Guest host Julie Chavez interviews Nicole Baart about The Long Way Back, a twisty, atmospheric thriller about an Instagram-famous mother-daughter duo living a picture-perfect life in their vintage Airstream trailer… until the daughter goes missing. Nicole describes her life with five children (four teens!!), the inspiration behind this novel (it involves her own cross-country trip in a trailer), and the evolution of her writing over the last 15 years. She also reveals how writing started for her at the age of five (a tragic backstory with a happy ending) and then shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Julie Chavez: Nicole, thanks so much for coming on today on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so excited to talk to you.

Nicole Baart: Julie, thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

Julie: I can’t wait to talk about your latest book, The Long Way Back, which I just finished. I feel like I will have a hard time talking about it because I don’t want to give anything away. We’ll mostly talk around the book because I also have about a million questions for you about writing and your life and the other things that you’re doing. I can’t wait to talk to you about it. This book was really good.

Nicole: Thank you. It is a little tricky. We’re having a hard time selling it, actually, at least marketing it, I guess, because it’s hard to know what to say. It’s a little like, it’s about this mother-daughter Instagram influencer duo. The daughter goes missing. They’re like, and…? I really can’t tell you “and.” You have to read it.

Julie: Yes. This really speaks to me because I’m a total book pusher. I’m just like, don’t ask me to tell you about it. Just do it. Just read it. Do what I’m telling you to do.

Nicole: Trust me.

Julie: Trust me. Famous last words. I love it. I feel like we can start there. This is a book about Charlie and Eva. It’s Eva (Ee-va), right?

Nicole: Yeah, Eva (Aa-va).

Julie: You say it Eva. Okay. I was wondering that.

Nicole: I do say Eva, but I know it should probably be Eva.

Julie: No, I think Eva’s fine. It’s just one of those names that I always mess up.

Nicole: It’s a little tricky.

Julie: I always think of the Kristen/Kirstens of the world. Poor people. Mispronounced forever. Charlie and Eva, they go on a boat. Then Eva is gone. This book made me want to take my teenagers’ phones and throw them in the garbage. I can see how you’re having a hard time chatting about it. It starts out fast too. I will say, the things that I loved about it, it’s super well-paced. I was riveted by it. I definitely wanted to keep turning the pages. I wanted to see how it ended. Something I really liked that you did really well, you wrote well from both of their perspectives. You wrote Eva as a teenager. Was that hard to do? Did you feel like it was natural? You have four kids, correct?

Nicole: I have five, actually. Four of them are teenagers right now. You can send wine and chocolate and prayers my way, thoughts and prayers.

Julie: A hundred percent. I’ll just jot down your address. No, I’m kidding. You have five kids, four teenagers. Did you have to mine deeply for these sorts of moments, or was it just right there for you?

Nicole: It was pretty natural. I’ve been a mom of teens for almost a decade based on how my kids are all spread apart. Before I started writing, I was a high school teacher. I love teenagers. Maybe that’s strange, but they’re just such a fun age group to me. I find them fascinating and interesting. They’re endlessly entertaining. Writing about a teenager was really fun for me, to try to get into her head. I feel like I have these conversations every day with my kids. It wasn’t too hard.

Julie: You’re exactly right. It’s such a specific time of life. In some ways, that makes it easy to write. I know I can remember being a teenager, which is shocking and horrifying to my teenagers. They’re like, you were born an adult. You were never a teenager.

Nicole: And never cool and never young and never wrestled with things.

Julie: No, absolutely not. I know nothing according to them. You don’t understand. Mine are pretty reasonable. Even still, that’s such a weird concept for them. How did you come up with the idea for this? Where did it start?

Nicole: It was kind of a convergence of three things. It was the perfect storm. Spring and summer of 2020 — I don’t really need to go there. Everybody knows what happened then.

Julie: Yes, I think we all remember.

