Everyone found their own way to make it through quarantine; for Todd Doughty, that meant compiling lists of happy-making things in a difficult world every day and sharing them on Instagram. Soon, people were gathering in his comments to share their own happy-making things. Todd joins Zibby to discuss what he personally does every day to make himself happy, his journey from book-lover to the publishing industry, and what it was like working on a book from start to finish rather than just on its publicity campaign.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Todd. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Little Pieces of Hope: Happy-Making Things in a Difficult World.

Todd Doughty: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I have to tell you I read this while getting over my booster shot sickness, which was terrible. I was like, I need something to make me feel better. I was like, oh, the perfect book.

Todd: Thank you. I’m sorry that you needed it, but I’m happy the book was there.

Zibby: Thank you. For the record, I have always had a porcelain cow creamer. It is one of my favorite things since I was a kid.

Todd: That got its own one-page shout-out, so there you go.

Zibby: I know that. I know. I’m like, okay, all right. I meant to bring it upstairs to this thing, but of course, I forgot.

Todd: No worries.

Zibby: First of all, tell listeners how this book came to be, your whole Instagram story during COVID and all of it. Then we’ll get into more stuff. Start with that.

Todd: Absolutely. The blame for this can be laid squarely, I say jokingly, at the feet of Metro-North, which is our commuter rail here in New York City. I left the office on Wednesday, March 11th of 2020, which was the day that the WHO declared a global pandemic. I was on the train. For some reason, it just struck me, and I wrote it directly into my Instagram, “Happy-making things in a difficult world.” I started making a list of all of the things that brought me joy. That was everything from fat goldfish, a really good burger, a really bad DJ at a wedding that becomes a really good DJ at a wedding, Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, any movie of Katharine Hepburn’s, but particularly her entrance in The Lion in Winter. It was just a hodgepodge list, again, as I mentioned, of things that have brought me great joy. I posted it that day. What I noticed was a lot of friends and family started commenting. People began to add their own happy-making things. What jumped out to me is there were a couple of strangers on my Instagram who commented as well. I thought, well, there’s something here, so I just kept going. Then I kept going and going and going. It ended up resulting in this miracle that’s happened, which is, now this is a book out as of October. It’s just been a very good thing to happen during a very difficult time.

Zibby: It’s a happy-making thing in a difficult world, in fact.

Todd: Yeah, it has been for me. To see the reaction of folks and have that connection of — you spend your whole life getting recommendations from people. You have to watch this show. You have to go see this movie. You have to listen to this album. There’s a spirit of that in the book. There are over three thousand individual happy-making things. The brilliant copyeditors at Penguin curated the entire life of everything in the book, which was kind of mesmerizing and amazing when I saw it together for the first time. Those that read it will see I list everything from feelings to memories to items to recipes, books, TV, articles that I’ve read. You’ll see things unfold in real time. I would sit down on the couch every night. We watch Jeopardy. Then at about seven thirty, I would start going down this rabbit hole of joy, as I liked to call it. I carefully curated each list every day. It took about an hour and a half to two hours. It would be sparked by something that meant a lot to me or something that I saw in the world around me that day. We were home at that time. Our office closed. What happened was I began to notice the world around me in a different way. I say at the beginning of the book, each one of us is carrying an invisible bag of rocks. We don’t know how heavy it is, how big it is for that other person. I think that there are these little totems that have gotten you through your life, the song that got you through, the movie that got you through, the book that got you through, the book that opened a door. It’s all these tangible things that meant something to me that I wanted to share with the wider world.

Zibby: So many are ones that resonate, certainly with me, but I’m sure with lots of people. Everyone can find their things in there. I’m forty-five. I feel like there were a lot of eighties, nineties, all those references where I’m like, oh, yes, I love this.

