Zibby Owens: I had such a nice time interviewing Rachel Beanland who I had previously had on my Z IG TV show. If you want to watch us in person, you can go to my Instagram, @ZibbyOwens, and watch us chatting on the IG TV feature. Rachel Beanland is the author of novel Florence Adler Swims Forever. Her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction and Broad Street, among other places. I think by the time this comes out she will have received her MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and journalism from the University of South Carolina. Before turning to writing full time, Rachel worked in public relations and nonprofit management. She currently lives in Virginia with her husband and three children.

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

Rachel Beanland: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I was just saying that I know we did an Instagram Live, so for anybody who wants to see your beautiful face, they can watch that. I also wanted to do a podcast to go a little more in-depth. Thanks for coming back.

Rachel: I really appreciate it. I appreciate everything you’ve been doing during this crazy time. You’ve been really keeping readers and writers connected. I appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. Florence Adler Swims Forever, tell me about this book and about how it’s actually your own family’s story and all the rest of it, how you came up with it and what it’s about.

Rachel: I’ve been walking around with this story in my head since I was a little girl. At least, a portion of the story was in my head my whole life. My mother always used to tell me this story about what had happened when my grandmother was a little girl, the basis of this book, which is that I had a great-great-aunt named Florence who was training to swim the English Channel when she drowned off the coast of Atlantic City. That particular summer my grandma was actually only six. She was living with her grandparents for the summer because her mother was in the hospital on bedrest. She had lost a baby the summer before. She was pregnant again. Back then, you went to the hospital. Women were starting to have babies in hospitals, just barely, kind of. They didn’t know what had gone wrong, and so there she was in the hospital. When Florence drowned, my grandmother was actually on the beach the day it happened.

The family made the decision not to tell Florence’s sister, my grandmother’s mother, that her sister had drowned. They all went in on this secret. When I was little, I heard the story. In my head, it was all summer and my great-great-grandmother was visiting every day in the hospital. My mother always told the story like, what kind of strength my great-great-grandmother must have had to keep this secret, to be able to walk into that hospital room every day and not breathe a word about the fact that her other daughter had just drowned. I was also super impressed with the story, but I was also always very interested in the fact that they had kept the secret. My mother positioned it, when we used to talk about, like, “Of course that’s what you would do. Of course you would keep the secret.” I remember even at a very young age, well, what if she had wanted to know? Even as I got older and we would rehash the story, and every now and then my grandmother would weigh in as well, and I still just kind of never wrapped my head around the idea that keeping the secret was the right thing to do. When I started thinking about what to write a novel about, it was a natural topic that I felt like we could come back to. There was unresolved business. Of course, over the years that story influenced so many other stories in my family. We became a secret-keeping family, I think in part because we elevated what my great-great-grandmother had done, this decision to withhold this information.

Zibby: You mentioned that because there was this big secret in the family, high up in the family tree, that it trickled down to create sort of a secrecy lore in your family. How do you know? What other little secrets? Are these big secrets or little secrets? I’m totally fascinated by this.

Rachel: Over the years, because we knew that my grandmother’s actions over the course that summer had been put on this pedestal, it became pretty obvious, particularly at times when one of us was sick or there was either a health scare or anything where we were worried about our grandparents being worried. I can remember a time in particular when my brother was very sick. I was sixteen. He was fourteen. We really didn’t know whether he was going to make it. It was an encephalitis. It was just a bad illness. I can remember us not telling my grandparents until he was completely in the clear. I knew we were doing it at the time. Even at the time, I knew it was connected to the fact that my grandmother and everyone that came after her had really believed that what my great-great-grandmother did, this decision to not talk about Florence’s death, was kind of at the root of it.

Zibby: Interesting. It’s almost this constant withholding.

Rachel: Yeah. I can remember when my father got sick with cancer. He died about ten years ago. We had to sit down my parents and say, “Enough is enough. We want to know. We want to be able to decide how we spend our time.” It became important to know that we were receiving the same information that they were receiving.

Zibby: I’m sorry about your father.

Rachel: Thank you.

Zibby: When you go to make decisions now, you have children, do you feel the need to keep things a secret as well? Do you overcompensate? I know so much of parenting is a reaction to how people were parented. Do you feel the need to be more open, or do you want to keep this secrecy thing going?

Rachel: I think I try to be more open, but it is generational. I try to be more open with my children, but I also know that my mother appreciates having certain information withheld from her. There are times where I find myself withholding information about my children from my mother because I know it’s what she would want. I do try to think to myself, would it make me feel better if she knew? Would it make us closer if she knew? Is she really going to understand who I am if I haven’t told her this important piece of information about me? It’s something I weigh. It’s certainly something that I was weighing when I was writing the book. As I was writing the book, when I was writing my great-great-mother’s character, Esther, I ended up having a lot more sympathy for her than I maybe thought I would when I went into writing the book.

Zibby: How so?