Nicole: Over the course of those months, I just became very aware of how interconnected we are and yet how disconnected. Here we are living online all of a sudden. We’re not seeing people in person anymore. So much of my connection with people and the way that I interacted with them went online, went to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. We all know that. We all experienced it. Then of course, we saw this uptick in all sorts of things, in different conspiracy theories and division between people and radicalization. All of a sudden, we were believing things that we probably weren’t believing before. We were all aware of that. I was watching that stew happening. At the same time, my daughter, who’s my fourth child, turned thirteen. That was the first time we had four teenagers in the house. In our house, when you turn thirteen, you get a phone. A teenager is when the phone is bestowed on you. It begins with, you get to call. You get to text. You get one game on it. There’s no social media or anything. For some reason, when my daughter got a phone, maybe this is terrible, but I felt different. The rest of my kids are all sons.

I was so aware of and afraid of what she was going to come into contact with online and the pressures that I think are unique to girls and women, that you have to be beautiful. You have to have your life together. You have to have your house together. You have to be athletic and fun and perfect and pretty and just absolutely everything. I wrestled with that so much, handing her that phone and feeling like, this could be your downfall, and I’m just handing it over to you. She turned thirteen in May. Pandemic. My daughter turns thirteen. Then in June, we just had to get our family out of here. We live in Iowa in a small town. We ended up going to Duluth, Minnesota. I fell completely in love with the North Shore in that area. It also put me in mind of simpler times. About ten years before that, my whole family had taken a cross-country trip in our pop-up tent trailer from Iowa to British Columbia where my husband’s family is. I was just reminiscing about that time and the nostalgia of it. It felt like the perfect juxtaposition between the digital world that we were currently living in and the completely disconnected analog world that we had for that month while we were on the road. Those three things just created this tornado of ideas in my head. That’s where the book came from.

Julie: There’s so much depth to it. You really can feel that when you’re reading it. I loved that part of it where you can tell that you’ve considered a lot of those ideas and issues and the ways that things shift based on how we’re communicating and whether we are in a digital world or a real world kind of thing. You did a really nice job with that. It felt very deep and, like I said, considered.

Nicole: Thank you.

Julie: I enjoyed reading that. It’s a page-turner. I loved it, the thriller aspect of it. I wanted to know. Also, I was thinking, this is so true and so timely, and especially as we come up to another election season and all of these things. Like I said jokingly, it makes me want to throw away their phones. Our kids are growing up in a time of complexity that really outstrips what we experienced. Seeing how they deal with that — I do agree with you. I have many moments where I’m thankful to have sons because they don’t — also, the specific sons I have. I’m sure that there are other kids who maybe, regardless of their gender, are more prone to being influenced or just even kind of beat down by the internet. It’s such a tough place.

Nicole: It is. Our poor kids.

Julie: I know. Yet I think about the opportunity for connection that they have. I think about even myself connecting with other authors and reading about them on Instagram. I was checking out your Instagram. It’s such a weird time of knowing how to sort out what’s real and what’s not. Teenagers are not great at that yet. I’m only a little bit better anyway.

Nicole: I have my own addictions and hangups when it comes to social media. My goodness.

Julie: Who doesn’t? I was telling my husband the other day, “I need to get in the real world. I need to ground. I need to be here.” It’s funny how you can kind of have that. I have a question for you. You’ve written a number of books. You’ve been writing for a long time. It feels like, when I was looking at the covers, it’s like you took the long way to thrillers, just even looking at the colors. Also, I saw yours in Book of the Month when it popped up. I’m going to go back and put it as an add-on because I have a major addiction to Book of the Month. Now I can’t wait to read your backlist.

Nicole: Me too.

Julie: Is this kind of your new vein? Is it not new and you just feel like this was your sweet spot? Tell me about that, how your writing has evolved.

Nicole: I’ve been writing for fifteen years now. I love what I do. I hope I write my last book when I’m eighty-five. I hope it’s the last thing I do. I just love it. I started out writing contemporary books. My first there were kind of an homage to my grandmothers. The two main characters are named after my grandmas, Nellie and Julia. They were such fun, almost memoir-esque books. I’m an eclectic reader, so I ended up becoming a very eclectic writer. I’ve written, kind of, romance, those first three. Then I did some literary fiction. Then I started doing mystery. Now I’m just fully entrenched in, I think my editor called it upmarket suspense. It’s thoughtful suspense. Hopefully, the prose is good and entertaining. The story is something that you can chew on with a friend. Maybe do it with a book club or something. That’s my sweet spot right now. I’m loving it. My next book will be that too. Who knows what’s next?