Todd: There are two dedicated eighties lists. I call them special editions. There’s eighties special editions. There are holiday special editions like Thanksgiving and graduation. I also did sixteen individual essays throughout the book. My brilliant editor, Meg Leder, said to me, “Okay, we need fifty percent new material that’s not on your Instagram,” which I did. I stopped posting for a while. Then I typed everything into the notes in my phone because that was easier. I wanted to try to not repeat stuff. People will see repeats of certain things like Jacqueline Onassis or Lin-Manuel Miranda or various other things. I tried to do little easter eggs that if something was in there again, it had to be in a different way. That was actually one of the really fun things to do.

Zibby: Plus, this speaks to this whole mindfulness movement, if you will. We have to tap into the things that are making us happy and put them front of mind. Instead of letting the chaos of today overrule the day, you can pick up a mix tape. You go into this book. You can look for two seconds. Not to mention that you have lists like “Things that you make you feel better,” or whatever, “Things you might consider doing today,” all these things, but more are the moments. “Go outside at dusk and listen to the birdsong. Look at some old pictures that bring back happy times.” You think about these things, and then you have to stop in your tracks. You just have to.

Todd: I think that that’s very true, at least for me. I’m not an expert, but I know that the world can be a scary place, whether it’s an unprecedented global pandemic or it’s a regular bad old day or it’s a difficult time that you’re having in your life. I think that hope and optimism are important. I think that there have been times for myself when that has been hard to see. Again, it goes back to that notion of the things that bring you joy, the things that have changed your life. There is an essay in the book about red velvet cake, which happens to be my favorite dessert of all time. I’m here looking at a photo on the bulletin board in front of me of my late grandmother who I worshipped and adored. She was an amazing human being. Behind her is her seven-layer red velvet cake. That sensory memory is always associated with her. I think that all of us have that. You mentioned your porcelain creamer that you’ve had since a child. There’s a list, I believe it’s a Thanksgiving list, where I talk about the pile of coats on the bed at a family gathering. I think those visceral moments tend to stay with us. At a time when it might be difficult to see the good things, they are still all around you. I think that that’s important to remember. It’s something that I’ve certainly clung to in the past twenty-two months now.

Zibby: Has anything made you happy today?

Todd: Happy today, yes. I get a vanilla latte every morning, so that’s my first happy-making thing. I have done this thing where, before I go to sleep at night, I try to think of five things during the day that I’m grateful for. This is not big-picture stuff. It’s little things. I think that one of the aspects of the book that the reader can relate to is, I say there may be things that you don’t know about, a song you haven’t heard, a painting you haven’t seen that I can lead you to that discovery, but that’s no different than if someone does that for me. We share that connection. I think at this time now more than ever, it’s very important. The book can be read straight through, of course, but I look at it as a daily devotional of delight. You can pick up and read a page, dip in, dip out for when you need it.

Zibby: That’s another good subtitle, by the way.

Todd: Oh, thanks.

Zibby: Maybe for the next one. Save that.

Todd: I’m hoping for a rip-off page-a-day calendar. Maybe we can use that. That would be great. I think that we all have struggled with moments of connection. What I hope that the reader feels between the two of us is that there’s a fine line between memory and discovery. Either I trigger something that you might love and share with me as well or, like I said, I send you on a journey of discovery to find that painting or listen to that song or make that recipe.

Zibby: Take me back to how you got here. How did you write the book? Also, your career in the book world, how did this whole thing start?

Todd: Let’s start with the publishing aspect. I grew up in Southern Illinois. I went to SIU, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Go Salukis. I came to New York when I was sixteen years old on a church trip through our Methodist church. I told my mom when I got back that I was going to move there. She said, “That’s fine, but after you graduate from college.” My best friend and I graduated on a Friday. We packed up a U-Haul on a Monday in May of 1995. We were here by Tuesday. That was literally how I got here. I’ve lived there and here. As you know from that first list and throughout the book, New York is a great love of my life. I’ve been very, very lucky. I was a bookseller for a couple of years at Walden Books on Wall Street. My friend Jeri Krassner, her best friend Amy Edleman, both who are in the acknowledgments — Amy was the managing editor, I believe, at Random House at the time. There was an opening in the publicity department for the executive director, Carol Schneider, who’s a legend in the business. Amy told Jeri. Jeri said, “You can talk to a wall. You love to read. You should go for this job.” I was like, okay. I had never worked in an office before. Somehow, I tricked those people into hiring me. It has given me my professional life for the past twenty-three years. For a kid who grew up a book nerd in rural Illinois whose library was a haven, it’s been, quite honestly, just a blessing my life. I’ve been very, very lucky. That extends to the book as well. When I started this, it was one individual list. As I mentioned earlier, I just kept going. Friends began to percolate and say, “You know this is a book, don’t you?” I didn’t at the time. It was really just that daily escape that I was looking for. Then we put the book together. Brittne Bloom from The Book Group is my agent.

Zibby: I love her.

Todd: She’s amazing. She saw it as a whole. We are working with the folks at Penguin. Meg Leder is my brilliant, North Star editor there. I work in publicity. For those who don’t know who might be listening, that is the caboose of the publishing train. The writer writes the book. The editor buys it. The cover is designed. The book is edited. It’s typeset. Sales sells it in. Then publicity and marketing come in at the end of the life of the book. What happened for me was I was on the other side of the publishing fence, so I was actually able to see the train being built, if that makes sense. It was a remarkable experience. Josie Portillo did all of the beautiful art on the gorgeous cover and throughout. Sabrina Bowers is the genius designer who created the actual look of the book. It was a truly collaborative experience. It was just amazing. Again, I cannot say this enough, I know how lucky I am to have this exist. I’m truly grateful.

Zibby: What was it like, then, having to do publicity for your own book?

Todd: It’s a little weird, I will admit.

Zibby: Did you make the whole plan? How did you do it?

Todd: No, I have an amazing team at Penguin. Rebecca Marsh, Sara Delozier, and LeBria Casher, they are geniuses behind all of the launch. They’ve been remarkable in their work and just their collegial spirit. I owe it all to them. For me in publicity, what happens is, when you see an author on the Today Show or you read an article online or they are listening to me or others on your podcast, which is still very weird for me to say, a publicist has helped arrange that. Back in before times, and we’re getting into this a little bit more now, when you go to events in person at a bookstore, a publicist has arranged that with the store. We are really responsible for the launch and the life of that book in the media sphere, in the bookseller sphere in terms of events only. To be on this side of it is quite bizarre. I’m a behind-the-scenes guy. To this day, it’s still a little bit surreal.

Zibby: Would you change your things that you do on the publicity side now that you’ve seen what it’s like on the author side?

Todd: I don’t know that I would call it change, but I have a newfound respect, is the best way to say it. I had never written a book before, so I didn’t know how to do this. The act of just sitting down and doing it every day is so very important, but then putting it together — how do you shape it? A lot of that credit goes to Meg because she was the one to say we’ll include the eight different playlists that are in the book. We’ll include the sixteen essays, as I mentioned earlier. We looked at all of the pacing in the book. The reader will see we pulled out groupings for one page. We pulled out individual items for a page. I think that that aspect of creating it was something I didn’t quite fully understand. The best way I can describe it is, there is a toy in a box in your home. Every day, you go over to the box and you take the toy out. Only you play with the toy. You derive joy from playing with the toy. Let’s say it’s an hour. It’s two hours. Then you take the toy and you put it back in the box. You close the lid. The toy and the box have nothing else to do with the rest of your life. Then that’s the actual aspect of writing. If you’re lucky enough to have a book published, which is a miracle — again, I am still very grateful for that — you then begin sharing the toy with other people. Then the toy gets sent out into the world when it’s published. I’ve seen that for twenty-three years, but I didn’t understand the mechanics behind it. I would say that’s the biggest lesson that I’ve learned, which just shows that I’m old and I could still learn new things.

