#1 New York Times bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking Susan Cain joins Zibby to talk about her latest book, Bittersweet. The two discuss the power and prevalence of experiencing feelings of bittersweetness, the effect the pandemic had on some of the people involved in Susan’s research, and when she felt bittersweet feelings of longing in her own life. Susan also shares the note her husband wrote that continues to encourage her to write and which projects she’s developing next. Check out both Susan’s brand new TED Talk and Bittersweet playlist!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Susan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole.

Susan Cain: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I was just talking about the podcast I did today. I was interviewing Tunde, this Peloton instructor who wrote a book called Speak. It had so much loss and all this stuff. I was on her podcast. I was like, “You know, you need to read Bittersweet by Susan Cain.” It’s so funny, too, because you talk so much about — not so much, but one of the things in your quiz is about old souls. I’ve always identified as an old soul. I’ve been talking and saying, we should do old souls Facebook groups and #OldSouls. I don’t know if that exists.

Susan: Oh, my gosh, that’s actually such a good question. I wonder if that does exist. That is a brilliant idea, old souls Facebook group. I’ll start it with you if you want.

Zibby: Yeah, let’s do it. It is a particular sensibility. I feel, also, that old souls tend to recognize each other on some level very quickly.

Susan: Absolutely. There’s a kind of instant recognition.

Zibby: Right?

Susan: Yes.

Zibby: Sorry to have jumped in with all that. Maybe I should back up. Susan, could you tell listeners, please, what is your book about?

Susan: My book, it’s about the state of bittersweetness, which is not something that we talk about that much in our culture. To the extent that we talk about it, we kind of relegate it to a specific moment. Oh, I was feeling bittersweet last Friday for five minutes. It’s actually a much deeper and more profound state than that. It’s a state in which we’re very aware that joy and sorrow always go together. Light and dark always go together. Everything is impermanent, including everything and everyone who we love most. Somehow, mixed up in that awareness is also an awareness of how incredibly beautiful everything is. You don’t get one without the other. The awareness of the impermanence and the awareness of the beauty all go together. You were talking about, old souls recognize each other. One of the things that I found is that some people really are more prone to this state of bittersweetness that I’m describing, but it seems as if there are different ways to get there. Some people are sort of born that way, which is what you were alluding to. Then some people get there based on just having experienced enough of life, its trials and its triumphs. Somehow, you start to appreciate what, to me, life really is.

Zibby: I do think that enough loss and trauma sort of fast-tracks you there if you’re not aware of it. Not for everyone, but I do think there is that. I want to take issue with some of the stuff in your quiz because I did not get as high a score as I would’ve liked. I like doing really well on quizzes. I assume that the best I could’ve done was ten, but I only got a 7.6. I know that still makes me a true connoisseur of the place where light and dark meet and all. Some of these questions in the quiz — do you prefer poetry to sports? I like doing sports more than I like writing poetry, but I don’t feel like that makes me less —

Susan: — Oh, yeah, but then I said — you didn’t read the parenthetical.

Zibby: Maybe you find the poetry in sports.

Susan: Yes. You have to know I wrote this coming from an incredibly sports-obsessed household. My husband and my two boys, it’s all sports, all the time, all day long. It was actually my husband who said to me, “That moment where your team wins the game, especially if you didn’t expect them to and there’s this collective joy in the crowd,” he’s like, “that’s exactly what you’re talking about.” It’s just through a different manifestation. Maybe you should take the quiz and rewrite the answer to that question. I don’t know.

Zibby: Okay, so maybe I’ll change my answer on that. Now I got clarification. That’s why I wanted to talk about it. Are you moved to goosebumps several times a day? I am not moved several times a day, but I would say regularly. I would say almost daily, several times a week. I got a low score on that too. Anyway, that’s it.

