Mary Otis, BURST: A Novel

Mary Otis, BURST: A Novel

Zibby Books author alert!!! Award-winning author Mary Otis joins Zibby to discuss Burst, a propulsive and utterly arresting new novel that explores Charlotte and Viva’s unconventional, fractious mother-daughter relationship, along with generational addiction, artistic ambition, and the power of forgiveness. Mary reveals the inspiration for this story and explains how she developed her complex, complicated protagonists. She also shares a bit of her own story, from growing up with four older siblings and moving to LA to taking a transformative writing class and embarking on an incredible literary journey.

You can meet Mary on her book tour this month! Visit to find a book event near you!!


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

Mary Otis: Thank you for having me on the podcast. It’s so wonderful to be here with you after having you initially acquire my book and seeing everything that has played out since then with Zibby Books and the release of the latest two books, with Alisha Fernandez Miranda’s book, My What If Year, and Andrea Dunlop’s book, Women Are the Fiercest Creatures. They’re terrific books. I highly recommend them to everyone. I also want to congratulate you on your bookshop here in LA. It’s a beautiful store. It’s very thoughtfully curated. I know everyone in Los Angeles will be happy to go there and check it out. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful shop and will be a new literary hub here in town.

Zibby: I adore having the store, working with Sherri Puzey and Diana Tramontano on it, and our amazing staff there. Everybody is so excited about Burst, Mary. I feel like we’ve been talking about it for so long that I get so excited when these books finally get to see the light of the day. The build-up is crazy.

Mary: I know. It almost seems like that will always keep going. You’re in this state of, you’re on the journey. They say it’s not the destination. It’s the journey. Then when the destination is around the corner in three weeks, it’s almost impossible to conceive, but exciting, of course.

Zibby: Very exciting. Why don’t you tell listeners what Burst is about?

Mary: Burst, at its heart, is a mother-daughter story. It’s about Charlotte and her daughter Viva and their unconventional, very complicated relationship, sometimes fractious, that could also be considered kind of a love story. Within the book, I also explore generational addiction, artistic ambition, and the idea that forgiveness isn’t always a one-time event, but more often, an ongoing process.

Zibby: It’s so true. How did you come to these characters? How did you arrive at this plot? Where did this book come from? Tell me the whole thing.

Mary: It’s funny because this was originally a short story. It was published in Zyzzyva. I should say the opening chapter was a short story. It wasn’t the entire novel as a tiny short story. Pretty much, the opening is quite similar to the original story with some changes required just because a novel, there’s threads you need to pull through. With a short story, you can leave a question and end on that, whereas you can’t quite do that the same way with a novel. It started with a short story. I thought I was done with these characters, but they were not done with me. It was kind of a favorable haunting that they wouldn’t let me go. I like that feeling, when I get the feeling like something is bothering me or pulling at me. I can’t get it out of my head. I’m hearing lines. I’m hearing them speak. I’m waking up in the middle of the night and writing down things on index cards. Then I know it’s probably something I really need to pay attention to. I began to gather more material on them. At first, I thought it was just going to be the mother’s point of view, Charlotte. Then I started hearing this other little voice coming in too. That was the genesis of it. It’s exciting when something that’s so short expands to a much, much better project. It’s my first novel.

Zibby: Wow. Back up a little bit. Tell listeners how you got your start in the whole literary world. I know, obviously, your collection, Yes, Yes, Cherries, came out. Take us back for a minute. Where did you grow up? How did you know you loved to write? When did you discover this was something you could really do? All of that.

Mary: It was a rather interesting journey to get here because I actually did not think I would be a writer. That was not something I ever planned on doing. I was always a reader. I studied literature, but I never studied creative writing. To back up a little, I grew up outside of Boston in a small town called Millis. It’s southwest of Boston. I grew up in a large family with five brothers and sisters.

Zibby: Were you secretly longing for it just to be your mom and you? Is that where this book came from? What if it was just Mom and me for a little bit?

Mary: Yeah, I think it is. I’ve met so many people that were an only child who were like, what’s it like to have so many brothers and sisters? I think it’s always fascinating when you’re on the other side of it. Growing up with such a big family, I’m not quite sure why I wrote about this society of two that is just Charlotte and Viva. There is always kind of a mystery to me as to — I can pull it apart sometimes, usually retroactively, and figure out why I was pulled towards something, but not always. Sometimes there’s just an element of mystery. I accept that. I like that mystery as to why certain things happen the way they do in a story.

