Zibby Owens: I had the best time talking to Sophie Heawood, spelled H-E-A-W-O-O-D, who wrote a hilarious and also moving memoir called The Hungover Games about single motherhood. Sophie grew up in Yorkshire where she developed an early understanding of celebrity as the only vegetarian in the local state school. She wrote earnest letters to the South African ambassador about apartheid at age ten. She later studied languages at King’s College and Birkbeck, both part of London University, while working nights as the door girl in the legendary nightclub called Trash. She has also lived in Barcelona working as an au pair, in Hong Kong working as an extra in Chinese soap operas, and in Los Angeles where she interviewed the famous and wrote columns on modern life for publications including The Sunday Times, Guardian, Observer, Vogue, and Vice magazine. She was nominated for Interviewer of the Year at the British Press Awards, 2019. She lives Hackney, East London, with her daughter and hasn’t quite stopped nightclubbing yet.

Welcome, Sophie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Hungover Games. So excited to have you on.

Sophie Heawood: Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled.

Zibby: Your book was so funny literally from the opening paragraph through to the end. Of course, there’s heart and soul and all the rest. You’re just so funny. It’s so great to read something that makes me laugh out loud, especially these days. Thank you for that.

Sophie: Thank you. I had a writer friend around to have a socially distanced drink in my garden last night. He’s called Joel Golby. We were sat there, maybe we’re not funny. Maybe we’ve been thinking we’re funny all this time. We’re getting to that stage of going, what is funny? Are we funny, though? It’s reassuring to hear.

Zibby: Yes, I think you’re funny. I really do. If I could just read a couple clips. This is from the very beginning. Then I’ll read one more from the end. You said, “It had all happened by accident. I hadn’t meant to have a baby at all. I hadn’t meant not to have a baby either, by which I mean I always thought I’d have children one day. It’s just that I always thought those children would grow up with me and they’re yet-to-materialize father in a lovely farmhouse hugged by the hills with an Aga and a dog and storybooks and trees and long, invigorating walks through the fields in loving drizzle. That was not how I had grown up in Yorkshire, but it wasn’t a million miles from it either. Several hundred thousand, at a push. It was an idealized version of home, and it lived somewhere vaguely in my future as an unspecified certainty.” Then you go into talking about how you’re living in West Hollywood and the Sunset Strip and you think you’re not going to get pregnant because of everything that happens and then lo and behold, you do and what ensues after that. That wasn’t really a question. That was just an introduction.

Sophie: It was a big shock. I’d been told by some very expensive doctors, only because I happened to live near Cedars-Sinai hospital and I had got taken there with an emergency, which was something else, and whilst there they said, “We’ve done all these tests on you. You’re infertile.” It was such a shock. To get pregnant a week after that was also a shock.

Zibby: Unbelievable. I feel like infertility is — I don’t know. It’s not a science. It’s not an exact science yet.

Sophie: I eventually had to start going for my maternity checkups. She said, “You know, I’ve had a hundred women come in here with stories like this this year.” It is the least understood science. I do wonder if that’s because it affects women’s bodies. There are various studies that suggest that science has paid more attention to male bodies.

Zibby: I don’t know. Yes. I’m not even going to go into some of my theories here. It’s not even worth it. By the way, I lived right where you lived in West Hollywood for several years. I still spend a lot of time in LA. Right after I graduated from college, I lived in four different apartments because of my various breakups and what have you all within a minute from Chateau Marmont right on the Sunset Strip over there. Everything you wrote, I was like, oh, my gosh.

Sophie: I’ve had those tacos.

Zibby: Exactly. So you lived in LA. Tell me a little more about how life unfolded. You were a journalist. Then you moved to Hollywood to try to pursue more entertainment journalism and got all these bigshot interviews and stuff. Then you moved back to have your baby. Tell me the precursor to everything.

Sophie: I’m British. I was a journalist in London. I was writing for newspapers like The Guardian and The Sunday Times and women’s magazines like Elle and Vogue. I would interview musicians. Initially, I was music/rock journalist. Then from that, because I got good at interviewing in general, you can go and interview an actress, a film director, even a politician, a writer, anybody. I went on a few press trips to LA that were paid for by work. I discovered this city that I thought I would hate. I thought LA was all fake smiles and boob jobs and shallowness and people who don’t read books and apolitical-ness. Of course, you find pockets of that, but it’s like suggesting that London is all the Queen and Buckingham Palace. That’s just one tiny part of London life. That kind of Hollywood myth is just one tiny part of Los Angeles. I went to LA and started making all these friends there who were really interesting. They were readers and writers. Some of them were high school teachers and poets. They worked with homeless children. They were doing all sorts of interesting stuff that makes up a whole city.

