Mary Adkins, PALM BEACH

Mary Adkins, PALM BEACH

Author and writing coach Mary Adkins joins Zibby to discuss her latest novel, Palm Beach, which was inspired in part by her family’s move to Florida in 2019. The two talk about the aspects of Mary’s real life that made it into the book, what research she did on income inequality to create the story’s primary tension, and why some of her friends weren’t huge fans of her protagonist. Mary also shares what she’s currently reading and where she is with her next project.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mary. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Palm Beach.

Mary Adkins: Thanks. I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: I am so interested in this book because I have been to Palm Beach many times and have been in settings similar to the ones you’re describing. This has been really funny to read. I just love the book. I am loving it, loving it. It’s so well-written, by the way. I wish I had read it when it first came out and that this podcast wasn’t now because I would’ve forced myself to start it earlier. It’s awesome. I’m sure you know that, but I want you to know that I know it too.

Mary: Thanks. It’s still pretty recent. It’s only been out a couple months, so we’re not too late here.

Zibby: Not too late, okay, good. Why don’t you tell everybody what it’s about? Then I’ll go into…

Mary: Palm Beach is the story of a couple that moves from New York to Florida, to Palm Beach, after Mickey — Mickey is the husband. Rebecca is the wife. Mickey gets offered a job running the household of a man who has a home in Palm Beach. Mickey is an actor. They’ve just had a baby. He’s tired of the living paycheck to paycheck and gig to gig lifestyle, so they relocate for this sweet position where he’s going to make the best salary he’s ever made in his life running this household. The novel is the story of what happens to them once they get there. Their lives get kind of enmeshed in the lives of this billionaire family down there. Some crazy stuff happens.

Zibby: Including descending crazy parrots that come out of nowhere. Is that a real thing, by the way?

Mary: Yes, that really happened to me down there. All of the parrots came out of — of course, some of the scenes down there, especially the setting, things that happen atmospherically, are drawn from real life. My husband and I moved down there for eight months when I was researching for the book so we could really get to know the area, while I was researching for and writing the book. One night, just all of these parrots came out nowhere. We thought, certainly these are circus parrots or something. They looked like parrots you would see at a zoo. Then I googled it. No, it said that they’re native to South Florida. They just show up sometimes.

Zibby: Wow. So you decided to make it like a reported novel, almost. There’s so much facts and figures and all of that. Did you go to that luncheon?

Mary: No, I did not go to the luncheon. In the story, Rebecca, she’s a writer. She’s a reporter. She goes to this fundraiser luncheon. No, that was fictional. That’s not a real luncheon. There’s something very similar to it that inspired it. We moved down there because we were also living in New York. It was very cold in the winter. My husband could work remotely. I needed to write this book. It was more like researching for the book was a very good excuse for relocating to Florida for eight months. No one had to twist our arms to do that. It was like, sure, we’ll go live in South Florida during the winter so that I can “research” for my book.

Zibby: This was pre-pandemic when this was going on?

Mary: Yes, this was 2019, pre-pandemic.

Zibby: There’s a lot in the book about income inequality disparity, the gaps between the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy and the class differences and all of that woven in. Rebecca, your character, is sort of on one end of the spectrum about it, more so than her husband who’s more easygoing and it’s a job and whatever. She’s a little more self-righteous about everything. In fact, I loved how she kind of tempered herself at times and said, you know what, I’ve mellowed out. I’ve thought about this. Even though I wouldn’t take such-and-such a job for my own political beliefs, it’s okay if you do it. I was like, that’s mature. I’m like, do I ever come back around in fights and say, okay — I just loved her self-awareness and ability to express herself that way. That was pretty great.

Mary: I’m so glad to hear you say that. It’s been so interesting talking to people about this book because I find reactions to Rebecca really fall in two camps. My friends were texting me right when the book came out. She is so annoying. Some people find her level of being principled to be a little bit off-putting and extreme. Then other people were like, I really relate to her. I feel like she’s the character that I related to most in the book. It’s interesting to hear your perspective because you’re kind of in the middle.

