It’s always good to see what everybody else is dealing with. Another part of the book that I personally loved so much was your experience in publishing and how you started out and even the big room or closet, you called it, where you got to get all the books and how you navigated your way through the industry in science fiction and your Midwestern experience and that whole storyline. How do you feel about being on this side now having worked on that side? What new perspectives do you have? What did you take with you the most?

Liz: Oh, my gosh, so many new perspectives. I was in publishing for many, many years as an editor. From there, I went to and Amazon. I’ve been on the editorial side, the retail side, and now the author side.

Zibby: Wait, slow that down because I find this so interesting. Explain more, where you started, what your different things were, and when you switched different sides of the business.

Liz: I did a couple of tours of duty at Random House and one at Penguin when they were different companies. They are now under one. I was a development and acquisitions editor, which means that you buy books or, rather, buy the license to publish books from authors through their literary agents, work on the book with them, and then publish them. I mostly did genre. I started in romance and then went to science fiction. I think that was helpful in publishing a book of my own because I just sort of had a shortcut to the lingo and the things about publishing that are maybe a little bit weird. I already understood them and didn’t have to be introduced to these concepts. Mostly now, I just hope that I was kind enough to my authors the week of publication because I did not realize how nerve-racking it is to be on the other side. I’m looking back on that with great hope that I was sufficiently supportive of my authors.

Zibby: You did the Penguin Random House. Then what made you go to Barnes & Noble and Amazon? How did you shift the job functions and everything?

Liz: I left Random House in January 2009 because the economy had crashed pretty dramatically, as you may recall. There was a mass layoff across Random House. That was the day we discovered who kept a bottle in their desk. Most people, it turns out. All of us who’d been laid off scattered into the world figuring out what to do next because we had this very specific skill set. We were trying to figure out what it transferred to. I freelanced for a while. I worked for a startup that did e-books for the iPhone. This was before the Apple Store. It was seven engineers and me in a single room next to a court stenography school, which I have to admit I did not realize was still a thing. That was an amazing experience. I had never worked for a .

Zibby: That would actually be really fun, to take that class to learn how to do that. I would be interested in that. How do they do that? They just pound away.

Liz: There’s this little machine about the size of a terrier, a wheely thing you behind you. I don’t know. I wish I’d had more time to chat with those people. From there, I went to to do digital strategy and from there, to Amazon to do audiobooks.

Zibby: Wow. Then when were you an educational consultant? You listed that somewhere. On some website, it said that. I was like, when did that happen?

Liz: I work for an educational nonprofit now.

Zibby: Educational nonprofit, sorry.

Liz: When we moved to DC, my husband got his dream job here as a tax attorney for the DOJ, which I’m assured is more interesting than it sounds because it would have to be. I looked around in DC. There’s no publishing in DC. It’s still a very, as you know very well, a New York-centered industry. Was lucky to start working for a nonprofit here making applications and websites and all of the stuff. We work with teachers.

Zibby: Very cool. Love it. I just read a children’s book about — oh, you know what it was? It’s by James Patterson. It’s one of his middle-grade books. I think it’s called Laugh Out Loud. In it, the parents of Jimmy are tax attorneys. One’s a tax attorney. One is a tax something else. All the jokes are about April 15th and all this stuff. Anyway, you should get it for him. He might find it amusing.

Liz: I definitely will.

Zibby: I think it’s called Laugh Out Loud. I’m reading it to my kids. That’s excellent. There’s so much in this story. You didn’t want to have kids for a long time. You were afraid you would mother in the same way. What if that happened to you? You just didn’t like kids particularly. People assured you you would like your own kids, but you weren’t so sure about that. I know a lot of people have been in that same position. Talk to me about that decision-making process and now being the mom of two kids.

Liz: I was never a particularly maternal person. It just was not in my life plan. My husband really, really wanted kids. At the time that he and I were dating, everything else in my life had sort of gone kerplunk. Things were not going well at my job. I had not long before gotten out of this long relationship. I’d just moved. I’d just had major surgery. It was everything at once. I thought, well, my previous plan didn’t work out so hot. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about a different plan. Having kids is something a lot of people do. It’s not crazy. It’s not terraforming Mars. This is an option. I was in my late thirties at the time. I thought, we can give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, I’m not going to go to great lengths. Long story short, I was five months pregnant at my wedding, which we were not expecting. Then my second came very soon after that. It’s a lot. You know what being a mom is like. It was a couple days after my second child’s second birthday that the pandemic began. Just as we were getting out of that stage of parenting where you can’t leave the house because your kids are young, we couldn’t leave the house because there was a global pandemic. All of the isolation of early motherhood really spun out longer than you would expect. My kids are great. It turns out I am not my mother, which is helpful. So far, count of serial killers in my household is zero. We’ll see how that goes. No promises for later, but we seem to be doing okay so far.

Zibby: It’s so funny. My youngest now is seven. At the start of the pandemic, he was five. He was finishing preschool. I remember thinking, at least my kids aren’t two. I know that’s a terrible thing to say. I was like, I don’t know if I would survive if I still had — I don’t know if I could’ve done it if I had just tiny kids at home. Not that I didn’t almost lose my mind on a daily basis during that period of time, but maybe it would’ve been worse. Maybe not. I don’t know.

Liz: There was no good situation. Nobody was like, this is great.

Zibby: I know. I find it easier as they get older, even though I love the baby stage and all of that yumminess. I miss that a lot. At least they can get themselves dressed, which is a miracle.

Liz: I’m looking forward to being a grandparent of the babies in the cute stage because then they’ll be adorable, but then you can give them back.

Zibby: I’m excited for that too. I think we both have a long ways to go. At this point, I’m like, I hope I live long enough to be a grandmother. I’m such an old mom for my littlest guy. We’ll see. I’ll be hobbling along. What has been the effect? This memoir’s been out now for two months or so. How has this affected your life? It got such amazing reception, which I’m not surprised about, Apple Best Books of the Month and recommended everywhere and New York Times, everywhere by everyone. Now what? How did it make you feel? Where do you go from here?

Liz: Thank you. I’ve been so stunned by the reaction and so grateful for it. Because publishing moves so slowly, I sold the book a year and a half before it came out. That sort of lulled me into a false sense of security. I was out there in the world like, someday, my book will be published. People will know the story. Tra, la, la. This will happen sometime. Then one day, suddenly, a lot of people had read it. There was the two buckets there. There were the strangers on the internet who had read it and then the people in my life who read it. I think the latter was even a little bit weirder because a lot of these were things that I sort of alluded to with my friends. They’re hard to talk about. First of all, you just don’t want to be the person bringing some of these challenging issues to the party. It’s not fun. It’s not a fun conversation. I’m really selling the book here, aren’t I?

Zibby: You are, though. You’re saying you wrote what you were too afraid to say, which just makes it more enticing.

Liz: I think it filled in a lot of the pieces for the people around me. We had a small book launch in my backyard after this started, right after the book came out. A neighbor sidled up to me and said, “So how does it feel to know you took off your clothes and got naked in front of the world?” I was like, yeah, that’s actually exactly how it feels. I think the most gratifying part of the reception has been people reaching out to me who have been in similar situations and similarly thought they were the only one. My mother had a diagnosis of, among other things, borderline personality disorder. Because one of the characterizing features of it is this fear of abandonment, it tends to have a great effect on parent-child relationships because there’s a desire for a closeness that goes beyond the bounds of what characterizes most parent-child relationships. A lot of people who’d been in this situation wrote to me and said, oh, my god, my mother did the same thing. I felt the same way. I’ve never talked to anybody about this. Don’t tell my publisher I said this, but if I never sell another copy, that will already make me feel like I did what I set out to do. When I had my first child, I looked around in the world and thought, how do I learn how to do this? How do I learn how to mother when my own experience was so chaotic? I couldn’t really find anything. There’s plenty of books, as I said earlier, about difficult mother-child relationships, but I couldn’t find one that then took it to the next generation. How do you not pass it down? I tried to write what I couldn’t find to read.

Zibby: That’s amazing. That’s what they say to do. Write the book you want to read and all of that. Are you working on another project?

Liz: I am. I finished a novel. Novels are hard, it turns out, because in fiction, you have to make up the whole thing. With a memoir, you just look at your life and think, what’s interesting? We’ll see if it’s any good and if it actually makes it onto shelves. I’m pretty pleased to have finished a second book because that really makes me think I can write a third.

Zibby: That’s awesome. That’s very exciting. Amazing. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Liz: I’m certainly not the first person to have said this, but I really think it is about butt in the chair. I had a word count goal for myself for those three days a week. I had to finish those words before I finished my lunch, went to my next meeting, went to the bathroom. After you’ve had two kids, that is quite the incentive. I would sit down to write my five hundred words. Sometimes they were terrible. A lot of the times, they were terrible. Editing is so much easier than writing, to my mind. Once you get it on the page, you have something you can work with. It’s not that existential drama of the blank page and the self-doubt of, I can never fill this. If you can’t get up until you’ve finished the five hundred words, you will put something on there. That is the advice I would give.

Zibby: I love that. I’m interested how you said a minute ago, don’t tell my publisher about selling more copies. Do you feel, though — this is just something I’ve been experiencing through no one’s fault, perhaps just my own — that once the book comes out, there is all this focus on the numbers that you didn’t necessarily want to be focusing on? It just happens because they’re out there. Then you get sucked into it. Do you feel like that happened to you or not really?

Liz: I am trying not to get sucked into the numbers because I remember doing that as an editor. Now in my head, I think — I have the most amazing editor in the world. I think that is her job to worry about. It is my job to be out there promoting. I’m trying to compartmentalize who deals with what at this stage in the publication.

Zibby: That’s very smart. Actually, I met your editor. Serena, right? Serena Jones?

Liz: Oh, did you?

Zibby: Yeah, and Pat Eisemann. I love the Holt crew. They’re so nice.

Liz: They are a dream-maker team. They are so incredible.

Zibby: Amazing. This was all really exciting. Your book was really great. I hope you’re really proud of it and that you feel some sort of closure or peace with your past experience as a result and that it was all worth it to you. Do you feel like that?

Liz: I definitely do. It definitely gave me some closure. Over the course of writing the book was some of this discovery about my father. Some of it was happening simultaneously. That was really, really satisfying, and again, just hearing from other people with similar situations. They were telling me how great it was for them to see themselves reflected. It is just as great for me to hear myself reflected in them. With a lot of these situations, the magic factor in making you whole about it is community and is about understanding and empathy. I think we’re all getting there. The more honestly we can talk about it, the better.

Zibby: I totally agree. By the way, I loved that you shared on Instagram, the picture of your dad. Oh, my gosh, I could not believe it.

Liz: He was such a looker, right? I really wish I had gotten to know him. The picture you’re referencing is one that someone sent me just since the book came out. I had maybe six or eight pictures of him before. He died at twenty-eight, so the pictures were all late high school through mid-twenties. This picture of when he was twelve years old, really, we are identical-looking, the same weird dimple, the same weird cowlick. It is so strange when you have not seen your face reflected in someone else to suddenly see that.

Zibby: I haven’t listened to your episode of “Family Secrets” with Dani Shapiro, but I really want to. I adore her. I can’t wait to hear the two of you talk.

Liz: She is a force.

Zibby: Liz, thank you so much. This has been great. Thank you.

Liz: Thank you so much. Such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Liz: Bye.


NEVER SIMPLE by Liz Scheier

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