“I’m so grateful to anyone who’s read the book or passed the book onto someone or posted about it because it wouldn’t exist without all of that.” Meg Mason talks with Zibby about how she wrote an entire draft for the wrong book before she found her way into writing her latest novel, Sorrow and Bliss. The two also talk about why doctors often approach mental illness with women, what it’s like to come of age in your forties, and how Meg relied on her characters’ dark British humor to write about heavy topics with levity.


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

Meg Mason: Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners what your novel is about?

Meg: Sure, I’m getting better at this. It’s so difficult to tell someone in such a short — I can do an elevator pitch as long as the elevator is stalled. That’s kind of where I’m up to. It has to be a stuck elevator. To me, it’s a love story about Martha and Patrick. It’s the love story told from the very beginning of their relationship when they’re teenagers when they first meet each other all the way to Martha’s early forties when the book opens and things seem to be on their last legs in terms of their relationship. Within that, it pivots on mental illness, is a strong theme that runs through it. That is why we’ve arrived at the point where they both seem to be at their end. Then as well through exploring that, it’s a delayed coming of age because Martha, at forty, has to make these decisions that finally force her to grow up in a way that I think a lot of us experience. The idea that a coming of age occurs when you’re a teenager just about to enter college, eighteen, you drive across country, that didn’t do it for me. That’s not when I grew up. It was much later than that after life had had its way with me. Marriage and children and all of those things, that’s what forces you to feel like, oh, no one’s coming to save me. No one’s coming to rescue me. You’re faced with these decisions of, how do I proceed? That’s where we meet Martha. It’s those three things tied together.

Zibby: Where did this book come from? Where did the idea come from? By the way, I love that you have a whole passage in here when Martha is thinking about writing and is annoyed that people always think that her work is autobiographical. I’m like, well, I can’t ask her now if it’s autobiographical because in this book, even her character says it’s not autobiographical.

Meg: There are some little jokes through there that are just — I guess I snuck them in. This is my third book. The extent to which Martha is, there are parts of her that, of course, are based on things I’ve experienced. I think all authors have a really tricky relationship with that question. I always feel like if anyone wants to ask me anything, then I’m lucky because they could also equally well not be interested and ignore the book completely. I think it’s an interesting question. I’ve asked it of authors myself as a journalist. It’s so hard. It’s that mixture. I’m answering it for you right now even though you didn’t ask it.

Zibby: Great.

Meg: It’s partly imagination. It’s partly things that you’ve seen or witnessed. Especially for me, this kind of ties into where the book came from, but this was my Hail Mary pass of a novel. This was going to be the last one. It wasn’t even going to exist. Anything that I’d felt, heard, seen, it all went in there within these characters. Then as well, I think authors are so insecure and so prideful. It’s a funny combination which I think Anne Lamott has talked about, that we have these enormous egos and yet we’re so insecure. When someone assumes that it must just be you with the names changed, you feel like, you don’t think I’m capable of doing anything other than the thinly veiled things. That’s why I snuck a little reference into that, anticipating the question slightly. No, I’m very happy to answer it.

Where the book came from, I guess the ash heap of my career would probably be the most realistic way to describe it. The potted summary is I spent all of 2018 on a novel that I got to the end and I knew it had been wrong since maybe February. I couldn’t just give up. Then the more words that you build, then you can’t give it up once it’s forty thousand. Then at sixty thousand, you’re like, I wish I’d just got rid of it at forty, but it keeps going and it keeps going. You know as a writer, especially if it’s your first book, you know it’s hard. You know there will be bad days, but there was only bad days. That showed so clearly on the page. I arrived at the end. It was due in a week. I think it was eighty-five thousand words by then. It was just bad. It wasn’t me being like, it’s terrible and I want my publisher to tell me it’s great. I didn’t even want her to read it, which is what the note said that I attached to it. It was just that I was showing it to her to be like, I tried, and so on I’m quitting having tried. How do I give you an advance back? Especially an advance that I had spent many months ago. That was going to be tricky. She was amazing. I don’t know how publishers do it, to mop up the emotion and to just tell you it’s going to be all right and to not put any pressure on me to be like, go away and redraft it, start over and do it again. She just let me go. It sounds so dramatic and ridiculous, but I did have this grieving period because this is what I wanted to do with my life.