Zibby: Yes. Actually, I think this time of life I’ve learned more than I did for the twenty previous years. I feel like I’ve learned more in the last four years than certainly the previous decade put together.

Todd: Certainly, the past twenty-two months have been a very eye-opening time as well.

Zibby: Interesting. Aside from the calendar, did this now make you think, okay, now that I’ve gotten a taste of being on the author side, I want to have this happen again? Are you liking it? Do you have more books in you? Were you like, “I didn’t even mean for this to happen, necessarily. I’m delighted it has, but now back to my day job” type of thing?

Todd: Oh, no, this has just been an amazing, incredible experience. One thing that happened is I turned the book in about a year ago at the beginning of October. Then we went through rewrites and copyedits and things like that. For the most part, I’ve kept posting lists.

Zibby: I saw that. I know. It’s very recent.

Todd: I think the last one was about a week ago or so. I’ve been a little more sporadic as opposed to daily, but I did keep going because it was just fun for me. That was great. I joke about a page-a-day calendar. I would love to have that happen. One of the things that I say early in the book, though, there might be things that readers don’t like, so just cross them out. Add in your own. You too can make your own daily lists of happy-making things.

Zibby: You can do a journal.

Todd: Do a journal, sure. Everybody could do that on their own as well. You don’t need me to guide you. I think that the way that you see things in the world around you each day can inspire that.

Zibby: I also think you could turn your cover into some wallpaper.

Todd: That credit all goes to Josie and Brianna Harden, who designed the jacket. They did an incredible job. It’s just this burst of yellow with some of the happy-making things from the book. I’m looking at it right now. There are Peeps. There’s a slice of cake. There’s an actual mix tape. There’s a bicycle with a basket on it. There’s a jukebox, a Wurlitzer, a pink flamingo. It’s so fun to see. I went into a bookstore for the first time on pub day. To see it there in person was just a shock. The cover itself is this burst of joy.

Zibby: Can you go back to being the book nerd who found haven in libraries when you were a kid? Tell me more about that time of life.

Todd: Totally, absolutely. The essay on summer reading talks about me as a kid and finishing up chores so that by one o’clock, that I could head to the library. The Carterville Public Library was a haven for me. When you walked in, the kids’ section, back in the day, was on the left. On the right was the magazine rack, and then the stacks behind. The librarians were amazing, who opened many new doors, windows, and worlds to me. At that time, you could pick a topic and then request it. Then the county library would photocopy all of these articles and bring them back to you on whatever topic you would choose. I’m a bit of a packrat. I don’t have some of those articles from my childhood, but I have saved things over the years that actually made their way into the book. I’m still a book nerd to this day. Our apartment is packed full of books. They have brought me such joy professionally and personally. A friend of mine recently talked about, think about that person who handed your favorite book to you or how you found it and what that moment means to you in your life. Doris Larson is my former second-grade teacher who read us the poetry of Shel Silverstein. I still have all three of his books from my childhood. My uncle Dennis gave me From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I have my childhood copy. The dust jacket is a little bit worn and torn. I met Mrs. Konigsburg totally accidentally at a charity event years ago. As I mention in the book, this static line of children are lined up in front of me. Then it spikes with me at the end. I think that if you are a reader, you have those books that have followed you along.

Zibby: I wrote a whole memoir about this that’s coming out next summer.

Todd: Oh, that’s great.

Zibby: It’s all the books that — I remember life in terms of what I was reading, where I read certain things, how this book helped me. Sort of an homage to those books with my story wrapped around.

Todd: I love it. I can’t wait to read that. I remember sitting in a hammock outside of our — we lived in a trailer in college for a year. I strung a hammock between the trees. I remember reading The Witching Hour there, which is one of my favorite books of all time, by Anne Rice. If you haven’t read it, get that and The Mummy stat. You know where you were when those things meant something to you.