Zibby: That’s true. I don’t know that Rebecca and I would be good friends, but I’d be happy to go to dinner with her. I think they’d be a really fun couple to go to Bradley’s with and hang out instead of the crazy chef and whatever else. Some of the things that you talk about in the household even with this craziness of — what’s his name? It starts with an S. Stone? Mr. Stone?

Mary: Mr. Stone.

Zibby: Mr. Stone and how he sits naked in front of his employees and soaks his feet, people do not do that. Do they? Where did you get that? Tell me you made that up.

Mary: I did make that part up. No, that part is fictionalized. To research for this book — I was living in New York for a long time, for fifteen years or so. That’s where I met my husband. I was a lawyer and a writer. He was an actor and therefore, a caterer, much like Mickey. I got to know all of his friends. Really, his friends became my best friends too. They were pretty much all actors, which also means they were caterers in between jobs. For years, I was hearing these stories about — it was New York City, so they would cater all kinds of events. A lot of them would be for the wealthiest people in the world, really. They would come home and have these stories. I was just absorbing all of these stories over the years. It’s part of what inspired me to write a novel like this, in this setting. It was so rich. It’s fun, the peephole into how the other half lives type thing. I did more formal interviews in researching for this book. I actually sat down my friends and said, “Okay, remind me of the stories. What have you seen? What have you experienced?” A lot of what’s in the book, a couple of things are pretty close to things that I heard from friends, but a lot of it is just similar. It’s just inspired by the kinds of things I heard from friends. For example, there’s a dinner in the book where they’re talking about freezing their bodies after they die, which did not happen, but what I did hear about was a dinner where they were talking about getting stem cell injections so they could prolong their lives. It was a similar idea, but not exactly the same.

Zibby: I actually loved — I shouldn’t say actually. I really loved how much knowledge you put into — now I’m not surprised to hear that your husband was actually one of the actor/caterers because it was so real. I didn’t realize what you had to do as an aging actor and what that meant and exactly what the life looked like, and the catering and the late nights and all of the stuff. It just became very clear. That whole existence became super, super clear in a way that I love. You get to know another person’s life. I’m used to being in the audience watching a play. I always wonder, what are these people’s lives like after? Does anyone recognize them on the subway when they leave? Here, everyone is staring in rapt attention at these people. Then they open the back door, and sometimes you don’t know. It was a very unique depiction of actors and, even if you’re a successful actor, what life is like, particularly if something happens to you.

Mary: You’re only as successful as your current job, basically. You’re only as successful as your present healthy state. If you have a vocal hemorrhage, if you have an accident and you can’t perform, then you don’t get paid. You can’t book more work. I definitely had a misconception before I was more familiar with that world, the stage/Broadway acting world, which was, a “successful artist” who’s made it, they made all of their money off of art, only art. They never have to do anything except for sing or dance or whatever, play music, again. That was a really interesting thing for me to learn once I got to know professionals in that world. It’s a lot of more complicated than that.

Zibby: Is your husband still acting?

Mary: No. He now is in genetics. He completely changed careers and pivoted. He loved singing. He’s a wonderful singer. The lifestyle’s really hard. He’d always been interested in science. It was a totally 180-degree career shift.

Zibby: Interesting. There was also a line I found interesting in the book. I think it was when Rebecca was interviewing for the ghostwriter position or debating whether or not to go that day. Mickey said something like — he was worried that she would be in the orbit of the wealthy because they act and breathe and — everything is a little bit different. They need to be hand-held. I can’t remember the exact line, but it was something like that. Tell me a little more about that and if that played out in your research. Do you know what I’m talking about, or should I go get the…

Mary: No, no, no. Can you just say a little more? Being in the orbit of them?