Susan: That’s still a lot of goosebumps. Also, I do want to say — I know you’re joking and everything. The quiz is designed so that you get a high or low score, but it’s not like if you get a high score it means you are especially prone to these bittersweet states of being. My point is not that it’s better to be a bittersweet type than to not be. It’s more like, this is one type of power. Then there’s many other types also. This is the one I happen to be talking about. I know you’re joking, but I just want to make it clear for .

Zibby: I know. You weren’t suggesting that everybody tries to get a good score on this. This is just my own neuroses at work.

Susan: I totally get it. I will tell you, I did an event one day with my friend Angela Duckworth, the psychologist who talks all about grit. She’s like, “You know, I just did the quiz. I got a zero.” I think she literally answered zero to every single question on the quiz.

Zibby: Really?

Susan: Yeah.

Zibby: Wow. Who knows?

Susan: Human variety is just so endless, which I love.

Zibby: I love that too. There was so much great information in the book. What I particularly loved and found myself with my flashlight scanning through the pages highlighting in my brain was all the stuff about you. I loved that, you, your family, your father’s horrific — and your mother’s, but the Holocaust losses that they suffered and how your mother had to witness her father’s devastation and your fractured relationship with your mom and all the things that came after. Even watching your mom sort of lose her mind and then come back to you in this very bittersweet moment, that’s the classic example. How you personally have navigated through life, I just found it so fascinating and so powerful that you shared all your stories to really get the messages to all sink in because there’s been a lot. You’ve had a lot go on, as many people, but you really have. It’s a really powerful story.

Susan: Wow, thank you. It’s funny because my very dear, old college friend, Judith, read the book and was like, “Next time, you have to promise me that you’re just writing a straight-up memoir.” She felt the same way that you did.

Zibby: Not to say this wasn’t great. It was still great. I just was like, I want more of that, so maybe your next project or something.

Susan: I know, but it’s so hard for me to do it because my last book was Quiet. I am, by nature, a private person, so I don’t really write all those things lightly. I think that whatever stress I had before this book came out, so much of it had to do with those personal revelations. I also felt like the only way to really tell the truth that I was trying to express in this book was to also make it personal as well.

Zibby: Quiet, by the way, was required reading for my kid’s school, all the families at the school.

Susan: You’re kidding. Really? That’s amazing to know. Wow. Thank you.

Zibby: I thought you’d like that.

Susan: I do.

Zibby: Although, you’re probably not surprised. There were a few things that I literally wrote — you had this whole section on wounded healers. I just loved that. Tell me more about that and how the people who get the most affected by things are sometimes the most willing to help other people through it.

Susan: We’re actually seeing it now with the pandemic, which is kind of interesting. I wrote in the book about how after 9/11, there was suddenly this huge rush of people signing up for Teach for America and applying for jobs as teachers and firefighters. We’re seeing the same thing now with the pandemic where more people are applying to medical school and nursing school or just revaluating their careers, looking for more meaning. This does seem to be something that happens to us when we go through anything that’s difficult, whether collectively, the way 9/11 or the pandemic was, or personally. There’s a response to dive deeper into meaning and to take the pain and turn it into something else, something generative and something productive. I just became really fascinated by the different ways in which people have done that. The person who started Mothers Against Drunk Driving had lost a child to a drunk driver and then turns that pain into this organization. In the book, I tell the story about Maya Angelou, who had this really horrific childhood in so many different ways. It had been so horrific that she actually, when she was a girl, stopped speaking for five years to anyone but her brother. She literally didn’t say a word until she was about thirteen. A woman in her neighborhood kind of took her under her wing and knew how much she loved to read. She started handing her books and saying, “You have to read them out loud.” Little by little, that opened her up. Then she becomes this person who transforms from not having been able to speak a word to speaking volumes through memoirs and poetry and plays. That idea, to me, is so transformative. There’s so much that I put into this book, but if I were boiling it down to one message, I would say take whatever pain you can’t get rid of and make that your creative offering or your healing offering or whatever it is.

Zibby: I love that. I went through a period of time as a kid where I could not talk. I had major social anxiety. I had this whole summer program where I spent — the last two weeks, I could not say a word. All I did was analyze conversation patterns and think, how are they doing this? How are these words coming out so easily? I spent all this time. My daughter is going to a dance tonight. I was just like, oh, my gosh, these dances where I couldn’t say a word. Not a word. Now she’s going. She’s the opposite. It’s not going to be an issue. All the words that you don’t say, though, you still think them so intensely. I think there’s something to that whooshing out, all the stuff. Your brain is still — I don’t know. Now I feel like I can’t stop talking.

Susan: I was just going to say it doesn’t seem to me like an accident that you’re now doing — you just told me you’re doing five podcast interviews today, which I get isn’t maybe your typical day. To go from what you just described to doing five podcast interviews a day, that’s not an accident, I think.

Zibby: Yeah. I have conversations all the time. I love to listen. I’m talking too much about myself right now.

Susan: No, not at all.

Zibby: It’s in your service to your overall messages from your last book and even this.

Susan: I think it is very much this book too. It seems to me that you’re taking that past pain and —

Zibby: Yeah, it’s a response.

Susan: — and turning it on its head. It’s a response to it.

Zibby: I’ll send you my memoir. I write all about it.

Susan: I really want to read all about that.

Zibby: It’s coming out this summer. You also talked about Rene Denfeld, who’s amazing. I love her books. She was on this podcast too. Even just rereading about her suffering and then how she became the district attorney — I’m not going to say it right — a prosecutor for whatever, for sexual abuse and crimes like the ones she had suffered herself — I knew she had taken in foster children and that she had two suicides in her family. Yet here she is, this best-selling author. It’s amazing how people respond to the same crises, how she responded, yet her mother and brother, to the same environment, literally couldn’t survive it.

Susan: Exactly. I do think that we have two different choices when we’re faced with any kind of pain. One choice, it’s to not really grapple with it — then what can happen is that you end up taking it out on yourself or on other people — or to grapple with it and try to turn it into something else. Even as I’m saying that, I don’t mean that in any judgmental way. What Rene Denfeld’s family went through, what her mother went through, what her brother went through were so horrific. I think anybody might have made the choice to end their lives after that kind of pain. Then to know that there are these miraculous outcomes like hers, to me, the fact that she has created this foster family that she’s written about so movingly, like how difficult it was at the beginning with these children who she took in and how she just kept loving them so steadfastly and kind of turned them, by will, into a family, I have goosebumps, as we were saying about the quiz. We were just talking about it.

Zibby: I do too. I’m going to track, actually. Maybe I do have them twice a day. I don’t know. Maybe I undersold myself. There’s another author, Stephanie Thornton Plymale, who literally grew up homeless. Her mom was mentally ill. She was one of five siblings. I think five. They literally had to eat seaweed off the beach for food. Some of her siblings did not make it. She has totally made it. She’s an author. She runs an interior design college. She talks a lot about the different effects on all of this trauma and how everybody goes in different ways. I’m getting off topic from your book a little. Maybe not. It’s all this whole notion of getting over grief. I also love when you said, what are you longing for? and how that should guide you as well. It’s such a simple yet such a good question. Then you have this whole thing. You even quote Nora McInerny, who I also love, about how you can move forward. Maybe it’s not today when you’re going to move forward, but you’re going to move forward at some point. That’s okay.

Susan: You know what? We were just talking about the memoir part of the book. Should I tell one of the stories of what happened to me with longing?

Zibby: Yes. Please, please, please. Yes.

Susan: I went through this whole major transition when I was in my thirties. I had been a corporate lawyer. No. Really, I have to start the story by saying I had wanted to be a writer since I was four years old. I had just gone in the direction of practicality and wanting to be able to support myself and all that, and so I became a corporate lawyer, which I kind of enjoyed in a lot of ways and also felt like I was in a foreign land the whole time. When I was in my seventh year as a seventh-year associate, this senior partner came into my office and told me that I actually wasn’t going to be making partner. I had, at the time, this sensation of the whole world collapsing around me because I had working like a manic, sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, for all these years in the service of this goal. It was suddenly gone. At the same time, there was this sense of a door opening up. I literally left the firm that afternoon. I was gone two hours later. Then a few weeks after that, ended a seven-year relationship I had been in that had always felt wrong and moved out of that apartment that we had been living in.

I was now in my early thirties and sort of floating around with no career and no love and no apartment. I fell immediately into a relationship that became one of those obsessive relationships, the kind that you just cannot extricate yourself from no matter what you do. The object of my obsession was this guy. He was a very lit-up kind of person. He was a musician. He was a lyricist. I couldn’t get out. I would regale my poor friend Naomi with all the stories about him over and over and over. Then one day, Naomi said to me, “If you’re this obsessed, it’s because he represents something that you’re longing for.” She said, “What are you longing for?” This really was one of those cinematic epiphany moments. I was like, oh, my gosh, of course, he represents the world of books and writing and art that I have always wanted to be part of my whole life. I was on this major detour. That’s who he is to me. As soon as I understood that, it was like the obsession was gone. It had melted away. I still thought he was great, but I was free. I was mentally free. That’s when I really started writing for real in a very deep way.

Zibby: Your husband’s note to you, by the way, I got goosebumps from that, when he was like, keep writing. It was so cool. That’s amazing. I want to give that guy a hug.

Susan: I’m looking behind me because I have that note framed up in my office. It’s right over there.

Zibby: Aw, I love that.

Susan: He’s still like that. We should tell people what we mean.

Zibby: Yes, sorry.

Susan: A few years later, I met my husband to be and showed him some of — at the time, I was working on this memoir in sonnet form. I showed him some of my poems. He sent me an email later that night that basically said something like — I don’t know if you have it.

Zibby: Wait, I got it. I’m going to curse. He wrote you back. Later that night he said, “Holy shit. Holy shit. Keep writing. Drop everything. Write.” Then in all caps, “Write woman, write.” I got goosebumps again. I’m up to three, right?

Susan: See, you’ve had them several times a day already. He’s still like that. This book, when it hit the best-seller list, he’s jumping up and down more than I am.

Zibby: It’s so cute. I love that. Wow, it’s amazing. Really amazing.

Susan: What I say to people is, what are you longing for? Very often, the thing you think you’re longing for is a symbol of what you’re really longing for. If you’re longing for the perfect real estate, as many of us do — great real estate is great, but it’s also often symbolic of deeper longings for home. What does home mean? To ask ourselves those questions, I have a whole list of questions in the book that people can ask themselves as prompts.

Zibby: Maybe I should stop going to open houses so often. I don’t know what that says about me, what I’m still longing for. I don’t know.

Susan: Oh, my god, we all do it, though.

Zibby: Right? It’s so fun. Did you end up, by the way, moving to Greenwich Village into your — I know you were longing for that at some point in the book.

Susan: Yeah, I did, actually, but not — what I had been longing for in the book was a red-brick Greenwich Village townhouse. I did end up moving to Greenwich Village, but in the West Village. I lived there for some years, but not in the big townhouse I had dreamed of. I just had a little apartment. I was so thrilled. That was all I needed.

Zibby: What has it been like to leave something so predictable and that had such a track, pursue what you love, and that now you see it repaying you in spades? What is it like? What’s it like now to have another best-selling book? What does that feel like?

Susan: Oh, gosh. I feel like the luckiest person in the world. I really, really do. The best thing is, I get these letters every day. I’ve been getting them ever since Quiet came out. Now I’m getting really similar ones with Bittersweet of people saying, I feel like I have permission to be myself. I feel understood. I feel seen. Realizing there are so many other people like me out in the world or giving expression to what people feel, I just feel incredibly, incredibly lucky to do that. To me, the whole reason I ever loved reading in the first place — I don’t know if you feel this way with your room full of books — the moment where a writer expresses something that you’d experienced yourself, but here they are expressing it for you. Hopefully, they’re doing it in a beautiful way too. To me, those are some of the most sublime moments of my life, when that happens. The reason I became a writer was just to try to enter into that kind of — contract isn’t the right word, but that relationship between the reader and the writer. When I get those letters and I know it’s happened, that, to me, that’s what I’m in it for.

Zibby: It’s amazing.

Susan: I do feel really lucky. I will say, when I first started writing when I left law, I never ever in a million years thought that I could truly make a career out of it. I thought I could make a hobby out of it. I promised myself that I would try to get something published by the age of seventy-five. If I do that, then I’m good. Then I’ve met the goal.

Zibby: It’s nice you gave yourself some time.

Susan: That took the pressure off.

Zibby: That’s true.

Susan: I didn’t want this thing that I loved to be so pressure-filled.

Zibby: I’m interviewing a woman today who wrote a memoir who’s eighty. In the book, she was like, well, I’m running out of time. If I’m ever going to tell my story, it’s going to be now, so here it is.

Susan: Wow, that’s so great. During the years that I was first starting to write, I used to collect stories like that of people whose first book was when they were in their sixties or seventies or eighties. I found that so comforting.

Zibby: Yes, it’s nice that it’s not like women in acting or something where your stock seems to plumet the older you get. There are fewer and fewer roles. For women writers, it’s sort of an endless terrain. I feel like the sweet spot is forties, fifties, honestly. I feel like most writers I’m talking to are in those forties, fifties, even sixties.

Susan: Oh, that’s so interesting. Do you think that’s because it’s who you happen to be drawn to, or do you think that really is when most women writers are in their prime?

Zibby: Those are when I think the books are the best. I don’t mean to say anything negative about younger writers. Maybe it is that I’m not reading YA right now. Younger people sometimes write for younger people. I don’t know. I feel like there’s some sort of wisdom or something that kicks in a little bit older. People used to tell me this when I would try to write novels at twenty-five. They’re like, what do you know? I’m like, what do you mean? I’ve been through so much. There’s some perspective or something that makes it —

Susan: — There’s a seasoning.

Zibby: Something. It just makes it a little better. Not that it can’t be good before. I don’t know. Maybe it is that I’m drawn to people who are writing about things that I relate to at this age. Who knows?

Susan: You know I had that experience. I wrote about it in Bittersweet. I had this really difficult relationship with my mother. When I was in college, I tried to write about it in fiction form in this creative writing class that I was taking. The teacher told me — she read it. She was like, “You should put this in a drawer and not take it out again for thirty years because you’re just too close to the material.” I did now write it thirty years later.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Never too late.

Susan: Never too late.

Zibby: Last question before we go. Are you working on another book now? Are you taking time just to promote this book or revel in this? What’s coming up?

Susan: I am spending a lot of time talking about Bittersweet for now. I am developing a podcast right now. That’ll probably start sometime in the fall, I would say. I’m also developing courses around Bittersweet and around Quiet. These are courses that are delivered to people’s phones. You get a text every morning with either voice or a written text from me. It’s a really new way to consume education. If people are interested in that, the information will be on my website, which is Then I do have an idea for my next book, but I feel like I need a break before I start writing the next one. That’ll be a while.

Zibby: Awesome. Susan, it was so nice getting to know you through your book and then in Zoom-person. I hope our paths continue to cross. I really enjoyed connecting with you.

Susan: Me too. I would really love that. I want to read your memoir.

Zibby: Okay, I’ll send it to you.

Susan: Did you say it’s coming out this summer?

Zibby: July 1st.

Susan: Wow. Congratulations. That’s exciting.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day. Thank you so much.

Susan: Same to you. Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Susan: Bye-bye.


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