“I can assure you that moms do find time to read. At least, my mom did.” Zibby is joined by Nathan Harris whose debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, was selected as an Oprah Book Club Pick, was on President Obama’s 2021 Summer Reading List, and was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. Nathan shares why he was initially scared to write a novel set immediately after emancipation, how his mom reacted when he told her Oprah had just called him, and the importance of finding a supportive community to share your literary universe with.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nathan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Sweetness of Water.

Nathan Harris: A pleasure to be here. Happy to chat.

Zibby: Would you mind telling everybody what your book is about just to give them the elevator pitch? which I know is terrible that I ask authors to do this. Just in case you haven’t said it lately, you can practice it out now.

Nathan: Sure, absolutely. The book follows two freed men immediately after the Civil War during reconstruction. They’re trying to decide what to do with their lives, effectively. They find themselves on the land bordering the plantation where they grew up. They become very close with the farmer there, George Walker, and his wife Isabelle. The Walkers are grieving the loss of their son, Caleb, in the Civil War. The brothers are almost like surrogate children to them for a time. They are working George’s land to save up to move north. He’s paying them a fair wage. He’s from the North originally. Little do they know, as soldiers return from the Civil War, and Old Ox, the community, continues to grieve the confederacy loss, that that relationship will have catastrophic consequences for everybody in Old Ox in ways that readers will just have to find out when they pick up the book. It goes in a lot of different directions. It’s a lot of fun.

Zibby: Your writing, and I know I said this when we first got on, but it literally felt like I was reading a classic that I would read in school, your language. First of all, I just couldn’t believe you were so young in general. Not that young people can’t write, but that was just even more astounding to me. Seriously, the maturity of your language and the way you put the reader right in the setting and the dialogue and the feelings, even, of the mom, I’m like, this is really good. Hanging the laundry and the secrets fantasies about the man in the — this is good stuff. How did you do this? Tell me about your writing career, how you started, when you knew you were a writer, and how you so effectively get into other people’s shoes and set the — I have a million questions. That wasn’t very concise, but whatever.

Nathan: No, that’s all good. That’s what writing, to me, is all about. You said it. That idea of empathy and putting yourself in other people’s shoes, that’s my goal every day I sit at my laptop and start typing, is wanting to do that as best as possible. I just look at the people around me for inspiration. It’s not that I’m writing about the people around me. I’m thinking about my mom doing the laundry. We’ve all grieved the loss of someone. We’ve all been in that position deciding, what are we going to do next with our lives? like what the brothers are doing in this book on a much larger level, of course. I’ll stand up and I’ll be pacing for an hour just thinking, what would this feel like? Then things start to slowly click over time, sort of an anguished period there. I just try to channel it. I’ve been writing for years, to answer that question, since I was a kid. I was always bad at science. I was bad at math. I was always trying to find that one thing I was good at. I still don’t think I’m a great writer, but it’s one of those things you can work at every day. Fortunately, it’s subjective, unlike math and science. That’s a good thing. I can always be getting better. You can’t just get an F on writing, I like to think. I just took up writing and went with it.

Zibby: I think I should go to schools and just recruit the bottom of the science class and be like, you’re going to be a writer.

Nathan: I agree.

Zibby: Science was my — it’s the only C I ever got in high school, I have to say, this biology test freshman year. I’m still upset about it.

Nathan: You still remember, don’t you?

Zibby: Yeah. It brought everything down. I couldn’t believe it. Once it’s there, you can’t get it off. Anyway, whatever. Not to say writers can’t also be good at science, but maybe there’s some inverse correlation going on. That’s so interesting that you walk around and take time. It’s almost like you’re an actor, the way that you put it. There’s a saying that actors use when they set the scene. I just learned about this from my husband. What’s it called? Now I can’t remember. You draw on all your own emotions. Then all of a sudden, you roll right into the dialogue that’s in the script. First, you’re talking about getting rejected at a school dance. Then the next second, you’re saying the line that you’re supposed to say. It sounds like it’s a similar process, this immersion, as opposed to just sitting and typing and having it be like, okay, this is what I think they might feel like.

Nathan: Yeah, a combination. Gosh, being an actor would be scary. I could never do that, but there’s elements of that. I think of it almost more as perhaps that meeting a meditation of sorts. You talk about flow. It’s sort of a fiction-writing flow. It takes some time the nuts and bolts of it. The nuts and bolts are super important. That’s what we learn in writing classes. That’s why I tell writers to take a writing course. It will absolutely help you. You need to have that. At some point, if you’re going to really dig into who these people are, you need to reach that level or try to reach that level where you are almost one with them. That does involve some level of suppressing yourself for a few minutes, thirty minutes, an hour, and just trying to find those characters. Some days, it doesn’t work. Some days, it does. You have to show up at your laptop every day to see if the characters show up. When they do, magic can happen.

Zibby: I love that. I’m very happy to suppress myself. I find that a welcome relief from my own head. That’s why I think I like books, I like writing and reading. I’m just like, get me out of here.

Nathan: That’s why we do it. That is that thrilling feeling of entering that other world. That’s what it’s all about.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, amazing. Also, the way that you — this is historical fiction, really. You have a specific point of time and a specific event which launches it all, the emancipation. What is that like that day? Did you start of by saying, I wonder what it would be like when you were, all your life, working — not even working. I can’t even call it working, but being enslaved on this farm. Then the next thing you know, it’s like, okay, you’re free to go. They’d imagined, would there be — not balloons, but would there be fireworks? Would it be a whole thing? It’s some schlub who shows up being like, okay, you can go. What is that like? What is that moment? What are they thinking? Are they afraid to go? What happens next? It’s amazing because then we’re right there too. We’re in there.

Nathan: You hit the nail on the head. That was the compelling moment for me and the launch point of so much of it. I love fiction set during this time period. I always have. So much of what they were going through then is, honestly, what we’re going through now in a lot of ways in these tumultuous times that they were going through then and now. That specific moment of the brothers being free and stepping off the plantation property and the world being open to them all of a sudden, I remember, like we were talking about, being in their bodies, in a way, and just looking out there and being like, what would I do? What would anyone do? How do you know what to do? How do you choose what to do? It was strange to think, gee, I’ve really never read a novel that covered that specific moment. Immediately, I was like, well, I can’t do it. I think a lot of writers deal with that. It’s that classic line. If it’s not written, you have to write it. I just decided I was going to give it my all. Age be damned. Lack of experience be damned. I just went for it. The Sweetness of Water is what came.

Zibby: Wow. Oprah seems to think you did a good job.

Nathan: She does, yes. It’s the ultimate compliment.

Zibby: What was that like, getting to be — now I’m annoyed I didn’t go back and watch your interview with her. I wish I had. Now I can do it after this. I didn’t have time before. What was that like, being picked and then getting to do the book club with her on Apple TV? What is that like for you? Obviously, life-changing. I shouldn’t say that. What was that like for you?

Nathan: No, I think it has to be life-changing, in a way. It’s life-changing. It’s indescribable. You write fiction in your own world. I say it’s a universe populated by one. Then all of a sudden, your book is out there. Every reader kind of has their own little planet in your universe. You have these galaxies and all these people interacting with the book. To have Oprah acknowledge it and to make it a book club pick just blows it up even bigger. You’re swept up in at all. I was alone every day writing. All of a sudden, they want your baby photos. They want your entire life story. You’re flying out to California. Then you’re in front of Oprah. You’re just having a conversation with this person who — she’s the nicest person in the world and the loveliest person. She felt like my aunt or something immediately. You’re having this lovely talk about this baby that is your book that you’ve been holding close to the chest for so long. It was a magical thing. I couldn’t have been more honored. Her and Obama, both incredibly crazy things.

Zibby: That’s right. Sorry, I forgot Obama. I can’t keep up, Nathan. Geez.

Nathan: Well, you read a lot of books, to be fair.

Zibby: It’s true. I remember that you were on his whole list. That was amazing, wow. Here is my real question. How do you keep up with your emails when all this stuff is happening? You must get so many emails. How do you manage the emails?

Nathan: I’m lucky. I have my publicist at Little Brown. She’ll filter through all the engagements and the stuff like that. It’s a framing question. For me, it’s how do you keep time to yourself and to write and to do your work? That’s putting aside every morning for me. That’s my time to make sure I continue on this path of getting the words on the page, a short story, nonfiction, my next book, whatever it is. Then as the day progresses, you kind of lose that sense of constant stress of, I haven’t worked. I haven’t got this done and that done. It’s like, okay, you did the priority, which is you, which is your work. Now I’m happy. I’ll check my Gmail. I got a few hours. I got all day. I just tried to prioritize me as best I can. Some things, you just got to get to. Then I enter into my inbox once that’s over with.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Nathan: Right now, I’m back and forth between a few projects. Tobias Wolff always said if you talk about a work too early, it hardens it, in a way. You have this unmolded, flowing thing. It’s like the wind, almost. My metaphor is breaking, but it’ll mold into ice and snap in half. You need some sort of a water element there. I’m not going to speak to the next projects, but they’re there. I’m feeling good about them, but a ways off.

Zibby: Do you feel all this pressure? Do you feel like, oh, my gosh, what if the next one’s terrible? What if I can’t do it again?

Nathan: You know, it’s funny. The third thing we haven’t talked about is the Booker Prize longlist. I only bring it up, not to brag, but I’m bringing it up because I was looking at Ishiguro who’s nominated as well this year. He’s one of my favorite authors. I was just looking at all the books he had published. I’ve read some of them. I haven’t read some of them. I hadn’t heard of some of them. Some of them are my favorite books. I love The Remains of the Day, a big book for me. Looking at his work and seeing how it progressed over time, you just have to keep going. No, I’m not saying he has any duds in his catalog. I haven’t read some of his books. It’s just, I haven’t heard of them. Some people haven’t heard of some of them. Some of them are fantastic. Some of them might be okay. I don’t know. You just have to keep going. That’s what being an artist is. I have these iconic writers like him and Colson Whitehead and some of the others who, I can see that they just push forward no matter how much success they might have had. I hope to follow that path and stay true to myself and stay away from the reviews or that feeling of pressure and go my own way and make it what it is.

Zibby: Have you had a lot of support within the author community?

Nathan: Yeah. I go back to coming — to the listeners, I’m in Austin, if you didn’t know. I go back to entering the Michener Center here. That’s my writing program that I was in a few years back. The community that sprung from that and the authors who were working there in my cohort, it’s an invaluable resource. To have them before all this happened and then to be able to rely on them after means so much. You hear of other writings programs where you go through and it’s like you never existed to the instructors. It’s not the case here. I was just getting tacos with one of my previous instructors and talking about my new work. You just have to find that little network.

Zibby: Oh, he gets to hear about your new work, but I do not. It’s okay. I’ll forgive you. I won’t hold it against you.

Nathan: You got to have those one or two people who talking about those things.

Zibby: So much for your big quote. It’s completely not true.

Nathan: It’s still unformed. The work hardened a teensy bit.

Zibby: Okay, fine.

Nathan: You just got to keep that small network.

Zibby: Awesome. You’ve already given a lot of advice, but a little more. Do you have any more advice for aspiring authors coming off the success of this book and all of that?

Nathan: I always quote Jonathan Lethem. I say always make contact with your work every day. I’m a really big believer in not having a word count for yourself or anything like that. Just sit with the work every day. I don’t care if it’s five minutes. Maybe it’s an hour today. I don’t care if it’s revising or writing new work. Just don’t have any pressure on yourself. I always think that to myself. It’s hard. I always tell other people that because this is hard stuff. There’s absolutely no reason for you to cause more anxiety for yourself. Just sit with it. Give it the time it deserves. Trust it. No pressure and trust are the most important things. Over time, it’ll write itself. You’ve just got to be patient. Be patient with yourself. That’s what I’d say.

