I'm very excited to be talking to talking to Amy Blumenfeld today. Amy is a first-time novelist, the author of The Cast. She's written for The New York Times, HuffPost, O, The Oprah Magazine, Prevention, and People. She has contributed to two nonfiction books and has appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, and other media outlets. Graduate of Barnard and Columbia University School of Journalism, Queens-born Amy now lives on Long Island with her husband and daughter. The Cast was the gold winner of the 2018 IPPY Awards, which is Independent Publisher Book Awards, in Popular Fiction. I'm thrilled to welcome Amy.
Welcome, Amy. Thanks so much for being on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Amy Blumenfeld: Thank you for having me.
Zibby: Amy and I were just chatting about how frazzled I was. Now, we’re all calm and ready to go.
Amy: It’s all good.
Zibby: [laughs] It sometimes happens.
You're the author of The Cast, which was beautiful and amazing. I really, really enjoyed reading it. I brought it on my trip to Greece, which was on my wish list forever. To have this book in all my pictures with me, I feel like it was a guest on my trip, which was one of my fondest memories. Tell listeners, if you don't mind, what The Cast is about and how you came up with the idea for your book.
Amy: The Cast is about a group of childhood friends who rally around one of their friends -- they're in ninth grade -- when she gets sick. She has cancer. They realize that they're not doctors. They cannot heal her with medicine, but they can certainly make her laugh. They create this Saturday Night Live-style videotape called Becca Night Live. It’s ninety minutes full of skits and line dances and oh l’amour and silliness. They bring it to her in the hospital. They keep her laughing. She recovers. She's fine. Twenty-five years later, they reunite over the course of a July 4th weekend at a house in the Berkshires. Nothing goes according to plan. All of their lives are at a crossroads. They're there for each other.
Zibby: You structured the book in the present with alternating viewpoints from all the different characters. They highlight some aspects of life and growing older. How did you craft the different narratives? Did you have the message first, “Follow your heart?” Did you have character types in mind first? How did you do it?
Amy: It’s a bit of a story. For this novel, the first thing that I did was create the characters. When I turned forty, my friends and I were all having these big discussions about where we were in our lives, what we hoped to accomplish, discussing relationship issues and marriage and parenting issues and all of those, career. They're really interesting stories. I had this idea for a book for years. It just wasn’t taking off. It wasn’t clicking. What I decided to do was take the stories that were relatable, that I felt like people like you and I would relate to and make a thought-provoking, smart, but a fun, beach read and book club fiction. I took the issues that my friends and I were struggling with and I put them into the book.
This book really started as a form of nonfiction when I was in graduate school for journalism. My professor said, “You need to write a master’s project. You need to choose a topic that will keep your interest going throughout the course of the year.” True to form, I had no idea what I wanted to write about. I left it to the day before the deadline. It happened to be, the day before the deadline was when I had my annual checkup at Sloan Kettering. It’s no secret that I had cancer as a child. I went for my checkup. I'm sitting there in the waiting room. I have my little reporter’s notebook. I'm jotting down different ideas. Nothing is clicking.
The woman sitting right next to me was there with her daughter. It was their first visit at the hospital. The woman is nervous. She starts talking to me. She's like, “Are you waiting for somebody?” I said no. I pulled up my sleeve. I showed her the ID bracelet on my wrist. She was sort of blown away. She wasn’t blown away by me, Amy. She was blown away by what I represented, which was hope for herself and for her daughter and their family. I started talking to them, although her daughter was kind of quiet, which was exactly the way I was at that age. She was asking me all these questions. After my appointment, I spent the remainder of the afternoon hanging out with them and answering her questions. I knew after that afternoon that I had a topic for my master’s project.
I walked back home to the other side of the park brainstorming different angles. I knew that there was a story here about adult survivors of childhood cancer and the challenges that they all go through. I spent the next few months interviewing childhood cancer survivors, their families and loved ones, doctors, social workers. It was fascinating. There really is this ripple effect that affects not just the patients, but their families and their friends. At graduation, my professor said, “You really should consider turning this into a book.” I suspect he meant either a form of nonfiction like a memoir or a compilation of interviews.