Zibby: Wait, what number were you in the birth order?

Mary: I’m number five. The next child up is nine years older, so the first group of four were much closer in age. Then there was a big break. Then there was my brother and I. My brother’s younger than I am. I came to writing in just a very serendipitous way. I was out here in Los Angeles. I knew nobody. I had one friend. I had my one friend. I would call my friend. Los Angeles was really different for me coming from the East Coast, coming from Boston. I lived in Manhattan for five years. It just was beyond. There was so much to take in. I would call this friend and tell my friend about things that I saw. At a certain point, he said, “You know, have you ever thought of taking a writing class?” I don’t know if he was just trying to get me to stop calling him and telling him about the wonderful things I was seeing in LA. You wouldn’t believe what I saw today. I said, “I’ve never thought of doing that, but why not?” Maybe I’ll meet some people since I only have my one friend.

I signed up for the class at a local college. I’d heard wonderful things about this teacher. I really liked his name, Jim Krusoe. It turned out that he has truly been one of the best teachers not only in Los Angeles, but maybe the entire country. He’s shepherded the careers of so many writers. He’s just a truly unique, intuitive, wonderful, wonderful teacher who can teach many types of students, which is a mark of excellence too, can come in at any level where a writer is at. I went and I took this class. I signed up for it. I immediately thought he was brilliant. It was wonderful. It was a mixed-level class. There were a lot of people that were already published. There were a lot of people talking about writing terms that — I didn’t know the language yet. Although it was very wonderful and I felt very pulled to it, I also found it overwhelming, and so I left the class because I just felt like it was beyond in some way, which I find very strange in retrospect given how central writing is to my life, that I would almost run from something that was going to be so important for me. Emotions are funny sometimes. A thrill and excitement and passion can maybe run close to fear. Maybe the signals got a little misinterpreted. I did go back to the class. Then I studied with Jim Krusoe for a really long time. Had my one friend never said, “Have you thought of taking that class?” I’m not sure I would have.

Zibby: Who is the friend? I think we need to get the friend on the podcast or something.

Mary: The friend is Ben Schick, somebody I knew long ago in LA.

Zibby: I think you need to write him a thank you note.

Mary: I am planning to.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. When did you realize that you loved to write short stories?

Mary: Part of it had to do with the direction from that particular teacher who suggested I write short stories. It’s interesting. I think if he’d said, “Start with a novel,” I would have. Being a teacher myself now, for me, I can often pick up whether somebody is built to naturally write short stories or naturally go toward the novel. It’s how they’re pacing it, how they’re looking at it. There’s a certain velocity to a short story. You need to get in and get out. A lot of people write both. I write both now. A short story is a very challenging form because you don’t have a lot of extra room to move. It’s end oriented. Often, the beginning image or line or paragraph will run through and somehow tie in at the end. I love that task of figuring out what that is. That’s how I came to start writing short stories, but there were people writing novels in that class.

Zibby: You took the class. You started writing short stories. Were you working a day job at the same time?

Mary: Let’s see. I was. There was a brief period where I was working at a financial company. I’d gone in as a temp. They offered me a job. As I got more serious with writing, I had this figure in my mind that I wanted to save, and then I would take some time just to write. I did do that. I quit the job. I spent the next six months writing. That thinking of, jump, and the net will appear, when I look back at that, I’m not sure I would be comfortable doing that today. At the time, I was. A lot of doors opened pretty quickly after that. I started to publish and not super long after that was offered a book deal by Tin House. I didn’t have a collection yet, but I had some stories published. They’d published a couple of them. Then they said, “Do you have a whole collection?” I said, “I don’t.” They said, “We’ll buy the book. Can you write three more?” All because of this one thing that the friend said, and I went and followed along on that path.

Zibby: Wow. How much time, basically, went from the first day of class — generally; you don’t have to do the math — until Yes, Yes, Cherries came out?

Mary: That’s a good question.

Zibby: Three years? Ten years?

