Zibby Owens: I'm excited to be here today with Danielle Ganek who's the author of two novels, Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him and The Summer We Read Gatsby. A self-proclaimed book-a-holic, Danielle, a former magazine editor, currently lives in New York with her husband and children.
Thanks, Danielle. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Danielle Ganek: Thank you so much for having me.
Zibby: You've written these two amazing novels, Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him from 2007 and also The Summer We Read Gatsby from 2010. Let's start a little bit with Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him which is a funny take on the Manhattan art scene with this little death twist thrown in there. Tell me about how you came up with the idea for that novel and how your own experience as an art collector informed the writing of it.
Danielle: I'm always so interested in writing about women who wrestle with their creative ambitions. I'm particularly fascinated, obviously, with writers and people who are doing it with writing. Working with art and wanting to express yourself through art is something in all of the characters that I explored. I'm always trying to get inside that kind of thing and maybe understand it for myself, but create characters who are trying to do that. That was where I had started a long time ago. You had asked me how long it took. That novel, in a way, took twenty years. I had always wanted to be a novelist and came to New York out of college with that plan and then started working at jobs and magazines and things. I was writing all along, but I hadn’t really written in the long form. It was a long process over a long period of time of wrestling with those kinds of characters and those kinds of stories. I had this idea that was to put that kind of a character behind one of those desks in a gallery that was very high and off-putting. It was so unlike what she was like, but she would be there observing everything from behind the scene where you might not even really notice that she was there. I liked that way of looking at that world through her very observational lens.
Zibby: I feel like the women sitting at the desks when you walk into art galleries are a little bit intimidating, to be honest. Am I allowed to come in here? Is this a private -- do I need an appointment?
Danielle: That's what I was trying to play with. Even the door that's hard to open and the attractive woman at the desk that makes it look like you shouldn't be there, all of that seems unnecessary in a way and unconducive to the conversation about art and about connecting through art. My narrator and this character is so not like that. In her mind at least, it’s a way to be in that world. Although, it’s not a realistic path to becoming a painter, which is what she wants to do. She's so caught up in her own anxiety about whether she's allowed to be an artist, and who's allowed to be artist, and whether she's good enough, and all of those things that make that kind of character interesting.
Zibby: This is like when I interned at Vanity Fair. After two days, I was like, there is no path from interning at Vanity Fair to being a writer. [laughs]
Danielle: Is that right?
Zibby: That's how I felt.
Danielle: I didn't know that you did that.
Zibby: I spent a summer.
Danielle: That's an amazing internship that was impossible to get.
Zibby: It was amazing. It was really interesting. I was putting the little slides from the fashion department into the little sleeves.
Danielle: I did that job.
Zibby: You did that?
Danielle: I was an assistant at a magazine. I learned the same thing. It’s hard to go from one to the other.
Zibby: It’s like, I better find another way to go about it. [laughs] That was your impetus for Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him. In The Summer We Read Gatsby, that's a different story altogether about half-sisters Cassie and Peck. They inherit their aunt’s home in the Hamptons. Although, you have this funny thing in the book about how no one really calls it the Hamptons. It’s the country. I actually read this book with a book group I started out of the Children’s Museum of the East End, that summer. I had little kids. My twins were so little. I had all these people over to my house recruited through CMEE. We all read your book. It’s so nice now all these years later to have you sitting here.
Danielle: Oh, my god. I don't think I knew that. That's fantastic. That's so lovely. Thank you.
Zibby: What inspired that book?
Danielle: This one was a little different. It very much came out of my own autobiography. I'm American, but I grew up living in foreign countries as an American, but not in the way that we know now where there's internet and all this connectivity. The world is a lot more flat. Pop culture and all the references are there. I grew up in the seventies and eighties living in South America and in Europe as an American. I was a foreigner there. I became very much of an observer. That was honed, all this trying to figure out the world and trying to write about it and trying to understand it. I mostly felt like a foreigner in the States when I would come back on the rare occasions we would come back. One of the ways that I really tried to connect with my own country and my own culture was through books. Books were always my way of connecting. We had television, but there wasn't a lot on television. We got movies late, dubbed. Every now and again they'd be in English with subtitles in French. It wasn't always so easy to access pop culture.
