Zibby is joined by bestselling and award-winning author Nina LaCour to talk about her debut adult novel, Yerba Buena. Nina shares how she started the book while she was still an undergraduate, her experience working in bookstores, and her favorite way a reader has described her book. The two also discuss why Nina decided to pause her podcast, “Keeping a Notebook,” and what she’s working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nina. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Yerba Buena.

Nina LaCour: Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Nina: Yes. A reader recently described Yerba Buena in a way that I really loved. She said that it was like a love story nestled within a coming-of-age story. I think that that puts it perfectly. At its center, there is a love story between two women, Sara and Emilie, but the full breadth of the novel is more about each of them coming into themselves fully, dealing with some very traumatic things that happened to them when they were teenagers, and learning how to be the people they want to be in the world through a lot of trial and error and introspection and some self-sabotage and really digging deep into their passions and the things that they love. In so doing, they become people who are capable of loving each other.

Zibby: That was a good description. There you go. I like it. Let’s back up a minute because I know you used to write YA. This is your first adult novel, which is very exciting. How did you even start? How did you begin all of this? Also, of course, you’ve become this huge writing advocate, teacher, everything in this whole world. Where did it start? Where’d you grow up? Go back. Get me up to here, please.

Nina: I live in San Francisco now. I have always lived in the Bay Area. I grew up on the east side of the Bay Area. I lived in a small town. I felt kind of stuck there. It was a really little place without its own freeway exit or Bart station, just this little tucked-away town. I really found so much of my sense of who I was and what I dreamed of and everything through reading and writing. I was a very quiet, shy, introspective kid. I spent a lot of time at this little creek behind the apartment where I grew up reading and writing poetry. Writing has always been a huge part of my life. Books in general have been. Then I became pretty singularly focused. I knew I wanted to be a writer. I applied for a creative writing program at San Francisco State because all I wanted was to move to San Francisco and to write. I did that. Then I actually started Yerba Buena back then, so a long, long time ago. It was right when I graduated from college. I went to New York for the first time with my then girlfriend, now wife. We explored in New York. She’s from Upstate New York, so she knew a little bit about the city. There was something about being in a totally different place that suddenly, I had this thought of a character. It was the character of Sara, who ends up in Yerba Buena. It has nothing to do with New York, but that’s where this idea came to me. I think sometimes being jolted out of your familiar home and being somewhere else just allows for new ideas to come.

That’s when I had this first idea about the story. I had the character Sara and her little brother, Spencer. I had this beautiful environment that they were in, but I didn’t know why they were there. Then I started writing that book and used it to apply to graduate school. I went to Mills College in Oakland for grad school. It was there that I discovered YA literature. I hadn’t read very much of it as a kid. I took a class on adolescent fiction, the wonderful writer named Kathryn Reiss, who has a very long, steady career in writing for young people. I fell in love with the genre. I started writing my thesis, which turned into my first novel, Hold Still. It was wonderful because I was in my early twenties, and so those teen years were close enough that I remembered them very intimately but also far enough that I had a little bit of distance and was able to kind of rehash some of the experiences that I had when I was younger, disguising them, making them fiction, of course, but mining that personal territory. Then I just kept writing YA. I kept getting more contracts. I love writing about teenagers. There’s something so immediate in a teen story because there are so many first experiences and first times facing the joys and sadnesses of the world. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. Yerba Buena, this book, has always been there waiting for me to turn back to it and finish it. During the pandemic when it was the serious lockdown, I just thought, this matters to me. I want to do it. I started over from the beginning and finished it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Somewhere along the way — I heard in your “Keeping a Notebook” podcast that you used to work at Diesel. Tell me about that. I love Diesel Bookstore.

Nina: Thank you for listening to that too. I love working at bookstores. Actually, my very first job was when I was fourteen. It was in a little independent bookstore in Moraga, the town where I grew up. It’s since closed. I wrote the owners a letter because I just desperately wanted to work there. It wasn’t even about the money. It was just, the idea of being able to work in a bookstore was so magical to me. I wrote them a letter letting them know that even though I was fourteen, I read a lot. I was very responsible. They hired me. Then when their shop closed, they kind of handed me over to another bookstore, the Lafayette bookstore. That one ended up closing too. I got my beginnings in bookstores. Then when I was in grad school, I was looking for a part-time job. I lived really close to Diesel Bookstore in Oakland at the time. I applied and got that job.

Zibby: Oh, I am talking about a different Diesel Bookstore, so never mind.

Nina: There are a few.

Zibby: Is it a chain? I only know of the one in —

Nina: — Are you talking about LA?

Zibby: In LA, yeah.

Nina: John and Allison are the owners. The Oakland one is now East Bay Booksellers, but they used to own one in Oakland, in Malibu, and in Brentwood. They still have the Brentwood shop in the Country Mart there, which is wonderful. We’re doing a Yerba Buena event there, actually.

Zibby: Are you? How fun. When is that?

Nina: I don’t know the exact date.

Zibby: I’ll look it up.

Nina: Early June.

Zibby: Okay, great. Awesome. That’s exciting. Having worked in a bookstore, in terms of discoverability, one thing I found — I had this anthology come out. I was like, okay, this bookstore has one or two copies on a high shelf. No one’s ever going to find it. Except for the curation that you can give as a bookseller, how do you get books discovered if they’re not on the front table? How? What is the secret for other people who don’t get that placement or whatever?

Nina: That’s such a good question. That front table is so important, but the staff picks, that’s such a beautiful place. Most of those books on the front table are the new releases. They have a short lifespan being displayed in that way. It’s really rare for a book that’s been out for a while to make it back onto a front table unless you have a store, like Diesel for example, that has wonderful, themed displays. Let’s say we’re doing something on joy. Then the booksellers just go and find all the joyful books. Then it gives those older books more of a second chance to be seen. Those staff picks shelves are the most beautiful thing because it’s just things that booksellers are passionate about. They can be old. They can be new. They can be totally obscure. They can be from super small presses or big, huge presses. It’s such an equal playing field on those shelves. I think making natural connections with booksellers, making sure that they read what you’ve written because handselling is such a huge part of being, especially, an independent bookstore. As an employee there, you get to really advocate for the books that you love. That’s my best piece of advice for that for writers.

Zibby: That’s true. I always look at those staff picks. It’s true. I feel like people are just so longing for direction. There’s so many books in a bookstore. Where do you start? How do you find your way?

Nina: For sure. Even the books that are up there on the high shelves, sometimes people go in looking for that book. That’s what keeps it there and keeps it being seen. Plenty of customers do go in and just spend hours looking at those shelves and want to discover something for themselves.

Zibby: One of my dreams in life at some point, to try to be a part of a bookstore, to try to figure out a new way to display books or something. I don’t know. I have some ideas that make no sense but I would like to try anyway. There’s no better place to be stuck, I would say, on an afternoon than inside of a bookstore.

Nina: I agree.

Zibby: Also, in your podcast introduction, it was so great because I felt like you were channeling my inner monologue sometimes. You’re like, I’m debating if I should do this podcast. I am plagued by self-doubt, but then the listeners like it, so perhaps I’ll continue. Then it ended up being your last episode. I was like, oh, no. I thought she’d gotten over the hump. You’ve got such a great podcast voice. It’s so calming and awesome. “Keeping a Notebook” is such a great title. Why did you stop?

Nina: You know, I may return to it. I feel funny saying this to you because you have so many projects. I just felt like I had too much. I had to set something aside. I teach at a low-residency MFA program, Hamline University. I have Yerba Buena coming out. I also have my first picture book coming out. I have a chapter book series that’ll be out in a year or so. I have a YA novel I’m working on. I have my next adult novel that I’m working on as well.

Zibby: That’s a lot of stuff. That’s a lot.

Nina: Yes. I have an eight-year-old daughter. I have a puppy. I have a wife. I couldn’t. It was just too much. The podcast, I enjoyed, but if I had to cut something, that was the thing that had to go.

Zibby: I have no balance in my life at all. I should cut lots of things. You’re a much smarter woman than I am for prioritizing what you need to do.

Nina: It was an act of desperation.

Zibby: No, I’m sure that’s not true. Wait, so tell me about all the teaching. You run all these classes. What’s it called? The Slow Novel Lab? Tell me about that.

Nina: I’ve been fascinated by NaNoWriMo, everyone who does National Novel Writing Month. I’ve tried modified versions of that for myself where, with a friend, we’ll commit to writing five hundred words a day or something, a much more, in my mind, reasonable word count goal. I’m a slow writer. I’m a methodical, slow writer who spends a lot of time thinking before putting words down on the page. I found that it was just kind of counterintuitive for me, the National Novel Writing Month. I found myself thinking, wait a second, I don’t want just a ton of words by the end of a month that’s enough words for a novel that might not be anything that I would ever want to see published. It wasn’t right for me. Then also as a teacher, I would see people come to me with their NaNoWriMo novels and be like, “Help me make sense of this. What do I do now?”

Of course, some amazing novels have come out of that process. I truly believe anybody should lean into whatever process is working for them and is exciting for them. I thought there could be a different way too, and so I put together this class called The Slow Novel Lab. It is based on my own philosophy on how I craft novels and what approaches have worked for me when I feel stuck, the things that I turn to, how I think about character and plot and all of that. I’ve taught in traditional school settings for a lot of my life. I taught at city colleges and high school and this MFA program, Hamline, which I love. I also loved the idea of being able to create a course that was not on the semester schedule, that was not for a grade, that was just exactly what I wanted it to be. I came up with that. It’s been really wonderful and rewarding. Hundreds of people have taken it. It’s been a really lovely part of my life for the last few years.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Do you stay in touch with the people who take the class?

Nina: Many of them. I’m really terrible at email and very overwhelmed. Certainly, I love it when people send me updates. We have an Instagram where people put their goals if they want to. It’s a really sweet community. There have been a lot of connections among the students who have formed longtime writing groups coming out of the class and these really nice ways to give one another support.

Zibby: Have you found commonalities in writer types, common themes, common threads?

