Stephanie Wrobel, THIS MIGHT HURT

Stephanie Wrobel, THIS MIGHT HURT

Zibby is joined by international bestseller Stephanie Wrobel to discuss her latest novel, This Might Hurt, which grew out of her fascination with cults and those who join them. The two joke about how Stephanie believes the topics she searches for her novels have placed her on the FBI watchlist, what is on her career wishlist, and the changes she would like to see made in the publishing industry. Stephanie also shares her greatest fear as a novelist and how her writing habits have changed while working on her upcoming book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Stephanie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss This Might Hurt.

Stephanie Wrobel: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: My pleasure. I was just looking at your Pie Lady pie, @PieLadyBooks, with the plate that you said she made out of sugar. That’s so cool.

Stephanie: I know. She’s so talented. Every time she posts a new one, I’m like, ooh, what’s she up to next?

Zibby: Totally. I have this dream to open a bookstore. I want to call it Crummy Books and sell crumb cakes and books. I tagged her. I’m like, maybe she could make the pies. It could be a whole thing.

Stephanie: Oh, my god, dream store. I’ll be your first customer.

Zibby: It’s my new vision. Just have to figure out where to put it. Anyway, we talked last about Darling Rose Gold. Actually, we first met at that — what do you call it? A party, media whatever that Berkley had forever ago. Since then, now you have this new book out. Tell everybody about this book. Maybe we’ll go back to Darling Rose Gold in case people are new listeners and hadn’t heard about it last time.

Stephanie: This Might Hurt is my second book. It’s about three women. Two of them are sisters named Natalie and Kit Collins. When the book starts, Natalie hasn’t heard from her sister in six months because Kit has gone away to this private retreat on an island off the coast of Maine. The retreat is called Wisewood. The rules are very strict there. No outside contact with family and friends. We’re all focused on our inner selves, reaching our maximized selves. Because of this, Natalie hasn’t heard from Kit for six months. Just around the time when she expects that Kit should be coming home, she instead gets an email from the Wisewood account that says, “We know what you did. Would you like to tell your sister, or should we?” That really sets the novel in motion. It gets Natalie going to Maine, going to find her sister, hopefully to come clean with her, and try to bring her back home.

Zibby: Wow. Do a flashback synopsis if you even remember your elevator pitch for Darling Rose Gold.

Stephanie: That has been a while. That one is probably a little rusty. Darling Rose Gold is my debut. That was a story of two women, a mother and daughter. It starts with the mother getting out of prison. She’s been away for five years for abusing her daughter. The story takes place in two timelines, the mother’s perspective — Patty is in the present day starting with her getting out of prison. Then the daughter’s perspective, Rose Gold, starts five years earlier. It really goes through the journey that happens while her mother has been away at prison. Let’s just say their reunion is tense, to put it mildly.

Zibby: Where are you coming up with the ideas for these books?

Stephanie: Each one is just something that obsesses me. With the first one, I really couldn’t understand people with Munchausen by proxy, which is the illness that Patty, the mother, has, where caregivers fake or induce illness in their charges. I really wanted to get in the head of what sort of parent does this. Do they actually think they’re doing what’s best for their child? Do they know they’re doing something wrong? Then with This Might Hurt, it was really about cults. Wisewood is calling itself a retreat, but it’s operating very much as a cult, whether they think so or not. It started with wanting to know what kind of person joins a cult, what kind of person starts a cult. Those are two of the points of view, a member and a leader. Then the third one is that outsider who is trying to pull the member out of the clutches of it.

Zibby: Who is most in danger of joining a cult?

Stephanie: I was expecting to find certain personality traits. I did a lot of research into real-life cults. Actually, the only commonality I could find across every single one was somebody searching for something more, which is incredibly general, I realize. It definitely wasn’t a case of education or wealth or gender or race. Anybody could be susceptible if you hit them at just the right or wrong time in their lives where they’re dissatisfied. They’re looking for higher purpose, deeper meaning. It actually helped once I came to that realization because it made the job of portraying someone who joins one a lot easier. I was like, sure, there’s been moments in my life where I’ve been rudderless and searching for meaning. I didn’t wind up in a cult. People don’t join cults, is the thing. They join social groups or churches or whatever. It starts out pretty innocuous. Then slowly, things start to get a little more questionable and on shakier ground and so on and so forth. A lot of times, we watch these Netflix documentaries, and the first episode is people in uniforms and cutting all their hair off and all of that stuff, but that’s not how it starts, of course. It’s much slower than that. Honestly, a lot of these groups do start out with good changes coming into the world, trying to do something positive. It’s not even a case, from the beginning, where anyone could really necessarily highlight or say, I don’t know, I better watch out for that.