Julie: Exciting. This would be a great book club book because, exactly to your point, there’s a little bit more to talk about. A lot of thrillers have other storylines to them, but this one has a lot to discuss and chew on.

Nicole: I hope so.

Julie: I love hearing what categories people are in. You write the book, but then there’s this whole machine that exists outside of that for marketing and publicity that’s just a completely different thing. I feel like I’m always learning something. I never would’ve thought of upmarket applying to suspense, but that is perfect. Way to go, editor. Good job.

Nicole: Yeah, thanks.

Julie: They, apparently, know what they’re doing.

Nicole: Yes, they do.

Julie: I have a question for you related to this book specifically. We had an — I don’t want to say incident — a situation recently where I had one of those moments of, wow, you can know your kids, but there’s also a weird distance in the knowing, especially as they get older. I think that’s something, obviously, that’s applicable for this book because there’s a question as to whether Charlie really knows Eva as well as she believes she does. Is that something that you think about in your own life, your own kids? Is that a question? How well do we know the people we love, especially our kids? What are your thoughts on that? I want to hear more what you have to say about that.

Nicole: I have to go back to my developmental psychology classes in college when I was training to become a teacher and learning then, and reminding myself kind of on a daily basis right now, that keeping secrets and having an interior life and having things that are hidden from your family and the people around you is developmentally appropriate. This is what teenagers do. This is how they develop their own identity and become people out of our home and are out from under our wings. I would love to keep kids there forever. I wish they’d never have any secrets from me. I even think back to my relationship with my parents when I was a teen. I loved them. I knew that they loved me. I kept a lot of secrets from them. It didn’t mean that I hated them. It didn’t mean that I was this terrible child. It was really important for me to define the boundaries of myself and how I was going to interact with them and the rest of the world. As hard as it is, I think as a parent, the difficult thing now, not being a teacher and not being a teenager myself, but looking at my own kids, knowing when I need to cross that line and press myself into a place where they probably don’t want me to be because I feel like they could be unsafe or something might happen that can’t be undone. The innocent things that they might do, borderline innocent secret-keeping, I kind of pretend I don’t know about. Then it’s the stuff that could get them in trouble where I try to intervene. That’s hard. That is a really difficult thing as a parent. You are constantly a detective. I’m kind of sick of being a detective. What’s going on? Who are they talking to? Where have they been? It’s hard. It never ends.

Julie: You’re so right. I’m noticing, too, the interrogation techniques. You really have to watch what you’re doing because you can’t push too hard. Are we good cop/bad cop? How are we playing this? They’re cagey.

Nicole: They are cagey.

Julie: You’re right. It’s exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, but it’s just such a strange game of mothering. You start out, and you know everything. You control their world. Then they’re just going to grow up and do their thing. It’s dumb. It’s annoying.

Nicole: It hurts my feelings. I changed your diapers, dude.

Julie: Exactly. I know. It is amazing how we understand our own parents as our kids grow up. It’s like, oh, yeah, okay. I can see how that annoyed you, Mom and Dad. I apologize.

Nicole: I’m in my forties, and I still go to my mom and dad and say, thank you for loving me when I was sixteen and ridiculous. I understand now.

Julie: Totally. Ridiculous is the right word for it. Gosh, they’re amazing. Yet I’m with you, I love teenagers. I think it’s the best. I wouldn’t go back to the toddler days if you paid me. I loved those too. I’ll go back for a day. Just one.

Nicole: I’m the same. I find them endlessly entertaining. Post your videos about your crazy toddlers online, and I will love them.

Julie: A hundred percent, yes. I am glad we didn’t have as much social media when mine were little because I think I would’ve been way more addicted too.

Nicole: Me too.

Julie: What have you enjoyed? Your last book was upmarket suspense. What have you found? Has it been different to see what you hear from readers and how you interact with readers based on the topic, or is it the same?