Of course, there were people in the film industry as well. I was interviewing celebrities, so I got to see all the glamorous stuff which I did feed off and love, I have to say. I decided to base myself there. Lots of British newspapers were ringing me up saying, “We need somebody in LA. J Lo’s in town. She’s promoting some new music. Can you go and hang out in a hotel with J Lo for the afternoon?” It was always really fun stuff like that. I was also approaching my mid-thirties. I hadn’t even had the sort of relationship where you move in with a guy and think maybe we’ll get married. I hadn’t even got that far. I was very running around and giddy and not committing to things and drinking quite a lot at parties. I just thought I had the rest of my life to sort that stuff out. There are limits. You do have to kind of work out how to have relationships and how to build that commitment and have a family if you want to do it that way. What happened was I was completely giddy and chaotic, then found out I couldn’t have children, then had unprotected sex with someone I’d known for a long time but in a casual hookup way, and then I was somebody’s mom by the end of the year.

Zibby: It’s so crazy.

Sophie: I then had to learn to settle down. That’s an awful dreary phase. The first person I ever learned to settle down or commit to was my own child. I suppose the book is the story of what happens. Everyone talks about growing up and calming down and settling down and then doing the kid thing. I had the kid and then had to work out, how the hell do I do the rest of it? Do I need to? What is calming down? Do you have to settle down? Why does a mother who has a child have to stop going to parties or stop going on dates? Can you commit to your child but also have that exciting private life? I think my book is an exploration of how that went.

Zibby: What is your takeaway on that? We were just talking. Now your daughter is eight. Can you still have fun and go to parties and have dating life and all the rest? Have you been able to? What do you think? Is it mutually exclusive?

Sophie: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. Partly, why I wrote this book was because in my life whenever I come into a difficult situation, you have a fight with a friend that really upsets you or some work situation that you’re not sure of, I always rack my brains, have I read a newspaper column about someone who went through this? Have I had a good friend who went through the same kind of problem with her family? I kind of rack my brains for advice. I remember going on a date when I was still breastfeeding my daughter, he had to pick me up from my house, and realizing he was going to see me breastfeed. This is in the book. I suddenly had this dilemma thinking, I’m quite a public breastfeeder, but this man hasn’t seen my boobs yet. I don’t want to go there on the first date. We haven’t kissed. Should he first see that part of when someone else has got their — I was racking my brains thinking, someone must — no, I’ve got nothing in my database about should you breastfeed on a first date? That was when I first started writing. I’ve got to write this book because no one else is going to tell you.

Zibby: That’s so great.

Sophie: I don’t think you can have it all. I don’t think you should follow that particular turn of phrase, but I think you can have some of it. I don’t think you can have it all, the dating and the partying and the motherhood and be drunk. I think you maybe have to get rid of the last bit.

Zibby: Or maybe not during the day.

Sophie: Certainly not during the day.

Zibby: I am divorced and remarried. When I was going through getting to my second marriage, my kids were really little. They’re still little, to be honest. I remember trying to balance all that and taking my toddler with me to get a bikini wax because I was about to see — . She’s pounding on the door of the spa. I’m like, I am such a bad mom right now. I need to do this because — anyway, being a mom and dating and trying to make it all work, it is hard. I totally related to some of the stuff in your book, although from a different angle.

Sophie: That is so funny. My daughter has also come to a bikini wax with me. It’s really funny. I’d actually forgotten that, but she did.

Zibby: Not to say that you have to be dating to get — I’m sure other women are getting bikini waxes. It’s the matter of course.

Sophie: I rarely do those things, but sometimes. I remember we were once on holiday. I was going to put this in my book. You can only put so many stories in. We went on holiday to a Greek island once. It was just me and her having a lovely romantic honeymoon-type holiday for me and a five-year-old. There was a guy at the next restaurant table who was obviously a young, French backpacker, not totally young, probably late twenties. He’d obviously come to the island on his own. He was smoking a French cigarette and looking beautifully out at the ocean on the Greek island. I thought, I’d love to talk to him. I said to my daughter who was drawing pictures of her teddy bear in her sketch pad. “ that man on the next table if he’d like to draw teddy as well in your sketch pad.” She doddled over and said, “We’re having a drawing –” I said, “Tell him it’s a competition. He’s got to enter the competition.” She said, “Would you like to draw my teddy bear on your drawing pad?” He said, “Oh, yes, I would.” Then he was like, “Would your mother like a glass of wine?” I was like, hell yeah. You can use your child .

