Zibby Owens: I'm excited to be here today with Jane Green. Jane is the author of many best-selling novels including The Beach House and The Sunshine Sisters. Her latest book, The Friends We Keep, debuted early this summer. Jane’s novels have been published in twenty-five languages. She has more than ten million books in print worldwide. A graduate of the International Culinary Institute in New York, Jane is an avid cook and gardener. Originally from the UK, Jane currently lives with her husband and children in Connecticut.
Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Jane Green: Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.
Zibby: Jane, can you tell listeners, please, what The Friends We Keep is about? What inspired you to write this story?
Jane: I'm going to talk about the inspiration first. I realized that when I started to think about writing a new book -- I was probably forty-nine or fifty when I started writing this book. I always draw from the themes of my life. I started to realize that I have lots of friends and a great life. Yet my life is much more isolated than I ever expected. Partly, I blame technology. We’re all so busy hiding behind our phones and our screens that we’re not connecting with people face to face in the way we used to, and the busyness of life. I realized as well that we’re about to be empty nesters in a couple of years. The kids will all be gone. Every time my husband and I went out for dinner with friends, we'd always end up having the same conversation. “Why don't we buy a piece of land somewhere or a big farm? We’ll all have a tiny house. We’ll all have our own space, but then we’ll have a communal barn with a kitchen and a living room so we can all go into what Jung called the afternoon of life with the people we love most.” Everybody, we’re all so excited about this. I thought, there's something in this. This is, I think, what I need to be the theme of my new book.
What I did was I took a group of people who meet at university in the UK in the 1980s. Half are American. Half are English. They live together at university. They become best friends. They swear that they're going to be friends forever and ever. Of course, life gets in the way. They graduate. One of them is harboring this great secret. She really has to withdraw from the others. We follow them individually throughout their lives. Evvie is a model who then is in an abusive marriage and a single mother. We have Topher who’s a soap actor who is gay but has tremendous issues with intimacy. Then we have Maggie. All Maggie has ever wanted is a big country house filled with animals and children. She doesn't get to have the life that she wants.
We follow them throughout the course of their lives. Then at their thirtieth reunion, by which time they’ve all completely lost touch, they all show up at their thirtieth reunion. Within minutes, it’s as if time has stopped. They’ve been swept back to those early days. They realize these are our true friends. These are the people who know us best. We still love each other. What starts as a fancy, “Hey, wouldn't it be great if we lived together?” becomes a reality. They all move into together. Of course, there is still this secret from the past. Because this is a novel and because this is a Jane Green novel, we know that the secret is going to show up and threaten to explode and destroy everything that they’ve created. That is The Friends We Keep.
Zibby: I could listen to you talk all day, seriously. Now I want you to describe every book you've ever written. I’ll just sit here and listen to all the books.
Jane: I will tell you something funny. A few years ago, it was probably eight books ago, I said to my publisher -- I tend to talk if I give talks. If I read, it’s not very long. It’s maybe half a page or a page. Every time I read, people would come up to me and say, “You should narrate your own audiobooks.” I phoned my publisher and said, “I'd love to narrate.” They went, “Jane, every author thinks that they can do their own audiobooks. They're always terrible. It just doesn't work.” I went, “I think I might not be terrible.” They said no. I said, “Could I at least audition? If I'm no good, fine. I'd love to try.” They sent over a radio producer. She was very grumpy. She actually became somebody I grew to love dearly, but she was very grumpy. My husband opened the door. This woman’s standing there with radio equipment and microphones. My husband said, “Come in. Jane’s so excited to try out for this.” She went, “Every author’s terrible.” Then she came into my little office. We started recording. I watched her face change. I have recorded my own audiobooks for the last eight books. If you really like my voice, you could listen to me for hours and hours in the car.
Zibby: I am going to. This is perfect.
Jane: Good for road trips.
Zibby: Yes. I feel like all summer I've been like, [makes noise]. This will be a good metric.
Jane: Now I can keep you company.
Zibby: You will. Thank you. That's lovely. You mentioned before, because it was a Jane Green novel, there was a secret. What is a Jane Green novel, to people who aren't familiar with your work?
Jane: It has changed enormously over the years. I started off, I was a journalist in my twenties. I was a feature writer, women’s features. I actually started writing my first novel after I read High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.
Zibby: That was so good.
Jane: It was so good. Every man I knew was saying, “Oh, my god. This book’s about me.” Every woman I knew was saying, “Oh, my god. This book’s about him.” I thought, god, no one’s doing this for women. Of course, little did I know that about two miles away from me, Helen Fielding was sitting in her little flat in Westbourne Grove writing Bridget Jones’s Diary. My first novel was called Straight Talking. It was about a single thirty-something woman living in London. It came out about three or four months after Bridget Jones’s Diary. Suddenly, the press leapt on it and said, “This is a new genre. This is chick lit.” What was interesting about that time -- this was the late nineties. Up until then, women’s commercial fiction had been Barbara Taylor Bradford and Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins. It was all glitzy and larger than life and aspirational. There was nothing that reflected the lives of real women.
We were the first to write about real women. I went from writing about single women in the city in quite a raw, edgy way, and quite funny as well, quite humorous, to writing about life. My books have very much charted the course of my life from being single, to marriage, to motherhood, to grief, to losing friends, the gamut of things that life throws at you. What marks a Jane Green is an emotional resonance. I try and write very authentically. Elin Hilderbrand described it beautifully. We were doing an event together. She said, “What you need to have to write books like ours is a tremendous amount of empathy without judgement,” which I thought was so beautiful. You're writing about the human experience. I'm writing about real women. Even if you haven't been through the experiences that I'm writing about, you can put yourself in their shoes. You can feel what it would be like.
Zibby: It’s funny. When you were saying writing about the real stories, I feel like this happened in art history too. It was only at a certain point in time that artists began painting what was actually in front of them. That was revolutionary at the time. You're like, what? Why were they not doing that? They were only painting biblical scenes or this, that, or the other thing. It’s the same thing with you. You're taking from what life gives you. All of a sudden, that something’s new and different and amazing that somehow people hadn’t thought of before.
Jane: Thank you. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to have written the right book at the right time. In fact, my first book to be published here was a book called Jemima J, which was an updated Cinderella story. That was more of a fantasy. My books have changed. My voice has changed. I'm working on something very different now which I shall tell you about a bit later on.
Zibby: You've written twenty books. Is that right?
Jane: Yes. I am halfway through my twenty-first.
Zibby: Wow. That's amazing. Do you have other books that you never published? Have you really written like fifty? Do they all go straight to...?
Jane: A couple of times, I have abandoned after about ten thousand words. I think that's happened twice, or I have rewritten them so completely that it’s unrecognizable. It’s still the same theme. I always think I should dig those out and put those on Amazon or do something with them.
Zibby: Bonus feature.
Zibby: In this book, The Friends We Keep, it centers on the three characters who are at university together. I was wondering, did their experience mirror yours in any way?
Jane: Funnily enough with this book, I have really drawn from my life. I don't always. Every book is different. This one probably has a little bit more autobiography in it than many of the others. Yes, I did have two really close friends from university. There was an evil Ben. I still don't know his surname, but I had a massive crush on this really grumpy, scowl-y boy called Evil Ben. They used to absolutely send somebody running back from the pub to say, “Evil Ben’s in the pub.” I'd go scurrying out to the pub. That was really lovely. I felt like I revisited those days. I will say I'm still in touch with them because of the beauty of Facebook. I'm very, very, rarely on Facebook now. Of course, you do get to friend the people from your past. We are still in touch. We did have a little reunion about four years ago. I have to say, it was just as it was in the book. These are girls I haven't seen in thirty years. It was so comfortable immediately and so much fun. It was just lovely. I absolutely drew on that for this.
Zibby: I had a recent college reunion. It’s the same. People you spend so much time with, you can just jump right back in.
Jane: I also think there's something very magical about those friendships. You're teetering on the brink of adulthood. It’s before you've decided who you're going to be. It’s before you put those constructs up of what kind of adult you're going to be. They really know the real you. There's a freedom in those friendships. Even whatever age you are now, you're able to bring up the real you. There's something so magical about that.
