I'm super excited today to be welcoming Jill Santopolo on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” National and international bestselling author Jill Santopolo got her start writing at the age of three with a picture book about Stacey the cat. Since then she has become a writer, editor, teacher, and consummate storyteller. Jill majored in English at Columbia, received an MFA at Vermont College, and even attended NYU to learn about intellectual property rights. She currently edits for the Young Readers Division at Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. She's also an educator and has been a thesis advisor at The New School and taught at Columbia and McDaniel College. Jill is the author of the Alec Flint, Sparkle Spa, and Follow Your Heart book series in addition to being the author of The Light We Lost, the amazing bestseller that has been translated into more than thirty languages which we’re going to talk mostly about today.
Jill Santopolo: Hello.
Zibby: Hi, Jill. How are you?
Jill: Good. How are you doing?
Zibby: Good. Thanks so much for being on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” This is such an honor that you've come on this show.
Jill: Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much having me.
Zibby: Of course. I know you're an amazingly accomplished editor. I’d like to start today by talking about The Light We Lost, basically because I'm obsessed with the book, as you know. I direct messaged you on Instagram after finishing it. I was sitting on my bed sobbing and clutching my chest. You were nice enough to respond to me. In fact, the book moved me so much, this morning I was telling my husband the plot when he asked who I was interviewing today, and I started crying again. He’s like, “This was the fun beach read you recommended to Mike DeFlorio last night?”
Jill: I feel like I need to send you packets of tissue for you to keep around when you talk about the book.
Zibby: I'm kind of a weeper. I cry at commercials. Point is, I recommended it to basically everyone as the read of the summer. I'm super excited to be talking to you about it. For listeners who don't know what The Light We Lost is about, could you give them a quick summary please?
Jill: I’ll give a super quick one. It’s the story of Lucy and Gabe and the way that the two of them meet and connect deeply and then what happens over the next thirteen years as they come in and out of each other's lives. There are secrets. There are betrayals. There are some sexy scenes. It’s basically a story of love and loss and personal connection.
Zibby: Your depiction of being heartbroken in this book is so spot on. In the little discussion questions in the back of the paperback, you had answered one of the questions saying your own heartbreak was actually the impetus for this story. I was wondering if I could totally pry into your personal life and find out.
Can you tell me more about what happened to you that sparked this beautiful page-turner, maybe something you haven't shared before?
Jill: Sure. I hadn’t realized when I wrote the story or when I wrote that about this story that I would get asked about my love life a lot.
Zibby: Sorry. [laughs]
Jill. I'm used to it now. No, it’s great. I'm totally used to it and comfortable with it. Part of writing a story like this is connecting with people about love and loss and life. I'm happy to share. I had been in a relationship for about three years. It was the relationship that I thought was going to be the one I was in for the rest of my life. I imagined our future together. I was in. I was all in. The relationship exploded for a number of reasons. Even though I probably should have seen it coming, I didn't. I was just shattered. I had never been this much of a mess in my life and have not since.
Since I'm a writer, the way I process anything is by writing. I started writing this series of vignettes about this woman, Lucy, who was also going through a breakup. Her story isn't my story. She's not me. I had, in her, created a kind of friend to go through a breakup with and also a way to explore what I was feeling at the time. People ask me a lot if my book is autobiographical. Plot by plot point, no. It’s not autobiographical. I do like to say it’s emotionally autobiographical. A lot of the things that Lucy feels in this book are things that I felt at various points in my life and wrote about them here.
Zibby: Do you feel like the writing helped you? Did it help you through that time?
Jill: I do. I absolutely do. It gave me perspective. It gave me a way to understand what I was feeling and what I was going through. It also took about four years to write. Time helped as well. By the time that the book was done, I was in a much, much, much better place than I was when I started writing it.
Zibby: How long from the time of your explosive breakup to right now has gone by?
Jill: Six and a half years.
Zibby: You've got some perspective at this point?
Zibby: That’s good. If someone reading this book has a relationship in their past that this book reminds them of, that's as intense and this once in a lifetime type of love like Lucy and Gabe’s, what would you tell them? Would you tell them to go back and chase after it, after writing the story? Do you feel like Lucy made a wise choice in the decisions that she made?
Jill: Lucy made the only choice that she, as a character, could have made. That's how it is with everyone. There are different things that are important to all of us. For Lucy in this book, her career was also important to her. A lot of the decisions that she made, she made so that she could further that piece of who she was. So much about life -- it’s one of things that I was realizing when I was writing this -- is about making choices based on what's important. There are sometimes in your life when you know it’s important to follow this love because I feel it in my bones that this is something I need to do. Other times, you feel like that's actually not what's important right now. This person was important to me for a really long time and shaped who I am in various ways. That was then. Other things are important to me now.