Zibby: Yes, use them as bait.

Sophie: He joined our table drinking wine together. You’ve got to not think, oh, god, I wish I could talk to that guy, but my kid’s here drawing a picture of a teddy bear. You’ve got to use it.

Zibby: So somewhere between breastfeeding on the first date and teddy bear drawings is the answer to making it all work.

Sophie: Yeah. It took me like five years to get my mojo between the two.

Zibby: You also had some really funny commentary on how parenting has changed over time. When you went back and compared your being raised and your kid, you said, “You weren’t really allowed to compliment your children when I grew up. I remember once asking my mother if I was pretty. She wasn’t really listening, so she said yes. Then she looked up from the Radio Times and actually contemplated my face. ‘Well,’ she began again. Yet somehow between my childhood and my daughter’s childhood, the parents of Britain have become insufferable bores, constantly praising their children and telling everyone else how wonderful they are, bigging up their own slavish devotion to parenting methods which are, naturally, superior to yours. Sometimes it is as humblebragging, which is a boast dressed up as self-deprecation, something which seems particularly popular among new parents.” Tell me more about that.

Sophie: You know what it’s like? Sometimes you have these vivid childhood memories that have sort of gently scarred you for twenty years. You go back and ask your family. They’re like, “That never happened. That never happened. We never even went to that place.” You’re like, I’ve remembered it for my whole life. I said to my mom thinking she’d be like, “Oh, for god sake’s, Sophie,” I said, “Do you remember me asking you if I was pretty and you sort of going, well…?” In fact, there was more to it. After the well, she said, “Not chocolate box pretty.” As a child, I didn’t know what that meant, but you can tell. I said to her the other day, “Do you think you said that to me?” She said, “Yeah, sounds quite possible.” Okay, that’s going in. You’re not denying it. That’s going in my book. I think I was a perfectly reasonable looking child. I didn’t have any issues with my face. It was fairly symmetrical. I think I looked perfectly nice. I think what she was possibly trying to say as a very realistic woman was like, you’re fine, but you’re going to need something else. Don’t get hung up on your face. That’s what she was saying. I have to say, she was right. We do live in the world we live in. I think I did at that point think, I’ve never been hung up on beauty or looks particularly. Even though I’m still annoyed she said it, I kind of get where she was coming from.

Zibby: Love it.

Sophie: The rest of your question is about parenting methods. I who’ve been so praised that they struggle to try new things in which they might fail. You say to them, “Do you want to have a go on this?” Someone’s got a toy bow and arrow or something. They don’t know how to fire it and they’re going to do it wrong, so they kind of can’t do it because they’ve been told they’re a genius since birth. It’s a balance, isn’t it? It’s a balance. It’s hard.

Zibby: Totally. Sometimes I just tell my kids they’re all insane. Then they laugh and run off. That works too. When did you decide you were going to turn your life into a book?

Sophie: I was already a published writer in that I was a journalist doing quite a lot of work. Through that, I met people in publishing and agents. It’s funny. You write a book about being a single mom and sometimes people imagine that means you’ve been sort of hidden away from society and you’re not able to take part in things. I was in the media already. I think a literary agent had come to me when she was still a baby and said, “Are you going to write about this?” At that stage I was like, “No, no it’s too personal. It’s too much. Also, I can’t tell you about being a mother. I’m still finding my feet.” Then I said to him, “There was this one funny thing, though.” There was this thing where when I was pregnant, I went to see this gynecologist in LA. This is in the early chapters of the book where she says, “Do you have any questions about the pregnancy?” I say, “There’s just one. Is it safe to use a vibrator?” This led to a funny incident in her office. I told this literary agent the story. He said, “Keep talking because I can get you a book deal this afternoon if you start writing like that.” I thought, oh, god. But I didn’t. I didn’t get the book deal. I didn’t take his advice.

I didn’t do anything for about another three years because it just felt — that’s a funny personal story which is a bit embarrassing, but not hugely. It’s just kind of . It’s almost slapstick. To do justice to my experience of having a child with someone who was shocked — we were both shocked by my pregnancy, but our reactions went in completely different directions. I ended up raising her on my own. To do justice to that story, I would have to slightly tread into his life and his feelings. That’s a hard thing to do when there’s been conflict. It just took me years to find a way to do justice. I didn’t want to whitewash the story. I didn’t want to say, hey, it’s fun, I was left on my own. That’s cool. That’s the way I wanted it. You don’t need a man. All you need is a mother and a child. I didn’t want to cheerlead this false narrative of everything’s great. I also couldn’t write too much about other people’s fears and other people’s lives. You know that your child is going to read this book. I assume she will. Maybe she won’t. I would if it was me. It took a long time. I wanted to be truthful. I have been truthful in the book. I had to find a way to do that. She’s now eight. It roughly covers my life a bit before I got pregnant to her starting to go to school. Maybe she’s about four or five at the end of it. I think that distance is helpful. A friend, British writer Caitlin Moran, she always says it’s amazing to write about your own life, but if you’re publishing it literally as it’s happening and kind of live-blogging your life, that’s dangerous. You need some distance from it.

Zibby: Very true. How do you feel now that you’ve written it? Are you glad? Was it a fun experience to write it all down and relive it? Is it something you’d want to keep chronicling through when she’s in high school? Do you think it’s done, this subject matter for you as far as books go?

Sophie: I would like to write one more memoir book like this, stories from my own life experience. She’s eight now. If I want to write another book, by the time it came out she might be eleven. I’ll think she’ll be really angry with me. At some point in her childhood or teenage years, she’s going to be unhappy that I wrote this book. After that, I genuinely think she’ll be thrilled because whilst it does have embarrassing family/personal stuff in it, it has huge amounts of love and passion and just loads of anecdotes from her early years that she won’t know otherwise. I think if there was a book like that in my own family, I’d have been thrilled, but I think it would’ve taken me a while to get to that thrill. As a fourteen-year-old girl, you’re going to feel embarrassed when you find out what your mom has done. I don’t know if can get away with publishing a book that mentions my daughter, but I might write something else, perhaps about being a woman growing older or something like that.

Zibby: Excellent. Are you working on any new projects? Are you still actively in the media? I know there’s lots of press about you, but are you still covering things?

Sophie: Yeah. I’ve just been doing some lockdown interviews, usually with celebrities. I still sometimes fly out to LA to do the interview or go to New York or meet them in a hotel in London, for example. That’s not being happening. I just interviewed the amazing British actress Kristin Scott Thomas, but had to do it a bit like this, talking to her over Skype which meant that my daughter who’s never been to one of my interviews wandered in and thought I was just chatting to one of my friends and wouldn’t leave the room and was like, “Hello, nice lady on the screen.” Kristin Scott Thomas was like, “How old are you?” They were having a nice chat. I was thinking, the clock is ticking. I’ve got to write a cover feature for The Guardian here. That’s been quite fun. Yeah, celebrity interviews, still writing some bits and bobs. I have been talking to my agent about writing fiction. She said, “You know Sophie, the tough thing about writing a novel is that you have to make the whole thing up.” I said, “I know. That’s the dream.” I don’t know if I want to dredge the most painful personal bits of my life up anymore. Making the whole thing up sounds wonderful.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Sophie: Sure. I had a creative writing teacher once — I didn’t do a huge amount of creative writing courses. I didn’t do a degree or anything, but I went to some evening classes. A woman once said to me, “If you can’t write anything, if you sit there typing or with your pen and paper and the voice in your head that tells you you’re terrible just really tells you that you’re writing rubbish, you’re writing trash, nonsense, you can just sit there and type the sentence, I am writing rubbish. I am writing rubbish. I am writing rubbish.” She said, “You can do that for three whole pages if you like. After three pages of typing, I am writing rubbish, you’ll get so frustrated and angry that you might type something else.” It does work. She also told us to set a timer for five minutes, not two hours, not two weeks, five minutes, and write without stopping for five minutes. Then look at how much you’ve done. Really, it’s a lot. You can write so much in five minutes. That makes you think, oh, I spent years saying I don’t have the time to write because I’ve got kids or a career or all of those things. When you see how many words you can do in five minutes, it’s really interesting.

Zibby: That’s excellent advice. All excellent advice. Amazing. Thank you. Thank you so much for coming on my podcast. I am such a fan of yours now. I am going to be following every little thing you do. I’m so glad I read your book. I really needed that laugh and humor and that British cleverness that only you guys seem to be able to really corner the market on.

Sophie: I’ve grown up reading American literature. I always thought you guys had it best. It’s extraordinary to find out Americans love British writing so much.

Zibby: Yes, it’s very true. Thank you so much. Thanks for sharing your life story in The Hungover Games and all of it. I truly appreciate it.

Sophie: Thank you, Zibby. Bye.

Zibby: Bye. Have a great day.

Sophie: You too.

Zibby: Bye.