Zibby Owens: I’m so excited to be interviewing Sandra Miller today. Sandra A Miller is the author of the memoir Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure, which by the way I just loved. She has contributed to more than a hundred publications including The Boston Globe Magazine for which she is a regular correspondent. One of her essays was turned into a short film called Wait directed by Trudie Styler and starring Kerry Washington. She also wrote award-winning scripts for 11 Central Ave, a radio comic strip that ran for three years in major public radio markets. She has appeared on The Today Show and other media outlets. She currently teaches English at the University of Massachusetts and lives outside Boston with her husband and two children.

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

Sandra A Miller: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I loved your book Trove. I really did. I’m not just saying that. It was so good and hit so many of the right notes in such a good way. You’re such a good writer. I posted this on Instagram, but I finished reading it. I had read most of it, but I had the last couple pages left, maybe the last thirty pages that I finished on the elliptical. I was bawling on the machine, so thank you.

Sandra: Thank you. It’s not usually a good thing when I make people cry, but in this case I think it was.

Zibby: It was good crying. I love crying. I love feeling emotion based on books and whatever else. I thought it was great, so thank you. Could you tell listeners, please, what Trove is about?

Sandra: In 2011, my friend David emailed me. He said he knew of this treasure chest filled with ten thousand dollars in gold coins buried in New York City, and did I want to go with him to dig it up. It was a tough time in my life. My mom, whom I was quite disconnected from, was very ill. My children were hitting tweenhood. They were outgrowing the need for constant mothering, leaving me a gaping hole in my life. I was taking out a lot of the stress around my mom on my husband.

Zibby: Is that not what we’re not supposed to do? No, I’m kidding.

Sandra: It probably wasn’t working well for us at that time. It wasn’t the ideal time to go look for treasure in New York City with a guy who wasn’t my husband, but I needed to go anyway. It felt like more than a treasure hunt game. To clarify, this treasure hunt that we were on, it’s an armchair treasure hunt. It’s when a person or a company buries a prize and then sets up a complex series of online clues to reveal the location. When you think you know where that prize is buried, you have to go dig it up. I knew that it wasn’t the perfect time to do this, but I did need to do this because it felt like my quest. It felt like something bigger than just a game. I decided to go. I set off with David from Boston to New York City. We started looking for this treasure chest. In the process of searching for that treasure chest, I discovered that I was actually on a much deeper search for something more than a chest filled with ten thousand dollars in coins. That really set me on my search, both for something I’d been longing for my whole life since I was a little girl, something I’d been searching for since I grew up in this factory town in Connecticut always filled with yearning for something I couldn’t even name. The story is really about my two quests, the physical search for gold coins and the internal search for something deeper that I’d been looking for my whole life, maybe wholeness.

Zibby: That’s so great. You wrote really beautifully, in addition to other things, about parenting and about your kids. You don’t sugarcoat it. You talk about how your son Phinny was cursing all the time after you tried this parenting experiment where you asked him, “Curse as much as you can.” Then it didn’t get out of his system as much as you had hoped. You talked about how you had to miss your daughter’s soccer match and accompanying party to go to New York on this treasure hunt and how even though you were there for 87,000 other things, it became a big deal that you missed the one thing for one thing that you wanted to do for yourself. Can you talk a little more about the expectations put on mothers and how you managed to slither your way out to get a little slice of hacking into the ground to find a treasure with an axe or — what is it called? — a shovel?

Sandra: I’d love to talk about that. I think women, particularly mothers, are always sacrificing for others. They’re always adjusting to what their children need, what their family needs. They don’t always prioritize their own needs. This was a case in which I decided to prioritize my own needs.

Zibby: And live to tell. One mom meets her own needs, news at eleven.

Sandra: That’s the thing. We think we’re going to blow up our family if we take this time for ourselves to go look for something that we really need to feel complete or to pursue something that will satisfy us and our lives. When we put our own needs ahead of our family’s, sometimes really great things happen. In this case, a really great thing happened. It was hard at first. My family didn’t always understand what this quest was that I was on. In looking for this treasure, they came to recognize that it was bringing me into a state of wholeness, into a state of happiness. I was going on my journey that was actually essential for my own happiness. It served me well in the end. I think it was a good model for my children too. As I went through this process of searching for this treasure and then searching for something much deeper, the writing came into this process. I was writing as I was searching. They saw that I really, really valued the process. They saw that I really wanted to create this book. They saw that I wanted to see it through to completion and publication. They watched me do it. That was my journey. They came to cheer me along in the journey. It was wonderful.

Zibby: That’s so nice. The quote I wanted to read about this section, you said, “I once read that people who look for treasure might be trying to replace the emotional fulfillment they didn’t get when they were young. As I bustled my own children out the door to their soccer games, I had to wonder what, if anything, they weren’t getting. I tried to give them everything, my time, my attention, my assurance, my love, because I didn’t want them to reach middle age and say, ‘Where the hell was Mom when we were growing up?’ For twelve years, I’d been the mother I’d always wanted, prioritizing my children’s needs and in the process, burying my own.” I had to throw that quote out there because that was so great. You also wrote beautifully about grief in this book. In the scene where you find out your father has passed away, you wrote, “If I learned anything from those first moments, it’s that nothing prepares you for the day you lose your parent, no book, no independent film about grief, no late-night conversation over a passed bowl of weed or bottle of brandy. You can’t possibly know that experience of having your father taken from you until it happens.” I’ve already quoted that line to three people, by the way. Talk to me about this passage.

Sandra: That was a day that burned into me with such hard, searing pain. When I went to write it in the book, it was the easiest scene to write in some ways because of the recall. The recall was right there. It was such a visceral experience, but it was the most painful to write for obvious reasons. It was retraumatizing to write that scene and get that scene right. I think what happened that day is I felt my world tilt. What you don’t understand before you lose a parent is they root you to the Earth. They’re the reason you’re here, their DNA, their biology. That’s why you exist. Suddenly when they’re gone, there’s this feeling of uprootedness. I felt really adrift at that time, particularly that day. I went around in a fog. I had to drive three hours home from my college to my home that day. I remember losing whole chunks of time on the highway. I thought, did I go by that? Did I take that road already? I clearly was having some kind of out-of-body experience.

One of the complicated things about that was I didn’t have a close relationship with my dad. Grief is not simple. Grief doesn’t just equal loss or pain in the most obvious way. For those of us who have complicated relationships with our parents who then pass, that makes grief very, very hard to navigate. That’s what I found happened in that situation. I wasn’t grieving the father that I was close to and loved. I was grieving all of the experiences we would never have. I had just turned twenty. I thought, I never have a chance now to really know him in this life and for us to really be close and love each other. If I have children, he’ll never know my children. If I get married, he’ll never see me get married. It was a very, very complicated experience to grieve my father in that way. Truthfully, it’s been thirty-five years. While I’ve healed, as I explain in the book and show in the book, there’s still this time around Thanksgiving, I call it that day, when I feel this little “ugh” in my gut. I remember this is when he was dying. This is when I lost him. The grieving process, it’s so personal to each person depending on their relationship with that person. That was also an important part of my journey, that grief experience. I write about that in the book.

Zibby: I feel like you tried to find him in different ways through your going to Japan and his diary and all of it. Trying to dig into his past too was part of your search, the treasure of finding out more about him. I felt like you had some theories about his childhood that you were poking at that you were trying to test out with your mom, perhaps, and never really had resolution on it too.

Sandra: My dad was born in 1920. He was one of seven children, six boys growing up in a German farm family. You could imagine. He went into World War II at twenty-four. We only now understand the trauma that people experience in war. I’m sure he suffered some deep, deep traumas that he could never communicate to us. I have long since forgiven him for not being able to love me the way I needed to be loved. Again, it was part of my journey. The parenting that I had, while it was challenging and I would even say dysfunctional, it was the only parenting I could’ve had to live this life that I’m living. I’m grateful for it.

Zibby: I love the story with your husband, though. That was pretty great. I won’t even go into it, but that was awesome.

Sandra: Spoiler alert.

Zibby: I’m not spoiling anything. In one scene when you’re searching for treasure in Brooklyn, you say, “Where?” You reflect, “As a child it was, where are the parents who are supposed to love me? Later it warped into, where is my life’s path, a great adventure, the feeling of wholeness? Where? Where? Where?” Right now for you, where is what? What are you looking for now? Where is…finish that sentence.

Sandra: Where’s the time to do all the things that I want to do right now? You start to notice that in your fifties, maybe earlier. I try to be present in my life, but I also feel that clock ticking sometimes. Where’s the time to see all the shows I want to see, spend time with my friends, see my children, cook delicious meals?

Zibby: Read.

Sandra: Read, yes. We’re so distracted. There isn’t the same time for reading. At the same time, the second part of my answer would be, I don’t ask where anymore in the same way. I feel like the answer to where has become here, far more so than I would’ve said even a year ago. I can credit this book journey for a lot of that fulfillment that I feel now. I had to go through that. I had to go through that quest, that treasure hunt on many different levels. I had to write about it. I had to be able to hold my book in my hand. Not everybody needs a concrete physical experience to fulfill them in their lives, but I think I did. At first, I felt a little bit ashamed of that. Can I really feel this satisfaction until I see this through to fruition? The answer might have been no, but I feel like I’m much more present now. I’m really truly deeply satisfied with the outcome of that journey.

Zibby: That’s great. Where did you like to write? Give me a little picture of where you wrote most of this book and then how it became an actual published book.

Sandra: I wrote this book wherever I could. As I said, there’s something retraumatizing about writing memoir. It can be quite painful. What a gift that I have the time in my life to write and that my life is set up with flexible work, a space to write. I’m not always scrambling after different jobs. It was a wonderful gift to be able to write this book. It was a very, very hard book to write. I found I would write in my home office. I would write in the basement free from distractions and chocolate. I would write at the café because I could get away from said distractions. I would write between classes at work. I teach at a college. I would steal any moments where the muse struck. I would just go at it. Oftentimes if I had written a hard scene, I’d end up on my home office floor. I wasn’t usually crying on the floor of Starbucks, but that might have happened once or twice. I’d end up on my home office floor crying. I’d call my sister. She lives in Germany. I’d say, “This is hard. Does this happen?” I sort of needed her verifying things that I was writing about that felt so traumatic to me. She would say, “Yeah, that happened. That sounds about right.” She’d let me cry. Then I’d hang up. In the middle of that, my sister went through ovarian cancer.

Zibby: I read that in an essay you wrote. That was so sad.

Sandra: She’s fine now. She’s great. I went back and forth to Germany three times that year. I wrote on the plane. I don’t have a set place that I have to write, but I have to write. Wherever I am, I will write.

Zibby: Is there anything that you teach your students that you feel like has helped you the most in the writing process?

Sandra: I say this pretty much every class. If you want to be a writer, you have to be present. You have to shut off the distractions. We live in pretty turbulent times right now. We are so distracted all the time. I’m constantly telling them they’re not going to become writers by looking at Instagram. They’re not going to become writers by looking at Facebook. They’re going to become writers by writing and by sitting down in that chair and quieting the distractions and putting fingers to keyboard, pen to paper, and actually writing. One of the things that I tell them is find time. Really create a space where you can write without those distractions. I tell them a million other things. I don’t know if they hear me, though.

Zibby: I like to think they do.

Sandra: I do too. Some of them do.

Zibby: You wrote this really great Boston Globe essay. I hadn’t read anything similar, so I wanted to flag it. It’s called “I’ll miss my son, and his friends, when he goes to college.” It was all about how accustomed you had gotten to his whole group of friends. It wasn’t just him. You said, “Yes, I will miss my son something fierce, but I’ve been anticipating our arrival at this bittersweet juncture for eighteen years. The surprise right now is realizing just how much I will miss my son’s friends, these lovable boys that Phinny met in middle school and has been hanging with, often at our house, for seven years.” That was so sweet. How has it been with them gone?

Sandra: It’s funny. The first few weeks my husband and I would come home the end of the day. It’d be dinnertime. He’d grab a bag of shredded cheese. I’d grab a bag of almonds. We’d sit on the couch. We’d talk about how much we missed the kids. Then we’d switch cheese and almonds. That went on for a couple weeks. I calculated once that I probably prepared, over 21 years, about 22,000 meals. I felt like I was allowed a few weeks off. I took that then. Now we’re eating a little more sensibly. We’ve gotten into a rhythm. It was hard at first. It was a big adjustment. I had this book that I was giving birth to just as the children were leaving. My pub date was September 19th. They were out of the house. Two weeks later, I was bringing this third baby.

Zibby: That’s perfect.

Sandra: It was perfect, recommendation to empty nesters.

Zibby: Make sure you have a pub date two weeks after your kids leave. Get started maybe five years before.

Sandra: Even seven years.

Zibby: Maybe seven.

Sandra: While they’re in middle school is a good time to start that. It’s funny because for the same reasons that I miss them, it’s also fantastic to have the space. We have this big, loud, messy, cacophonous, connected household. There are always children, other kids coming in and staying for dinner. It’s wonderful. I love that. There are always cooking projects. There’s always a mess. With them gone, there’s a little bit of space around me that I needed at this time. I’m really enjoying that space. My husband and I are getting to know each other again.

Zibby: How’s that?

Sandra: That’s great. We watch The Great British Baking Show. I don’t think I would’ve discovered that with the kids around. It’s actually really wonderful. We were a little worried. Is there going to be this echo chamber in empty nester-hood? We actually have time to sit, be together, notice that we really love each other. Then we always take plenty of time to miss the kids. There’s still a lot of that going on.

Zibby: You had an essay become a short film. What was that all about?

Sandra: That was crazy. That was a really tricky time in my life. There have been a couple of tricky times. It was about fourteen years ago. I had some hard rejections in the writing world. I thought, do I continue on this path? I actually prayed for guidance, as I often do, and had a little talk with the universe. “I need a sign if I’m going to go on doing this.” Honestly, a week later I get a call from Glamour magazine that I’ve won this contest. My essay has been selected. It’s going to be made into a short film starring Kerry Washington, directed by Trudie Styler, Sting’s wife. I fell on my knees on the kitchen floor with disbelief and gratitude. It was just amazing. It was unreal. They made this beautiful little film called Wait. I got to go to New York for this big red-carpet premiere and walk down the runway carpet with Kerry Washington and Sting. It was really a surreal experience. I was on The Today Show. Yanked from my suburban life into world of Hollywood glamour, fabulous.

It was four days that we still remember so fondly. It’s really funny about that time. It showed me something, too, that I needed to see at the end of those four days. We had this red-carpet premiere. At the end of the evening, my husband and I took our car home. We had James as our driver. We said, “Take us to a Chinese restaurant.” We got Chinese takeout. We took it up to our fancy hotel overlooking the East River. We put on plush white robes. We sat on the bed eating Chinese food and laughing. That was really actually the highlight, just having that experience together and saying, “Wow, this just happened,” and connecting beyond all the glitz and the glamour. It was fun.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Now that this book is done, you’ve checked off the milestone, it’s come full circle, now what? Do you still want to write another book? Is this the be all, end all? What do you foresee in the future?

Sandra: I think it’s just the beginning, actually. I’ve been talking to a lot of people about this book doing a book tour. People are really interested, particularly women, in this idea of a quest or a treasure hunt. A lot of people don’t know where to begin. I’ve started a book called Dig Here: Finding Truth and Treasure in Your Life, working title. It instructs people on how to begin that journey, how to be a little selfish, how to take time for themselves for exactly the reasons we were talking about before. Women don’t always know how to do this or forget that they can or never learned that they can. I’m working on that. I’m really enjoying the promotion around Trove. I’ve wanted this for a long time. It’s here now, so I’m savoring every minute of it. I also like the satisfaction of writing essays and short pieces and articles. I like feature writing. I like digging into other people’s lives. I feel like I’m just getting started.

Zibby: What a great feeling.

Sandra: It’s a great feeling.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I keep saying that’s awesome. That’s not awesome. That’s amazing! How about that?

Sandra: I think it’s awesome too.

Zibby: I’m sorry. Sometimes I hear myself. You already kind of touched on this, but any other advice to aspiring authors? I know you’ve talked to what you said to your students, but maybe somebody even on the publication side of things or just getting through, like the time you mentioned that you were really doubting yourself. Aside from getting a huge movie deal or whatever, how do you keep yourself going? How do you encourage people to stay with it?

Sandra: There are a couple parts to that. The first is believe. You have to have faith in what you’re doing and in your project. If you don’t, if you go to your desk every day and say, “Now I’m going to work on my crappy little memoir that nobody’s going to buy. Here goes another useless day,” which plenty of people do — they’re very jaded. We’re in a fiercely competitive time right now. There’s a lot of good writing out there. There are a lot of people submitting work. There are a lot of people writing books and memoirs. Mediocre isn’t going to cut it. You have to believe in that project. If you have a project that you can actually get behind, that you can feel body, heart, and soul, that’s your project. Work on that project. Don’t give up on that project.

I go down to my basement room every day. I do a lot of energy work. I spend a lot of time in the spiritual world. I love the physical world. I love all the wonderful gifts in this lifetime. I also am really fascinated by the things that we can’t see. I’m interested in psychics. I’m interested in spirituality. I’m interested in belief systems. I meditate a lot. Every morning, I go downstairs into my spiritual space. I do fifteen minutes of meditation, at least. Then I put on some upbeat song. I act out exactly what I want to have happen in my day. I have put on “Fantasy” by Earth, Wind & Fire, and I have signed books for imaginary people. I have given talks to auditoriums filled with hundreds of people in my basement room, in my fantasy world. I believe you bring that experience into your life. You pull it out of your imagination. You bring it into your body. You see it. You feel it. You believe it. You can make it happen. Nothing’s going to stop you from making that happen. That’s one thing that I do.

Then I go upstairs, and I work really hard. It’s not enough to believe in your project. It’s not enough to imagine it. It’s not enough to play Earth, Wind & Fire and want it to come to be. You actually have to do the work. That combination of belief and hard work, this is a money-back guarantee, honestly. That will get you where you want to be. It will not always happen the way you want it to happen. It won’t always happen on your time schedule. I actually wanted this to happen four years ago. It didn’t happen four years ago, but it happened at the exact right time. It happened when I had space and empty nester-hood. It happened after my daughter was launched at college. Thank you, universe. You knew better than I did. That’s what I would say to anybody who’s despairing or feels uncertain. Don’t wobble. Keep the faith. Do the work. Watch, magic.

Zibby: That was awesome. That was fantastic. Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for this amazing book that was really, really inspiring and beautiful and well-written. It’s really fantastic. Thank you for all of it.

Sandra: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Zibby: Thanks.

Sandra Miller, TROVE