“What would you do if the one who got away came back?” This question inspired Tia Williams’ latest novel, Seven Days in June. She talks with Zibby about the invisible struggle of living with debilitating chronic pain and discusses how the publishing landscape is changing for black voices.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Seven Days in June.

Tia Williams: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here. I love your podcast.

Zibby: Thank you.

Tia: Moms don’t have time to read books.

Zibby: Moms don’t have time. I know. Barely had time for this one. No, I’m kidding. Why don’t you start by telling listeners a little bit about what this book is about and what inspired you to write it? Then we can dive into some of the details.

Tia: This book, it’s called Seven Days in June. It’s about two famous authors who randomly meet at a Brooklyn Museum literary function. Sparks immediately fly. Unbeknownst to everyone there, they’re not strangers. They had a seven-day romance, very torrid, very dramatic, in high school. Then they went their separate ways and never spoke again. Over the past fifteen years, they’ve been secretly communicating with each other through their books. I just love a second-chance love trope. It’s one of my favorite things. I’ve never written one. I just love the idea of this love that was so important to you that it’s become mythological, almost, in your mind. Then to be confronted again, I think we all ask that question. What would you do if the one who got away came back? That’s really where it came from. Actually, to tell you absolute truth, I was watching Romeo & Juliet with Leonardo and Claire Danes. I just had this thought. What if Romeo and Juliet hadn’t died? What if they went their separate ways and became totally well-functioning adults with therapy and 401(k)s and everything and met each other in their thirties? Would it still be there? Do soulmates have an expiration date? We don’t know.

Zibby: I love that. I feel like there are some relationships you just can’t shake. They kind of get in there. Why not explore this age-old question that nobody quite knows the answer to? It’s amazing. One of the things I really loved about this book was how to deal with pain, the migraines that the mom had and how you deal with pain while you are raising your child and how to function in a world where you don’t want your pain to be acknowledged or known throughout and sort of having to hide. You had this one quote. “What was it like, the luxury of not hurting?” I know you’ve written about migraines yourself. I just wanted to talk to you about that plot line.

Tia: Eva, like you said, she lives with a chronic disability. It’s an invisible disability, chronic migraines. I too have had chronic migraines since I was nine years old. Mine are intractable, which basically means they’re not curable. They can’t figure out why I have them. I just have to live with it. It’s something I’ve wanted to address in fiction for a while, but it’s so painful to me. I never felt brave enough to go there. I like to keep humor in my stories and a little bit of lightness with the darkness. I didn’t know how to make this funny. I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be normal. I look at my friends, I look at strangers on the train, and I’m like, look at them just living their pain-free lives. Of course, you can never know what’s going on in people’s minds. Just things that other people take for granted, running more than one block, laughing too loud, sneezing, coughing, drinking — I can’t have one drink of anything without landing in the ER the next morning. There’s a lot. It was especially hard when I was a kid because I couldn’t really play, so I was always inside reading and writing, which brings us here. Eva feels like she’s an alien, like she’s a dysfunctional human being. She’s sees the world upside down. Everyone sees it right side up. When you’re operating through this veil of pain, you have to get through an extra layer of struggle to get to the normal place where everyone else is. In order to act like everyone else paying attention in a meeting at work, there’s so much you have to get through to get there. There might be two rounds of pills the half hour before the meeting. You might be pinching your thigh during the meeting to stay awake because the pills have made you so zonked out. Someone may ask you a question, and you pause for five mortifying seconds because you can’t get your brain to work. It sucks. I haven’t read a lot of fun fiction about a protagonist that suffers with a chronic disease.

Zibby: I’m so sorry that that’s something you’ve had to deal with your whole life. You’ve seen every doctor, right? Now, of course, my instinct is to be like, let me try to find you a different doctor. Have you tried this? Have you tried that? I’m sure you’ve had everything done.

Tia: I’ve seen them all. The funny thing — well, it’s not funny. After a while when they see that nothing they are doing is working, they get angry with me and dump me. I’ve been dumped in aggressive ways. “You’re not responding to anything. There’s some issue that isn’t being addressed here. I’ve run every test. You’re just incorrigible. This is just so frustrating.” The doctors take it personally because it stumps them. Then it’s always, “I don’t think we can treat you anymore. You have to find someone else.”

Zibby: What? If you want to try again, I am on the board of Mount Sinai Hospital, so if you want to try with a new team or something.

Tia: I’ve done Montefiore.

Zibby: Mount Sinai.

Tia: Mount Sinai, oh, okay. I don’t know if I’ve been to Mount Sinai.

Zibby: I’m sure there’s nothing more, but I feel like I have to try to help you to get out of this. I love that you put it in fiction and the way that you addressed it. There was humor even throughout the pain. I feel like that difficulty was achieved in the way that you were in bed and the laying over. The sad part was how Eva, and I don’t know if this happened to you or whatever, but how she felt like her pain made her feel so unattractive and how she didn’t want to open up to men because who wants to date her? I think there was some line like, who wants to date someone so ugly? Her first guy left her. How do you get over that? Tell me about that.

Tia: It’s like the third — Princess Diana was like, there were three of us in the relationship. Migraines are my Camilla. There’s a third person in all of my relationships. We make plans. I may not be able to go. I may have to go home early. I might have to disappoint your parents because I can’t show up for that dinner. If I have an episode, it changes your plans. It changes what you wanted to do for the day. My diaries when I’m a teenager, I write about pain like it’s a gargoyle sitting on my head or sitting on my shoulder all the time. It’s ugly. Feeling bad is ugly. It’s hard to feel attractive and sparkly when you didn’t sleep the night before because you were having suicide dreams. I feel like I’m going to cry. It’s that tough. It’s hard to feel attractive. I remember being on a first date once. We were at some restaurant on the Lower East Side. I remember focusing in on my California roll with everything I had because if I hadn’t, I knew I was going to throw up. I don’t remember anything this idiot said. I was just staring at my California roll hoping that it keeps me together. That’s one of those things where you’re like, god, I just wish I were normal. No one’s normal. Everyone has something. It’s the things that people take for granted that I have to and Eva has to fight through. It’s hard. So yeah, you feel ugly.

Zibby: I’m sorry. It’s so crazy because I’m looking at you, you’re obviously gorgeous. Your whole career has been in a beauty, or for a long time. Maybe Freud would have something to say about that.

Tia: I think so. Really, it’s no accident.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I’m sure there are groups and stuff. I’m sorry, I feel like I keep trying to take care of you like you’re a close friend or somebody. There are probably other people who are in your situation.

Tia: There are.

Zibby: I hate the fact that you were embarrassed to even write about it when it’s something that’s such a part of you. There’s no shame. You didn’t do it to yourself. Most people with chronic pain, this is nothing you did.

Tia: I know. It’s just, most people don’t understand it. It’s the other thing of, everyone’s had a headache here and there if they haven’t had their coffee yet or if they’re hungover. You tell people you have migraines and they’re like, oh, yeah, I’ve had one before. Do you want a Tylenol? I have some Advil. It’s like, I have oxycodone in my bag. Granted, this is the early two thousands when that was happening. They’re not allowed to prescribe it to me anymore. People don’t get it. They just think you’re tired or stressed or dramatic because you’re not bleeding. You’re not limping. You’re not in a wheelchair. You don’t have crutches. You don’t have this outward-facing disability or illness, so it’s really hard to believe. I’ve had people close to me not believe it. It’s a hard thing to share. Also, people look at me and they’re like, what kind of problems could you have? I keep it to myself. I’ve always made up lies about why I have to skip out on something or go home early or not drink or can’t go to a concert, things like that. It’s just easier than saying, my head hurts. It also sounds like you’re complaining.

Zibby: I do those things all the time too, and I don’t even have an excuse. I go home early.

Tia: I’m out. Bye. What’s it called, an Irish goodbye, where you just sort of slip out without saying goodbye to anyone?

Zibby: Totally, oh, my gosh. Tell me, then, about your love of reading as a child. You wrote somewhere that you wished that there had been some sort of black Scarlett O’Hara or that none of the characters you were reading felt like you. Yet you were just diving into book after book. That inspired you, in part, to want to write fiction the way that you see the world. Tell me about that.

Tia: I was a voracious, voracious reader, and always reading age-inappropriate books. I was in third grade, literally had ingested the entire Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins canon.

Zibby: I was like that too. I read Judith Krantz, Princess Daisy.

Tia: All of them. Mistral’s Daughter.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I went into my mom’s section and I was just like, .

Tia: Absolutely, so good, then VC Andrews and all those. I was also a massive film buff. My parents are, so we were always watching old Hollywood movies. Obviously, unless you’re looking for a maid or a slave, there aren’t black people in any thirties, forties movies. What I did when I would watch these movies and read the books that I was reading, I would recast it in my mind as black people. This is totally screwed up, but I would watch Gone with the Wind, which is one of the most racist movies ever put out by Hollywood, by the way, and I would recast them as black people, which is insane to think that Scarlett — what? It’s just nuts. I wanted to read big, dramatic love stories about glamorous women like Billy Ikehorn in Scruples or a Jude Deveraux heroine or Nora Roberts. There weren’t any books starring me in any of those scenarios. Then when I moved to New York in ’97 right after college to work in fashion magazines, I was a beauty editor. I worked at Elle and Glamour and Lucky and Teen People and Essence, all over the place. I saw black women and men living those lives in these books that I would read that were cast completely with white people. I was like, why don’t we write about the black gallery owner or the black artist, the black writer, the black financer? Financier? Financer? Wall Street man? Bro?

Zibby: Financier.

Tia: We’re everything. We’re all things. Then we only see the media — so often, especially when I was growing up in the eighties and nineties, we were always symbols of oppression, which is so dehumanizing. It’s also centering whiteness. It’s like, what are black people in relation to white people? We are so much more than the injustices put upon us by white people and white lawmakers. We are our own thing. I’ve always been driven to write these big, iconic stories and make blackness — turn it into some sort of iconography because I didn’t have that. I was missing that. God knows I don’t want any other little girls, first of all, to watch Gone with the Wind, but second of all, to try to cast in their mind, a black woman in Atlanta running a plantation and owning enslaved black people. That is the most insane thing ever. Then also, wanting black people to inhabit a space where it’s like, this is the black version of this white thing, this is the black version of a Jackie Collins’ book, no, we’re not the black versions of something. We’re ourselves. We’re funny. We have sex. We’re dorky. We’re boring. We’re scientists. We’re architects. We’re construction workers. We’re everything. I’m tired of seeing us just one way.

Zibby: Wow. You have this quote in the book about even not wanting to be on this panel because she said she’s woke recreationally, not professionally. She thought that she was in too deep with the panel she was assigned to.

Tia: I feel like that sometimes because I have friends that write books that are deconstructing race in America or these really intense racial discourse. I write fun books about love and sex. Sometimes I’m asked to comment on these things. I’m like, ask my friend. I don’t know. Yes, I feel all these things very deeply, but around my dinner table. It’s a whole different skill set to get up in front of people and articulate these things in a way that — it’s a true skill because if you come out the gate offending people, they’re not going to learn anything. There’s a delicateness that you have to have. You have to be succinct and get the point across quickly. If you belabor it, you might make the audience feel bad. Then they turn on you. It’s a whole thing. Hats off to my friends that are woke professionally while I get to stand in the shadows and applaud them silently.

Zibby: Although, it’s funny, I’m interviewing Naima Coster literally right after this, and she wrote in one essay that she feels bad because in her work, she doesn’t celebrate what you do. She’s like, I don’t have enough black joy and love. Maybe mine is too dark. I just feel like there’s no prescribed path. Everyone’s just trying to help.

Tia: It’s so true. Honestly, they’re two different sides of the same coin. What I’m doing is just as revolutionary as what she’s doing because no one believed in black joy ten years ago. When I was selling books at the beginning of my career, it was like, okay, but can we talk more about how your main character’s struggling being a black woman in the fashion industry? They wanted some angle about oppression. It’s like trauma porn. You couldn’t just exist in a fun story for the sake of being there. I think spotlighting our humanity in this way is just as important and just as eye-opening as the other side of it.

Zibby: You’ve written several novels already. First of all, how have you seen the topics of the novels evolve? Do you share any of Eva’s self-doubt about her products and topics and the time between books and all of that?

Tia: Absolutely. I don’t know any writer who, after they’re finished writing a book, is like, you know what, this is going to change lives. This is beautiful. No one has ever said this this way. It’s the opposite. You’re like, I am hackneyed. I am a cliché. This has been done a million times, and so much better. I don’t think you ever feel secure about what you’re doing. I published my first novel when I was twenty-five. I’m forty-five now. The difference between then and now, it’s so insane. I was so insecure about every word. I also really weighed everything I said. It was like, are people going to get this? Is everyone going to understand this reference? Maybe not. I should rewrite it to make it more palatable or less niche of a reference. When I was writing dialogue, my first instinct is to write exactly how black people would speak to each other. Then I’d be like, but not everyone’s going to know that word, so let me just dial that back a little bit, which is ridiculous. It was also the vibe in the early two thousands. It’s like, you better appeal to everybody or else you are completely ghettoized. We’re only going to market your book to certain demos. We’re only going to sell it to certain bookstores.

It was even a thing when we were talking about book covers. How “black” do you want to be with your book cover? It was nuts. Then you fast-forward to today. I think that the industry is more open and interested in black voices and what we have to say, which is an interesting moment to be a part of. I have never in my life seen such a hunger from book publishers to get black voices, to land the new black author. It’s almost like a race to get the new, happening black author, which is something I never thought I would see. Anyway, back to being insecure at twenty-five versus now. Something happens when you get over forty. You’re just like, I don’t give a fuck what anybody thinks. Honestly, if you don’t get it, Google is available to you. I just write whatever I feel like writing. I write to tickle myself. That’s about it. I’m not trying to please anyone anymore. I think any woman over forty knows what I’m talking about. Honestly, you hit that birthday and you’re like, liberation, freedom!

Zibby: I’m forty-four. Half the time, I’m like, why do I this? I don’t know, it makes me laugh. I’m writing this and it’s cracking me up. Maybe nobody else is going to find this remotely funny, but I’m chuckling myself, so whatever.

Tia: Yes. That’s good enough, honestly.

Zibby: That’s good enough. If you can’t entertain yourself…

Tia: Then what are we even doing? Especially during a pandemic, you have to find yourself entertaining because what else are we doing?

Zibby: Are you working on a new novel now?

Tia: I am.

Zibby: What is that about? Can you say?

Tia: I haven’t even told my editor, so I don’t know if I can say. This one is going to be a historical fiction very loosely related to a character in Seven Days in June.

Zibby: I wonder which one. I’m nominating Cece. I liked her.

Tia: She’s so fun.

Zibby: She’s really fun.

Tia: She was a really fun character to write. I love to make the supporting characters — I always feel like they’re the star in their own book and they just wandered over to this one to give us some one-liners. I had a writing professor once tell me that supporting characters don’t know that they’re not the protagonists. Villains don’t know that they’re evil. You have to give all of them a fully fleshed out backstory. No matter how many pages they inhabit, they have to come into your book fully fleshed out.

Zibby: I love that. It reminds me of 1980s sitcoms when someone from All in the Family would head over to the set of The Jeffersons or something. You’d be like, wow, how did that happen? Those were always my favorites. Do you know what I’m even talking about?

Tia: Those crossover episodes, I lived for them. Those were so good.

Zibby: You’ve just given so much advice. What is your final advice for aspiring authors? What do you think is most important, especially for people starting out?

Tia: Wow, first of all, they’re lucky because the landscape today is so much different than it used to be. There’s so many different platforms where you can express yourself. When I was coming up, it was like, either you were published in a magazine or you get your book published. Now you can self-publish. You can write on Medium. You can have a blog. There’s so many ways to get your work out there. I think my biggest piece of advice is, honestly, it’s so boring, but you’ve got to carve out time every day to do it because there’s always, always something more fun to do than write. There will always be something you would rather be doing every single time. If you make it a part of your schedule, if you make it as crucial as eating lunch or finishing that project at work, just because it’s something that you’re doing for yourself doesn’t mean that it should take less precedent over work that you’re doing for other people. You just have to approach it like a non-negotiable.

Zibby: I love that. Excellent. Tia, thank you. Thanks for chatting. I wish we had more time to hang and talk and whatever and to talk more about this book. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I can’t wait for your next novel. Now I have to go back and read the other ones. Congratulations.

Tia: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thank you for having me on. It was so fun.

Zibby: If you change your mind and want to try a different doctor or something, just email me. I’m not even kidding.

Tia: I will reach out. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


SEVEN DAYS IN JUNE by Tia Williams

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