Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sara. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sara Faith Alterman: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I do know the name of my podcast, I think.

Sara: We’re all scrambling day to day. I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m going to say some crazy stuff. It’s fine.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what your book is about and what inspired you to write it?

Sara: My book is called Let’s Never Talk About This Again. It is about my relationship with my father who was a very strict, vanilla person who did not want us to see anything that was beyond G rated, and then, as it turns out, had a secret career writing sex books, and not like clinical textbooks, but very bawdy, 1970s borderline-porno books. I found those books when I was a little girl. They taught me about sex and all kinds of other stuff. It is about my relationship with my dad and trying to reconcile these two dads that I knew about from a young age. Then when he was in his mid-sixties, he developed Alzheimer’s disease. We had never acknowledged these books at all. Suddenly, we were talking about them all the time. It is about that journey.

Zibby: You do such a good job, by the way, of taking us with you. First, you introduce us to your family so well that I feel like I totally get your dad and you and the whole relationship with the puns and all the rest. Then you see you going and getting your Sesame Street cookbook. By the way, I would really like to see what a Snuffleupagus meatball is, or whatever it was that you were making. It sounds horrific, but I’ll just leave that alone.

Sara: does not look good.

Zibby: You’re finally tall enough to reach the secret stash of books. You talk about it in the book. Then at the end of the chapter, you’re like, and then I never talked about it for twenty-five years. What? How is that possible? Tell me about that.

Sara: My parents had what we called the duck room because my mother had tricked it out with all kinds of duck paraphernalia for no reason. It wasn’t cartoonish. It was tasteful ducks. We had wallpaper that had a mallard pattern on it. We had chairs that were upholstered in very New England-y, dainty duck patterns. Then we had a little phone shaped like a duck. There was no reason. We called it the duck room. We had these built-in bookshelves at the back of the room. They had waist-high, for an adult anyway, cabinets with a counter. Then you could climb up on top of them and look through the books. My brother and I would do that all the time because we kept some of our books there like my Sesame Street cookbook, as you mentioned, and some of my parents’ stuff like their yearbooks from high school and my mom’s novels, my dad’s , just all friendly stuff. I couldn’t reach the top shelf until I was probably eight or nine. One day when I realized I could reach the top shelf, I just was like, everything else is for me, let’s see what’s up here for me.

I found crammed into the corner, this stack of large-format paperbacks. I pulled them out thinking, clearly, this is fine. The first one had a cartoon cat on it that looked a lot like Garfield. I thought, oh, this is comic strips. I opened it up. It was called Games You Can Play with Your Pussy. Being a little girl, yeah, cat book, obviously. I opened it up. It was very clear very quickly that it wasn’t really about cats, but I couldn’t understand what I was missing. Then I kept looking through the stack. I found all these different sex manuals that were, again, not clinical. They were sort of joke-y. They had cartoons, so these big-breasted women sitting in men’s laps and all kinds of panting, sweating people mashed up together. I did not understand what was going on. Then I found some that were more and more risqué. Once I started to see naked real people, I thought, this is something I’m not supposed to be looking at, definitely. They made me uncomfortable but also a little turned on, which is weird. Then I saw my dad’s name as the author on these books. It was this moment where, again, I didn’t quite know what I was looking at, but I knew it was weird. I put the books away.

Then I just was so uncomfortable bringing it up to my father that I never brought it up ever until he was in his sixties. That was partly because — actually, it was entirely because my dad was so G rated. We were not allowed to even watch kissing scenes on TV. If he saw people kissing out in public, he would make a huge scene to push us out of the way or create some sort of distraction by dropping something. It was very cartoonish. I knew, oh, my god, if I tell my dad, one, that I was looking around in stuff that I wasn’t supposed to look at, and two, that had to do with sex or even kissing in any way, I was going to get either in trouble or he was just going to freak out. I just put it aside and never mentioned it. We had that kind of relationship through my whole life. When I told my parents that I was pregnant with my son, I was very uncomfortable telling them because it was acknowledging that I was having sex. Even though I was thirty-four and married, I still was like, oh, god, I have to acknowledge that my husband and I have been putting our parts together in a way that made a baby. That sort of defines our relationship. I could talk about this forever.