I remember writing my first novel when I was eight. It’s still somewhere in a shoebox and my granny’s word processor. She loved it because I went into her little study for hours and hours and hours to work on my craft. Anyway, so then of course, a few weeks passed. The idea that became that first section in the book, Martha and Patrick at a wedding, it just came. Those little scenes and pictures just drop into your mind. I don’t know where. I wrote it down. Then somehow, it just opened some sort of floodgates. Again, it was months until I had showed anyone, told my publisher, even considered it as a novel. That’s where I think that tone comes from and that kind of very — compared to what I’ve done before, the tone is quite straight. There’s no novelizing in there. There’s no me trying to perform to an audience. I just let Martha tell this story of hers as though she was speaking to you. If I was chatting to you, I wouldn’t be ramming my sentences full of adverbs and exciting adjectives instead of just walking and sitting and eating. That’s the sort of language she uses. I’m so glad that that was the upshot of that work style because I think that the danger with a book about mental illness is that it would be overwhelming if I was trying to perform with the writing as well. This material can be really heavy. It’s quite emotional in and of itself, of course. If I was trying to amp that up instead of tone that down with this funny prosaic language, I think people would’ve been like, gee. By chapter two, it’s too hard, I think I need some Nora Ephron. Somehow, that’s how it evolved, and here we are.

Zibby: Wow, that was a really interesting answer. Thank you for that. I think that this type of writing deserves just as much credit. You get immersed immediately into Martha’s consciousness. You go through it all with her. Just because the words aren’t SAT words or aren’t multisyllabic in every single chance doesn’t mean it’s not as effective. I think that’s your point as well. I wasn’t sitting here reading it thinking, oh, this is so unliterary.

Meg: This is so basic. She’s so basic.

Zibby: It doesn’t feel basic at all. In fact, you’re so witty. I love that British wit. I don’t know how you all somehow are so much funnier than anybody in America. Your sense of humor, I’m just going to group it as an entire nation or something.

Meg: Do it, absolutely. I’m so happy to be — actually, I’m a New Zealand-born writer, but I live in Australia. I guess I have somehow, from being in London for a few years —

Zibby: — Okay, so not British, then?

Meg: Commonwealth, I guess.

Zibby: Commonwealth. I’m sorry.

Meg: No, that’s fine. No, it’s British humor. Somehow, I’ve absorbed it. The stuff that you watch or read as a teenager, that was what I completely lived on, all of that sort of thing, French and Saunders and all of that. I was nervous about it coming out in the US because it’s portrayed as a funny story. That’s kind of in all the materials. I’m like, not laugh out loud. We need to tell everybody it’s not — there’s no jokes in there. There’s no callbacks and buildups and all of that sort of thing. It’s just those little observations and absurdities. I always think of it as, it’s the British Office compared to the US Office TV show. If you didn’t like the British Office and it too dark, it’s going to be more of a struggle. If that’s your flavor, then I’m glad that people enjoy it that way.

Zibby: Even your really subtle scenes like when Patrick asks Martha, he’s like, “Do you like old movies?” She’s like, “No, no one does.” He’s like, “Okay. Want to go at seven thirty?” She’s like, “Of course.” It’s just so simple. You had no he said, she said. It’s just perfect. It was funny.

Meg: Thank you. It helped as well to have that personality of hers to fall back on when there seems like she finally acquires this diagnosis after twenty years of searching, or fifteen because the last five, she gave up and decided it was just her awful personality and that she’s a terrible person and that was what was informing all decisions. She reaches this moment where the psychiatrist that she’s finally found makes this pronouncement. I was glad to have her ability to kind of reduce that moment right down to a joke rather than her having to express that, oh, my goodness, the mystery of my existence has been solved. We don’t talk like that. We would never say that in the context of a doctor’s office. We would say what she says, which is, “If it’s that, I hope it’s the twenty-four-hour kind.” You diffuse that emotion that’s too extreme a lot of the time. I was glad to have that function to rely on. Then of course, there’s her sister who takes it a level further in terms of the darkness and the humor and that sort of thing. They were a good pair to be able to explore and fall back on.

Zibby: Tell me what part of the mental illness piece attracted you to writing about it. There were so many scenes, even when she’s flushing the pills down the toilet, for instance, or when she’s first with Jonathan or the moment where she’s back in the house and she finds an old, discarded, expired prescription for whatever, and she’s like, I’m just going to take this and see what happens, and all her time on the couch, oh, my gosh. I felt like I wanted to hug her so many times and kind of bat her mom across the face. Get out of the way. I’ll take care of her.