Zibby: I totally agree. For any college girlfriends listening, we’re having a complete appreciation of that time and all of you. You wove in cooking throughout this book in such detail. I was getting hungry. There was some omelet you made with feta. You described all the ingredients. I need to find a way to go have this omelet right now. Then of course, I read that you have a culinary background. Tell me a little more about that.
Jane: The funny thing is my mom is great cook. My dad’s a great cook. My grandmother was a cook. I come from a family of cooks. Food was a very big part of my childhood. I learned to cook sitting at my mother’s knee. I always describe my cooking as -- it was bit like Russian roulette. Sometimes it was fantastic. Sometimes it was terrible. I was utterly fearless. One of the stories that actually made it into a book I wrote years ago called Mr. Maybe, it was an absolutely true story. I was twenty-one. I had a new boyfriend. It was the first time I was meeting his friends. I was desperate to impress them. I decided to make a Thai green curry. I have no idea why. When I went through the ingredient list, they called for four large green peppers. I went to my grocery store. They didn't have any large green peppers. They only had these teeny tiny ones.
Zibby: Oh, no!
Jane: I figured maybe sixteen to twenty would equal -- yeah. I made a curry that burnt my fingers off, actually, as I was slicing it. It was so hot that nobody could get near it. You couldn't eat it.
Zibby: Jalapeño curry.
Jane: Exactly. I continued like this. Sometimes it was great. I never made a mistake quite like that. Then about ten years ago, I decided to take myself off to culinary school. I took a break. We were building a house anyway. I was having a bit of a break at that time from writing. I went off to what was the French Culinary Institute. It’s now called the International Culinary Center. I arrived there every day with kids. They were all late teens, early twenties, and going into a cooking career. I just went and learned the science of cooking, actually. I really loved it. I loved being a student again. I love learning new skills. My cooking is definitely much better now. My books have always been filled with food because it’s such a huge part of my life. I wrote a cookbook as well a few years ago. I have a cookbook called Good Taste, which is all easy comfort food because I don't think anything in life should be complicated.
Zibby: I felt like for Maggie, your character, because she wasn’t able to have children, cooking for her was her main caregiving initiative, if you will. All she could do is cook for her friends and withhold that when she was upset with Ben and all of this. It’s the language of love, food.
Jane: One hundred percent. I always say I show the people I love that I love them through food. The minute you walk into my house, I want you to feel warm and safe and nurtured. I want to sit you at my kitchen table and feed you the kind of foods that make you feel loved.
Zibby: Now I feel bad. I didn't feed you anything when you walked in my house. Here's your watery coffee. [laughs]
Jane: Trust me, I've had one and a half breakfasts already today. I'm very glad you didn't feed me anything. Thank you.
Zibby: I do say to my kids, though, even if I make them scrambled eggs in a hurry before school or camp, “Do you taste the love? I put the love in there.”
Jane: By the way, they can, is my answer because we can. You know the difference. Even going to a restaurant, you can taste the love and care in food, always.
Zibby: Absolutely. My husband’s food, there's nothing like it. It’s something about it, and my mom. Anyway, from food to drink -- not giving anything away, it was brought up early in the book. Ben has issues with his drinking which affects Maggie. At one point, her mother says to Maggie, “This will pass. No marriage is good all the time. The most important thing in marriage is kindness, and Ben is a kind man. Even if he's drinking again, he will stop. He always does. You just need patience.” What did you think of that advice? Do you think that's the right advice for a mom to give a daughter? What do you think? I don't know.
Jane: Not necessarily. Maggie, she's close to her mother. She loves her, but they don't spend a lot of time together. That's one of the naïve things that a mother might say to her daughter. By the way, I do think kindness is the most important thing in marriage, but I think marriage to an alcoholic is something quite different. I have dealt with this many times because I have quite a lot of addiction in my background. I'm very familiar with addiction and with twelve-step programs. I've done Al-Anon a lot. I've done living with an alcoholic. I've done being an alcoholic. I just didn't want to go there. I have conflicting views, actually, about alcoholism, partly because I am reading a book called Lost Connections by Johann Hari. It’s so fascinating.
