Stephanie Clifford, THE FAREWELL TOUR

Stephanie Clifford, THE FAREWELL TOUR

Zibby speaks to award-winning investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Clifford about The Farewell Tour, a shimmering and heartbreakingly authentic country-music saga about one woman achieving stardom in a world dominated by men. Stephanie describes her unforgettable protagonist (who was inspired by her grandmother!) and the fascinating research she conducted to get it all right – from studying a farmer’s journal from 1910 to speaking to several doctors about vocal cord polyps. She also talks about her career in journalism, gaining the courage to transition to fiction, her go-to authors, and how her next book is coming along.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Stephanie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Farewell Tour: A Novel.

Stephanie Clifford: I’m so glad to be here.

Zibby: Thanks for coming. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Stephanie: It opens in 1980 when Lillian Waters, a washed-up, hard-talking country music star, is on her final tour. She’s been diagnosed with career-ending vocal problems. She knows this is her last stop to sing on the road to go home to Washington State, where she’s from and hasn’t been back to since she was a kid. Then in alternating chapters, you see her growing up in Walla Walla, Washington. You see her in the country music scene in Tacoma, Washington, and California and in golden-age Nashville. It’s for people, obviously, who love music, but there’s so much about dealing with trauma and visiting your past and thinking about how to make art as a woman in a sometimes-unforgiving world.

Zibby: She had a really, I would say, not-great relationship with her sister Hen who, along with her mom, would put her in this shed, the milk shed. Is that what it’s called?

Stephanie: Milk shed, yeah.

Zibby: Milk shed. She tried to get out. Nobody heard her. This is literally my worst nightmare. You’re trapped inside the dark. This is why my son never locks the door to the bathroom. He’s like, you never know. That way of pre-Depression-era parenting, how do you recover from something like that?

Stephanie: I’m not sure you do. The story, not the specifics of it, but the origin story where Lillian leaves home at age ten and moves into town to become a hired girl was based on my own grandmother’s story.

Zibby: Really?

Stephanie: Yeah. She grew up on a Depression-era Northwest farm. We never knew why she left, but she did leave. From age ten on, she was supporting herself. I adored her. She was incredible. You could also see there was just so many walls that she built up in order to survive. I feel like there are so many tales like that, especially of women from that era who just had to get by in these really tough circumstances. I wanted to look at what that does to a person when they can’t talk about their past like we would now. They can’t go to therapy because it just wasn’t done. There wasn’t medication. How that affects how they interact with the world and how they carry themselves through the world, you see Lillian really grappling with that, especially as she’s challenged and pushed on this last tour by some of her colleagues. She thinks about how she has been interacting with the world, whether it’s been the right way or whether there is a way to be a little more vulnerable, more open.

Zibby: Even her PTSD-ish just driving up and coming back to the farm, you create this tension with the reader right away where you’re empathetic and yet curious all at the same time. It’s a good way to kick it off.

Stephanie: Good. Thanks.

Zibby: Then polyps on the vocal cords, you said in your acknowledgments how you talked to lots of doctors about that. What did you learn about it? Is it something that only happens — that sounds like a stupid question. Does it only happen to singers? I’m sure it doesn’t only happen to singers, but is it more common in singers? Is it caused by the excessive use, or unrelated?

Stephanie: It’s caused by excessive use and lack of vocal cord training. You could get it if you’re a regular person. I spoke to a doctor at NYU who has a special vocal center that specializes in opera singers and stage performers who are always speaking to crowds and speaking a ton. Most of them now have really good training on how to preserve their vocal cords. Lillian, of course, wouldn’t have had access to that growing up, so she’s just belting out on stage. She starts to get this raspy tone in her voice. She knows immediately what it was because she’s seen it happen to other singers. The doctor I talked to was fabulous. He was taking me through 1980s-era vocal cord practices. Now they have incredible techniques for restoring vocal cords. Back then, it was a little bit more risky. Lillian’s really afraid of actually losing her voice if she goes through the surgery. When the book opens, she doesn’t want to touch surgery. She just wants to sing one more time and then head out of the spotlight.

Zibby: I was reading this morning about how Nadal might be at the end of his tennis career. I don’t know if you follow tennis. It feels like the same thing. He’s in all this pain. Before he does one last thing to make him, basically, not even walk anymore, it might be time.