Meg: She’s tricky, Celia. Her mother’s tricky. I think it is because I had read somewhere a long time ago that women will face a much longer journey to get a diagnosis than men with particular conditions that I researched into when I thought I might use one real condition in there and not the kind of unnamed amalgam that I eventually went with for all sorts of reasons. I had read that in some ways, not with anxiety and depression, but with the more complex, the schizophrenias or bipolars, usually it will take a man, say on average, five years or something to find a diagnosis. A woman will be looking at upwards of a decade because there’s that residual discrimination or imbalance in the medical system where she’s hysterical. She’s hormonal. She’s premenstrual. She needs a baby, whatever it is. We don’t, and still to this day to a degree, necessarily get the same acknowledgment of being aware that something is wrong. Men don’t really go to the doctor unless they’re on death’s door. If they come in, they must be serious. If we come in, we had a free morning and decided to go chat to a doctor about some tiny, invented condition.

I wanted to explore the difficulty of not so much what the condition was like, but what it was like to try and find out and to be misdirected and to be dosed up with things that didn’t work. She knew it was making her worse or doing nothing. The trial and error in that, that’s exhausting for people who have been through that, or people with any kind of chronic pain, migraine, or whatever it is, to try and find someone who will listen to you and not patronize you. The very first doctor you see her going to when she’s just experienced this mental collapse at seventeen which she describes as the little bomb going off in her brain, it’s like, it’s so obviously what we call glandular fever. I think that’s mono in your country. It’s so obviously mono. I’m not even going to test for it. There’s no medication I can give you. You know what teenage girls are like. They love a tablet, so here’s an iron tablet. It’ll give you something to swallow. She leaves feeling mad from that first moment, or minimized. I think that was the part of mental health that interests me rather than the ins and outs of necessarily what it feels like from the inside, which I’m maybe not so qualified or didn’t feel so qualified to present as fact.

Zibby: That’s funny you say that because in the book, I don’t think you changed it to mono. Then you said, her father, “Oh, she’s been kissing too many boys.” He’s like, “Have you been kissing boys?” or something like that. She was like, “No.” I was like, why would she be kissing — anyway, now I understand.

Meg: Glandular fever is apparently transmitted that way.

Zibby: Mono is transmitted that way.

Meg: Oh, good.

Zibby: No, no, I just missed that reference. Another element that I thought was so poignant throughout the book is her relationship to the unborn child along the way, this fetus that she always refers to, even the moment when she’s on the double-decker bus with her head to the window and she sees a mom with a book propped up on her belly, which I feel like I could do these days even without a baby in my belly. Another mom comes over. They’re chitchatting. She’s like, okay, right then, I’m not going to have kids. Then of course, things change and change again and all this stuff. Tell me a little bit about her ambivalence and fear. I feel like a lot of it was fear.

Meg: She’s instructed by, I guess it’s doctor number two who prescribes her something — this is still in her very late teens — and says, “If you take this, you need to be really careful not to get pregnant because this is unsafe for a fetus.” As we get older, especially at my age now, I’ve learned that doctors — bless them, all that they do and all of their hard work and sacrifice for us and care for us, but there are doctors who make these pronouncements as if there’s truth. I think when you’re Martha’s age, you just accept them. You don’t question. That’s a doctor. They know. There’s certificates all over their wall, and so I will just take that advice or that diagnosis wholesale. When you get older, especially if you’ve had children and there’s that massive opinion and conflicting opinion, you’re like, actually, I know, I instinctively know and I will go and find a doctor who will listen until that’s acknowledged. She takes it as truth that these pills are dangerous. Even though she will come off those, there’s something about that message that she absorbs. The pills are dangerous, but the extension of that is that she is dangerous.

She has this condition that she doesn’t understand, but develops this sense within herself and then stokes it and expands it that she would be dangerous as a mother and that she would be unsafe to her child. Whether or not she even wanted children at that age, which we’re far too young to imagine ahead that much, she goes into marriage and into that age with that pre-knowledge. That informs all her decisions. She decides that it isn’t safe. She has a brief flirtation with the idea in that disastrous first marriage to Jonathan, who’s this very charismatic art dealer who creates this sense of her being amazing. They’re so wrong for each other. You can see it from the disastrous public proposal which doesn’t suit her at all to their very quick marriage and very short engagement. He sort of tells her, “It’ll be amazing. Let’s do it.” She briefly wants to believe that maybe she’s the person that Jonathan thinks she is, and so she goes off her medication, instantly crashes.

It sort of proves to her, I can’t live without this medication. It’s true, I never should be a mother. I think the function of that for her — she’s obviously someone who isolates herself and puts herself outside regular female experience. She doesn’t have a lot of female friends because as she gets older, they all have children. You know what it’s like. It’s hard to keep finding that common ground, whether you’re the mom who can only talk about your kids and you’ve got this single, gorgeous friend who blows it and tells you about the big night she had the night before. It’s hard to find that commonality. It pushes Martha outside the female experience. She ends up feeling disconnected from other women who’ve done that and become mothers. Then of course, it challenges her relationship with Ingrid who is crazy fertile and is just busting out these babies every eighteen months. I guess that’s her relationship, but then there’s a twist in it where we find out what her relationship has really been like to motherhood.

Zibby: Wow. You mentioned at the beginning, so now I have to go back to this, that your coming of age was more at age forty with kids and everything else. What was the turning point for you? Did something happen? Was it just growing up? Tell me if there was a moment.

Meg: The opposite to Martha, I got married when I was twenty-two. At this point, I’ve nearly been married for more than half my life. I had my first daughter when I was twenty-five. I almost have no experience of being an adult without also being a mother. If you don’t have that extra decade to explore who you are and do all of those things and focus on yourself because you’re focusing on this little baby instead and then her sister who came along two and a half years later, you just get absorbed into that. Would it be safe to say that we all lose a little bit of identity or we all have our essential self slightly broken down by that experience? We have to rebuild ourselves. It wasn’t until they were teenagers where I sort of emerged from that tunnel and went, oh, I never did that growing up thing, so I guess I better do it now. It’s not like you don’t develop maturity as a mother, but I think as a person, I was stopped at twenty-five.

That’s where my exploration of my own character had taken its temporary fifteen-year pause. I had to look myself and be like, am I still acting in ways that I was at twenty-five, especially in marriage? This is what I put into Martha and Patrick. Whatever your dysfunction is in your relationship, that got built in very early. That was probably already there before there was even a ring on your finger. If you don’t address that, it became so embedded. You find that fifteen, twenty years later, you’re still acting out of that one place about one disappointment that never was resolved. I think there was a lot of that that was waiting for me on the other side of children. Then it was like, okay, I’m going to take a pretty cold look at who I am and weed out some stuff that should’ve been weeded out a long time ago. I think it’s that. It was that slow development and feeling, when I hit forty, that I am a bit more of a grown-up than I was. I do actually know stuff about how things work and that sort of stuff.

Zibby: This reminds me of the scene when she goes to breakfast. Well, kind of breakfast. She’s still in the bridesmaid’s dress and everything with Patrick. He’s taking forever to order. She was so happy because she didn’t — you said how she’s tired of people letting her go. I’ll let you go. I’ll let you go. She’s like, no, I want somebody to have me stay. I want him to stay. I loved that he took his time ordering. Later on at their anniversary, you said how she grabbed the menu from him and was like —

Meg: — She’s like, “Just choose something.”

Zibby: Oh, just still have your steak. He’ll have the steak.

Meg: Exactly. It had evolved into that feeling of, I can’t bear that thing anymore. That thing was so charming at the beginning. Now if you do that one time, it’s over between us, divorce-face look happening. That’s what I loved exploring about that long arc of a relationship. There are, of course, those intensely romantic proposal moments or whatever moment. They’re the highlights, but there’s a lot of lowlights, or at least mid-lights, in a long relationship where you’re together. You’re at home. You’re cooking dinner. Where’s the romance in that? You have to try pretty hard to find it. Sometimes those greatest moments of connection are on the sofa or on a walk. That was fun to explore them in between the start when you meet them and the end. What happened in the middle is the interesting part to me.

Zibby: Meg, what are you working on next? Do you have another novel in the works?

