Zibby is joined by novelist Nina Navisky to discuss her latest novel, The Fortune Cookie Writer, which follows a single mother working multiple jobs to make ends meet for her son. Nina shares why both of her books have featured neurologically diverse characters, as well as how she recreated the exact layout of her town in this story. Nina also tells Zibby about the event that inspired her to start writing, how her family’s Holocaust story and Jewish heritage factored into this book, and what genre she wants to try her hand at next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nina. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Fortune Cookie Writer: A Novel.

Nina Navisky: Thank you. So happy to meet you.

Zibby: Nina, first of all, please tell everybody the plot, what this book is about, and then how you came up with the idea for this story. I want to talk about the approach of your deciding to write fiction versus memoir for different characters and the inspiration and just all the good stuff. That’s a lot. That’s a big question. Let’s start with what the book’s about. What’s this book about?

Nina: The book opens, and we meet Marissa. She has been blindsided by divorce. She’s determined to support her young son. She believes him to be musically gifted. He’s burdened by a secret. Marissa is juggling three jobs, one of which is freelance fortune cookie writing.

Zibby: Which I loved. I love how each chapter has a different fortune at the top. I love her going to the library and researching the different fortunes, different quotes to adapt into fortune cookies, and the whole thing.

Nina: That’s my town library. I went to that library. That is, in fact, very true. That’s taken from life. Marissa is barely skating by with those three jobs. One day, she bumps into a stranger in her building. That stranger offers to pay her to cook dinner for Rose, who’s an elderly widow who lives one floor down from her. Marissa has doubts about this, but she really needs the cash. She accepts, but it turns out this is a far more difficult proposition than she expected. Rose is not a sweet old lady. She is cranky. She lapses into Yiddish. She really has no interest in visits from an unfamiliar neighbor. Marissa perseveres. She soon discovers clues about Rose’s past. She finds an old piano that isn’t used but is still in tune. She finds a locked case with an unbreakable code and three photos with an inscription. She solves these mini mysteries about Rose’s life. I would say she begins to see her present through the prism of Rose’s past. That allows her to see her son’s anguish. It allows her to learn how to create good fortune for the three of them.

Zibby: I love it. I loved the image, by the way, of her trying to figure out the code to the lockbox. Then I was wondering, I’m like, did you then google — she’s obviously trying to tell us how to crack the code for a lockbox and how many combinations. You said something like, after seven hundred tries, I gave up. I was like, what?

Nina: Yeah, I googled. You google some really strange things when you’re writing a book. I also had to google a lot of the scenes in Greece. I was looking for pictures. Then of course, you want pictures from different angles, and so I ended up looking at Tripadvisor photos. Then Tripadvisor would not leave me alone. It kept saying, book your trip to Greece. Book to trip to Greece. I was like, I’m not going. I wish I was going. These are the things that happen to you when you’re writing a novel.

Zibby: Did you base the handsome ex-husband on somebody in particular?

Nina: No, I did not. I mean, my husband is handsome, but he is not based on .

Zibby: I’m like, who is this Mediterranean guy with this — also, let’s talk about the son because I feel like Owen is a huge character in the book, and everything from his ability to hear music and be able to recreate it to some of the behavioral things that start percolating as the mom in the book, Marissa, is slowly realizing that these individual behaviors might be a part of a bigger piece. Talk a little bit about that.

Nina: About the character of Owen?

Zibby: About the son. Yeah, about the character of Owen. I read your article on Authority Magazine about your own son and your experience with your own son and his — just go there. Just go.

Nina: Talk about sons in general.

Zibby: Just about sons in general. How did you decide to make Owen, the character, starting with the tapping and the rituals at nighttime and as his behaviors progress, also even how you deal with that with an ex-husband who you’re not getting along with when a child starts having an issue? You did such a good job. Sorry, I’m rambling here. The way you depicted the ex-husband relationship and the fury, oh, my gosh, it was so good. It was just so, so good, from the dialogue to the inner monologue. Anyway, let’s go back to Owen, the son, and even how you depicted the realization and how parents pick up on these little things and when you know it’s an issue versus when to ignore and all of that.

Nina: My older son has profound autism. What that means is he is on the severe end of the spectrum. He is minimally verbal. He’s severely intellectually disabled. He will need twenty-four/seven care the rest of his life. He also has challenging behaviors, which sounds like, “I’m not going to bed,” but that’s not what challenging behaviors means for autism. He can be self-injurious. He can be violent. There can be property destruction. He also has a host of concomitant medical conditions. That is what I wrote about in my first novel. That really wasn’t going to work in this novel because it had to be symptoms that Owen could hide for a while. You really can’t hide that. What I could take from it, my older son does have types of obsessive-compulsive issues. In autism, they’re just called repetitive behaviors. The thing is, you don’t really know what kids with autism are obsessing about because they can’t tell you. With kids who aren’t autistic, they can tell you, depending on how much language they have. Those symptoms are my son’s symptoms. He does temperature-test the floor. He does touch the walls. He does have all those symptoms.