Zibby: I don’t know if you read Ann Patchett’s book. I just interviewed her yesterday, so I have it right here. I keep looking at it, These Precious Days. She says the book journey is sort of not complete until you’ve then recommended it and given it to somebody else.

Todd: I think that’s so true. That book is fabulous. She is one of my favorite writers. I was lucky enough — years ago, I worked with John Grisham. We did an event at Parnassus in Nashville. I took my first edition of Bel Canto. She graciously signed it. It is true. She’s right. That circle is complete. The reward is if someone loves it as much as you do. I have this thing where I say, if someone tells me a book that they’re reading that I loved, I say, I’m so jealous that you get to read it for the first time, to go back and do that again, because you’ll never have that experience again.

Zibby: It’s true. What are you reading now? Anything good?

Todd: One of the things that I fell in love with during the pandemic were Louise Penny’s mystery novels starting with Still Life, which is great. We are publishing Hanya Yanagihara’s new novel, To Paradise, in January, which is a masterpiece. The to-be-read pile is a mile high. I have Robin Hobb’s The Assassin Apprentice, which I’ve never read. A colleague of mine was just telling me Patrick Rothfuss is an amazing writer and I need to read his series. It’s never-ending. How about you?

Zibby: Don’t put me on the spot like that. I’m like, what do I have coming up next week? I have so many things I want to read that I read them based on when I’m doing the podcast about them.

Todd: That makes sense.

Zibby: I have to finish, Allison Larkin, The People We Keep. L.A. Weather — actually, I read that already — María Escandón.

Todd: Do you have a particular way that your favorite type of reading — I don’t mean device, but a place or time.

Zibby: Do I have a favorite place or time where I like to read? In bed before I go to sleep. Really, all day. What about you?

Todd: Now that we’re back in the office, I like to read on the train on the commute in. It’s sort of uninterrupted time. I like to read before I go to bed too, but I usually conk out pretty fast. That dedicated commute time has always been great to me. I just listened to Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante sequel, which I loved. I don’t do a lot of audiobooks, but it’s something I’d like to start up again now that the commute is there.

Zibby: In a dream world, I would read on a chaise lounge with the ocean lapping at my feet with a big, floppy hat that never gets squashed in the suitcase.

Todd: That is very specific.

Zibby: totally different body perhaps, but the same books, and books that just never ended. That would be great. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Todd: What advice would I have? I think the act of sitting down and taking the time to write every day cannot be underestimated. It’s one thing to have a deadline. Again, I had never done this before, so the deadline helped. This really did begin on a train, but after that, every day, we were home. Like I said, I would sit down on the couch for an hour and a half to two hours every night to really focus and curate each one of these lists. When you read them, some of the items are connected. Some of them are zigzagged, but they’re all carefully, carefully curated for the reader. Just that act of sitting down and making time for yourself to go play with the toy out of the box is very, very important. I think that’s what I would say is the most important thing to me. Make the time.

Zibby: I also love that you think of writing as playing, playing with a toy, just that image, your analogy. There has to be some joy to it, the act in and of itself, wherever the writing goes.

Todd: I think that that applies to any activity in life. If cooking is your thing, if sports is your thing, if reading is your thing, if writing is your thing, painting, whatever that may be, quilting, anything that is an activity and a hobby, a passion, a pursuit, it requires that time. Again, this is the first time I’ve ever done it, but that was very important to make this happen and actually get it done. The looming deadline helped, but just the act of, every day, sitting down and going into that place was a very good thing.

Zibby: Amazing. I’m so excited to talk to you about this. I feel like I read about it in Publishers Marketplace or something. When I first heard about it, I was like, oh, my gosh, I know him. He’s from my inbox. I was so excited to see you being on the other side. It was awesome. Congratulations.

Todd: Thank you. I really appreciate it. I thank you for having me today.

Zibby: Of course. Have a great day.

Todd: You too. Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye.

Todd: Bye.



Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts