Today, I'm excited to be with Courtney Maum who is the author of two novels, Touch and I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. She inked a nonfiction book deal just last month, ironically called After The Book Deal, which will come out in 2019. Touch is about a trend forecaster hired to predict the next trends in technology for a giant tech company. Problems arise when she starts to feel like the next big thing is going to be a return to in-person interactions. Touch was rated one of NPR’s best books of the year. It was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. A graduate of Brown University, Courtney has published essays in The New York Times and O, The Oprah Magazine, and has cowritten films that have premiered at Sundance and won awards at Cannes. She has worked as a trend forecaster, a creative brand strategist, a Corona promoter in Paris, and a corporate namer for MAC Cosmetics. She currently lives with her husband and daughter in Connecticut where she founded the collaborative retreat, The Cabins.
Welcome, Courtney. Thanks for being here.
Courtney Maum: Thank you for having me.
Zibby: For listeners who haven't read your latest novel Touch, can you tell me a little more about it and how you came up with the idea for it?
Courtney: Sure, I’d be happy to. Touch is my second book. It is about an American trend forecaster named Sloane Jacobsen who has lived in France for about the past two decades. She's called on assignment to New York City to work for what's basically a turducken of Google, Amazon, and Apple. Specifically, she's tasked with forecasting the next trends in technology. While she's there, she starts to feel like the next trends in technology are going to be no technology at all, a return to face-to-face interactions and touch and intimacy. This is problematic because it’s against her clients stated interests and their bottom line. Also, she has a life partner, a zany French guy who’s been going around publishing these op-eds on post-sexuality and the death of penetrative sex. Our fearless heroine finds herself in a little bit of a conundrum.
I came to write Touch -- it actually came out of, as many of my books do, a failed attempt to write a different book. When I showed that draft to my agent she said -- she said it nicer than this -- she said, “The only thing worth holding onto in this book is this woman’s job. Her job is very interesting.” In that particular rendition of the book, the Sloane character had been a prop stylist, specifically for Crate & Barrel. I was circling around a past where I had worked as a trend forecaster. I hadn’t worked up the courage to go there yet. It’s a little bit of an abstract occupation that a lot of people don't understand. I was under a lot of non-disclosure agreements. In 2015 I started thinking of the idea. Around that time, for me at least in my social circle, that's when I started noticing that my friends were -- everyone was looking at their phone all the time and letting their phone make all the decisions for them. If they were hungry, they'd ask their phone what they should eat and where they should eat. I was thinking I wonder if intuition is something that if you don't practice and if you let it get rusty, could human beings actually lose their sense of intuition? I thought about my prop stylist/trend forecaster. I thought what could I do with a woman who makes her livikp0ng off of her intuitions? What if intuition isn't interesting to people anymore? Slowly, I started building the book that would many drafts later become Touch.
Zibby: Do you feel like you have that same intuitive sense of intuition where you can almost predict things that are coming at times?
Courtney: I do sometimes feel that. I don't think that I'm alone. A lot of artists have a little bit of a heightened awareness. Certainly novelists, I think they're paying more attention than most people. They're thinking perhaps more than most people about people's motivations. It’s our job to be aware. Yeah, maybe. I've lived now in the countryside for over a decade. If I did have a skill, it’s distilled a little bit because I'm mostly around trees and squirrels and senior citizens now. I'm not really in the heartbeat of the trends that are happening. It’s there a little bit.
Zibby: Another big element of Touch is the relationship, what happens to families after you lose a parent. That whole dimension was a whole other part of the book that was super interesting and moving.
Courtney: When the book first came out, the press was very nice to me. They focused a lot on the technology aspect, where in fact the family struggles and Sloane’s present inability to connect with people in her life was, for me, at the heart of the book actually. What we’re dealing with is someone who’s hyper-successful. She's well paid. She's respected. She doesn't have a lot of friends. Her relationship with her lover -- there's no love in it. There's no sensuality. There's no touch in it. A lot of that stems back from the loss of her father. You know this from having children, but when you decide to love completely, you make yourself incredibly vulnerable. She really, really loved her father. When he passed away, she was still young enough that she was innocent and completely open to the love. She wasn’t old enough to have been hurt yet and realize that you can lose people. His death was really a pivot in making her the somewhat coldhearted, untouchable person that we meet when the book opens.
