Zibby Owens: I’m here today with VC Chickering who is the author of Twisted Family Values and Nookietown. She has written for Comedy Central, MTV, Lifetime, TLC, Discovery, NickMom, and Oxygen television networks as well as for Cosmo, The Washington Post, and other publications. She has a local newspaper column called Pith Monger and writes a blog. She also writes and performs original songs for the alt-bluegrass indie jazz band Tori Erstwhile & The Montys. A graduate of NYU, she currently lives with her family in New Jersey.

Welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

VC Chickering: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Here’s my first crazy question. On your book, it’s VC Chickering, but that is not your name. Are we allowed to use your real name here? Who are you?

VC: Who are you? I am a ninja. VC Chickering actually is my legal name. My legal name is Victoria Chickering O’Connell. I worked professionally and wrote professionally as Tori or Victoria Chickering until I got married, which was very late. I was thirty-five. I’ve never not published under Chickering or VC. I switched to VC from Tori because I wanted to put a little bit of distance between who I was in my community, as the mother of a child, and who I was as a writer because of the nature of the books I was writing. I thought that would be wise and thoughtful and mindful of his place in the community.

Zibby: Interesting. Right before I turned on the recording here, Tori showed me a picture of her son and said she was using it to remind her not to say anything too controversial.

VC: That I would regret.

Zibby: What would you say? That’s what I want to hear.

VC: Let’s get to that. Let’s go right to there.

Zibby: Anyway, her son’s adorable at age sixteen. You disguised yourself for his sake. Yet you wrote these books that are —

VC: — What was happening at the time is Fifty Shades of Grey had blown up. Everyone from seventeen to eighty-seven had read those books. I thought, wow, the mind-set of your average reader is a lot more open and available to taboo concepts than I gave it credit for. The whole industry was blown away by how they had underestimated the appetite of the reader. Piggybacking on that new information, I thought I’ll take on an experience I was going through, being a recent divorcée. What was happening is I went through a divorce. It’s pretty hideous for about two years.

Zibby: I went through a divorce.

VC: It’s the worst imaginable. You really wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.

Zibby: Someone literally told me at the beginning, “Just wait for two years.” Two years? What? That’s so long.

VC: I know. You think you’ll never get through it. Then you do. It really is two years of absolute misery, abject misery, and every shade of misery with tears and depression and weight loss and all these hideous, horrible things.

Zibby: Weight loss was not a bad thing. That was the major perk for me, which, PS, comes back after two years.

VC: I know, right? Once you feel better again. As I was hitting my stride finally coming out of that two-year place, experience —

Zibby: — You did not have kids with that husband?

VC: I do, my son.

Zibby: Your son is from your first husband?

VC: Yes, correct. I was coming out of that experience and finally finding my balance and my new normal and the new rhythm of my life. Part of that was reintegrating myself in society and going out with women again and going to lunches and having glasses of wine with folks. What would happen, the typical scenario is that women, we come together. We say hello. “Cute outfit. I love your new haircut.” Then we go around the circle. “What’s new with you?” “My husband’s knee surgery. I’m refinishing the basement. My son’s lacrosse tournament.” Everybody goes around the circle. It would get to me. I would say, “I’m doing pretty okay now. I’ve really found my equilibrium. The only problem is that I’m incredibly horny all the time.”

Zibby: That’s okay to say if your son is listening?

VC: It’s part of life. What I said to him getting ready for this book to be published is, “People have sex. It’s a part of life. We wouldn’t be here. This is what you can tell your friends. We wouldn’t be here if your parents hadn’t had sex.” It’s okay to be sex positive. It’s okay to have that urge and to want that experience, obviously with a million other caveats when you’re entering that world. As an adult, I’m allowed to be horny. I would say this out loud. I would say, “I’m incredibly, distractedly horny. I would love to find somebody just to have sex with. Then out you go. Leave so I can stay and eat a ham sandwich and watch television by myself.” Everybody would laugh.

Then somebody would say, “You should come have sex with my husband. That would be so great.” Then everybody would laugh. Then somebody else would say, “You know what? That would be fantastic if you could swing by the house once a week and have at it with Mark.” Then somebody would say, “How about Steve once a month?” The joke was I’d say, “How about Steve on every other Tuesday and then Mark once a week? This was a joke. Everybody laughed. Then of course we moved on to whatever the next topic was. That joke happened so many times in that year after when I would say, “I’m distractedly horny.” Somebody in the circle, regardless of socioeconomic background, regardless of who the person was and that type of group, someone would say, “I would love it if you’d have sex with my husband and take some of the pressure off.” It was always met with laughter, but it always happened. That joke was always made, not by me.

Zibby: Did you start sleeping with their husbands?

VC: No, I didn’t sleep with anybody’s husband.

Zibby: Are you sure? Now is the time. Let’s just get it out there. How was it with Mark and Steve?

VC: Exhausting. No.

Zibby: You were so busy. Now you have no friends.

VC: If that joke hadn’t been made so many times by so many married women who’d been having the same predictable sex with their husbands for four years, ten years, fourteen, twenty-eight years, if that joke hadn’t been made, I would not have gotten the idea and the impetus to write my first book, which was the jumping-off point, which was women at a luncheon. The joke is made. Then they disperse, but one of the women follows her back to her car in tears and says, “I think I’m serious. I think I want you to have sex with Ted. I’m exhausted. My kids are so little. I don’t have time. I’m not even interested. I think he’s going to leave me. I trust you. I know you’re not interested in Ted. I know you’re not going to break up my marriage.” The protagonist, Lucy, it’s great for her because these guys are clean. They’re disease-free. They’ve been in monogamous relationships. What happens is they try it. It’s a win-win-win. Everybody’s thrilled. Ted’s happy. It’s sanctioned infidelity. Nancy’s happy to have some of the work offloaded. Lucy’s thrilled to get her rocks off. These two groups of women come together in this small community. They create an underground barter system whereby the wives contract the horny divorcées to have sex with their husbands so they don’t have to as often. It works for a little while. Then it goes to hell in a handbasket.

Zibby: Wow. That’s a great idea for a book.

VC: It’s pretty funny. It’s hilarious. It’s seven women that are funny and sexually viable in their forties. It’s a really enjoyable meditation on marriage, infidelity, monogamy, and sex in this country versus other cultures versus other countries. What’s really important in a marriage? What can be forgiven? What shouldn’t be forgiven? It’s a really fun read. There was a bidding war in Hollywood. Three different production companies wanted it. It was Warner Bros and NBCUniversal and Jada Pinkett Smith’s production company. They were vying for it. Warner Bros won the option, but they didn’t exercise it, so it came back to me. There’s another guy right now in Hollywood. He’s shopping it around for a TV show. As far as an ensemble comedy, imagine seven of your favorite actresses in their forties who get to be funny and smart and sexy.

Zibby: It’s perfect. So cool. Amazing.

VC: That would be really fun. What I was going to say about my son, to wrap it into my son, when I was getting this idea, I reached out to my friend Larry Bloom, who is Judy Blume’s son. I said to Larry, “How old were you when Wifey came out?” He said, “I was twelve.” My son was going to be twelve when Nookietown was going to be published. I said, “What was that like for you, to be twelve and have Wifey hit the bookstands?” He said it was fine. “I wasn’t even aware of it. I was twelve. I was in middle school. I was so immersed in my own world. I didn’t care what the grown-ups around me were doing or talking about or reading.” I said, “I’m about to write this book Nookietown.” I told him about it. He said, “Go for it. I’m fine. Worked out for me.” I talked to my son about it in little dribs and drabs. Every six months I would sit him down and I would say, “Do you understand that grown-ups have sex?” I deployed tiny little bits of information to prepare him for what would happen.

Zibby: Then you said, “Then people stop having sex after they’re married for twenty years.” No, I’m kidding.

VC: I said, “This book is really boring. There are no dragons. There are no car chases. Nobody that you know is going to want to read it. Parents do talk a lot about relationships. They talk about money and religion and politics. These are all topics that are in my book.” Actually, not politics.

Zibby: He’s like, “Whatever. Let me go back to my video game.”

VC: He was like, “Whatever. Who cares?” It really did work out. We did some role playing. “What would you say if somebody comes at you about your mom’s book?” We worked on writing him responses like the writer’s room. I said, “You can just say, ‘My mom’s a writer. I’m really proud. She got a book published. I’m really proud. Not everybody gets to do that.’ Or you can say, ‘Everybody has sex. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for sex.’” He had some answers, but they didn’t come into play. It was really nice.

Zibby: Good. Then when did you start writing Twisted Family Values?

VC: I had a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. They were like, “What’s next?” I thought, how about another taboo? Since that was so much fun to explore, what are the other American taboos out there? Twisted Family Values came about from a guy that I dated years ago for about ten minutes. He told me a story about a flirtation he had with his first cousin when they were young and the innocent childhood exploratory that kids do and how it carried on for longer than decorum would allow or should allow at the time. I thought, boy, that might be an interesting juxtaposition to take that scenario and drop it in a well-to-do community. How would that family and how would that community respond to something that, in theory, shouldn’t be done?

Zibby: When I read it, I was like, she had a really hot cousin. It must be.

VC: No. People have said that. My cousins are lovely, but they know the definition of fiction. It was really more from that guy. Then what happens is as a writer, you get this kernel of an idea, as what happened with Nookietown with the conversation with the women. With that guy, you float it. You field test. You put it out in the world like market research. You run it by people. “Have you ever had a hot cousin? Have you ever had a crush on a cousin?” If people had all across the board said no, then that idea would’ve died. Where do you go with that? So many people said, “Oh, yeah.” Then I would say, “Did you ever make out with your cousin?” Some of them would say, “Uh-huh.” Then when I feel like I’ve gathered enough research, I bring it into my therapist who’s a fantastic resource if you’re writing about secrets and desire because people tell their therapists everything. I could take these ideas I was conjuring, this notion that was simmering, and bring it into my therapist and say, “Do people bring to you the secret that they have slept with their first cousin?” If she says, “Oh, yes. That happens,” then I know I’m onto something. If she were to say, “No, that never happens,” then I would say, okay, come up with something else, go onto my next story because I have four or five ideas. When she said, “Oh, yeah. That’s a thing,” I said, “Is it?” She said, “Uh-huh.”

There’s something there. There’s something there that people don’t talk about, that people don’t want to think about. Then of course, you couple that with the influx of all these wonderful immigrant families that we are getting to know. Our awareness has broken open, thank god, over the generations. We are much more aware of the immigrant experience and what people are bringing from other cultures into the American culture. What we’re learning is that it’s not that unusual in most other cultures. It’s not that big of a deal. If you ask a group of women at cocktails, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, my grandparents. My great-grandparents were cousins. My great-aunt and great-uncle from the old country.” There are a lot of stories about folks back in the day where that was done. It’s not that crazy.

Zibby: You take these nuggets of ideas and secrets that people have. Then you put it in a context where you explore all these other factors like this family in Twisted Family Values that’s going through a decline through the generations and the different parenting styles and so much more stuff, sexual abuse. There’s so much stuff that you put in here. How did you start writing fiction like this? You’ve written these two really thought-provoking, interesting books. Where did this come from? You just had them all in your head? Did you take a class? Explain.

VC: I wrote forever and ever. Before I ever called myself a writer, I realized I have been a writer my whole life. I started writing notes for my girlfriend to pass to her boyfriend in fifth grade. I was the . I had pen pals like crazy. I filled journals like mad. In college, I wrote plays. I wrote musicals. After college, I worked in cable television. I wrote for MTV and Comedy Central and Lifetime and all these networks. I was writing personal essays. I had things published in The Washington Post Magazine, at Cosmo and Bust. I wrote for Bust, which was really fabulous in the nineties. I was always writing, but I didn’t consider myself a writer until more recently. It was that experience of the universe almost shoving this idea at me, this Nookietown idea. I’m the gal to write it. Clearly, the universe wants me to write this book. Here’s another wonderful kismet moment. I was dropping my son off at school. I passed another writer on — there are a lot of other writers in the community that I live in. It’s a wonderfully arts-rich community. She passed me by. I said, “I’m thinking of trying a novel. I’ve never written long form. I’ve written so many other formats. I’ve written screen plays, but never taken on a novel.” She said, “There’s a great book you should read. It’s called No Plot? No Problem!” Have you heard of it?

Zibby: Mm-mm (negative).

VC: She’s like, “Pick it up. It’ll be really useful.” Great. I picked it up. I am telling you, that moment, the fact that I crossed her path in that moment and I picked up that book — this guy named Chris Baty was living in San Francisco years ago in a community of writers. They spend all day in a coffee shop talking about this novel that they’re writing and not writing the novel. He said, “I’m calling bullshit on all of us. We’re not writing. Why aren’t we writing? This is ridiculous. Let’s do this. We need a deadline. Let’s pick a month.” November was coming up. “We’ll start at the first of the month. We’re going to write 1,700 words a day for 30 days, to the exclusion of everything else. At the end of the month, we’ll have a 50,000-word first draft. Then we can call ourselves novelists and stop talking about finishing our novel.” He did that. A bunch of them started and many of them fell away as the month — it’s hard to do. At the end, a small number of them had this 50,000-word first draft. Then they did it the next year. There were more of them that tried it, maybe twenty-eight, and then forty-six, and then ninety-two. Now it’s this global movement.

It’s called NaNoWriMo, which is short for National Novel Writing Month. There is a book. I read the book called No Plot? No Problem! It’s marvelous. It gets you started. It gets you psychically in the mind-set to do this thing. He basically posits that we can do anything if we know there’s an end date, if we know it’s going to end. We can get on a diet. We can do a cleanse. We can train for a marathon. There are things that we can do. He helps the writer get in the groove, get excited. He cheers them on. You’re going to love it. You’re going to come out of the gate strong. It’s going to feel so good. Then it’s day ten. You want to quit so badly. You hate this. You’re miserable. He talks you through the process. I also read On Writing by Stephen King, which I’m sure many people have brought up, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I read the On Writing, the Chris Baty.

Zibby: I interviewed her.

VC: Did you? That’s wonderful. I did the No Plot? No Problem! to start. Then as I began, I was reading On Writing and Bird by Bird at night. Really, it is pretty intense. Everybody has to be on board, your family, your spouse. Mommy’s going to do this thing. We’re all in support of Mommy, which means the kids are going to be a little filthy for a while. The food’s going to go bad in the fridge, but we understand that Mommy needs to do this. That worked for me. I finished. I was only about halfway done with the story. I took another three months to write the other 50,000 words. By the holidays, I had 100,000 words, first draft.

Zibby: Wow. Then on that, did you sell both, the two-book deal?

VC: Then you always give it to your friends to read. You give it to an odd number of readers so that you don’t get two people that love this character and two people don’t. You always want it to be an odd number. Three love them, two don’t, so the three win.

Zibby: Interesting. I haven’t heard that before.

VC: I think that was Stephen King, maybe. I can’t remember. I had readers read various drafts. I would say, “What do you think? Is there something here? Should I keep going?” They would say, “Yeah, this is really funny. Keep going.” Then I reached out to an agent. She took me on, which was marvelous. Then I did another draft or two with her. Then I found a publisher, which is another hilarious and bizarre story of kismet in the universe, and then did another draft or two for her. I think there was eleven drafts. My agent negotiated a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. That was pretty exciting. Getting to St. Martin’s came out of Hurricane Sandy.

Zibby: How so?

VC: Friends of mine, we all lost power. They went to Starbucks to use power. The Starbucks was full of people. All the outlets were crowded. As they were leaving, they ran into another couple that they only knew from a once-a-year, annual Halloween party. The couple said, “We have power. Come back to our house.” They went back. They opened up their laptops. To make small talk, my girlfriend Rebecca said to the guy, “What do you do for a living?” He said, “I work at Macmillan. I turn books into movies.” She said, “My friend just wrote the funniest book. You’ve got to read this book.” She told him the story. Then he found me at the Halloween party a week later in full costume and said, “I want to read your book.” What I take away from that is that friends helping friends is such a wonderful and key part of a lot of fortuitousness in life, friends introducing friends to guys that they think are good men. If she hadn’t spoken up — she really got the ball rolling. She’s incredible.

Zibby: I hope you put her in the acknowledgments.

VC: Every time. I do, both books. I thank her. I gave her flowers and maybe a pie. When I see her from time to time, I say, “You made this happen for me. I’m so grateful.” It’s marvelous what we can do for people without even realizing. It doesn’t cost money. It’s not a great effort. It’s just opening your mouth and putting two people together. It’s such a wonderful thing.

Zibby: What about now? Are you working on another one?

VC: Yes. I’m switching genres. I’m going to jump to romance.

Zibby: That’s right. I heard. What’s it called? Wait, I have — don’t tell me.

VC: Wendy Wanderlust.

Zibby: Yes, I have it right here, Wendy Wanderlust.

VC: I love a happy ending. I love this notion of things working out. I want to believe that everything works out, desperately. I cling to that belief. It’s not such a stretch for me to switch gears and try my hand at a story where there will be this wonderful tension. There will be, obviously, more sex. My editor has always said that I write a pretty good sex scene, so capitalizing on that and just enjoying that format of that fun of falling for someone and maybe the bumps that happen along the way until you’ve really come together. I thought that would be really good. I decided to take on the late eighties. It’s about two best friends who go to Europe in the late eighties on Europasses. They get into trouble with hot foreign men on the back of mopeds. They’re going to zip around. It’s going to be a cat and mouse thing. One of them’s going to get her backpack stolen. She’s going to have to busk. I’ve already started writing little songs that come into the story. It’s already really fun to write. I’m 13,000 words in.

Zibby: That’s awesome. We’re almost out of time here. I had all these questions about Twisted Family Values. I much prefer hearing your whole story of writing and how you got here.

VC: Can I tell you real quick what it’s about?

Zibby: Yes, tell us what it’s about. We only talked about the cousins in general. Give a synopsis. Why not? It’s such a good book. The characters in this story are so real. I even just picked it again. I felt like I could see all of them coming back.

VC: I’ve heard that. People said that they read it quickly and that they feel very immersed and they’re very part of the family. They feel that they’re at the kitchen table talking to these people.

Zibby: It’s nice to be a part of someone else’s issues.

VC: I know, right? Put a little distance from your own. I love to say it’s the story of secrets, expectations, and maddening desire among four generations of a funny, imperfect, dysfunctional family in an upscale New Jersey suburb. It takes place between 1986 and 2014. It’s fifty years in one family. You jump around. You get to remember the hor d’oeuvres and the outfits and the music that was part of your world swirling around at the time. It lines up with my age, my generation. They’re toddlers in the late sixties, kids in the seventies. They go to high school and college in the eighties, and then up until 2014. It’s really fun. It’s a really fun ride.

Zibby: It’s a great book. I really, really enjoyed.

VC: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

VC: This has been so great. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Of course.