Stephanie Wrobel, DARLING ROSE GOLD

Stephanie Wrobel, DARLING ROSE GOLD

Zibby Owens: Stephanie Wrobel is the author of debut novel Darling Rose Gold. Stephanie has an MFA from Emerson College and has had short fiction published in Bellevue Literary Review. Before turning to fiction, she worked as a creative copywriter at several advertising agencies. She grew up in Chicago and currently lives in the UK with her husband and their dog Moose Barkwinkle.

Welcome, Stephanie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Stephanie Wrobel: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I’m really excited to discuss Darling Rose Gold. Are you very excited for it to come out?

Stephanie: Yes. It’s been such a whirlwind process. It’s crazy that it’s here now.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Wait, so first of all, tell everybody what Darling Rose Gold is about and how you came up with the idea for this novel.

Stephanie: The book is about a mother and daughter named Patty and Rose Gold Watts. Rose Gold is sick for the first eighteen years of her life. She has a feeding tube. She uses a wheelchair to get around. She has her hair falling out in clumps. No one can figure out what’s wrong with her until it comes out that Patty was actually making everything up all along, and so Patty goes to jail for five years. The book starts with her getting out of prison. She gets out and of course has no one to turn to. Everyone has deserted her, so she begs her now adult daughter, Rose Gold, to take her in. To the shock of everyone in town, Rose Gold says yes. Mother and daughter move in together. Patty insists all she wants is to reconcile. She’s forgiven her daughter for testifying against her, but Rose Gold knows her mother. She knows that Patty always settles a score. The question is, how has Rose Gold changed over the five years while Patty’s been in prison? She’s definitely not the weakling that her mother thinks that she is. It’s a story about obsession and reconciliation and revenge.

Zibby: Ooh, that’s a good description, A+.

Stephanie: Thanks. I’ve practiced it a few times.

Zibby: Yes. You know what? That was a great one. Maybe you should just bottle that one up. It’s so funny because as I was reading, every time Rose Gold would let her mother in a little more, I was like, no! Do you know what I mean? “Okay, you can stay.” I was like, no! “Okay, you can watch the baby.” No! I feel like I wanted to scream at her, but it didn’t work.

Stephanie: There’s definitely a sense of foreboding because you’re not quite sure what she’s capable of.

Zibby: Obviously, don’t really trust her yet. What inspired you to write this book? How did you come up with the plot? This is your first novel. Why this?

Stephanie: I first found out about Munchausen by proxy, which is what Patty has, from my best friend who’s an elementary school psychologist in Colorado. She unfortunately has experience with this syndrome through her work with her students and their parents. She told me about it. I was immediately riveted and horrified. I went down this rabbit hole of research. I was really surprised to find that the perpetrators are typically women, and often mothers. We think of this mother-child bond as sacred, but it’s not in these cases. I wanted to explore why that was. Even though Rose Gold is the titular character, it was really Patty who I was interested in getting in her mindset, figuring out, does she know that she’s lying? Does she honestly believe she’s doing what’s best for her kid? It was the why behind these people’s behavior.

Zibby: Did you learn in your research what compels people to act this way?

Stephanie: It’s desire for love and attention from the medical community, so from doctors and nurses. I think that’s the most intriguing part. It’s not as simple as — there are different cases, which are called malingering, where you’re trying to maybe defraud the hospital or you want a free Make-A-Wish trip or whatever. I think those motivations are awful as well, but they’re almost more understandable because I guess greed is just a more common concept in society. This notion of needing attention and love from sources because you didn’t have it yourself as a child because the perpetrators of MSPB were usually severely abused or neglected themselves as kids.

Zibby: That’s so sad.

Stephanie: I know. This is not a light conversation. It’s interesting to think about. I’m always fascinated with the nature versus nurture conversation. There’s plenty of people who have horrible childhoods that don’t grow up to do this kind of stuff, so I’m really interested in, why do some people?

Zibby: Totally, and then to explore and see it in real life, not really real life, but to see the effects of that on a child and what happens.

Stephanie: Right, and how much of a — what hope do they have for their own normal life after that?

Zibby: When did you start writing this book? How long did it take? Where did you like to write it? At home?

Stephanie: All the process stuff.

Zibby: All the process stuff. This is my process question. Go ahead.

Stephanie: I wrote the first draft the summer of 2017. I was in an MFA program at the time. I’m at Emerson College in Boston. I ended up tossing that entire first draft except for these two characters. I had a professor who was really nice and offered to read the first hundred pages. He was like, “This kind of is just reading as a case study of Munchausen. It doesn’t really have its own thing.” He was right. He was completely right. He saved me a lot of time by offering to do that. Then I spent most of 2018 writing what’s this final version. I actually wrote this as my thesis for my MFA program. I was really lucky to work with a different professor who really took me under her wing. She worked with me all summer, even during her summer break, which was really nice of her. Then I submitted it as my thesis in November of 2018. Then a few professors suggested that I submit it to agents, so I did. Now here we are.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What was that process like from going from student to success with the book? Wasn’t there some auction? There was a lot of hubbub around the sale of it, right?

Stephanie: Yes. In the UK, it went to auction, which was crazy and amazing and exhilarating. I signed with my agent in December. We’d made some small plot hole type changes. Then she took it out end of February. It was basically ten days later. She’s amazing at her job. Ten day later, all on the same day, it was the UK, US, and Canada deals all came through. It was the best day of my life. It was amazing.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I bet. Hold onto that one.

Stephanie: I can still remember standing at my table and being like, oh, my god, this is happening.

Zibby: That’s so exciting. I’m so happy for you. That’s really awesome.

Stephanie: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s just so nice to see when hard work pays off like this.

Stephanie: Yeah. I definitely was expecting this whole process — you hear it takes a really long time to get an agent, so I was really in for the long haul. It was just such a relief and so surprising that it worked out the way that it did.

Zibby: Are you working on anything else now?

Stephanie: Yeah. I’m working on my second book. I’ve been describing it as a wellness center with some cult-like tendencies. It’s from three points of view: a leader, a member, and a concerned relative.

Zibby: Interesting. Is it still like you don’t know what’s going to happen, necessarily? Is there intrigue, like thriller, suspense?

Stephanie: Yeah, it’s suspense. I like that. I really like that propulsive nature of the genre, this idea of you think, okay, I’ll just get to end of this chapter, as a reader. Then it’s like that’s always when the best thing happens. I really like that kind of structure.

Zibby: I love that world propulsive. I feel like anytime anything is described as propulsive, I’m like, ooh.

Stephanie: Give me more.

Zibby: I shouldn’t say that because now everything will be described as propulsive. I felt like you did such a good job, not just with the characters, but with developing a sense of place. I really felt like the town that you were describing and how it had been a place where kids used to play on the sidewalks and much more of a happy village that had sort of gone to disarray, especially while she was gone, and how she goes back and inhabits this old family home of hers, and the house across the street is abandoned, you just get this sense, even the supermarket and how she has to go two towns over and the small town of it — describe how you picked this particular village and the setting for this story.

Stephanie: It’s completely fictious. It’s not based on anywhere. I knew I wanted it to be kind of in Central/Southern Illinois. I haven’t spent much time there. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, which are very populated. I wanted it to be a really small town and have this very insular feel so that Patty, it’s not as simple for her to get out, go back to her hometown and just kind of blend or find new people. If it’s a big enough town, maybe not everybody would know your story. Here, everybody knows her business, and so it really puts her in the spotlight which normally she likes, but this is in a — she’s not used to being just completely hated. One book that inspired me as far as making the townspeople a character on their own was We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, which is this very gothic thriller. The townspeople there, they’re just so eerie. They’re a looming presence. You can feel them. They’re sort of suffocating. I was hoping to get some sort of semblance of that in this book.

Zibby: Did your own relationship with your family play into this at all? I’m sure not.

Stephanie: No. It’s funny. People have started to ask that occasionally. I’m like, you can imagine how much my mom enjoys that question.

Zibby: I’m sure not.

Stephanie: It’s curious.

Zibby: I like to know what your own relationship — are you close with your family?

Stephanie: I’m very family close with my family. My parents are super supportive. I think I wrote in the acknowledgements, creating Patty as this monster was a bit more difficult because I didn’t have any of that sort of experience to draw on. We’re very close. They’ve been so excited and supportive through this whole process, which is really lovely.

Zibby: Tell me about how you live in the UK now. You’ve moved for your husband back and forth. Tell me about how you’ve ended up there in your life and what you think about that and if it’s affected your writing at all.

Stephanie: We moved to London in 2014 so that my husband could go to London Business School. We thought it was just going to be a two-year thing, but then we both really loved it there. After his program was finished, then I went to graduate school in Boston. Then we moved to Boston in 2016, lived there for the duration of the program. He was working remotely for a UK company that whole time. Then we were looking for an excuse to get back to London, and so he took on a different role at his company. That required us to be there. We’ve been living there again since May 2018. It’s been close to four years total. It really feels like home now. We have our set of friends. We know all the neighborhoods. We just know how everything works now.

How has it influenced my writing? I guess you start to emphasize more with people who have been outsiders. Certainly the first time that we moved, I really had a hard time finding my footing. When he went to business school, it was immediately like four hundred best friends to choose from. For me, I discovered — I worked in advertising before this. The industry is really competitive in London. It was very difficult to — I couldn’t get a salaried position the whole time I was there. I was working freelance. That was really tough. I just kind of felt like this was the first time in my life that I was really flailing. It actually worked out well because that is what led me to apply to grad school because I didn’t feel I had as much to lose. Whereas if I was working a good job, I don’t know if I would’ve been gutsy enough to just quit my job to, on a whim, try to write a book. Definitely at the time, there were feelings of isolation. Also, I didn’t want to tell people back home in the US that I was lonely or struggling because to them it’s like, oh, what an adventure. You don’t want to seem ungrateful. Of course, there were many positives and a lot of really cool stuff. In two hours, you’re in Spain or Italy or any number of countries, but it was certainly not without its challenges.

Zibby: That’s the whole “woe is me” problem. Because things seem good on the outside, you’re not supposed to feel the emotions that you feel which are completely discounted, which I disagree with. It’s hard when you go somewhere and you don’t have friends yet. That’s always hard. I went to business school. A lot of my closest friends were partners of people in my class at business school. The wives or the girlfriends of the guys in my class became some of my best friends who are still some of my best friends. They always felt kind of marginalized a little bit because so much of the social life is centered for the students. Yes, they include the partners sometimes, but not all the times. It’s sort of like second-class citizen, right?

Stephanie: Yeah. You’re introduced as someone’s partner, which was a new thing for me. I wasn’t used to being like, “This is Matt’s partner, Stephanie.” It was like, “I’m really just Stephanie on my own.” I think I got too — go ahead.

Zibby: I was just — some of the partners had the coolest careers and job and backgrounds ever, but at business school they’re just somebody else’s partner.

Stephanie: Yeah, and I think I got too hung up initially with being like, no, I want my own friends. I don’t want to make friends through his business school. I want them to be my own friends, which is funny because now four years later they’re still some of my best friends, those people that we met through LBS. You know, you have your pride. You want to do things your way. Then you live and you learn.

Zibby: But how great that all of it comes out in fiction and delights other people?

Stephanie: At the time, it definitely felt like a low point. Honestly, I really don’t know — I was in Chicago before that. That’s where I’m from. I don’t know that I would’ve had the guts to just up and quit my job or tried to balance writing a novel at the same time while working a demanding advertising job.

Zibby: I’m trying to think if there are people who haven’t gone through some sort of pain who have written books. I feel like there’s always something that people are writing about or that they’ve noticed or that they’ve felt that other people can relate to. I just feel like it’s rare to have a person say, everything in my life has gone totally perfectly well, and I decided I’m just going to write a novel for fun. Usually, there’s something they’re trying to work through. I’m massively generalizing, so I apologize if I’m offending authors by saying that. I just feel like there’s usually something people are wrestling with or interested in or something.

Stephanie: Yeah, and I think that’s why it’s good — as much as sometimes I’m like, why didn’t I try this earlier? Why didn’t I take this seriously younger? I do think you need to have a little life experience under your belt and have gone through some hardships, some relationship stuff.

Zibby: But you are young.

Stephanie: Well, I mean, I’m not twenty-two.

Zibby: No, okay, fine.

Stephanie: I’m in my thirties.

Zibby: To me, that’s young. I’m in my forties.

Stephanie: It’s all relative, I guess.

Zibby: To me, I feel like you’re young.

Stephanie: I’m just always impressed when I see very young people because to have that grip on humanity and the general truths of being a person, at least I didn’t have that when I was in my early twenties. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

Zibby: I feel like that’s why so many people in their twenties end up writing YA because that’s what they know well, and that’s great. Write about that. It’s harder to write about grown-up —

Stephanie: — It’s really important too because I feel like, for me at least, I can’t even remember what it was like at this point to be a teenager. In a very general way or I were to read YA, I’d be like, oh yeah, but I feel like I don’t have access to that time anymore of my life. It’s great to have people who do.

Zibby: Totally, yes. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Stephanie: I have three things. I thought about this because I’ve listened to your podcast, and I knew this was a question that you ask.

Zibby: Oh, you knew this was coming? I’m sorry. Am I getting formulaic?

Stephanie: No, it’s great. I feel like this is a question that people always want to know. My first one is to set some sort of writing goal, whether it’s number of words or an amount of time per day, per week, per month. I feel like if you can feel yourself just chipping away at a chapter each time, it’s less overwhelming than just thinking, I need to write ninety thousand words. My second one is to get qualified feedback. As much as we need to have our butts in chairs practicing, if you’re not getting feedback from somebody who, whether it’s a professor — but it doesn’t have to be an MFA program. It could just be a workshop or whatever you can manage. I think it’s really important to get that feedback because that’s how you improve. I know for me having this professor just constantly giving me feedback, I improved so much faster than I would have on my own. The third thing is to treat the business side of publishing as part of the job because it is part of the job. You have to treat it like a small business because it is. For me, that meant studying query letters and looking up resources and figuring out how this process worked alongside writing the book. I really don’t recommend waiting until you are ready to send the query out to start writing the query. I just kind of treated it as another writing project. I went through draft after draft after draft. Then by the time I was actually ready to do it, I felt good about it. Those are my thoughts.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you. Thank you for having them so ready. This is perfect. Everything is served up on a platter today. I love it. Thank you so much for coming on. Thanks for writing this fantastic book. Good luck with the launch and everything else.

Stephanie: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course.

Stephanie Wrobel, DARLING ROSE GOLD