Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Nicole C Kear who is the author of the middle grade novel Foreverland, the memoir Now I See You which was on many magazines’ best-of lists, the chapter series The Fix-It Friends, and The Startup Squad. Her essays have appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Parents, Salon, HuffPost, and more. She teaches nonfiction writing at Columbia University and the NYU School of Professional Studies. A New York native, she received a BA from Yale University, an MA from Columbia, and a Red Nose from the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three children.

Welcome, Nicole. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Nicole C Kear: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: We are joined today by my two little guys who are six and five. We’ll see how they do. They read your book Foreverland with me. I read it out loud to them. I thought it would be nice if they could hear us talk.

Nicole: Yay!

Zibby: Welcome. Can you please tell listeners what Foreverland is about?

Nicole: Foreverland is about Margaret who’s a shy, anxious, eccentric twelve-year-old who’s having trouble at home. She runs away to live in an amusement park called Foreverland. When she gets there, she meets Jamie who is also a runaway, though her polar opposite. He and she forge a friendship and have an exciting adventure which is also a transformative journey of self-discovery for both of them.

Zibby: Perfect pitch. Well done. How did you come up with this plot? What made you want to write this book?

Nicole: I have three kids. My son’s fifteen. My daughter just turned thirteen this week.

Zibby: Happy birthday.

Nicole: Then my little one is seven. When my son was twelve, he went through this period of being really nostalgic for his childhood which was very funny to me because he was still a kid. He was only twelve. He kept expressing this feeling of, “I don’t want to get any older. I don’t want to have responsibilities. I miss being a kid.” He actually helped me come up with the idea because he said, “You should write a book about a kid that doesn’t want to grow up.” I thought of Peter Pan who’s the proverbial boy who never grew up. My son said, “You should have it set in an amusement park because those are the most fun places.” That sort of put the idea in motion.

Zibby: Was it supposed to be a play on Never Never Land?

Nicole: Yeah, it was.

Zibby: I did not pick that up at the time.

Nicole: It’s inspired by Peter Pan, but the retelling is so loose and modern. It’s the kind of thing that I think maybe readers, will dawn on them towards the end, or maybe it won’t, maybe just in the retelling. It is definitely loose. I did have the inspiration of your traditional coming-of-age story and what it means to grow up and put childish things behind you and how that can be really difficult.

Zibby: Margaret runs away in part because her parents — well, mostly because her parents are separating. You have this very sad image of the father’s suitcase by the door and how she gets so upset she ends up kicking the suitcase. It kind of brought back for me — I remember the day that my dad moved out and all of his bags were going through the lobby and out into cars. It was so sad. It brought that all back when I thought about this suitcase that you mention throughout the book. Anyway, it just brought it up for me. I was thinking she was so mad that she just ran away. I was fourteen. She’s twelve. Did you ever have a feeling like that where suddenly things were just spiraling out of your control, something bad that you didn’t want to be happening was happening and you just wanted to run away from it all?

Nicole: Oh, I’ve had that feeling so many times.

Zibby: I’m having it right now. No, I’m kidding.

Nicole: Sometimes it’s on a daily basis. I was going to say kids have so little control over things. It’s easy for kids to feel powerless because things happen to them. Then they can react, but they have so little agency over what happens. Divorce is one of those things, but there are so many things that happen to us as kids, but also for adults obviously. There have been plenty of things that have happened where I felt like, boy, there’s nothing I can do to change this. The fantasy of running away is cool because you have total control, especially as a child. I think that’s why so many coming-of-age classics start with running away because that’s where an adventure will begin. It’s a time when kids have total control. They don’t have to go to school. They don’t have to do their homework. They don’t have to do chores. They don’t have to listen to their parents. It’s exciting.

Zibby: What did you guys think of Foreverland?

Child: I really liked it.

Zibby: What’d you like about it?

Child: Because it was very good. There were a lot of good parts in it.

Zibby: Now you have to answer, what was a good part in Foreverland?

Child: The part when Jaime said, “You know, there’s not only one star in the sky.”

Zibby: Aw.

Nicole: You like that part? Aw, that’s awesome. I love that. That, I added in sort of late. That was in late stages of revision that I added that in.

Zibby: Any other parts?

Child: Not really. I don’t think so.

Zibby: Do you remember anything you liked about Foreverland?

Child: No, I don’t remember anything.

Zibby: Great. Perfect. Thank you for being a guest interviewer. All right, well, one out of two isn’t bad. What would you want to happen if there was a sequel? Can you think of anything? I really wanted a sequel. I wanted to keep following Margaret and Jaime to see what would happen to them afterwards. Wouldn’t you want that?

