Scarlett Thomas, 41-LOVE

Scarlett Thomas, 41-LOVE

Novelist Scarlett Thomas joins Zibby to discuss her debut memoir, 41-Love, about how she tried to play tennis competitively to put off her need to grow up. The two talk about their shared love for the game, how Scarlett wove a number of other sports stories into her own, and what happened in her life after quitting tennis that shaped the trajectory of the book. Scarlett also shares her fears about releasing such a deeply personal story into the world and whether or not she’d go through this experience again.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Scarlett. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss 41-Love: On Addictions, Tennis, and Refusing to Grow Up.

Scarlett Thomas: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: I have to tell you I wrote a book that I did not sell as such, but it was called 40-Love because I fell in love again at forty. I told everybody I knew for a long time, including many authors on my show, that I was writing this memoir called 40-Love about falling in love again at forty. I ended up ultimately selling a book and calling it Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature. At first, it was 40-Love. Then 40-Love was a section of my book. Anyway, I could not believe it when I saw this.

Scarlett: That is so amazing.

Zibby: It’s going to be getting a lot of attention. People are like, already, did you know there’s a book coming out called 41-Love? I was like, yes, I know.

Scarlett: It almost wasn’t called that.

Zibby: Oh, really? What was it called?

Scarlett: God, it was called loads of things. In my head, it’s still called The Tennis Book. That’s how I talk about it all the time. I love the whole 40-Love, 41-Love. As you know, it’s a great title because you had it first.

Zibby: Like you, I had — except you actually lived out this idea. I basically took up tennis again and played in tournaments and whatever when I was forty. Now I’m forty-five. I said to my husband one day when we were watching Wimbledon or something, I was like, “Do you think I could join the older women? Could I train for this?” He kind of laughed. First of all, I’m not that good. Second of all, he’s like, “Do you have any idea what it would take to get to that level at this age? You’d have to have trainers and all this stuff and hours of competition. You can barely get to school pickup.” I’m like, “Okay, fine.” Now that I’ve gone on about me, discuss this book. This is slightly different than my book, which was more of a — anyway, talk about your book and how this book came to be, this tennis book of yours.

Scarlett: I basically had the same thought that you had that time except that, unfortunately, your husband wasn’t there to tell me that this is a bad idea. Moms don’t have time to play tennis. Although, I’m not even a mom. I still don’t have time to do any of this stuff. I think I’m going to blame maybe Leanne Shapton and her book Swimming Studies. I don’t know if you ever read that. I was reading that on holiday a few years before. There was just a line in that about age group competition. I thought, what is that? Is that a thing? I never really did competitive sports as a kid. I did a bit of tennis. I didn’t really go in competitions and win trophies and all of that. When it dawned on me that, as an older woman, I could enter a competition, then I did. I entered this little Christmas tournament in my local tennis club just six months after retaking up tennis when I was forty then. I won this tournament against all the odds. It wasn’t because I was brilliant. It wasn’t like a scene from Rocky. I don’t know what happened. The thrill was so great. I just wanted to win another trophy. Spoiler alert — can I give a spoiler? I don’t really win for the rest of the book. I was just so like, how did this allude me as a child? Winning is so great. Why did my parents not push me into every competition and make a crazed gymnast? I played on the lacrosse team at school for a short while.

Zibby: Me too.

Scarlett: Oh, wow. We have the same life.

Zibby: I know, right? This is crazy.

Scarlett: What position did you play?

Zibby: Third home. I was on defense.

Scarlett: I think I liked left wing.

Zibby: I was right in the middle.

Scarlett: I was running up and down the side.

Zibby: That’s funny. There is something intoxicating about winning, especially at our age where you can’t win anything. It’s over.

Scarlett: So cheerful already. Yeah, it’s a shock, isn’t it? First of all, I didn’t think I was going to get older. I definitely thought that wasn’t going to happen. Then I just didn’t think any of the stuff that happens to everybody else was going to happen to me. Did you feel like that?

Zibby: I don’t know. I don’t know what I thought. I had so many big question marks for later in life. I certainly didn’t think anything good was going to happen.

Scarlett: I did at first. I don’t anymore, but I did back when I started my tennis adventure. I was just like, I’m going to win another trophy. It’s going to be so great being in these tournaments with women over forty. Obviously, I’m going to beat all of them, because in my head, I’m still twenty or something. I won a couple of matches, but it was very hard.

Zibby: I played in this tournament that summer that I was getting more competitive. I had this one epic match. It was before my husband and I were even dating. We were close to dating, but he was still my tennis coach. I was calling him the whole time on the sidelines, texting him. “Now she did this. Now this is the score.” He’s like, “Don’t give up. You got this.” It was this whole thing. She had brought five people to watch her. I had brought no one. I’m like, are you kidding? It didn’t even occur to me to bring anybody to watch. They were all so competitive. I was like, oh, my gosh, this is terrible. I lost. It was crushing. It was a crushing loss. At least you got the trophy.

Scarlett: It’s horrible, isn’t it? There’s something about tennis that is so psychologically draining and intense. You’re facing this one person. I’m so not like that in life. I’m not going to say I’m not competitive because I guess I am, but I definitely don’t like conflict. I wouldn’t have an argument with a person. Yet I was happy to go out and whack these tennis balls at them and try all these tactics to win, The Inner Game of Tennis and Win Ugly, everything.

Zibby: I love how you wove in so many books. I had not read Brad Gilbert’s book. I’ve read some. I read Open by Andre Agassi, but that’s not advice.

Scarlett: Amazing, though, right? Such a great book.

Zibby: That’s one of my top picks of all time. Amazing.

Scarlett: A hundred percent.

Zibby: In fact, he was the second person ever to come on my podcast. I know, isn’t that crazy?

Scarlett: Oh, man.

Zibby: He’s amazing. I loved how you kept bringing in different books. I was thinking to myself, oh, gosh, I thought I was getting serious for like two minutes. It never occurred to me to buy books on it. Maybe now I should buy books on it. Certainly, when you’re playing tennis, it’s all I think about. All those things you kept reminding yourself — even, I had the same situation with a coach who was like, you play tennis like you’re from the eighties. This is not how people hit forehands anymore. I’m like, what do you mean? Literally, I was so offended out there in my yoga pants in the dead of winter in this indoor court swinging my heart out, and being like, that’s not how we teach. That’s not how people play. I’m like, okay, well, great.

Scarlett: After that, did you think, right, I’m going to get a whole new outfit? Screw the yoga pants. I’m going to get you a stupid forehand that you want. I’m going to die to get that. I had the same experience as you. It was like a horrible addiction. I could not live without that forehand that they all had. I had to have the latest tennis skirt.

Zibby: Yep, I invested in a whole new line of tennis clothing, tennis sneakers, tennis racket. It’s so funny. I thought it would all help. Then I started thinking about it more and more, as you do. You become consumed. It’s so nice to have something where you can see the results. This is why I don’t really like golf. In tennis, you can always turn it around. Then I’m like, oh, I’m not keeping my head down and looking at the ball enough. Now if I fix that, I can win the next three games or something. In golf, it does not — do you play golf?

Scarlett: No. I can’t really take up anything new because obviously, I have an issue. I can only take up things I’m quite bad at. Since the tennis book, I’ve got quite into ballet and tap. Then I started becoming slightly good at ballet even though I’ve got no flexibility, so I gave that up. Now I cycle. I just think I’d get so addicted to golf. Is it very addictive?

Zibby: It’s not for me. There’s too much of a mind game for me. I psyche myself out. You can’t recover the way you can in tennis. Once your score is high enough, forget it.

Scarlett: I feel like in tennis the dream is, it’s match point to the other person, and then you play your blistering forehand. It’s beautiful. Then they feel so crushed and mortified that you played such a beautiful shot that they then lose the next three shots. Suddenly, you’ve got a game. Then you’ve got the momentum. They can’t come back. I don’t know about you, but I would constantly have a commentary in my head, all this talk going on, and imagining ringing my partner, ringing my tennis coach, telling all my friends. Not that anyone would care. Then of course, you don’t win the point, and you just lose. It’s hard to handle, isn’t it, losing, especially when you win so much professionally and in life and feel like if you try hard enough at something you can’t possibly fail? All of it kind of came under the spotlight for me in this book.

Zibby: It’s so true. I thought it was so funny in the beginning, by the way, when you were holding up your trophy. You were all flushed and everything. You showed your colleague or your boss or whoever it was. They were like, who’s that? Why are you showing me that? You’re like, that’s me. They’re like, no, it’s not. They said something really rude to you. It was hilarious.

Scarlett: It was my ex-literary agent. He, sadly, died, which is a whole other story. He was such a big personality, such a crazy guy. What he actually said — I think he meant it nicely. He said, “But your face is so fat in that photo.” I was like, “I’ve got my hair up and I’m playing sport. Don’t you think I look cool?” I had my best Stella McCartney white jacket on and nice nail varnish. He said, “Where are your cheekbones?” It was just pre-Me Too. It was a bit of a dip in the patriarchy there.

Zibby: A dip in the patriarchy, oh, my gosh, that’s hilarious. I thought it was so funny in the book how you showed us when you got the idea to make it into a book and then how you had to keep justifying it to yourself and telling other people that you think it’s going to be a book. Then you’re like, now here we are reading this book, so I guess it became a book.

Scarlett: I feel like there’s two voices in the book, actually. One is slightly unhinged. That’s the voice of me when I’m in that year and in my hotel room writing up the notes with my gin and tonic or my pudding or whatever. God, I remember it was such a hot night. I was lying in this hotel room with all these insects on the ceiling. I was reading the Andre Agassi book. It was so amazing. It was so dark in the book. I was having such an intense, dark experience. I’d get out my iPhone and write a load of notes. There’s this quite unhinged, crazed voice. Then there’s a voice of me later trying to put some of the pieces together. The whole “I’m writing a book” thing was part of the more unhinged voice. Definitely, before I did this project, I just had this idea that if you said, I’m going to do this thing for a year and write a book about it, that you were somehow magically protected from that going wrong or that you were in a kind of bubble of book and therefore, not only could you do anything and put it all on expenses, go in stay and hotels and have spas and massages and buy tennis rackets and stuff, but that all of those projects, they always go right, don’t they? Then mine didn’t because I tried too hard and had a nervous breakdown.

Zibby: I shouldn’t laugh.

Scarlett: No. The part of the book — I think this works for some people and perhaps not others. We’ll see. I tried to just take a really honest and slightly darkly funny approach to what is, in a way, quite a sad story of trying to do something and failing, really. Now there’s quite a lot of stuff out there about failure, and failure podcasts and so on. This was quite a spectacular one. I had no idea of all the stupid mistakes I was making. I didn’t know that you couldn’t just train for eight hours a day. I didn’t think that might have a bad effect or that all the constant pressure to win — I became my own tennis parent, in a way. I didn’t think that would have a psychological impact until I completely crashed at the end of the year.

Zibby: Wow. If you had to do it again, would you still go through it all?

Scarlett: That’s such an interesting question. I think for everything else in my life, I’d say, yeah, sure, no regrets. This, I don’t know. See, I’ve lost things. I can’t play tennis anymore. Alas. You know when you kind of hit rock bottom of your energy but then you can dig deeper and find more? I don’t have that anymore. I’ve got the bottom, and then I don’t have the dig deeper part. It’s like I broke something a little bit. I used to always think, I can walk another five miles if I have to. I can work for another three hours if I have to. Now I have more limits than I used to. That’s taken a bit getting used to. No, I wouldn’t do it again. I’d do it differently and win and be fine.

Zibby: No, seriously, though, do you think winning would have made it all better?

Scarlett: No, it would’ve made it worse, I think. Structurally, it was kind of like any other sort of addiction where if I had won a local tournament, I would’ve needed to win the next grade up. I don’t think I could ever have got where I needed or wanted to get. I was never going to win. Some of the people I was encountering on the senior circuit once I really got into that, they’d been professional players in the past. They’d played for their countries. They’d played in big tournaments when they were younger. I hadn’t done any of that. I guess maybe my life was complicated at the time I was writing this book. I was encountering my parents getting ill for the first time and complications professionally and in my career as a novelist. It just felt like such a simple and glorious thing, winning, something that never occurred to me before. You could win a tournament and it would be amazing. You’d get that lovely warm glow and go and have your dinner and drink a glass of wine and think, I’m a champion. That happened to me once, and I just wanted it again.

Zibby: I’m sorry you didn’t have it again. Elusive thrill of success. Hopefully, the fact that it’s now a book has made you feel a little better, maybe. Yes? No?

Scarlett: Yeah, I think so, absolutely. It looks great. I’m just starting to get some feedback. I’m nervous about it. I’m probably more nervous about it than I’ve been about any of my novels, any of my other books because it’s the first time I’ve put myself out there in a memoir. If people don’t like it, do they not like me? That’s okay, but it isn’t. The tone of the book is quite dark in places, and honest, like I’ve said. I think it’s funny. We kind of think it’s funny, but not everyone’s going to think it’s funny. Not everyone’s going to like tennis enough. It’s quite detailed on the tennis.

Zibby: It is detailed on the tennis. I liked that. I liked that because you don’t often see that, particularly from women, about tennis, unless you’re Serena or something. I really enjoy tennis. It wasn’t too detailed. There’s a book — have you read? — by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. It’s called The Circuit.

Scarlett: No, I haven’t, actually.

Zibby: That came out — I had him on my podcast maybe two years or something. It’s very literary. It’s his year of following the men’s circuit. He goes to all the events on the tour and writes in detail about every match and who’s his favorite. I can’t even remember who my favorite tennis guy was at the time. Oh, I was in a del Potro phase or something. He was really liking Nadal or something. That was very much match by match. You felt like you were almost watching. You definitely have to focus when you’re reading about tennis to get it and make sure you keep it all in your head, but I like that. I like that challenge. Not a challenge. It’s not hard to — I’m making this sound bad. I like following a match by reading about it. I think it’s interesting. I thought you did a good job doing it. I don’t think you have to love tennis to — I like reading all books about sports. I’ll read a football book as long as there’s a story behind it. It’s really the story that’s the important part.

Scarlett: I love all those books about running, Running with the Kenyans. In those books as well, there’s a level of detail about what kind of shoes. What’s the barefoot running book called?

Zibby: Oh, yeah. I’m not going to remember, but yes, I know what you mean.

Scarlett: I’ve got it downstairs. All the intricate detail about running shoes and how they’re made and how cushioned they are and whether you run on your midfoot or forefoot running, all of that level of detail, I love even if I don’t do the thing. I do try and run, but I’m a really bad runner. I guess I thought other people would want that level of detail too. It’s quite nerdy and real, but you can skip those parts.

Zibby: No, you don’t have to skip them. There are so many people who were college athletes, high school athletes, always did something growing up. There’s not a huge role for sports in middle-age even if you used to be good at something. As I said, I’m sure you’re far better than me. There’s something that people miss about that. When you’re training for so long or you’re practicing, you don’t realize that you get older and then, when are you supposed to do this again except if you’re at a country club tennis circuit or something? In LA where we visit quite often, there’s this live ball craze going on. Now it’s moving more to pickleball or something, but where grown-ups get together and they’re ranked by skill level. There’s six people. You have to weave in and out. Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you do that?

Scarlett: No, but it sounds cool. I read about pickleball somewhere. I’ve got no idea what it is, but it sounded great.

Zibby: Pickleball, I’ve only tried once. Live ball was great because you don’t even think about it. It’s like drills. I’m going on and on. I’m so sorry. This is such a ramble for me because I’m so interested in your topic. Normally, I can just talk about the book itself and the writing. I should ask questions like that. How long did it take for you to write this book?

Scarlett: Ages, actually. I took all the notes when I was doing it, which was mainly in 2014. Then I have my weird nervous breakdown, so 2015 was a super weird year for me. I tried to finish the book. Then I had to put it to one side. Then I would pick it up and go, oh, this book about my mad year, it’s actually quite good. I’ll just add a little bit. Oh, no, it’s too painful. Put it away again. It actually took a few years for it to come together. It wasn’t like any other writing experience I’ve ever had where I would sit down to write a novel. Depending on the length of the project and my goals, it would be done in two years or five years or three months. This was one I went in and out of.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Scarlett: Now I am working mainly on TV shows. I’ve got a couple of shows in development. They’re original projects. I have got a novel going in the background, which is called Starkiss. It’s about two teenage girls and their friendship. One of them’s just woken up from a three-month coma to find that her siblings have been livestreaming her coma on YouTube. She’s kind of become famous while she was asleep. That’s really fun to work on.

Zibby: That’s a great concept. I love that. That’ll be great. Amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists, or authors, rather? Or artists, I guess, whatever.

Scarlett: Don’t give up, obviously. I think the main one is about being authentic and finding your voice. Whatever your project is, if you find the voice and the tone and the mood for it and then you kind of let that voice be free, I think that’s the main thing. I’ve been teaching creative writing now for — I feel old — more than twenty years. I think that’s what it comes down to in the end. All the other stuff, you can learn. It’s about, who’s the person that’s just sat you down by the campfire and is telling you this story? How do they do that? How do they sound? Are they funny? Are they irreverent? Are they serious? Then just to channel that voice from within you. That’s my advice.

Zibby: I would add that not liking the memoir does not mean that people don’t like you. I know you said you were worried about that. That’s not what it means. First of all, I think people will like the memoir and they will also like you, but the two do not necessarily go hand in hand. This is just a product. This is one little sliver. Even though you reveal all this stuff, people don’t evaluate it in the way that they evaluate a person. I would put all that aside. I’m sure you know this logically. They will still like you no matter how you write.

Scarlett: I think I hadn’t thought that bit through enough. I don’t know. Thank you. That makes it a bit better.

Zibby: Keep me posted. Let me know how it goes.

Scarlett: I certainly will.

Zibby: I had this idea. I wanted to do an author tennis invitational. I wanted to go down to Charleston or something and invite all these authors to come play in a tennis tournament. If I do that, maybe you could be a, if you still don’t want to play, referee or something.

Scarlett: Maybe I’ll go back into training. That sounds like so much fun.

Zibby: Right? Wouldn’t that be fun?

Scarlett: Yeah, it would. I must admit, every day — well, I don’t go out on my bike every day, but every time I cycle past the lovely tennis club in the town where I live with all the beautiful lawn, grass courts, I think, maybe next year I’ll be ready to go back. I do still love it. Maybe I’ll just play for an hour and then go home. That could be fine. Who knows?

Zibby: Now I’m going to trigger some sort of relapse for you.

Scarlett: That’s fine.

Zibby: It’ll take me at least a year to organize it, so no worries.

Scarlett: I’ll start training slowly.

Zibby: No training. No training allowed.

Scarlett: Okay, no training.

Zibby: No training allowed. No. It was so great to meet you, Scarlett. Congratulations on your book.

Scarlett: Lovely to meet you. Take care. Bye.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Scarlett Thomas, 41-LOVE

41-LOVE by Scarlett Thomas

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