Zibby Owens: This is a special recording of a podcast I did with Susan Isaacs at an event at Temple Emanu-El in New York City for their women’s group who invited me to join and interview her. I’ll be reading her bio now. Then everything else will have taken place at Temple Emanu-El. I hope you enjoy our conversation which we did live in front of an audience.

Here’s her bio. Susan Isaacs is the best-selling author of fourteen novels including her latest, It Takes One to Know One. Her first novel, Compromising Positions, became a New York Times best seller and a movie with Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia for which Susan wrote the screenplay. She also wrote and coproduced Hello Again with Shelley Long, Gabriel Byrne, and Judith Ivey. Shining Through, her fourth novel, was turned into a movie with Michael Douglas and Liam Neeson. She has reviewed books for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Newsday, and has contributed op-eds, essays, and more to many other publications. She was a freelance political speechwriter and a senior editor at Seventeen magazine. She is the recipient of the Writers for Writers Award, the Marymount Manhattan Writing Center Award, and the John Steinbeck Award. She’s chairman of the board at Poets & Writers, a literary organization, also a past sponsor of this podcast by the way, and a past president of Mystery Writers of America. Originally from Brooklyn, Susan attended Queens College. She currently lives in Long Island with her husband.

Thanks, everybody, for being here. I’m going to be doing this as a live podcast for “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I will be releasing this episode in the coming weeks, if you care to listen or tell your kids or grandkids about it. That would be great. I’m really excited to be here with Susan Isaacs. Thanks so much for doing this with me today.

Susan Isaacs: Delighted.

Zibby: Your latest book, Takes One to Know You, can you please tell everybody here what this novel is about?

Susan: It is about a woman who wants normality but also wants adventure. Corie Geller, who’s the protagonist, has joined the FBI after 9/11. She’s an Arabic speaker and was absolutely great at interviewing people and getting information. She had a thrilling and sometimes dangerous career at the bureau, but she was burning out. Except she met a lovely man, a federal judge, a widower. She wound up marrying him, adopting his daughter, and moving to the suburbs. She grew up in Queens. Even fifteen miles east in Nassau County was culture shock. She joins a group of freelance people who work from home just to get to know people in the community. She starts thinking that one of the men in the group is — something’s not right. Now look, she’s used to hiding her identity. She doesn’t talk about having been in the bureau. She still does some contract work for them. She’s saying, there’s something that he’s hiding.

Her best friend says, “Maybe you’re just looking for a story, a nice little adventure because you need it.” It’s kind of boring. She suggests — her friend is a lifestyle designer and thinks the answer to everything is redecoration. It’s about Corie’s decision to follow up on this guy who just doesn’t seem right. She says, maybe it takes one to know one. She enlists her dad who is a retired and depressed former NYPD detective. It’s really the story of a search that becomes slightly dangerous, but she can handle herself. She’s been trained. She also knows Krav Maga, which is the Israeli form of martial arts of self-defense that they used in the IDF. Then it becomes even more dangerous. It’s really almost a question of not whether she’ll live or die, but how long she’ll live. It seems hours, if not days. Does she get out of it? What happens? Also, it’s about her relationships. Also, it’s a satire on suburbia, on women’s relationships with women. For me, the best after part was part of the book tour, which was — I’m babbling away.

Zibby: You’re doing my job for me. This is great. I’m just going to hang out.

Susan: The book tour was terrific. Someone came over to me afterwards, somewhere Midwest, and said to me, “I am so glad you’re not dead.” I said, “Well, you know what? I am too. It gives me great comfort.” She said, “No, because then you know there’s going to be another story.” I love that. I loved her. Yes, there is going to be — I’m writing the sequel now. It’s great fun. I got the New York trifecta of The Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsday all gave it fabulous reviews. It was a good feeling.

Zibby: This brings me to a question I had. Phoebe, who’s one of the characters in your novel, and also my daughter’s name by the way, says to Corie the protagonist, she says, “How’s things in the pub biz? I read real books are making a comeback.” I wondered if you think it has to do with that need for people just to hear stories and be entertained even in the most difficult of times.

Susan: Yes, I absolutely do. I think people need narrative. My daughter has her PhD in philosophy. Her field is aesthetics. She believes we’re hardwired for narrative. We need a story, not necessarily once upon a time, but we need to make sense out of things. We need to hear about other experiences. It’s not only books. I love the name of your podcast. Actually when I was a mom, I did have time to read. I had, I’d say, a bad crime fiction addiction and would go the library and read three, four, five mysteries a week. At some point, you become deranged. I said, I can do this. That started me on my first book. Look, we all know that there’s — this is the golden age of TV. There’s wonderful narrative on TV. The series and the streaming series reminds me very much of the era of Dickens and Dostoevsky when their work used to come out as a serial. People would wait for the next. When I was reading all those mysteries, there’s now much more competition, but people are still reading and I think are going back to books. Phoebe is — what is it? Not the brightest candle on the menorah, or the bulb on the tree in her case. I don’t know why that’s true. There’s a comfort in holding a book. I think it’s also something visual. Even though you get the book jacket on the e-book, it seems when you pick up your iPad or your Kindle or whatever that you’re picking up the same book over and over. There’s a kind of sensual pleasure in picking up a fat book, a thin book, a large one, a small one, looking at the jacket art, trying not to read the flap copy because sometimes it gives away too much but then succumbing. There’s much pleasure in that. They are making — and even among younger readers.

Zibby: I agree. I’m trying to help moms get back into that. I feel like it’s the easiest escape. Just open a book, and you’re in this whole other world.

Susan: It’s also for moms who are so stressed out not only by their responsibilities, but by their kids constantly moving their thumbs around and being on their devices that you need a kind of quiet trip, a silent trip to another universe. Books get you there. I listened to part of the audio of this. It was very well-done, the audiobook. There are times that it’s nice to be told a story, rather. Obviously, I knew the ending. I have, myself, gone back to the book.

Zibby: Let’s talk about the journey of how you got here. You’re reading all this crime fiction in the library. You think to yourself, I can do this. Why not try? Then your first book, Compromising Positions, you wrote it when your kids were little. It was chosen for the Book of the Month Club, optioned for paperback, sold to the movies, translated into thirty languages, and obviously become a best seller. What was that like for you in your life at that time?

Susan: Actually, it was hugely exciting, but it was not a major change except I had a career and I was now part of a community of writers. When you’re living, as I was, in the suburbs and your kids are in preschool or in the early grades and your friends tend to be the mothers of kids your kid’s age, etc., you don’t walk around with a Marabou boa and four-inch heels. It’s a life that forces ordinariness on you in terms of your activities. In terms of what goes on in your head, obviously anything goes. You don’t have to be a writer. It changed my life in that I had something to do every day that stopped at three o’clock. Then I did my mother thing. I can’t say I’m a mother the way this new generation of mothers are who just put so much thought into a Halloween costume. Both my children now live within ten minutes of us. They’re lovely people, a philosopher, a lawyer. They married wonderful people. Their children are great people. All of that said, I didn’t find them riveting constantly. They seem to have survived. That’s why I think I’ve really covered the waterfront in my fiction and written about people with different backgrounds. What I want to say is that even when the books start getting read in Bulgarian and Japanese, you know it’s not your relatives buying them.

There’s a universality about fiction, but there’s also the universality that women have a life and thoughts and needs that aren’t what they’re “supposed” to be. They’re far more complex, far more in need of excitement and adventure, filled with curiosity, and capable of great acts of courage and friendship, and that’s just the woman whose kid is in your kid’s third grade class. I enjoy doing it. I enjoy getting into a life other than mine. In Corie’s case, she adopted her husband’s daughter. The daughter is not the stereotypical step — well, initially a stepchild, or even a teenager. She’s a nice, bright kid. Cories turns out to be a better person than I, but still close enough to me that I feel her thoughts. In another book, say Magic Hour, my narrator, my protagonist, was a Vietnam vet, Suffolk County homicide cop, recovering alcoholic, recovering heroin addict from Vietnam, and half Protestant, half Catholic. I lived his life as well. That’s the joy of it. When I’m in that other universe, I leave this one. I leave myself. It’s the same thing, I think, for you as readers. Sometimes when the phone rings or something happens, you close the book and it takes just a second for you to reorient yourself. That happens to me.

Zibby: Me too. You even have a line in there with Corie again who says, “Maybe I was spending too much time these days in make-believe worlds. An excess of fiction can make reality seem supremely dull with its crappy dialogue and lack of coincidences. It could lead to an unfulfilled longing for scintillation.” Perhaps your feeling this way has led to all these stories.

Susan: Sure.

Zibby: I was also wondering — Corie, the husband she marries, his former wife, Dawn, ends up dying during a Pilates session. She has undiagnosed heart condition. She comes in and becomes the new stepmother and then adoptive mother to the daughter. When you put yourself in all these worlds, the Vietnam vet, Corie’s life, do you interview people who actually have had these things happen to them? Or do you just use your amazing empathy skills to insert yourself into their lives? Do you research? How do you do it?

Susan: I do a lot of research because number one, you don’t want to make any egregious mistakes and give the wrong year of the Battle of Britain or whatever and embarrass yourself. Some of the work is easy since I write a fair amount of crime fiction, mysteries. My husband is a criminal defense lawyer, but was in the Southern District. He was an assistant US attorney and then left. He was an assistant under Bob Morgenthau when Bob was — I know he’s a member. He was a member of this congregation. Then he came back years later as a chief of the criminal division. He still practices that. He knows procedure. He knows people who have gone on to be in the bureau, in the CIA, in various law enforcement, which makes it slightly easier. I’m a great believer in having lunch with cops or lunch with former spies or lunch with designers, whoever can — or interviews, just someone who can not only give me the facts so I don’t embarrass myself, but give me the language, give me the sense of how they talk about it, how they view, and their professional jargon. I remember going into the Suffolk County homicide headquarters. They have a big sign up there, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

When I was talking to one of the cops there, I was questioning him about something he said without confronting him because he was doing me a favor by talking, but there was just a little question of ethics. He said to me, “Sue, you know, to be a good cop, you’ve got to have walked on both sides of the street.” Now, I don’t know that that’s true or not, but it certainly was true for him. He probably was a good cop. It also became true for my protagonist, Steve Brady, in the Magic Hour. He had walked on both sides of the streets and ultimately chose the right one. The novel is about his coming of middle age. You do have to do your homework.

For Red, White, and Blue, which is about — it’s a saga. It’s about a Jewish family comes over, a brother and a sister. One stays in New York. The other gets caught cheating in a poker game and hops a train, gets caught cheating on the train, and gets thrown out in Wyoming, which actually happened to a friend’s grandfather. He changes his name, settles in Wyoming. This is the story of their great-grandchildren who turn out to be a Wyoming FBI agent and a Jewish reporter. I made up the Jewish News, which I call the JewNew, or she calls it the JewNew. She wants to find out and go there — it was about domestic terrorism. This was written right around the time of — I might have even started it before the Oklahoma City bombing. She said, “Why do people who don’t know me, who’ve never met a Jew in their life want me dead?” This is an investigation. Of course, they never find out that they’re cousins. They never find out they’re related. What happens to people in America? I was fascinated by that. A friend of mine who was president of Queens College and then of Stony Brook grew up in a tiny town in Texas where they were the only Jewish family. She gave me a book called Pioneer Jews. That become my go-to book and really inspired me.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about your process of writing. Every book you’ve written has become a best seller, which is pretty amazing. That’s crazy. How do you do that? Do you ever racked with anxiety or nerves starting a book thinking, is this going to be a bomb?

Susan: Yes, every time.

Zibby: Every time. How do you push past that?

Susan: With difficulty and occasionally a little medication, truthfully. Overall, you get to a point where you know this is something I’ve been through before. It doesn’t stop the anxiety or the hesitation to leap in, but you know that you get past it. That’s reassuring. When I did my first novel, my daughter was in preschool, or as they used to call it, nursery school, for three hours a day. I put her on the little school bus. She went off. Three hours later, she’s back. An alarm rang so I had time to get downstairs and get her off the bus. Those were my working hours. My husband was then chief of the criminal division. He couldn’t babysit because he was working late hours. I bought a book, something like Writing a Novel or How to Write a Novel. It says, make up a list of characters. Make up an outline of no more than four, five, six pages. So I did. It’s like the Montessori method of tying a shoelace. You break it down. You break down a complex task into small pieces. I can make up a list of characters’ names. I can write an outline. Then as you’re writing the outline, you’re developing the story. You’re developing the structure and bringing in more characters. The first one was a whodunit, and I had to find someone to kill. I was undergoing some dental work —

Audience Member: — The dentist?

Susan: The periodontist, yes, on the theory of, who better deserves to die? Then the second novel was Close Relations which was deliberately not a mystery, which was a novel based on my experience as a political speechwriter. It’s about politics-politics, about a New York State Democratic Primary, so it’s a comedy. It’s also about sexual politics and family politics. They want her to marry a certain guy. She doesn’t want to. It’s taken me just about forty years to come to the point where I wanted to write a series. Then I wanted to make Corie and family and people in the bureau, especially her mom and dad, I wanted to make them rich enough and interesting enough — Corie works, both her job and her cover is a literary scout for contemporary Arabic fiction. I read a lot, in English, of that, contemporary Arabic fiction. All of it is wonderful because you just go into these worlds, some of which really interest me, but I had no idea of the world of Arabic mysteries, of Arabic science fiction, of all this genre writing and how the different cultures affect the work, and the political situation affects the work. It’s been fun.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?

Susan: Sure. Everyone always says write, but that’s simplistic. Before you start you should feel a need to write about something. If something comes into your head, then it’s a job. People don’t view it as a job. They view it as an art or a craft. They wait for the muse to perch on their shoulder and whisper to them. In most cases, it doesn’t work that way. What you have to do is if you already have a job, whether it’s being a mother who stays home or an anesthesiologist or a tap dancer, you have to take on a second job, which is writing. You may not do it five days a week, but you have to be a real stinker of a boss to yourself. You have to say, I’m going to write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, or I’m going to take every Sunday. I’m going to go from three in the afternoon until seven o’clock and write. I’m going to write regularly. It’s going to take me longer because I’m only working — what was that? Four hours? Somebody do the math. I forgot what I said. You have to force yourself to do that. Otherwise, it’ll never happen. If you write three chapters, you should pat yourself on the back. That’s the point that people sort of fade away.

Zibby: Thank you for doing this live podcast with me here at Temple Emanu-El. I really appreciate it.

Susan: Thank you.