Welcome to Jennifer and Jason to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Jason Feifer: Thanks for havin’ us.
Jennifer Miller: Hi.
Zibby: I was just saying to them, this is my first threesome podcast, which is so fitting since their whole book is about sex. Mr. Nice Guy, your book, was fantastic. I couldn't put it down. I read it all in two days. It was really, really good. I saw on the book where people said, “It’s a page-turner.” I'm like, “Is it really?” when people say that. It really was. I was delighted.
Jason: What's funny about that, the two blurbs on the cover, I didn't realize until the book was actually published that they both say basically the same thing. They have the same language, which is like, “Couldn't put it down,” or whatever it is. It’s very similar, which as an editor, drives me crazy. I spend a lot of time taking out word repetitions, but there it is.
Zibby: It hammered home the point. Then it lived up to it. It would've been even worse had it not in this instance with the two quotes. How did you come up with the idea for this book? Tell listeners generally what it’s about.
Jennifer: I’ll explain what it’s about. Then Jason can take it from there. Mr. Nice Guy is a romantic comedy about two people who every week sleep together and then critically review each other’s performance in a magazine. It’s set in the world of New York magazine publishing, which is a world that Jason and I know very well. We've been magazine and newspaper writers for a really long time. We really drew a lot from our experiences dating and also working in the city. We are now married, just to make that clear. Jason, you want to talk about where the idea came from?
Jason: The idea came from me in my twenties. I was probably a newspaper reporter at the time, community newspaper reporter. I got an email one day from this then internet-famous sex columnist. She had just graduated college. People knew who she was back then -- I don't think they do now -- and I did. She was just looking for freelance writing advice. She had seen my name show up in a number of publications and had decided to reach out. I was very happy to be in touch with her. It was cool. We traded emails for maybe about a year, totally professional emails, no sexy emails. In doing that, the premise for this story just popped into my head, just being in touch with the sex columnist.
What would happen if two people each week slept together and then critically reviewed each other's performance in a magazine? I tried to write it over many years and couldn't. I'm really not a fiction writer. I'm a nonfiction writer. My background is in magazines. I would try. I'd put it back on the shelf. I'd try. Over those years, I also kept telling people the premise. Everyone loved the premise which encouraged me to keep trying. When I met Jen and we started dating, I told her. She encouraged me. We got married. Then Jen sold her most recent novel which is called The Heart You Carry Home. She was looking for a new project and asked me what I thought she should do. I said, “Just write my book. I'm never going to do it myself. We both agree it’s a great premise, so just do it.” She said, “Let's do it together.” That's why we jumped into this thing.
Zibby: That's awesome. Did you have any trouble working together? Was there any sticking point in plot or something or a big fight?
Jennifer: We parceled out the work strategically to try to avoid that happening and to keep our marriage intact. Working on a creative project with your significant other can be a risky move. How we broke it down is that we plotted the book out together. Then Jason wrote all of the columns. The columns from the two protagonists, Lucas and Carmen, are all in the book. He has a background as a columnist and editor of columns. That worked well for him. Then because I have written previous novels, I wrote the majority of the narrative and the character development. We really had our separate roles. Then we edited each other's work, which again can be tricky when you're criticizing or critiquing the creative output of your spouse. Because we both have backgrounds in journalism and we’re really used to be edited, we were able to work through any differences that we had. Of course there were the times in which I said, “No. We’re doing it this way.” Then Jason just gave up. [laughs]
Zibby: There you go. That's the best idea to resolve a fight, steamrolling. I like it. I found one of the big themes of the book was being an outsider. Lucas, the protagonist, came from a small town. His boss Jays came from a small town in Kansas, I think it was. One of the scenes at the end of book was basically a room full of people from out of town.
I wanted to know what you guys thought about people coming into New York and basically trying to make it here. Do you feel like New York ever really does accept transplants like these people? Why do you think everybody has to come here to New York? Can't they go to LA where it’s so much prettier? Why here? What do you think about that?
Jason: I suspect Jen and I may have somewhat different answers to this. Should I go first?
Jennifer: Go first.
Jason: It’s worth noting for me that I, prior to living in New York, was in Boston. I find that place to be actually far harder to be an outsider. Most of the people who you encounter in Boston are from Boston. Their parents are from Boston. Their grandparents are from Boston. There's a real institutional-ness to that place. Also, there's a similarity of culture. Everybody is into the Red Sox. That place never felt like home to me. New York is very different. Almost nobody who you encounter among our set -- if we were living in the far reaches of Queens or something, everybody would've been there forever. We all moved here for jobs or whatever.
Zibby: I'm from here.
Jason: You're from here? You're actually from here?
Zibby: I'm actually from here.
Jason: You are the rare person I meet who’s actually from here. Most of the people that I meet and interact with are not from here. The culture is very much of people who came here to kick butt. That is the reason they came here. This is a difficult city to live in. It’s a difficult city to afford to live in. You are only going to do it if you have a mission. At least in our community, that is what binds us all together. Also, unlike Boston where there's one culture, there's one mind-set, there's one interest set, here, it’s fragmented in a million different places. I feel like it’s actually easy to find your own community in New York because there is no one singular community.
I think that we were reflecting in the book was that this sense of outsider-ness is absolutely as much as you make it for yourself. These characters were carrying around a burden that a lot of people feel when they come here. It’s not really about connecting and belonging to New York. It’s connecting and belonging to the thing that all these very successful people who came and banded together have made into their own New York. You want to be part of that. You want to be part of that little micro-community, which frankly, nobody else cares about.
Jennifer: This makes me think, we were watching Mozart in the Jungle last night, which is about the New York symphony. It was all about the power plays between the conductors and the composers. Jason turned to me. He's like, “Do you think this really happens in the classical music scene?” I'm like, “Look at the writing scene. Yes. Absolutely.” Everybody is vying for their place. Everybody is trying to not just fit in, but to solidify, “I'm here. I deserve to be here. I want to be successful here.” I think that's really what our characters are striving for. What I do think is interesting is that one of our protagonists, Carmen, who’s the very seasoned and also fairly jaded sex columnist, she is also from New York. I think that in her attempt to try to be more professionally, she actually loses herself a little bit. Her narrative trajectory over the course of the book is coming back to her roots as, “Who am I as a person who’s from this city and who shouldn't have to be fighting and scrambling to try to be successful? I was here before all of you.”
Zibby: Have you thought about writing Carmen’s story as the next book?
Jennifer: Yeah. That was one of the questions, Jason, that Zibby was wondering. Should the sequel to Mr. Nice Guy be from Carmen’s POV? We haven't really thought about doing a sequel to this book. We actually have another rom-com in mind. It’s a great idea to go into her brain.
Zibby: What's the new rom-com about?
Jennifer: The new rom-com we’re thinking is about two political pundits on opposing sides who fall in love and what happens. What is their public persona versus what happens behind the scenes? That's looking like it’s going to be our next joint project.
Zibby: I feel like sadly in today’s political environment, people on opposite sides could not even really date.
Jason: I'm sure it happens very infrequently.
Zibby: There's so much vitriol, sadly.
Jason: Jen and I are motivated by somewhat different things in that project. The thing that really interests me is getting inside that world of pundits and people who, they're professionally angry. We've had a couple conversations as to start researching this book. I am convinced that what you see is not real. They're actors, functionally. They go onto camera. They all yell at each other. The cameras stop. Then they're all professional colleagues. I think that's bad for everybody. The people who receive that in their living rooms aren’t really aware that they're watching a performance, but they are watching a performance. I'm very, very interested in diving into that world and revealing that and coming to understand that better.
Zibby: Interesting. That sounds like fun. At least you're willing to write another book together. That's a good sign. Your book also touches a lot about the diminishing power of print media, which since you're both from the magazine world, I was interested to know your thoughts on. I felt like every other page brought in another social media outlet or a Facebook Live or this deal on Netflix. It was so of the moment, how people really are consuming media.
I was wondering as newspaper and journalists and magazine writers, how do you feel about what's going on? What do you think the point of view is on this? What did you want the book to say about it?
Jennifer: What the book is really exploring is the transition between the old guard, the Anna Wintours, and the new guard, which are these young upstarts, these twenty-somethings like Lucas, our protagonist, who are coming in really hungry to make it. There's still this tension where the young upstarts, who are terribly underpaid and treated not very well, are still having to play this game of trying to impress the people at the top. They find themselves becoming part of this cult of personality which for decades has really driven the magazine industry. You’ve got these untouchable editors at the top who are these larger-than-life personalities. Jason certainly has worked for some of them in his magazine career. Those people are starting to topple simply because the companies don't want to pay them the salaries that they’ve been paid.
We’re really at this interesting moment of transition where the old guard has this death grip. The young generation is trying to scramble upwards and doesn't exactly have the resources to do that. I'm not sure if we’re making a specific point about “print media is dying.” I have a thriving career right now, knock on wood, writing for The New York Times and The Washington Post Magazine. The Post Magazine has just completely rebooted. Their rates have gone up, really, really great stuff. I'm not willing to say that print is dying. There is definitely a new wave that's coming through. We wanted to explore that.
Jason: I've worked as a magazine editor for the majority of my career. It does feel like Rome is falling. I honestly don't mourn it. It sucks. A lot of people are going to lose their jobs. Friends of mine who had dreams of spending their entire careers at magazines have had to rethink what it is that they do. I always remind myself that a lot of these publications were created out of some economic opportunity. It’s not like these are things that we all must have forever. Men’s Health, where I used to work, was a spin-off of Prevention. It was there because Rodale at the time saw an opportunity to serve health content to men. There was an advertising base for it. So it was created. It was created, and then personalities developed. Then there was a lot of money. A lot of those personalities were protected for a long time. It became this institution where there's a lot of exclusivity. You want to be a part of it. There's influence and all that.
That's changing now because the economics of it are changing. To me, who cares if it goes away? The foundational necessity of it is not going away. There will be information communicated in some form. It just won't be in this form. “Boo-hoo” to the people who had a good run at the very top of it, and made a lot of money, and now they have to go do something else. I, at once, really appreciate everything that this industry has provided for me, but I want to be realistic about what's important.
Jennifer: What that also makes me think, in terms of Rome is falling, in some ways, Mr. Nice Guy, it’s our own little hammer at the foundation. The book is really a satire of the media world. It’s a satire of that excess, of the cults of personality. There's a lot in the book that Jason and I have drawn from our personal experiences working in media. Really, we were trying to satirize the absurdity of it and the excess of it. One small example is that when Jason was working at Men’s Health, the editor-in-chief at the time had purchased a restaurant in the West Village. It wasn’t ever explicitly said that the staff couldn't go out to eat there. When I asked if we could go to eat there, Jason was like, “No. I can't be seen there without an invitation. It would look really bad.” We put that right in the book because it’s so ridiculous. Who is keeping a regular person out of a restaurant? That's not fiction. That's reality. It’s absurd. We wanted to point that out and let everybody know how ridiculous it is.
Zibby: I interned at Vanity Fair during college. I got a glimpse of the world myself back then. All the interns at the different Condé Nast publications got together for this one seminar one day on “Will the internet disrupt this industry?”
Zibby: That's dating how -- I'm obviously very old at this point. It’s funny to see how it’s all played out. I also am a huge consumer of print media myself. I'm a little bit more of a sentimentalist, I think, than you are.
Jason: I'm not a sentimentalist about anything.
Zibby: When stores close, I cry. I'm sad for the brands that have been built over time.
Jason: But the core thing that you love is not going to go away. It’s just that the shape of it is changing. Don't confuse the thing of it with the shape of it.
Zibby: Okay. All right. I feel properly steeled for the fall of Rome. That was good.
Jason: Also, one more point about the fall of Rome. We wouldn't be here today if Rome didn't fall. The fall of Rome was not the end of everything. It was just the end of one thing and the beginning of something else.
Zibby: So we’re really talking about Rome now?
Jason: Now, I was literally talking about Rome. That was a little comment on Rome.
Zibby: [laughs] Let’s go back to talking about sex in this book. Were you blushing writing these scenes? Some of them are very telling. Did you parents read this book? There is something cringe-inducing in your doing it in a way.
Jennifer: It’s a big oy vey. The audio version of Mr. Nice Guy’s available. They hired an actor to read the narrative. Jason and I volunteered to read the columns. When we went in to read the columns, we hadn’t looked at the book in a while. We weren’t focusing on the fact that most of the sex takes place in the columns, which meant that basically for the audio book, we are these pseudo-porn stars. That's what we have to do. As we were in the booth reading the lines, I had these horrible images of my parents listening to this. I definitely had this experience writing some of the sexual details. I just want to be clear for listeners, this is not Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s not about a stripper.
Jason: Nothing heaves.