Stephanie: I think it’s similar. It’s obviously hard on a very different part of your body. It’s also, how far can you push it? When is the moment to leave so that your legacy is still sort of shining brightly and you’re not just wobbling around reaching to hit the ball?

Zibby: Both of them — they said this morning how he can’t even enjoy the success because of all the physical pain. As Lillian is going around holding her throat and all of that, at what cost do we achieve greatness?

Stephanie: Right. She’s just trying to make it back to Washington. The tour ends up in Washington. She’s dying to go back and perform in front of her family and show them what she’s become. That’s her driving force at first, at least.

Zibby: Tell me about all the research that you did.

Stephanie: I’m also a journalist, and so I love, love, love research. I started in the Walla Walla Library. It’s a small, mostly farming town, wine town now, in Washington. The college there has this incredible archive, in part because it’s a small town. It’s not like the New York Public Library where they’re only collecting really storied people’s papers. Everybody from town just donates their papers to the library. They had a farmer’s journal from 1910 where he’s writing day by day what he’s planting, what the problems on the farm are. That really helped me with what Lillian’s parents would’ve been doing on the farm, what time of year you plant wheat, when you harvest it, what goes wrong with the harvest. There were fabulous fires maps of Walla Walla, so I could see exactly what the stores were and think about what would’ve appealed to Lillian. Of course, the music store versus the hat store and store. That was huge fun. Then the Tacoma part of the book, I actually had to backfill. I had to write most of that during COVID. I didn’t actually get to visit Tacoma until the book was almost done. It was so nerve-racking.

Lillian loves Tacoma. Her career starts there. It’s this honky-tonk, working-man’s town. It totally fits her style. I hadn’t been to Tacoma in years. I had this moment when I was in the taxi from the airport going into Tacoma where I was about to throw up. I was like, what if it’s super nice and quiet and Lillian would hate it there? It turned out it was fabulous. It’s still gritty. The port’s still there. She would’ve totally loved it. It was funny. I have two kids. I have a husband. We have a thousand animals. I was in Tacoma for a few days by myself. Everybody was like, was it great to be by yourself in Tacoma? I was like, Lillian was there the whole time with me chatting away in my ear. She’d be like, oh, yeah, I couldn’t afford that jeweler. I love that . It was actually super fun to sort of spend time with the voices that talk to us in our heads.

Zibby: This is the literal putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Walking the walk. A thousand animals?

Stephanie: Four.

Zibby: What do you have?

Stephanie: We have two giant rescue dogs that are bigger than me and then two cats.

Zibby: Wow, and two kids?

Stephanie: And two kids. The second rescue dog was maybe not our best idea for where we are.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. How old are your kids?

Stephanie: They’re six and nine.

Zibby: I have a nine-year-old as well.

Stephanie: It’s fun, nine-year-olds. I feel like it’s soon going to go into middle-school craziness, but it’s still little-kid phase, which is great.

Zibby: I feel like my daughter’s a little bit — I have an eight-year-old and a nine-year-old. The nine-year-old is very much almost thirty. She picks out my clothes for me. The other day, I went out, and she wasn’t here. I was like, “You weren’t here, and so I wore shoes that didn’t look good.” My son is definitely still in the sweet, young boy phase, so that’s nice. I went back and read your piece about S’well water bottles in Marker on Medium because I actually went to business school with Sarah.

Stephanie: Oh, great.

Zibby: I obviously hadn’t read that piece before. I found it absolutely fascinating. I knew anecdotally, of course, that there are many copycats to the S’well water bottles, but your deep dive into all of that was absolutely fascinating. Tell me more about that.

Stephanie: Thank you. It was a really interesting story. Sarah, who had been the CEO of S’well, was really outspoken about the problem in especially consumer products of mostly Chinese copycats. She decided to be quite aggressive about going after these copycats. S’well retails for twenty, twenty-five dollars. It matters for something like that. It’s also fairly easy to copy in a not-so-good way. She talked about how difficult it actually is to go after these copycats. A lot of them are fly-by-night companies. You shut down one. It’s in some industrial park. Then it pops up two weeks later as something else. I think consumers are becoming more aware, but consumers are sort of unaware. If you look on Amazon or search dupes for S’well, you’ll get so many products. You don’t know where they came from. You don’t know how they are manufactured. You certainly don’t know the labor practices involved. There’s so many downsides to it. It’s flooding the market. I just wrote a story for Consumer Reports on e-bike fires, which have been increasing at a really alarming pace, especially here in New York City. That’s actually a similar problem. You’ve got responsible manufacturers paying for testing, paying for safety, and then you have got fly-by-night companies using cheap, untested batteries and sending them overseas. Again, consumers are mostly just looking for the cheapest product. They’re not that aware that they’re taking a risk when they’re buying these things.

