Tommy Butler, BEFORE YOU GO

Tommy Butler, BEFORE YOU GO

Zibby Owens: I had such a nice time talking to Tommy Butler. Although, I feel like when I was asking him questions I kept making mistakes, so excuse me. I think I was mildly sleep deprived that day. Anyway, Tommy Butler was raised in Stamford, Connecticut, and has since called many places home including New Hampshire, San Diego, Boston, New York City, and San Francisco. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, he was a Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and is an alumnus of the Screenwriters Colony. His first screenplay, Etopia, was the winner of the Showtime’s Tony Cox Screenplay Competition at the Nantucket Film Festival. His debut novel is Before You Go.

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

Tommy Butler: Hi. Thank you very much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: We were just chatting. I feel like this has been in the calendar for so long. I’m just so excited to finally talk to you about your book.

Tommy: I know. It does feel like the time is just crawling by.

Zibby: How has it been having a book come out now? It’s coming out in August, but this whole pandemic, how has it been for you?

Tommy: It’s a debut, so I haven’t been through this process before. To go through it during COVID and the lockdowns, I don’t know what the normal would’ve been like anyway. I can’t imagine this is it, though. It’s a strange time. It’s a sad time. It’s very strange for me to have something so important to me and so thrilling happening in the middle of something just so terrible to the world. The emotions are all over the place, really.

Zibby: That sounds about right for basically everybody I know. I’m waiting to talk to somebody who’s like, I feel like my emotions are totally in check and things are great.

Tommy: Good for them.

Zibby: No, I’m kidding. I will not find that person.

Tommy: Oh, I thought you — okay.

Zibby: I said I’m waiting. I’m holding my breath, in other words. Never mind. Can you please tell listeners what Before You Go is about and also what inspired you to write it?

Tommy: Actually, I can answer both starting with one place. What inspired me to write it and I think what it’s kind of ultimately about, at least thematically, are three questions that I found myself asking myself as a human and also as a writer. The first was, why does life sometimes feel so hard even when it seems like it shouldn’t? The second was, is there anything we can do about it? The third was, if not, then what? I found myself honestly just ruminating on those questions, again, as a writer, but also as a human. The book started to grow out of that. What I call the vignettes or the interludes, which are the smaller chapters between the main narrative, Elliot Chance’s narrative, those really started to pop up in response to those questions. Thematically, that’s what it’s about. As far as the story goes, the main narrative is about a character named Elliot who we start with in his childhood. Then we spend most of our time with him in his twenties. It’s about his struggle with those questions to some extent. Then interspersed in Elliot’s story are smaller, what I call vignettes that are more fantastical, more fanciful, about what happened before we all got here. How did it happen? What happens after we leave? What’s happening in the future with regard to these questions. I hope it all ties together pretty well by the end.

Zibby: It works. You pulled it off.

Tommy: Thank you.

Zibby: How much of Elliot’s childhood mirrors your own? Did you have a brother? Did you ever get teased? Did you see monsters? How much of your own life did you inject into this narrative?

Tommy: The short answer is zero. It’s all fiction. It’s not my story. Certainly, I stole things here or there. I did grow up in Connecticut. I have lived in Manhattan. It made it a little bit easier for me to describe things because I had experienced them personally. Emotionally, I didn’t have to reach too far to not just tap into Elliot’s story, but Sasha’s and Bannor’s, two other main characters. I feel certain emotional kinship with all three of them on different levels.

Zibby: Explain to me how you got here writing your debut novel at this point in your life. I know you’ve worked on short films. I watched your film, Maneuvers.

Tommy: Oh, you did?

Zibby: I did, yeah. I thought that was really cool. I will look at chess in a whole new way from now on. You went to law school. Just give me the quick rundown of when you did what and how you ended up pursuing writing and film. I know you won some award at Nantucket Film Festival. How did we get here?

Tommy: It’s been a journey. It’s still being a journey. I went to law school in my twenties a couple years after college. I had been practicing law for a long time. That’s my job. That’s my career. That’s how I’ve paid my rent. I’ve been doing that for a long time, but writing has always been that passion. I can almost say always, really. I’ve been fiddling with writing in one form or another since I was a teenager, whether it started with poetry or just fanciful stuff. Then law school and early legal career takes up pretty much all of your brain. In my early thirties, I started to get back into the writing a bit. I started experimenting with longer form fiction and also with screenwriting. It just kind of kept growing. The passion had never gone away. It just kept growing and growing. I was able to start balancing my legal career with my writing passion which I always kind of hoped would become a writing career, but you never count on that. You just keep going and you hope. I started writing some long-form fiction in my early thirties, but then I went into screenwriting for a bit and actually learned a lot about story and structure and things in that endeavor and then came back into long-form fiction to write this book. I’m doing both now. I’ve been doing both now for a number of years, but it has been a long journey. It’s not over. This is hardly the end of any kind of journey. We’ll see where this all goes. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to, after many years of balancing these two things, to have this be coming out so soon. It’s amazing.

Zibby: It’s exciting. Congratulations. That’s awesome. You’re a really great writer. You reference poetry. Your prose is very poetic. I feel like even the way you described something like a rainstorm or raking leaves — this is when you call tell I’m from New York City. I’m trying to find a good passage. Here, I’m just going to read as an example. “The leaves fall in a mad rush, an unruly circus of yellow, orange, and red hurled down from the trees by a mutinous wind. It’s easy to get lost in it. I stand at the center of our little front yard staring up at the long-limbed giants and the roiling cauldron of sky, my eyes filled with color, my ears with the sweep of air through the branches. The short scent of ozone heralds distant lighting. Nothing else exists and a long moment passes before I remember who I am or what I’m doing out here beneath the front edge of an autumn storm. I am Elliot Chance. I’m nine years old. I’m catching leaves with my brother.” What a great introduction. How do you not want to keep reading? Who is Elliot? What’s his story? Why are we reading about him? Who’s his brother? Just the language, you really capture scenery so well and emotion and then this whole life and death. You go deep in here. This is a lot.

Tommy: It’s a lot. It was a lot to write.

Zibby: I bet. Something must have happened, not to just delve into your private life. I know it’s not your story, but have you always had this relationship with philosophy in a way or pondering the end? Have you lost somebody close to you? Usually, there’s some event, I feel like, when people are grappling so closely or feeling so closely the fact that life is so finite. How did you come to this?

Tommy: I wouldn’t say there was an event that spurred this novel on. I have lost people that I’ve loved, people who were older like my dad, nobody in a tragic youthful accident, something like that. So I guess what you’d call more normal death and aging and that kind of stuff, but it still breaks your heart. I wouldn’t say that spurred this book on. I don’t know. I think it’s my own experience with what I think a lot of us feel through any reason or no reason, which is just moments of sadness, moments of emptiness. I don’t think it’s really necessarily about death. Of course, death is such an integral part of life. The fact that it is finite makes it so important. I think it’s about those feelings of wanting more, of feeling like something might be missing. I’m pretty familiar with that. I don’t know why, but I am. As far as pondering, I’ve been doing that, gosh, my whole life. I arguably think too much. I ruminate a lot. Whether it’s writing myself or just reading philosophy and studying philosophy and studying poetry, hopefully all those things come out at least a little bit in this book. Those influences hopefully show themselves because they are important for me.

Zibby: That’s true. I didn’t mean to imply the whole book was about death. Perhaps it’s a wrong hypothesis that a deep understanding of — it’s almost like an extra-sensitivity to emotion and the way we experience life and all of that. It doesn’t have to come from something horrible happening. Some people are just like that. Maybe I shouldn’t have even implied.

Tommy: No, it’s a totally fair question. Of course, I think often that is what triggers it. You lose something or someone and that triggers all this heart breaking open and all these emotions and all these thoughts and questions and ponderings. For me, I guess they just come. I don’t know why. They just come anyway. What’s it all for? Why are we here? What are we doing? Where are we going? All those things.

Zibby: Do you feel that the fact that you think about those things, does it make you make decisions differently? Do you keep all that in mind when you’re making life decisions or small decisions or big decisions? Is it front of mind, or it’s sort of just hoovering over you as a framework?

Tommy: I’m sorry?

Zibby: As a framework for how you live your life.

Tommy: That’s interesting. I guess I don’t know. It’s probably changed. It probably changes back and forth. Probably sometimes, it’s front of mind. Other times, not at all. Yeah, I don’t know. That’s a tough — I guess it would depend on which decision and which point in my life I was making it. There are times where certainly — silly example, but I spent a year in New York after college and I applied to law school. For whatever reason, I knew I didn’t want to go right away. I knew needed another year to myself. I deferred a year and went out to the beach in Southern California and lived and taught test prep and really enjoyed myself for a year and just lived for a year. That was a decision where these kinds of questions were very front of mind. I was thinking, I need to live. I need to live a year before I get on this train. Sometimes, yes. Other times, no. It’s more blindly reaching out in the dark for the next step.

Zibby: I feel like I’m like you in that I’m very aware. I’ve always thought about it, but I’ve had a lot of sudden deaths and tragic deaths and 9/11 loss. I’ve just had a lot of stuff. I feel for me at least, it’s very front of mind. There are many decisions, career decisions and whether to leave my marriage, I have all these big decisions that I’m always like, you only live once. It’s very front of mind for me. I’m just interested in how other people — you can’t do in like, should I go to before or after this podcast? Should I keep marketing Pepperidge Farm cookies, or should I write a novel? That’s a totally different thing.

Tommy: I’m with you. I actually applaud that in you, but it’s also kind exhausting, right? I find it kind of exhausting to be constantly thinking about the big questions and how I should be living. That just gets very tiring. Hopefully sometimes you’re just like, I’m going to do it for the hell of it. I hear you. I get it.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to imply I think about it every second, but I feel like to get yourself and keep yourself on a path that’s going to ultimately lead you to the life you want, you have to — this is sounding so hokey now. I’m sorry. You have to reassess every so often based on those terms.

Tommy: I agree. I personally agree. It’s an intentional life. You want to live with intent. Arguably, there people who would say, no, just let the wind carry you, but I’m kind of like you. I think everyone’s different. I’m kind of like you. I think I live with more intention as well.

Zibby: Writing about depression, when you were writing this book, did you look to other books about people who had gone through periods of time where they were depressed or had feelings like that like Andrew Solomon or group therapy or even support group, all of that? How much research versus just intuition and introspection? What was the balance?

Tommy: Much more the later. It’s a few years ago now, but I remember reading things like The Bell Jar or The Hours, more fictional. I did, certainly, some research. There’s a very powerful movie called The Bridge about people who killed themselves off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I didn’t do heavy, intense, clinical research. I wasn’t trying to write about that. I’m not an expert. The book doesn’t even use the word depression because I think it’s taken on a clinical term that I’m not qualified to really speak on. This book is not so much about Elliot — I mean, he may be depressed. I would let a doctor decide that, a fictional doctor. I was more interested in just the sadness and the emptiness he was feeling. Whether it’s depression or not, I don’t know. I guess it came more from my own instincts or feelings and other people I’ve known. There was some research in there, certainly.

Zibby: I’ll stop being a psychologist for fictional characters.

Tommy: No, it’s fair.

Zibby: As I diagnose. I feel like a lot of those empty feelings, depression, I didn’t go through the DSM, it’s true, for the clinical analysis.

Tommy: It’s funny. It’s not funny, but when I was little, we used to say depressed just to mean sad or down or having the blues. I think today it means a lot more than that. It’s much more complicated. I think it’s fair to say. Colloquially, yeah, depression, that’s what Elliot’s feeling, depressed, sure.

Zibby: Have you written since this book? Is writing something you do to sort out your own feelings? Is it something you do every day for fun? Are you working on another project? Did your relationship to writing change after this book? That was like ten questions.

Tommy: That’s great. I am writing. I am working on the next book intently. Did my relationship change? No, I’m still cranking the way I have been and learning and trying to grow. It’s nice to finally break through. It’s more than nice. It’s fantastic. It makes you feel great. It’s a great vote of confidence no matter what happens with the book. At the same time, you don’t want to let that go to your head. I want to keep learning and keep realizing how much I have to learn. That’s all staying the same. I do write personal journals and poetry a little bit here and there for my personal stuff, but not on a terribly regular basis. I’m pretty deep in the next fiction project. We’ll see where it goes.

Zibby: Have you shown the book yet to colleagues at your law firm, if you work at a law firm, or friends, close friends, anybody who was really surprised by it? What have some of the reactions been? Obviously, I’m sure they all love it, but was there a part of you that you feel like was represented in the book, or just thoughts and feelings or whatever, that you feel in any way uncomfortable sharing or the people responded in a way you weren’t hoping for? Any of that, or not really?

Tommy: It’s only been shared at this point with a couple dozen people maybe because we’re still early. For the most part, the reaction’s been amazing. Again, I stress to people, especially people close to me, that it’s not me. It’s not my story. I think most people just focused on the, hopefully, the work of art, the work itself. Some people have been watching this journey of mine, this writing journey, for a long time now, so they are a little less surprised. Others who haven’t really seen this yet, yeah, there’s a few. There’s some shocked looks out there, which is kind of fun. It also is nice, I feel very lucky for whatever failure I’ve had in the years before this because I think some of the stuff I wrote earlier, while I’m proud of it — I’m talking more about fiction now as opposed to some of the screenplays. Some of the fiction, I was proud of it at the time, but it wasn’t quite ready. It just wasn’t there. You keep growing and keep learning. Then this book, I really love. I’m very glad that for most people, the first thing they get to see is this. The reactions so far have been great. We’ll see how it goes.

Zibby: I feel like a lot of people are looking for great screenwriters now. For so many books, people are needing screenwriters to adapt them and all the rest. Now since you already have an award-winning screenplay, you could just adapt your own book.

Tommy: Possibly. We have a great film agent who’s pitching the book around right now. We talked about it. I think we would love to get a very experienced screenwriter to adapt this. I think it’s going to be a cool challenge to adapt it. I like my screenwriting. I’m very proud of it. Also, I haven’t been doing it for twenty years. If we could get an established screenwriter to do it, that would be thrilling.

Zibby: Just tell me the moment when you first sold this book or the first biggest piece of great news related to this book. What was that moment like? Did you hear about it on the phone or email? Were you jumping up and down?

Tommy: It was head spinning, honestly. I’d been writing for a while. This book in particular, I’d been working on for basically three years, so about a year of creation and crafting and structuring, and then two years of writing. Then I took a month off, just did nothing. Then I started sending out query letters. I didn’t have an agent at the time. It was head spinning because I think in about four weeks — I have this written down somewhere. I think in about four weeks I went from my first call with my now agent to the deal with Harper. It was incredibly fast for whatever reason. It all went great. I didn’t sleep well for four weeks. It was just that crazy. It was just crazy. To answer your question, there were a lot of big moments in there. Obviously, the two biggest ones were when Doug, my agent, first got on the phone and just told me how much he loved it and said, “I definitely want to be a part of this.” That was enormous to me, just enormous. He was one that I probably really wanted to work with. There was a handful of people at the top of my list. He was one of that. That was already — I don’t think I jumped up and down, but I was pretty excited. Then three, four weeks later when Sarah and Harper said, “Yeah, we want it,” that whole month was just insane.

Zibby: Wow, so exciting. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Tommy: God, there’s so much. If I had to distill it and be pithy, I would say at least for me what’s been really important to me at a high level is to keep learning and keep persisting. I can’t tell you how important that’s been for me in my journey.

Zibby: You don’t have to be that pithy. You could expand a little bit.

Tommy: There’s so much. I wrote something years ago that I really loved, but years later I look back on it and realize it’s so green. Keep learning. I don’t have a formal MFA, so my learning was through — it was informal, some great writing workshops and great writing seminars. I just kept doing that and kept doing that. I also kept learning the way I have all my whole life, which is through books. I’ll expand on that by saying there are two key books that I can share with you that for me, that are just very critical. One is The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. The other is actually, it focuses on screenwriting, but it’s really for any story. It’s called Story by Robert McKee. Those two books had a profound influence on how I write, how I tell stories. It was a matter of continuing to learn and never thinking that I knew what I was doing. Then the persistence, you can’t say it enough. You can say it three times because I think for a lot of people I know trying to create, including me now, you’re going to continually hit doubt and places where you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know how to fix something. You just keep going.

Zibby: That’s great. Thank you. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for this amazing book, so beautifully written, so thought-provoking. I’m really excited to see it launch into the world. I’ll be rooting for you.

Tommy: Thank you. Thanks so much. It was great to be here.

Zibby: Thanks.

Tommy Butler, BEFORE YOU GO