I liked the idea of this character coming here and trying to figure this all out with this half -- I like the idea of being related to somebody that you actually don't know at all. Then I was also really fascinated by, we’re here in this beautiful place. It’s so intoxicating. There's this history of art and artists and people making art out here. I liked the idea of there's a painting in the house they inherited that it could be a Pollock. Most likely, it’s not, but maybe it is. They go down this adventure of trying to figure out if it is. That was something that was really interesting to me, a painting that could be or could not be maybe a fifteen-million-dollar painting or something that, in their minds -- obviously, if it was really a Pollock, you would probably know. There was that period of time where there were all these undiscovered Pollocks being discussed. I wondered if maybe they could've found one.
Zibby: Why did you move around so much as a child?
Danielle: My father worked for American companies, but we lived in Brazil when I was young. I grew up in Switzerland. Then I came to the States to go to college. My family was still there, so I was going back and forth.
Zibby: Are they here?
Danielle: They are. My parents live in Florida now.
Zibby: All these exciting adventures, and now they're just in a community in Palm Beach or something. [laughter]
Danielle: I think that's what they think too, or my mother does anyway.
Zibby: I feel like that’s something that a lot of writers share, the observing nature. Maybe because of being an actual outsider or you're with that born with that gene, but there's something about being able to take it all in and synthesize it. Maybe you would've done that even if you hadn’t been traveling. Who knows?
Danielle: I don't know. I do think that it is something that seems to be -- everyone that I know that writes, particularly that writes fiction, seems to have this -- Joan Didion calls writers the silent bullies. There is thing of paying attention and then almost wanting to put on the page, “See? I was paying attention the whole time. I saw all that.” Also, just processing that way, trying to make sense of the world around you, especially when you grow up without a lot of talking points. Some families just don't discuss that much about, “Here's how we do things. Here's how the world works.” You're trying to figure that out.
Zibby: That's really interesting. The first line of The Summer We Read Gatsby is, “Hats, like first husbands in my experience, are usually a mistake,” which is the best opening line. Talk to me about that.
Danielle: I thought that line encompassed what this narrator learned over that summer, in a way, which was this ability and maybe a coping mechanism of making a quip, making a pithy line out of your pain and your misery. The theme that I was really trying to explore, what I was trying to explore maybe for myself, was this idea of making anecdotes out of your life and out of your story. You are the author of the story of your life. How are you going to write that narrative? You can choose to write it a lot of different ways, the same facts, different interpretations. What does that do to how you live your life if you're thinking of it one way versus another way? She's also very self-deprecating. She knows she's not going to look good in a hat. She's told she has to wear hat. She knows it’s a bad idea. In that way that we talk ourselves into bad ideas, maybe even in relationships where we tell ourselves that everything’s going to be okay, or that this looks fine, or that this husband is a good idea even though we know it’s not, that's very much part of her character, which is trying to put a round peg into a square hole kind of thing, trying to fit something in when you know it’s actually not.
Zibby: Cassie, who you were just talking about, Peck’s dad left her mom for Cassie’s mom. Did I get that right?
Zibby: Cassie thinks that Peck holds a long-term grudge about that. Peck says to Cassie, “I've always been insanely jealous of you. I wish I could waltz down here with no makeup in an old nighty and stringy wet hair and look like that.” Then Cassie says, “It was the kind of thing she said but didn't really mean.” There's always this subtext through everything that happened with these girls in Southampton that summer, not really saying what they mean.
Danielle: Never saying what they mean, basically.
Zibby: Never saying what they mean, and Cassie having to rely on Peck to show her the ropes when she's really not a trusted guide at all. I was wondering if somebody had shown you the ropes perhaps when you were coming back from all these trips or if you had to figure it all out yourself. Did you have somebody like a Peck in your life, or not really?
Danielle: I think I wanted that. We all, maybe, create that, particularly when we’re young and we’re trying to figure things out. You want somebody who has this broader lens through which they look to explain it to you. Then as you grow up and become an adult and figure this out -- this is part of being in your twenties and leaving behind that lens of childhood -- you end up realizing that actually most people bring all their own stuff to their own lens. Everyone's the unreliable narrator in their own story. That's part of what this character realizes over the course of that summer. In the end, she's going to have to be her own narrator. She's going to have to figure out, yes, she can listen to all this input, but she's listening to it with an ear for who the source is. Know your sources and know your audience are good rules that she brings to her -- she’s a journalist. She's studied those kind of rules of interpreting facts and using them. She's still, in that relationship, caught up in the emotional thing. She really wants to connect to the sister. There's that. Peck keeps pushing her off with these quips. She's not really jealous, but she probably is on some level. It’s not that she doesn't mean it, it’s that it’s a little bit of a jab. It’s passive-aggressive, so you can't react to it, all of that.
Zibby: Very familiar with the passive-aggressive communication style, as a recipient mostly. [laughs]
Danielle: I'm fully aware.
Zibby: Cassie’s aunt Lydia encouraged her to write. She was an English teacher at a boy’s school. She says to her, “Start early. Get a first novel under your belt now.” She said that when Cassie was nine. When did you get your start? Were you writing at all when you were nine?
Danielle: I think I was nine. That's where that came from when I realized how really valuable books were for me and how that was going to be a way to save myself from a lot of tragedy and stuff in life that was going to be hard to deal with. I could escape into books. Also by writing and trying to write and trying to make sense of things through putting words on the page, I could maybe figure out some things that I wasn’t going to be able to otherwise figure out. I think I started at nine. Also, I wanted to try to capture this character of Lydia. As you're saying that about wanting somebody to be a guide, she sort of personified that guidance that we all want, the way that a really good teacher and the way that somebody who is very well-read and knows about the world will share things. I think I was trying to personify it in that character. She dies, but she's present in that idea that, like as Picasso says, all children are artists. It’s trying to keep that when you're a grown-up that's hard. That sense of wonder that children bring to the world and trying to hold onto that, if you can start to capture it when you're young, you can maybe hold onto it more easily later. If you've never tried to do that, tried to put into words, craft a fiction about the life that you're witnessing, it might be harder to do it later.
Zibby: Did you find as you went on through your life that writing and reading did protect you from tragedy or from feeling the effects of that more? Did it mitigate any of the intensity of that?
Danielle: I don't know that it protects you from tragedy. I do think that mitigating the effects or processing the effects -- I really, really believe in the power of the written word. I believe that it can help everybody. You don't necessarily have to be a fiction writer to benefit from crafting your story in some way or another. I'm actually trying to explore that right now because I really do think that it helps. In those days also, therapy wasn't quite as common. People weren’t doing that in the same way, or at least not in the world that I was living in. This idea of being a place to express yourself throughout your life is really important. That's an idea that I was really exploring in Lulu, this idea that creativity is how you connect to God or connect to whatever your idea of the spiritual is.
Zibby: Why is it now 2019 and you haven't --
Danielle: -- [laughs] Where have you been? What have you been doing?
Zibby: These books were really good. You obviously had momentum. I'm assuming you chose to go in -- why don't I not assume anything? Let me try this again. What happened after the publication of The Summer We Read Gatsby? What have you been up to since then? Maybe I should say it a different way.
Danielle: It’s a totally legitimate question. I do ask myself that a little bit. It’s not that I haven't been writing because I have. I haven't been necessarily writing that well. I didn't write myself to a finish product that worked as an experience for a reader, if that makes sense. I also went through some personal stuff and some difficult challenges in life that made writing, for me, a place that I could escape to. I was using it for a different reason in those times, which also didn't land me at the end of it with a novel that worked. I've written some unsuccessful works during that period and do still want to work on some of the stuff that I was working on then in a more productive way, which is what I'm doing now. I still felt that the benefits of writing were there. Now I'm also trying to explore how I might share that with other people and how that can really be a way to, as I said, process but also make sense of and put your emotions in a place that maybe you can even help other people, at least help yourself figure out what's going on, if that makes any sense, which it didn't sound like it does. [laughs]
Zibby: It totally makes sense. I understand what you're saying. When you wrote these books, obviously your kids were much younger. I'm wondering, since I have kids ranging from four to twelve, what happens at they get older? Do you actually have more free time to write and structure your time? How does it change as your kids really get older and you get part of your life back in terms of writing?
Danielle: It’s interesting. That adage of small children, small problems, big children, big problems. The issues and the time constraints and the demands on your time change. It’s like the difference between quantity and quality in a way. Like anything, when you work for yourself, you have to do all the things, you have to keep at that self-discipline and all of that. Your time definitely changes. Your relationship to time definitely changes. You definitely have more time to read. If you're a writer, it’s so great because reading is your work. When you're reading, you're working. I never stopped reading. I was able to put it in this -- it’s work, so I had to do it. You seem like you've really mastered the issue of time and time management being so challenging, we were talking about before. I don't know that that goes away. You get better at it because you've done it for longer also.
Zibby: I have not mastered anything, just FYI. I am fitting it in.
Danielle: Time is clearly such a big part of what you're doing with the podcast and everything. Time is such a big issue for all of us, whether we have kids or not kids, working in an office, working at home, wherever you're working, whatever you're doing. Time is a huge paradox to me.
Zibby: It’s also such a finite -- you can't do anything about it. You can't get more time. You can't fix, you can't barter -- it is what it is.
Danielle: You can't manipulate it. Magical thinking is not going to make it take more time or less time to do something. I had a really interesting conversation with my daughter the other day who’s eighteen, who's like, “I don't understand how you can live in the moment and plan for the future.” Oh, my god, that is exactly one of the big questions of life. You're going to wrestle with it for the rest of your life. I'm still trying to figure that out.
Zibby: It’s so true. I first really realized this when my twins were two weeks old. I was at a wedding. I had to pump in the trailer bathroom situation. I was like, I have to do this for ten minutes. I have to at least do ten minutes or I'm going to be miserable. There were all these people banging on the thing. Whatever I do, I cannot make ten minutes go any faster than ten minutes. I have to surrender to time. As a parent, I fell on my knees from that moment on. You can't rush it. I feel like perhaps I do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about time.
Danielle: I spend so much time thinking about time. I read this really interesting book called The Time Paradox. I'm forgetting the time of the author. Usually if I mention a book, I like to remember the author’s name. I apologize. I don't remember it because I read it a while ago. It’s about that exact thing. There's so many paradoxes built into our relationship with time, but it is fixed. There's no arguing with it.
Zibby: It’s a scare resource. Also when you published these books, it was before Instagram was the be-all, end-all in the publishing world. If you were to go back or if you would do it now, are you raring to go with Instagram? Did you prefer it back the way it was when books were just --
Danielle: -- I'm so scared of Instagram. One reason I'm scared of Instagram is the time thing that we were just discussing. I don't know how to go on it and then not lose track of time. I don't really go on Instagram at the moment. I think I'm on it, but I'm “on it.” I don't post things. I'm missing out on a whole party that I need to try to figure out how to attend without getting lost in it. I'm not the person to have figured that out, but I do want to figure it out.
Zibby: I feel like it must have been much easier before now. There's this daily attention you now have to pay to something else as an author that is new. It must have been a lot easier before.
Danielle: It’s true. Some people do it really well. It seems like a wonderful way to connect with your readers.