Zibby: This fascination or interest in diving really deep into things, where does this come from? Is it mostly consumer focused?

Stephanie: No, I do a lot of criminal justice too. I was at The New York Times for about a decade. I did business to start there. I covered business. Then I covered criminal justice. I love these long, deep stories where you’re really grappling with an issue that you don’t understand at first. It’s one of those things where you start, and you’re like, I don’t even know who to call. E-bikes, I didn’t know a thing about. You’re just sitting there with a list of possibilities of people you could call, reports you could look at, research you could do. It’s so fun when you finally start to get your head around it and you finally, as you’re interviewing, you — you may always sound like an idiot. That’s fine. You start to be like, oh, yeah, I heard of that before. Right. What about this issue? You start to really be able to shape what your story’s going to be and what’s happening here. Then of course, you’re always looking for the human part of it. The e-bike story really came together when I spoke to this woman whose house had been — she was in an apartment building. Her apartment had been affected by an e-bike fire in the basement that had killed a child. She’s been basically jumping from sofa to sofa with her small children since. She was like, “I just can’t believe that a bike could do this to my life.” So that kind of reporting, and especially the stuff that affects people who maybe don’t have as much of a voice, who maybe don’t have as much access to media, and hopefully, can kind of change things, is really important and fulfilling.

Zibby: Tell me about the training you got and how you got really good at all of this reporting and when you knew this is what you wanted to do. Is this what you wanted to do as a kid?

Stephanie: It was.

Zibby: Yeah?

Stephanie: Yeah. The novel writing came later. I was really scared of that. I was like, I don’t think I can be a novelist. Journalism seemed a little more accessible. I did the high school paper. I did the college paper. Just loved it. My dad always told me, find something you love to do, and then find somebody who will pay you to do it. This idea that you can just go out and talk to strangers and talk to smart people and see something that’s amiss in the world and write about it and maybe leave the world a little bit better is really appealing. I started as a fact-checker at a magazine, a new economy magazine in San Francisco called eCompany Now! It was very 2000. That is a job that’s — The Atlantic has fact-checkers. New Yorker has fact-checkers. There aren’t as many of those jobs, which is a pity because it’s actually fabulous for learning how a reporter sources each piece of information. You’re going through with a pencil double-checking everything they do. It’s paid, obviously. It’s a job, but it’s an apprenticeship, almost, in that way. I went from there to a business magazine in New York and then to The Times.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. Then why the novel?

Stephanie: I wrote my first novel —

Zibby: Everybody Rise.

Stephanie: — Everybody Rise while I was at The Times. I love reading. I always have a book. I’m a physical book person, so I always have a book in my bag. I don’t have any small purses. This idea for my first novel just kept gnawing at me. Finally, I was like, okay, let me just put it down on screen and start working on it slowly and quietly without any pressure and see what happens. I worked on that before work at The Times. It took eight years. I would get up at five and do an hour of work and then go to The Times newsroom. I think because the literary crowd in college or in New York — it seems quite exclusive and these people who’ve known since birth that they are going to be novelists. They’ve been working in seminars or at fellowships or whatnot. It can feel a little bit like if you’re not part of that, which I’m not, that there’s not room for you at the table. Even after my first novel came out, I was still quite hesitant to say that I was a novelist because I felt sort of apart from that scene. I love the fictional world. It’s an interesting structural challenge. It’s an interesting writing challenge. In as much as you’re sitting at a computer, it’s similar to journalism in that way, but you’re thinking about things and processing them. They change so much over the course of several years as you’re writing. Some of the characters in Farewell Tour — Kaori, who’s a young, really talented fiddler who’s on Lillian’s farewell tour band, she was just a tiny character to start with. Then she just kept growing and having more to say. This whole other plotline involving her and her family’s history came out of just Kaori pushing for more air and space in my head. It’s so interesting.

Zibby: It’s this crazy application of the subconscious that we all just accept. We’re like, okay.

Stephanie: Right. You wake up from dreams, and you’re like, oh, that’s how to solve that scene. What is my mind doing?

Zibby: Crazy, but great. One person’s imagination is another person’s whole afternoon. It ends up working out really well. Then your second novel, how did you approach that? You didn’t have to do it at five in the morning?

Stephanie: No. I left The Times because I realized I couldn’t do — by then, I had two little kids. You don’t have the five-AM slot anymore.

Zibby: I was wondering. I was like, wow. Were they asleep, and then she worked from five to six and then she made breakfast?

Stephanie: I realized I couldn’t do The Times job, which is incredibly demanding, as it should be — that just takes up all hours of the day — and write another novel. I left The Times. I’m writing, now, journalism pieces for The Times, for The Atlantic, for The New Yorker, for Elle. I do that about half time. Then half time, I’m working on a novel. This book came from, it came from that kernel about my grandmother that I mentioned. I grew up in Seattle, Washington. As I read classic westerns, Steinbeck or Owen Lister, I noticed two things. One was that they didn’t represent the part of the West I’m from. They’re all in these arid, dry landscapes. I wanted to write about what it’s like for somebody like Lillian who doesn’t quite fit in in the Northwest but who recognizes the beauty of the land and how lush and forgiving the land can be. She is really grappling with this idea of, where do I fit in in these stunning places? She idealizes the history of the West until the farewell tour. It also came from — when I read those books, they never let the woman out of the house. The men got to go on an adventure. They got to go fight or farm or whatever it was they were doing. The women were at home baking. Have you met Western women? They would knock down that door and be galloping on a horse after you. I wanted to write about a really fierce Western woman who’s out in the world, out in this pretty difficult, man’s business. Then the country music part of it actually came last because I was trying to figure out what Lillian’s job should be. For a minute, I had her working at Boeing, which was . I can’t put together Ikea furniture, and I’m trying to explain airplane engineering. I was happy to drop that. I found out — I always read The Times obituaries.

Zibby: I love reading The Times obituaries.

Stephanie: It’s so interesting.

Zibby: Love. I know. I’m always thinking if I ever teach a class, this is what I would do as an assignment. Just read the obituaries, and write a story.

Stephanie: Yes. Everything, you’re like, oh, that’s cool. That’s awesome. A hundred percent. It mentioned that there was this country music producer out of Washington State that had died. I grew up in Washington. I love country music. I had no idea there was any connection between the two, so I started to look into it and found out that there was this wonderful historical moment when country was really thriving in Washington. The honky-tonk scene was there. Loretta Lynn was out there. Buck Owens, who’s this great California country player, was up there. I was like, that’s it. If I can get Lil to Tacoma during the fifties, then suddenly, she’s grappling with her stage presence and her music and how to survive while being an artist and all these things that I think are really interesting and very hard for her in some ways.

Zibby: Wow. You wrote that book. Now are you writing another book? Are you doing mostly reporting? Are you hooked on fiction?

Stephanie: I’m still trying to balance the two. I’m working on some assignments for different magazines, almost all on criminal justice stuff. Then I’m starting to think about — I wish I was one of those people who had the next novel going the current one. I couldn’t do it. I’m starting to play with some different ideas about my next book. I just threw out a hundred pages of a novel this morning.

Zibby: Oh, no. I’m so sorry.

Stephanie: It’s good, actually. That’s one of the nice things about novels. It was sort of miserable writing. I was starting to hate all the people. I was like, wait, nobody’s forcing me to keep slogging through. I can just get rid of it and start fresh. It actually felt a little bit freeing.

Zibby: That’s true. I guess you can look at it that way. I have a novel coming out in March. I just finished my last round of edits. My editor was like, “We really don’t need this whole scene.” I’m like, “I know we don’t need it, but I really like it. I think it’s really funny. I want people to know.” She’s like, “Why don’t you summarize it in a sentence and then just cut?” I was like, “What if we have bonus reading?” Of course, we don’t need it. Of course, I took it out, but it was so emotionally hard to part with any words.

Stephanie: Especially when you’re getting close to the end when you’re like, no, I’ve already cut so much. Please let me hang onto this one.