Zibby: How does your mom feel that now her midday fantasies are in your book for all to see?

Nathan: Oh, my god, she’s my biggest fan. I still remember calling my mom with the Oprah news. You’re not supposed to tell anybody. Oprah didn’t tell me that, so I called her immediately. It’s my mom, of course.

Zibby: Wait, did Oprah herself call you?

Nathan: Oh, yeah. Oprah calls you. I can tell you the whole story.

Zibby: Tell me the whole story, please.

Nathan: I deal with health anxiety. I’m always worried I’m dying from this and that. That’s just how I am. My publisher told me there was news. I thought it was terrible news. I was like, they’re not going to publish my book for some reason. I had hives. I broke out in hives. I had read that you can get anaphylactic shock when you have hives. I decided I’m going to go to urgent care just in case. I’m kind of panicking. I’m driving to urgent care. I get this phone call from this Chicago number. Lo and behold, it’s Oprah Winfrey. We have this phone call.

Zibby: Wait, did you pull over?

Nathan: I got to urgent care. I parked by then. Then I’m pacing at urgent care and talking to Oprah. She’s going, “Oh, Nathan, I love the book.” She’s going through different lines she loved and reading paragraphs to me, asking me questions about the characters. I had already reached the peak of my panic for the day, so I was just kind of at peace with it all. We had this wonderful talk. That’s when I called my mom. She nearly drove off the road and started to cry. That’s what it’s all about. Growing up, she read to me every morning. She’s followed me every step of the way. I can assure you that moms do find time to read. At least, my mom did. One of my greatest experiences is the Oprah thing and having her read my book. It’s beautiful.

Zibby: I love that. I just love that, oh, my gosh. I’m now putting myself in your mom’s shoes and imagining if — I can’t think of which child of mine might ever be able to do that. Maybe one.

Nathan: Maybe it won’t be Oprah. I can assure you, I’m sure you’ll have this moment. It’ll be just as .

Zibby: No, I’m kidding. I do. I have those moments. I’m very proud. I haven’t driven off the road quite yet, but they’re still young.

Nathan: There’s still time for driving off the road.

Zibby: Driving-off-the-road good news, gosh, the irony. I also feel, in addition to recruiting authors from the bottom of the science class heap, I could also do a, if you are on anti-anxiety medication, come here and write a book. I think this is why when I talk to authors I feel like I find my people, in a way. I thought that anxiety and all that was so unique to me until I realized that everybody I talk to now feels the same way. All these thoughts and the bad news and the stress and the panic and all that, it’s so common.

Nathan: It’s so common. You just have to own it. It’s important to deal with it and meditate or whatever you do. Also, it’s okay. You’re part of this world. You’re thinking things through. You’re dealing with it. For my writing, I try to lean into, what are you thinking about today? Why are you thinking about it? Try to get it down in some way. Even if you’re not writing fiction, having a diary or whatever. All of my fellow anxiety sufferers out there, I’m with you. We’re going to deal with it the best we can in whatever way we can.

Zibby: I love that. Amazing. This has been so much fun, oh, my gosh. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for this absolutely beautiful book. I can’t wait to follow your career. I’m really excited. Not even rising star. What do you say when someone’s already a star? It’s just very cool. Sometimes a book gets all this attention, and I’m like, ugh, can it really be that good? I don’t even want to read it. It must not be that good. I don’t want to be disappointed. This was so good. It was so beautiful. It was so easy to get right into it. It was so immersive. You’re right in the scene. It was fantastic. Bravo.

Nathan: It means the world to hear that. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I’m so glad we got to chat.

Zibby: Me too. Keep it up. Can’t wait.

Nathan: Will do.

Zibby: Bye, Nathan.

Nathan: Bye now.

Zibby: Take care.



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