Melanie Gideon, DID I SAY YOU COULD GO

Melanie Gideon, DID I SAY YOU COULD GO

Melanie Gideon, bestselling author of The Slippery Year and Wife 22, joins Zibby to talk about her latest book, Did I Say You Could Go. Melanie shares why she has enjoyed changing genres —moving from young adult to memoir and now to a psychological thriller— and why she thinks more female writers should do the same. The two also discuss the politics of mom friends, how the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal inspired pieces of this story, and what lessons Melanie has learned over the course of her ever-evolving career.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Melanie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Did I Say You Could Go.

Melanie Gideon: Thank you so much, Zibby. I’m very happy to be here and talk to you this morning.

Zibby: I have to say, this book was fabulous. I was so excited when I saw the pitch come in because this, The Slippery Year, was one of my favorite books. I’ve had it on my bookshelf since 2009. This is my original copy, A Meditation on Happily Ever After. I was like, wait, I feel like I know Melanie Gideon from her book way back when.

Melanie: That’s so awesome.

Zibby: Then I was thinking I should really reread this. In 2009, were my kids even born? Yeah, my kids were like two. Now I have high school. I think I’m going to reread it. I just started this morning dipping back into it.

Melanie: Thank you so much. I feel like I wrote that so long ago when my kid was just nine. Now he’s an adult living in New York. Really sort of a time capsule when I was in my mid-forties and just realizing that there was less time ahead of me, probably, than behind me, that mid-life epiphany. I love that book. It’s very sweet and dear to me because it really captures that time in life.

Zibby: Wasn’t it so neat too — here I am, I’m in my mid-forties. I have an almost-nine-year-old in addition to three other kids. Yet I can relate to it as if you and I are having this conversation today. It’s just the coolest thing with books.

Melanie: Thank you so much. Thank you.

Zibby: I’m going to go back into it, and your funny husband. Are you guys still married, by the way?

Melanie: Yes, we are. He still has that van.

Zibby: The Kemosabe or whatever? That was the last one.

Melanie: 250,000 miles on it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You were like, you have to return the van. You can’t. He’s like, die in the van. So funny. It’s such a joy to meet you after all this time. It’s really, really cool. Did I Say You Could Go is your latest book. Tell listeners a little about what this book is about.

Melanie: I would say sort of psychological suspense/thriller. It’s about two single moms, Ruth, who is wealthy and divorced, and Gemma. She’s widowed. She runs a small SAT prep company. They meet at the Hillside Academy’s kindergarten party. They immediately gravitate towards each other, the only single moms in the class. Then over the course of about five years, they become very, very close. During that time, Ruth, because she’s so wealthy, showers Gemma in gifts and lavish vacations and things Gemma couldn’t afford on her own. Gemma becomes aware that she’s becoming more and more indebted to Ruth. Ruth is sort of wielding her wealth like a weapon. Basically, at one point, Ruth says something, has a public shaming. Gemma uses it as her excuse to end the relationship. Now we are maybe two or three years later. The kids are in high school becoming freshmen. Now Gemma’s the one who is enduring that public shaming. Somebody at her SAT prep company has been taking tests for the kids. Now Gemma is trouble. Ruth reaches out to her. Gemma has really no choice, so she lets Ruth back into her life. In the end, it ends up having devastating consequences for the moms and for the teenage girls.

Zibby: Wow. I love how you have the two of them in the supermarket. Ruth is kind of spying and ends up texting right there and watches Gemma get the text while she’s shopping for something. That’s the ideal thing. Ooh, let’s send this very controversial text message right where I can see how she — .

Melanie: Exactly. It’s very titillating for Ruth that, oh, my god, now Gemma is the one who is a pariah at the school, and realizing that she’s got the power. She’s right back in.

Zibby: It sort of reminds me, sometimes my husband will text me. It’ll come in, and I’ll just flip it up. He’s like, “You know, it’s not the best feeling when I text you, and I see you immediately ignore it.”

Melanie: Sounds familiar.

Zibby: I’m like, “I was getting to it. I was in the middle of something.” That’s funny. You also have them meet in this very lavish affair that Ruth is putting on at the time. You say something like, she’s showing her privilege right away. Isn’t it interesting that they’re having valet parking and lobster and all this decadence at the meet-and-greet for kindergarten? What does that say? Tell me a little bit about that and this, not culture clash, but how they met and what that was supposed to be saying and why she was doing that. Just tell me about that moment.

Melanie: Ruth decides to host the kindergarten meet-and-greet. In preschool, Ruth and her daughter Marley had a very tough time. They were both on the outside, shunned. Ruth is sort of awkward. Also, I think her uber-wealth makes her an outsider. She’s determined that she’s going to start off on the right foot at Hillside Academy and make friends. Hopefully, Marley will have a tribe and all of that. She goes in with great intentions really wanting to provide this incredible experience for the parents, but it backfires. Everybody is, of course, really turned off. It’s an ostentatious display of wealth. Immediately, the mothers are talking about her. She overhears them. Then in comes Gemma. She’s this breath of fresh air. She is very down to earth. She and her daughter are not dressed up. They thought, oh, this is just a kindergarten meet-and-greet. It’s like a picnic. Then when Gemma gets there, she realizes, oh, I’ve read this all wrong. The two of them see each other across the room, and especially Ruth laser-eyed on Gemma. She realizes, this is her. This is going to be my friend. I’m going to make her my best friend. It’s this very intense thing. Gemma doesn’t feel the same way. That’s how they meet. Ruth immediately determines that Gemma is going to be a big part of her life, unbeknownst to Gemma.

Zibby: It has a Pretty Little Liars sort of vibe to it. Did you watch the adaptation of that, or not?

Melanie: No, I didn’t.

Zibby: Isn’t it called — the one with Reese.

Melanie: Oh, you mean Big Little Lies. Big Little Lies.

Zibby: I’m sorry, Big Little Lies.

Melanie: That’s okay. Yes.

Zibby: I’m always saying those names wrong. This is what happens. I say all my words wrong when I don’t sleep enough. Yes, Big Little Lies when Laura Dern has the birthday party for her daughter. It’s so over the top and blah, blah, blah and all the chitchatting. It has that sinister —

Melanie: — That vibe.

Zibby: Yes.

Melanie: I really wanted to explore that. My son did go to a private school. It was not like this at all, I should say, until the kids got into high school. Then it started to get pretty competitive. This is not based on that, but the environment, I know that setting. I know what it’s like, the parents’ parties, the mothers, the gossip, all of that. I really drew on those experiences.

Zibby: I wrote an article recently about finding your people. I feel like in the writing community even around the world, you don’t realize, necessarily, when you’re in a class with certain moms — not that I don’t like the moms in my classes. I have so many kids in all these different classes. They’re lovely, but your people might not be in your class. That’s okay. When you’re in this tight-knit mom community, you feel sort of forced. If I don’t respond to any of these moms, what does that say about me? Is there something wrong with me? Is there anything out there? This is it. It’s almost like you go back to kindergarten yourself when you become a mom.

Melanie: Yeah, that’s basically how you meet friends if you have kids and they’re school-age. It’s not that you dump your friends that you had before you had kids, but this becomes your whole world, the moms. I have four best friends who, we’ve known each other since our kids were in kindergarten. We share this incredible history. Yes, I was lucky that I had these great moms in my class, but I have heard, especially if you have more than one kid, you’re not going to relate to all the moms. You might be closer to the moms in one kid’s class, right?

Zibby: Yep.

Melanie: Then you just can’t put in that effort with everybody.

Zibby: I am, though, going to make — I just decided I am going to my second-grade moms’ night for half an hour. I am going to pop in tonight to this drinks thing because I have to put in some effort with my younger kids. I feel like it’s so easy with the older kids. I got to know them so well. Now by my fourth kid — but I’m doing it. Anyway, your book raised all these issues of friendship and friendship groups and all of that, and of course, with the admissions piece thrown in and the fact that Julie, the tutor, really had fabricated her entire life. She wasn’t this foster child. She was from a nice, well-to-do-ish family from Connecticut. Did she know? Did she not know? What liability do you have, if you run a company, for the behavior of the people who — that, I found to be another really interesting element. Are you responsible? Do you know? Do you not know? What if you do? What if you don’t? Does it matter?

Melanie: I think it matters. When I wrote the book, Varsity Blues was very much in the headlines. I found it fascinating. The SAT prep here is so intense. Then, of course, there are inequities where if you’re wealthy, you can afford to get maybe private tutoring or whatever. That is certainly not the same for everybody. I was just fascinated by the whole thing. Also, the public shaming aspect of it, not just with Varsity Blues, but just in general, I still find it so fascinating. Any story I read about that, it just is always, always interesting and scary, very scary. I guess that’s part of it. It’s terrifying because you feel like, oh, my god, if I make one wrong move, this could happen to me.

Zibby: But you survived. You sent your son to college. Everything worked out okay.

Melanie: He went to college. I survived, yes, that intense time. He’s fine. He’s good.

Zibby: There’s that. Tell me a little about your whole writing trajectory. I know you had some other books even before The Slippery Year, and then Wife 22 and another one. I’m forgetting the name.

Melanie: I’ve written in a lot of different genres. The first three books were, I would say, fantasy genre for young adults. I loved fantasy when I was growing up. The Chronicles of Narnia, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien, all of those books when I was growing up were just out. I think the books you read between the ages of seven and twelve are really formative for you. They really make you a reader, and a particular kind of reader. I explored that. I did that. Then I decided — well, what happened? A friend of mine asked me to write an essay, something about parenting. I wrote this essay and discovered I had this voice — it’s sort of The Slippery Year voice — that was funny. I had been writing all these very dark fantasy books. Suddenly, it was just like, oh, my gosh, I could write something light and funny and moving at the same time. I think this voice was in me all along, but it just had been sort of dormant. Then I moved in that direction. I wrote The Slippery Year, which is very much in that tone. It’s twelve autobiographical essays, sort of Nora Ephron-esque, about midlife, like I said.

Then after that, I wrote a novel, Wife 22, which also was in the same sort of genre. Then I got tired of writing that, so I thought I’d write a time-travel novel. That book was so hard to write, so challenging. It took me four years. I wrote it. Then I chucked it. Then I completely had to write it again to get it right. It was very arduous. I think a lot of authors have that experience where they write the book and then realize it’s sort of stillborn and have to write it again. It hadn’t happened to me. I think it’s a rite of passage. After that, I thought, I want to write something entertaining and fun and dark. I really wanted to explore this darker side of motherhood, and so I wrote Did I Say You Could Go, which was extremely fun to write, really fun to let loose that voice that none of us as moms, we’re not usually willing to admit it, maybe to our closest friends. That was Did I Say You Could Go. I had a blast writing it.

Zibby: How long did this one take to write?

Melanie: It took about a year, which is pretty quick.

Zibby: Two questions. When did you know you were going to be a writer? Then I want to ask about all these different genres because there are all these warnings. Don’t cross genres. Be careful and blah, blah, blah. I’m curious about your thoughts on that.

Melanie: First, I read voraciously when I was a kid. I thank my mom because she religiously brought us to the library every week. I started writing when I was about eight. My first attempts were clearly plagiarizing the Little House on the Prairie books.

Zibby: Those were my favorites.

Melanie: Maybe writing fan fiction, Little House on the Prairie fan fiction. That’s what it was at that point. I just always had these dreams of being a writer. It was from the time I was really young. I just kept writing. I wasn’t very good. I just kept at it because it was my passion. I had this urgency to write and basically learned along the way. As far as switching genres, what can I say? It’s probably not the wisest idea if you’re trying to build a brand, but I just didn’t want to write the same book over and over again. That would’ve been boring for me. I had to do it. I had to keep switching and switching it up. It’s been seven books. I think that it’s worked out pretty well for me. I think in a way, male authors are given more freedom and celebrated more when they write in different genres, perhaps, than women are. There are certainly exceptions. I think if you’re writing women’s fiction — I do not like that term, commercial fiction. If you stay in your lane and stay on brand, you might have a lot more success, but that wasn’t for me.

Zibby: What do you do when you’re not writing? What’s your life like? Do you write every day?

Melanie: I do when I’m actively working on a book and I’m under a deadline. For me, I’m not very romantic about it. It’s a job. Monday through Friday, I write probably for three to four hours. I have some idea of a word count. I want to have twenty thousand words written in a month so I can have a first draft usually within six months and then another six months to revise. I like having that sort of structure. It’s my job. Then in between books, I’m in between books now, I spend a while thinking about the next book, perhaps really outlining an idea, seeing if it works or not, tossing that aside. That’s where I am right now. For me, it’s a really fun period of time because I’m just in my head. I can imagine everything. Everything has potential. That’s where I am now.

Zibby: Exciting. Are you ever going back to memoir, or you think you’re one and done in that?

Melanie: I think I am. I think that time has passed. Honestly, I don’t think my life is — when I wrote that book, books like that that were just kind of sweet and whatever, they were doing really well. Now the only thing I’d have to write about is my experience being an author, which actually is really — occasionally, I think, oh, I should write a book about this publishing experience because there’s a lot of dish-y stuff in that experience, but no, I don’t think I would. No, not at this point.

Zibby: What types of books do you read now? Do you still read lots of fantasy?

Melanie: No. My reading tastes have really changed. I think when I was younger, I really read a lot of very, very literary books. As I’ve gotten older, plot has become more important to me. I want a really well-written book, but I also want it to move. I want a page-turner. What am I reading now? Jonathan Franzen’s new book. I can’t remember the name of it. I just read a book called Paper Palace, which was unbelievable.

Zibby: Love that.

Melanie: Did you read that?

Zibby: Loved it, yes.

Melanie: Gosh, what else? I forget all the books that I’ve read, I have to say, I read so many, which probably is an issue for you, right?

Zibby: Yeah.

Melanie: Paper Palace. I love Stephen King. I read everything, basically, everything, New Yorker, People. It’s all material to mine.

Zibby: Excellent. Is there anything, just on the writing dish-y side, that you learned from your success in the past? Do you feel like there are hurdles starting new books to live up to the last books? Do you have any of that stuff?

Melanie: For sure, yes. I’ve had all sorts of different experiences with the books. With the young adult books, I really didn’t get a lot of traction. Harry Potter had come out. It just really wasn’t working for me. Then when I switched and did The Slippery Year and Wife 22, suddenly, I broke out with my fourth book. That says something about not giving up. To all the writers out there, sometimes it happens right away, but most of the time, it doesn’t. You have to find your voice. You have to find your material. With Slippery Year and Wife 22, it was just unbelievable experiences of what you would dream being an author is like. That was really fun. Then with the time-travel novel, that was a more subdued publishing experience. That was harder. Then with Did I Say You Could Go, that was exciting again. What can I say about having a very long career as a writer? There are ups and downs. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s not. Writers tend to be thin-skinned. I’m thin-skinned. I have learned over the years not to google myself very much, not to go and read the reviews, whether they’re good or bad, and sort of protect myself during the publishing part of the experience. I love the creative part. That’s when I’m the happiest. The publishing business side of it, a little less.

Zibby: Do you ever do any essays or anything like that?

Melanie: No, not lately. Although, we are moving. We’ve been in California for almost twenty-two years. We are moving back to the East Coast, which is where I’m from, in January. Exciting, kind of scary. I do want to write an essay about leaving California and coming home because there’s just so much to say about California. I’m moving back to Rhode Island, which is my parents live, where I grew up, all my sisters are, but it’s bittersweet leaving here and all these incredible mom friends I’ve made. Twenty years someplace is a long time. I think I’m going to write that. I’m taking notes for that.

Zibby: I have this publication, Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. If you want to send it to us, we’d love to have it.

Melanie: Oh, thank you. Yes, that would be great. I wasn’t aware you were publishing.

Zibby: I also have a publishing company, I publish books, called Zibby Books.

Melanie: Oh, my gosh, how exciting. Okay, I will definitely do that. Definitely.

Zibby: I can’t wait to read that. I would be very excited.

Melanie: Thank you.

Zibby: That was already a lot of advice. My last question is usually, what advice would you have for aspiring authors? Is there anything else aside from the longevity in the writing career?

Melanie: I have one piece of advice. Everybody’s not going to love you. I think what’s realistic, what you can expect is that a third of people will love your books. A third will be indifferent. A third will hate them. That took me a while to realize. Basically, you’re writing for the third which is your audience who love what you’re doing. You need to sort of forget the rest. Nobody’s in a situation, no matter who you are, how famous you are, that everybody adores your book. That’s my best advice. Expect that. That’s good enough. That’s good.

Zibby: Wow, I’ve never heard that before. That’s great. Thank you.

Melanie: Are you a writer, Zibby?

Zibby: I am a writer, yes.

Melanie: You are?

Zibby: Yeah, I just had two anthologies come out, but they’re from authors from the podcast. I have two children’s books coming out. Then my memoir’s coming out in July.

Melanie: No kidding. That’s exciting. Can I just ask what it’s about?

Zibby: Yeah. It’s called Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature. It’s about a series of losses that I’ve had in my life and how books have always been the through line of getting me through everything and how it culminated in this publishing business and what I’m doing now. Along the way, I fell in love with my husband. It’s about motherhood and love and starting over in many ways.

Melanie: That sounds great. Congratulations.

Zibby: I need a better pitch, but I haven’t worked on it yet.

Melanie: That’s pretty good. I know, the pitches are so hard to do, the elevator pitches. That sounds great. I can’t wait to read it.

Zibby: I’ve been writing and rewriting it so many times in different forms, different sections for so many years. Finally, it’s coming out, so I’m very excited.

Melanie: It’s coming together.

Zibby: Though, I just cut twenty thousand words, which is still hurting me very much. I literally kept calling my editor. I was like, “Are you sure it’s good? Are you sure I didn’t just totally ruin it? Tell me it’s still good.” We’ll see.

Melanie: Wonderful. I can’t wait to read it.

Zibby: Thank you. I’ll send you a copy if I remember.

Melanie: Oh, yes. Great.

Zibby: I’ll make a mental note. I’ll write an actual note because my mind is like a sieve these days.

Melanie: I understand. So is mine. I don’t have four children, so I have no excuse.

Zibby: It was so nice connecting with you. I can’t tell you how many times I pass by and look at the spine on this book. It’s personally just so exciting to me to meet you. Now I’m going to go reread it.

Melanie: Zibby, thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care. Thanks a lot. Good luck with your move. I’ll look for your essay.

Melanie: All right. Take care.

Zibby: Bye.

Melanie: Bye.

Melanie Gideon, DID I SAY YOU COULD GO

DID I SAY YOU COULD GO by Melanie Gideon

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