Nicole: That’s a great question. Suspense is a little bit different because people really want — they stand in this place where they want to know the ending and they want to be able to figure it out, but they want to be surprised by the twist. Kind of, you can’t get it right. If they’re not surprised, then they feel like, oh, it was so predictable. If they are surprised, then they feel a little bit like, I didn’t see that coming at all. You must not have done a very good job of foreshadowing that because usually, I can figure these things out. You’re trying to walk that line in between. You want the ending to make sense. You want them to go, yes, I saw this all along. It makes perfect sense. You don’t want to give too much away too. That dance is difficult. It’s even difficult after the book is out and people are coming back and asking you about it and trying to figure out why you made this decision or that. Honestly, sometimes I don’t remember. I wrote that book two years ago.

Julie: That makes complete sense to me. I used to think, how could you not know? I get it. You look at it so many time too. It just becomes like white noise. You’re like, yep, this looks good. Okay, great. Send it off.

Nicole: Then you’ve moved on to the next book. I’m already writing another book. Sometimes people will say a character name, and I’ll go, oh, shoot, who’s that again?

Julie: Remind me. You’re so right. I can see, totally, that the suspense audience might be a little bit more, not demanding, but maybe a little bit more demanding in a good way. It keeps you on your toes. Also, you’re right, you really are trying to hit it just right. It depends on what kind of flavor people like. People are very specific about their suspense and thrillers.

Nicole: That is exactly right. Back when I was writing contemporaries, people would relate to the characters and say, this reminded me of my friend. I cried at the end. It made me happy. It kind of stayed there. Now we dig into it deep when you’re talking about a mystery or a suspense.

Julie: How funny. I love that about readers. Readers are such thoughtful people. They just really will get in there with you. I can imagine that it would be a different experience based on the book that you write. Interesting. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?

Nicole: I’d love to. My next book is another upmarket suspense. It’s about a woman who loses her husband when they’re really young. They’re only together for a couple of years. She remarries in her forties. After they’ve been married for a couple of years, her new husband goes missing. It’s another missing person thing. I think killing people — I know in suspense there’s supposed to be dead bodies, but I fall in love with my characters. I’m like, could there be redemption here? Could they maybe find their way back to each other? I love writing that. I’m super excited about the setting. I live in Iowa right now, but my husband is from British Columbia, Canada. We lived there for several years. I’m also a Canadian citizen. I’m setting it in the Coastal Rockies. Super excited about revisiting that area and the time that we lived camping and hiking and being in the mountains. It’ll be a lot of fun.

Julie: So cool. I can’t wait to read that. I love what you said there about redemption. When I think of the common thread about stories I love, they always have redemption in them. That is my favorite theme, where you can see not only transformation, but we can have a win in the end.

Nicole: I need that because so much of life, you don’t get a win in the end. It doesn’t go the way that you want it to. I’m not saying it has to be a, perfectly, every bow tied up, happily ever after ending, but I want there to be some hope there. It’s kind of not worth reading for me if there’s not.

Julie: That makes sense. My sister — I will not say the name of the book because I don’t want to throw shade. It was a tremendously successful book. It had zero redemption. My sister read it. She called me and said, “Stop reading that.” Now she even sometimes will go into bookstores and actively move it. It’s terrible. It sold gazillions of copies, so it’s fine. That author’s doing fine.

Nicole: It’s fine.

Julie: It cracks me up because her bitterness level about it has not ebbed over the years. I bring it up sometimes just to needle her. That’s what sisters do.

Nicole: I love it. That’s so funny.

Julie: You do a good job in this book of having the right themes. I’m so excited to read your other one too. You’re in the upmarket suspense. Does this feel like your sweet spot, or do you think you’ll move on at some point?

Nicole: I think I might move on. I love what I’m doing right now. I have a lot of author friends who are like, I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I don’t have another idea. I have the opposite problem. I have, literally, dozens and dozens of ideas. I could write until I’m eighty-five, which is probably why I would like to. I have ideas.

Julie: Where do your ideas come from?

Nicole: That’s a great question. Sometimes they just arrive fully downloaded in my brain, which seems kind of weird. Other times, it’s just the inkling of something that begins — I fall in love with a person that I meet, and maybe not even a friend, somebody I see on a street. There’s something about them that’s just so arresting to me. I’m so interested in who they are. I can’t help but think about them and wonder about their life. Something happens in mine. Suddenly, it feels like the perfect segue into a new story, and they’re the perfect character for it. I’m just an observer of the world around me, and people. I really love people. I really love meeting new people. I feel like there’s always the seed of a story there.