Zibby: You said something like, the ultra-wealthy are used to having everything taken care of for them and not being responsible for any of their things. It’s up to the people who are serving them to figure all of that out. Would Rebecca be able to temper her own personality enough in that situation the way that Mickey could kind of subjugate his own emotions at times?

Mary: That was something that came up a lot when I was researching. By that, I mean talking to friends who really work for the .001%, the billionaire class. Something that came up a lot was when people have this much wealth, I guess many of them, from what I was hearing, will spend their resources just eliminating friction in their lives, eliminating as much friction as possible. They don’t want to have to do anything that they don’t want to do. They don’t want anything to be out of reach. That’s what the resources allow you to do, never have any friction. I loved having these conversations with friends. One fascinating thing I felt like I picked up on in these conversations was not envy. My friends, we were all making fifty, sixty thousand dollars a year living in New York City and scraping by. They were working for people whose net worth was like fourteen billion dollars, but when they talked about it, it wasn’t in this way that was like, wow, I would give anything to have that. It was more like, man, their lives feel really constrained and scheduled and sort of outlandish, but in a kind of, maybe grotesque is the wrong word, just in an interesting way, but not a way that they were like, wow, I’d love to have that. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Zibby: Yeah. What did they think the main problems were?

Mary: I think it just seemed so orchestrated. I think there’s a line in the book, actually — Mickey talks a little bit about this — about how nothing is unpredictable. If they want to read a book, they have someone procure it, so it shows up on their counter. There is no wandering into a bookstore hoping someone has the book and then, by chance, encountering a different book you want to see or the kind of surprises that we have when we actually have to put ourselves out there and do things we don’t want to do and encounter the grittiness of the world. When that’s missing, something else is missing too, I think was the idea.

Zibby: Just wondering, when you did your research, did you mostly talk to your friends who were serving the wealthy people, or did you actually interview wealthy people themselves?

Mary: I interviewed no wealthy people themselves. I know quite wealthy people. I am not personally friends with any billionaires, so I didn’t have access to any billionaires to interview for this book. My main characters here are not the billionaires. The billionaire couple in the book, they’re pretty serious secondary characters. For researching them, it was online, just a whole bunch of online. Mrs. Stone, I wanted to be a self-made. She wasn’t a self-made billionaire, but she was a self-made multimillionaire. To figure out what was realistic for a woman her age — she’s in her seventies. A woman in her seventies who’s basically a self-made multimillionaire, what would that person’s life have looked like? Looking into that, in the real world, there are not that many women who have done what Mrs. Stone did. Really, it was just a handful of people who I got to stalk online to figure out, who are these ladies? What’s their background? What seems to be driving them? How does their personality come across in interviews? It was more that kind of secondhand research.

Zibby: Interesting. I couldn’t believe when you said that the oil painting in the dining room, that they just kept repainting the wife’s face whenever he would get divorced. Oh, my gosh.

Mary: That’s a real detail.

Zibby: No! Stop.

Mary: Yeah. A friend told me about that. That was one of those that was so good that I didn’t change it.

Zibby: That is so good. That’s worth writing a whole book about. After your whole experiment in Palm Beach life, were you happy to come back? Did you go back to New York? Are you here now?

Mary: No. Then we moved to Nashville so my husband could start graduate school because he had pivoted. I was actually sad to leave. I really loved living in Palm Beach. I love Palm Beach. I think it’s a really interesting place and a beautiful place. Everyone’s so nice. There are a lot of people who retire there. I had a young kid while we were there. It was fun because all of the people in our building — like ninety percent of the building were retirees. They would just love to play with my son. It was a very happy, friendly place. I was kind of sad to leave.

Zibby: How was the book received in Palm Beach?

Mary: I have no idea. I haven’t been down there since it came out.

Zibby: I would’ve thought you would do tons of marketing events there.