It was interesting because when I was reading about how to write it for a child who does not have autism, what was said was that young children often explain it as, I just have to do it until it feels right. I thought, that is what my son would say to me if he had those words. My husband, for example, once took him after he had cut his hand on a broken window. They were outside the ER. At that point, he had an issue where he had to sit down on the street, stand up, sit down on the street, stand up. They’re in front of the ER. He’s bleeding. Ambulances have to get by. He’s sitting down, standing up, sitting down, standing up. He wouldn’t stop. There was no amount on cajoling that could get him out of it. They could promise him this. They could promise him that. They could explain that he couldn’t be in the street. They could do anything. He had to do it until it just felt right. There’s something internal that has to happen. I can explain the symptoms very well. I’ve seen that. I’ve seen the broken walls. I’ve seen all of that. That was very easy for me to explain. In terms of how parents react to it and the “Oh, now it all makes sense,” that is also something that happens with parents independent of what the diagnosis is lots of times. Oh, that’s right. That’s what that means. Now I get it. I think that happens with parents a lot.

Zibby: Wow, that’s a lot for you to manage with your son. Have you been writing about it? Does that help? Do you have a community of other people who have been going through something similar? I don’t mean to pry. We don’t have to talk about this.

Nina: No, no, no. That’s what brought me into writing. I was not the child who had a diary all the time and wrote stories and was constantly writing and in my head. What happened was my older son, at eleven, became so self-injurious and so violent that we couldn’t keep him safe. We couldn’t keep the family safe. He needed to go to a residential school, which is a boarding school for kids with challenging behaviors and severe autism. It was the greatest blessing of our lives. It is an amazing place staffed with wonderful people. At that time, it felt like such a failure, such a failure. We didn’t know, were we sending him to a place — what if he got abused? He would never be able to tell us. It was such a leap of faith. I began writing. I began sort of giving my problems to other people. I didn’t want to write it from my perspective. I think the wounds were too fresh. Just from, also, another perspective, I didn’t really have a platform to sell a memoir too, and so I gave my problems to someone very unlike me and told it from a grandfather’s perspective and wrote a broad story from families that were enmeshed over thirty years. It helped me deal with issues. Then I was able to move on to writing another novel and found that I really liked it as a process.

Zibby: What was your first novel called?

Nina: A Mosaic of Grace.

Zibby: A Mosaic of Grace, wow. I love how you’ve included the grandparent generation in both, the elderly —

Nina: — I never even noticed that.

Zibby: What’s that?

Nina: I never even noticed.

Zibby: There you go. I love these feisty, older characters. I was so close with my own grandmother that I feel like when I read books and I reconnect with older women — she wasn’t as cranky as Rose and I don’t think kept a lot of secrets. She was like an open book. If I handed her a lasagna in a tin thing, she might roll her eyes and be like, all right. What? You couldn’t bring the glass? I think about it like a movie. Are there enough roles for older women? It’s almost the same in fiction. I love seeing strong roles of older people. Anyway, whatever. You did a good job, is all I’m trying to say.

Nina: Thank you.

Zibby: I’m not doing a good job of even saying it. I don’t know if this was another of your Google searches, but you seem to know what you’re talking about with the piano. Do you play the piano? Are you a music person yourself, or what?

Nina: I do not know anything about the piano.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you fooled me.

Nina: I’m glad. Google comes in very handy. I know what I’m talking about with Yiddish because my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. I grew up with a lot of Yiddish. I think that was part of wanting to hear that again. My grandparents were not cranky like Rose is cranky, but I think I wanted to hear that again in my life, which is part of the character Rose. No, piano, I can’t claim to know that.

Zibby: Can you share their story?

Nina: I can. I didn’t know it well enough to write a whole novel about it. I do know that when my grandmother and my grandfather got married on the last day that it was legal for Jews to get married — they were in Austria. My grandmother ended up going to the Polish embassy because my grandfather was originally Polish. They got a list of, I believe, the addresses of all the people whose last name was the same in New York and wrote and asked for visas. They got three responses. Two were for my grandfather to marry the daughter and leave my grandmother behind. One was yes. That incredibly kind man ended up sending visas for my entire extended family. Because of that, there are now second cousins and third cousins all here. My mom’s middle name is after him.

Zibby: Aw, that’s amazing.

Nina: It’s a lovely story.

