I'm really excited to be here today with Jamie Brenner. Jamie is the author of many books including The Husband Hour, The Wedding Sisters, The Forever Summer, which was a best seller, and her most recent novel, Drawing Home. A graduate of George Washington University in DC, Jamie worked at HarperCollins, Barnes & Noble, and Vogue, and currently lives in New York City.
Welcome to Jamie.
Jamie Brenner: Thank you for having me, Zibby. I'm very excited to be here. I'm a fan. I have to say I can't believe you've been doing this for just a year. The amount of people you've spoken to and how much you've done for books, it seems this has always been around. Thank you. We need more of this. There's a lot of writers and not enough places to really talk about books.
Zibby: I love it. I do this for fun. I really do. I love it. It’s all a dream come true for me to be able to spend my days sitting here talking to authors and reading books. It’s so fun. I'm glad other people are benefitting from my selfish joy. [laughs]
Drawing Home, I read the whole thing nonstop on an airplane, could not put it down, plowed through, loved. It was so good and so visual. I felt like it was better than all the other people on the plane watching movies. I was so in it. Tell listeners a little bit about what Drawing Home is about and how you came up with the idea for the book.
Jamie: Drawing Home is the story of a woman who works in the front desk of The American Hotel, which is an iconic hotel in the center of Sag Harbor, which is part of the Hamptons. She's worked there for her whole life, really trying to put things together for herself and her daughter. At the start of the summer, one of the hotel’s most famous bar patrons suddenly drops dead. This is not a spoiler because it literally happens on page two. To the young mother, Emma, my protagonist’s surprise, she finds out he has left his beautiful house on the water filled with priceless artwork to her teenager daughter Penny. While she's trying to figure out how and why this happened, the artist’s long-time patron from Manhattan sweeps into town to try to wrest this inheritance away from Emma and her daughter. That's the beginning of the book.
Zibby: It just gets better from there. You wrote throughout the book so beautifully about motherhood. I know you have two daughters yourself. Here's one quote that I really liked. “In the early days of motherhood, Emma had wanted nothing more than sleep. Now, all she wanted was more time with her daughter.” Then you say how much Emma misses the times when Penny would “tuck her warm, little body against hers while Emma, fully awake, counted the hours until she had to leave for work. If her own mother had been around, she might have warned Emma that the hardest stage of being a working parent wasn’t when your child was small. The tricky part was when a kid was in middle school and high school. Someone had to keep track of Penny’s friends, her moods, the overall temperature of her life. Emma should be that person, and lately, she felt she simply wasn’t doing a good job.” Talk to me about that and the ever-shifting demands of motherhood.
Jamie: What no one told me -- maybe some people get forewarned -- you think in the beginning, oh my gosh, this is the hardest part, being up all night and the feedings and trying to decipher the needs. You think it’s going to get easier. While that is a very, very difficult time, it never gets easier. The challenges just change.
Zibby: People are going to -- they're so upset to hear that it never gets easier. [laughs]
Jamie: It gets easier in the sense that you as a mother have more freedom to go out and do your thing. Your child’s at school. You can communicate. You're not wondering, are you hungry? Are you tired? Are you sick? What changes is the ability to fix their problems. My daughters are now eighteen and fifteen. What I really miss with the fifteen-year-old was just being able to make her feel better by going to get ice cream or going to Mary Arnold for a toy or something. What I'm hearing from even older mothers is this doesn't change even when your kids have kids of their own. What I'm learning is it never gets easier, but the one thing you can do to make it easier on yourself as a mother is to understand that you cannot fix everything. It’s not your job to fix everything. A lot of type-A moms who, these are moms who have careers and kids, the harder you work does not necessarily result in better outcome. Just like when you're pregnant and you need let go of your body because it’s out of control, part of motherhood is a constant learning to let go a little bit. You cannot fix everything.
Zibby: That was probably the best advice. I feel like you are literally talking directly to me. The knee-jerk reaction to try to protect the kids and fix everything is really overpowering. I would never expect my mother to fix my problems at this age. I hope not. [laughs]
Jamie: Yet she still wants to, I'm sure.
Zibby: Thanks, Mom. I know you're listening.
Jamie: That is part of what I explore in Drawing Home, both the ever-changing demands of motherhood and yet somehow it never does change, not from the minute you first hold your baby.
Zibby: You also talk a lot about art and artistic talent in this book, which I found very interesting. It’s not always in fiction to hear about people creating this amazing work and everything. Bea, one of the characters in your book, knew she had an eye for artistic talent. I like when you said, “How did she know? The same way Henry” -- who was the famous artist -- “knew that the black and blue of the configuration of his painting would work. It was what she was hardwired to do.” Do you think that we’re all born with skills like this, especially in the visual arena like art, art appreciation, maybe even in the literary world?
Jamie: I do believe that we’re all born hardwired with certain things. I'm fascinated by people who have a visual sense because I have zero. People who know how to decorate a room or even how to put an outfit together, I feel like that is as innate for them as it is for me to put words down on paper. Maybe you can study it. People with a true eye, you're born with it. While I was researching this book, I watched a documentary on and read books about Peggy Guggenheim. I was really fascinated with her instincts for what was, not only valuable art, because it’s not about the monetary value, but what was meaningful art. She just knew. She trusted her instincts. Like an ear for music -- I always say I wish I had a visual sense because I don't. Writing visual stuff in my books is the hardest thing. I have to look in rooms, research what's really in that room, and then transfer that to the page. I had no visual vocabulary for beauty and architecture and art and clothing.
Zibby: Maybe you're overcompensating because literally, that's one of the things that I was so struck by was how visual your book was. I felt like I was watching a movie. I can see the scenes so well. This self-taught ability, it’s pretty good. Henry, the artist, he’s talking to Penny, the daughter, at one point was thinking of doing a graphic novel. When she says she doesn't know how, Henry says, “No one ever knows how to do anything until they do it.” I was wondering if you've ever had a mentor as great as Henry who convinced you to try. Is that how you started writing this way? Was anyone a mentor to you in this way for what you're doing?
Jamie: I never had a mentor like Henry. I never had a mentor, period. I’d often wished I did have one. That bit about no one ever knows how to do something ‘til they do it is something I learned after a very long time of working in book publishing, actually. I've wanted to be a writer since I was little. To me, writers were these magical people. They just wrote books. It just happened. I'm like, I can't do that. I’ll work in book publishing. At least I’ll be around writers. The more I worked with writers, the more I realized a lot of them don't know what they're doing any more than I did. I saw manuscripts come in late. I saw manuscripts come in messy and not working. I saw editors fix things. I saw how much an art department can augment the story inside the book. That realization that no one really knows is what gave me the freedom to try. No one ever told me that. I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia. It wasn’t really an artistic environment, versus my kids who grew up in New York who see the day-to-day life of a lot of artistic people. I had to learn after many years that no one is perfect. No one knows how. The important thing is just putting the effort in and trying.
Zibby: That's great advice too. This is a very helpful morning here. Penny starts taking some “little while pills,” as you call them, at a party with friends and finds that they end up really helping her. They help her get through her boring summer job at this historical society. She's basically self-medicating OCD, which you write about really beautifully as well. Have you seen this happening, this self-medicating trend, if you will, with friends of your kids or here in the city or just around the country? Penny was able to stop. A lot of kids, obviously, can't really stop.
Jamie: I could literally do two hours on this topic. We’re going to keep it brief because I'm very opinionated.
Zibby: Let's do two minutes on this topic.
Jamie: When I was growing up, my parents said, “Don't do drugs. Don't smoke pot. It’s bad for you.” Okay. I didn't. It really wasn’t that complicated for me. I don't want to do something that's bad for me. I don't want to disappoint my parents. I'm like, I’ll have the same talk with my twelve-year-old. This should go really well. I give her the spiel. Then she says to me, “I understand it’s bad for me. Honestly, I would take anything that makes me feel better, that can stop this endless cycle of obsessing in my mind. I'm sorry, but I don't know if I can promise you that I'm never going to do drugs.” Whoa. It was really mind-blowing to me that there are kids who are not doing drugs to party because it’s fun, but because they literally are trying to, like you said, self-medicate. This changed my approach to how I talk about drugs with her. Of course, I brought in a psychiatrist and professionals to help me deal with this.
Zibby: Did you know that she was having those types of thoughts before this conversation?
Jamie: I knew she had OCD. There's a lot of very good therapy for OCD, cognitive behavioral therapy. Then going further, there's dialectical behavior therapy. This does help. I didn't realize that just like we have the impulse to go for the glass of wine after a stressful day, of course these kids have this same impulse. The conversation sometimes has to change in the way we talk about drugs and smoking. If there's a real problem that they're trying to fix, let's try to help them in a controlled way.
That said, I'm really upset about this whole Juuling thing. These Juuls are marketed to these kids. It’s very hard to detect. When we were growing up and someone's smoking pot in the bathroom, the parents knew. These things look like USB hard drives. You can't smell anything. I'm hearing from psychiatrists this is a huge problem. It’s epidemic. The amount of nicotine that's being absorbed through the Juul is so different than just smoking cigarettes. There's not even a protocol to how to get them off nicotine like the way adults use the patch. Huge problem. For parents, if you want to talk to your kids about drugs, also talk about why they're interested in it. It’s not just always peer pressure. It’s not always just a party. That's my condensed feeling on this. I did explore this in the book because it’s very prevalent right now. Kids are more anxious than ever. I'm hearing that. That's a statistical fact. This Juuling, it’s insidious.
Zibby: This is a really stupid question. Juuling and vaping are not the same thing, right? Those are two different things?
Jamie: I'm still not even clear. The Juul is the device. Vaping is any mechanism for smoking tobacco or pot through pens. Basically, it’s anything that's not the traditional joint, cigarette, or bong.
Zibby: They're both bad?
Jamie: It’s all bad.
Zibby: I feel like there are movements to stop this. I didn't know which part was the worst part.
Jamie: I'm understanding that Juuling is the worst. A lot of people Juul tobacco, not just pot, and the amount of tobacco that they're -- I'm not a doctor.
Zibby: I know. I'm sorry. I should've even -- I'm a relatively educated person who reads the newspaper. I'm still confused. I'm hoping maybe somebody else is confused and this is helping them.
Jamie: It is confusing. The biggest problem with Juuling is the tobacco levels are very, very high. It’s not like when we were kids and we'd smoke, maybe, a cigarette to experiment. These kids are getting addicted quickly and in a way that's very hard to get them off.
Zibby: I'm glad you tackled it in a fictious way even just to raise the conversation. You also wrote a lot about divorce in this book. Penny’s dad reenters the picture in an opportunistic way, not to give anything away. At one point, Emma reads a letter from a lawyer and says, “She must have let out a scream or a cry because Kyle came running from the other room asking what was wrong. Shaking, she handed him the first page. Emma started sobbing.” You follow this with the scene in the lawyer’s office where you write, “Emma glanced at Mark,” who was her ex-husband. “His expression was wounded as if she were the one doing this to him. How unbelievable that she had once loved this man. He had held her hand while she gave birth, and now he was trying to destroy her life because that's what it would do if she lost Penny. How had she gotten into this position? How had things gone so terribly off course?” Talk to me about this.
Jamie: Divorce, it’s prevalent. Oftentimes, it’s necessary. You go into marriage with the best of intentions. Sometimes, it just doesn't work out. ‘Til death do us part is a very, very high expectation. It is astonishing to me to see how you can go from “I love this person enough to try to spend my life with them,” to now, “I'm going to do the most hurtful things to them just because it didn't work out.” I went through a divorce. Fortunately, it did not get that acrimonious. Even the best of divorces, you're hurting the person you once loved. It’s never good. I don't buy this whole, “We’re consciously uncoupling.” Someone's hurting in that process. The question is can you hold on to some shred of “We once cared about each other”? How far are you going to go?
The problem is that the stakes are so high when you're dealing with kids. You're both equally as invested. I don't know what the answer is. The saddest thing about divorce is that you go from “I love you” to “I hate you.” One of my favorite movies, although it’s unrealistic and just a movie, I love that Nancy Meyers movie, It's Complicated, when Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin had been married. Then they come back and have an affair, which obviously is not realistic. I wouldn't recommend that. What I loved about that movie is they at least had some recognition that, “You know what? There was a time when we had fun together. We’ve had these kids. Let's just raise a glass to that.” I wish that could happen more often. The bottom line is there's some kernel of good in every couple who came together to have children.
Zibby: That’s true. I'm loving all your answers. I'm letting them all sink in. Not to keep jumping around, but on your website, you listed this whole history of your love of books, which was great. So many of the authors that you loved along the way, I was a huge Judith Krantz -- those were my first books that were long, adult fiction books that my mom gave me.
Jamie: Your mom gave them to you?
Jamie: That's a whole conversation. Wow.
Zibby: Princess Daisy.
Jamie: I was hiding them.
Zibby: That was like porn, basically. [laughs] All right, this is how I'm going to learn about all this stuff. I was fourteen or something.
Jamie: Good for your mom. She's my new hero.
Zibby: I think she probably hadn’t read them. I don't know. When you were talking about all the books and how they’ve coursed through your life along different times and everything, you wrote that after your second daughter was born in 2004, as life became busier and more complicated, you said the main criteria for the books that you chose was escapism. Talk to me about that. I'm hoping there are a lot of moms listening.
Jamie: I remember exactly the book that someone gave me. It was in 2004. My neighbor, who’s a publicist, gave me the first Emily Giffin book, Something Borrowed. I was up every night in the middle of the night nursing. I thought it’s going to be a long time before I can read or do anything. The book was there, so when I couldn't fall back to sleep, I just started reading. I was able to feel exactly the way I always felt with books. I fell into it. I loved it. It wasn’t work. It was fun. Every night instead of dreading being up at two, four, six, I looked forward to at least getting a little reading in too.
I write what you call beach reads. They're beach books. They're set in the summer. They're set in beach towns. When I was growing up, my beach books, my guilty pleasure books, were the Judith Krantz, those epic sagas of women finding their way in the world. The early Judith Krantz books were in the seventies. They were super, super explicit sexually. It was all part of the liberation of that time. Those are the early books I fell in love with, which were escapist, fun, wish fulfillment. Then I went through my whole super literary phase in college as an English major and then early in New York working with super literary authors.
Then I found my way back to my true love, which is just commercial, fun, escapist romps. It did start with being a new mother and not having the energy for books that made me work too hard. I also didn't want books that were depressing. I felt the same way about movies. I don't need to cry. I don't need to be depressed. Let's try to keep things positive. I lost my taste for books that devastated me because I think you become more sensitive. You become exquisitely tuned to life in all its dimensions when you become a mother. When it came to books, from then on, I wanted books that fed positive.
Zibby: I feel like sometimes people get wrapped up in feeling like they should read certain books. Maybe they're books that don't even really appeal to them but everybody else says are amazing. If people just would read what they really want to read, as long as they're reading, they’ll get something out of it. Don't wait to get through a masterpiece when you have two minutes to read at night. If that's your thing, if you love poetry, if you love literary fiction, then give yourself that gift every day. Don't force yourself into a category or feel guilty about anything you want to read, right?
Jamie: Absolutely. There was a book that came out two years ago. Everyone’s like, “You have to read it. It’s a masterpiece. Oh, my god, it’s devasting.” You know what? I don't want to be devastated. I'm not reading this book. I'm sure it’s a masterpiece. Exactly, if you want to go back and read Edith Wharton, read Edith Wharton. If you want to go back and reread the Sweet Valley High books because you still have some in your collection and that's what makes you happy, do that. Books are the biggest gift. We don't have to answer to anyone.
Zibby: Totally. I agree. One of the last lines of your book, not to give anything away again, you write, “There had been plenty of challenging moments in her fourteen years of motherhood. It didn't get any harder than letting go.” I literally stopped. I think I'm going to cry reading this. Parents at any age, you know it’s coming. It’s like death in a way. You know it’s coming. You can prepare for it, but can you prepare for it? Not really. It is what it is. It’s like when someone's sick. Our mental abilities to cope with some things are limited. A kid going to college is obviously not as big a loss, but it’s a loss nonetheless. It’s a loss of your stage of life and one that, with most motherhood-ish type stuff, there isn't necessarily a proper transition preparation. The transition from not being a mom to a mom, there's so much written out there. There are some keys stages, and that being one of them where -- I'm sorry. I'm rambling. I had no sleep last night. Talk to me about that please, Jamie. Take it away. [laughs]
Jamie: You did touch on something true. We don't have enough rites of passage in our culture to mark things like -- we have ceremonies. We have birthdays. We have bar and bat mitzvahs. We don't have a ceremony to mark the huge rite of passage, which is your child leaving the nest. In terms of preparing for that, I have strong thoughts on this as well.
Zibby: Good. Excellent.
Jamie: First of all, I love the name of your podcast, “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Make time to do what is right for you. You can't do everything for your kids and not continue to develop who you are along the way or you are going to be devasted when your child leaves. You're not doing them a service. The best thing you can do for your child is to also make time to read, make time to have your hobbies. Make time for your work. I remember when I was trying to decide whether or not I wanted to breastfeed. I went to my pediatrician. I don't know if I want to. She said, “Look, happy mom makes for happy baby. That's the only thing you have to really keep in mind.”
This goes for grown mothers. If your life is full, your kids are going to benefit because you're happy. You're fine. They don't feel like, “Oh, my gosh. I'm going to leave my mom. I feel guilty.” It’s not their job to continue to validate our role as mother. They're leaving to have their lives. We need to have our own foundation. Even though it feels selfish when they're little, taking the time to go to our book club or go to work or take that knitting class, that is not selfish. Your child’s going to be happy when she’s eighteen that she knows Mom is going to miss her, but she's also going to be excited to have that extra time to continue doing what she loves to do. The best way to prepare for your kid leaving, growing up, is to make sure you are whole as a person. The worst thing for a child is to feel, “It’s my job to make Mom’s life complete. She does everything for me. Now, I'm leaving.” It’s not good for them.
Zibby: Divorced parents get this a little earlier. When I don't have custody of the kids, I've learned over the last four years how to make my own life full again. Not that it’s not sad, I always miss them like crazy. At the beginning, it was so painful and devastating. I didn't know what to do with myself. In part, this podcast and reading all these books has really helped. Now, my kids are like, “How many podcasts are you doing when we’re not with you? Which meetings do you have?” They're into it. They know I'm not going to sit around crying. Even if some parts of the weekend I do cry or I do feel really sad, it’s not their responsibility. I can't put this on them. All to say because other divorced moms out there know that you get these glimpses of, okay, the rain that's falling on the car in the storm is going to -- you know when you go under an underpass and it stops? You get those moments of breathing room as a preview, whereas moms who don't have that, necessarily, are taken off guard a little more at the end. Not the end, obviously parenting doesn't end.
Jamie: Absolutely. One of the upsides to being divorced is you do get practice in having time to yourself and how to fill that constructively. There’s always a saying, “I missed you this weekend.” You don't want to make the child feel bad. “Mom misses me. I miss her. This is a mess.” Again, they need to feel you're okay.
Zibby: Yes. Then they’ll feel okay. Kids are so sensitive. I feel like sometimes they can read my mind, even when I act like things are fine but I'm stressed inside. Do you feel like this too? They strip everything away and see inside no matter how much I hide it. You actually can't fake it, necessarily. You have to be okay. [laughs] Not totally, obviously.
Jamie: You don't have to always pretend you're okay for your kids. The important thing is the child never feels it’s their job to fix or to make you happy.
Zibby: Yes. That's a better way to say it. If you're not okay, to be like, “I'm having a really rough day,” kids need to know that you have rough days too. “I'm really worried. I have a lot of work. I have this. I'm worried about this,” whatever. It’s okay. It’s better than when you pretend and then everything just feels off.
Jamie: Right. Exactly. If you're sick, I believe in being honest and saying, “I'm sick, but I'm taking care of myself. It’s hopefully going to be fine.” Again, the way you convey your struggles in that they're being dealt with and it is never the child’s job to help raise you. Hopefully, they grow up as empathetic people. My mother, when I grew up and left, it was almost like a “How dare you? After everything I've done for you, how dare you go have your own life?” That's the flip side to that. It’s not now my job to go and raise you. Be a human being. Be honest. Make the child understand it’s not their job to fix your problems.
Zibby: This has become a parent-coaching session that we’re having here. I love it. I love talking to moms with kids a little bit older than my kids. That's how I get through life.
Jamie: It’s so complicated. I’ll tell you. Because my youngest daughter’s so complicated, I've been fortunate to have great therapists. I've learned so much just by talking to therapists and learning things like you don't have to fix everything. There's no handbook. It’s never easy. Being harder on yourself is never the solution. That's what moms need to know. Being harder on yourself or making yourself miserable is probably not the answer.
Zibby: Good call. Back to writing for a second, what's coming next? You've been cranking out these books, one a year. Where are you going next summer?
Jamie: I've been going to a different beach town every summer. I did Provincetown, the Jersey Shore, Sag Harbor. Next year, I'm going back to Provincetown because I fell in love with this place so madly. I was researching a book and ended up making life-long friends. I'm going back to Provincetown, which for anyone who doesn't know, is at the very tip of Cape Code. Next summer will be the 400th anniversary of the town. There's that. I also do love the Hamptons. I'm actually going to go to the North Fork for my 2021 book to explore wine country a little bit. Those are my next two locations on the docket.
Zibby: So cool. How great to structure your writing life around fun vacation places.
Jamie: I have to say, it’s tough work, but someone's got to do it.
Zibby: [laughs] I'm really glad you've done it. Thank you for all the true entertainment and education that you provide to readers. It’s been great getting to know you and reading your books.
Jamie: You too, Zibby. Thank you so much for giving moms and writers and readers a place to get together. We need it in so many ways, as we discussed today. Thank you, seriously.
Zibby: Of course. My pleasure. Thanks, Jamie.