For years, I would write. I was interviewing people. I flew to California to interview someone. I'd write these little chapters, but it didn't come off the page. It didn't click. It wasn’t something that I would want to read. It was becoming a cancer book. I didn't want to read a cancer book. I wanted to read something that was fun and uplifting, but smart and thought-provoking and had a message. Like I said, when I turned forty, my friends and I were having these conversations. I said, “Why don't I create fiction? Why don't I try this? I've never done it before. Try writing a novel based on these characters that were relatable but would take those messages and those good nuggets from the master’s project and weave it all together.” That's how it came to be.
Zibby: Wow. What a story. That's so nice, what happened in the waiting room. Did you ever keep in touch with them or anything?
Amy: No. It was one of those meant-to-be moments.
Zibby: The interviews that you did for the master’s project and all that, did you refer back to them when you were writing?
Amy: In my head, yes. I didn't go back and call these people. It’s so many years later.
Zibby: I meant like flipping through. Did you pull it out? Was it on your desk?
Amy: Yes, and it was in my head. I remember all of them. I remember going to the support group meetings and interviewing these people. There are these physical and emotional long-term effects. I’m very fortunate, and the rest of us are, to be in the generation that's surviving this. It used to be that it was a death sentence. Now, the cure rates have skyrocketed. There are side effects in treatment. The experience doesn't end when you walk out those hospital doors for your last treatment and you're declared in remission.
Zibby: What are some of the effects both for the patient as a child and also for the family and loved ones?
Amy: Some of those things I tried to bring into the characters. Becca and her friends, they all deal with it differently. One character has a little bit of this obsessive-compulsive disorder. Everything needs to be organized and perfectly arranged because she couldn't control what was going on then so she's trying to control her life now. Another character in the book was drawn to religion and felt a need to change her life. Another character went the opposite direction and felt like, “How can I have an observant life and be raised in this when bad things happen to good people?” You have a variety. Another character in the book, who’s a straight-A student and super smart, she said, “Forget this. What's life about? It’s about family, being with someone. It’s not about running and achieving all of these career dreams.” Another character has the opposite. She says, “You know what? I want to go for the gold. I want to have that business that I've always dreamed of. Life is short. Let me achieve this.” They're all going different directions. That was sort of based on the people that I've spoken to.
Zibby: That's so creative. You took all the paths, instead of writing an article like, “Here are the five things that can happen when…” It’s more like, “Let me immerse you in these experiences and these emotions and take you down the different paths.”
Amy: Yeah. The book was sort of sitting in me. I didn't know how it was going to turn out. I never grew up saying, “I want to write a book.” That was never part of the agenda. When my professor said that to me, he planted a seed. Over the years, it didn't go away.
Zibby: But you did go to journalism school, so you wanted to be some sort of writer, I'm guessing?
Zibby: Just not a novelist?
Zibby: What kind of writer did you start out wanting to be?
Amy: Originally, I wanted to be Katie Couric. I focused in broadcast as Columbia. I did my internships at Eyewitness News, at the Weekend TODAY Show. Then I realized when I was in school that it’s a very different style of writing, broadcast or print. Even within print, magazine versus newspaper. I wasn’t as good at the broadcast. It was a natural fit for me with the magazine style. I went into magazine after.
Zibby: Then you freelanced a lot for magazines?
Amy: Yes. American Health was my first job. Then I went to George magazine. After George folded, I had been writing a piece for George about the children of former US presidents and what it’s like to grow up in White House. We folded with that issue. The editor-in-chief, Frank Lalli, who was lovely, he said, “Let me see if people would be interested.” He arranged a meeting at People. They said, “Yes, you can continue to work on this for us.” There was a story about the Bush daughters at the time. This is years ago. They put a picture of them on the cover and then linked it up to this piece that I had been working on. It ended up there. From there, I started freelancing.
Zibby: That's great. Then you continued doing that even when you had your daughter?
Amy: A little bit. I pulled back a little bit. I still did a few here and there. I decided I really want to do this book. I didn't know how it was going to happen. When I turned forty, that's when it all came together.
Zibby: Did you do anything to teach yourself how to write fiction? Did you go online and read an article about it? You just tried it? How did you try it?
Amy: I tried it. I realized -- I don't know if it’s just my personality or the journalism background -- but I needed a deadline. I needed an editor. I was not going to be one of these people who could write the entire manuscript and then give it off to an editor. Chapter by chapter, I needed some feedback. I found an editor, a coach/editor who was terrific. She did exactly that. She held my hand and said, “Next Tuesday, you're sending me chapter one.” I would write that. I would send it to her. While she was going over it, I would write the next chapter. Then we would switch back and forth. That's how I got through the process.
Zibby: How long did that all take?
Amy: It took a year to write the first draft. Then it took a year to revise it, and then the publishing process.
Zibby: What happened after that? You had to finish manuscript?
Amy: I had to finish manuscript, then that wasn’t even the finished product.
Zibby: Right, finish round one.
Amy: It was round one, and there was round two. I sent a blind pitch to my agent on a Friday morning. I didn't think she would respond, but she did. She read it over the weekend. Monday, she got back to me. Then we revised it even more.
Zibby: And then what happened? I want to know the whole story.
Amy: You want to know the whole story?
Zibby: I would.
Amy: It’s interesting. She then pitched it to a bunch of the major publishers. We came close with two. We got to second rounds with two of them. Then they passed, both of them. She said, “We can continue to pitch it to smaller houses.” I was frustrated. I was looking at the timeline. I want my parents to be able to shep nachas and appreciate this and see this come to fruition and know that this was a dream that they were able to be there and share. I knew two people, a good friend and then a friend of a friend, who had published with a place called SparkPress, which is a hybrid. I looked into it.
Zibby: What does that mean, a hybrid?
Amy: It’s a mix of traditional publishing and independent publishing. They are really smart people who are veterans in the business and knew that there needed to be a different model. I looked into it. I sent them my manuscript. My friends had been very happy with it and had a lot of success. I figured I had nothing to lose. I sent it to them. They said yes. We took it from there. It’s been a partnership. It’s been, really, a wonderful process. I don't feel like I'm flying solo at all. They are there to guide me. They have a whole structure in place. They have artists who do the cover. You discuss it with them. They guide you with the publicity. They put me in touch with Ann-Marie at Get Red PR, who’s my publicist who’s phenomenal. It’s very professional, very smart people. I'm very happy with the process.
Zibby: Since you've published it, have you heard from other cancer survivors?
Amy: It just came out, but not yet.
Zibby: I'm sure you will. It came out two days ago?
Amy: Two weeks ago.
Zibby: Two weeks ago. I'm sure you'll be flooded with feedback and everything. Speaking of your parents, in the book you do such a beautiful job of talking about Becca’s parents. There was one passage I wanted to read. It was when Becca was shaking so violently from the chemo that her footboard was banging against the wall and chipped the paint. You wrote, “I remember Mom throwing her five-foot two-inch frame atop my blankets, pinning down all eighty-seven pounds of me with the force of a professional wrestler and in a single breath emitting the most desperate string of words I had ever heard. ‘Don't you dare leave me, goddamnit. Becca, you stay with me. Do you understand? Don't you do this.’” I was almost crying when I was reading this. I could see my own mother in that situation. I could see me doing that with my own daughter. Was that a scene that came from your life? It was? That happened to you?
Amy: It was very vivid. I remember everything. Again, this is a work of fiction. It’s totally inspired by my life. There were a couple of scenes that I incorporated. That was one of them because it was a powerful scene. It captured the feeling of the moment. I did not have a group of friends that were five friends that created a video. There was a video that was created for me, but it was by forty people, ten families from our synagogue community in Queens, my parents’ friends and their kids. That was one of the sources of inspiration for the book also. Yeah, that happened. It was the day that they did the bone marrow transplant. I had a headache and I was tired. If you close your eyes and you turn away, and your parent doesn't know, that's what happens.
Zibby: Have you seen lingering effects with your own parents?
Amy: My parents are made of steel. They're the best. They're sweet, kind, wonderful, intelligent people. I still don't know how they did what they did.
Zibby: Does their relationship with your daughter, is that how you formed the character, the relationship?
Amy: It was inspired by it. It’s not exact. It’s not an exact relationship.
Zibby: How old were you when you found out you had cancer when you were younger?
Zibby: Did you do any writing at the time about it?
Amy: No, just normalcy. Wanted normalcy. Just focus on doing my homework, getting back to school, just day to day. I didn't.
Zibby: You went through chemo and everything?
Amy: I went through chemo. I had radiation. I had a bone marrow transplant.
Zibby: Oh, my goodness. I'm so sorry.
Amy: No, it’s all good.
Zibby: I know. It’s amazing and inspiring to overcome it, but that you've had to go through this, it’s a lot.
Amy: It’s character building. Based on my aptitude in high school chemistry, I knew that I was not going to medical school. There's a need to give back. I knew that I had to give back in some way. If I can give back and shed light onto this experience and to the ripple effect and the long-term effects through writing a book that's inspired by but not exactly my experience and speaks to other experiences too -- I try to incorporate not just my experience, but other people's experiences into this book.
Zibby: I'm sorry to keep harping -- this book is not just about illness. I'm magnifying that in our discussion so far because I was interested in that. You could read this not as that type of book at all. It’s a smart, thought-provoking, beach-read type book.
Amy: I purposely did not write a cancer book. I wanted this to be, as you said, thought-provoking. It’s really about friendship and the power of friends to believe and keep you afloat during these difficult times in life.
Zibby: I could see why you took this from your conversations with your friends. Some of the marriage discussions about all the different relationships, I've been a part of some of those conversations. One was with Becca with her own husband and her insecurity with him about her illness, not to keep talking about the illness. You wrote, “I was a risky stock. Yes, I looked pretty and polished just like his friends’ wives, but if you scratch below the surface, I was different. I wondered if deep down he felt he’d gotten a lemon.” Do you think that's something that people who have been sick feel?
Amy: I think anybody with baggage. I don't think it’s specific to the cancer experience.
Zibby: That's true. It was nice to --
Amy: -- to see it on paper? [laughs]
Zibby: Yeah, you wrote it in a nice way. As you said, another couple becomes Orthodox Jews. They went to a teen tour in Israel. They end up having to go through fifteen years of IVF, which you also wrote about in great detail both through having a surrogate for one couple and IVF for another couple. They say they were “denied the ability to fulfill the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply.”
You have faith playing a big role in this book also. How did you intend to have faith play into the story?
Amy: I'm very familiar with Judaism. I grew up in an observant home. I went to a Jewish day school. My daughter goes to a Jewish day school. I lived in Israel for a while. It’s very much a part of my fabric. You write what you know a little bit. I find it fascinating. I also see people that I grew up with going in different directions. Some are going towards a more observant life. Some are going the opposite way. I thought they were fascinating discussions. It’s a day to day thing.
There’s a scene in Babies R Us where this observant -- she's creating a baby registry. She's now, at forty, on the cusp of parenthood. She's finally there after so many years of trying. She's now a month shy of giving birth. She says, “I really had a great upbringing. I want to do some things the way that I was raised, which is different than this observant life that I'm now leading.” She's questioning how she wants to parent. What does she want to expose her child to in terms of observance? How much? I find those conversations fascinating. That was another thing I wanted to bring into the book. There's no right or wrong answer to so many of these issues. There's a medical crisis. There's a marriage that's on the rocks. There's a religious question of observance. I grew up in a family of lawyers and everybody playing devil’s advocate.
Zibby: Sounds familiar.
Amy: When you respect and love someone, how do you agree to disagree when there's no right or wrong answer? I wanted to bring that tension into the book and how these people resolve these grey areas when obviously things are not black and white.
Zibby: Your character Lex, that was a particularly crystal clear, I'm viewing her in a movie portrayal of a character. She is in a marriage that looks perfect on the outside with all the trappings that she ever wanted, the country club, the jewelry, the nice house, the kids. She's miserable on the inside. Ultimately -- I won't give anything away -- you have her have to come to sort of decision about this stage of her. She says, “You'd look at us and never know how far we've strayed from what we were. We know how to smile for the cameras at school plays, which by the way you would see if you had Instagram or Facebook. But do we talk to each other the moment the valet closes our car door and we head home after a dinner party? No. I don't remember the last time the two of us were alone and laughed.”
I feel like so many girls can relate to this moment. You can just see them sitting there in the car with it closed. A lot of people have been saying how they feel with Instagram and social media, that they feel worse about themselves because everybody looks so happy. I was even thinking yesterday, I had the worst day. I was having some issue with one of my children, which of course derails everything. No one would know. I went through all day yesterday with a big smile on my face, droppin’ off and picking up. It’s only at the end of the day when I'm alone in the kitchen where I can let it down. I'm not the only one doing this, not to say I'm trying to hide anything. It’s just what everybody has to do. We have to go through the motions and keep it all together. Anyway, that was a long… [laughs]
That scene in the car, did you have any experience like that?
Amy: No. That, I completely created.
Zibby: What do you think about this whole need to put on a happy face, so to speak, to the outside world?
Amy: So much pressure. It’s too much pressure, especially on kids. My daughter -- she's twelve -- just got Instagram. It’s not even that she wants it. It’s that all of her friends are doing it. They're saying, “Why aren’t you on it?” It’s ridiculous and so much pressure. Be authentic. That's another theme in the book too. Listen to your gut. Be who you are. Be authentic.
Zibby: It’s not that easy.
Amy: It’s not that easy. It’s hard.
Zibby: Also, nobody wants to hear all your stuff. If you go to pickup and drop off and you're like, “Oh, my gosh. Listen to what happened…” [laughs]
Amy: No one’s really asking.
Zibby: It’s the power of having close friends and a husband you can talk to, and close family.
Amy: They keep you afloat.
Zibby: They keep you afloat. Exactly.
Amy: You need a cast. Everybody needs a cast.
Zibby: It’s true. Everybody should get a little playbill. You can fill it in. Especially over time, maybe some of the lead characters go to supporting characters. Then new characters come in.
Your character of Seth I also thought was interesting. He went to Princeton and was this go-getter and then decided, “I'm dropping out. I can't deal with this,” and goes a different path at life, ends up a success with what he chose. With that, were you trying to show another reaction to a friend with cancer or just the many ways that life can go?
Amy: Both. I know plenty of people who thought they had to follow this certain path and drove themselves crazy to get straight As and then ultimately were falling apart later on. Or it could be a side effect of seeing a friend at a young age struggle and face death and say, “What is this really all about? Why am I putting all this pressure on myself to be the valedictorian of the class and to get into an Ivy League school? What's the ultimate goal here? Life is short. I'm going to enjoy it. I'm not going to make myself crazy.” Ultimately, he was smart. He figured out his path. He didn't go to medical school. He became a physical therapist. It all worked out in the end.
Zibby: Speaking of the end, the end of the book, I could not believe the way you ended it. I'm not going to give it away. In general, you chose to end it a certain way. Why? What message did you want people to come away with, if that particular thing had versus hadn’t happened? My takeaway was “You never know. Let's appreciate life.” Is that what you were going for?
Amy: Exactly. That's exactly it.
Zibby: Good. [laughs]
Amy: You hit it.
Zibby: It was definitely one of those times where I sat up in bed when I was reading. I was like, “What? What happened? Oh, my gosh.”
Tell me a little bit more, one of the characters have a baby via surrogate. Are you open to talking about…?
Zibby: You went through this experience yourself. What was it like writing about something that was so personal to you? Obviously, all of this was personal to you. I know you've written articles.
Amy: I've written articles about it because I really think that's a fascinating ripple effect. It affects the patient and the family, but then it also affects the spouse later on and then the child ultimately. I knew that I never wanted to lie to my daughter about how she came into this world. We could not be more proud of the process. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful that it worked the first time. I wanted her to feel that same pride. When she was about two and a half, my sister-in-law was pregnant and a good friend of mine was pregnant. She said, “I want to see pictures of me when I was in your belly.”
I planted this seed because I wanted it to be on her level. I said, “It was sort of like baking a cake. Daddy and I were the ingredients, but the oven was broken so we had to put your cake into somebody else to bake. Nine months later, you came out on your birthday. That's when the cake was ready.” That's how it started. Then it grew from there. As she got older, she asked more and more questions. Because we had pride and were proud of the process, she felt the same way. A funny story is when she was in kindergarten. They were having free playtime during recess. Her friends were all putting these baby dolls under their shirts. She didn't. Her friends said, “Where is your baby?” She's like, “My friend is carrying my baby for me.” They're like, “Huh?”
Zibby: I thought you were going to say she put the baby in the oven.
Amy: That would be funny. She said, “My friend is carrying it.” The next day at pickup, one of the other moms comes up to me. She's like, “My daughter had some interesting story. Mia was telling her about she was born.” My daughter at age five is teaching about third-party reproduction in kindergarten. That makes me think what's the responsibility that I have or that the school has? If a child who I'm instilling this confidence and pride in then starts telling her little buddies in school and then the parents come to the principle and say, “Why is my child learning about third-party reproduction in kindergarten,” that's a whole other ball of wax. Again, it’s part of this ripple, which I thought was fascinating.
Zibby: Have you thought about doing a children's book with that theme? You should do that.
Amy: I've thought about that.
Zibby: It’s more and more common.
Amy: It’s so much more common even now than it was twelve years ago.
Zibby: Even for kids who weren’t born via surrogate, they're very aware of kids who -- it’s such a good analogy, the cake-making one.
Amy: It worked. It helped her.
Zibby: That's your next assignment. I'm kidding. Do you have another book that you're interested in doing? What are you thinking of doing from here? Not that you need to be doing anything else. This book just came out. It was amazing.
Amy: The publicity part of this is taking over, which is great. It’s also ironic given that I'm an introvert. A lot of writers tend to be, so to have to go out and do it -- I'm very grateful for all of it. I would love to write a sequel. I have ideas for it. I've started jotting things down.
Zibby: With the same cast?
Amy: Same cast, but I would shift the focus. I would focus on some of the other characters, not necessarily Nolan and Becca, but some of the supporting cast members. We’ll see.
Zibby: That would be cool. What exciting publicity events do you have coming up? Are you looking forward to anything?
Amy: We have a bunch of book signings coming up. I'm doing your podcast, which is awesome.
Zibby: This is amazing. This is the best thing on the whole tour. [laughs]
Amy: A bunch of really fun things. It'll be fun. It’s been great. I'm very grateful that people are willing to have me, like you.
Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I'm so glad we were introduced. I really enjoyed reading your book. I really did. The characters really stuck with me. Some of the moments and the scenes, they were so vivid. It was great. It’s a mitzvah, what you're doing, giving back to the people going through this and the other survivors, not that this is a cancer book. For people who have gone through anything traumatic in childhood, this is nice.
Amy: That's exactly it. It’s not just a cancer experience. It’s any life-changing, big experience that you experience with your friends at a young age and to see what happens to all of them later on. That was goal. If I can shed some light on that and make it a fun read at the same time, then check.
Zibby: Check plus for today. Thank you so much for your time and for coming on the show.
Amy: Thanks for having me.
Zibby: Of course.