Child: Mm-hmm.

Zibby: Maybe they could go to not-so-foreverland, every-so-often-land, occasionally-land.

Nicole: Sporadic-land.

Zibby: Sporadic-land. You wrote in the book, you said, “Fun fact: places that aren’t scary get scary in a hurry when you are alone in the dark,” which definitely relates to you guys, right? Is the dark still scary?

Child: I’m scared when I’m alone in my bed at night.

Nicole: So are all of my children, which is why my seven-year-old particularly finds her way into my bed most nights.

Zibby: My husband’s like, aren’t they getting a little big for this?

Nicole: That’s why you have a king-sized bed.

Zibby: Exactly. Joking aside, you’ve had this eye diagnosis and disease. I don’t know the proper word, eye condition.

Nicole: Both.

Zibby: That you’ve been coping with for some time and that you wrote a whole memoir about and lots of amazing essays about how to cope a degenerative eye disease, sort of like what’s going on in the book which you ultimately don’t have that much control over. I thought that this quote about things being scary in the dark might also relate to that. Like my digging?

Nicole: Yes. The great thing about vision loss and blindness is that everything’s metaphor.

Zibby: Right, that’s true.

Nicole: You really can’t say anything without it being a metaphor, which really, as a writer, is very elegant. It works nicely. I was diagnosed with degenerative retinal disease, retinitis pigmentosa, when I was nineteen in the middle of college. I wrote a memoir called Now I See You which is all about coming to terms with that diagnosis over the course of many years, and really primarily when I became a mom. Things get scary in the dark, I’m sure that’s related in some sense. Nobody likes to think about encroaching darkness of any kind, especially the literal kind. It’s definitely scary. Also, I genuinely — that happens to me at night, and I think to so many of us, where you go through your day having somewhat of a grip on yourself and your anxieties, and then as soon as you lie down, all of the things, it’s just a flood of preoccupation that seems overwhelming. That definitely happens to all of my kids too. I think there’s something about nighttime that does that. It sort of unlocks your worst imaginings. That happens to Margaret when she’s having a sleepover in the haunted house. She’s an anxious girl by nature, so I thought that would be a likely thing that would happen to someone in her position.

Zibby: I feel like things in the night, I have to literally say to myself, this will not feel like a big deal tomorrow. This will not feel as big a deal tomorrow. Hold on one second. Welcome back. We took a brief pause while I kicked my kids out of the room because that was really hard. I’m glad they got their two cents in there. We were talking about being a mom and going through your own issues and coping with all of that and things that I found very interesting but didn’t want to talk about in front of them anyway. Well, let’s back up for one second. When you found out you had the degenerative retinal disease, you decided to live your life in a totally different way. You went off and you joined the circus school and did lots of different things. Tell me about that and if this need to appreciate every moment of life and do everything you can still lingers with you.

Nicole: Ah, yes. I was nineteen when I got my diagnosis. It’s a gradual but progressive disease. Basically, the doctor explained first I would lose my nighttime vision, which had already begun. It was what sent me to the doctor in the first place, because I couldn’t see the stars at night. Then he said I’d lose my peripheral vision and then ultimately my central acuity. They didn’t know how long it would take. There was no cure, was the main takeaway, which is such an unusual thing to think about in this day and age in terms of no treatment at all, no cure, nothing. It’s different now. It’s been a few years. There still is no reliable treatment, but there’s a lot of more promising avenues. Nonetheless, I was nineteen years old in the doctor’s office by myself. He was telling me, “You’re going to go blind. There’s literally nothing you can do at all. Good luck.” It was a very complicated summer. I really didn’t know how to deal with that. I had just finished my sophomore year at Yale. I really felt like the world was my oyster. I was poised to do anything I wanted to do. Then I had never met a blind or visually impaired person before at all, so I didn’t even understand what that meant practically. Could you have kids? I don’t know. Besides Stevie Wonder, that was the only reference I had. The more I thought about it, the more panic stricken I became because I had a total absence of information or support. I basically decided, you know what? This is a gradual disease. It’s not going to happen for a while. I’m just going to sort of forget all about it because ten years from now, who knows if I’ll even be alive ten years — plus, I’ll be super old. I’ll be thirty.

Zibby: I remember those days.