Zibby: This is great.

Sara: Ironically, I can talk about this forever.

Zibby: Great. It makes my role here very easy. I just get to hang out and watch.

Sara: You relax. Have coffee.

Zibby: I have a coffee right here. Thank you. I’m just going to settle in.

Sara: Cheers.

Zibby: Cheers. I was surprised at the time that you didn’t tell your brother because it seemed like you guys were pretty close. You kept that aside. Did you debate telling him?

Sara: He was a couple years younger. He is a couple years younger than I am. When I found the books, I was very young. I just didn’t think it was something that he could wrap his head around either. It wasn’t just that I was uncomfortable talking about sex with my parents or kissing with my parents. It was just talking about it in general. Even when I was a teenager and got involved with the guy that I ultimately lost my virginity to and did all the firsts with, I couldn’t articulate to him anything at all besides — this is weird. I learned a lot of my sexy talk from my dad’s book, which is really messed up not only because that’s gross and terrible, but also, these books were written largely in the seventies. I was a teenager in the nineties. A sixteen-year-old girl talking like a porn-y woman in the seventies, it’s a very bizarre, wrong way to talk in general. I just couldn’t talk about sex without feeling uncomfortable in any way, and I think in part because I conflated it with my dad and with his books. I didn’t bring it up to my brother probably for the same reasons I didn’t bring it up to anyone. I just couldn’t say sexy or sexual words without getting super uncomfortable. I still feel that way a little bit, which is funny because I’m in my forties.

Zibby: And you’re talking about a book that has this all over the place. You wrote a whole book about it. It’s coming out now.

Sara: Warts and all. Warts is a weird thing to say when you’re talking about sex. Not warts. All the things. I really struggled and still sort of struggle with talking about sex in a matter-of-fact way. I think that I always kind of joked about it because I was uncomfortable. Actually, that’s a note I got again and again from my editor on this book. She’d be like, “There’s too many puns. I can tell you’re uncomfortable. You’re writing like a fifty-year-old Jewish man. You got to pull back on the Borscht Belt-y stuff about sex a little bit.” I would make innuendo or jokey jokes about penises or whatever. She was like, “We’re all adults. You got to move past it.”

Zibby: Editor as therapist, if you will.

Sara: I feel like they always are. Especially when you’re writing memoir, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable even when it’s really uncomfortable. I would get on the phone with her. Of course, this is about the illness and death of my father. Obviously, for most people it is a really difficult topic. I would get in a zone where I would be writing about some of the harder scenes like when he was ill or when he was dying, which is not a spoiler because I think the second sentence of the whole book says that my father died. Hopefully, no one feels spoiled. I would call her and we would have to talk through the scenes. I would have to really be honest with her and vulnerable in a way that I hadn’t really been with anyone else, even my husband. She would listen. She would, to her credit, be very sympathetic but also give me wonderful advice on how to write about something painful, which I imagine is a really hard position to be in because you’re trying to comfort someone but also critique them and emotionally cradle them through a difficult time but still focus them in a productive direction. I give her a ton of credit. This would’ve been a totally different book without her.

Zibby: What made you start writing memoir and personal essay, all that? When did you start doing all of that?

Sara: I have a background in sketch comedy and also in producing and storytelling shows. One of my jobs is I produce, or one of the producers, on a show called Mortified. It is a live stage show where adults read from their teenage journals to the great embarrassment of themselves and the delight of an audience. I have spent many years performing myself in the show but also working with people to go through their diaries to pull out the funniest and yet also most vulnerable parts to make a story. A lot of people who’ve heard of Mortified think that it’s like an open mic, you just show up and read your diary, but it’s actually really curated. We don’t make anything up, but we want to make sure that what’s coming out of the mouth of a performer is relatable to and funny for an audience. I’ve been doing that show for about twelve years as a producer. I’ve spent over a decade working with people to tell their own stories.

Zibby: You have read all those people’s diaries, essentially?

Sara: Yeah, hundreds of diaries. It’s amazing that people turn their diaries over to me. Again in that sort of same relationship that I have with my editor, Suzanne, it’s a real relationship built on trust and compassion and belief that I’m not going to exploit them in some way. Being on the editorial side of that but also the performer side of that, it just felt natural to start telling my own story because I help other people tell their own stories. Actually, this book came from — obviously, it came from my life, but the idea for the book originally was from my performing at a storytelling show in San Francisco that’s called Bawdy Storytelling, B-A-W-D-Y. That is a sex storytelling show. I, being really uncomfortable talking about sex, especially in public, did not want to do this show, but I know the creator who’s an amazing woman. Her name’s Dixie De La Tour. She was trying to get me on the show for years. After my dad died, I just felt compelled to talk about him and talk his books to try and keep him alive a little bit. I did a show where I told an abridged version of this story. The audience really liked it, not to… They really liked it.

I ended up, from there, crafting a book proposal. I’ve written two other books in my early twenties. I have the same literary agent as I’ve had — she’s been my agent for almost twenty years at this point. I had talked to her about, “Hey, I’m thinking about this germ of a book idea. Here’s the audio of a storytelling show that I did. What do you think?” She was like, “This is the one.” It began as me trying to vomit out my feelings on stage, and then from there over the course of a couple years, I ended up shaping into a book. I feel like I am a talker when it comes to writing. I get asked about my writing process a lot. I don’t know why I’m doing quotes. I get asked about my writing process a lot. For me, it’s really talking out loud. I will monologue alone in a room to get out what is in my head. I work a story out, out loud. Then sometimes I’ll record it, but sometimes not. Only when it feels good coming out of my mouth, that’s when I sit down and actually write it. Taking the story from the stage to the page made a lot of sense to me.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like I’m the exact opposite of you. I can’t even get a coherent sentence out until I write it down first. The idea of, I’m just going to try to randomly talk and maybe that will lead to something I write, I have so much respect for you for being able to do it that way.

Sara: Thank you. As you can probably tell, I am a talker. I can just go and go and go. There’s something about talking out loud that, for me, helps me find the cadence of a sentence. That’s just how it worked out. I don’t know. Anytime I’ve tried to really sit down and focus and write by sitting at the computer, it’s just not successful for me. I have to either talk out loud or handwrite. When I was writing this book, I would take a notebook and go to a coffee shop. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is tech central. I’d go to a coffee shop. There would be everyone on their computers. Some tables would be dudes — it’s always dudes — talking about their startup and how they’re going to get funding. I was just surrounded by technology. I would be writing on my notebook. I got a lot of strange looks because I probably looked like I was writing in a diary or something. That’s how I have to do it. I don’t know. It’s what happened. I’m not sure why.

Zibby: That’s great. Whatever works. It’s art. This is an art form, so you do it however you do it. There’s no right way or wrong way. I read your New York Times article about when you were pregnant with the ice cream and the Mr. Misty or whatever it was. Then you were pregnant as your father was descending rapidly into Alzheimer’s and your belly was expanding out. It was such a powerful visual as both of you expand and contract at the same time. Tell me about that experience and what it was like having to cope with something so traumatic while going through something physically very traumatic in a way too.

Sara: It was traumatic, both things. I talk about this pretty candidly in the book, but I did not want to have children. It’s not as though I had my son against my will. It was just more, it took a lot of convincing. I had my reasons for not wanting kids. My husband had his reasons for wanting kids. It was a big decision that we made. It happened really quickly. I had gone to my OB. I was thirty-four. She had said, “It’s going to take a while. Usually, women in their mid to late thirties, it’s a process. In a year or two when you’re not pregnant, come back to me.” I was like, yeah, I have a year or two. This is great. I got pregnant very quickly. It was upsetting. Some people would probably think that’s a horrible thing to say, but it was upsetting. I wasn’t ready. I was already coping with the emotional trauma of coming to terms with the fact that I was going to be a mom before I was ready and the physical trauma — you have four children, you understand — of your body just taking over and there’s nothing that you can do and this little creature inside of you, this little vampire creature just sucking everything out of you. That was hard.

My father was diagnosed right around the time that I found out that I was pregnant. I was dealing with the trauma of accepting that I was going to be a mom, the trauma of accepting that my father was dying. It was a lot. I was growing this baby as my father was becoming more of a baby, which was profound in a way that I have a hard time articulating. That process was just trying to focus on the good and the beauty of both experiences. I tried really hard to focus on the beauty of growing a child and the beauty of having an expiration date on my relationship with my father and saying all the things that we never said and really treasuring our time together in a way that I don’t think I would have. I always treasure my time with my parents, but it just felt like every moment, every conversation, I really need to be the best that I can because I don’t know how much longer I’m going to have these conversations with my dad.

Zibby: How did your mom and your brother — how did other people in your life respond to this book and even just this piece of your dad coming out?

Sara: My whole family has been on board since the beginning. There are memoirs in the world that are salacious and kind of tell all. I didn’t want to write a salacious book. I also am really uncomfortable writing about someone without having their permission, especially my mom and my brother and my husband. They all gave me their permission ahead of time to even write the book. Then they were really instrumental in helping me recreate — not recreate, but help me remember things that had happened. They all signed off on the book before I submitted it, especially my husband because so much of the book is about our developing relationship. We spent a lot of time talking about, remember when we went on this camping trip together? Remember the lead-up to our wedding? We would work together to make sure that I was remembering things correctly and also representing him in a way that he felt was accurate. I did that with my mom and brother as well. There were a couple things that people were uncomfortable with, and so I just took them out or I changed the way that I talk about them because I wanted everyone to be on board with this book. I don’t think that I could be comfortable with myself if I had written something despite other people’s opinions, despite my family’s opinions. They were happy. My brother is a very — what’s the world I want to find? He is someone who is very stoic and does not really talk about feelings. He was in the military, so I’m sure that’s part of it. I sent him the book. He texted me a thumbs up emoji, and that was it. I guess I have his sign-off. My husband really loved it. My mom was really proud. She feels like it is an homage to my dad. That’s it. What more could I want, honestly?

Zibby: It was one of the Time books of the year. That was awesome.

Sara: Thank you. I was totally floored and grateful, especially because this year so many incredible books came out. You’ve interviewed so many of the authors of the incredible books that came out this year. Plus, what a year. What a garbage year for so many reasons. I felt really grateful for having that exposure or having validation from a publication that I really respect.

Zibby: I wonder sometimes — we all collectively spend so much time bashing 2020, myself included. Can’t wait for 2021. We’ll all remember it. I just wonder, in a decade — obviously, you take some parts of memory with you. Others, you forget, like having a kid, that whole thing. Of course, on a national scale, it’s been horrific. There have been horrific personal things. I just wonder looking back, will people say, wow, that’s actually the year I ended up repairing these relationships with these people and reprioritizing my life? I don’t know. I just wonder. Food for thought.

Sara: I completely agree with you. I sometimes feel a little guilty talking about silver linings that I have found because the year has been so difficult and painful for everybody, but to some people especially to a horrifying degree. I feel so bad for my older son because I’m constantly trying to find silver linings amid his existence, as I mentioned before. I’ve had so much time with him this year that I would not have had. Sometimes it’s awful and stressful and difficult. Sometimes when I’m really getting down about this year, my husband will say, “Listen, Collin –” my oldest — “is going to look back on this and remember he just gets to be with Mom and Dad all the time. He’s going to be happy. I’ve really hung onto that and hung onto getting to know him and my youngest who’s almost two, being around for him in a way that I was not around for my older one when he was the same age. I’ve been trying to hold onto that. Collin, my oldest, is also really asthmatic. Whenever he gets what would to other kids be a little cold, it’s always emergency level. He’s never had a little cold. It’s always a horrible respiratory infection that lands us in the hospital. He has not been sick since February. It’s the longest he has not been sick in his entire life. For me, COVID is extra scary because I have a little kid that is high risk. He hasn’t had anything. It’s been incredible. For me, those are the silver linings that I try to really hang onto. Being a mom, even though I was so reluctant to become one, has become a huge part of my identity. The thing that I am the proudest of is my relationship with my kids and that they seem to be turning out to not be sociopaths. I hope to look back on 2020 and remember the good that came out of it for my family.