Zibby: It’s also easier to look back and say, “I should've done this at the time.” At the time, you have the choices in front of you. You don't have every choice in the world. This is what's going on.
Jill: We make the decisions we do at the time because they're very much in that moment. Every things like where you're going to go to college, if you're going to go to college, what job you're going take, you make those decisions at a particular moment in time because of who you are leading up to that moment. Those decisions Lucy made, she made because of who she was leading up to those moments.
Zibby: In the book you talk about hearthfire relationships versus wildfire relationships. Can you explain the difference for listeners?
Jill: Wildfire relationships, in the book, is a relationship that -- it makes you crazy. It takes over your life. It becomes the thing in your life that scorches everything else in its path because that's the only thing that exists. Hearthfire relationships are the ones that are stable and solid and there, but maybe not quite as explosive or crazy-making.
Zibby: If you had to pick just one of those to have in life, which would you pick?
Jill: Can I pick the third one that they talk about?
Zibby: Yes! The combination? I know. I'm very black and white. I'm sorry.
Jill: The bonfire, which for me is the ideal. It feels like it’s exciting and could get bigger and is powerful, but also is safe. There's the excitement there. There's also a bit of sanity as well.
Zibby: I’ll stop talking about your love life now. You started the book on 9/11 when Lucy and Gabe were in Shakespeare class at Columbia. You had said that you were in a class that day as well. When Lucy decides to work in program development for kid’s TV after graduation, you write in the book, “I couldn't help grinning. It was a job I'd been crossing my fingers over for almost two months before I got it, the kind of job that I'd started thinking about soon after the towers fell, after I admitted that I wanted to do something more meaningful than advertising, a job that could reach the next generation and had the potential to change the future.”
A little about me, I was actually in business school class myself that day. I had worked in advertising and marketing before school. I actually lost my best friend and former roommate on 9/11. She worked in the north tower. It made me rethink everything as well. When I read this in your book, I jolted in recognition. I literally spent the rest of my life saying, “Then I realized if I'm going to die at my desk working, I don't want to be trying to sell Pepperidge Farm cookies anymore,” which used to be fun. When you have to look at life that way -- that's when I started writing full time for a while. Enough about me, but I had that same experience. I'm sure many listeners did as well.
I was wondering did you have a similar change of heart, or not even change of heart, but reclarification of direction after 9/11 like Lucy, or was everything a clear path for you?
Jill: It was, for me, more of a reaffirmation. I had always known that I wanted to write, that I wanted to be involved in storytelling. When I was in college, I interned at publishing houses. I had reaffirmed after September 11th that I wanted to go into children's editorial, which is my other job when I'm not writing, and to write books for children as well. The way Lucy says that she wants to reach the next generation and have the potential to change the future, I was realizing that there are a lot of things in this world that I'm not particularly good at it, but one of the things I'm okay at is storytelling. If that's the thing that I can do, I can use that to help, hopefully, make the world a little bit better when I leave it than it was when I found it.
That was the moment where I was like, “I want to write books for kids. I want to edit books for kids. I want to potentially open their minds to different ideas and different points of view and different things that are valuable for young readers to know in this world.” A lot of my friends had similar reactions that you and I had after September 11th of saying “I want to be a doctor. I want to be a journalist. I want to be a lawyer to help people.” Living through the experience of September 11th, especially at twenty, twenty-one, however old I was, was a big realization for me and for a lot of my friends that there isn't always tomorrow. Make today count.
Zibby: How did you go from focusing so much on children's books and writing all these amazing series that you've written and editing children's work and young adults, how did you drift into writing this amazing book for adults?
Jill: I didn't intend for this to be a book. I really intended for it just to be these vignettes that I was writing to help myself through this breakup. I showed the first thirty pages to a friend of mine who’s a writer and said, “I don't really know what this is, but I've been working on it.” She was like, “I think it’s a novel for grownups.” I was like, “What? I don't write for grownups.” Then I really started trying to finish it and trying to put it together with that in mind. There were sections where my editor had said to me, “You actually can push the scene a little bit further. You don't have to stop at the kiss. You're writing for grownups.” I was like, “Oh, yeah. I guess I am.”
Zibby: You had one particularly, not X rated, but definitely R rated scene in there.
Jill: There's a few steamy ones.
Zibby: You're this great editor as well. What do you think are the three most important things you've taken from your editing career that you have to make sure to apply to your own writing?
Jill: In editing children's books, I always think about the fact that my goal as an editor is to put books out there that will make kids not want to put them down. There are always so many things that are competing for kid’s attention, and for adult attention as well. I'm usually thinking about kids. I want them to not be able to put this book down because once they do, they're going to pick up something else and get involved in that. They might forget about this book for a while. I was thinking about that too when I was writing this book. What can I do with the pacing? What can I do with the structure to see if I can make grownups not put this book down? They have a lot of other things competing for their time as well. I don't want them to forget about this book.
I wrote it with pretty short chapters, which is one of the things that if you read children's books you know. If you can finish a chapter in a couple pages you're like, “Might as well read another one. Why not? They're short.” Also, to really cut down the words so that I felt like every word that was in this book was something that needed to be in this book. I didn't want extra. I tried to at least make sure that there are no points in the book where there’s gratuitous, lagging stuff, that everything is there for a reason, which hopefully propels the read forward. I was thinking about those kind of aspects of writing children's books and editing children's books when I was writing this one.
Zibby: I think the short chapters really make a difference. Being a mom and having a shorter attention span, I feel so accomplished when I can finish a chapter. I know it’s so silly. You were right on with that one.
Jill: Good. I'm glad. Thank you.
Zibby: Where and when do you write? Can you give me a visual? What it is? Do you write at your desk in your office? Are you in a coffee shop? What's your process like?
Jill: I basically write anywhere I can set up my laptop and find time. I was on a book tour earlier this spring. I was writing in the airport. I was writing on the airplane. I have resorted, when deadlines are really looming, to writing on the subway.
Zibby: That's impressive.
Jill: I pull my elbows in really tight. Luckily my laptop’s not very big. I write a lot on my couch in my living room. Even though I have a little office in my apartment, I tend to write in the living room, not in the office. Why do I have an office then? I don't really know. My mom has a house on the east side of Long Island. Sometimes I’ll go there for a few days -- it’s really quiet -- and write. I'm pretty mobile as far as writing is concerned. As long as I've got a laptop and some time, there's a good chance I’ll be writing something.
Zibby: Speaking of the East End, I'm out here as well. I saw that you were going to be one of the authors at Authors Night on August 11thout in Amagansett.
Jill: I am. I'm also, this coming Saturday, going to be at Book Harbor in Sag Harbor at six o’clock. I'm going to do a Facebook Live there with Tara Price from [indiscernible].
Zibby: Awesome. That’s July 21st, then August 11th on Authors Night. I’ll be at Authors Night too. I’ll have a little booth.
Jill: Awesome. I’ll have to say hi.
Zibby: I'm going to do some live podcasts. We’ll see how it goes. As you were saying about writing on airplanes, I'm trying to write a book myself right now. For a while I was like, “I think I'm going to write the whole thing on a plane. That’s the only time when nobody bothers me and I can focus.”
Jill: I kind of hate that, that Wi-Fi’s available on airplanes because it’s easier to do other things. It used to just be I couldn’t, so I could write and I didn't feel bad about missing out on anything.
Zibby: I try to say that the twenty-dollar Wi-Fi fee is going to prohibit me from turning it on, like, “I could do it, but I'm not going to because I don't want to pay the money.” [laughs]
Jill: Then I learned that, also, you can use miles to turn it on. Miles? That's not even anything. That's not even whatever.
Zibby: I know, any excuse.
Jill: It’s terrible.
Zibby: I don't need more reasons. One more question about the book. At the end of book you had a copy of All the Light We Cannot See on Gabe’s nightstand. I thought it was so interesting because I so rarely see references to other more contemporary books in a book. What made you put that book in there in that scene?
Jill: I wanted the book reference to say something about Gabe, and also to say something about the story, and also to say something about the time period that he was writing in. I wanted a contemporary book because I wanted it to be like, he’s a guy who reads what comes out as well as classics. From the rest of the book you know that he reads a lot of Shakespeare and poetry. I had just read All the Light You Cannot See. I thought it was one of the most remarkable books that I had read in a really long time. Because it was about war and it was about survival and it was about the love between people who are not necessarily the typical love story, but like a family relationship, caring about each other, I felt like there were a lot of themes that were in that book that I wanted Gabe to have been reading and that I thought tied into where he was in his life and in the world, and also that he probably would've liked it.
Zibby: I liked how you also included a playlist of songs to listen to when reading the book or discussing it at the end of the book, including Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” and “Homeward Bound” by Simon and Garfunkel. I don't know why everybody doesn't do that. That's such a good idea.
What made you include a playlist? How did you pick those songs?
Jill: A lot of those songs were songs that I was listening to while I was writing the book or songs that I found inspirational at various moments when I was writing the book. I think there was someone who had asked me when the hardcover came out to put together a Spotify playlist for the book. I thought it was such a cool idea. I think it’s on Spotify somewhere. I liked the idea of trying to tell the narrative of the story through song and also through songs that I had been listening to in the years that I was writing this book. I put it together. I think, I hope, that the song lyrics and the song topics and emotions follow the story a bit. I liked doing it so much that I actually have already started one for my next book so that it’ll be ready.
Zibby: That's great. I already preordered your next book on Amazon.
Jill: Thank you. That's so nice of you.
Zibby: No problem. Before it arrives, can you tell me a little more about what that's about? I read about it online, but for the listeners here.
Jill: It’s called More Than Words. It’s coming out February 5th, 2019. It’s about a woman whose father passes away. Then after he dies she finds out all of these secrets that he’d been keeping from her while he was alive. Those secrets change her perception of her childhood, and of her relationship with him, and her thoughts about his relationship with her mother. It also changes how she sees herself fitting into the world and the kind of choices she makes as far as romantic relationships in her life go as well.
Zibby: Excellent. Can't wait for that.
Jill: There are actually two very small, peripheral characters in More Than Words who are characters from The Light We Lost. I decided I wanted all of my adult books to be in the same world of New York City.
Zibby: I love that.
Jill: Cute little crossover characters.
Zibby: I was going to say earlier, is there any way we could follow Lucy after? Then I was thinking, I can't ask her. How can she possibly do a sequel to this book? It’s amazing. I'm so glad. I feel such a connection to your characters. I'm eager to see where life goes for them.
Jill: I've always said that if I did a sequel to The Light We Lost, it would be from Darren’s perspective.
Zibby: Interesting. Poor Darren.
Jill: He’s got a lot comin’ at him.
Zibby: Darren’s a total trooper. [laughs] He has to put up with a lot. Poor guy.
Are you a fan of photography? Photography plays a huge role in The Light We Lost, especially with Gabe and the show and everything. Are you a personal fan? Did you think that was just a good literary device?
Jill: I love beautiful photography. I'm not a very good photographer. I especially admire people who are able to really capture emotion with their photographs. I took a photography class in high school. I had the best time. Even looking back, I didn't learn anything, did I? Not the teacher’s fault, the teacher was great. I don't have an eye for it. I wish I did. I do have framed photographs up in my apartment and stuff. There's something about the fact that it is capturing a moment in time in a real person’s life, especially when there's a photograph with a person in it. There's something really, really remarkable about that, knowing the fact that you can tell a story with just one image.
Zibby: Let’s just forget writing books. [laughs] I'm kidding. What is on your wish list going forward professionally? You have another book coming out. You're still, obviously, an editor and have more and more great children's book coming out like Chelsea Clinton’s book. What's left for you? What do you want to do next?
Jill: Oh, man. I would love to just keep being able to do what I'm doing. I've loved writing book for kids. I've loved visiting schools and being the visiting author, even though sometimes they think my name is Arthur, which is the cutest thing that ever happens, and helping kids find their voices and their stories and encouraging them to share what they want to with the world. I love working with authors and helping them realize their vision for their stories and championing them and getting them out into the world.
I love writing books for adults. I love being able to explore the parts of life that happen after you're ten or eighteen or whatever, where you get to think about careers and families and love and parents as they get older and your place in the world. I've loved, especially with The Light We Lost, being able to connect with readers who want to tell me their stories about their first loves or ways that they connected to the characters in The Light We Lost. I just want to keep doing what I'm doing. My wish list is I hope people like More Than Words, very much I hope so.
Zibby: I'm sure they will. I can't imagine that they wouldn't. Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?
Jill: I do. This might sound like very silly advice, but make time to write. When I decided that I was going to take my own writing seriously was when I said, “I'm going to schedule writing into my week, into my day, into my weekend. I'm going to write from this time to this time.” That's in my calendar now. When somebody calls and say, “Can you have brunch on Sunday?” I say, “I'm sorry. I can't. I'm busy,” to make writing a priority and not fit it in around the rest of your life, which is what I've been doing for a while. Scheduling it and making it a thing that you do that you're responsible to yourself for, at least it made me think about writing in a different way and prioritizing it in a different way.
Zibby: My last question, do you believe there's one true love for each person?
Jill: I don't think so. I don't know. A lot us could probably be happy with a lot of different people. There are things about Gabe that made Lucy happy. There are things about Darren that made Lucy happy. There are probably things about other people, like the scientist she met the five and half minutes in the book, that might have made Lucy happy too. It just would've been a different life for her. It really was about her making choices about what was the most important for her in that moment in time.
Maybe for us too, that there are a lot of people that you can find happiness and some people you probably connect with more deeply than others. I know that’s been the case for me. The idea of saying that there is one soulmate is almost sad to me. What if that soulmate lives somewhere else, and you never meet them, and you spend your whole life not with your soulmate? That makes it feel so sad to me. There has to be lots of people we can be happy, happy with so that we don't risk that situation where our soulmate lives somewhere we don't and we never meet them.
Zibby: I'm sorry for putting you on the spot. I like that answer. That was good. Jill, thank you such much for chatting with me. I really appreciate it. Thanks for writing such an amazing story that really transported me and obviously so many others around the world. Thank you so much.
Jill: Thank you so much for having me on. I’ll see you in August.
Zibby: I’ll see you in August. Take care.
Jill: You too. Bye.