Mary: I think it was around six or seven. Also, there was a period where I wasn’t sure — I would be still taking the class but thinking, this is something I really enjoy doing, but I’m not completely sure yet. Having some of the stories published started really making me think, okay, this is something you can do. I’d gone to take a workshop with Michael Cunningham at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He also was very extremely encouraging saying, “Yes, this is what you should be doing.” It was wonderful to study with him. It was a one-week workshop, but he had a big influence on me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, this whole thing is so wild. Then what was it like when the book came out?

Mary: Gosh, it was wonderful. I’m flashing on different readings for whatever reason. I went to Portland to read at Tin House, at their conference that they did. Just thinking of a cascade of events in my mind. Seeing people from all parts of your life, I think that’s something that’s really nice when you have a book come out. You see somebody from grade school. You see a student you taught two months ago. Oh, there’s Mrs. Harris, my science teacher. This is your life. I remember that that was very special, that part of it, seeing so many different people. For some reason, I’m remembering reading at the Tin House conference. It’s at Reed College. They have a beautiful amphitheater set up there outdoors. I remember going up to read. There was a jogger behind me in the woods that I could hear. It was like, . Then it stopped. I knew they were right behind me. I thought, can the audience see this person? Are they behind the stage? I don’t know why I’m thinking of this. Funny things sometimes happen at readings. They stopped. They did listen. It was odd to do a reading where you can kind of feel somebody right behind you.

Zibby: We’ll make sure to have a big backdrop or something, cordon off the back. What did you begin to teach? When did you do decide to do that? Sorry, I just want to know your whole story here.

Mary: Teaching, this also came in an unusual way. After my book came out, I was doing some individual writing classes around town at UCLA. I taught at a couple writing conferences. I was doing a little private workshop of my own. I was offered a job to help create an MFA program for writing at UC Riverside. That also was not something I had been intending to do with my life. I love teaching. I love working with my students. I love really helping people get to the essence of what they’re trying to say. That’s a really special task to me. It’s almost like if I hadn’t taken the advice of my friend and gone to that class, I wouldn’t have, say, published my first thing. If I hadn’t published the first thing, I wouldn’t have done the book. If I didn’t do the book, I wouldn’t have had an offer to teach in this program. One thing led to the next. Again, I do believe sometimes when you’re taking risks and throwing yourself into something with your whole heart, a lot of times, doors will open. Things that were beyond what you could’ve expected happen.

Zibby: Back to Burst for a little bit now that we have more of a background setting the stage. Some of the themes in the book revolve around — obviously, there’s the very complicated mother-daughter relationship and unfulfilled dreams and all of that. There’s also this theme of addiction. How did you end up writing about that? Where did that come from? What was it like to write about?

Mary: I’ve known and loved a lot of addicts of different stripes. I think that we are a rather addicted culture overall, with some addictions being more accepted than others. Whether it’s gambling or alcoholism or taking drugs, there’s a lot of people seeking relief. I also wanted to dovetail or draw the line between the idea — when you were saying deferred dreams or whatever with Charlotte and not being able to pursue her art — how when somebody’s pursuing an art form, whether it’s writing or dance or painting, that’s probably the best drug in the world. If you’re really in it — I’m sure you’ve experienced this — it is a transcendence. Time and space doesn’t matter anymore. You are in a totally different reality. I have seen, unfortunately, a lot cases sometimes when people are not able to play out not only an artistic dream, but perhaps any kind of dream, how that can become very twisted and lead to really problematic, hurtful behavior and how also, that same addiction, whatever the thing is, again, whether it’s a drug or a food or overdoing anything, it’s kind of the knock-off transcendence. It’s the fake transcendence, trying to achieve that same thing but not through that other way that’s such a beautiful way. That’s something I wanted to explore, also, knowing and loving a lot of different artists and some close friends who I saw this happen to.

Zibby: Addiction is basically — the way you’re reframing it is really positive. It’s an attempt to achieve something that only art can bring. It’s just an attempt to get the close second hit of it, if you will.

Mary: Exactly. That’s just one angle, but I think it’s an angle that isn’t explored a lot. I’ve met people that were addicts that if they had ever been able to take their natural gifts and energy and put them in the direction of — I’m just thinking of somebody I met once who I think would’ve been the most amazing comedian if they could’ve ever had — one of the funniest people I ever met. If they could’ve channeled that all in that direction — sometimes it’s a matter of luck and support. It’s hard to be an artist. You need support. You need support from other artists and other writers. Sometimes things have to align. That was something else I wanted to look at as well.

Zibby: What did you learn about it after you dove deep by writing the novel?

Mary: I don’t know. Humans are very complex. I read a quote that I liked recently about people. They don’t always behave the same. People behave situationally, not this one way, they will behave in all situations. I think that’s very true. I like to try to think about that when I’m working. Walt Whitman. We are vast. We contain multitudes. That’s also something I try to think of when I’m writing characters because there is no truly bad character. There is no truly good character. I’m always seeking to try to get inside a character. That really helps me to write, almost on an acting level, get inside to try to understand how they see the world and how they react. If I lock onto that, then I can use my imagination to fill in the rest. If I understand one emotional thing, maybe I only understand it on a smaller level, but I can go deeper into it or really increase it for the sake of the drama in the story.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. It’s also so interesting to think that these people aren’t real that you’re talking about, that you get to create — I know this is such a silly point, but that novelists get to just create these characters. You’re right, actors as well. You get to rewrite it and figure it out. Of course, you’re so right, take anybody going back to their parental home, pretty much, and you’ll see a massive regression to who they were versus who they are in the workplace. They could be completely different people, right?

Mary: Oh, yeah. I have a close friend who did share a lot of her growing-up stories, which were along the lines of Charlotte and Viva. That is quite different from my own growing up. My mother was quite different than Charlotte, quite traditional, quite conscientious, hardworking. I don’t even know what she’d exactly make of Charlotte. I think there’s a little bit of her in there with the salty humor and these offhand remarks. I think she got in there that way a little bit, which is something I always — my mother has passed now, but I loved about her. She could toss off some zingers.

Zibby: Are you close with your siblings?

Mary: Yes. When I was growing up, some of my siblings weren’t in the house because they were at college, but yes. They’re all over the country. There’s some still back on the East Coast. Nobody on the West Coast. A few down south.

Zibby: Have they read your book?

Mary: They’ve ordered it. I know they all pre-ordered. They certainly read Yes, Yes, Cherries. My brothers and sisters are all very good storytellers. I think within some families, that’s kind of a currency. When I was young, I remember sitting there listening to all the older kids tell stories and try to make each other laugh and try to make my parents laugh. People would laugh. You’re always taking it in when you’re the younger one, even if I wasn’t saying anything. They’re very good storytellers.

Zibby: I have high hopes for my littlest guy.

Mary: You get it by osmosis.

Zibby: I know. I’ve told him. I’m like, “Okay, you’re going to be an author. Just so you know.”

Mary: I think that’s probably likely.

Zibby: Are you working on anything else right now?

Mary: I am. I have a lot of notes on another novel. I’m finishing up a short story. Poetry has become a new form for me that I’m excited about. I just had a couple poems come out. I didn’t expect that, exactly. It’s wonderful to work in such a short, condensed form. I’m working on a novel, and I’m working on poems. They’re such different forms. Each one can support whatever it is you want to do in such a beautiful way.

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

Mary: Trust your instincts. Find a good teacher. Trust your subconscious. I think your subconscious will lead you in directions that you could never have expected and will help pull a theme through a book in a way you never could’ve seen coming. Your subconscious always, if you’re tapped into it and tuned into it — it might be surprising where it takes you sometimes. That’s, for me, one of the strongest pieces of advice I would give to a student.

Zibby: That’s great advice. I have not heard that piece of advice before.

Mary: Oh, really?

Zibby: Yep. There you go. Mary, thank you for coming on. Thank you for your beautiful book. I am so honored to play a small role in getting this novel out into the world. It would’ve come out through some other publisher, I know. I’m just so proud to be affiliated with your beautiful, beautiful writing and storytelling and the way your words make people feel. You’re so good at it. You’re just such a great writer. The story is so wonderful. Thank you for coming along with Zibby Books on this ride. Just know how deeply honored we are.

Mary: Thank you so much. That means a great deal to me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Awesome. I’m very excited for our launch together. This will be fun.

Mary: I’ll be in New York soon.

Zibby: Thanks so much.

Mary: Thank you, Zibby.

Mary Otis, BURST: A Novel

BURST: A Novel by Mary Otis

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