Rachel: When I started writing the book, it was very cut and dry for me. I thought Esther made the wrong call. She should’ve told Fannie everything. Poor Fannie sitting in her hospital bed and is none the wiser. As I moved further into the story and imagined this entire family and what they were dealing with, I could see the benefits of withholding the information from Fannie. There’s a scene in the book where Joseph and Stewart are talking. Stewart’s asking him to justify the secret keeping. Joseph says something about new life always being the most important thing. That’s a line that I took directly from my grandmother, something she had said to me in her older years. When I would ask her about the story, she always kind of felt like, no, of course it was the right thing, you always do whatever you can to protect new life. I thought that by the time I finished the book I would have a lot of clarity, but I don’t know that I actually do.

Zibby: There was a lot of Jewish influence in the book, including you saying some of the blessings. I feel like that really coursed nicely throughout the narrative. Was that a conscious choice? Was it just because that’s the way the family was? How did that come about?

Rachel: I grew up in a Jewish family, not very religious, I would say, more just culturally Jewish. My mother was actually the first generation to marry outside the faith. My father was a Methodist from South Carolina. I definitely knew some of the customs. We were pretty relaxed. It didn’t ever occur to me not to set this amongst a Jewish family because it, of course, had been a Jewish family. Also, there are some mourning rituals that are particularly significant in the Jewish faith. I think that when you take those rituals away, which is of course what happened to this family as they were keeping this secret, that becomes a particularly poignant part of the story. The mourning rituals are there for a reason and can be a help for people as they’re grieving. I did always want to set it amongst a Jewish family. That being said, I still had to do a lot of research to get the Jewish parts right.

A story I like to tell is when I was selling the book, a lot of the editors who were interested were Jewish. I would tell the story. They’d want to know what it was based on. I would tell my family’s story. They would say, “We read the novel. It’s just such a Jewish novel. This secret is so Jewish.” I was like, what? It didn’t really occur to me that this idea of secret keeping or this desire to protect the young or the mother-knows-best idea, it didn’t really occur to me that this was a Jewish story. It was just a story and I was setting it amongst a Jewish family because that was where it happened. I have since had a number of people say to me, “This is, it’s pretty Jewish in this respect.” I’ve been kind of mulling that over. Then of course, I talk to Catholics who say the same thing. They’re like, “It’s very Catholic.” Anytime you get a group of people where they have big faith and a lot of family members who have differences of opinion and maybe strong matriarchs, a similar story could take place.

Zibby: It’s funny. When you talk about the customs of mourning — I know your book is not coming out until July, which is when this will air. When we’re talking, we’re still in the pandemic, which either way won’t have been that long before. So many people are now robbed of those customs. Zooming shiva is not the same, obviously, as being able to get together and mourn appropriately. I think that’s been one of the things that’s been ridiculously hard for people during this time, is not to be able to fall back on those rituals.

Rachel: That was one of the things that always got me about keeping this secret. I thought, first of all, who knows how strong Fannie was or wasn’t in this hospital bed. Could she have withstood finding out this information? I think women are a lot stronger than we give them credit for being, in literature and in life. I also think that by keeping this secret for her, she was robbed of an ability to mourn in real time. I remember after my father died, that day he died, it was like I looked at the world so much differently. He had died overnight. The next morning, in one way, the family was kind of doing these regular things. We had to eat. We had to go outside. We had to arrange things. I can remember looking at this tree and the way that the buds were coming out on this particular tree in my parents’ backyard. It was just almost overwhelming that life was happening at the same time that we had just lost him. I always think about that because I think it would be so strange to lose someone but not be able to mourn them at the time of their passing because there is something about the energy of the time and place in which they died. It is a strange thing to find out much later.

Zibby: Crazy. Tell me about how you ended up becoming a novelist.

Rachel: I’ve always been a big reader. I always had been a big writer. I was also very, very practical. When I went to college, I probably should’ve been an English major. Instead, I studied journalism and was concentrating on PR after college. I studied art history as well, so that was a little less practical. I was always thinking about, what kind of job can I have? I need a job. I got out of college. I got PR jobs right out of the gate. I had worked in PR for — I was about thirty-five when I started this novel. I just had this nagging urge. I’d been writing on the side. I’d been writing working on other projects. I wrote some essays and just was always doing something on the side. I very much had the feeling that my life was off balance and the writing shouldn’t have been the thing on the side. It should’ve been the thing at the center of my life. When I had this idea for this novel, I just got super serious about it. I would write every morning before I went to work. I was working forty hours a week. I had three kids. It was crazy.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I don’t know how you did that.

Rachel: I wrote from four thirty AM to seven AM seven days a week for two years to write the novel.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I want to give you a standing ovation for that.

Rachel: It was crazy. I had gone back to school to get an MFA in fiction at the same time. I was doing it part time taking a class at night. Everything was happening at the same time. I had this couple years where I was like, if I don’t do this now, I’m not going to do. So I did it. I finished the novel in the fall of 2018. We sold it. It sold in February of 2019. Then I’m graduating from the MFA program this spring. It’s all just come together. It was a lot of work getting here.

Zibby: Wow. Would you do it over again?

Rachel: Yeah, I would definitely do it over again. The question is what would I have done differently in my twenties to maybe not take this long to get to this point? It’s interesting because I think to myself, it would’ve been so much easier to get an MFA at twenty-two. Why didn’t I figure that out? I also think that I had so much more to write about at thirty-five than I did at twenty-two. I think I would’ve been writing really different material. I know specifically when I think about this book, I don’t think I could’ve written it had I not gone through the experience of losing my father. That experience of going through grief, for me, made me so much more able and willing to write about grief in a way that I hope readers find to be compelling. Maybe everything happens when it’s meant to happen. I have three kids. Writing about children, about parenting, is different now than it would’ve been in my twenties.

Zibby: I feel like most writers now in their early twenties who are writing are automatically shoved into the YA category. It doesn’t even matter if their books are about young adults. I feel like every young author, they’re saying, okay, you’re a young adult fiction author. Have you noticed that?

Rachel: Yeah. It’s funny. I’m not as attuned to YA as I should be because I do know it seems to be the craze now. I know a lot of friends who read a lot of YA. I was maybe in the last generation where you were just thrown into the deep end at twelve. I was just reading all my mother’s books.

Zibby: Me too.

Rachel: Which was probably beneficial in some ways because I was reading stuff that was totally over my head, but I was also like, this is amazing.

Zibby: I got a full-on education from my mother’s books.

Rachel: Yes, exactly.

Zibby: She would just plop stacks of these thick, juicy dramas on my desk at age twelve. Now that I have a twelve-year-old, almost thirteen-year-old, I’m like, I cannot believe what she was giving me to read.

Rachel: I think the same thing. We have such a better sense of what our kids are reading. I guess our mothers knew what we were reading. They just were like, well, this is all you got, so here you go.

Zibby: I guess so. I don’t know. Judith Krantz was my go-to. It’s so funny. Having finished this book, are you going to write another book? Is this the big story you had to tell? What’s your plan? What do you hope to do now?

Rachel: I definitely want to write more. I’m excited to be in the position where I get to write for a living now. That was the dream. Up until recently, I’ve been working on trying to graduate with my MFA. It was a weird way to end my final semester. Like everyone else in the country, I ended it on Zoom. Now I’m turning my attention to the next project and playing around with a couple things and doing a bunch of research. Hopefully, mark your calendars for a couple years from now, and there’ll be something new out.

Zibby: I’ll mark it now. Wouldn’t that be funny if I actually — maybe I will, Rachel. Maybe I’ll put it in my calendar, April 22nd or whatever in like 2025. You and I will have a chat.

Rachel: Check in with me.

Zibby: Our annual check-in. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Rachel: For me, something big happened in my late twenties. I was twenty-nine when my father died. At that point, I started writing every day. In the beginning, I was writing about him. That was what inspired me to write that regularly. Then over the years I started working on other projects that had nothing to do with him. That was the first time where I really had a dedicated writing practice where I was working every day. In the mornings is usually when I’m freshest. I would wake up and work. I do think that there is something about showing up every day to do it. I know there are other people who argue the exact opposite and say, no, that’s crazy. For me, that worked really well because it became a part of my day. It became a habit like drinking coffee or any of the things we do to get ready and get ourselves psyched up for the day. I became much more productive during that time period and found that I was accomplishing goals that I had set for myself in my writing life. There was something really magical that started happening when I was doing it every day. For me, that’s my biggest piece of advice. I even still have to remind myself of it now that Florence Adler‘s done and I’m onto the next thing. It’s like, remember Rachel, it feels really good to write every day. You just get more done. The pages do add up that way. That would be my biggest piece of advice. Then of course, just reading a lot. Some people will not read the books that they’re trying to write. If they’re writing something, they don’t want to read stuff that’s similar. I don’t really subscribe to that. I try to read lots of really good literature all the time and just soak it up.

Zibby: I agree. There’s nothing wrong with that. I was just wondering, did you have any alternate titles? Sometimes people have all these crazy different titles that they considered. I just get curious sometimes.

Rachel: That’s really funny. It’s had the same title for years now. I, probably the first year I was working on it, didn’t have a title for it. By about the midway point I had Florence Adler Swims Forever. Then when I sold it, Simon & Schuster loved it. They never talked about another title. Then recently as books have been coming out, I’m like, man, there are a lot of titles with first name, last name does something. There may come a day where we’re all done with first name, last name in a title. I think it works on a lot of different levels. I found an old note in my iPhone. My husband and I had been on a car trip. We had been brainstorming titles. I had so many silly ones on it. I forwarded it to my agent and said, “Just in case you want to laugh, here’s everything we thought of before Florence Adler Swims Forever.” It was kind of a hoot because they were bad. Florence Adler Swims Forever, it worked.

Zibby: It’s a beautiful title. I love it.

Rachel: Thank you.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you for coming on and for bearing with the technical issues and for also doing the Instagram Live show with me. I’m really excited about your book coming out. Even the cover is so calming. It’s just such a great book to have and to give and to read, so thank you.

Rachel: Thanks very much. Thanks for everything. It’s really been wonderful to see everything you’ve been working on this last month or two. You’ve kept us all sane. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Thank you. I wish I could say the same for myself. Just kidding. Thanks so much. We’ll stay in touch. I’ll check in with you in five years.

Rachel: Sounds great.

Zibby: Okay. Bye.

Rachel: Bye.