Jennifer: Nothing heaves. This is not a romance novel, but there's sex. We definitely describe some of the interesting proclivities of the various characters. It takes courage to actually put that stuff on the page. I know that when I'm writing that stuff I'm thinking to myself, “Anyone reading this, and especially anyone reading this who knows me, is going to realize that this came out of my head.” Even if this is something that I'm not necessarily doing in my own relationship, I still thought of it. That's kind of embarrassing. My mom says she read it. I believe her eighty-five percent. My dad definitely didn't read it. Jason’s parents read it.
Jason: They wanted to talk about it. They really loved it.
Jennifer: They wanted to talk about it. We’re like, “No, thanks. Let's not talk about it.”
Jason: They're very supportive parents. Jen’s parents are supportive too, but I guess have weaker stomachs. They read it. Here's my main thought on the sex stuff in the book. I did not want to write sex scenes where we were describing characters having sex. That's very, very challenging. It’s awkward as writer. It’s awkward as a reader. It’s almost impossible to do in a comfortable way. It always reads like bad sex writing. There is a award that is given out every year for the worst sex writing. We really didn't want to get that award. The solution was to have all the sex happen off screen. As you know because you've read the book, what’ll happen is that the narrative describing the characters will move up to the moment where something really sexy is going to happen. Then, cut. The way that you hear about it is in the columns, at which point we’re not describing the sex. We’re having a character describe their own experience of the sex. That feels totally different. That feels more like somebody sitting at a bar telling you something than it does some writer trying to paint a sexy picture. It was a solution that made us both feel comfortable getting into those kinds of scenes.
Zibby: I wanted to ask, in the very beginning of the book when Lucas unwittingly finds himself in the sex column, not realizing he was going to be in one -- I don't think I'm giving anything away, right?
Jason: No, that's very early.
Zibby: That level of complete mortification, which you captured brilliantly, have you guys personally, either of you, felt that about anything that you're willing to share? Has anything made you feel like that terrible off hand?
Jason: You gestured to me like I have a story. Do I have a story?
Jennifer: No. In writing Carmen’s perspective in the columns, Jason, you've been very up front about the fact that you're drawing from your own experience, or inexperience, as a young twenty-something and what women might have thought about you. That's how Jason got into Carmen’s head. You've described some mortifying things that have happened, not as mortifying as opening up the magazine that you work for and realizing that you have been torn to shreds by the magazine sex columnist, which is what happens to Lucas. We’re both thirty-eight. We dated a lot. We got around to a certain extent. Everybody fumbles. Everybody has really awkward sexual experiences, especially when they're younger. It’s honest putting that stuff in. I'm not sure that anything that we wrote about in the book actually happened to us in terms of the sex. Jason?
Zibby: It didn't even have to be in that context, just the humiliation.
Jason: That feeling of mortification. I am sure that I have had many times when I've been mortified. When I think about it, I flash back to very, very early things I did when I was ten that were extremely embarrassing. Now, a little less so. I've now learned that even if you do something that you're embarrassed about, it doesn't really stick. It only sticks as much as you let it stick. There have been times even I’ll be on a podcast or something -- I get interviewed a lot, usually because of my job. Something will just pop out of my mouth that afterwards I’ll be like, “That was embarrassing that I said that or I said it in that way. What the hell was I talking about?” Then I think it probably didn't stick out for other people the way that it stuck out for me. Nobody else is going to remember it except for me. If I keep it alive, then it is kept alive. If I forget it, then it is gone forever. It’s on me. That's how I started to think of things.
Zibby: That's funny. A few people, after I've done a podcast with them, will send me an email and say, “Does it sound really bad when I said, ‘blah blah blah’?” I'm like, “What? No. It’s totally fine. It didn't even occur to me to have an issue with it at all.” That's funny.
Jennifer, I really liked your essay “The battle for book clubs’ attention is more fierce than you can imagine,” which you wrote ages ago on Book Riot. You talked about all the challenges inherent in marketing a book and all the steps that you had taken to market your book The Year of the Gadfly. I hope I'm pronouncing that right. Can you talk a little bit more about book marketing in general and how you approached this one differently or what you incorporated from successful attempts from your previous books?
Jennifer: The first thing is that while writing a book with my husband, who really loves the marketing, was such a relief. Jason was basically the CMO of this project. I love doing the podcasts, but actually trying to line them up and get the publicity, it’s a hustle. It’s a serious hustle. It’s emotionally difficult. I, at least, feel like I'm competing. I don't even know who I'm competing with, I guess other people whose books are coming out around the same time that mine is. I'm not even sure. You need to get attention. You need to get as much attention as you can. You need to try to light that spark of the word of mouth, the flame that takes off. There's no science to it. You just have to hustle and throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.
When I was marketing my debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, I came up with this ridiculous project to try to set a record for appearing at the most book clubs in a month. I was going to try to hit a hundred. I think I hit seventy-six book clubs. It was exhausting. Then of course I get an email from some other author who’s like, “You didn't hit the record. I hit the record.” Seriously? We’re both just trying to get our book out there. Don't take this so seriously. That's something that people outside of the publishing world don't really realize, how much work the author, him or herself, has to do to try to get the book out there.
The reason that we are on this podcast right now is that I was doing a ton of research to figure out what podcasts we might possibly be able to go on. I contacted you. The publisher didn't have anything to do that. Most of the press we've gotten, most of the podcasts that we've gone on, that has all been under our own steam. It’s basically become a full-time job for both of us who have full-time jobs. [laughs] It’s a whole other facet of the book, as if writing the book isn't hard enough. It’s like being a politician and having to try to persuade everyone why they should pick it up.
Zibby: The last few people I've asked “What are you working on now?” they're like, “Well, I'm doing this publicity now. This is what I'm doing. This is it. I can't work on anything right now.”
Jason: It’s extremely time consuming. Jen has more flexibility because she’s freelance. I have an office job. It has been a disaster for me, just an absolute disaster.
Zibby: You're literally running Entrepreneur Magazine right now?
Zibby: And still sneaking away and interviewing and doing all these other things?
Jennifer: Don't tell his boss.
Jason: Sneaking away sometimes is for real. I'm lookin’ at the time here because I know the rest of my day. It’s very challenging. You have to prioritize it. This is important to me. It’s important to us. To me, do I do a couple podcasts one day and then stay up ‘til eleven thirty dealing with Entrepreneur stuff that I'm not going to be able to get to? Yes. That's worth it. I haven't pushed myself to the point where anything has failed. It has required a tremendous amount of time shifting and sacrificing of other things.
Zibby: Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors, either of you, out there?
Jennifer: Absolutely. I would say that writing a book and getting published, it’s a marathon. You have to commit to the marathon. For Mr. Nice Guy, Jason and I, we wrote a draft of the book. We actually sent it out to a bunch of agents and got a bunch of rejections. We got some good feedback. We were able to take that feedback and we actually rewrote the final third of the novel. That took an extra year. Once we had done that, then we were able to get an agent. Then we were able to sell the book. I have had an experience that is similar to that in my other books as well. My debut novel took seven years. The protagonist of the finished product didn't even exist in the first draft. You've got to be willing to be open to feedback and to not get discouraged after two, three, four years even, if you're not getting the traction you want. It is possible. You've just got to stick with it.
Jason: Yes. I agree.
Zibby: Great. Thank you, guys, for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I really wish you the best of luck, not just with the success of the book but with the focusing on the publicity of it and managing all of that in addition to real life.
Jason: Thank you. I appreciate that. Wait, actually I'm going to add one thing. You're hovering your hand over the mouse.
Zibby: No, I stopped. You were looking at the clock.
Jason: I didn't mean looking at the clock like, “We should wrap it up.” I just meant I am always, always thinking about what's coming next to. I have to. What did I want to say? I wanted to say that these are good problems to have. That's what I wanted to say. You should not look at the challenges of it as a burden. You look at it as the challenges because isn't it wonderful that you are creating a situation in which you have those challenges? How awesome is it that we had two-thirds of a great book and there were a bunch of people who were like, “That's really good, but you need to rewrite the last third”? That's a great situation.
Zibby: Totally. Congratulations.
Jason: Thank you. We’re two-thirds of the way there. Fantastic. The same thing with boo-hoo that I have to move around my day. I would much be rather be here talkin’ about this book with you than not have a book to talk about and have my day be the normal day. Normal days suck. Nobody should live for normal days.
Jennifer: Dude, I love my normal day.
Jason: No. Normal days are terrible. You don't live for normal days. You live for the abnormal day. The abnormal day is when great things are happening. There it is.
Zibby: I love that. Awesome. Here's to no more normal days. Thanks a lot.
Jason: Thank you.
Transcript coming soon!