Zibby: I know. It felt so perfectly tied up, but I guess that was a problem.

Stephanie: I like the bonus reading idea.

Zibby: Yeah. I’m like, this is what it was like. Let’s put it online somewhere or whatever. Maybe you’ll do something with the hundred pages.

Stephanie: That’s true.

Zibby: It would be neat to produce some sort of wrapping paper where everybody’s discarded words go into one big vat, and then we just print wrapping paper from discarded pages.

Stephanie: That’d be kind of cool, actually. If you got into the story, then you’d be like, wait, where’s the rest of it?

Zibby: It’s the land of lost words.

Stephanie: I know. Are they out there suffering? Are they happy to be ?

Zibby: What about those characters that were annoying you? Where do they go? Turns out, they’ll show up on your next trip. I know you said you read all the time and all of that. I also love to read hard copies, I have to say, much more. What are some of your go-to books? What are you reading now or authors you are obsessed with?

Stephanie: I love Tana French. I guess she’s a thriller writer, you’d say. She’s one of those people who I track her every release. She is an Irish writer who does mysteries set in Ireland. She’s just a fabulous scene setter. I guess I’m on an Irish kick. I just read the Louise Kennedy, Trespasses, which I thought was really fabulous. At the same time, more or less, I was reading V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Brotherless Night. Both of those are set in 1970s, 1980s cities overrun by domestic terrorism. They both feature female characters trying to navigate their way through. Ganeshananthan’s is set in Sri Lanka. They were actually a perfect pairing. They’re very different books, but there were so many similar themes running through them. I loved reading both of those together. Then I somehow have not read Circe by Madeline Miller, so I’m treating myself to that this weekend, which I’m very excited about.

Zibby: Awesome. I saw her speak years ago right when her book came out. I was like, okay, cool. Greek mythology, whatever, all right. Then it exploded. I was like, oh, I should’ve paid more attention to that.

Stephanie: I had read Song of Achilles when it came out. Song of Achilles, right? Not Shield of Achilles. Yeah. Was blown away by it. I don’t know how I’ve not gotten around to this, but I’m very excited to read it.

Zibby: You seem just so smart. You’re so articulate and bright and everything. I know you have to interview for investigative journalism, just so many types of people from all different walks of life and education levels and everything. How do you feel about talking to all different types or using your brain to connect across everything? Do you know what I mean?

Stephanie: Yeah. That’s actually one of the best parts of it for me. You get to talk to people and see places that you just wouldn’t see if you were a banker or a lawyer. Well, lawyers might. I’ve walked with people as they’ve come out of prison after twenty-nine years. It’s just unbelievable to be able to be there, to feel like you have their trust enough that they’re letting you in at this moment. I usually just try to be quiet and let them talk. You see reporters in movies, they’re always talking over whoever they’re interviewing and being like, no, I know what the truth is this. I think a better tactic is just to sort of be quiet, let the person open up, push them, obviously. You would have different approaches with, say, a senior statesman versus somebody who’s leaving prison. Mostly, I’m just trying to understand their story and their emotions; if they’re talking about something that happened in the past, really bring them back to it and try to understand what they were going through then, what they were seeing, what they were hearing, what they were feeling so I can try to recreate that scene as I write about it.

Zibby: Awesome. Amazing. Do your kids like to read?

Stephanie: They love it.

Zibby: They do?

Stephanie: Yeah. I’m reading Circe in part because my kids are on a Greek mythology kick. They know everything about every Greek god, major, minor, in between. I feel like I need to catch up. They keep being like, who is the third fury? I’m like, .

Zibby: I love when my sixth-grade information isn’t at the ready, and my kids seem to know everything. It’s humbling, I have to say. Humbling. I forgot to ask, are both your books going to be movies? What is the book-to-film status on these both?

Stephanie: The first one was optioned. There’s a script floating around. We’ll see. The second one is out for film right now. We’re getting interest and talking to people and seeing where it goes.

Zibby: Really exciting. Amazing. I’m so impressed with your whole career and pivot to fiction. It’s really awesome. Great to talk to you.

Stephanie: Thank you. You too.

Zibby: Take care. Maybe I’ll see you in New York.

Stephanie: Thanks. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

THE FAREWELL TOUR by Stephanie Clifford

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