Zibby: I had family in Austria. There’s where my grandfather on one side came from. I feel like it’s every country, but that’s what happens.

Nina: It was an exodus.

Zibby: Tell me about the process of writing this book. How long did it take? Did you write in the town library? Do you actually have a coffee shop called Common Grounds? I love that.

Nina: I just have a coffee shop, but it’s not called Common Grounds. I didn’t ask them in advance if I could use their name, but it is in that same spot. I made up the name for them. That is how the town common is laid out. The library is exactly in that direction from it. I do use the library, but I do mostly write from home in the mornings. How the process of writing works is, I just like to write in the mornings mostly. I’m not prolific. I don’t crank a book out every six months. I wish I could, but it takes me longer than that. I do remember going to the library and thinking. I did write this one in more of a linear fashion. I remember with my last book, there were episodic things that I needed to then construct and put together since it was more nonlinear. This one came out in one stretch, which was nice.

Zibby: Are you working on anything now?

Nina: My next one is, I’m thinking maybe not memoir, but a memoir hybrid, if there is such a thing. I would like to return to profound autism. I feel that it’s not that I want to share my story because I feel that it’s not my story that’s important. It’s my story and the tapestry of stories that are related to it. There is a school that my son could make it to, but those schools are very rare. My story is intricately connected to the family who has a son just like mine, but there was no school to go to, and so their son was in and out of psych wards or the family who had to consider giving up parental rights to maybe get their son services. It’s intricately connected to the people who saw the need for a school, those amazing people, and started one or the incredible direct service professionals who see the humanity in my child and work with him every day. I would love to make some small contribution towards changing public perception. That sounds so grandiose. I think what is seen in the media is not reality. I don’t know if that’s possible as a self-publisher, but that is the ideal, certainly.

Zibby: I think that’s great. There’s also something called autofiction. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but everybody keeps talking about it. I think it’s a blend, what you were talking about, a hybrid. Yours is more like nonfiction, almost like an exposé of families. You could almost have it like — anyway, it sounds poignant and interesting and a story that should be told. It’s great. What’s your favorite fortune cookie line from the book?

Nina: I can’t remember all of them. My actual fortune? I can’t remember the actual fortunes, but I can tell you that the last fortune is the one that gives meaning to the whole book. The last fortune, which I think is roughly, if your neighbor’s plate isn’t full, the most delicious plum will taste like rotten fish — it’s something to that extent. That is basically the point of the book. This friendship that Marissa and Rose makes is what’s necessary for them. Their friendship is what’s necessary for them to move forward. I don’t know if that was the funniest one, but it was the one that was the crux of the book.

Zibby: Love it. Amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? I know you wrote five things that are really important to have as a part of this article I read.

Nina: I have one really quirky thing that I do. I don’t know if it will work for anyone else. It’s one weird thing I do. I don’t know if it’s just my mind, but it really works for me. Whenever I can’t figure something out in a book and I’m just really stuck, I stop working on it. I think about it right before I’m going to bed. I just repeat what the problem is over and over again. Then when I wake up in the morning, sometimes the problem is fixed. I think it’s just because your conscious mind has too many no’s in it. You have to go to the place where there can be a polka dot sky for the problem to be fixed. That just might be a weird quirk of me. In terms of just a regular piece of advice, I would say the rules of writing are the rules because there have been plenty of great people who have come before you, but sometimes they can be tweaked a little bit. I know the rules are, don’t use adverbs, but sometimes you need an adverb. That’s what I would say.

Zibby: Amazing. Nina, thank you. Thank you for your patience while we scheduled this from so long ago. It finally arrived. I’m really glad I got to spend time with your book and your characters and this little family and also to be so amused by the ex-husband/divorce angle, which we didn’t talk enough about but was so awesome for anybody who’s going through a divorce or has been through a divorce. I have been through a divorce. I’m not going to comment on my own relationship. All to say, it was great to see it in fiction, the way some of the challenges present themselves.

Nina: It was so lovely to speak with you. I’m so glad to hear you say that because that’s something I haven’t experienced. I’m glad to hear you and to have heard some of my friends say that it was displayed authentically. That’s a wonderful compliment. Thank you.

Zibby: I was sure you were divorced. I was like, oh, she must have gone through that. I’m like, she’s processing all this stuff. You’re like, no, I’m happily married. Thanks very much.

Nina: Thank you. Thank you for that compliment.

Zibby: I feel like your dedication should’ve been to your google searches or whatever it is that made you so knowledgeable on all these things.

Nina: Thank you, Google. Yes.

Zibby: Thank you, Google. Thanks a lot, Nina.

Nina: Thank you. Nice to meet you.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Nina: Bye.



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