Zibby: Okay, so I’m not as worried anymore. That’s amazing. Don’t you wonder what people think after all your cult Google searches? Are you getting funny ads?

Stephanie: No, but I’m sure I must be on some sort of FBI watchlist. I think every novelist has to be. You’re googling sorts of things like, how long does it take a body to disintegrate? You’re just like, oh, god, please connect this with other things online. That’s the job, I guess.

Zibby: What was it like structuring the book? Did you have a whole plan ahead of time? Did it unravel? How much structure did you have when you started?

Stephanie: Because now I’m on the second draft of my third book as well, I’ve realized that I do always go in with a plan, but then it completely unravels by the time I get to the second draft. I’ve come to realize that the plan is more just a security blanket for me to actually get the draft onto paper. If it completely changes, which it has every single time, then so be it. As far as the structure for This Might Hurt goes, I started with the two perspectives of the leader and the member. I’m trying not to give anything away. That’s why I’m hesitating. the third perspective would come in until a bit later. That’s Natalie, the outsider. She sort of represents the viewer. She’s new to Wisewood. She doesn’t know the rules, all of that stuff. I didn’t know how I would interweave them. The book is broken into three parts. It’s two perspectives in part one and then another two in part two and then them all in part three. It was a lot of moving that stuff around. I think once you know the beginnings and ends in terms of the range of time — one story takes place only over six months. Another story takes place over a lifetime, quite literally, from five years told to whenever. For me, as long as I know those things, I actually find structure quite interesting and easy. It’s one of the easier challenges for me as a writer to wrap my head around. I think that’s why I’m constantly playing around with timelines and perspectives and stuff.

Zibby: Awesome. It’s so crazy that you just get to do it however you want. You can be like, I’m going to jump into her mind. Now I’ll do a chapter from her point of view. No, actually, I think I’ll keep it in her point of view. Wouldn’t that be just so neat to do walking down the street? I think I’ll take that point of view right now. This sounds ridiculous.

Stephanie: That’s why getting into your own creative world is so freeing, because we can’t control the world around us. A lot of times, it feels scary or unsettling. This is a place where you are God. You do have total control. You can just jump from perspectives. What you say goes. It’s delightful.

Zibby: If you want to be in charge, write a novel.

Stephanie: Write a novel. There you go.

Zibby: Things feel a little too unsettled? Come to fiction world. They should do an amusement park that’s called Fiction World. Anyway, never mind, I’m going to stop. How did you end up being a writer? Go back to that. I know that some of it dovetailed when you were in London. I guess you just came back.

Stephanie: I’m transitioning currently from the UK to US just to be closer to family and stuff like that. I was a copywriter at several ad agencies before I was an author. I was writing TV ads, radio, print, billboards, all that good stuff. Writing books just didn’t seem like a very reliable way to pay one’s rent. It was just a backburner dream that I didn’t take very seriously in my twenties. Then when I moved to London the first time — advertising is incredibly competitive there. I was just bouncing around from freelance job to job. Then there was a long period of unemployment. That was tough. It definitely made me reassess things. It also gave me the little nudge to go, you know what? When is there going to be a better time than right now? I said, I’ll give myself two years to do an MFA. I had never taken a creative writing class before. Applied to schools in the States, ended up at Emerson in Boston. The thesis that I wrote there was Darling Rose Gold. I didn’t anticipate it going quite that well. I did know going into the program, I want to write my first novel. I had started lots, never finished one. I was like, I’m going to take this seriously. I figured, worst case, I’d get a degree out of it. Best case, maybe I get an agent or something. I certainly did not expect it to then get published. That was a lovely surprise. Here I am four years later.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, amazing. That’s so exciting. How does it feel just being a novelist, and that’s your job?

Stephanie: It’s incredible. I will say, the thing that nobody — I shouldn’t say nobody, but I think that doesn’t get mentioned as much once you’ve made it, so much of writing career advice is about how to get the agent, how to get the book deal, but I think the thing that isn’t discussed as much is, once you have those things, at least for me, I’m just terrified of losing them, to be totally honest. There is definitely a lot of fear. I know how lucky I am. I know that millions of people would love to have this same job. There is a sense of, I have to try to do my best. Of course, art is subjective. You never know how it’ll be received. It’s definitely a dream come true, to sound completely cliché. There’s also a healthy level of fear that’s just this idea of, I actually realized my dream. It is as wonderful as I thought. Now I’m little terrified of it being taken away.