Nicole: What quality of life do thirty-year-olds have anyway? That’s where I began to sink into a kind of accidental denial. The thing that really did stick with me was this idea of my vision now has an expiration date. I’m not going to have vision forever, so I better use it while I can. If there’s things I want to see, I better not hit the snooze button. I should absolutely see everything I want to see right now. It did make me start to say yes instead of no to things that I might have perhaps exercised better judgment and declined the invitation. I just thought it’s really now or never. Yes, this was the carpe diem part of my life. I’m really glad that I had that. I was so young when it happened, nineteen, that I feel it maybe changed the kind of person that I would become. I was by nature very sensible and cautious. Because of my prognosis, I really had to override that and become more grab life by the horns and climb every mountain. You can’t maintain that level of carpe diem. It’s exhausting. I do think it still stays with me, absolutely, not twenty-four hours a day. I will have moments where I will think, wow, this is so beautiful, this flower. Usually, it’s my kids, like, look at this, that I can see the hole that her tooth left when her tooth fell out. It sounds really cheesy, but it does make me remember to linger a little bit and take that in and take that photograph in my head. It’s cheesy. I warned you.

Zibby: It’s not. It’s a good reminder for everybody to slow down and appreciate the empty spot in the mouth and the tooth fairy.

Nicole: It’s so cute. It’s such a cute empty spot.

Zibby: It is. It’s all so cute. I know. Then the big teeth came, and they’re so unattractive. Then you have orthodontia. Anyway, that moment is amazing. Just out of curiosity, is there a family history of this? Or was it completely random?

Nicole: No, there’s no family history. It’s just spontaneous mutation, so yes, random.

Zibby: Wow. Well, it sounds like you’ve been coping with it incredibly well. You have a sense of humor. You do crazy things like become a clown and whatever else. You work at a bar. It’s awesome. It’s inspiring and awesome.

Nicole: The thing about vision loss — I’ve been very lucky because it has been very slow and gradual, which has given me the time to sort of adapt. I really tried not to let it stop me. Even when my reaction is, ugh, this is going to be inconvenient or this is going to be difficult or I really don’t know how I’m going to do this, I try to, if it’s something I really want to do, to just say, I’ll figure it out. Towards the end of my memoir is about my choosing to have my third child, with her adorable tooth hole. That was a really hard decision because by then I had lost a lot of vision. I could see the impact it was going to have on me and my parenting. It was very scary. I was very lucky because my husband was totally on board and really leaving it up to me and trusting me. Ultimately I thought, I feel like I can do this right now. I don’t know what the future holds, but neither does anybody if we’re being honest. I have to sort of trust that we’ll figure it out. That has been my method. Sometimes it’s a terrible method because sometimes I find myself in situations where I’m like, oh, my god, I do not know. I have not figured it out. This is a mess. Usually, I manage.

Zibby: How are you writing throughout? You’ve written so many books now. You have The Fix-It Friends series. You have the memoir. You have Foreverland. You have The Startup Squad. When are you doing all this? How are you doing all this? Is this what you do full time?

Nicole: Yes, I mainly write. Then I also teach writing at NYU School of Professional Studies. I teach at the Columbia MFA program as an adjunct. The great thing about being visually impaired in 2020 is accessibility is so easy and prevalent. I just have a Mac computer which has the same settings that anybody’s Mac computer has. You probably wouldn’t even know it. It’s just buried there. I can magnify it as much as I want. It’s super easy and convenient. I have a Kindle where I do my reading. I’m a big audiobook listener, a sort of junkie of audiobooks. Because of all this various technology, not only am I able to do all the writing and the reading, but I’m able to do it really with great facility and efficiently. I’m glad to be living — technology drives me crazy, especially as a parent. I’m not a big fan of it always. The flipside of it is it enables me to do incredible things, so I guess I’ll keep the technology.

Zibby: Do you ever dictate when you’re writing?

Nicole: I don’t just because it’s not how I’ve done it. Writing is so much a force of habit. I imagine that I certainly could. The thing about it, the one advantage — I tell this to people who have read my memoir, especially younger people and kids who have similar diagnoses. I try to impart to them the upside of dealing with a degenerative disease, whatever it is or any kind of personal challenge, really, is that you begin to understand and believe in your own ability to adapt, which is so tremendous. It’s something that if you don’t have to adapt all the time, you don’t, obviously. If you’re continually losing vision and so you have to change the way you’re doing things continually, you start to believe no matter what happens I’ll be able to reconfigure things so that I’ll adapt to the new way. I don’t dictate now. If I needed to, I would just do it, I guess. Although, from what I know about dictating to Siri, I don’t know what the books would end up being.

Zibby: It would be a very interesting book.

Nicole: It would be maybe more like James Joyce than I am right now.

Zibby: There would have to be a different program. I’m sure there is, but you could not — Siri’s the worst.

Nicole: They have some better programs than Siri, I think.

Zibby: Sitting here with you, you would not know you were visually impaired in any way. You don’t give that away. Does it ever impact the way somebody might perceive you?

Nicole: Yeah, it’s funny. That’s why I was able to be in denial for so long. It’s been a bit of a challenge, actually. A lot of my memoir is about passing for sighted. It’s because I read as fully sighted to most people that I’ve been loathed to correct that, mainly because it feels awkward and weird. Then it involves a whole conversation. When you tell people you’re losing your vision, they get depressed. Then you have to cheer them up. For most causal interactions, it’s not worth it to do the whole explanation. I look perfectly sighted and I get by well enough. Then there’s all sorts of weird things that come up. The main thing is I have no peripheral vision, so I’m continually bumping into people, and really in a way that must seem to them very perplexing because I look totally fine and then I don’t see somebody right in front of me, like dogs and kids especially because they fall below my frame of vision. It does get me into situations where people are really annoyed and angry at me because they don’t understand. I do have a white cane. I carry it with me. I use it at night more. People have told me it would be really helpful to use during the day mostly as a marker for other people so that they would know I’m visually impaired.

Zibby: But you don’t want them to know.

Nicole: Well, that’s the tricky thing. That’s what my book really explores too. A mobility cane is this huge hurdle I had because it really was such a marker for me, like, this is blind when you use the cane. I just had so much hang-ups about accepting that. Because my disease was so slow, it wasn’t something I had to accept. Because I can get by well enough in all sorts of situations, it’s difficult to know when I need it and when it would be helpful even as just an indication to other people, like, I’m not actually a self-obsessed narcissist that I bumped into you. I literally just couldn’t see you. That’s where it gets me into trouble sometimes or not being able to — my central vision, I just had this cataract surgery, me and a bunch of octogenarians. I did develop cataracts because of my eye condition. That has helped tremendously with my acuity. Previous to that, I literally could not sign anything, forms, permission slips, sign-up sheets. I’ll go to my kids’ school and sign something. It will be not in the right spot.

Zibby: Next thing you know you’ve volunteered yourself as head of the PTA. You’re like, wait, I didn’t mean to sign that one.

Nicole: I have gotten into so many kerfuffles like that. Registering my daughter at the pediatrician, I said I was her adoptive mother by accident and all sorts of false information. People don’t easily or readily understand, why would you make such a mistake? It’s tough, actually. It’s complicated reading as perfectly sighted when you have pretty significant vision loss because it’s hard for people to understand.

Zibby: Wow. Then you have just regular parenting issues on top of everything.

Nicole: I mean, those are mainly the kind that I have. The vision loss parenting issues, the only one I’m dealing with now is my daughter thinking she can wear makeup. She’s not allowed to wear makeup. She’ll just see how much can fly under — because she doesn’t see through my eyes, she doesn’t really know what I’m able to see or not. It always makes me laugh because I’m always catching her. She’s like, “How did you see?” I like to cultivate this air of mystique around myself as having a sixth sense.

Zibby: Love it. What are you working on now? Are you doing another book?

Nicole: Yeah, I’m just a few months into starting work on another middle grade book which I’m very excited about. I really like writing middle grade. I’ve written for adults. I’ve written for elementary school kids. Now Foreverland is middle grade. I enjoy it all. Middle grade particularly is a place that I really like to write. Being twelve years old, the onset of puberty and coming of age, moving from childhood to adolescence, it is such a rich time emotionally, developmentally. I just feel like it also has such a long tradition of great books. My favorite books by Judy Blume and the classics too, Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz, all of those books I really loved as a child, they tended to be middle grade books. Plus, I have a daughter who’s that age now. I think it’s a remarkable period of transformation, sometimes exhausting for parents but good for literature.

Zibby: I feel like by the time things get published, because it’s so slow, she’ll be in college. You should really start writing college books.

Nicole: That’s right. Well, my youngest will probably be reading middle grade by then.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Nicole: For aspiring authors my main advice would be to just write, write, write. I guess that’s maybe pretty simple advice, but just writing every day. Sometimes it feels like there’s never enough time to do the writing that I want to do. Writing a book takes so long. Doing other things and working on multiple books at one time, it can feel very frustrating. I try to just force myself to write a few pages every day. Then the remarkable thing is that after a few months you’re like, oh, my god, look at how pages I have. I have 150 pages. I have a book. It’s incredible because it feels like you never had any time. If you keep pushing it forward little by little, voilà, you have a whole book.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you so much for coming on the show and for dealing with my kids and for sharing all of your personal experience with vision loss and being so open. Thank you.

Nicole: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure.