Miriam Parker, ROOM AND BOARD

Miriam Parker, ROOM AND BOARD

Zibby is joined by Miriam Parker, author and associate publisher of Ecco, to discuss her latest novel, Room and Board. The two talk about Miriam’s writing process for both this novel and her first, why she’s happy that her books are not published by the company she works for, and her journey to becoming an author. Miriam also shares her best advice as both a publisher and author herself, as well as what she is currently reading.


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

Miriam Parker: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. This is truly a highlight of publishing a book. I really appreciate you having me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you’re so sweet. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Miriam: My book is called Room and Board. It’s about a woman named Gillian Brodie, who is a celebrity publicist whose life kind of explodes for a variety of reasons. She ends up going back to her alma mater, which is a boarding school in Sonoma, California, where she ends up as a dorm mom for a bunch of recalcitrant children.

Zibby: I love that she gets to school and meets this blond, beautiful, totally in the know, like how I feel most people who are younger than me are these days anyway, who are lightyears ahead and all of that, who can show her the ropes and asks her out to dinner. I would never have done that to somebody at school. I would never have had the audacity to meet somebody at a summer program or school or anything and be like, let’s go have dinner. What do you think?

Miriam: I know. In some ways, she forgets that they’re kids a little bit at the beginning. She’s like, this is what I do. I meet a new person, and we go out for dinner. As she’s having dinner with this girl, she’s like, oh, I’m the grown-up in this situation. I think that’s actually kind of a weird thing to — it happens to you at some point in your life. You’re like, oh, no, I’m the more responsible one. What do I do now? throughout the book to realize, I’ve got to actually help these girls. I need to be the grown-up in this situation.

Zibby: Whatever that means. I don’t know.

Miriam: I don’t know. I do think she starts to realize she needs to have more boundaries.

Zibby: Yes, which makes total sense. What made you want to revisit this time of life and boarding school campus and all of that?

Miriam: I didn’t go to boarding school, but I always wanted to go to one. There was always this moment with my parents. I was like, “Can I just get out of here?” That was always a dream. I love The Secret History and boarding school novels in general. When I was thinking about what my next book was going to be, I was like, I’m not sure what the plot is going to be, but I know it has to be set in a boarding school. That was a really fun setting. Also, everyone is kind of trapped together, and so they have to deal with each other and get out of the scenarios that come to them using their own resources.

Zibby: Yes, totally. Tell me, what was your high school experience like?

Miriam: I grew up in Westchester. I’m from Hastings-on-Hudson. I went to Hastings High School. Actually, my experience is pretty opposite from Gillian’s. I went to the same school from kindergarten to senior year of high school. There were eighty kids in my class. We all knew each other. We knew everything about each other. We knew each other’s parents. We knew each other’s grandparents. It was insular in that way, but we all lived at home. Some of the experiences that Gillian has are based a little bit on when I went to college. I went to Columbia. Going to a Columbia was a pretty eye-opening experience for me. I had just never met people who were so different from me, royalty. I’m like, who are these people? That was definitely an experience for me. Oh, my goodness, the world is much bigger than Hastings-on-Hudson.

Zibby: Although, I grew up in New York City, and my high school also had eighty-nine people in my graduating class. By the end, we knew a lot about each other too. It doesn’t matter, small town, big town. When your community seems very small, it’s what makes all the difference, I feel like. Tell me how you got to end up being a publisher at Ecco. What was your whole career trajectory? How did writing and books play into your whole timeline?

Miriam: I actually was a reader first, one hundred percent. I was an English major in college. I really lucked into a job after I graduated from college over twenty years ago in publishing, mostly because I loved books. Also, I, at the time, was building websites. I got a job building websites for what is now Hachette Book Group but was called Time Warner Trade Publishing back then. It was a really cool job. I got to build websites for Sidney Sheldon and Walter Mosley and James Patterson. I was twenty-one years old. That was a really cool experience. In my early twenties, what I really missed was that reward that you get from going to school, basically, so I started taking writing classes on the side just as a thing. I was like, I still want that engagement. I want that creative outlet. I hadn’t written that much in college. Once I started working in publishing and meeting writers, I was like, oh, maybe I could do this. I kind of had a braided path. I always worked in publishing, but I did get an MFA starting when I was twenty-five. I worked in publishing all the way through the time that I was getting my MFA. When I came back for my MFA, I was able to step right back in and become the marketing director for Mulholland Books and help launch that imprint. That was the trajectory towards becoming the associate publisher of Ecco, being the marketing director for a number of different imprints at Little Brown. Then when this position opened, I came to Ecco about seven years ago.

Zibby: Wow. As associate publisher, what’s your job like? What are your days like?

