Naima Coster’s latest novel, What’s Mine and Yours, was an instant New York Times bestseller, not to mention both a Read with Jenna and Book of the Month Club pick. Naima talks with Zibby about the ways in which her intergenerational trauma has led her to write more optimistic familial dynamics, how it took her two years of deferring medical school to admit she wanted to be a writer, and why her self-doubt is essential to her writing process.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Naima. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss What’s Mine and Yours.

Naima Coster: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: I’m delighted that this copy of the book that I’m holding is mine, not yours. This one’s mine. Congratulations on it being a Read with Jenna pick and best seller and all of that. It must feel so exciting. Is it just amazing? I know your last book, Halsey Street, was also so well-received and everything. Wow.

Naima: It’s totally amazing. It’s been wonderful to watch readers find the book and was really cool to talk to Jenna Bush Hager for The Today Show. It’s been a dreamy experience. I feel very lucky.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Would you mind giving just the elevator pitch of what this is about for would-be readers who haven’t read it yet who are listening now?

Naima: Absolutely. What’s Mine and Yours is the story of two families that are brought together when a local public high school becomes integrated in a North Carolina city. One family is headed by a woman named Jade who suffered a terrible loss and wants to make sure her son is able to have a good life despite everything that’s been taken away from him. She supports the integration. Another family is head by a woman named Lacey May whose husband is in and out of her life. She’s struggling financially to provide for her three girls. She chooses to oppose the integration.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you. I’m sorry, you’ve probably done that a thousand times, but a thousand and one, here you go.

Naima: No, it’s good. There’s a lot going on in the book, so happy to give a little overview.

Zibby: One of the elements that I thought was particularly interesting was the way you portrayed men. I know that there’s a lot of backstory with you and your own mother and your daughter and your background. I do want to talk about all that. I also think that the way men come across, from Ray and how fully formed he was and then eventually Gee — Gee, right?

Naima: Gee, yes.

Zibby: And even how, for Noelle’s miscarriage, when she’s talking about Norman — I hope I’m getting all the names right. You said he’s not as unbreakable as he seems. The men also have really big feelings about all of this stuff. I just loved seeing all those relationships and even Ray being a stand-in father but not blood father and how that relationship works. Maybe talk a little bit about men in your book.

Naima: It’s interesting to hear you say that because I definitely start with the women. I started with the mothers, Jade and Lacey May. I tend to write about women. For this book, which I imagined as a family saga looking at these two families, I knew that I had to do right by all of the different family members. I’m really fascinated by how the secrets of people in a family, whether it’s things that they’re ashamed of or things that they’re dreaming of, end up affecting everyone else in the family system even if it never comes to light. One of the pleasures of writing was getting into the minds of each of these characters and revealing them to the reader in ways that they don’t exactly end up being known by one another.

Zibby: Love that, even just all these little details about them. It didn’t take away, obviously, from the women who were the central figures. Often, the men are just sort of supporting characters, if you will, off on the side. They have their own big feelings. I just really liked that.

Naima: I’m so glad. Thank you.

Zibby: There are a lot of complicated mother-daughter, mother-son, mother-everything relationships in here. You’ve written a lot, and so beautifully by the way, in Elle and Time and The Cut, all these places, about your own experience. Would you mind talking a little bit more about your own intergenerational trauma and your mother and the abuse that went along with that and how your books sometimes are more optimistic because the idea of finding love is even something that you find hard to imagine? Not to go too into your personal life to start, but if you wouldn’t mind talking about it.

Naima: I am very interested in what gets passed down from generation to generation, the hard things that are transmitted and how people try to find their lives after that. Something that I hear sometimes from readers is that my work is tough or heavy and the lives of the characters are tough and heavy. That’s certainly true in What’s Mine and Yours where one mother loses her partner. It’s not that big of a spoiler because it happens in the first chapter. Then another mother doesn’t, also, have support. I do think a lot about what these characters do have despite what’s been taken from them. That is love and connection, which isn’t something that I always had in my upbringing. I’ve written about what it’s like to be a mother who’s estranged from her own mother. I think that I process that in some ways by writing fiction about difficult, messy relationships, but relationships that in some way are more than what I got in life because the flawed and troubled mothers also deeply want to be connected to their children, which I think is the beautiful thing and I think is something we assume is universal and is certainly common, but is not everybody’s story and is not my story. I’m always writing about children who long for their parents, but I guess the way maybe I revise my life story is there are parents who are also longing for, privately and outwardly — really working to be connected to their kids.

Zibby: Wow. At the end of that essay, by the way, after the labor and you were holding your daughter and you were like, “All I want is just for her to know that I’m here,” it was really beautiful, and how you were so sad sending her to daycare. Sorry, I did a deep dive into your life. I was like, this is all so good.

Naima: It was funny sending her off to daycare. It ended up being different at different points. At the very beginning, she was just sort of like, “Bye, Mommy,” and was very happy to go. It was hard for me. One of the things I write about it is, she feels secure and stable and knows that the bond is here. I’m the one who feels scared at the separation because of my own life. That was an illuminating moment for me.

Zibby: I feel the same way sometimes. I’m like, I know I’m trying to raise independent kids and all, but shouldn’t she want me to be in the room with her? What do you mean, “Mom, I’m okay. You can leave”? What? Okay, sure. I guess I did a good job then, that you don’t want to be with me right this second. Just curious, do you have any plans to write a memoir? I feel like you have so many personal stories that are very ripe for more digging.

Naima: I’ve thought about it. I think it’s possible, but it’s not a solid plan that I have. I feel very drawn to the fiction because I find that it can be a good way to sift through things that I don’t fully understand, whereas I go to write an essay once I’ve already sort of finished my thinking about something. I never write nonfiction about something that’s in progress or fresh. I find that I have this habit of living through a set of questions and feelings and experiences. Then after two or three years of that, I say, I should write a book. Then I write a novel that doesn’t tell my story, but that picks up all those themes and questions.

Zibby: You wrote about sending your mom Halsey Street and how she didn’t read it at first. Then she did and had a pretty horrific response at the end. It caused your estrangement. How do you then go on to write a second book or another story with that as the backdrop? That’s a lot of responsibility for a book in a relationship. Of course, you did nothing — it was fiction.

Naima: I think that that’s a part of it, knowing that the book isn’t the actual problem in any way. I talk about how that book is, rather than, say, slamming anybody, it’s like wish fulfillment of a mother and daughter who find their way back to one another. I do think it’s not an option for me not to write. It feels so connected to who I am and what’s a part of me. I think that the book was just a cipher for being someone who hopes to tell the truth even if that is in a difficult conversation, in a letter, or in fiction. I love writing fiction because I feel that I am telling emotional truths. Sometimes I need to make stuff up in order to do that.

Zibby: Yet you wrote this other essay when you said, about writing, “Self-doubt is central to my way of being, and my writing is not immune.” Do you still doubt yourself even despite your success and everything?

Naima: Totally. Absolutely. I’m going to start my third book this summer. There’s so many things I know about it. There’s so many things that I don’t know. How could I know? Books are very long. The outline I have on my computer doesn’t capture the fullness of the project. I feel excited, but I also feel scared that I won’t be able to pull it off or figure it out. It’s been helpful for me to know that that feeling is just a feeling and that actually, it in no way predicts what the meaning of the book will be. It’s something I hear from other writers, including my students. My students will say to me, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel lost.” I say, “Sounds right. Sounds like you’re building a big, complicated thing. The feelings are just a part of it, part of the territory.”

Zibby: I’m starting to feel like authors have more self-doubt. They trust the process less than anybody else in the world. Maybe it’s just because I interview authors all the time. What you just said about pulling it off, every author is like, oh, phew, I did it. I managed to do it. It’s like, what do you mean? You’re a gifted writer. You are going to do it. Nobody has that attitude. It’s this elusive thing. Did I do it? Did I not? Can it come back? Where is it from? It’s hard to articulate.

Naima: I think the questioning is really important and is partially why books have the capacity to surprise us. If I didn’t question any of my choices about the characters or the plot, I don’t think that any of my books would contain those moments that change a reader’s sense of the people they’re following or challenge expectations. I think that that questioning actually making the writing better.

Zibby: Interesting. Tell me a little bit more, speaking of characters and getting to know them more, not to give anything away, but when Gee ends up in the — I don’t know if I can say or not. Not that it’s a surprise, but when he is going through a very difficult time in a very sterile-like setting and she has to come rescue him, if you will, and figure out everything, I feel like it showed a different side of her mothering than I had seen previously. Was that intentional, or it just happened? Am I wrong?

Naima: No, I don’t think you’re wrong. With both of these mothers, I was so interested in exploring what they knew how to give their kids and what they didn’t know how to give their kids, which I think is certainly true for me and true for so many mothers. For Jade, Gee’s mother, one thing that she knows how to do is champion his future. She supports the integration. She wants to make sure her kid isn’t left out and has opportunity. She’s fierce in so many ways. He just experiences that as humiliating. He wants to blend into the school. He’s already an outsider because he’s a young black boy, because he has this difficult family history. He’s from the wrong side of town. When he is hurt, let’s say, and his mother has to show up to care for him, she still basically knows how to show her care by fighting with the doctors. Her internal world in that moment is filled with fear and tenderness for her son who she sees has been harmed. She doesn’t just want him to have a good life and a good job. She wants him to be safe and to be well, but I think externally still sort of comes off as her being tough and a fighter. She doesn’t take him in her arms.

Zibby: Interesting. So interesting. Did you always know you wanted to write? Did you always know? When you get ideas for characters, which is a totally different question, how do they appear to you? Maybe do that one first. How did Jade — does she appear to you fully formed? Did you know her in relation to her loss and the way that a mom has to grieve? That’s a whole nother great, amazing thing you had throughout the book, which is so relevant, particularly now. How do they come to you?

Naima: I think characters come to me through their situations. They don’t come fully formed. I think about the pressures that they’re under and what they have to carry and then go from there. For Jade, I knew I wanted to write about a woman who’d lost her partner, who had an ambivalent relationship to the child she already had, but now had to figure out a way to step up and fill the role that her partner had filled. Then for Lacey May, I wanted to write about a woman who felt really isolated in the role of wife and mother and who had to take care of her kids while being in love with their father. That situation was interesting to me. Then everything sort of grew from there. That’s how they really start. I say to myself, what would it be like to be in this position?

Zibby: Back to my first question now that I’m jumping all over the place. When did you realize that you were a lover of writing and all of that?

Naima: I think I knew in girlhood, but I lied to myself about it for a long time. I always had a practice of writing that became more serious when I was in high school. I wrote my first collection of short stories in high school, which I printed and bound at Kinkos. I still have it on my shelf. If you asked me at the time, I’d say, I’m going to be a doctor. I did pre-med in college and applied to med school and got in and the whole thing, and then deferred one year and then deferred another year. I kept telling myself that writing was something I would do, but I would do it on the side or as a hobby because I felt that I should do something more stable and recognizable to my family and lucrative and all of these things. Then eventually, I just said, no, I’m going to build my life around the writing and figure out how to pursue that. It took a while. I was maybe twenty-three or twenty-four. It took a while because I started writing at like seven, but it was relatively early in life.

Zibby: I was going to say, I’m like, you took a while? I don’t know. Twenty-three, wow. Now I feel like there’s some context for Dr. Henriquez and his role in this book. There’s a little backstory for him. Didn’t you go to Yale? I think I read that. Did you go there?

Naima: I did go to Yale, yeah.

Zibby: I went to Yale too.

Naima: Yeah, I know.

Zibby: I was in Davenport.

Naima: I was in TD.

Zibby: Awesome. I was definitely not pre-med, though. I took the one gut science class, electrical engineering or whatever, just to get past that requirement.

Naima: I was fake pre-med. I was very checked out the whole time.

Zibby: Did you also love to read?

Naima: Yes, I loved reading. I was an English and African American studies major so that I could just have books all the time. Books were such good company to me. I was a lonely kid in many ways, at home and at school. Books were just a way to feel connected.

Zibby: I love that. I had someone say to me once, you can never be lonely if you’re reading a good book. I just love that. You’re constantly surrounded by other voices and feelings and people and experiences and all of that. Are you reading anything good now?

Naima: I am. Right now, I’m reading The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante. I missed it when it came out. I’ve had it on my night table for a long time. I just love her. I love how wild her characters can be in terms of their emotions and the pitch of their emotions. I find it really inspiring. I’m always thinking as a writer about how to capture the heat of life on the page, which is something I wasn’t taught to do. I was taught to write cool and submerge feelings and avoid melodrama, but I’m actually really interested in showing how people argue and how people fight and have sex and have emotional outbursts. I feel like Ferrante is great for looking at all of that.

Zibby: I just, before you, interviewed Tia Williams who wrote Seven Days in June and other novels. I told her I was about to interview you. She was talking about the role of being a black author. She worries that it’s too flippant, almost, that she’s doing these love stories and whatever. I said I had read that you had said, should you be doing a better job at creating black joy, or were your books too dark? and how there’s almost no happy medium. You’re both these accomplished, beautiful writers who are doubting if you’re doing it the right way. What do you think about that?

Naima: I think that there’s a lot of pressure on black writers and writers of color, just such an expectation for what the narratives can and will do. It’s pressure that no one book can hold. I think that we deserve all the stories and all kinds of stories. I write from a personal set of urgencies, things that I want to explore like intergenerational trauma and familial estrangement and how people build their family back up after their dreams are interrupted. Hopefully, there are people who want to read about that. If they don’t, they don’t have to or they can read about that and read romance because we contain multitudes. I do sort of think about that pressure to produce a story that will be resonate, that will be meaningful, but I can’t say that I follow that pressure at all so much as I feel it and I’m aware of it.

Zibby: Interesting. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? I know you’ve already sprinkled in a lot, which was really great.

Naima: I spoke to it a little bit before, but maybe this is a slightly different spin on it. I’d say that it’s important to know that whatever feelings come up when you’re writing are just feelings and in no way reflect the merits of your project. I know so many writers who will say, what I’m writing is trash. What they mean is that it felt hard to write it, which is just a feeling. It doesn’t reflect anything about the work. I guess the flip side of that is having a great writing session where you feel like you’re on fire and you’re brilliant doesn’t mean that the work is yet brilliant. As much as possible, just to treat the feelings as part of the experience, but to try to disentangle them from what’s on the page, I think that helps revise more clearly. I also think it makes the writing process more bearable and helps you focus less on evaluating what you’re doing and just staying in the work.

Zibby: I think that’s really good advice for life in general too. If I could do that with my own feelings about a lot of things, I’d be much better off. Widely applicable advice. Thank you for coming on. Not that I need to say this, I don’t mean this to sound in any way — I don’t even know what the word is, but I’m just really sorry that your mom did not appreciate you the way you deserve to be treated and loved and celebrated. That’s something that’s really hard. You write about it with such honesty and soul and heart. I just wish it had been different for you. I’m sorry.

Naima: Thank you for that, Zibby. I think it’s really hard to hold that pain, which is why, as I’ve written, people are just like, oh, no, maybe things will change or she’ll come around. I think it’s really important not to look away and to leave space for that. Thanks. Thank you for that.

Zibby: Sure. Thank you. Thanks for coming on. Good luck with your next book. I can’t wait to read it.

Naima: Thank you so much. Take care, Zibby.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Naima: Bye.



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