Zibby: When the book starts, you have her pegged as the “ultimate anti-mom.” You even had her quoted as saying, “Reproduction is akin to ecoterrorism.” She called breeding shortsighted. Even helping out with a conference called Reproduction with the “Re” crossed out, asking what will we make when we stop having kids? Are the needs of people who for whatever reason decisively remain childless going to be different than those who reproduce? Was it the death of her father that made you want to create a character that didn't want children? Did you think that was just a good mechanism for contrasting with…?
Courtney: It’s both. It took me a while to get there. It really felt like putting her specifically on a task force that was coming up with products for the voluntarily childless not only made sense in terms of future forecasting because the world is -- it’s overpopulated. People can choose to have children. They can choose not to. The idea that perhaps it’s not environmentally the best idea to have more than one or two children, that's something that could be argued. More, it was really for I wanted to set up a sterile environment both literally and figuratively where consumerism and over consumption was incredibly heightened, as was modern American society’s lack of empathy and compassion.
When you read the book, you're exposed to a lot of these brainstorming sessions where they're literally trying to think, “What could we come up with for people who decide not to have children? What cosmetic products will they need? What kind of furniture? What's their house going to look like? What's their car going to look like? Is it driverless?” The way that they're speaking about the people who are going to be using these products is in a very robotic, cold manner. I do think the minute you invite children into the equation -- there's a hundred thousand different ways to parent. A common denominator if you're going to try to be a good parent is compassion, empathy, an ability to be sensitive to other people's feelings. That was too much kindness for the beginning of the book. It was important to have her in an element of sterility. She's forty. She’s moving past forty. She has decided she's not going to have children. In theory, it might not be too late if she changed her mind.
Zibby: I loved it in the story, you had all these twenty-somethings talking about what they do with their furniture versus people with kids. People with kids, you use your sofas so much more versus just occasionally sitting on them for wine and cheese. I'm thinking of my sofas. Oh, my gosh. All the pillow cushions become a raft. Everything is used. Everything becomes something else and make believe.
Courtney: Everything's a fort. It’s funny because I have a lot of friends who are much, much younger. I have some friends who don't have children. It’s so true. I would go to their house. The way that they were setting up the wine and the cheese was so specifically like, “I'm excited to use this coffee table. It’s going to be used for this one thing.” Our coffee table’s just -- we don't even have one anymore because it became a hazard.
Zibby: Even what you said about the fridge, which I've been thinking about ever since, how people with kids open the fridge, open and close, open and close, all the time. You don't have to think so much about the supplies you need, whereas people who don't have kids and aren’t home as much, every so often they're like, “I wonder what's in the fridge.”
Courtney: It’s so funny that you noticed the fridge thing because I think I had to edit out -- I was a little obsessed with this fridge thing. My husband and I live in Litchfield County now. For ten years we lived in the Berkshires in a town called Sandisfield, pretty hard to get more remote. The post office was up for sale. There was not a lot going on. We lived a half an hour from anything. You wanted to a cup of coffee, gas, it’s a half hour in the car. We lived in a loosey-goosey manner. The fridge wasn’t ever stocked enough. We'd just make pasta. We’re both artists, didn’t care. Then we had my daughter. It started to really, really matter. If my husband would go out and forget something from the grocery list, milk, if he forgot the milk, it became this tremendous thing. That would be an hour out of my day, or his, back and forth. What was in the fridge became so, so important. [laughs] I have a little fridge obsession.
Zibby: As soon as I go into people's homes, I'm soon looking around --
Courtney: -- It’s like being in the grocery line with someone. It’s a very intimate thing. You're seeing how they feed themselves and if they have a family.
Zibby: Even now when I go to my mom’s house, the first thing I do is open the fridge. Now, it’s so empty and sad in there. I'm like, “Mom, you have no food.” We’re overstocked and obviously very lucky that we’re all in this world that we can afford food and everything else. We have things just flying. You can barely pack it all in.
Courtney: Some people have more than one fridge.
Zibby: Not to keep going on about this.
Courtney: I'm glad that someone else shares my fridge obsession.
Zibby: Speaking of moms, for a book about someone who didn't want to be a mom, you did such a great job of painting a picture of Sloane’s mother and that dynamic between them. I loved the scene when Sloane wakes up in her mother’s house in the morning after she spent the night there for the first time in years. Her mom wants to make her pancakes. She's like, “No. Don't do it.” Then it says, “Sloane looked at her mother’s mismatched eyes and her wild hair and the bathrobe with the tea stains, and she wanted to fall down on the floor with her and lean against the cupboards and let everything out, tell her mother that her partner preferred rubbing up against strangers than touching her in bed, tell her that there was a darkness in her decision to work for Mammoth, but instead she just stood there with a fork between the way she wanted her relationship with her mother to be like and the way it actually was.” Then she says, “Toast would probably be easier.”
Courtney: [indiscernible] makes me really sad.
Zibby: It makes me really sad too.
Courtney: I know I wrote it, but I still am very touched by that. The mother daughter relationship is another really key motor to this story. Her mom is the exact opposite of Sloane. She gives of herself readily, generously. She self-effaces a little bit. Sloane has a sister. Her sister’s about to have her third child. Her mother’s joy is taking care of other people. She went into overdrive when her husband died. Sloane was unable. She’s just not selfless that way. She's somewhat repelled by her mother’s emotional generosity as well as probably being jealous of it. It’s a beautiful thing to see. She just doesn't have it and doesn't know how to communicate with a woman -- it’s so clear in all of those scenes how much the mother wants Sloane to stop and touch her, hug. Like you just read, she's like, “Gosh, if we could just embrace.” It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Definitely their relationship was inspired by my own relationship my mom who is that kind of woman who gives and gives and gives. Another commonality is that Sloane and her mother completely struggle from a lack of, not respect, but understanding regarding what the other person does. Sloane’s not a mother. She's not a very maternal person. She can't really understand where her mother’s coming from. Even Sloane’s colleagues don't really understand what she does. Her mother doesn’t really understand. She doesn't speak any other languages. She has a daughter who lives in France. That is very similar to me and my mother. When Touch had already come out, I had an op-ed in the “New York Times.” My mom called me. She was like, “You know you have an article in ‘The New York Times?’ How did that happen? Do you know someone there?” I was like, “God, this is a really big divide.” Do I know someone there? No. I've written two books. This is how it works. I didn't know whether to be offended or just spell it out for her. That's a personal struggle I had with my mother.
Zibby: Most mother-daughter relationships are complicated. Sometimes I look at my two little girls now. How is this going to evolve? It’s the most complicated relationship ever.
Courtney: I joke with my husband. I think our daughter won't go to boarding school for high school, but I will. I can feel this coming. She's really stubborn. She’s very much like I was. I hope against hope that I'm wrong. I foresee some cloudy weather ahead.
Zibby: You start the book with Sloane being so deprived of physical contact that she’ll jump on the crowded subway just to feel people again. At the end, not to give anything away, you have her engaged in this very passionate physical relationship, the complete opposite from the beginning. Were you trying to illustrate what's lost with the advent of technology or just hit home on this universal need for touch and human contact?
Courtney: For this book I interviewed a professional cuddler named Samantha Hess out in Portland. She's actually one of the people who started this movement of professional touch, professional hugging. She was telling me that for people who didn't buy into this whole thing of professional embraces, all it took was an actual hug from a total stranger normally to get them crying, sobbing, just a simple touch. They didn't need to explain why they were there, or what the problem was, or how confusing it seemed to be to solve the obstacles between them and solving their problem. Just the embrace was so comforting that people sobbed. She says most people come to her office just to cry in someone else's arms.
It was very important to me at a certain point in the story that we allow Sloane a little bit of that unlocking, that physical unlocking as well. When she's finally touched, she's basically frigid. Her partner, not only does he not touch her, but he's pronounced to the “New York Times” that he’s never going to. He’s quite proud of his post-sexuality. She's so busy. She's pretending to be fine with it, but she's not fine with it. She's completely isolated. Even her closest friend is her driverless car. She has no touch in her life. When she finally has a little, the floodgates are completely open. It’s fun to have a little sex in a summer book. It’s fun. I like to write those scenes.
Zibby: When’s the paperback coming out?
Zibby: Perfect. That's fun. I know I honed in a lot on Touch because I really loved it and just finished it. It’s stirred up so many different thoughts. It was really great.
Can you tell me a little more generally about your path and how you became a novelist, and all the different works, and the film writing, everything?
Courtney: I have somewhat a nontypical path. I didn't study English in college. I went to Brown University. I studied comparative literature and French translation. I moved to Paris after college and was working under the table as a translator. My official job was a party promoter for Corona Extra. It’s a long story. I don't even really like that beer. It was a way to get a visa. Actually, it was a great job for a writer because I worked at night. I wrote all day. I had been working at that time. I never got an MFA or anything. I had always loved to write and read and was working on a short story which was not short. It was getting longer and longer. It was at thirty thousand words. I showed it to a girlfriend. She said, “I think this is a novel.” What was great, because I didn't have a formal background in writing, was that there was no fear. It was not in my mind to think about agents or competition or anything. I thought, “Oh, it’s a novel. I’ll keep going.”
I was writing the book that would eventually become my first book, I'm Having So Much Fun Here Without You. I wrote it very quickly. Actually, I got an agent and editor very quickly. I was a little girl. I was twenty-three or something. I didn't know enough about the way the world works. I was revising all summer long for this editor. I was doing everything without a contract. Long story short, by the time I got back to New York and was supposed to meet this editor, she quit her job. The project was completely orphaned. It actually wasn’t published for ten more years. I rewrote the book from scratch ten years later.
In the interim I really wasn’t very much a part of literary community. I work in branding on the side and kept my word chops up that way, writing copy. I work as a namer. My husband’s French. We started writing films together. After ten years I reached a point where I thought, “I thought I would have a novel. I guess I’ll be a published person in a different way. Maybe it’ll be little pamphlets or these funny pieces online.” I tried to feel free and joyful about it. I started publishing a lot of weird stuff, whatever I felt like doing. Agents started reading it. I got this agent. She was like, “You must have a novel.” I told her, “It’s in a box.” Long story short, I wrote it over completely from scratch. That was I am Having So Much Fun Here Without You.
Zibby: Can you tell me more about The Cabins? What's this retreat that you…?
Courtney: My husband, Diego [sp] Ungaro, who’s a filmmaker, we used to collaborate more together more than we do now. We would write screenplays together. Our films would go on the film festival circuit. I would go to these film festivals. I would meet only filmmakers, not even screenwriters, just filmmakers. Then I would go the next weekend to a writer’s festival or a writer’s conference. I would meet only writers. I would go back and forth and think, “This short-filmmaker should really meet this short story writer. I wish I had a way to get everyone together.” I started thinking of a program, it would be interdisciplinary. People could not just network, but learn from each other. Logistically, it was so overwhelming. Where am I going to do this? How am I going do it? I got a web domain for it. This idea was in the back of my mind for years.
When we moved to Norfolk, Connecticut, it’s an old town that historically has a lot of great families that lived there. They have these estates that roll down to this beautiful lake. They have lake cabins. Little by little I started meeting all these people who had spare houses and spare cabins. I started thinking, “I've got my places. I could do this here.” There's enough room. By that point in my life I had enough contacts, I felt. The Cabins, I founded it in 2016. It’s a interdisciplinary collaborative retreat based on skill sharing across disciplines. We keep it low-cost. The students are the teachers. Everyone who comes is of a caliber where they can teach an hour-long master class in the subject of their choice. The only caveat is you can't get up there and read your own work. We do a closing evening where everyone gets to get up and perform their own -- like a talent show basically. That's only on the forth day. Up until then it’s about learning from other people and being a little bit more humble and open-minded. It’s like an intellectual summer camp. You could have a dance class followed by a class in carpentry or stone engraving, or something that seems boring but so important like writing for grant applications or something like that.
Zibby: How many people go at one time?
Courtney: It’s very small. We keep it nine people maximum. It’s usually between six and nine. We form the group by -- it’s symbiotic. Who can learn from who, can learn from who? It’s really neat. This summer applications are open until July 1st. It’ll be our forth session. It’s exciting. It’s thecabinsretreat.com.
Zibby: Cabinsretreat.com. Everybody write that down. You have a nonfiction book coming out called After The Book Deal.
Courtney: It’s going to be two books in one, actually. The first part of the book will be Before The Book Deal. I think this is how we’re going to do it. You’ll flip it over. You'll have After The Book Deal. It’ll be a cool resource that people can graduate from. It’ll be like a giant, giant…
Zibby: If you don't get a book deal you can just tear off half of it and throw it in the garbage, stomp on it? [laughs]
Zibby: You said you're working on two other novels?
Courtney: Yes. I have a novel coming out next summer, 2019, called Costalegre and another book I'm working on right now that I can't say the title of because I'm superstitious.
Zibby: Can you say what either of those books are going to be about?
Courtney: Costalegre is a big departure for me. It’s a little bit more experimental. It’s about the surrealist artists who were exiled from Europe during World War II. It’s heavily inspired by the story of Peggy Guggenheim, the American art heiress who helps a lot of a European intellectuals and artists escape Europe before Hitler invaded. In real life, they went to New York. In my book, they go to the jungle in Mexico. The whole book is written in a diary format from Peggy Guggenheim’s daughter, a fifteen-year-old daughter.
Zibby: Wow. That sounds really interesting. The other book, you didn't want to talk about? It’s okay. I can tell. It’s all right. Don't worry about it.
Courtney: I will say it’s going to be another portrait of a troubled couplehood.
Zibby: I won't pry. In terms of your writing and how you do your best work and everything, what's your go-to schedule?
Courtney: Childcare. It all comes down to quality childcare and my child being healthy. If those things are intact, then I can write.
Zibby: How old is your daughter?
Courtney: She's four. Thankfully, I have a very supportive partner who actually does a lot of the bulk of the childrearing. Perfect week in a perfect world looks like we get our daughter on the bus at eight seventeen. From eight thirty to two, I will write, more or less. There's some emailing. There's some lunch. I really try to write. By two, I'm tapped out. I'm trying to do something nice for myself that involves exercise. That’s it. Got to go get my daughter. Then I try to be a mom and a wife and not work once she's home. I'm pretty strict about -- if I'm not careful with myself, I’ll just work myself to death. I try to set up these, don't work any evenings. I don't work on the weekends. I find I need that. When Monday comes around, I'm actually excited to work again rather than feeling like, “Oh, my god. I'm working myself into the grave.” I try to work really hard when I'm working, and then not work.
Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors out there?
Courtney: Of course. I have a whole book coming out about that. [laughs]
Zibby: A couple things.
Courtney: How long do you have? I have two pieces of advice. One is craft. One is practical. The practice piece of advice is do not go into the writing life expecting to support yourself by writing. Be smart about it. Get a job, preferably with health insurance, something that you don't hate where you're not going to come home a miserable shell of a person. If you have someone to support you, fantastic. Don't look down on waitressing or bartending or babysitting. The hourly rate is really good compared to -- you’ll make more babysitting than you do as an adjunct. Don't knock these simple, or what comes off as hourly occupations.
Craft wise, don't let perfectionism get in your way. I speak to a lot of people who they feel like what's on the screen needs to be perfect, and what's coming out of the printer needs to be perfect, and the first draft is the one that's going to get them the book deal. It’s good to push yourself, obviously, and try to come up with something beautiful that you're proud of. Just know that ultimately if you keep working really hard, you'll have a support team around you at some point. Hopefully you'll have an editor, an agent, some writing friends. These people will help you get it just right. If you don't get the words on the page, you're never going to get there. For so long no one’s going to see your work. You might as well put stuff on the page. Have fun. Don't sit there not writing because you're ashamed it’s not going to be great. It’s not going to be great. The first drafts are terrible. Terrible.
Zibby: Awesome. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming in. I'm excited for what you have coming down the pike.
Courtney: Thank you. Me too. I'm very pleased to be here. Thank you for having me.
Zibby: Of course. Take care.