Miriam: Every day is different. I have my fingers in all the pots at Ecco, basically. My main responsibilities are to oversee marketing and publicity and our relationship with sales. At ten o’clock, I have a meeting with our sales team to talk about our fall books. I also weigh in on acquisitions and think about the business side of acquisitions. I do a lot of research for comp and vision for, how are we going to publish this book? How are we going to take the book that the editors make perfect and bring it out into the world and find the audience for it? It’s a really fun job. I keep the trains running on time. I’m involved in a lot of the production and inventory and stuff like that, which I think is actually super interesting and fun.

Zibby: This is a silly question. Did Ecco publish your book?

Miriam: No. Dutton is my publisher. Actually, I’m so, so glad that my publisher is completely separate from my job. Dutton is part of Penguin Random House. I work at HarperCollins. Actually, I’ve never worked at Penguin Random House. I’ve worked at Hachette. I’ve worked at HarperCollins. I don’t know the salesforce. I can’t go and dig around in the systems and figure things out, which I think is better. My experience as an author, it’s as pure as it could be for someone who works in book publishing. I let my team at Dutton handle it. I think they’re experts. They’re super good at their job. I always like to say I know that even though they’re not emailing me, they’re working on my book, which I’m sure you know as a publisher. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes that authors may or may not know about. Maybe it’s better if they don’t know.

Zibby: I want our authors to see, but it’s a series of Zooms. I wish we were all in a room where somebody could be a fly on the wall or we could film it. Our team is all over the place, so it’s not that same going into work and seeing what’s happening thing.

Miriam: So much of what I do actually has to do with the books that are in a warehouse in a place that I’ve never been or getting them off the trucks and into cartons and into distribution and things like that. A lot of it is really invisible, even to me. I’m just like, what does that place look like?

Zibby: Do you take your own marketing, publicity approach from Ecco and then apply certain things to your own book marketing? If so, what are some of the things that you feel like you’re doing that have been most successful that other authors out there should think about doing?

Miriam: One thing I will say that I always tell authors is to do the things that feel the best for you. I would never force someone to get on Twitter if it didn’t feel comfortable to them, if it wasn’t a natural thing for them. I happen to love Instagram. I think it’s really fun. I’m on there all day long. I’ve been posting a lot of my content on Instagram. I don’t know how to use TikTok. I just can’t. I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid of making videos. I’ve dabbled. I’m like, I think I’m not that good at this. I’m not pursuing that. Although, I’m totally in awe of the people who are good at it. My advice to myself and also to other authors is that, do what you like best. That’s where you’re going to be successful. If you push yourself to do something that you’re not good at, people are going to be able to tell.

Zibby: I’m in the same exact boat. I feel very comfortable on Instagram. I get it. It makes sense to me. I enjoy it. TikTok, I’m like, this is not good. This is not pretty. Hats off to people who can master everything. Everybody has to pick and choose. There’s only so much time in the day.

Miriam: It’s true.

Zibby: In terms of your process when you’re writing and how you approach books and how you approach plot and escalation and conflict and character and all that stuff, tell me — I assume you learned a bunch of it at your MFA program. How do you put all that into practice? When you set out to start a project, how do you approach it?

Miriam: I actually like to think of books a little bit in terms of movies. I love a classic movie structure, a three-act structure. I tend to think about book plotting that way. I did approach this book a little bit differently. My first book, I just wrote it. It was chaos. This book was also chaotic in a different way, but I did decide to write, actually, a treatment of it before I wrote it. It wasn’t an outline. It was more like a narrative, five- or six-page description of the beats in the book and all the things that were going to happen, which is something that I saw a film company do. I was like, you know what? I think this is a good way for me to figure out what’s going to happen in the book without me thinking the writing is boring. I think that if you have a really strict outline, then writing is just kind of filling in the blanks. That’s not fun for me. I want to feel a little like I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen here, but I liked having a little bit of a roadmap that was narrative. When I was stuck, I’d be like, let me go check my treatment and see what it says I should do. That was a good way to approach it. I will say that this book got revised really heavily. The first drafts, the subplot of the scandal that happens at the school was different. I had to go back and change the subplot. A lot of things changed in the revision process, which I actually really love. I love the thing about fiction, that someone can say, what if this happens instead of this? What if it’s a financial scandal? I was like, oh, yeah, that actually makes a lot more sense. It had been a Me Too kind of a scandal, which echoed too much with her backstory. We were like, no, it’s better if it’s a financial scandal. I really had to go back and change a lot of things to make sure that that all made sense. Throughout the different drafts you’re reading, you’re like, I caught another thing that was part of that old plot.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, it never ends. It’s like surgery. It’s making sure everything is sown together just right.

Miriam: I actually described it a little bit like a construction project. I was like, I need to take this whole building apart. When it’s apart, you’re like, I’m not sure I can put it back together. I’m a little bit afraid of it. Then you kind of put it back together. Then you’re like, I did it. Then they’re like, oh, can you change this too? You’re like, I have to take it apart again.

Zibby: The dreaded notes. I never used to like that. Even at school, I was like, no, my paper’s fine. I don’t need to revise it. I’ll take this grade. That’s close enough. Then I think the worst part is just knowing that the notes are right, at least for me. It would be better if I did X, Y, Z. Okay, I guess I’ll do it.

Miriam: It’s stressful when you get the notes. I will say I’ve found it’s really lovely to have a really good editor. Having a really good editor is such a gift. My agent is also a very good editor. My agent and my editor both weighed in. Also, their assistants weighed in, which I really appreciated because they are younger. They actually gave really, really good notes, especially on the kids and to make sure that I was writing them the right way.

Zibby: Market research, always good. I’m curious what your parents did growing up because your sister, Beth, is a literary publicist. You are a publisher and author. Do you have other siblings, first of all? No? The two of you?

Miriam: No, it’s just us two. We both work in publishing, which is pretty remarkable. There aren’t that many of us, siblings in publishing, the sisters as well. My dad was a teacher. He was an elementary school principal for most of my childhood. My mom actually is a scientist. Her background is in laboratory work. She always worked in hospitals and labs and eventually actually became a computer consultant helping laboratories install software. She’s definitely the tech element of our family. There were always books around when I was growing up. I was always writing. I wrote little stories in notebooks and filled up computer floppy disks and stuff with stories starting when I was probably seven or eight years old. I’ve always been a reader and a writer. I was thinking yesterday about the time that — I used to love The Baby-Sitter’s Club. I would just devour those books. Finally, my mom was like, “You have to read something else. You have to stop reading The Baby-Sitter’s Club.” I loved them. In some ways, a desire for those readable plots that just move really fast and you get to know the characters really quickly — in a lot of ways, I like to say that Little Women is my influence, but honestly, it’s The Baby Sitter’s Club.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I somehow missed The Baby-Sitter’s Club growing up. I was more Little House on the Prairie and Sweet Valley High. I just missed it.

Miriam: I loved Sweet Valley High. Those are really good. They were twins.

Zibby: They were twins, yeah. Growing up, I was like, wow, all these books have these glamorous twins. I want twins. Then I had twins. I’m like, this is not all glamorous. This is really hard.

Miriam: Being a mom to twins, I just can’t even imagine. I have one daughter. If there were two of her, I don’t know what I would do.

Zibby: Well, it wouldn’t be two of her. The blessing of having — the benefit. Not really a blessing. The benefit is no matter how frustrated you are with someone, you could always go to the next one. That’s not your whole sample set. You have other inputs. I’m kidding. I’m not actually kidding. In terms of what you like to read yourself, what’s on your nightstand right now?

Miriam: What I read is such a wide variety. That’s actually the best thing about working in publishing. You are aware of everything that’s being published and what’s really interesting. Right now, the audiobook I’m listening to is Ed Yong’s book, An Immense World, which is so good and so interesting. I learned something about my dog. I’m learning things about spiders. Super interesting. I just finishing reading, in physical form, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, which I cannot stop loving.

Zibby: I have to read this book. Best-seller. Everyone I know is recommending it. I bought it. I have to read it.

Miriam: It will bring you so much joy.

Zibby: I have to try to schedule her so that I force myself to read her.

Miriam: I think she’s really interesting. She’s written a bunch of books and some YA. The research she did for this book is really interesting. Not to be the publicist for Gabrielle Zevin, but I love her. That book is amazing. I love her. I also just finished reading Crying in H Mart, which I know came out a couple years ago, but I just finally got to read it after everyone had recommended it to me. It’s so lovely and made me hungry, which is another quality I like in a book.

Zibby: I have to admit, I have not read that book either. I know I will love it. I don’t know if I’m saving it. I have that too. I just keep waiting. I don’t know what I’m waiting for. Anyway, it is what it is.

Miriam: That one might be a good audio, actually. Do you ever do audio when you’re driving or walking?

Zibby: I do, yes. That’s a great idea. I have been almost completely sedentary this summer. When I go back to dropping my kids at school and walking home, I’ll start doing that. That’s a good September project. Thank you.

Miriam: I love nonfiction in audio. If I’m going to read a memoir or a book like Ed’s, having Ed Yong read to you is amazing.

Zibby: I know. It’s like being told a bedtime story. It’s less book and more just like, okay, tell me about your life. Let’s talk. I’ll just listen. Like a conversation that requires literally no work. It’s someone not knowing they’re actually in a conversation with me because it’s not, but I’ll just pretend. Those are on my wish list as well. What about upcoming books for Ecco? Is there anything you want to plug or you’re excited about?