Julie: Are you an extrovert?

Nicole: No.

Julie: Which is valid.

Nicole: I am pretty introverted. I deeply love people. I love a one-on-one conversation. Get a little overwhelmed in party situations and big groups. I’ll tend to shut down and just be a listener. When you’re listening, you can observe a lot. That works its way into my books.

Julie: That makes so much sense. I feel like that’s a skill, too, that gets better with age. At least, it has for me. I’m becoming a better listener as I get older. Interesting. Is there a genre that you don’t think you would ever write?

Nicole: You know what? I would never write horror. I was just talking to somebody who was talking to me about my book a few days ago. She said, “I was reading it, and it struck me that I could give this to my thirteen-year-old daughter. We could co-read this together.” I was like, “Yes, you absolutely can.” It’s not that I don’t like it in books that I read. Sometimes I’ll read very graphic books. I could never write a book that’s graphically gory, sexual, has expletive language all over the pages. That’s just not me. You might find the occasional cuss word. Maybe I’ll talk about sex off the page, or somebody dies. I’m not going to eviscerate somebody on the page and talk about their bowels spilling out. That’s just not going to happen.

Julie: Nicole will not be writing about entrails. That can be the quote that people take from this episode. I’m with you. No. Horror, I can’t. I feel like I’m just at the age now where I can read suspense. I went through a long stretch of time where it was too stressful for me. I had a very anxious period where it was very bad for me to encounter anything like that. It is about what feels true to you. It sounds like some of that has evolved for you over time, and you’re just following the path to where it goes. How did writing start for you? How did writing come into your life?

Nicole: I have kind of a tragic backstory, but it’s long. I’ll try to make it short.

Julie: Great. I’m here for long.

Nicole: I was born with a birth defect. My parents and my pediatrician didn’t figure it out until I was about three. At that point, my left kidney had been poisoned to the point where I was losing part of my kidney. I had several surgeries between the ages of three and sixteen, had a little bit of a break, and then had several more in my twenties. When I was a kid and going to the hospital, they did not have a children’s hospital like we have today. They didn’t have child life specialists. I vividly remember going in to have my blood drawn the day before surgery because they had to do a blood draw and having three nurses plus my mom and dad have to hold me down in order to do it. I knew, this is going to be bad. I’m going to get poked. I’m going to get prodded. I’m going to have to go to the hospital. I’m not going to feel good for several days. I never came out of anesthesia well. The more anesthesia I had, the worse it was for me. Even to this day, if I get put down, it will take me about three days to clear it from my system. It was really hard and really traumatic. I don’t really think I even put words to that until I was in my thirties and forties.

The one saving grace of all of that was my dad or my mom, the night before I had surgery, they would go to the library and get a whole bag of books, brand-new books that I had never read before. This is before smartphones. This is before tablets. I didn’t have a TV in my room. That wouldn’t have comforted me anyway. I sat on my dad’s lap. He tented a blanket around me. He or my mom would just read and read and read to me. They even have a photograph of — the nurse came and put me on the gurney. I’m lying on the gurney. My dad is walking beside the gurney holding the book finishing it because we had a couple of pages left. To me as a little girl, books were escape and comfort and happiness and wholeness. I loved it so much. I was probably in kindergarten, first grade when I started to — I didn’t even realize this was what I was doing, but I started writing fan fiction. The book would end —

Julie: — And you would just pick it up.

Nicole: I would, yeah. I just picked up the story. It ended, and then I’d keep writing it. My mom, she still has it in my cedar chest. Yes, I have a cedar chest, of course, as one does when you’re born in the late seventies, early eighties. I would write these pages of, this is what happened after Anne of Green Gables ended, or whatever. I’ve been writing since I was five. I really don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to do this. The fact that I get to still feels like a dream come true every day. I pinch myself. I feel like I’m living a dream.

Julie: That’s so wonderful. Wow, what a gift your parents gave you. That’s beautiful. They loved you really well in that time.

Nicole: They did. They still do.