Mary: No. I would’ve thought so too, but everything’s still virtual, mostly. I’ve been doing virtual events with bookstores in other places where I have — I have one really good friend in Palm Beach, but I didn’t have any personal connections down there before I wrote the book. I found it a fascinating place and was excited to set a story there and then to live there for a little bit, but I have no roots there. You’ve been there a lot. Do you have roots there? What’s your connection?

Zibby: My grandmother retired to Palm Beach Gardens, so I’ve been going down there since I was a baby, basically. In fact, my parents used to put me on a plane and be like, “See you later,” with my little brother. I asked her the other day, I was like, “Why did you do that?” I couldn’t believe it, just flying to Florida. It was a different time. My dad and stepmom are down there in the winter. I have some friends who have moved there, by the way, relocated, living such a nice life. In fact, we went down once towards the end of the pandemic. I was like, I should move here. We started looking online for houses. I was like, we’re not doing this.

Mary: Oh, I get it.

Zibby: It’s always fun to think about what your life would be like in another place, so I’m sort of jealous that you actually just did it. For all the time I talk about trying new places and never do, here I am still in New York, and I’m forty-five years old.

Mary: It was pretty dreamy. For eight months, it was pretty great.

Zibby: What are you working on now? Are you working on another book?

Mary: I’m kind of at the beginning stage of figuring out what the next book will be. By that, I mean emailing my agent with ideas that she shoots down. No, she doesn’t shoot them down, but she always has good thoughts. Have you thought about this? Have you thought about this? Then I’m like, how about this different idea? We’re in that phase of tossing around book ideas.

Zibby: Interesting. You should just keep profiling communities that you’d want to live in. That could be a whole thing.

Mary: Yeah, exactly.

Zibby: Keep moving around. Your next book could be Nashville. Although, I think it’s TV show, but whatever. I’m actually going to be in Nashville in February at some point for a book event down there. Maybe we can meet up or do something or whatever.

Mary: Yeah, let me know. I would love that. Let me know about your event. I would love to come.

Zibby: I think it’s at some JCC or something. I don’t know. The books are going to be from Parnassus, but it’s not at Parnassus.

Mary: There are lots of those here, Parnassus on the side.

Zibby: Parnassus on the side. Parnassus-adjacent event. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Mary: Don’t get bogged down in rules. For a long time, I just was so bogged down in writing rules. I kind of didn’t allow myself to follow inspiration. I see a lot of people doing that. I work with writers now on writing novels, and so I see a lot of people come to working with me from a place of, they’ve memorized two hundred things that they need to be doing. They wonder why they’re like, ugh, this isn’t fun. I’m exhausted. What do I do? That’s what I would say. Just try to forget all the rules. Write what you enjoy. I feel like I enjoy writing so much these days. I think that started when I finally started writing what I enjoy reading. I love reading. I’m a huge reader. I just try to write what I would like to read. When I just think about it really simply like that, it takes the pressure off.

Zibby: What are some things you’ve read lately that you’ve loved, or just ever?

Mary: I just read a novel last week called Surrogate. Oh, gosh, who’s the author? Let me look real fast. By Toni Halleen, The Surrogate. I just read this last week. I couldn’t put it down. It was a real page-turner. What else am I reading right now? Oh, I just read Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. I’m reading Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead. What else I am reading? I do that thing where I have this stack of books. I’m kind of shifting between them all the time.

Zibby: I know how that goes.

Mary: Yes, I’m sure you do.

Zibby: Excellent. Mary, thank you. Thanks so much for this fun chat and the hours that I’ve spent reading your book that I’ve loved. It’s been delightful and indulgent to escape to Palm Beach while I’m here in the cold in New York. Thank you for that, my quickest trip there yet.

Mary: My pleasure. It was such a pleasure. Thanks for inviting me on the podcast. I love listening to your podcast, so it’s fun to get to be a guest.

Zibby: Thank you. That means a lot. Thank you. Have a great day. Take care.

Mary: You too. Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye, Mary.

Mary: Bye.

Mary Adkins, PALM BEACH

PALM BEACH by Mary Adkins

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