Zibby: Not to say there aren't amazing benefits to it, but just as a part-time job. [laughs]
Danielle: Exactly. I watch this with young people. It’s so hard to be constantly thinking of yourself as a brand, whether you're a writer or you're just a person trying to be a student or whatever you are when you're fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. You're conscious of your brand at this point. They need to be very aware -- they? We, all of us. Sometimes I think people really don't get it. They don't understand what they're revealing. As a writer that, A, fascinates me, B, terrifies me. Images are so powerful. Being conscious of what you're putting out in the world, you can get so self-conscious, which is probably where I am, which is ridiculous also. Get over yourself. No one really cares because they're scrolling by you in one half of a second. They're not even really seeing it anyway. No one’s thinking about it that much.
Zibby: I think it’s normal to feel self-conscious before throwing yourself up on -- I wouldn't beat yourself up about it.
Danielle: Maybe some people should more. [laughter]
Zibby: In terms of books, have you read anything great lately that you want to talk about? You don't have to.
Danielle: One of the books I loved this summer -- I don't know if you've aired the podcast, but I know you mentioned you had done a podcast with Lori Gottlieb and Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.
Zibby: Yes, I aired it last week.
Danielle: Did you?
Zibby: Yes, I aired it. It’s out there whenever it was, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.
Danielle: I don't know her. I don't have any connection to her. I just loved the book. I loved that form of writing, which is one that I'm trying to explore a lot this summer in what I'm reading but also for myself. She writes wonderfully as a memoirist. She's a psychotherapist, so writes about the therapy world. She writes about her patients. It all comes together in this great -- it’s memoir/self-help/lifestyle guide/psychology interpretation. I found it so satisfying as a reader.
Zibby: Maybe you should write about some of the stuff that you are saying is unsuccessful and hidden away.
Danielle: I think that is where I'm trying to go.
Zibby: I'm interested.
Danielle: How that can be helpful, that idea that sharing your own story, which some of us find really, really hard to do -- I've always looked at memoirists in absolute awe and amazement. I couldn't even imagine mining your own life in that overt way and putting it on the page. There's something so generous about that, when people do that. It’s at the core of all of our human connection, is sharing our stories. Finding a way to connect in that realm on the page, it’s such an interesting way to connect. I definitely want to explore that more.
Zibby: That's really interesting. Do you have advice to aspiring novelists based on your two fantastic books?
Danielle: One thing that I always do try to say is, what are you aspiring to? You and I talked about this also. Writing a novel, especially novels, especially in the long form, it’s a very solitary pursuit. You spend hours, many, many of them in a room alone with characters that you've created, with a world you've created. Most of the time, what I would say is, do you like to spend time alone? “No. I hate that. I can't stand it.” I don't think that you are aspiring to write a novel. I think you are aspiring to have written a novel. Those are different things. If you enjoy that, it’s that old thing that pretty much every writer who writes about writing says: then write it. It’s about sitting down and writing it, not talking about writing it, not avoiding writing it, writing it and then rewriting it and then rewriting it. Also, I've read every book there is to read about writing. There's so many wonderful ones to read. Reading writers about their writing and their process is so great.
Zibby: I'm not a novelist at all, but whenever I'm writing --
Danielle: -- You are.
Zibby: No, I'm really not. I don't feel alone when I'm writing. I'm so engaged. It’s almost like if you're watching a movie, does it matter if you're alone or not? You're in the story.
Danielle: You're exactly right.
Zibby: It’s not like I'm sitting alone in a room bored. You're sitting in a room watching Netflix or something. [laughs]
Danielle: Absolutely. If you are the sort of person that feels that way when you're alone in that room with your characters, then yes, you should keep that. You're going to enjoy it. If you're the kind of person that gets in a panic because you're not putting the Netflix on at that moment or whatever and it has to come out of your own head and you're like, “Ah!” then maybe that's not what you really want to do. [laughter]
Zibby: That makes total sense. Thank you for sharing your story and experience. I feel like The Summer We Read Gatsby should come out every summer. It’s such a lovely, great story. The coming of age in the twenties but also the Hamptons, it has stuck with me all this time.
Danielle: I love your podcast. I think we should keep talking about books. It’s so much fun. Thank you so much for having me.
Zibby: You don't have to say that. Thank you. [laughter]