Julie: That’s so wonderful. I’m sorry that you had to go through that as a kid. You’re right, no child life specialists. We’re so lucky to have that now for kids because those sort of traumatic medical experiences — it sounds like yours was extreme. Even small ones really stay with kids.

Nicole: No support for that when I was younger. You just kind of muscled through.

Julie: We’ll just read these books. I’m so glad you became a writer. It sounds like you are exactly where you’re meant to be.

Nicole: Thank you.

Julie: I am so excited to explore your backlist a little bit. I do have one question. Your first book that you published, if we look back to the first one versus this one and where you are in your career now, what stands out to you the most? What was something you didn’t know or something that you didn’t know you would love so much? At this point, what do you think about when you reflect on it?

Nicole: That’s a great question. When I started writing, I had no idea what I was doing. None whatsoever. I was an English major in college, but they don’t teach you how to put together a novel when you’re majoring in English. I literally had no idea. I was flying by the seat of my pants. I was googling things trying to figure out what to do next. That was fifteen years ago, so there weren’t the resource that are around now. I’m a lifelong learner. There is nothing I love more than sitting at the feet of somebody who’s wiser than me and just absorbing all of the things that they get to share. There’s so much wisdom out there. To go from not knowing anything to being this constant consumer of new ideas and information — I read all the books. I go to as many conferences as I can. I kind of know what I’m doing now. My process is really specific. I put together a plot outline. I’m not a pantser. I’m a plotter. I need to know what’s happening, especially if I’m writing suspense. I do the character arcs. I do all of those things. My process from beginning to end has just completely transformed. If you would’ve talked to me even five years ago, I would’ve said, oh, no, I’m a pantser. I just start putting it down and see what happens. That is just not the case anymore.

Julie: Interesting. It sounds like you wouldn’t have anticipated all the ways you would change and that it would change just in terms of your trajectory.

Nicole: I’m a completely different writer. Although, I think if you picked up the first one and picked up this one, you would still see me in it. It’s still me.

Julie: That’s a good feeling. When you’re writing something that’s true to you regardless of what its genre is or what it’s going to do in the world, that’s a good feeling.

Nicole: It feels right.

Julie: Let’s end with, what’s your best hot tip for the aspiring writers out there?

Nicole: It’s going to be an unpopular one.

Julie: Great. I love unpopular.

Nicole: Oh, good. My hot tip is, get off your computer. Get a pen and paper, and try to write that way, even if it’s only a paragraph or two. There has just been so much research on how it uses a different part of your brain and unlocks different areas of your thinking and accesses a part of you that does not exist on a screen. When you’re typing, you can type one word and delete it immediately, type and delete, and type and delete. Your brain has many different places. If you put yourself in a quiet place with a pad of paper and a pen, you’ll be surprised what comes out there. I write my entire first draft on pen and paper.

Julie: I was just going to ask you that. Wow.

Nicole: I do, the yellow legal pads and pen.

Julie: The legal pad. What kind of pen do you use? That feels important to me.

Nicole: It has to be felt tip. It has to be a really fine felt tip. I’m not too picky with the brand as long as it’s a good fine felt tip.

Julie: You write your entire first draft like that?

Nicole: I do. I don’t necessarily recommend that everybody does that. I know people who have carpal tunnel or can’t do it with their hands or whatever. If you’re feeling stuck, if you don’t know where to go, if you have a scene that’s not coming together for you, step away from your computer. See what happens. I think you’ll be really surprised by the results.

Julie: That is such good advice. I can tell that your developmental psychology and your psychology classes from college are still with you. You’re right, all that brain research is so fascinating about how things work and how we unlock them. That was a very good hot tip. I will be using that. I’m always looking for the perfect pen.

Nicole: Me too. I use lots of different ones. If I find the right one someday, I’ll be loyal.

Julie: Also, please share that because it will save me a lot of time and money on pens.

Nicole: Will do.

Julie: Nicole, this was such a joy to talk to you. Thanks for the time. Thanks for sharing about you and your process and your book. I can’t wait for people to read it, and then we’ll be able to talk to them about it.

Nicole: Thank you, Julie. I’m so grateful. It was great to be here.

Julie: Thanks for coming.

THE LONG WAY BACK by Nicole Baart

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