Zibby Owens: Holly Peterson is the best-selling author of The Manny as well as novels It Happens in the Hamptons and The Idea of Him. She has also written two books for Assouline, Smoke and Fire: Recipes and Menus for Outdoor Entertaining and Wellington: The World of Horses. Her most recent book, released this summer, is It’s Hot in the Hamptons. A former contributing editor for Newsweek, editor-at-large for Talk magazine, and an Emmy-award winning producer for ABC News, Holly has contributed to The New York Times, Town & Country, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and many other publications. She currently lives in New York and the Hamptons with her three children.
Hi, Holly. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Holly Peterson: How are you, Zibby? Thanks for having me.
Zibby: It’s so exciting to be doing this live podcast together.
Holly: I'm really excited to be here. This is my sixth book, my fourth novel. It’s a hopefully fun work of social satire about life in the Hamptons and two moms who decide to go on a summer adventure.
Zibby: It was certainly a lot of fun to read. For anyone listening, this is actually being recorded at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton. Berry & Co. is supplying our books tonight. Lauren Gabrielson has given us a whole rack of clothing to choose from. We’re going to go on with our podcast. Just wanted to give a shout-out to everybody for that. Holly, tell us what It’s Hot in the Hamptons is about. What inspired you to write it?
Holly: Let me try to explain this all. I am a journalist. I was at ABC News and Newsweek my whole life. I worked for Tina Brown at Talk magazine, which most people remember by that fabulous party at the Statue of Liberty more than the magazine. The magazine went out of business, unfortunately, after three years. When one is a journalist, it’s fun to go into fiction. Fiction, in some ways, actually brings you closer to the truth than nonfiction. People say how can be that be? I say because when you're a television producer, you have all these cameras and soundmen and editing rooms. What happens is that you're limited. You can't go to a dinner party. You can't get into a club. There's all kinds of scenes you can't get into. You’re not allowed to make it up as a journalist. You either have to be there or not, same thing with anything print. You have to explain some place where you were or where you heard about it. Otherwise, you have to say “reportedly.” It gives the work less heft.
Whereas in a work of fiction, if you were trying to do it incredibly accurately, which I always do -- I, in fact, factchecked my novels very carefully. It brings, hopefully, the reader into the action in a very true way. You and I both have spent our entire lives in the Hamptons in summers and on weekends. It’s such a fantastic place to be. It’s paradise with the produce, and the shellfish, and the people, and the beaches. It’s also a complicated place. In this age of massive inequality, you've got this local community. Then you've got these summer people that come in like an invading army. The clashing of classes that goes in any summer community across America is interesting.
You can look at how people treat each other, and how they look at each other, and how they deal with people who are different from them, especially in these days where the country’s so polarized. I like to set books in a summer community, not just because it’s hot and fun and sexy and lots of great things happen and food is eaten and hopefully good sex scenes and all kinds of juicy stuff, but also because the basis for it is really rife with current issues of, as I say, inequality and class and differences and learning to talk to each other and deal with each other and have problems. My novels that are set in summer communities, my last one was called It Happens in the Hamptons. This one is It’s Hot in the Hamptons. It’s a look at society and where we are today, not just a L-I-T-E, lite beach read.
Zibby: You included so many different themes in this book, one of which I want to jump right into is infidelity. That's where this book starts, sitting on a bench in Sag Harbor with two good friends from preschool, moms saying, “Let's have affairs this summer,” which is already like, this is going to be an interesting book. Then you followed up with a lot of very specific details of how to execute such an affair in the Hamptons. Tell me how you did your factchecking for this one.