Zibby: Might as well. You referenced earlier when we were chatting that you have one writing project that you’re working on. Otherwise, your stuff is sort of on hold. Can you talk at all about that writing project, or not really?

Sara: A little bit. I have been working on adapting my book for television for a couple years. I sold the option for the book at the same time as selling the book itself. I actually wrote a TV pilot and a book at the same time and was also pregnant with my youngest son. It was a very intense time. I can’t talk too much about it. The book is in development for television. That’s been a ride. It’s been wild. I’ve been focusing all of my energy lately on that.

Zibby: That’s really exciting. That’s great.

Sara: Thank you. I’m excited. I also have started very tentatively to put together an outline for another book which I think is also going to be memoir about a time in my life that was bonkers. Right after undergrad, I moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which is a spring break destination.

Zibby: I was there for my graduation my whole college class. Anyway, go ahead.

Sara: So you’ll understand why to me it’s funny anyway that I moved to Myrtle Beach in an effort to really find myself and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Other people were going there to just get wasted and party. The book right now, the germ of an idea is a memoir about the search for finding yourself or the effort to find yourself in a place where people go to lose themselves. I have wild stories. It’ll be personal and vulnerable, maybe not to the same degree that this book is. It was just a wild time in my life, but a different wildness than Myrtle Beach is for other people.

Zibby: It’s like going on a yoga retreat to Daytona Beach or something. It’s something that’s so not what you imagine when you think of a place. That’s great. I love it. That’s awesome.

Sara: It was crazy. That’s what I’m doing, and just mom-ing.

Zibby: I really love the way you write. Obviously, I can tell now you write the way you speak, which is even better, which I guess means I like the way you think in general, which sounds weird to say to somebody else. I feel like you could write a book about anything. You’re just describing your point of view of experiences. I’m sure you’ll have lots more books coming out of you over the years. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Sara: Yes. Two pieces of advices. The first piece is don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, which I know I’ve talked about a lot already in this conversation. For me, it was a huge revelation to just lean into pieces of my life or pieces of my story that I didn’t want to write about. I ultimately realized those are the pieces that are the most interesting or at least the most compelling. Don’t back off of an idea or of a sentence or a story just because it makes you feel uncomfortable. Often, I think that’s where the best stuff comes from. Also, don’t be afraid to suck. I have gotten in my own way so many times just ripping a page out or deleting a bunch of stuff because I thought, oh, this is garbage. Then I get up and walk away. Because I would reread something that I wrote first draft and think, this is a piece of — I’m not going to swear. This is a garbage sentence. I’m done. If I had just continued to erase things rather than put them out in the world, I don’t think the book would be where it is. What am I saying? Don’t be afraid to suck because your first draft, two drafts, five drafts are going to suck, but they are part of the process of getting to the draft that is good. I wrote this book — I keep looking at it. That’s why I’m looking down.

Zibby: Hold it up. Let me see it again. It’s great.

Sara: Oh, my god, there’s squirrels on my roof. Maybe you can hear them. I probably wrote three full drafts of this book. The first draft was a totally different book. It felt different. There were different stories, the same characters, but a few extras. It was very dark and morose in a way that didn’t feel good, but just felt like, this is what’s coming out right now. It was awful. My editor was incredible at being shiny about her critique that it was terrible. I put this in the acknowledgements, but I made a lot of jokes about murder and death and trying to be funny, ha ha. She was like, “This is not good.” Then the next draft wasn’t great either, but they were steppingstones to getting to what the book is now. If I hadn’t accepted my sucky-ness, I don’t think that I would’ve been able to polish stuff into the final version. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to suck. Both of things will lead to greatness.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you. Thanks, Sara. This was such a fun conversation. Now I have to go back and watch your show and the stockpile from all your productions and everything. I’m really glad we connected.

Sara: Me too. Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Good luck with everything. Bye.