I'm really excited to be interviewing Camille Pagán who is the number one Kindle bestselling author of five novels including the upcoming I'm Fine and Neither Are You. Her Novel Life and Other Near-Death Experiences was recently optioned by Jessica Chastain’s production company Freckle Films. A journalist specializing in women's health, Camille has been on staff at several national publications and was most recently the health editor at Real Simple. She has contributed to O, The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, Glamour, and many other magazines and websites. She currently lives with her husband and two children in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
It’s Zibby from “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Camille Pagán: Hi. How are you?
Zibby: I'm good. How are you?
Camille: Hanging in there. We have another snow day.
Zibby: Oh, no.
Camille: Yes. This is day seven.
Zibby: Oh, my gosh.
Camille: It’s nuts. It’s not ever like this. I cannot remember a single other year where it’s been like this.
Zibby: It’s snowing here too, but schools are still on.
Camille: I'm envious.
Zibby: I'm really honored you're coming on the show. I love your books. I really just love your whole messaging and everything. I'm excited to interview you.
Camille: Right back at you. I love your podcast. I'm super excited about this.
Zibby: Thanks. If you don't mind, let's start at the beginning of your fiction-writing career. You said on your website that you wrote your first novel, The Art of Forgetting, ten years ago after your daughter was born when you had a dear friend battling a terminal illness, which I'm so sorry about. You wrote on your website, “Even before I typed ‘The End,’ I knew I wanted to do it again (and again and again).” I'm curious. What was it that made you love writing your first novel so much that you wanted to keep doing it?
Camille: I always wanted to be a novelist from a really early age when I realized that people did that. [laughs] Sounds amazing. I think I'd like to be one of them. I studied English in school, in college, and went into journalism and put it on the backburner. I was thinking about being practical. I enjoyed journalism. My friend’s illness reiterated the fact -- it’s cliché, but it’s true -- that life is short. I really wanted to make it happen while I had a chance. Then my friend also, as she was dying, encouraged me. I said, “I have this idea for a book.” She said, “You have to go for it. Now is the time.” That gave me the fuel to sit down and write an entire draft. I did it in about four months. It was pretty quick. It was so enjoyable to be away from facts for a while, which is what I do all day in my journalism role, and come up with this story in head. It’s unlike anything else I've ever done. I feel that way every time I write a book. It’s escapism but taping into the parts of myself that I don't usually reveal.
Zibby: Reading is that escapism for me. Either writing it or reading it, it’s great. It takes yourself out of yourself. You wrote your first novel in four months. It was published. You moved on and wrote Life and Other Near-Death Experiencesafter your second child was born. When did you do that? When are you doing your writing? How do you come up with the ideas for these first couple books? This book was just optioned by Jessica Chastain’s film company Freckle Films, which is amazing. That's so exciting.
Camille: Thank you. Fingers crossed that'll see the screen. I'm really excited about that. I had a three-year period between The Art of Forgettingand Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, maybe two and a half, three years where I wrote a couple other books that were terrible. My agent didn't like them. I didn't like them. Actually being published the first time, you realize this is real. I have an internal, self-created pressure to write something that I thought would sell, which is the worst way to write a book. After writing the second book that didn't go anywhere, I realized that. That's when I was on a press trip in Santa Monica for a story. I had a couple hours to kill before my flight. I was on the beach.
I'd gotten to this mental point where I thought I'm going to give up on my fiction career. The ship has sailed. Maybe I’ll write another book in five years. My journalism career’s going well. Suddenly at that moment of release, I got an idea to write about a woman who has a terminal illness. Her life blows up at the same time she's diagnosed. She runs away to Puerto Rico, which is a place that's really important to me and my family. It just came to me almost fully formed, this idea. I ran back to my room and started scribbling down, and the next day when I got home, started writing the book. That became Life and Other Near-Death Experiences.
Zibby: Wow. Then it became the number one all-category Kindle bestseller, which is so great.
Camille: I'm smiling as you say that.
Zibby: That's pretty awesome.
Camille: It was such a wonderful experience. It was neat to see that the book that I wrote really for myself -- I just thought, “What would I like to read?” If I went to the bookstore, what would be the thing I’d want to pick up? I wanted something that was poignant but funny and tongue and cheek in a way. It was nice to see readers resonate with that message. Unlike those other drafts that are in my drawer and will never see the light of day, I wasn’t writing it with the reader in mind. I was just writing for me.
Zibby: Seems to be the secret.
Camille: I think it is. That's how I've written all of my other books since. The feeling of writing that way is very different. It’s joyful. I don't know what everyone else's process is. For me, I don't ever struggle. I don't feel like, “This is horrible. I hate it.” When I'm writing, I think, “This is great.” If it’s not good, I'm going to make it better. I'm always looking for that feeling of joy. If it’s not there, that means I'm not working on the right book.
Zibby: I love that. That's great. I tried to write a book recently. I was so stressed about it. Then I was like, “Nobody's asked me to do this.” If I'm not having fun doing this, just stop. I didn't have a highly successful first novel with the second-novel stress attached. This is just for fun. If it’s not fun, forget it. You said to you write to -- I'm going to quote you here -- “figure out how you feel about the world and to connect with others thinking about the same things,” and that nothing makes you happier than hearing from a reader who then says, “Your novel helped me through a tough time. That's exactly how I felt.” I feel like that's totally the same way. Even if I write an Instagram post and someone's like, “Me too,” I'm like, “That's awesome!”
Camille: It’s all formats. It’s Instagram, social media, blog post, article. Novels are just that in a crazy format because you do get so much feedback on reviews. People will email. We all have a purpose. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that when you're writing. I realized after hearing from readers that my personal purpose is to give voice to some of the things that people think but maybe don't say. Hearing those ideas, however revealing or embarrassing -- I feel like I'm always running around in my underwear when I write a book. Everyone's watching. It’s important to realize that you're not the only one who feels that way. That's how we get through life in a joyful way. That's what my books are for.
Zibby: That's amazing. I love that. That's the greatest power of writing, is so you don't feel alone. Everybody has this common experience. You do such a good job of that in your book I'm Fine and Neither Are You, which was so great, coming out in April. Speaking of running around in your underwear, you start this book with your protagonist Penelope sitting on the toilet and being interrupted by both her son and then her husband with no toilet paper to be found. I was like, “I can't believe she's writing this scene. This is perfect.” It’s so real. [laughs]
Camille: Thank you. Moms get that. We know what that feels like.
Zibby: Then you wrote about parenting. You said, “On a day like this one, I needed to remind myself that there was a good reason a sane person would pull herself out of bed at the crack of dawn, spend all her waking hours tending to the needs of other people, and then do it again and again and again. It was a labor of love or something like that.”
Camille: I really had fun writing this character. Her name’s Penelope. She's a breadwinner. She's working her butt off. She's doing more than she should at home. Her husband’s not really chipping in. She feels the way that I think it’s easy for anyone to feel, which is that everyone around her has it better than she does. People are more put together. They’ve got it figured out. She especially feels this way about her closest mom friend Jenny who has this very charmed life. Lo and behold, her life isn't charmed.
I've seen this personally. This book isn't about me. I deliberately wrote away from my own marriage out of respect for my marriage, I suppose. I've had friends, their lives look so amazing from the outside. These are people I was close to. In two cases, each friend came to me and said, “My marriage is falling apart.” In one case, the woman’s husband was gay. The other case, I just never saw it coming. She said, “We’re getting divorced. We've been unhappy for years.” You could never have seen that from the outside. It was very important to them to not show those cracks. It reminded me that you don't know what's going on with anyone else other than yourself and to not put judgment on them, good or bad. Just observe without drawing conclusions about your own life.
Zibby: What do you think the benefits are of putting up this front? Do you think there's any benefit, like if you are unhappy like Jenny in her marriage? Do you think this self-protective instinct can help? Do you think it makes the problem worse?
Camille: I think both. It’s helpful to not air your dirty laundry to everyone. People talk. You don't want to run into someone at the grocery store and they say, “I hear things are not going so well.” I get not wanting to deal with that. It becomes a habit of sorts where you're so used to saying everything's fine that you do that even to people close to you. Those are the people who need to hear things are not fine. Those are the people who can help you get through it or give you the support that you need. It’s very lonely. We’re so connected. We've never been more connected to everyone, and yet we feel very much isolated in our own way. Social media contributes to that. You're telling a story constantly. You don't want it to be a bad story, but it’s not the whole story either.
Zibby: In your book, do you think that Jenny, the trajectory of her life, the fate that she ends up in, do you think all that could have been avoided? Do you think if she had shared maybe more with Penelope she would be in a different place?
Camille: I do. It’s later revealed that she has leaned on her husband somewhat. That didn't work. It wasn’t enough. I think that she probably needed someone like Penelope to say, “This isn't working. Let's go to the next step. It’s okay. You can lean back. You can step away from your blog for a bit. You don't have to be this perfect mother. Let's do this together.”
Zibby: There seems to be so much pressure.
Camille: There is. You can buy into it or not. What is, not frightening, but worries me sometimes about social media and makes me step back a little is that it does become a habit of sorts. The more you do it, the more normal it is to become someone who just puts out the glossy stuff, none of the real stuff. It’s funny because people really seem to relate more to the raw things, to the truth, when you're telling the truth about what's going on with you. People are like, “Oh, me too. Thanks. Thanks for that.” Yet we still feel like we need to put out this really glossy, perfect image.
Zibby: I like how at the end of the book -- not to give anything away -- what ends up happening with the blog and how you wrap that up, the blog can show the truth in the end. It was a really great book. It raised so many questions and hit home in a lot of ways. So many people have friends that they feel they wish they could help more. Ultimately no matter how much you want to help someone, if they don't reach out, there's nothing you can do. You can even have more awareness of their struggles. There's boundaries. I'm rambling here.
Camille: I'm totally on board with it. I spend a lot of my day interviewing doctors and psychologists and social workers for my journalism job. The thing that I hear again and again is people do need to want that help. You can't force someone to change. It’s complicated. It’s really layered to figure out how to be there but also understand your own limitations.
Zibby: Very interesting. You wrote a really great article on Shondaland called “Fault Lines,” which was such a great piece about aging and turning forty, which I did recently, not recently enough.
Camille: [laughs] Right there with you.
Zibby: At the end of that piece, you conclude that the key to aging beautifully is to move forward with passion and purpose, and that we’re naturally drawn to people who are enjoying themselves regardless of their age. Do you feel you've come to peace more with aging since you examined it closely for this article? Do you think this is really the trick, this purpose and passion?
Camille: I do. I think a lot about this, maybe not as much as my dermatologist. It’s on my mind. That's just because I want to move forward gracefully myself. I don't want aging to be something that limits me in any way. I think it’s a self-created problem. It’s going to happen. You're going to get older. You're going to look different. You might feel a little different. Staying connected to your purpose, for me at least, that's been really meaningful, to understand why I'm here and what I'm trying to do. That keeps you away from the mirror and the obsession that's so easy. You start seeing wrinkles. Everything's not holding up the same way. It’s a rabbit hole if you're not careful.
Zibby: I like how you turn away from the mirror at the end. You're like, “I'm going to spend a little less time looking at this and a little more time looking at,” once I turn away from the mirror, what you have in your life. It’s a good lesson.
Camille: You're filling your head with what's important. For me, that's my family, my career, trying to grow as a person. Those things, they can occupy your mind enough that you're not worrying about the stuff that doesn't matter and you can't control.
Zibby: Woman Last Seen in her Thirties, your novel, came out of this examination of age, correct?
Zibby: Tell me more about that book.
Camille: I was thirty-eight when I started writing that book, maybe thirty-nine. I had an incident in a grocery store where a college-aged kid ran into me and didn't even look at me, even though he’d hurt me. I thought, “I see what's happening.” I'm going to get more and more invisible as time goes on. It’s possible that the guy was just a jerk. It reminded me of the ways that society can make women more invisible as they get older. I think that's changing a lot. In politics, in entertainment, certainly in the arts, we see more women who are well beyond forty doing amazing things and being paid attention to. Society puts a premium on beauty and youth. I started thinking about a character who’s at a pivotal point in life and realized that, again, I wanted to write the book that I'd like to read. That's about a woman in her fifties who recreates her own life on her own terms. That's how that book came to be.
Zibby: Do you ever factor in some of the feedback you get from your readers? I bet people responded to that one. Does that ever cause you to write your next book? Does the feedback you're getting spark future ideas ever?
Camille: No. It’s more like fuel to keep going. After I finish every draft, I'm kind of like, “Can I do that again?” I love writing so much, but it’s depleting to finish a whole book. Then there's this waiting period. You're trying to get the publicity together, and early readers. It’s this scary, in-between period. After the book’s out, I'm always like, “Okay.” Hearing from readers during those times, it’s like, “Oh, I'm doing this on purpose.” Even if it touches one person, I've done something good. It’s a worthwhile endeavor.
Zibby: That's great. When do you actually write? You still have your whole journalism career. You used to be an editor at a magazine. When are you doing everything?
Camille: I'm increasingly turning away from journalism, only because fiction is really now my day job. I do a little bit of journalism. I work from nine to five most days, although apparently not this winter. [laughs]
Zibby: Not today.
Camille: Snow-pocalypse, it’s getting me. I have a home office. My kids are at school. Then they have various after-school activities. I make the most of those hours. I do work in the morning sometimes. I’ll get up really early and sit at my desk and do some work. I can't work in the evening anymore the way I used to. I'm wiped out at the end of the day. I want to read. Occasionally I’ll watch TV. I make the most of my nine to five.
Zibby: Have you read anything good lately?
Camille: I read The Wife by Meg Wolitzer and loved that. I thought that was really fantastic. I felt like I was the last person to read it. I loved Cristina Alger’s The Banker’s Wife. That was so smart. I heard it’s going to be made into a TV show. I'm excited for her. What am I reading right now? I read a bunch of books for blurbs. That makes up a lot of my reading time.
Zibby: Wow. There's this whole subculture of writers. You blurb each other. Who’s blurbing what? It’s a whole thing.
Camille: It’s exciting because it’s really nice to get an early look at what other people are doing. Tracey Garvis Graves sent me The Girl He Used to Know, which is this wonderful book that comes on April 2nd, the day after mine. It’s a love story about a woman with autism. It’s so sharp and so smart. I thought it was amazing that she sent me this early, let alone that I got to say glowing things about it. It’s really neat to do that.
Zibby: That's exciting. I feel like it’s exciting just to even see a galley of a book. I'm like, “This is so fun!” Your sixth novel is in the works. It’s called This Won't End Well. Can you tell me more about that?
Camille: I love this book so much. I think it’s my funniest since Life and Other Near-Death Experiences. It’s a story of a cynical scientist. She swears off new people after her fiancé runs off to Paris without her, only to find herself entangled with this glamourous new neighbor that moves in and an amateur detective who's investigating the neighbor. It’s really the story of how our best-laid plans go awry. It’s told mostly in emails. It’s an epistolary. There are some other documents in there. It’s a new format for me. It was really fun to write.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?
Camille: Keep going. It’s the persistence. Now, I've just finished my sixth book. I'm so excited about that. Sometimes I'm like, “Oh, my gosh. I wrote another book.” Also, my peers who are continuing to write, some of them write one book every ten years. Then they write another. Some are every six months. The common thread for a successful writing career really seems to be that persistence, the going even when the going is tough, just to carry on.
Zibby: Thank you so much for all your time.
Camille: My pleasure.
Zibby: I love what you're doing and your whole sensibility.
Camille: Thank you. I so appreciate that.
Zibby: Looking forward to reading what's next and following your career.
Camille: Thanks, Zibby. I'm going to have to name one of my characters in my novels after you. Your name is fabulous.
Zibby: Thanks. It’s short for Elizabeth, but I haven't been able to drop it yet since about six months. [laughs] Go ahead. Feel free to use it.
Zibby: I hope the snow lets up for you.
Camille: Thank you. Thanks for your time.
Zibby: Of course. You too. Buh-bye.
Camille: Take care. Bye.