Holly: I don't know that there was factchecking for that element of it. I will tell you the reason I did that. My last book was really about the ninety-nine percent and the one percent. It was all about a surf community in the Hamptons, and the summer people, and how water equalizes people out in the water because it’s dangerous for everybody. There's a lot of roiling waves that cause a lot of problems, social and water-wise, in my last book. In this book, we were coming off of Me Too. During the whole Me Too period -- of course, very, very, overdue, really publicized the harassment and violence and lack of pay equity and all kinds of harassment that women endure of all classes at all levels of employment, which was so overdue and so important. I feel like that whole discussion, because people were so into exposing things and being unified and showing solidarity with the victims or the survivors of whatever horrible things went on, huge and small and medium in level of violence and aggression, there wasn’t room for a discussion of the times when women are in charge of their sexual agency. It was a whole story about the times when we’re not. There are plenty of times when we’re not. In fact, I believe people like it in a patriarchal society when we have less agency over our lives.
I wanted to write about the times when we are coming off that and explore that angle of women’s sexuality. I decided to write about two wives who were good moms and good wives and whose husbands are cheating. What does one do with that? Do you sit in your room and cry? Do you leave them? Do you feel terrible about yourself? Do you blame yourself? Do you scream at him? How do you handle that? I don't know if there's been a lot of books or movies -- I can't really think of any myself -- where women have said we’re going to do the same thing, but we’re still going to be good moms. We’re still going to be good wives, in the sense that we’re going to meet all our responsibilities and do what we need to do each day.
In Anna Karenina, the woman who cheats has to jump on the train tracks. In Madame Bovary, she drinks arsenic. In The Scarlet Letter, she's wearing the scarlet A. In the movie with Richard Gere where she's cheating, Richard Gere, like a caveman, has to kill the guy and bash his head in. I'm not sure that I could ever think of an example in literature or film where a mother who remained a good mother throughout the book and didn't have a perverted boyfriend as in The Good Mother -- remember that book? The boyfriend had this weird moment where he got naked in front of the kids. He was tainted.
Zibby: There was something with Diane Lane.
Holly: That was the Richard Gere one.
Zibby: Oh, that was the same on.
Holly: I felt like he killed the lover. It wasn’t like she was free to do what she wanted. I wanted to write a book where the wives do it. Adventure ensues. I am certainly not pro-affair, but their husbands are doing it. They decide they're going to do it and write a book about what happens. Do they leave? Do the husbands leave? Do they get divorced mutually? Do they work it out? There's some sort of parody in that women are in charge of their sexual decisions in an age when people assume they can't be or certainly don't want them to be. That's the reason I wrote the book. That's why at the beginning, they're discussing infidelity. I'm sorry if that was a long answer.
Zibby: I like long answers.
Holly: It’s a question that requires a careful and thoughtful explanation. That's why I tried to do that just now.
Zibby: Of course, what happens after, the men -- well, I won't give anything away. You can just imagine that the men don't think that this is a parody type situation. It’s not a tit for tat.
Holly: Of course not. That's what the books about. It’s never that way. Men can cheat and remain their virility, and their good husband-ness, and their good father-ness, and not be tainted, and not jump on the train tracks. When women do it, it’s completely explosive.
Zibby: The men even saying, “This is nothing personal, but it must be personal for you.” Why? Then they ask each other why. It’s so interesting.
Holly: Coming off this era, as I said, there's so many issues to explore about values and morals. What is right? What is wrong? What is parody? What is a victim? What is a survivor? What is a marriage? What is even? What is fair? What is a patriarchy? What is the future? All kinds of things. It’s a beach read. It moves really quickly. Hopefully, there's some heft and substance to it. Before your next question, I would really like to say that women want substance. I don't believe they want silly, light beach reads. It’s fun to breeze through a book. My book is four pages a chapter and moves really quickly, but I don't believe anyone wants something silly and unsubstantive or not filled with all kinds of things to think about. That's what I try to do with my books is pack it with issues and dilemmas.
Zibby: It’s a nice mix.
Holly: Hopefully. I try. I don't know if I succeed, but I try.
Zibby: This builds off the same thing. I was wondering with the men starting off the book by cheating, it automatically says these marriages in particular are imperfect to begin with. You had a quote. Caroline, the main character, loses her high school boyfriend Joey in the beginning of the book, we believe. Her grandmother tells her at the funeral, “We don't end up with the one we love the most.” Caroline repeats that thought to herself throughout the book. Do you believe that? What do you think about that?
