Author and librarian Maisy Card talks with Zibby about how family secrets inspired her novel, These Ghosts Are Family. She shares the book’s 12-year path to publication, as well as a behind-the-scenes look into working at a library.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Maisy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Maisy Card: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. By the way, I love the name Maisy, not that you’re responsible for your own name. I really wanted to name one of my daughters Maisy. I was overruled. It’s one of my favorite names.

Maisy: Really?

Zibby: Yeah. You’re lucky. These Ghosts Are Family, what a debut novel, oh, my gosh. Not only are you getting so much attention, but it’s completely warranted attention because it’s really beautifully written and unique and awesome. Can you tell listeners what These Ghosts Are Family is about? I’ll just hold it up. What inspired you to write it?

Maisy: These Ghosts Are Family is about, I always say one Jamaican family, but it’s actually about two Jamaican families. It begins with the family patriarch, Abel Paisley, telling his descendants that when he was younger, he faked his own death in order to abandon his family in Jamaica and move to America and created a new family. The book follows the fallout of this family secret between these two families. Each chapter focuses on a different descendent or someone who was close to the family. It was really inspired by my own family, particularly my grandfather. I was just reflecting. He’s a very quiet person, a very secretive person. He actually passed away last year. I was just trying to understand how the choices that he’s made in his life have affected everyone and how we can see his choices reflected in our own lives even though I didn’t realize it until I got older.

Zibby: Does that mean he faked his own death?

Maisy: No, no.

Zibby: On a ship with a container falling on his head or anything like that? No?

Maisy: A lot of people will ask what’s true and what’s not true. I would say ninety-five, ninety-six percent is completely made up. It’s really the emotions that are what inspired me, not so much the actions. The plot is completely fictional.

Zibby: Does that ever annoy that you everybody keeps asking, including me?

Maisy: It’s okay.

Zibby: You’re like, I am a novelist, already. Can you stop talking about my own life? I don’t know why I always do that. I’m always so curious. Of all of what I read, what was you? There’s no shorthand for it.

Maisy: Yeah, because I think everything is kind of you in a way. To make characters more realistic, you’ll take something either from your own personality or your own shortcomings, your own family, and try to make it real. Some people are composite characters of people I know in some way. There are little subtle details. Actually, I started writing it based off of early memories that I had as a child. There’s a chapter about a funeral. The ritual of the funeral is based off my memory of my grandmother’s when I went to Jamaica when I was a kid. There are little details that are drawn from life.

Zibby: Interesting. In an interview you did with PEN America, you talked about how time is not atonement and how that line has stayed with you. I thought that was so interesting. Obviously, in our culture especially, somebody passes away, and everything’s perfect. You just kind of brush under the rug anything that was really upsetting. You can’t come out and say, yeah, but he was really not a nice guy. Tell me a little bit about that and how this book helps to more fully form characters of people who have passed away and how families need to deal with the aftermath of a complicated person’s death.

Maisy: My family’s very secretive and very surface. They don’t like to say bad things about people in general. I kind of had to be a bit of a detective growing up to figure out who people really were. My grandmother passed away when I was very young. Actually, I didn’t know my grandparents on my father’s side of the family. I just knew them through stories. I pictured them as being saintly, perfect people. Then as you grow up and you get to understand your parents a little more, you understand that the way they are, and maybe the negative aspects about the way they are, came from their own upbringing. It’s not really necessarily their fault. I think about that too. Especially with my grandfather, he definitely wasn’t a perfect person. He definitely did things that caused a permanent fracture in our family. He was in his eighties when I started this. He passed away when he was ninety-two. I thought about him a lot when I was writing. How do you reconcile this kind of person in your mind that has done so many bad things?

At the same time, as far as I have known him, he’s the only grandparent I grew up with. He’s been a steady presence in my life, so I do love him. He’s different people in our family. I can absolve him of the sins he’s done to me, but I really don’t have a right to do that on behalf of other people in my family. That’s where the time is not atonement — also, it’s interesting just watching people age. I guess it depends on the person. Some people become so much kinder when they get older. My grandfather, in his later years, he started to have dementia. He was literally kind of like a child. We had to take care of him like he was a child, and so you feel so much empathy. It kind of makes you forget who they were for the majority of their lives. That’s something that I reflected on while I was writing this book. What about the other people what have a different version of him in their mind than the version that I know? What are they thinking? Since we don’t ever have a discussion about anything like that in our family, and especially about feelings, I had to just imagine these feelings and this process through these fictional characters.

Zibby: My grandmother on one side passed away maybe six years ago, something like that. She also had dementia. I remember my dad and my uncles talking at her last Thanksgiving. They were like, “How does Mom seem?” One of them said, “Well, she said, I love you.” They were like, “Oh, boy. She’s on her way out.” If she’s going to be that expressive — . It is funny how true character sometimes doesn’t end up with you at the very end. All these issues are so complicated. I read in some other piece that it had something to do with your great-uncle’s death. Is that true? Did you say that in Rumpus, maybe? Is that even accurate, or not so much?

Maisy: I can’t remember what I said.

Zibby: This is me being so nosey into your life, which is crazy because I just met you. I understand also in addition to your career as a writer, you’re also a librarian. Is that still the case? Tell me about that.

Maisy: I’m switching jobs right now. I took a break. I left my previous job because I’m working on another job. I’m going to be working at a different library in New Jersey next month, actually. That influenced the book a lot. Obviously, I have a lot of access to research materials. This book took a lot of research. You interact with a lot of different people at a library, and a lot of different communities. It just made me start to think about families and the dynamics of families and communities. Also, before I became a librarian, I actually wanted to be an archivist. I thought a lot about what ancestors leave behind, and ephemera. My family is very bad at recordkeeping, which has been something that’s made me sad. I wanted to imagine if things were different — it’s not just my family’s fault. It’s obviously the history of slavery and colonialism that’s at fault. I wanted to imagine what it would be like if I could have those records and have access to piece together an accurate family tree.

Zibby: They don’t keep a lot of records. They were very secretive. I don’t know, this sounds like a memoir brewing in here somewhere once you get to the bottom of it. I’ve always wondered what it would be like working at a library because it’s such a happy place just to be there surrounded by books and people coming in actively to read and watching people. I’m always interested in consumer behavior. Why does it make someone do this? In bookstores, there’s all this back-end reason why books are positioned a certain way. Some publishers have deals where they have to be in a certain place. I’m not saying this very well. I’m stumbling on my words, but I think you know what I mean in terms of the marketing on the shelf and everything. In a library, though, you have full reign to recommend whatever and put things out. Did you start noticing different behavior patterns of people? Did you test out certain books in certain places? What did you learn from that? I feel like that would be so interesting.

Maisy: Actually, in my last job, I was a teen services librarian, so I dealt with the YA collection and also graphic novels a lot. I did test out different books. I learned a lot about covers for what attracts kids to books. I think the thing that I found most interesting was that — my section of the library was just next to the computer lab, so a lot of the adults would pass through. I think there’s this idea that people have these specific tastes, but I’ve found that most adults don’t even care. They just see a cover that looks interesting. They pick it up. They read the description. They just check it out. They don’t really care whether it’s YA or who the target audience is. I noticed that all throughout the library. People are just looking for something that catches their eye that sounds like it has an interesting plot. I don’t really think they care that much about genre or labels.

Zibby: I think the genre is more like a publishing industry — even YA, for instance, that didn’t used to be YA. Now if you write a book where you have a younger protagonist, it might be shelved different than — Marjorie Morningstar and some of these old classics, were they YA? They’re just books. Weren’t they? Upstairs Downstairs, I feel like all these books were just books.

Maisy: I realize that there’s also — a lot of adults, especially if they’re not very serious readers or they don’t read regularly, they tend to just want to read the same authors they’ve read their whole lives. People come into the library asking for Judy Blume books even as adults, whatever they were reading when they were in high school. I feel like a lot of people just wanting to keep reading that author forever.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s really an investment if you think about it, all this time you’re going to spend with somebody. That’s why I like doing this podcast so people can get an inside look at who the author is before they’re like, all right, I’m going to sit down and spend twelve hours on Maisy Card’s book. You get a little preview. I feel like people feel like they know Judy Blume in a way, which they probably don’t, or they just get so accustomed to it. Are there authors like that who are go-to’s for you?

Maisy: I started reading Jamaica Kincaid when I was in high school, so she’s a go-to author that I still read. Edwidge Danticat as well. My senior year, or maybe in college, I started reading her. Those are two authors that whenever they publish anything, I try to read.

Zibby: I had Jamaica Kincaid on this podcast.

Maisy: Wow. I’m going to listen to that.

Zibby: I’ll send you the link. It was a while ago, so you’ll have to go digging. I’ll send it to you, for her book, Party, with Ricardo Cortés, the children’s book. Tell me a little more about your path to becoming a published author. I know you have multiple graduate degrees. Tell me when you knew you wanted to write and how you got here.

Maisy: I knew I wanted to write when I was actually sixteen in tenth grade. Then after that, I picked a college. I went to Wesley. I didn’t really know a lot about college. My parents had never gone to college. I just asked my guidance counselor where I should go. She was like, “Apply here,” and I went. There, I had more creative writing classes. Actually, there, I took my first creative nonfiction class. That was the first time I’d started writing about my family because I was writing personal essays and Jamaican characters. I think that was where the idea of writing a novel like this started. Then after I graduated, I worked for two years in a nonprofit. Then I went to get an MFA at Brooklyn College. That’s really where it began. It began as separate short stories that I was writing in that program that were all based on early memories or stories that I’d heard from my mother about my father or other people in my family. I kept writing it. It took me about twelve years to finish it and get it published. I wasn’t really in a rush. I was working a lot. I didn’t know if it would ever get published, so I was just kind of writing. Maybe five or six years in, I rewrote the whole thing so that it was about the same family. All the characters were related. I had this idea to make the central protagonist that they orbit around, the Abel Paisley character, this patriarch. Around that time, I met my agent, Monica Odom. The book was half finished at that point. She gave me deadlines that I really needed. That’s when I finished it. Over the course of less than a year, maybe nine months, I finished the second half. Then we sold it. My agent at Simon & Schuster was Christine Pride. It expanded when we worked together. Even after it sold, I added another thirty thousand words. It’s been a long process.

Zibby: Wow. It must feel good to have it be coming out into the world. What does it feel like after twelve years of work on this?

Maisy: It’s very surreal. I was looking something up on Barnes & Noble. I was like, oh. Your name pops up. It’s very surreal, especially since we’re still at home. Everything’s virtual. It’s hard to feel it. I feel a little a disconnected from it.

Zibby: Did your market research on popular book covers inform the design of this one? I love the cover here, the colors and then the spine being hot pink. Don’t you feel like it’s such a great cover?

Maisy: I love the cover. Caribbean books tend to be colorful. I think that’s just a marketing thing. They did ask me to send covers that I thought were inspirational. The covers that I picked, they weren’t similar, but they did have flowers. Also, they had either people wearing masks or obscured faces. They incorporated that into the cover. I like that they also incorporated the cat head, so something from the actual text on the cover too.

Zibby: I love the colors.

Maisy: I love the colors, yeah.

Zibby: The vibe of it is fantastic. In terms of process when you sit down to write a story or something like that, what does that look like to you? Where do you like to write? How long does each thing take? Do you labor over each sentence? Do you spill it all out and then go back and edit? What’s your process like?

Maisy: My process changed when I was writing this book. The first half, I labored over every sentence. That’s why it took so, so long to write. I revised it so many times. Now I’m trying to just really focus on plot and getting the story on the page and then going back and making it sound better. I think I’m discovering my process. Because I’ve never had time before, everything was always very rushed. I would just use my vacation days or whenever to write, or write at work sometimes. Now I’m taking some time off, so I actually have time to reflect more and just focus on writing. I’m more of a binge-writer. I like to read a lot and think a lot and then just spend a very intense amount of time writing.

Zibby: When you started these stories, did you always have it narrated — what is that, the second person, where you’re like, you this, you that, imagine you?

Maisy: I don’t know. When I started it, I was in an MFA program. Nobody explicitly said these were the rules, but I would submit a draft and somebody in workshop would say, I don’t know if this is going to work in second person. I backed off on the second person. There was one chapter, Estelle’s Black Eye, that was originally in second person. I actually changed it over time because I was trying to get it published. I thought maybe that’s what was holding me back to get it published an as individual story. By the time I wrote the first chapter, actually, it was years later, so I just felt like I could do whatever I wanted. I was having a hard time. I knew I had to tell the story of how Abel Paisley faked his own death and his reasons for doing so. I was writing it in first person. I tried it in third person. I just wasn’t connecting to it. I didn’t like the reader only getting his point of view. I changed it to the second person and decided to have the reader jump into the minds of different characters. It’s kind of a blueprint for how the rest of the book is structured too. You’re really just getting one character’s actions or sin from different characters, like how it affected everybody in the entire family.

Zibby: I have to say, when I heard what your book was about, I was like, I wonder how this man is going to fake his own death. Then when I dove into it, I was like, oh, I feel like a lot of people in that situation might have done the exact same thing. It was so set up for him to do that. He would almost have had to make a choice not to do it as opposed to going to great lengths to do it. My initial thought was it must have been a very planned-out thing when in fact, it was fortuitous, or maybe not fortuitous, but definitely spontaneous incident. Interesting. Now that you have taken time off to write, what are you going to write?

Maisy: I’m working on a second book. Maybe one of the characters from the first novel spills over into it. I’m not sure I’ll keep her, honestly. It’s about a group of immigrant women working as home health aids in a wealthy retirement community in Florida. It’s about their friendship and them trying to organize to — right now; it might change — form a strike against their working conditions.

Zibby: Interesting. I love that. There’s a lot of that in here as well in the things that people could be afraid of with men who are a little too handsy and all of that. I’m sure there’s a lot of material that could be — that sounds great, in other words. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Maisy: It’s important to take yourself seriously as a writer and take your work seriously. I think I didn’t take myself seriously for a really long time. That really slowed me down. I didn’t think I had the right to dedicate time to writing. That really added many years to the process for me. I thought it was a cliché when people said that, but no. Just call yourself a writer even if you haven’t been published. Take your work seriously.

Zibby: Maybe if I called myself an athlete, I would actually exercise. Do you think it works in any area of life? It’s sort of like the aspirational title of anything. If you believe it, maybe you’ll do it. Maisy, thank you. Thanks for coming on the show. Thanks for this fantastic book. Congratulations on all the attention you’ve gotten so far. Well-deserved.

Maisy: Thank you. Thanks. This was fun. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care.

Maisy: Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card

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