Zibby interviews Wendy Walker about AMERICAN GIRL, an exquisitely rendered small-town thriller about a 17-year-old autistic girl who becomes embroiled in a murder case in rural Pennsylvania. Wendy describes her protagonist’s character development, highlighting her unique perspective and exceptional analytical skills. She also discusses her past experiences, including aspirations to become an Olympic figure skater and working in a sandwich shop. Finally, she talks about her upcoming projects and offers advice to aspiring authors, emphasizing the importance of continuous skill development and understanding reader engagement.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Wendy. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest, American Girl. Congratulations.

Wendy Walker: Thank you.

Zibby: Did the American Girl doll company have any issue with the title?

Wendy: No. American Girl was after my years as a young girl. The inspiration for the book was really a moment I had listening to the Tom Petty song, “American Girl.” That is where the title came from. Then when I started using the hashtag on social media, I realized that it was all American Girl dolls.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Wendy: Nothing to do with the dolls, unfortunately.

Zibby: Honestly, the moms of the girls buying the dolls were on social. It’s a good audience for them, so it ends up working out perfectly.

Wendy: I only have sons, so I really have no experience with American Girls at all.

Zibby: I have way too much experience with American Girl dolls, stores, restaurants. I’ll leave it at that. Your novel, which has nothing to do at all with dolls but does have to do with a girl, not such a young girl, but we do go back to when she starts — I think she was four when her mom ran away from her grandparents. I’m not sure how old she was. We do get to follow her through her life through college, which is wonderful. Why don’t you take it away? Why don’t you tell listeners what the book is about?

Wendy: The book is about a seventeen-year-old autistic girl named Charlie Hudson. She lives in a small town in rural Pennsylvania. She gets caught in the crosshairs when a ruthless business owner, which is also her boss at The Triple S sandwich shop, is found murdered. It takes place only in the span of a few days, but we do get a lot of backstory about Charlie’s life. It’s a mystery. Who killed Clay Cooper? It’s also a thriller because the things that Charlie may or may not know about the murder become valuable to the people who are actually involved in his death. It’s also really a small-town drama about all of the people in her life. She has a complicated relationship with her mother and her stepfather and her half-brothers and these wonderful relationships with the people at the sandwich shop. The whole story is about her trying to find a way to keep them safe from the people who are after her and possibly after them and also to keep them from being suspects in the murder because all of them had a reason to want Clay Cooper dead.

Zibby: Wow. There’s definitely a lot in there. I feel like the mother-daughter piece of it was so poignant, even just how you write about — it’s from the daughter’s point of view, but she somehow knows what the mother is thinking. She knows her mother is not going to get her out of the shower or touch her because that’s going to upset her. She tells us that even as the narrator. You almost get this 360 view of their relationship as it progresses and all of that.

Wendy: The reason, actually, that this story evolved into Charlie being autistic is that — when I started writing it, I knew I wanted it from her point of view. I wanted it to be very interior, first person, present tense. I just started writing this teenager. She had to have this 360 view. She had to understand all of these people around her, the relationships, how they would respond to things, react to things, what their motivations were, how they viewed life. Those are things that a typical seventeen-year-old just doesn’t do. It’s not a normal part of brain development, actually, for that age. We started thinking about, why would she have that view? Why would she know what her mother could be thinking and feeling? Why could she have all of these facts in her head already when this story starts to unfold? She’s been analyzing and evaluating all of these people for many years. She has this set of rules that she’s made about people and human behavior. Then it just fit so perfectly to make her neurodivergent and have a reason to have to have developed these very analytical and front-brain skills for understanding people. Naturally, people who are not neurodivergent, who are considered within the nondivergent scope of —

Zibby: — Neurotypical.

Wendy: Neurotypical, thank you. Yes, who are neurotypical. It’s more intuitive. The way we react to people and respond to people is much more intuitive. We don’t generally go around making these front-brain rules about people and then trying to actually apply them moment to moment when we experience new people or new situations. She became autistic for the purpose of being able to tell the story. Then it just opened up this whole amazing world to be able to write in. Of course, I had to be educated in autism. We had sensitivity readers. We had Paige Layle, who’s an autism advocate and educator, perform the audiobook and weigh in on how Charlie would sound in her emotional reactions while she’s saying the dialogue that I had written. It was many, many layers to make sure that we got it right. It was definitely an evolution. It’s interesting you say that because that is where it began, was the fact that I was writing all these characters from her point of view.

Zibby: I think this is actually maybe my favorite. I feel like I’ve read a bunch of your books now. There’s something about the first person, the kid, following the same person along. I don’t know. It’s a different perspective.

Wendy: I wrote it on spec. It was not under contract. It was a struggle, actually, to convince people in my camp that it should see the light of day even though it was such a great story.

Zibby: Why?

Wendy: It’s too light. It’s too young. It’s not twisty enough. That’s another reason it ended up at Audible. I felt like that was a compromise. Okay, well, what if we have it be a different path for my work and find a different audience? Then it turned out to be such a gift that it went to Audible because it completely transformed the story. We leaned into the autism. When I went back and read the first-pass pages when it went to print, that was a couple years later, just this past year. I was reading it again for the first time in probably four years. I had the same feeling. I was like, oh, wow, I can write in this other way. It’s still me. It’s still very much my voice and my writing style, but it is different. It’s the first and only book I’ve written that started with a character and a feeling and just a visceral feeling about life and the trajectory of being a woman from that age throughout life. I wanted to get all of that in a story. I built the story to give life to all of those things. It was a different process, and so a slightly different book. I added the twists and turns, so I could keep my readers happy.

Zibby: Have you read Happiness Falls by Angie Kim?

Wendy: I’m halfway through it. It’s amazing. I loved hearing her speak. We were actually on a panel together at the Boston Book Festival. The way she describes it is she had this character as well. She built what she calls a container, which is the mystery of the father missing, just to keep a plot, to give it structure, but really, it’s a container and a structure to give life to this wonderful character and all of the issues that she wanted to explore in that book. American Girl was very much the same way.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. I think it’s really neat to get inside the head of someone who doesn’t think exactly the same way and to see how they categorize the world. You can look the same. You wouldn’t know if we were all sitting on a bench or something. To experience life so completely differently is really mind-blowing when you get into a page-by-page account of especially the rules and having to put everything into a system and predictability and how one thing can throw you off. Things throw me off all the time. To even have the illusion that life is predictable is a fallacy.

Wendy: It was really this moment. I was dancing to “American Girl” at a restaurant bar in rural Pennsylvania. It brought me back in time to when I was seventeen. You know how songs can do that? Not all the time, but if you’re in an environment where you’re dancing or you’re just not driving or doing something else but really able to go where those feelings are taking you. I remembered what it felt like to be seventeen in high school and be on the brink of everything in my life happening. Then now to be where I’m at and having had some dreams come true, so many dreams not come true, an understanding of life that evolved, and the nuances of life and the ironies and just the richness of life, bittersweetness of life, it was so overwhelming. I don’t even have a word for it. I was overwhelmed with just the experience of being a human being and being a woman. In the bar, the restaurant, there was a cluster of younger women. I think they were probably teenagers. The girls were all dressed up, their hair, their makeup, the midriff shirts. They were clustered together. Then there were all these cute boys in the corner playing darts. They were sort of eyeing each other. You could just feel the energy. You could feel the excitement they all had about being out on a Saturday night. Then in the bar area where the band was playing, and playing a lot of cover bands, older music — probably did not interest those younger people at all — were two or three tables of moms. I think moms, but women my age who were out together alone. No men. They were just chilling. They were in their jeans and T-shirts and just happy to be out with each other for the night and listening to the music.

Just seeing, wow, those girls over there are going to be those women in twenty-five years. The things that they’re going to experience, oh, my gosh, so many things. Yet you can’t go back. You can’t reach those seventeen-years old and infuse them with your knowledge. They have to live it and experience it. It will probably be different for them. That was the kinds of issues that I wanted to explore. Every woman in American Girl was sort of designed to represent a different trajectory. We have our narrator, Charlie. She is autistic. She wants to get out of Sawyer. She is trying to do her best to listen to her mother’s advice and go to college and not get caught up in love and marriage and babies and get stuck in this town. It’s a dead-end street economically. Then her mother, who did get trapped there by getting pregnant at sixteen and abandoned by the father and feeling so stuck and now trying to rip out of her daughter the instincts and the urges to be in love and maybe take those risks because of how her life turned out — then in the sandwich shop, every woman in the sandwich shop, from Charlie’s best friend Keller, who’s madly in love with this beautiful boy from across the road; and Nora, who’s a professional and a loner and takes pride in her work; and Janice, who has her four children and her marriage — she’s just a bundle of nervous energy all the time trying to make ends meet. All of those women sort of represent different paths that women’s lives take.

Zibby: A minute ago, you talked about all your different dreams. I feel like at this age, many of my friends and I are wrestling with the same thing. Oh, here’s where we are. What dreams of yours do you feel like you have not achieved?

Wendy: Wow. I actually worked in a sandwich shop, so a lot of the descriptions of the sandwich shop were from my experiences. By the time I was in high school working at a sandwich shop, I had already lost my childhood dream of being a competitive Olympic figure skater. I had pursued that for many years. I trained out in Colorado for three years alone in a dormitory. It was a big dream. It was something that I pursued and that my parents supported for many years. When I gave up at sixteen, realizing that I wasn’t going to make it and having to come to that decision on my own — my parents really didn’t want me to quit, but I just knew. I could see the writing on the wall. I was trying to make the best decision for me. It was really hard and really painful. I remember that experience very well. Then I found new dreams. I can trace all the different parts of my life. I never stopped dreaming. I have dreams for my kids, but they’re really just for them to be happy. Most of my concrete dreams are for myself, my writing career, a long relationship with a partner, enduring friendships, of course at this age, economic stability, just maintaining that, making sure that I have what I need for the rest of my life, and to be able to enjoy life. Now actually, I think I’m shifting, as many of us do, into really trying to identify the things I enjoy doing and trying to build a life where I have time and resources to do those things.

Zibby: Is there something in particular you’d like to have more time to do? I’m trying to think if I had more time —

Wendy: — What about you? You’re the busiest woman on the planet.

Zibby: Oh, stop. We’re all so busy. I don’t even know what I would do. What would I do? Watch more TV? I don’t know.

Wendy: You’ve published a memoir. You’ve published a novel.

Zibby: I just mean, what would we add for pleasure?

Wendy: Oh, my gosh. Do you have any? My youngest son went to college last year, so this is my second year being empty nested. I was like, okay, I’m going to find out what I like to do. What do I like to do now at this age? I haven’t had any hobbies. Zero. I’ve been kids friends. That’s it. Last year, the only thing I did was join a gym, which isn’t really a hobby. Instead of working out in my basement, I actually now go somewhere. That’s not good. I went to Iceland Noir last year. I’m going back in a few weeks. That experience made me realize that I do actually love to travel, even alone or with a friend or with my kids, but to travel in a different way than when my kids were younger where it was about, okay, we’re going to go to Paris because my kids need to go to Paris. I want them to really see the world and see the Eiffel Tower and experience local restaurants and all of that, and with an agenda, a real agenda for my kids. When I went to Iceland, I had a few days just traveling with another author, with Jean Kwok, actually.

Zibby: I love Jean.

Wendy: I know. We had so much fun. We went on these tours. We didn’t know what we were supposed to see there. We just wanted to experience it. I realized that putting yourself in a different environment, whether it’s traveling or with new people, it throws all of your thinking — it takes it out of the little runners that they’re in and just throws it all up in the air. Then when all the beliefs and the thoughts and the feelings come back down, they sometimes settle in different places. You can get a shift of perspective. That is really, really exhilarating to me. I think I want to try to build in more experiences like that, travel and also new people, just new things that I haven’t already done in my life.

Zibby: I love that. It’s amazing. My son, the other day, I taught him how to use the Google Maps where you can add a location thing. Went through and was ranking all the countries in the world, where he would want to go. Now it’s on a list. He’s like, “Okay, next summer, we’ll go here.” I’m like, I’m not going to all these places. Then we started cross-referencing them with the safety warning system. I was like, “These five have to get off our list. Maybe we should put this up on the list.”

Wendy: I love that. It’s great. I have, now, adult children. I love being with them and spending time with them. It’s so different now when we watch — I have a son studying screenwriting — when we watch TV, movies. We analyze every piece of dialogue. What could be better? What was great about it? Even the cinematography and the plot. Each of my sons has amazing different qualities. They’re just so much fun to be with now. I keep thinking I want to learn the guitar, but I’m so bad. I’m just so bad. I don’t have the patience. That is on my bucket list, is to be able to actually play a musical instrument and actually play it and not just memorize one song but actually understand it and the chords. I don’t know why.

Zibby: You could start with “American Girl.”

Wendy: I know. I have a feeling that’s a little challenging, but yes. I’ve watched my kids learn online. I have two sons who’ve learned to play guitar really well. That’s on my list. I don’t know. We’ll see. Right now, writing. I’m writing. I’m writing all day, every day working on new projects and in new mediums too, which is exciting.

Zibby: Expand. What do you mean?

Wendy: I have, coming out in 2024, hopefully — I think maybe the strikes have slowed things down. It’s an audio play for Audible. It’s called Mad Love. I describe it as The Tinder Swindler meets Dirty John meets the psychological thriller. It’s mostly scripted, almost all scripted. It’s going to be about four to five hours long listening time. That’s exciting. I’m going to write another piece for Audible that will be more like American Girl in terms of a novel with some scripted chapters. That’s a different kind of story for me. I can’t say too much about it because I haven’t even started it yet. That’s been just so exciting. Then I’m working on a new novel, which is also exciting. I just keep developing stories and finding new ways to tell them. Spending time with authors is amazing too. Just seeing the author community is really quite incredible.

Zibby: You’re always out there supporting everybody else. It’s really amazing.

Wendy: They give back. It’s wonderful.

Zibby: I don’t know your sons, obviously, but from the time when I interviewed you the first time — it couldn’t be that many — what? A couple years? You were talking about writing your first book in the back of the minivan or whatever. imagining your kids so little back then. Then we went to where you didn’t want to go out and date because you wanted to just hang out with your sons knowing your time was about to end. Now here we are. I’m like, oh, my gosh, really, they’re both gone? Now they have jobs. It’s an arc.

Wendy: Yes, it’s crazy, the arc. That’s what really inspired this book. It hits you. You go through these experiences. Then when something makes you stop and assess where you are and take stock of where you’ve been and the thoughts and feelings you had at different stages and then how things actually turned out, there’s this desire to just stop. Somebody stop the world. Stop time because I got to get my stuff together. I got to think this through and figure out how things ended up here, which isn’t bad, but different. Is this what I intended? If not, what can I do now differently to plan better or just make better choices? Then there isn’t. You realize there isn’t. At each stage, you’ve made the best choices you could. You’ve done the best that you could at the time. It’s really overwhelming, the sense that we’re just going to keep moving forward. In a few years, maybe we’ll speak again, and someone will be getting married. I don’t even know.

Zibby: That’s really good advice. You can be so stressed when kids are home. Having the perspective is so good. Now that we’ve gotten parenting advice, what writing advice can you share with aspiring authors?

Wendy: Oh, my gosh, there’s so much. There’s business advice, which I would save for another conversation. I think it’s really important to be smart about the business. Really important to connect with authors. My book tour in June for What Remains, which was the book that came out before American Girl, and now just recently with American Girl and visiting your lovely bookshop in Santa Monica with Caroline Kepnes and Janelle Brown, I’m just spending time with other authors because they have so much advice, writing advice, but also business advice. I can’t stress that strongly enough, and the way that, especially in the thriller community, suspense community, the support is incredible. Then from there, because I’m not a trained writer, I think the most important thing is to always be building your skill set, your toolbox. When you read, read as much as you can in your genre. I try to pay attention to what I like.

Where am I stopping and getting a little bored or a little disinterested? Why? What is it about the story? Is it about the way the story is told that has made me stop and pause and not keep turning the pages? What is it that is making me read every single word? What is it that is making me not want to leave this book, even if it’s painful, even if it’s uncomfortable? What is keeping me glued to this page and want to turn the pages? It will be different for every person. I have really good author friends. I’ll send a book or the manuscript. “Oh, I just blurbed this book. You have to read it.” They’re like, “I don’t know. When does it get good?” I’ll get a text. “When does this get good?” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” Then the same thing will happen. Everyone is different. I think the best thing is to really pay attention to what you want to be writing and how to then write the best way that you can for what you want to be writing, what you’re interested in writing.

Zibby: I love that. Amazing. Wendy, thank you so much. Thanks for coming back. I just love your whole successful career, watching the whole thing unfold. It’s really awesome. I really, really enjoyed American Girl. I particularly loved the notion that there are no rules for love.

Wendy: Yes, that’s the best she has. There are no rules when it comes to love. That’s exactly right. It’s the one thing that you can’t predict or build anything around, make predictions about. It comes in, and it just takes us over. That’s really what is at the core. Actually, the last chapter of this book is my most favorite chapter I’ve ever written.

Zibby: It’s really good.

Wendy: That rule is what is right at the end. Thank you so much.

Zibby: It was a “you get the chills” kind of chapter, especially with the last rule.

Wendy: It’s got a lot of .

Zibby: so perfectly. It was really good.

Wendy: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Have a great day, Wendy.

Wendy: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

AMERICAN GIRL by Wendy Walker

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