Holly: I don't necessarily believe that. I do believe that we all have very serious pangs for one person in our past, not all of us. Often, it happens. It’s not so much the one who got away. It’s the one who didn't quite work out because it was in college and we moved on. He was French and had a different culture. We met them too late, and they were already engaged. We dated them for years, but it was too hard to get married and meld lives. The heartbreak over that, and the regret over that, and the what-ifs over that are incredibly painful. I was speaking to my daughter earlier today. We were talking about relationships. I said that feeling of real physical pain and a pang, P-A-N-G, you have for someone, it’s not a bad thing. It means that person meant a lot to you. Whether it works out or it doesn't work out, if you look at your old boyfriends and you still feel that really strongly, that's not tragic. That's good. That means you chose well for that moment in your life.
Zibby: That's the whole better to have loved and lost.
Holly: Yes, but you can easily get depressed over things that you don't have anymore or that weren’t meant to be or that didn't work for some reason that you can't even explain. To the extent that we can not get depressed over it but be grateful that we had time with them, and that we remember with such incredibly strength and vibration still is, not to be corny, but the meaning of life, that you feel these feelings strongly throughout your life for various things. You try not to let them take you down.
Zibby: I feel like what you're saying is totally applicable to death. It’s not just relationships. The demise of a relationship, it’s the same thing. You have to appreciate the people. It’s also, you grieve. You grieve the loss of a person in your life. They're not dead, necessarily, but it feels like that. That's the heartbreak.
Holly: Absolutely. It does feel like a death, not to be incredibly heavy here in the Hamptons. [laughter] I agree with everything you just said.
Zibby: For a totally mindless question, in the book you say that Caroline brings her half-used condiments from her fridge in the city out to the Hamptons in the summertime. Do you do that?
Holly: Yes. We all have our really strange housewife moments. I get up at four and write, very weirdly. I get up in the dark. I wander around my house. I pretend to start writing. Then of course I get completely, with three kids, preoccupied with dentist appointments and orthodontia and college applications and ACT, blah, blah, blah, and all this stuff that goes on. It’s a very busy time for me in the middle of the night to get all this done. Since I'm not getting emails, I get so much done. That housewife work is very, very, very intense. We all have it. When I'm packing for the summer, yes, I take things I really love like the French mustard and cornichons and all kinds of things off the shelves and throw it in a big box and bring it out. I don't want them to go bad. Anyway, the mom in the book does that. Her husband’s teasing her about it. There's plenty of silly, inane things that I do and my friends do that are definitely in the book.
Zibby: I was writing this morning at four in the morning as well. It’s the only time my house is quiet.
Holly: It’s amazing. This is a totally obvious thing to say, but I think people can relate to it, where emails just attack you all day. You have the cable TV guy or the air conditioning guy is finally there. You're in the middle of something. You have to stop what you're doing to know that he's there, to tell him what's going wrong. You get notified now by emails, so you have to check it all the time and be distracted and not get things done. It’s horrible for all of us. The only time where the emails are not coming in, for me at any rate, are four AM to seven thirty. That's when I do some pretty serious work.
Zibby: I will not email you then. I’ll restrain myself.
Holly: I'd love to talk to you anytime, Zibby.
Zibby: Aside from in the middle of the night at home, do you ever go out? Do you ever go to a coffee shop to write? What do you do when the day actually begins? Do you not even try to write when the day begins?
Holly: I always write four to seven.
Zibby: In the morning?
Holly: Yep. I get up about four fifteen or so. I work intensely at that hour. I drink about seventeen cups of tea. I have almond butter and bananas. That's how I do it. Then I do the housewife stuff, get my kids together, dogs together, waste some time on broken things all over the house. Then I go to the library. There's a program on my computer called Mac Freedom where you can turn off the internet. You can't go on Google. You can't do anything, unfortunately, but at least no one can bother you. I hide my phone behind the Encyclopedia Britannicas from the fifties across the room. I turn on my Mac Freedom. Then I can write for a few hours. I go out to lunch. Maybe an hour in the afternoon, I nap every day. I can't survive dinner without a nap. Even if it’s twenty minutes, I have to close my eyes anywhere to deal with my four AM wakeups.
Zibby: I interviewed a man named Daniel Pink who coined this term nappuccino. He says if you drink an espresso or a cup of coffee and then take a twenty-minute nap, by the time the nap is over, the caffeine kicks in. You might want to try it. Mix up the nap thing.
Holly: That's really interesting. I feel drunk by three thirty in the afternoon if I can't close my eyes for a minute. It’s unbelievable. I'm old. What are you going to do?
Zibby: No, stop it. Annabelle, the other character, Caroline’s friend, her mother at one point gives her advice that is, “One’s forties are a very dangerous decade, dear.” Have you seen that with your friends in your social circle?
Holly: Yes, I have. We should probably tell your listeners that the book takes place in the Hamptons. It’s from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Zibby: Did I not ask what the book was about?
Holly: No, we did.
Zibby: I'm sorry. Did I forget that question? I usually start with that. It’s possible.
Holly: No, no. It’s Memorial Day to Labor Day. It’s two women. They decide to have an affair on Memorial Day at some point during the summer. What I wanted to say was that one of the women grew up in the Hamptons. The other one is a New York City woman who comes to the Hamptons in the summer. It’s a little bit of an improbable relationship. The woman that grew up in the Hamptons is the protagonist. Her name is Caroline. She moved into the city and was hoping to move back, but that didn't work out. Caroline is a protagonist. Annabelle is her close friend. Annabelle’s very confident and crazy. Caroline’s much more retiring. They're very close. It is, you're right, Annabelle’s mother who says, “Be careful in your forties. The forties is a dangerous decade.”
Very often, the forties can be a time where relationships reassess themselves. In your twenties, you're looking to mate. You find that cute guy that you think I really want to share my life with. You start your life. Your thirties is all about working and having babies and trying to mix everything up. The forties, the kids are in school and on their way. A lot of women, I notice, look around at forty-two, forty-three, forty-four, forty-seven and say, “I'm not so happy right now. I'm feeling neglected by the husband. I don't really talk to the husband the way I used to in the twenties,” or “I never really talked to him. The kids are difficult, and teenagers. I'm feeling lonely. My work isn't going right the way I wanted it to. I'm itchy for something else. Things aren't quite right.”
That's often a time when affairs happen, or marriages fall apart, or things get really dicey and difficult. I don't think it’s necessarily a bad thing that the forties are a dangerous decade. I think it’s a decade that is rife with the beginning of a lot of potential complications. Those complications are easy to look over in one’s twenties when you're really thinking nesting, babies, husband. Who am I doing this with? In the thirties, babies, babies, babies, and work, work, work, and all that stuff. By the forties, those two things are somewhat set. It’s time to look at one’s self and one’s marriage and say, wait a minute. Am I happy here? I think that's where sometimes the problems arise.
Zibby: Do you think that the men in their forties are doing that too?
Holly: Absolutely. It’s a human thing to look at your spouse and say do I feel connected or neglected, or hopeful, or super depressed because I don't see this working? That's absolutely universal.
Zibby: Sometimes I feel like when I had my kids, my head has been so down that I look up and I'm like, who are all these celebrities? I missed a decade of movies. Where have I been?
Holly: Of course. We all did.
Zibby: Kind of pathetic, I guess. I'm not sure what the answer is.
Holly: Everybody can relate to that. Most parents are working and having kids, very little focus on much else.
Zibby: One thing you did in the book that -- startle is the wrong word. I kept being like, oh, look at that -- were actual real people. You wove in real brands in the fiction, Fred DeVito at Exhale. You take a fictious class with him. You mention Pinhook Whiskey, which is amazing. Tell me about your decision to do that. Also, this is silly, but do you have to ask Fred? Is that okay?
Holly: Of course, absolutely. As I said, I'm a journalist. When I'm writing about the Hamptons, I'm hopefully being incredibly accurate about the earing, and the shoe, and the club, and the car, and the bathing suit, and all these things that make us all giggle because they're so unbelievably recognizable and hopefully very, very much on point in my novels. If I put an actual person who's a real person like Fred and Elisabeth at Exhale -- a lot of us women who take classes at Exhale have been taking classes there since it was Lotte Berk in our twenties. We've known Fred and Elisabeth forever. Everyone around me is nodding right now. When I put them in a book -- they're dear, old friends. I don't really socialize with them, but we laugh a lot. I hug them every time I see them. I send them the chapter. I say, “Is this okay?” They email, “No, Fred would say this. I would wear this.” I did a whole scene at Navy Beach. I did a whole scene at Duryea’s out in Montauk. I definitely asked them and show them and make sure they're okay with it. I don't make them sign something that says you can't sue me for teasing you in an exercise class. They're people I know who I think are very central to life in the Hamptons who give it its great color and all that stuff. It’s fun to put real people in. It’s fun to recognize them, don't you think?
Zibby: Yes, for sure. I was looking at my calendar for the next day when I was reading your book at night because I always read before bed. I was like, what am I supposed to do tomorrow? I have some things, a meditation, whatever, Bob Roth. I put my phone down. Then I opened the book. In the book, you're like, “And then Bob Roth, transcendental meditation to the stars.” Wait, that's the same guy. I guess I should go. [laughs] Now I think I’ll have him on the podcast.
Holly: You should definitely have Bob Roth on your podcast. He's a very interesting man.
Zibby: He seems. I went to the event after all.
Holly: He's fantastic.
Zibby: How long did it take you write this book? How long do most of your books take?
Holly: I am a journalist. I worked for Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer at ABC. I worked at Newsweek and for a very, very kinetic, frenetic Tina Brown. My specialty during the twenty years that I was doing all that was being the last-minute person. Some people are deeper and more thoughtful than me and do these long cover stories. I never did those kinds of things. I always did the last minute, called the crash producer at ABC. At four or five or six o’clock, I do a piece for that night, same thing in magazines. I write very, very, very quickly. I can write twelve pages in a sitting, no problem. That's a lot of words. That's 2,500 words. I write very quickly, but it’s usually a mess. Then I have to fix it. It takes me about a year to write and edit a book.
Again, this is not Elizabeth Alexander, this great poet who’s the nation’s poet laureate or David Remnick who runs The New Yorker. This is nothing like that type of writing. If you're going to write these eloquent, impossibly constructed sentences as they do and as Andrew Solomon does, who I believe is the greatest writer of my generation, who wrote Far From the Tree and The Noonday Demon, if you're writing at that level, that's a completely different story. It takes Andrew ten years to write a book. I find my books -- I'd really like you to tell me how you find the writing. I think it’s breezy and fast and exciting and fun and filled with energy, but I don't believe it’s literary. I believe it’s deeply on point and hopefully funny and snappy. I don't think any of it’s literary. I don't mean to put myself down that way, have fake modesty or something. I call it SAT words. If you have a big, fancy word and I put it in, it doesn't even sound right in my books. It’s trying too hard or weirdly lofty for what I'm doing.
Zibby: Different books lend themselves to different styles. This is perfect for the subject.
Holly: Yes. It’s breezy. It moves.
Zibby: I think breezy sounds negative.
Holly: No, not to me.
Zibby: Not to you? That's disparaging, probably. I used an SAT word. [laughs]
Holly: I didn't mean breezy as negative for myself. That's what I meant not using false modesty. It moves.
Zibby: Yeah, it moves. That's what you need. People are so tired. It takes a while to get people into a book and to keep with a book. I feel like short chapters is always the way to go. What's going to happen next? Intrigue.
Holly: Especially these days with so many distractions. It’s so funny. Women come up to me a lot at book events. They go, “Thank god. I need a really light, mindless read. Thank god you wrote this.” I'm thinking, that's not what the book is at all. I really don't think it is. It’s not mindless. Even women who say they want something mindless, I don't ever really believe that. I think people want their brains to fire off and be intrigued. They don't necessarily want to have to think a lot at eleven at night. There's a lot of literature that I try to read. I'm reading Thackeray’s Vanity Fair now. It’s wonderful, but I've got to really read it. It’s not the type of thing you can skim.
Zibby: I'm doing this thing with my newsletter where if you sign up, if you answer a few questions about the types of books you like to read, I’ll give you book recommendations. I always ask what you're in the mood for next. Everybody is like, “I want a light beach read,” or “I want a thriller.” That's not most of the books I'm having on my podcast. I'm like, I don't know. I better go start reading a lot of thrillers. I've only done a couple thrillers. Maybe people don't know. People want a range of things. As long as they're reading, that’s great.
Holly: Yes, that's wonderful.
Zibby: Are you working on another book now?
Holly: I may do a book on the art world. I may fictionalize it. I think that's what I'm going to do next. I have been writing columns for the Financial Times. They have a weekend section that is absolutely spectacular. It’s wonderful. A lot of people think it’s -- I don't want to say this, but it’s certainly as good as The Times and The Journal weekend, I think. It is literary. There's a lot of really interesting things on it. I may start doing a column quite regularly about the one percent, and class structures, and inequality, and dissecting the one percent and how they live and how they got to where they are. What does power mean? What is the interplay between power and money and success? and trying to define it and look into it with a somewhat satiric but definitely journalistic microscope.
Zibby: Good luck with that. [laughs]
Holly: It’s fun. It’s difficult, but it’s fun. There's not a lot of people doing that, frankly. I've done two in May and June. I have two coming up this weekend and next weekend in the Financial Times.
Zibby: I can't wait to read those.
Holly: That's my next professional venture.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring writers out there?
Holly: Oh, my goodness. Listen, everything is in life is so deeply intimidating. Even this Financial Times eight-hundred-word column, I was just in a panic over it. I did two. Then I went into more of a panic. Then I did two more. Now I feel a lot more settled. I just think everything is terrifying. Writing is something that everybody can do even though they don't think they can. It’s really all about taking the braces off that constrict us and realizing maybe you're not David Remnick or Andrew Solomon or Elizabeth Alexander, but maybe you're funny. Maybe you know a lot about exercise or food or childrearing or sports or diet or anything. Maybe what you know is very relatable or very helpful to people. Maybe there's a story you want to tell about divorce, or death, or infidelity, or sadness, or feeling neglected, or feeling insecure, or anything that's deeply human. I would encourage people to start with a short story. Start with something that's twelve pages. Try to write it down. Just try to write a blog. Try to write a six or eight-hundred-word blog about your keto experience or your paleo experience and why it’s ridiculous, or why you need vodka every night, or whatever it is.
Zibby: I had the worst keto experience ever.
Holly: We all do, please. See where it goes. Then maybe Hamptons Magazine wants to publish it. Maybe Avenue Magazine. Maybe New York Post. Maybe something's that easy and accessible will do it. Maybe you'll put it Tori Burch’s website or Aerin Lauder’s. There's all kinds of fancy fashion websites that are looking for blogs of moms and readers and Hamptons. It doesn't have to be The New Yorker to post it and write it. I would encourage people just to do it. Try to get over the insecurities. Everyone has them. You just have to work through them.
Zibby: Thank you for the interview. Thanks for doing this event at CMEE.
Holly: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
Zibby: Thanks for writing this great book and bringing the Hamptons to life for everybody who can't be here. Thanks for coming on.
Holly: Thank you to the museum for having us.
Zibby: Thank you to CMEE for having us.
Holly: Thank you all.