Sally Hepworth, THE YOUNGER WIFE

Sally Hepworth, THE YOUNGER WIFE

New York Times bestselling author Sally Hepworth joins Zibby to talk about her latest novel, The Younger Wife. Sally shares why she wanted to flip the younger wife trope on its head as well as what inspires her to do so with other clichés in all of her books. The two also discuss how Sally’s writing process has changed over the years, why she is glad the production companies who have optioned her books are making changes, and what she loves the most about having a neurodiverse family.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sally. Thank you so much for coming to do “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” live in person. Not live, but in person, which is very exciting for me. Thanks for being here.

Sally Hepworth: In the most beautiful library I’ve ever been in, so the pleasure’s mine.

Zibby: Can you tell listeners what your book is about, The Younger Wife: A Novel?

Sally: The younger wife is a small part of it. Actually, I describe it as being about the whole family that is at the heart of this book, which is the Aston family, which is made up of Stephen Aston, who is the patriarch of the family. He’s a man around sixty-odd. He’s a heart surgeon at the top of his game. It’s about his wife Pam, who is the mother of his two adult daughters, Rachel and Tully. Then it’s about Rachel and Tully, who are both in their thirties. The book kicks off, and this is where the title ties in, with Stephen announcing to his daughters that he’s going to marry a woman who is younger than they are, which is a decision which is controversial enough without taking into account that his wife is in a residential care facility with end-stage dementia. He’s going to have to divorce her in order to make this union happen. It’s what I call an upside-down book where it opens with the wedding between Stephen and his much younger bride. It’s told from the perspective of a mysterious narrator who’s a wedding guest. She watches the couple get married and then disappear into the sacristy to sign the paperwork. Then a few minutes later, they hear a scream. The celebrant runs back out onto the altar. Her pantsuit is covered in blood. From there, we go a year back in time. We find out all the events that led up to that moment and start to unravel who was injured, who did it, and why.

Zibby: I had many theories of this, all of which were wrong by the time I found out what actually happened. I am literally the worst at guessing books, which I guess is good. I’m a reader about to be duped. You had so many different elements in the book. You have dementia, Alzheimer’s, the loss you feel at watching the mom slip away with the daughters. That was really powerful. Then you have the daughters each with their own story. One of the daughters, and it doesn’t come out until later, why she has developed the — well, both. One daughter, why she’s developed the coping mechanisms and the anxiety and all of this stuff which then gets passed down to her child, as we do as moms, and the other who had something happen. Her life has taken a turn. How everybody is sort of interrelated and all affected by — when you have the mom of the family be like, oh, I have a daughter named Rachel too, how does that affect you? Tell me about the Alzheimer’s piece and if you did research, if you know somebody, or how this — it felt so real.

Sally: Thank you. I actually wrote a book — my second published book was called The Things We Keep. That was about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s. For that book, I had to do a lot of research about that element as well as more general dementia. A lot of the material that went into creating the character of Pam, I kind of leaned on that. In addition to that, I have had a family member with dementia. Also, my sister-in-law’s mother had Alzheimer’s. I spent a lot of time with her. There is the things we know about Alzheimer’s, of course, from a medical perspective, but what, really, I tried to lean on with this book was those emotional experiences, particularly for the ones who love that person with dementia, things like having to answer the same question over and over again without being snappy because to that person, it’s the first time they’ve asked and having to make them feel comfortable in situations that are scary to them. Those strange little comments that come up that seem like they are completely nonsense, as it were, when you actually scratch the surface you realize, no, that did mean something. Without the context of the rest of the words that that person was missing, they weren’t able to get it across. Certainly with my sister-in-law’s mother, we found that to be the case quite a lot.

Zibby: It’s a terrifying thought that all of a sudden, you’ll get to a place in life where there’s no filter for all the stuff that’s shoved inside. So much for keeping a secret or what you really think about people.

Sally: Especially for me. I don’t have much a filter now, so I’d be done for if it happens to me.

Zibby: My grandmother had dementia. I remember sitting with her and bringing my twins. Now they’re almost fifteen, but they were younger then. She was like, “I have twins too.” I’m like, “I know that. They’re my — I know.” Yes, the same repeating. “Did you know I have twins?” I’m like, “I know. You just said that.” There is that element. Of course, Pam’s life and some of the things that she slips out and says end up being really important to the story, so that’s good. The thing I loved about this book in particular, I was like, I love this author because you said some of the funniest things starting page one, which I want to put on a pillow or something. “The catharsis of a shower cry could not be overstated for a woman in her thirties.”

Sally: Right?

Zibby: Yes, yes, yes.

Sally: I’m so baffled when people don’t understand that. Sometimes I go to have a shower specifically to cry. It’s the most joyous thing afterwards, the release of it. Especially with the pandemic, what else did you have to do with your time but have a good shower cry?

Zibby: Exactly. Sometimes I just have to get in the bathroom. I can’t even make it into the shower.

Sally: It’s something about the titles that just bring on the tears.

Zibby: This, by the way, was like, you read my mind. This is when she’s out at a restaurant. “Rachel, on the other hand, couldn’t relax until she knew her main course was in the oven. Rachel’s family laughed about it, considered it a quirk of hers, a trademark of being a foodie. Usually, Rachel considered it in the same light. Only occasionally did she hear a little voice in the back of her head that told her there was more to it than that.” I cannot — my family makes so much fun of me. Oh, wait, the sentence before. You said, “Rachel got terrible anxiety whenever she wasn’t in control of the catering, and particularly when she was with Dad, who always wanted to start with a drink and maybe some bread and dip or an appetizer.” My mom, she’s like, “No, let’s relax and have a drink.” I’m like, “I need my order taken before I can relax.” What is wrong?

Sally: Just to know that it’s on its way. I actually sometimes refuse to let my family talk until they have selected what they want because the fear of the waiter coming and then one person not knowing and sending them away, it’s too much for me.

Zibby: This is great. If we have ever have lunch —

Sally: — It’s going to be perfect. We can ring ahead and tell them what we’re having. Then we can just sit down and .

Zibby: I would be happy doing that too. Sometimes I read the menu ahead of time.

Sally: Will do.

Zibby: Then you had another line which I also sadly relate to. This is Rachel, who copes with a lot of life by eating, which I understand. “She threw a couple of chocolate buttons into her mouth and then realized the packet was finished, the second package she’d finished this morning. This morning when she got dressed, her underwear had felt tight. Her underwear.” I was like, do I not mention that this recently happened? I was like, all my underwear must have shrunk at the same time. It’s so weird. I wonder what’s going on with the dryer.

Sally: I actually stole that from a friend of mine who say during the pandemic as well that her underwear felt tight. We laughed so hard. I said, “That’s going to make it into a book,” and it did.

Zibby: There you go. I could go on. I could give you more. Then you have Darcy, who has the funniest sense of humor, oh, my gosh. “Instead, he looked down at the cake –” I’ll stop reading from the book in a second — “closed his eyes and whispered ‘I love you’ into the cake box. Rachel stared at him aghast. ‘Sorry,’ he explained. ‘It’s just that the last time I forgot to tell a cake I loved it, it burst into tiers.'” I laughed out loud, I have to say.

Sally: I had a lot of fun researching cake jokes. That was a real good time-passer for me. That one was my favorite, so I’m glad you liked it.

Zibby: My dad shares this pun sense of humor.

Sally: Dad jokes.

Zibby: Dad jokes, yeah. Thank you for putting that in here. Tell me how you got started as a writer. You’ve written so many books. You just casually mentioned Amy Poehler, just dropping her —

Sally: — Name-dropping.

Zibby: That’s okay. Tell me how it started and how everything’s just taken off.

Sally: It’s funny. The beginning happened while I was reading an Emily Giffin novel, Something Borrowed. I was living in Canada at the time. My husband’s job moved us over there. I was reading that book. There’s been a lot of talk about chick lit. That was really having a moment. It’s so lovely because I’m having an event with Emily Giffin tomorrow in this beautiful, full-circle moment. I was reading about these women who were flawed but so loveable, and that feeling we have as women when you feel seen in a book. I thought, I want to do this. I want to try and do this. I didn’t have the audacity to think that I would be any good at it, but I thought, I want to do this. I then became pregnant with my first child. Living in Canada, those glorious people pay you for a year of maternity leave. Can you even imagine? I thought, well, I’ll try this year and do it. I should be clear. When I say that, some first-time moms say, what is wrong with you? How could you write a book while you’ve got a new baby?

I had a robot baby who — and still is. Bless his cotton socks. He just slept and ate and did what he was told. I did write a book that year. Worst book you can possibly imagine. Worst book in the world, but I fell in love with writing. I then wrote another book and another book. The third book that I wrote was The Secrets of Midwives. I had found an agent by that point. He pitched it to a number of New York editors. One of them on the list was Jen Enderlin, who published Something Borrowed, which was that Emily Giffin book that I loved. She bought it. She sent it to Emily, and she blurbed that first book. Tomorrow, we’re doing an event together. This is almost twelve years, because my son’s twelve years old, on. I kind of pinch myself that I’m now sitting here talking about it. I’ve glossed over a lot of rejection in there and a lot of books that didn’t get published and even since becoming published, the ups and downs of that road. Ultimately, I’m here on tour in New York. I keep pinching myself how lucky I am.

Zibby: It’s so cool. I know in your acknowledgments you said something like, thank you to the publisher and St. Martin’s for sticking with you through some —

Sally: — The bumpy times.

Zibby: The bumpy times. You were trying to dispel the myth that publishers don’t actually stick by their authors.

Sally: It has not been my experience. The opposite is true. The team St. Martin’s have been — I’m not just saying that because one of them is here. I’m so blessed and so lucky, the way that they have cared about my books, but because they love books. That’s been definitely been my experience, luckily.

Zibby: Wow. The characters in the book, let’s talk about the idea, also, of this younger wife and having any sort of interloper stepparent. So many people deal with that. I had a grandmother — this is a different side of my family — who was younger than — the step-grandmother was younger than my mom. She literally had the same thing. You could’ve interviewed her for the book. What that dynamic does to a family, how do you make a new blended family? Not this way where they meet up and everything. It happens very quickly. What is the right way to introduce your new loved one to your kids?

Sally: It’s such an upheaval. I’m forty-one, and so I’m in that age where upheavals are happening to adult families in my life, whether it is a new younger wife from the father, my friends’ fathers who are in their sixties and seventies; also, siblings getting divorced. All of those kind of things. You think you’ve got your family settled. Then come the disruptions and the upheavals. One thing that I was witnessing was, one of my very good friend’s father and another very good friend’s father-in-law had both met women younger than their daughter and daughter-in-law. One of the things that shocked me about it, or the perspective was different, was that these women were distressed. They were dealing with it. Both of them, their lens was about trying to keep their family together. It wasn’t about hating on this new woman or trying to get her out or branding her as a gold-digger or any of those things. It was about, right, this has happened. This is my family. I love my dad. I love my father-in-law. I want to make it work. That was an interesting perspective to me. I think that the younger wife, we’ve said that’s nothing new. We’ve read books about it, movies about it, TV series, but it always is, this younger wife is painted as a gold-digger with daddy issues. We never investigate the older husband. We really just accept that he’s obviously made that decision because she’s a young, pretty bit of crumpet, as we say in Australia, and that’s it. Why do we not give him more agency? Why don’t we look at his potentially nefarious perspective? As we know, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, there are real love interests that age defies. It’s not about demonizing anyone. I really wanted to challenge the cliché, look at the perspective of an older husband with agency, and write that book. That was the jumping-off point.

Zibby: You did a nice job. I feel like my feelings towards Heather, I could feel them arcing the whole time. I started off with all these prejudices against her, honestly.

Sally: We all do. That was my intention, and that hatred of clichés which I also tried to challenge with The Mother-in-Law when I had — I don’t believe that every mother-in-law could be evil. That book was about exploring that. This book was about exploring, not every older husband is going to be only thinking with his pants. I love to see readers following that evolution of character.

Zibby: Wait, and tell me now what it’s like seeing your characters being developed in a new format with Amy Poehler and all of that. Tell me about the nine lives of all of your books.

Sally: It’s amazing. I’ve read a couple of scripts of The Mother-in-Law, which is the one that Amy Poehler’s production company optioned. Also, The Family Next Door has been optioned by an Australian production company. I’ve read scripts of both. The thing that’s so great — everyone seems to say to me, are you worried they’re going to butcher your book? Are you worried they’re going to make changes? I say, I’m worried they’re not going to make it better. Here’s an opportunity with an amazing writer to make me look good. In both cases, I’m very happy to say that they have made small changes, not so much to the plot. For example, they’ve introduced more diversity, which has been something that I kick myself. Things that I should’ve done, it’s like getting another go. They’ve introduced more tension to certain scenes and just really added to the book. I can understand some authors being nervously, particularly if they take the book in a direction that you didn’t intend. As the author, they’re the conversations you have with them up front to see if they really understand your vision for the book. I felt in both cases that they did. That has proven to be the case.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Oh, my gosh, it must be so cool to — now you’re going to see all that. The characters that you think of in your mind, there they are. What about this book? Has it been optioned yet?

Sally: It hasn’t yet. We’ve had a few conversations, which have been really fun. Again, it’s just pinch-yourself moments that people have even read it and want to have a conversation about it.

Zibby: I feel like it’s so visual with the wedding and then the cake business, the flower spinning and the scene with the eating of the cake. Those are great. It’s very visual.

Sally: I write in scenes. That’s just how it comes to me. The two that have been optioned, they’ve said that that makes their job easy, which is not my intention. I like writing novels. I’ll never switch to screenplays. You kind of write the way you write. You can’t do it any different.

Zibby: You started out writing in Canada with a year, basically, of sanctioned writing. How do you do it now?

Sally: I have been through the whole thing. Back then, yes, I wrote with a baby at home. I then kept writing when I was back at work part time. I had another baby. During all of that time, my husband was working full time. I was at home with a bit of work. When I was at home after my second baby, I got the contract for The Secrets of Midwives. At that point, I became a full-time author. At that point, my husband and I were both working full time with help with our kids. Then about two years ago, my husband quit his job. He’s now the stay-at-home dad. I am the full-time author or the full-time worker, the primary breadwinner, as it happens. I’ve been through all of the bits of it. Again, I just now feel so lucky that this is my job. People pay me for it. It’s what I love to do. I’ve been in the great position that St. Martin’s keeps buying my books, so I get to keep doing it. The goal is that if I can keep doing this for the rest of my life and it gets to be my full-time job, what a privilege that is.

Zibby: Especially to have a husband who packs for you. I watched your Instagram feed. I’m like, that’s not really her husband. She must have hired somebody to pack for her, which I also thought was really interesting.

Sally: The trick to that and to most things about getting your husband to do stuff, I’ve only just realized this, is to be very useless at doing it yourself. For a while, he stood and watched me and twitched. Then I just said, “If you want to do it yourself…” Now he does most things for me. I’ve got a specific set of skills, which is writing books. He’s got a very specific set of skills, which is everything else. It works for us until I’m ere in New York without any skills. That kind of gets me lost a lot, but I’m surviving.

Zibby: The idea that you can even be so self-deprecating is hilarious.

Sally: That’s the Australian way, but it’s also true.

Zibby: Stop. No, no, no. Now what book are you working on?

Sally: I’ve just delivered the book that will be in the States this time next year. It’s called The Soulmate. As you can imagine, there’s a twist on that. It’s not a happy story. It is in the same vein as all of my other books, family dysfunctionality. This one is based around the most dysfunctional of relationships, which is marriage. I had the idea while in lockdown with my husband, and so no surprise there was some murder in that book. I’m really excited about this one because I think that marriage, there’s just so much material there even without getting too — with all of my books, I don’t go that stereotypical route of, he’s awful or she’s awful. It’s based around a couple who live on a cliff. On that cliff, there is a notorious suicide spot. The husband has made his life’s work out of talking the people off the cliff. They, of course, have got a past. They’ve moved away to get away from their past. He’s got a hundred percent strike rate of being able to talk people off the cliff. In the first scene of the book, the wife is watching through the window as he’s doing his thing. She turns away for a minute and then looks back, and the woman has gone over the cliff. He’s holding his hands out with palms up in a way that looks a little bit like he might have pushed her. We then unravel what we think has happened there and going deep into those marital ties. It was a fun book to explore. It’s got all of the things, all of the murder and the nuance and the twists. I’m looking forward to talking about that one too.

Zibby: Did you always know you wanted all this murder? Did you know you had this dark side to you?

Sally: Yes. I watch a lot of Law & Order: SVU, which my husband calls my nasty shows. He says, “You’re watching your nasty shows.” It’s funny because I’m a very happy person. If you can’t see me, I’m wearing all pink, which is quite classic of me. I smile a lot. Yet I’ve got this really creepy dark side of things.

Zibby: I’m afraid to turn around, by the way. I’m keeping you right in front of me the whole time.

Sally: Keep your back to the wall. I need the stakes to be high for me to feel. I balance that with that kind of dark humor, which I love. You should be worried in a book that something can go wrong. That does tend to be a theme of my books.

Zibby: I love that. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Sally: It’s the classic one of reading. I’d probably balance that with — just read a lot. Read as much as you can. Then write as much as you can. Don’t get caught in that silo that I see people get into where they just want everything to be perfect before they write. Maybe they want to go and get that writing degree. Maybe they want to buy all of these writing programs or read every book about writing or get a PhD in history if it’s a historical novel. I see that in so many cases, which is fear, fear of starting. I think that the only way that you can do it is to just dive in because that’s how you beat the fear. You just dive in and write a really bad book because then you can just — like I said, my first book, worst book in the world. I can back that up as well. That’s not just self-deprecating. Wrote that book, sent it off. It was published, as it happens, in German. Thank goodness because now no one else can read it unless they’re German. I tell the Germans, don’t read it because that was a really bad book. Since then, I’ve gone on to publish all of these other books. We’ve had offers from other publishers to publish it in English. My agent said, “What do you think? Should we do it?” I said, “No, because I don’t want anyone to read it.” He said, “Oh, it can’t be that bad. Can it?” I said, “I’ll send it to you.” I sent it to him. Within about two minutes, he’d replied and said, “You know what? Let’s leave it.” The point of that to the aspiring author is that it’s okay for your first book to be really bad. You’ve just got to write it. Then you write the next one. You get your ten thousand hours to become an expert. You’re not going to get that if you’re stuck trying to get everything lined up and make it perfect before you start.

Zibby: You mentioned Emily Giffin as one of the writers who inspired you. Do you have other go-to authors or something you’re reading now that you’re really passionate about?

Sally: Yes, I love Sarah Pekkanen and Greer Hendricks. Every one of their books has been better than the last. I just finished The Golden Couple.

Zibby: Right there.

Sally: There it is. Kelly Rimmer is another Australian author, who wrote — The Warsaw Orphan is her most recent one. Also, The Things We Cannot Say is one of my favorites. Liane Moriarty as well, I adore; Jane Harper. I’m going to forget them. Oh, Sue Monk Kidd, I adore her. We’re just so lucky. All of my favorite authors are women. I do read male authors, but I do think that there’s something about women describing women that I connect with. That’s what I love to read.

Zibby: I love that. We started off talking about crying in the bathroom. As this is almost over —

Sally: — What’s making me cry right now?

Zibby: What’s making you cry in the bathroom? What are the last couple times you’ve had to go in there? What’s caused it?

Sally: Actually, I haven’t cried since I’ve been in New York because what is there to cry about here? What is it? Do you know what? The funny thing about it is that I would very rarely connect a shower cry to a particular problem. It’s more of a general kind of — it’s almost like exercise or therapy. It’s like a cleansing of all of the feelings. State of the world in general always brings on a few tears when you think about it too deeply, anything to do with your child. My oldest child is autistic and classic Asperger’s, super smart, super funny, just a brilliant, beautiful child. Fears about him not being accepted and things makes me cry even though in general, he is. As mothers, you bring so much to your fears for your children. In general, it’s mostly either a general cry or shampoo in the eyes, which can hurt, especially the purple shampoos. They can really be hard to get out.

Zibby: That’s true. I have one of those. Blue shampoo or something.

Sally: Yeah, to get the brassiness out of the blond.

Zibby: Good to know. Thank you for sharing that about your son, by the way.

Sally: We’re very proud. I have his consent to talk about that. As a neurodiverse family — my husband’s autistic. My son is autistic. My daughter has ADHD. I have ADHD. We really celebrate that and are a big part of the community because we need these brains in the world. In fact, when my son was diagnosed, our pediatrician said to me, “You’re an author, so it hasn’t come from you. Is your husband a doctor, a scientist, an engineer, or an accountant?” I said, “He’s an accountant.” He said, “Ah.” Then he turned to my son. He said, “These are the brains that we need in the world to be able to fix climate change, cure disease.” It was the most glorious way to deliver that to him. It also, as a family, has really made us so proud of the people that we have in our family and what they’re going to be able to contribute to the world. It’s not something we don’t talk about.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Wow, very cool. Also, nice that each of you know what your child is going through.

Sally: Exactly, and their strengths which come out of that too.

Zibby: It’s true. There’s so many types of brains. There’s no one clear path. Creativity comes from all places.

Sally: In fact, ADHD is very common among writers, musicians, and artists.

Zibby: Dyslexia too, by the way.

Sally: That’s true. Yes, exactly.

Zibby: Amazing.

Sally: You’ve covered it all.

Zibby: Anything else you want to get off your chest today?

Sally: This has been a great therapy session.

Zibby: Oh, good. Thank you so much.

Sally: Thank you so much for having me.

Sally Hepworth, THE YOUNGER WIFE

THE YOUNGER WIFE by Sally Hepworth

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