Meg: I do. I’m in that phase where I’m like, oh, goodness. It’s exciting. It’s really exciting because I realized it’s the only way to leave these characters behind, is to go and find a new set of characters. Martha and Patrick and their whole world has been my world for two years. It’s a real challenge to let them go and belong to other people. I’m so happy to do it, but it’s hard to break that connection because they do feel real even though when authors say that, I used to just think, oh, my gosh, they’ve lost their minds. You made them up, and now they’re talking to you. But it actually happens. That’s what I’m most enjoying at the moment, is to find out who this next set of people are while getting to feel nostalgic about the last crew. I’m working away. I’m writing for screen as well and doing bits and pieces like that. It’s busy. For me, it’s about creating that belief again that no one’s ever going to see it because that was so key to my experience that I have to try and convince myself somehow, which is getting harder and harder because of people like you getting the book out there, which I’m so grateful for. I’m like, I have to pretend that I’m completely anonymous again. I’ll see how it goes.

Zibby: I started writing something the other day. I felt so panicked that people were going to see it that I eventually, at the top of my document, typed, “draft one of three.” I was like, I’ll write two more. No one’s going to see this one.

Meg: That is such a good idea. Isn’t it funny? George Saunders describes that. He’s just my absolute icon in every single way. He describes it as having to self-game. You have to trick yourself into doing this thing. It’s difficult work, but I think the tricky thing about it — I imagine if you’re a surgeon, you turn up to your laparoscopic appendectomy knowing how you’re going to do it. You’ve done it fifty times before. You do it exactly that way again. That’ll be a perfect job. You don’t have to worry that maybe this time you’ve forgotten. Maybe your talent for appendectomies has left you. There’s nothing left in the tank. With writers, we sit down, we’re having to recreate from nothing again and again every single day, to face up to what feels like those limitations and the edge of our talent. It’s not going to take us to the extent that we need to go. My equivalent of draft one of three is I name all my documents like, you can do this, you’ve done it before, you’ll do it again.doc. Every time I look up, there’s this crazy — it’s insane. A lot of madness goes down in this little shed that I work in, but whatever gets you there, don’t you think? You find your tricks. The longer you work, you find what works for you. I might try that.

Zibby: That’s what I write on notes to my daughter, literally that. You’ve done it before. You can do it again. You’ve got this. We just all need to take the notes we leave for our kids or something.

Meg: Exactly. We need to be our own cheerleaders. It’s so true even if it makes you feel crazy.

Zibby: Yes. I already feel crazy. Do you have any other advice? You already were sprinkling in bits and pieces, of course. Any advice to aspiring authors?

Meg: Yes. At this stage, I have definitely acquired a lot of tricks like that. I think it’s about finding what works for you and then sticking to it and not waiting. If you can’t write today, there’s no way you’re going to write tomorrow. There’s no perfect tomorrow coming where suddenly you’ll sit down and there’ll be this enormous flow of words. You do hear lots of writers explain that it’s a muscle, which is true, and that you build it up as you keep going. Definitely, if you set a word target for yourself, maybe five hundred because it’s not impossible to face five hundred words a day. If you do a great five hundred, you’ll have momentum in the next day. If you’re having a terrible day, it’s still just five hundred. It’s not too intimidating. I think that you need to do that five hundred every day and turn up. I know with anything I’m doing, I need to work on it seven days a week. If you fall out of it for two days, it is so hard to get back in. You kind of then have to go and read over it to remember what you were up to. That takes a week by the time you get to a certain limit. Even if you just look at it and correct some grammar or something, just every day to turn up for the work because it saves you a lot of reentry. I think reentry is painful. It’s a lot of time spent doing that. That’s what I’ve learned, just to find your own way and then stick to that.

Zibby: That sounds like how I feel about the gym. Once I take a few days off, it’s impossible. Once I’m doing it every day, it’s just another day.

Meg: Otherwise, you’re like, I’ve never been to the gym before. I physically don’t know how to do this.

Zibby: I can’t even breathe. What’s going on?

Meg: We trick ourselves. We learn the tricks to get ourselves there.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you, Meg. Thanks for talking about Sorrow and Bliss. I really loved it. I love the characters too, so I see why you’re very attached. Maybe we can do some cameos in your next book like The Jeffersons, like those old TV shows where they pop in for coffee or something.

Meg: That’s a good idea. They’ll turn up. I’ll write the story of the woman who had the canapé. We’ll see Martha from the other side.

Zibby: That could be a fun exercise.

Meg: Thank you so much. It’s been lovely to chat to you. I’m so grateful to anyone who’s read the book or passed the book onto someone or posted about it because it wouldn’t exist without all of that. I’m really grateful. Thank you.

Zibby: Of course. Take care. Thanks a lot. Buh-bye.


Did I Say That Out Loud? by Kristin Van Ogtrop

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