Nina: Yeah. Many of us are profoundly insecure. There’s so much self-doubt. The class is a craft-oriented class. After teaching it so many times, I was realizing that we really needed a lot of mindset stuff because so much of what holds people back has to do with self-doubt or procrastination or a fierce self-critic that questions everything that we put down on the page. Acknowledging that and then figuring out ways to help us get to something from a different angle or help us learn to say — just to recognize, oh, I’m feeling stuck because this is difficult. I’m scared about revealing this truth about myself. What if I, for example, tell myself that I may not share this thing that I’m writing at all? I get to choose that once it’s out on the page. For now, I will write whatever uncensored thing that comes out of me. Then I can make those decisions later. That sort of thing is something that can really help us do our best and most vulnerable work.

Zibby: Awesome. I feel like there’s definitely something with writing and anxiety. It’s great. This is why I feel like I’ve found my people in this world. I feel like if you went into a third grade, I could be able to pick out who’s going to write a book at this point, maybe not a well-research, historical nonfiction book, but at least for the memoir/fiction area. I don’t know.

Nina: I think so too. Just the ability to get completely swept away in a world that you’re creating is such a beautiful thing. It’s such a gift. I do think that’s something that you can spot very early on.

Zibby: Swept Away would be a good title, by the way.

Nina: It would.

Zibby: The children’s book, tell me about that.

Nina: It’s called Mama and Mommy and Me in the Middle. It’s illustrated by Kaylani Juanita. Candlewick is publishing it. It comes out on March 29th, so very soon, probably after this is being aired, maybe, or before this is being aired. It’s the story of a little girl who stays home with one of her moms while the other one is on a week-long business trip. It’s a story about missing one parent, bonding with the other one, and just how it feels a little bit off when the family life is different for a little while. Then it speaks to broader experiences, too, of just missing someone that you love. I’m super excited about it. I never knew that I would write a picture book. It’s been such a lovely experience.

Zibby: So exciting. I have a picture book coming out in April, actually.

Nina: Wonderful. That’s so exciting.

Zibby: It’s called Princess Charming.

Nina: So cute.

Zibby: About a girl who’s trying to find her thing. I didn’t think I would write one either, necessarily. It’s fun.

Nina: Congratulations.

Zibby: Thanks. You too. All these different markets and audiences and marketing and the whole thing could be overwhelming.

Nina: It can. It really can. I love writing for different age groups. It’s so fun. For so many years, I did strictly YA. I still love YA. To be able to speak to people of all ages through books is really exciting.

Zibby: Very true. Last one is your chapter book series. What is that now?

Nina: My chapter book series is called The Apartment House on Poppy Hill. It takes place in San Francisco on a fictional hill. It’s about a little girl named Ella who’s nine. She’s lived in this apartment house all her life. She rules it, in a way. She’s the only kid in the apartment house. All the adults have their little mishaps. She kinds of comes to the rescue. She’s very clear-headed and determined. It’s super sweet and whimsical and fun. The cast of characters is really eclectic and quirky. It was just a real joy to write. Yerba Buena is a book with a lot of very heavy stuff in it. There’s a lot of beauty and joy in it too, but it deals with a lot of very serious topics. Being able to take little breaks from it and work on this very light-hearted, purely joyful book has been really fun.

Zibby: Last question. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Nina: Let me think. For so many years, I doubted myself in writing Yerba Buena. I worried that I didn’t know how to use the third-person voice well or to its full potential because all of my books had been in first person. I worried about the story and if it was interesting enough. How could I make sure that these two women — that we could feel their love for each other? Just so much doubt swirled in my mind. Then I realized that a lot of that worrying was happening when I wasn’t writing it at all. I had to just take the giant leap and take on this ambitious project that I cared so much about. I had to pour myself into the act of writing this book. In so doing, I turned really deeply into myself. I wrote from my family history. On my dad’s side were Creole. My grandparents moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles as part of the Great Migration. I was able to mine that family history. I was able to tap into all of the complicated, beautiful dynamics of siblinghood in order to examine these two sibling relationships in the book that aren’t really like my sibling but still has all of that complexity. I got to think about what I would do if I were in my character’s place and my brother was in the other’s place. I found, basically, that the things that I loved, like beautiful cocktails and home restoration and flowers and beautiful things that we get to make with our hands, I found it all within me, is what I’m trying to say. All of these external worries about, “How can I tell this story? How can I make this book what I want it to be?” those can all be answered by just turning inward and trusting your way of seeing the world, trusting the things that you love, and trusting that if you write about what you’re passionate about, people will be able to see that in the work and find something to connect to.

Zibby: Excellent. Nina, it was so nice to meet you. Congratulations on your many, many upcoming projects and this book, Yerba Buena, and all of the rest.

Nina: Thank you. It’s such an honor to be on your podcast in such incredible company with your past guests. I’m just so impressed by everything you’re doing with your publishing and your own writing and this series and all that you have. Your community is so cool. I really appreciate being invited into it.

Zibby: Thank you. That means a lot to me. Thank you so much.

Nina: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Nina: You too. Bye.


YERBA BUENA by Nina LaCour

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