Miriam: We have such good stuff coming up for Ecco. We are publishing Elizabeth McCracken’s autofiction book, The Hero of This Book, which I think you know about.

Zibby: I have that. I’m excited.

Miriam: It is so good. The afternoon when I read that book was one of those perfect afternoons. I did not move off of my couch for three hours. I just read it and wept and laughed. It’s a mother-daughter story. She’s just an amazing writer. She tells the story so sensitively but also puts in these little details about how she wrote the book as you read it. Just amazing. Then we’re also publishing Kevin Wilson this fall. He is an author who I just adore. His new book is called Now Is Not the Time to Panic, which is applicable in many ways. It’s a great coming-of-age story. It’s about the impact that art has on the world and about a poster that kind of goes viral before that existed. He’s lovely. Everyone should read Kevin Wilson all the time. It’ll make them happy.

Zibby: I think I have that on the schedule too. I hope so. I think so.

Miriam: I think you do.

Zibby: I think I do too. Okay, good. Perfect. What other advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Miriam: I have two pieces of advice. One of them is, read everything, which is advice I’ve already given. Read nonfiction. Read memoir. Read fiction. Even if you want to write fiction, I find that reading nonfiction and memoir really, really helps you develop characters. It helps you get ideas. It introduces you to different ways of writing and telling stories. That’s my advice in terms of reading. I also think that it’s important for people to know that writing a book takes times. It’s also not a straight line. In the process of writing this book, I also wrote another book that I had to throw away. That was a book that I had sold on proposal. When I was done with it, my editor just didn’t really love it. I had to throw it away and write a new one. Talk about a way to break your heart.

Zibby: I’m so sorry.

Miriam: You’re like, I worked so hard on this. I’ve written a novel, and it’s not good enough. Even if you’re a published writer, if you’ve already published a book, it’s not necessarily a straight line to getting to where you are. I will say that I’m glad that I threw that book away and that this is the book that I ended up finishing and writing and publishing because this story is a lot closer to my heart. It’s just something I feel more passionate about. In the end, the right thing happens, but sometimes the journey to get there is not the easiest.

Zibby: You say that in such a chipper way. I had to throw out a whole novel. The tears that would’ve been involved on my end for that would fill some jugs.

Miriam: I will not lie to you that it was not heartbreaking. It completely, completely was, but I had a book deal. I had to write a book. It was my job. That was the other thing. I needed to complete the job that I was contractually obligated to do. I was like, I want to write the book that they want to publish.

Zibby: I get it, but I’m sorry. I’m glad you worked through it. Writing novels, I feel like — I’ve talked to so many authors. It seems almost impossible to do without writing at least two other novels. Practicing, it’s so counterintuitive because it takes so, so long. It’s not just like doing a round of baseball in the backyard or something, and you practice and get better. You have to complete it, but then you have to start over. I think you have to be really committed, which you know.

Miriam: It’s true. It’s funny. Knowing that you can do it, it’s kind of like running a mile or something. Once you do it, you’re like, oh, I can do this. Just writing that novel, even if it’s not the novel you end up publishing, you know, I can complete this extended story. It’s in me to do it. The first novel that I wrote when I was in grad school, which, again, not published, getting to the end of that and knowing I could do it, I was like, oh, I can do this. That’s actually the best feeling in some ways. It’s better than any other feeling.

Zibby: What happens to it after doesn’t take away from it being a novel. You’ve still written a novel whether it gets published commercially or self-published or never sees the light of day. You still did the thing, so that’s pretty cool. Then last, when you’re not busy writing and working, what do you do?

Miriam: That’s a good question. I like to eat. I like to drink wine. I have a young child, so a lot of my time is spent watching Bluey and building forts out of pillows and picking up very small rocks. She’s a real joy. She’s two years old. Watching her grow and learn in the past couple of years has actually been really, really interesting and fun. That was the part of having a kid that I didn’t really realize. I didn’t realize how interesting they are and how just watching them develop and learn, how cool that is. I really love that part of it and watching her acquire language and start to speak in full sentences. Now she can tell me that she’s magically turning me into a cat.

Zibby: It’s like you’re putting your mom’s scientist brain and watching her as a little experiment unfolding. I love it. Awesome. This was so fun, Miriam. We have so much in common, this whole love of publishing and writing and books. So many other things that you said, I’m like, me too, yep, yep, yep. It was really nice chatting with you and feeling this kindred energy out there. Thanks for coming on.

Miriam: Likewise. Thank you so much. Congratulations on your book too. It’s a huge accomplishment.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks a lot. Take care. Buh-bye.

Miriam Parker, ROOM AND BOARD

ROOM AND BOARD by Miriam Parker

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