Zibby: I feel like that’s the fear of motherhood, too, a little bit. I’m so excited. I love my kids so much. There’s always this deep-seated fear. What if? It’s this deep-rooted — not to make a dark turn.

Stephanie: I can’t even fathom that. If I had kids, I feel like I would never sleep well another day in my life. My dog is about the level of worry I can handle.

Zibby: When you’re not writing, what are you up to?

Stephanie: Pre-COVID times, a lot of travel. Living in the UK was great because it was such an easy jump to anywhere in Europe, so got to see a lot of that part of the world. I also love eating and cooking. I spend a lot of time doing that. Of course, reading. That’s just a given if you’re a writer. This year, because of the transition between UK and US, it’s been a lot of jumping around just trying to attend to all needs, trying to move. It’s been a bit of a chaotic year, a bit more nomadic than usual. It’s kind of nice after two, three years of just being grounded because of the pandemic.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Amazing. Ten years from now, what do you think? Assuming that nothing goes wrong, where are you going to be? Where do you think you’re going to live? What’s your flash-forward? What’s on your wish list?

Stephanie: On my wish list, I will still be writing novels. I would also really like to break into screenwriting. That’s a serious goal of mine, writing movies and TV. In terms of lifestyle, I would really like to live somewhere where I can be very outdoors and hiking, beach, all that sorts of stuff. To be honest, I feel like I’m very close to what I want. There’s a few things that I’m like, this would make it even better. The step to becoming a full-time author was really the biggest one. Now it’s more about developing as a writer, getting better at the craft, and then just expanding into other mediums like screenwriting and experimenting with those kinds of things.

Zibby: From your experience so far, what do you think needs to change about the publishing industry?

Stephanie: Oh, god. It’s interesting. I was surprised coming into it, how slow-moving it is. I don’t know what I would necessarily speed up about it because, obviously, you don’t want a rushed job. It is weird talking about creative projects that you finished one to two years — your heart is in the next thing, very deep into the next thing. I think readers are often surprised by that. They think you just finished it, top of your mind, whatever. On the other hand, it’s great to have that distance because you’re not as vulnerable to it. When you get those first reactions, you’re a little — not a little. You’re vulnerable, of course. The more they come in and the more distance you have from it, the more excited you are about the next project, the less scared you are of that. That didn’t really answer your question. There’s certainly changes inside the industry; I think continuing to publish more diverse voices, own voices. It’s been great to see more women writers getting a lot of the spotlight. I feel like the publishing industry is also dominated by women, which is really lovely to have that sort of comradery. My experience with my specific publishers has been wonderful. I really can’t complain about that. The things that I would like to see are more just the overall industry versus my specific publishers.

Zibby: Got it. Amazing. Any other advice for aspiring authors?

Stephanie: I always say the first piece would be to set measurable goals for yourself. I know every writer says that. Really, I do think you can languish forever on something. If you don’t set something for — what am I working toward? It doesn’t have to be super aggressive if time doesn’t allow. I know everyone has busy schedules and full-time jobs. Whether it’s X number of words or one chapter or ten minutes or whatever, the sense of accomplishment that you have actually finishing a project or revising a project, it really goes a long way to making you feel like a legitimate writer. The second thing that I like to offer is getting feedback from a qualified source. I think that means, unless your family and friends are in the industry, not necessarily family and friends. In my case at least, they’re going to tell me what I write is great even when it’s garbage. That’s a tricky thing if you don’t have contacts, which most of us don’t, or if you haven’t done a program. There are lots of way to get that feedback.

The last one is to educate yourself on the industry. That’s almost — not almost. That’s a job on its own. It’s not just about the creative. You really also have to understand how the industry works, understand the process of querying to get an agent. All of that stuff, some of it’s easier to find than others. The getting an agent thing, there’s loads of information online. Even being in the industry myself, there’s stuff in terms of financials and things like that — there, that’s something that I wish was more — I wish the financials were less opaque and more shared. There can be a lot of secrecy around publishing. I don’t think that works to anyone’s benefit. I do wish that that sort of information was more widely available. There, that was a combo answer to your last two questions.

Zibby: I like it. I’ll take it. Stephanie, thank you so much. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and telling us about This Might Hurt and all the stuff you’re up to. Thank you.

Stephanie: Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Stephanie: Bye.

THIS MIGHT HURT by Stephanie Wrobel

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