Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, WANTING: Women Writing About Desire

Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, WANTING: Women Writing About Desire

Zibby speaks to author-editors Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters about Wanting: Women Writing About Desire, an intimate, daring, and impassioned collection of essays by award-winning and emerging female writers, such as Joanna Rakoff, Lisa Taddeo, Tara Conklin, and Michelle Wildgen (a Zibby Books author!!). The three discuss the origins of this project, the unique experience of editing and compiling an anthology, and the particular essays that Zibby cannot stop thinking about, from Joanna Rakoff’s breathtaking encounter with an old love to Michelle Wildgen’s mouthwatering descriptions of bread and cheese!

(Oops! Zibby accidentally says that our April retreat is in Nashville — it’s actually in Charleston! And we would love it if you joined us. Visit to get your weekend pass!)


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Margot and Kelly. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Wanting: Women Writing About Desire. So exciting.

Kelly McMasters: Thank you so much. We’re so excited to be here.

Zibby: How did this project come about? What were some of the requirements for writing for this anthology?

Kelly: Margot, you want to start on that?

Margot Kahn: Sure. There are several answers. From my end, a few years ago, my family had the great dog debate. I wanted a dog. My husband and son did not want a dog. The funny thing was none of us had ever lived with a dog. This really got me thinking about the nature of desire because how could any of us know what we wanted or did not want so badly before we tried it? I convinced my family that we were going to have to get a dog to see what it was like. This felt okay because you can always re-home a dog, but for so many other decisions we make on the basis of our desires, it can be a lot more complicated. This got me thinking about whether it’s ever really possible to know what we want. I’ve come to realize that the mystery of why we want what we want is far more interesting than any specific thing we can say we desire. The question itself, the mechanics, the backstory, that’s all so interesting to chew on.

As I’ve gotten to a place in my life that I guess I can call solidly middle age, I’m thinking more about what I want because time is more precious than it used to be. Also, I take fewer risks than I did when I was young. I’m a lot less impulsive. As I scope out how I want to spend my time and what’s important to me, I’m so grateful to hear how other women are approaching this subject and how it’s changing for them as they age. How do our different life experiences carry so many different learnings? I think this conversation is especially important because historically, women just haven’t had the same kind of autonomy to make these kinds of decisions for themselves. To even have the luxury of chewing on this question of want and desire, it’s really been taboo. In some cases and places, it still is. That’s why I think this anthology is so important.

Zibby: This is amazing. What did you pitch to the authors? Write about…? What was your thing?

Kelly: This is our second book together that we coedited. Our first one was Women Writing About Home. When we first pitched that, we learned a lot through that experience. When we first pitched that to editors, a lot of them responded and said, “This is 2016. We’re about to have a woman in the White House. Do you really need a women-only space to talk about home anymore?” Then of course, that’s not how 2016 happened. In 2017 by the time our book came out, it was a completely different landscape. Similarly, when we started pitching this to writers and to editors — this was before the pandemic. It was before the Me Too movement. I think this was a very natural continuation of the discussion of home in the way that the writers had in it our book. Desire comes out of that. We said, “We want all five senses activated. We want to feel the want.” That’s why it is called Wanting. What we were shocked by is a lot of writers came to us with their first drafts, and either they were writing about what they wanted but couldn’t get or so many said — most of them were mothers — I don’t even know what I want because I don’t have the time to think about it. Those were two really interesting first-take strands that Margot and I really pushed the writers through and came out with some incredible — once we pushed through that and got to the desire itself — like Margot said, wanting is an active verb. Once you get the thing, it’s over, or once you don’t. We wanted our readers to really sit and stew in the want. That’s what we hope each piece that we decided to include brings to the table.

Zibby: Interesting. That’s so sad, not even having time to know what you want. I relate to not having time. It’s just sad. That’s sad. Did they all go back and find something they wanted after? Did they figure it out, or did you cut those essays?

Margot: It was a little bit of both. The pandemic also really threw a wrench in things. This book was actually supposed to come out in 2021. There were people who we really wanted to include who just couldn’t make it happen and pieces that we didn’t have time to work on fully to bring to fruition. The funny thing about an anthology is it is like a living organism until the day it finally goes to print. With each essay that would come in and be finished, in wanting to curate a really wide range of stories and experiences and voices, every essay that comes in where we say, “Yes. Oh, my god, definitely,” it changes the rest of the puzzle. As the pieces come together, it’s always moving and shifting. We found this with both books. It’s crazy, but sometimes you get two essays that are basically exactly the same. You can only take one. It’s a process.