Especially here in the West and in America particularly, we tend to think it’s twelve step or nothing. You go into AA or NA or whatever is your drug of choice to look for help, for a higher power. Johann Hari actually points out that countries that have less punitive penalties for drug use where communities gather together to look after people, addicts do much, much better. There's a lot of scientific studies showing, whether it’s with mice and rats, it is all about community. If you put out a very addictive drug, the rats will always go to it. In isolation, they will always go to it. When they build a community, they don't make those same choices, which is partly why twelve-step programs work. It’s about community. So often when you love somebody with an addiction, it’s just as isolating. They call alcoholism a disease of isolation. So often, the partners, the children, the parents get ignored. That is a disease of isolation too. Really, that's what happens for Maggie. She becomes more and more isolated. I don't think the advice is correct. Actually, Maggie figures it out for herself because she solves the problem of isolation by moving all her friends in.
Zibby: Let's talk a little about Evvie too. I don't want to ignore her. Evvie, who had a childhood actress upbringing, becomes a model and dives into Dexatrim during college thanks to Topher’s mom. She then has a body issue journey. Tell me what you think about the effect of all of the different life stages and then how Lance, her future husband, body shames her so terribly. I could not believe what you had him say to her. I felt like, what did she look like? Was it really -- tell me a little more about the body image dimension of Evvie’s character.
Jane: That again, eating disorders and that body dysmorphia and body image and shame around food and eating is something I've written -- I wrote about it more in the earlier books, in Straight Talking. Jamima J was all about a girl who was very overweight, who met somebody online, and then shed huge amounts of weight to go and meet him, and discovered that it wasn’t the key to happiness after all, by the way. What was interesting for me with Evvie, the modelling was interesting. I have a lot of friends who modeled and were ballet dancers. There is so much craziness around food, particularly in the eighties and nineties. That was how I got her plunged into the eating disorder. Then her marriage with Lance, she married a man who wanted a trophy wife. He wasn’t interested in her mind. He wasn’t interested in her. He was interested in having the most beautiful, the most stunning -- because he was abusive, having actually been quite relaxed around food, that was always Evvie’s drug of choice. When she realized she was married to this incredibly controlling man, her comfort again became food. Of course, the bigger she became, the more he shamed her. For him as a narcissist, she was the reflection. When his wife was less than perfect, it made him feel that other people were looking at him thinking he was less than perfect.
I did love writing her journey, which was really approaching menopause. So many women, our bodies change. However we've lived in our teens, twenties, thirties, forties, suddenly you hit menopause. I know plenty of women who spend three hours a day in Pure Barre and Pilates. They look fantastic. I can't do that. I have no interest. I have no desire. I have no time. Part of me has had to accept that this is not the body that I had even five years ago, let alone ten years ago. The beauty of getting older is that you do reach a point where looking at yourself in photos may be difficult at times, but you also reach a point where you realize people are not looking at you thinking, oh, my god, she's twenty pounds overweight. I can't be friends with her. You reach a point where you realize you have to accept yourself. You don't have as much control as you might have had when you were younger. That's the journey that Evvie has, really reaching a place where she learns to be -- ultimately, the goal is to love yourself. That's hard. That's a journey. She does it with affirmations and changing the narrative. Changing the narrative is so often something that we forget to do. Whatever it is in life, when we’re feeling scared and we’ll have anxiety, often deciding not to feel that way is the first step in not feeling that way.
Zibby: Did you see -- in the paper this morning, I read this little thing. There was a study where if you freeze some part of the ovarian tissue and then re-implant it, you can delay onset of menopause by twenty years. It’s worked for nine women.
Jane: Oh, my goodness. You can delay it for...?
Zibby: Twenty years. You have it start twenty years later, which would then minimize the risk of osteoporosis. I don't know.
Jane: Not sure about that. Wow. Too late for me now, so terrible idea. [laughter] The other thing that is part of Evvie’s journey and all of their journeys, which has very much been part of my life, which ties into this changing the narrative -- I always try and get this quote in. It’s really the quote that changed my life. It’s a psychology professor called Robert Emmons. He talks about gratitude. He said, “Gratitude is a sustainable choice for life that can be freely chosen for one’s self. It is choosing to focus on blessings rather than burdens, on gifts rather than curses. People report that it transforms their lives.” For all of these characters, whatever hardships they’ve come through, they get to a place in their life where they realize that they have a choice. They can focus on the good, or they can focus on the bad.
Zibby: Talk to me for two seconds about the process you go through to write your books. Where do you write? How long does each book take? What time of day?
Jane: I've always been a morning writer. I can't write at home, too many distractions. I have always either gone to the library or had a little office. I like having other people around because I feel like I'm then accountable. I'm not going to play computer Solitaire all day or whatever it is. For years when my kids were young, I always made sure I was finished by lunchtime. I probably wrote for three or four hours a day. Then I'd be done. I'd be back to being mom for the rest of the day. Now the kids are either gone or they're teenagers. They're self-sufficient. I'm writing my twenty-first novel. I'm writing it completely differently to any of my other books. I'm now in my office eight hours a day, but I'm still writing the same number of words. I feel like I'm putting much more care into the writing. So many of my books, particularly the earlier ones, they felt almost like stream of consciousness. Yes, I go back in and edit, and edit, and edit. I would write very quickly and get it all out. Now I'm taking my time. I feel like the writing is much better with the book I'm writing now than it has ever been.
Zibby: Now that it’s your twenty-first, it’s like your first adult novel, really. You're turning twenty-one. You can have a little celebration.
Jane: Yes. I like that.
Zibby: What is about? Can you say?
Jane: Yeah, it’s very different. It is the story of the twenty-nine-year-old daughter of a Steve Jobs-like tech tycoon. It’s all Silicon Valley. It’s all West Coast. She was the invisible child. He abandoned her for the first few years of her life and then came back in. He is a mercurial, difficult genius. She never knew where she stood with him. He's very volatile. He has a lot of rage. He can also be charming and wonderful. She has spent her life walking on eggshells and trying to win his love, his attention, and his approval. She has finally been allowed to work for his company. She's brilliant. She has a degree from Harvard, but she's meek. It ends up with him being diagnosed with cancer. He goes off for experimental treatment in Switzerland. She has miraculously managed to pull off this deal, not by her technical knowledge. Because she's a millennial, she understands it’s about connection. It’s human connection. She happened to make a human connection with the woman behind this deal.
As a result, he puts her in as the interim CEO of the company. Once she's in, desperate to prove herself to her father, realizing that he did see her all along, she finds that she is screwing up every step of the way. She has a female mentor in the company. They decide to send her off on a world tour. While she's away on this world tour, she discovers that they're using child labor to manufacture some of their technology. She's horrified. She comes back to find her father’s on his deathbed. The woman who she considered her mentor has taken over the company. She's been locked out of the office. Her father, on his deathbed, seems to have signed papers authorizing this. The rest of the novel is spent with her fighting for her life, and fighting for her father’s legacy, and going back in and seeing if she can not only stop the child labor, but seize the company back.
Zibby: That sounds so good. It’s exciting.
Jane: The films that I loved back in the eighties and nineties were films like Working Girl and Pretty Woman, and those female empowerment, wish fulfillment. That's very much what this book is. It’s a real departure for me. I am loving every minute of it.
Zibby: Excellent. Do you have any parting advice for aspiring authors?
Jane: Yes, I do. I always say to people that writing requires a PhD. In my world, that is persistence, humility, and discipline. Persistence because there will be roadblocks every step of the way. You just have to keep going. Fail forward. If something gets in your way and stops you, keep moving. Don't dwell on it. You keep moving forward. Humility because particularly if you are an aspiring writer and a new writer, it’s so easy to think these are my words. They can't be changed because this is my voice. I know what to say. I would say choose one or two people who you really trust and ask for honest advice. When they give it to you, listen to them. You've got to have humility. Then discipline because it’s so hard to finish a book. Life always gets in the way. I always say the greatest training I ever had was that I started off as a feature writer. I was on a daily national newspaper. Every day, I had an editor standing over me saying, “Jane, we need a thousand words in an hour.” I couldn't say, “I'm so sorry. I'm not inspired today. Try me again tomorrow.” I had to write a thousand words in an hour on whatever subject I was given whether I felt like it or not. That has served me so well. It requires tremendous discipline. Set yourself a number of words or pages. It might be five hundred words. It might be half a page, whatever it is. Do not get up from your chair until those words are on the page.
Zibby: Wow. PhD, I like it, very catchy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm excited for your next book.
Jane: Thank you. Lovely to be here.