Kelly: There were some that we thought for sure we would have lots of things on one particular topic and that we weren’t getting. We thought, yes, we definitely need something about music. We went to our music critic person that we adore, and they turned in something entirely different, which we loved even more but didn’t know that we wanted. A lot surprised us too.

Zibby: Part of this is what you were wanting in the anthology. It’s very meta.

Margot: And learning that you don’t always get what you think you want, and that’s okay.

Zibby: Yes. I edited two anthologies that came out in 2021 that came out very quickly, so I didn’t wait around. I’m thinking to myself, maybe we didn’t edit them enough or something. No, I’m kidding. I found that too. Sometimes the topics would come back, and I was so surprised. I was so moved. When you read books by people, you forget that you’re never reading their first draft. Yet when you get an essay from an author, you’re like, oh. It’s different. Also, it’s a totally different skill set for a novelist to write an essay, whereas memoirists and people used to writing have a much easier time. These are broad generalizations, which I probably shouldn’t make. Anyway, some of the things I found too.

Margot: We did find that there were people who said yes readily, but then when they actually sat down to write, realized how scary this particular topic was. The place that they went with it, they suddenly realized they didn’t actually want it in print. They started thinking about the people around them, the people that were going to read it, their children, perhaps, or their partners or their mothers. They said, “Actually…” Then they would sort of go to a safer place, which then, of course, was usually not as interesting. That was a challenge too.

Zibby: Wasn’t there that anthology — now I’m forgetting who edited it. You didn’t know who wrote which essay.

Margot: Yes, that was brilliant.

Zibby: That was really smart. I can’t remember what that was called, but I’m pretty sure I did a podcast about it.

Kelly: That was a mixed genre.

Zibby: Wasn’t it? It’ll maybe come to me if my brain would wake up a little bit. It was really good. Anyway, back to yours. I read so many of these. Joanna Rakoff’s essay, I emailed her after. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I just read your essay. It’s so good.” It’s so good. I felt like I was in that hotel lobby with her. Joanna Rakoff, for anyone listening, wrote My Salinger Year. I’m a huge fan of hers. Actually, she’s coming to the retreat we’re doing in Nashville in April. I had read My Salinger Year. I’d watched the movie. I knew about her, but this particular snippet of her relationship and how her kids were in the hotel room with her husband next door and she walked into the hotel lobby across the street and was blown over by seeing this old love, oh, my gosh, it was so good.

Kelly: That’s a really great example of a piece that went through — she worked so hard on that piece. It’s such an important piece to her life. It went back and forth, and back and forth. She’s amazing. She is ruthless in editing. She wants to get every sentence right. She’s an amazing writer to work with as an editor. I knew her only as a reader before, not working with her as an editor. It’s really exciting to see. If you have read her work before, it’s sort of the hidden history part. It’s very exciting.

Zibby: It was very exciting. Are you excerpting this anywhere? Is any place going to excerpt that essay?

Margot: Fingers are crossed.

Kelly: We will find out very shortly. We’ll let you know.

Zibby: I hope this is the one you put forward. I loved them all. I shouldn’t say that. They were all really great. Just in terms of a traditional love story-type thing, this was, wow.

Margot: I hope it’s her next movie, maybe her next book. Maybe it just goes straight to film.

Zibby: That would be great too. Then Michelle Wildgen, who’s one of our Zibby Books authors, by the way, oh, my gosh, her — it’s so funny. Leigh Newman, who I worked with — I’m sorry I keep talking about myself in this podcast. I’m just trying to have a conversation, but I’m sorry. Whenever she would describe the book that’s now called Wine People, she would be like, “I want to have a glass of and eat oysters while I read this book.” That’s how I feel about her essay, all the food and just getting in there and smelling and sensing. So good.

Kelly: Michelle is one of the best food writers that I know. I have been a superfan for years and years. I teach her work. She has this amazing essay on eggs that I teach every year to my students. She just has a way about showing food to me and to her readers in a way that I have never heard before. That was one at the beginning in our first list that Margot and I said, “Okay, we need food,” and I said, “We need Michelle.” I was so thrilled when she said yes.

Zibby: I’m trying to see if there’s a line I could read to give an example. They’re all good. Even just this, “Enjoying the food was almost beside the point. I made some version of it for years into college until it started to seem a little dated. Besides, by then, there were so many other things I had to eat. I had to know about foie gras and why drinking late-harvest wine with it made for an entirely different taste. I had to try sweetbreads and chanterelles and fresh wasabi root, which for some reason I ordered off the nascent internet. Did I know what to do with fresh wasabi root besides grate it? I did not, but I thought it might be interesting. I had to stand on the street corner outside Murray’s Cheese shop on Bleecker and eat a few ounces of chili Alsatian Munster cheese all by itself. A heel of baguette might have been nice. And in truth, I wasn’t hungry for Munster right then, but I was visiting New York, and the cheese I’d always heard was so much better than its bland American sandwich slice was right there in front of me, so I stood there on the cobblestones and ate cold cheese. And I did it all because I could not refuse the opportunity.” So good. So good, oh, my gosh.

Margot: She captures so well, it’s not just the deliciousness of the food and those senses, the taste and the smell, but that feeling of just jumping in with two feet, of just going for it, having a desire and then taking that leap. That energy is so key.

Zibby: The details, the heel of the baguette and the cold cheese, little things, isn’t it crazy how a couple little words change how you think and feel about everything you’re reading? I know that sounds so obvious. It’s just a prime example of that. Lisa Taddeo’s essay, talk about that one. Amazing.

Margot: We knew we wanted Lisa. I read Three Women in a galley. I can’t even remember who sent it to me. When we started talking about this book, that was just the most obvious choice. When we wrote to Lisa, Lisa still answered her email. Now we deal with her assistant. It was so obvious we wanted her. Part of what we were looking for, besides writers we loved, whose writing, words, like you say, whose sentences we adore and admire, we were also looking for contributors who were going to be willing to go to this vulnerable place and just leave it all out on the page. In some cases, we were looking for writers who already trafficked in these ideas, desire, longing, the body, sex, all of that. In other cases, we were sort of hoping for these other topics and hoping that people would go to that vulnerable place in a similar way. Lisa was just an obvious choice. She’s so powerful on the page. She holds no punches, or whatever that expression is. Pulls no punches. I loved what she did with this piece, thinking about the things that form us, that form our desires and those early experiences, and then blowing it out into such a bigger cultural critique.

Zibby: I heard that her movie version was just canceled for some reason. Did you hear that?

Margot: I did just see that.

Zibby: Do you know any more about it or what happened?

Margot: No.

Zibby: Just her post?

Margot: Just her post, yeah.

Zibby: That’s all I saw.

Kelly: Hopefully, someone else will pick it up if they’re smart.

Margot: I was hoping that too.

Zibby: Seriously. I couldn’t wait to watch that. Karen Russell, “Biking to Biscayne Bay,” it was short and sweet, but that was a great one. What else? These were all so great. “Allergic,” Tara Conklin, I love Tara Conklin. “Addiction,” the one by Sue Shapiro. I read so many of these. That was also great. I read her book when it came out, How to Stop Quitting…blah, blah, blah. This was particularly good. I just feel like your book gave us an extra layer on people I felt like maybe I already kind of knew, but now I know them even better, which is the best kind of writing.

Kelly: That’s a great compliment. I love that.

Zibby: I could go on and on. These are all so great. Give listeners a little more background about the two of you. How did you team up originally? What’s your life story in two minutes or less?

Kelly: Want to go first, Margot?

Margot: I’ll try. Kelly and I went to the same grad program. We were both at Columbia, but not exactly at the same time. We actually didn’t know each other there. We published our first books in the same year, in 2008, which now seems like forever ago. Kelly was running the reading series at KGB Bar. She invited me to read, along with Amanda Petrusich, who was in my nonfiction cohort. We were buds the whole time. Amanda’s in this book. We went to KGB. We read. It was awesome. That’s really when we met. Then we kept in touch. In about 2015, I — I had my son in 2010, the very end of 2010. I thought I was going to write another book, but suddenly, I was just completely overwhelmed. I won’t get into the whole story because that’s a whole nother podcast. That was when our first anthology project was born, too, because I really wanted to be making something. I wanted to be working with words and books, but I just didn’t have the stamina. My first book took me eight years to write. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t travel. What I wanted to write about was going to require a lot of travel and a lot of research. I just couldn’t do it.

I had been writing some essays that were all, I realized, hung around the theme of home. Kelly’s first book, which was amazing, her memoir, Welcome to Shirley, was all about that. I thought, maybe you should just write a bunch of essays but from a bunch of different people and put them together. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Also, I was struggling at the time with my relationship with home in a new way as a new mom. I was feeling really stuck. I was in a place I did not think I was going to wind up. I had left my job to take care of our son. When I reached out to Kelly, she dove right in with this idea and had a whole bunch of other ideas of other writers. Then I thought, oh, my gosh, this would be so much more fun if we did this book together. That launched us on this whole journey. When we finished This Is the Place, I think we both felt, that was a fun experience, but let’s never do that again. Here we are with Wanting. Admittedly, I really do think we need to do a third book, but I think we should just give it a few years’ rest.

Kelly: Just to cap that conversation, when Margot first contacted me for This Is the Place, we were friendly but not friends, and so she had no idea that my entire life had just blown up and had just left my marriage and was living in a new place in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with a one-year appointment at F&M College with two little, little boys. The email came in. I had this stack of papers that I was grading. The kids are fingerpainting on the floor and painting each other. I thought, that is what I want to do. I want to think about home because I don’t know anything about it right now. That was such a huge bomb for me in terms of having all of these voices of these other writers and women who were writing, which I wasn’t at the time, and reminded me, okay, this is a process. What you said at the beginning, Zibby, when you receive an essay from someone, it’s not finished and perfect. I forgot that. It started me writing again. At that point, I was still shell-shocked and just grasping for survival mode.

Then with this particular book, when we started talking about desire, I started dating again in my forties. Wow, desire is so different as a, I will say sort of fully formed adult than it is the last time I dated in my twenties. What was amazing is just the range of voices that we were able to collect in this book. I think our youngest is twenty. I think when they wrote it, they were twenty-six or twenty-eight. Our oldest is eighty. When I think about desire and the way desire changes in a woman’s life, both reflective in terms of, are people desiring me? — then that question shifts to, wait, do I even want this? Then what do I want coming next? In the same way that home was the perfect thing for Margot and I to talk about in that period, suddenly, for both of us — Margot’s in a different phase of her life too. Desire and want and ambition and sex and beauty and time and money and all of these things, these are the questions right now. They always are, but the answers change.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. If you did a third together, what would it be? Home, wanting, what next? You must have some ideas lingering, percolating.

Kelly: We have a few ideas.

Margot: In the sense that home and wanting are a progression of sorts — home is the beginning, a formative place that as we grow, we begin to change more. In the beginning, you’re in it, but you’ve not designed it. As you grow, you have more and more power over what kind of home you’re making for yourself. Then wanting is this, in my mind, more of this kind of middle age, that bulk where you run up against your friends getting cancer and your friends dying. All of a sudden, the reality of your life being half over, if you’re lucky, is really front and center. This middle-age time reassessment of priorities, what is it that you really want out of your life, your relationships, your commitments, your relationship with community, all of those things? To me, the third book is focusing on the later years. I don’t know if it’s about aging or if it’s about faith, but something in that kind of, what does it look like towards the end? Of course, we’re not there yet, but I’m thinking a lot about the people in my life who are more that stage of life, my parents, my friends’ parents, former colleagues who, when I worked with them, seemed so young. Suddenly, we’re all just not so young anymore.

Zibby: I feel that very deeply. That would be great. I would pick that one up in a heartbeat. Amazing. Thank you both so much. This was so fun. I really enjoyed the essays. I haven’t read all of them yet, but I want to go back and treat myself to the ones I haven’t finished yet. The ones I’ve read I’ve absolutely loved. Congratulations. It’s awesome.

Kelly: Thank you so much. Good luck. Congratulations on the bookshop.

Zibby: Thank you. You guys should do an event there. Where are you based, by the way?

Kelly: Margot’s on the West Coast. I’m on the East Coast.

Zibby: You should do an event at the store or something.

Kelly: Yes, that would be amazing. We’ll talk to our publicist.

Zibby: Actually, it would be so cool to invite a bunch of contributors and do as many of them who want to come and a whole panel or something.

Kelly: That would be so much fun.

Zibby: That’d be fun. Have a great day.

Margot: Thank you, Zibby. Pleasure to talk to you.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, WANTING: Women Writing About Desire

WANTING: Women Writing About Desire by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts