Zibby Owens: Hi, listeners. I am so sorry. I did something wrong. I don't even know what I did. The sound quality on Lauren Mechling and Marcy Dermansky’s episodes is not quite up to par with my normal episodes. Honestly, I've done close to 150 episodes. This is the first time this has happened. I am so sorry. I'm not a technical wiz. I guess I did something wrong. Please listen anyway. It’s just not perfect, which bothers me. Now is also a great time to read the transcripts of these interviews on my website, zibbyowens.com/transcript, which has all the transcripts for all my episodes including a link to audio, a link to buy. It’s another great way to get to know the authors. Again, I'm really sorry. Please listen anyway. It won't happen again. Thanks.
I'm really excited to be here today with Lauren Mechling. She's the author of How Could She: A Novel. A former reporter at The New York Sun and features editor at The Wall Street Journal, Lauren has written for The New York Times, Vogue, where she is a contributing editor, and The New Yorker online. She has written several young adult novels and is also the founder of #cloglife [indiscernible/laughter] Instagram account. A graduate of Harvard College, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Welcome, Lauren.
Lauren Mechling: Thank you. I'm so happy to be here.
Zibby: Thanks for coming on the show. Could you please tell listeners what How Could She is about? What inspired you to write it?
Lauren: In very short, How Could She is about the trouble and heartbreak of female friendship. A longer description would be it’s a friendship triangle about three women who have a past together. They met and came up together in their twenties. The story takes place over the course of one year when the women are a little older than thirty-five. They all find themselves in very different stations in life. They are still enmeshed in each other's lives, but they have a difficult time digesting each other's successes and failures. Over the course of the year, two of the women, through a series of manipulations, end up trading places.
Zibby: Very cool. Why this story? How did you come up with it?
Lauren: The story came out of my obsession that really started in my thirties with friendship, especially with having been dumped my best friend. It was painful.
Zibby: Oh, no. At what age-ish? Teenager, or it happened in your thirties?
Lauren: Right. I had a best friend in my twenties. In my early thirties, my friend decided it was time for her to move on. It was a very strange experience looking back on it. Part of it was a total mystery and remains a total mystery. Part of it was a painful circumstance that I actually understood by trying to piece it apart together in my head thinking about what the dynamic of our friendship had been like and trying to wonder why it had gotten to a point where she just couldn't stand it anymore.
Zibby: That must have been so hurtful. That's terrible.
Lauren: It was very hard. It’s still hard because I miss her. She's a really cool woman. That was what she had to do. I was writing young adult novels. I'd been writing young adult novels through my twenties and in my early thirties. This obsession with why women matter so much to each other was building within me. I finally had the courage to write a book that I wanted to read, a book about women like myself and my friends.
Zibby: Those are the best stories, when it comes from the truth that you're dealing with yourself.
Lauren: Yes. I had no idea that anyone would want it. I was able to really lift the veil and get in there and be truthful about the dark underside of friendship.
Zibby: Female friendships are super complicated.
Lauren: They are. They're also the best thing on earth.
Zibby: They're also the best thing on earth. I've found as I've gotten older, some friends, I know that you get this advice in magazine articles and everything, but friends who are a little bit less supportive than others, or too demanding, or maybe there's not as much time, people who need you to stay on the phone for an hour and a half for every issue and don't ever ask you a question back...
Lauren: The thing is, as you get older you have more and more friends because we hopefully maintain our older friendships. It’s so exciting to meet new people and bring them into our lives. One of the difficulties is being in this very polyamorous situation where there's multiple people who you love and who all need something from you. Then to look at each friendship in particular, each friendship is always uneven. There's always somebody who wishes it were more consuming or they were getting more.
Zibby: Polyamorous, I love that. I've never used that word before. It’s my new favorite word. [laughs] There's a lot I want to discuss in the book, just a few things. Let's discuss the role of wealth in the book. It’s one of the themes that you write about. You wrote, “Most of the unspeakably rich people Sunny and Nick were friends with were self-aware enough to understand they did not count as good souls. Even if they voted and donated in the right direction, there was no shaking off the shame inextricably bound up in the privilege.” I wanted to know what you meant by this and if you were trying to say does wealth mean you can't be a good soul?
Lauren: That's an interesting question. No one has asked about that aspect of the book yet. The answer is it’s a social satire. The book is really looking at the way we live now in New York City. I don't think it’s possible to tell that story without talking about class and talking about money. This particular set of people are so consumed with markers of success and cultural cachet and coolness. I don't have any problems with the wealthy as a group of people. This particular group of people, I was looking at the way that a certain sharp-elbowedness and a certain element of cold -- it’s almost a self-delusion that I think needs to set in for the people who at the beginning of the story are the true winners and at the top of the totem pole, how they got there. I wouldn't say that morals have driven them to where we find them in the beginning.
The three main characters of the book are Geraldine, who is the only one of the triangle who is still in Toronto at the outset of the story. She is traumatized by a fiancé who left her four years ago. Both of her friends spend a lot of time looking at Geraldine and caring about Geraldine and wishing that her circumstances were equal to her goodness and feeling sorry for her. There's also Rachel, who is a married mother of a very sweet baby. She's a failed young adult novelist. She works part time at a magazine. She is struggling with trying to -- she feels like the brass ring that she wants is just out of reach. She's trying to get her career back on track. Finally, there is Sunny, who has managed to become this “it girl” watercolor artist who has made a very lucrative business essentially of being Sunny, of being this person who people know of and people want to be associated with in any way possible. She makes a living. She stays busy doing a lot of “collaborations” with brands and with magazines. People pay her a lot of money to say what's cool.
Zibby: That's awesome. I want that job.
Lauren: I know. I wanted her taste.
Zibby: Does anyone care what I think is cool? [laughs] No, I'm kidding. Another part of your book that I thought was really interesting and different is that you talk a lot about podcasts in the book, which as somebody who hosts a podcast, I think is pretty cool. You then have a moment where you have Jeremy whispering to Rachel, one of the three women, “Is it terrible that I don't listen to podcasts?” which was great. I feel like people are saying that to each other now. When I started a podcast, I didn't even know what a podcast was.
Lauren: When did you start?
Zibby: Early last year, which is embarrassing. I know you've been listening to podcasts since 2005 in your closet. We had talked about Jess Harris’s “From Scratch” podcast. I'd listened to hers. Aside from that, I didn't know much about it. Then this podcast keeps coming up in the book at different parts, people referring to podcasts or listening or whatever. You wrote this fantastic Vogue essay called “Confessions of Pod Person,” which was amazing, about your whole history and how much you love podcasts. I've just said a lot of stuff. Talk to me about podcasts. Then I’ll ask you some more about it. What made you put podcasts in the book?
Lauren: I don't know how I could've written a book without a podcast given how much time and thought I put into my podcast obsession. The book is also about the collapse of the traditional media world. I love the idea of podcasts gaining in reputation and importance as we move forward. Novelistically, I thought it was fun to think of a podcast being a vehicle for a woman to A, reinvent herself, and B, express herself. To a smaller degree, I thought it was fun to think about the way that Geraldine’s friends, or frenemies at some points, listen to her podcast. They can gleam little clues about what's happening in her life. That's something that I do and I've been doing forever when I listen podcasts. I really know my hosts. From listening to your podcast, I'm fascinated by your personal life. I know you have four children. I know that you're divorced. I know that you're remarried. That interests me whenever that comes into your conversations.
I've been listening since 2005, which I can date because I remember that was when Slate launched its “Political Gabfest.” I was initially just fascinated by hearing the voices of the people whose articles I was reading. Then came Marc Maron. He's the comedian who has an amazing -- if it was a Rolodex, then he has an amazing [indiscernible]. He would bring on Louis CK and Sarah Silverman and get his friends to talk about absolutely everything in this very intimate way that felt novel to me. Especially back then, people weren’t listening so much to podcasts. There was this sense of comfort and self-revelation that you weren’t getting when you read articles in glossy magazines about people. I've been riding the wave ever since, of this explosion. I stay loyal to my shows, so I just listen to more and more. I add them on.
Zibby: Wow. How many shows do you listen to, each week for instance, around? Maybe two or twenty?
Lauren: I don't know, probably. I'm really lousy at television. I'm not even watching anything on TV at the moment. I read. I listen to podcasts. I’ll listen to podcasts in the middle of the night. It varies. If I'm sleeping very well, I will be remiss in my podcast consumption. There are sometimes when I'm having a very hard time sleeping and I lay there in bed with my friends in my head, in my ears.
Zibby: It is really intimate. I've done that falling asleep. The lights are off. I have my little headphones in. This is crazy. I have strangers telling me a bedtime story, basically.
Lauren: It’s weird if you think about that. It’s weird. There's a woman I became friends with when I was working at Vogue. She had a podcast. We really liked each other. We were getting to know each other. I would go and have lunch with her. I would think, this is so strange that you were in bed with me last night. [laughter] I didn't tell her at first. Then I finally confessed about how much I was getting to know her. I still listen to her podcast. It’s called “Fat Mascara.” It’s a beauty podcast. It’s hilarious.
Zibby: What types of podcasts do you listen to? Mostly beauty?
Lauren: No. I listen to that one because I think the two hosts are so clever and fun. It’s Jessica Matlin and Jennifer Goldstein. They're both beauty editors. They bring on these characters from the world of hairdressing and modeling and beauty. I find that there's a lot of larger-than-life personality in that recording booth. I love it. I would say to generally group my podcast preferences, I love the ones that feel DIY and raw and conversational. I'm not as interested in the heavily produced narrative podcasts, as cool as they are. I come to podcasts as a way to feel connected to real people and also to learn a bit about culture and the news, unfortunately too much, I’d say, proportionally versus how much I'm reading the newspaper or Twitter. I don't know if that’s a virtue or vice. Yes, I like the podcasts where there are people who I think about.
Zibby: You mentioned Twitter in the book. You had some funny quote -- I almost was going to write it down -- about one of the characters, [indiscernible], the half-thought out musings of Twitter or something like that. She was checking her -- I could find it. It was this funny take on Twitter, how you thought none of the thoughts were fully formed, of people who were tweeting.
Lauren: There's one character, the failed young adult novelist, who has a bipolar Twitter presence where she will tweet sometimes very sharp, witty observations, and nobody cares. Then she will try to tweet the way that the successful young adult writers are tweeting, like #cupcakes, #imwriting. Then she’ll get a little more traction there.
Zibby: It’s so refreshing to have that in a novel because at least for me, this is the stuff I'm doing every day. It’s not so much in fiction yet. It was just so cool to have you put it in, all the stuff that’s in my brain. It’s very relevant.
Lauren: I wanted it to feel like the way it feels to be hunched over your phone and texting with a fascinating friend or maybe gossiping about a third friend. I wanted to capture the way we actually do communicate and live now, so of course Twitter comes in.
Zibby: When did you write this book? Tell me a little more about the process. How long did this book take to write? When and where? You said you found it. Your husband encouraged you to pull it off the shelf?
Lauren: Yes. I started it, I was pregnant with my daughter who’s about to turn five. I started it maybe six years ago. I was thirty-five and still really bruised. I still hadn’t found a new intimate friend. I still haven't replaced that friend. I started writing it when I was thirty-five. I had just written a young adult novel that nobody wanted to buy. When I say that, I don't mean no one in the bookstore. I mean nobody wanted to produce it as a book. I had, at that point, a part-time job at The Wall Street Journal. I had a couple of days a week when I was going to a writing space. I thought this is my time. I'm going to write the book I actually really want to read. Then after having written about eight pages, I got an amazing and very consuming job as an editor at Vogue. I had to come up to speed on so many levels to figure out how to do that job. I put my book to the side.
Maybe a year in, my wonderful husband, he remembered my talking about those pages. He looked at them. He encouraged me to see it through. At that point, it was crazy. While I was working at Vogue, I wrote it every morning. I would wake up at five and write for about an hour. Then it became a superstitious process where I often didn't know how it was going or if it was good. I told myself the one thing I can do is write every day. Sometimes if I didn't manage to, if my baby would wake up the same as I did and I didn't have time to write in the morning, I would bring my computer. I would go for my lunch break and go to a coffee shop and write for twenty minutes. It was this rule I had. I was often lugging around a heavy computer on one shoulder. Here we are. It took a while. It’s funny. People who read it say it takes about five hours to read. It’s not really hard work to read. I'm happy to hear that.
Zibby: You often don't know all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making it so seamless to consume it. It’s like watching a movie. You think about the eight thousand people who are holding the equipment on the sides and the takes that they do. When you watch a movie, it’s just boom, you're in it. That's like your book. It’s immersed.
Lauren: Yes. I'm sure there are people who are able to -- Sally Rooney, I think, writes books in seven weeks. You can read them on a Saturday afternoon. She's totally brilliant. My process is a lot of writing and rewriting and smoothing over. A lot of the times when I work on the book, not at work, but in downtown Manhattan at the Japanese bakery, I wasn’t writing new sentences. I was just playing with paragraphs.
Zibby: Isn’t Sally Rooney, though, in her twenties?
Lauren: She is. I didn't write a book in seven weeks in my twenties either.
Zibby: Okay, fine. She is a genius. However, maybe she has more time. Maybe she doesn't have another job. I don't know. I can delete this part too. [laughs]
Lauren: No, it’s fine. Sally Rooney is more of a genius than --
Zibby: -- This is how I feel about people who can get up and give speeches without any notes. If I ever speak in public, I like to have everything written out, every word. That's easy for me. It’s easy for me to sit down and write the whole thing out. If I have to say it, it’s so much harder. When I go to a speech or an event and I see someone stand up and basically speak in paragraphs --
Lauren: -- Isn't it’s marvelous?
Zibby: It’s amazing. How do they do that? That's amazing.
Lauren: I was at a birthday party this weekend for my friend’s fiftieth birthday. It was all women. It was one of those wonderful, beautiful, all-women gatherings. Suddenly around eleven o’clock -- people had been drinking -- one by one, her got to the front of the room and gave the most epic, epic tributes to her. They hadn’t prepared them.
Zibby: No. Anytime I give a speech at a wedding, my own wedding, anybody, it’s either printed out and in my hand, or I don't do it.
Lauren: I relate to that.
Zibby: Tell me about #cloglife a little, which I know is away from the book. You wrote this article in The New Yorker a while ago. You talked about how you had just left your job. You were basically having tequila for breakfast.
Lauren: I didn't leave my job. My job left me. I appreciate that, but it’s fine. I was laid off. In the wonderful world of magazines, people get laid off.
Zibby: Was that your Vogue job that you were talking about?
Lauren: Yes. I was at Vogue for three years and change. Then I was not at Vogue. I was completely lost. I remember feeling like I was living an out-of-body experience because so much of my identity by that point had become working so hard at this incredibly intense magazine. I needed something that was more grounded and more tangible to wrap all of my anxiety and confusion around. For me, it became purchasing a pair of clogs because at Vogue, one doesn't wear clogs. I was home. I had boxes and boxes of the contents of my office, including all these high heels that I used to change into. I figured I'm just going to become one of those cool women I see who have an amorphous line of work and they look so beautiful and creative. They're floating around Brooklyn where I live. They're always wearing clogs.
I wrote a piece for The New Yorker about what I called #cloglife. I started putting pictures on my Instagram of life outside of the skyscraper. Strange crackers and peanut butter in my apartment for lunch, #cloglife. It became a way to survive. I found it very amusing. People didn't really understand what's happening. Someone thought I was starting a clog-zine. I remember a woman who I worked with at Vogue emailed. She's like, “Do you have a new job now?” Then The New Yorker article came out. That actually resonated with people, I think because they were shocked to read somebody write so nakedly about being fired, but also because clogs, in certain zip codes, are the only thing people wear and hadn’t yet actually been explored. I got a lot of messages. “Why didn't I think of that? I should've written that article. How did it not occur to me that we are walking around like Dutch farmers? What are we doing?”
A really good friend of mine named Iliana, at the time, she said, “This article, I love it. You should also start an Instagram account. You should keep it going.” I did. I didn't know what the point of it was. Like the way I wrote my book, in that I wrote every single day, I have ever since, every day, posted a picture that is somehow #cloglife to me. It’s this dreamy alternative reality where everyone is creative and has time to read essays by Rachel Cusk for hours and hours and eat beautiful, freshly-taken-from-the-land salads for lunch. At this point though, it’s become a community. I don't qualify as micro-influencer because you have to have fifty thousand followers. I'm maybe a nano-speco-fluencer. [laughter]
What I have are these five thousand friends all over the world. It keeps me happy. It’s the strangest thing. I've never actually had a circle of friends. I've always had specific one-on-one friendships. Suddenly, I get it. I understand why people join sororities or why people manage to stay in book clubs for more than two months. It’s a wonderful thing to feel like you're united with women. There's no men in #cloglife. Men do not like clogs. There's one pervert who messages every single woman on #cloglife to tell her that he a clog fetishist. That's it. Other than that, we are just --
Zibby: -- You can block. I'm sure you know this.
Lauren: I do. Then my clogheads write to me. They say, “Do you know about this guy?”
Zibby: Wow. That is so neat that you did that. It’s the coolest. You just did what you were doing. Next thing you know, you found all these like-minded people. It’s amazing. You manifested what you needed.
Lauren: It was a real lemons to lemonade thing. It’s been really great with the book because a lot of the people who follow #cloglife, they're helping with the book. I'm having a reading at a clog store in the Hudson Valley. My moderator is a #cloglife friend. She's a wonderful food writer, Colu Henry. I met her through that. She is providing wine through some cloggy vineyard. Then there's another #cloglife member. Her name is Tamara Adler. She is a food writer. She's making deviled eggs. All these people are coming together through it and being friends. The funny thing about the word clogs is it completely disarms other women. Sometimes it can be tricky to have a conversation for the first time with a woman. For some reason when clogs become the subject, everyone has something to say even if it’s that they hate clogs. Maybe it’s just because the world is silly sounding.
Zibby: I wore clogs in high school, black clogs with the wood bottom. They had a little strap. You could wear it behind. I wore it on top. That was the thing. I'd wear it with black jeans that I cut off at the bottoms.
Lauren: You were a proto-cloghead.
Zibby: A proto-cloghead, but that was my last pair. Then I went to Doc Martens. I followed every trend at the time. Now I wear Vans. Every day, I wear Vans. That's why I was saying now I want to start #vanslife. Maybe there's a whole group of people out there who only Vans, moms who wear Vans or something.
Lauren: Oh, there is. You have to find your people. Not to be confused with van life.
Zibby: Right, not living in a van. No. [laughs]
Lauren: Vans are very cool. I haven't gone over to the Vans side yet. I understand that they have their own connotations. I respect that.
Zibby: I don't even know what it means. I have to dig into this deeper. What does it say about me as a person that I wear Vans now? I almost never wear heels, almost never. It hurts my knees. I'm running after the kids. I'm often literally running places because I'm often late these days. I have to wear something.
Lauren: I honestly think that should be one of your next articles. You write great articles. You should look into the Vans.
Zibby: I think I will. I was thinking why did you not write a book about #cloglife? You must have been pitched that. That should be your next book. It could even be Instagram-y, really cool pictures, sepia tone, of the clogs, like a coffee table book.
Lauren: If I knew it was a coffee table, that might do really well in Japan.
Zibby: It could be sold at every single clog store. Every clog store could sell it.
Lauren: I appreciate your vision.
Zibby: Sometimes I’ll buy a book that even if I'm not going to read it cover to cover, it reminds me of something that I care about. I like to have it as talisman almost. It’s not like it has to commercialize what you're doing as much as selling a manual or something.
Lauren: Right, if it wasn’t selling out. It would be different. Someone reached out to me about doing sponsored content. Anyway...
Zibby: Anyway, we can talk about it later. [laughs] I'm like, “You have to do this.” I have to ask you about your young adult fiction writing. That's a whole thing in and of itself. You don't do it anymore?
Lauren: I don't write young adult fiction anymore.
Zibby: You wrote a lot about tenth grade. There are all these books. You had The Rise and Fall of a 10th-Grade Social Climber, Dream Life. Then you had Foreign Exposure: The Social Climber Abroad, All Q, No A: More Tales of a 10th-Grade Social Climber. What happened in tenth grade? Tell me about this social climbing situation.
Lauren: That's funny. Tenth grade was really, really fun. It was actually too fun.
Zibby: Where did you grow up?
Lauren: I grew up in Brooklyn. I went to a small, progressive school for my whole life until ninth grade. Then I got into [indiscernible], which is the math and science public school. I was so excited to go and be new somewhere, somewhere where everyone didn't know everything about me. I ended up really enjoying it to a degree where a psychologist was called in. It was decided that perhaps it would be best if I returned to my small school in the neighborhood where I grew up where I would be under a bit more supervision. When I came back in eleventh grade, I was sort of alienated. The kids from my school that I returned to didn't really want to accept me back. I think there was an element of “Well, she left us.” I hadn’t maintained ties as well as I could've. I went from being this wild city creature of the nineties to being -- I spent all my time in the library.
We had this amazing librarian who had the most adult literary fiction. She had a stack by the front of the library. It was all the vintage contemporary. It was Less Than Zero and Mary Gaitskill. Basically, I hung out and read a lot about sex workers in the East Village. My Mary Gaitskill obsession was born. I had a very emotionally intense adolescence. It did lend itself to fictionalization. What happened was I was a journalist, I am journalist, but I tried to get a newspaper job in London when I was in my mid-twenties. I went to London and met with all these newspaper editors. They all looked at me like I was insane. Nobody thought that I needed to be the next voice of their generation. I came back to New York. Then I started getting assignments from British editors who needed someone to go do an interview in New York. I was asked to go and interview Gossip Girl which was not something I had ever heard of. I went to Barnes & Noble. I discovered this series. It was delicious. I called a friend of mine, Laura Moser, who is one of the most hilarious women and also an amazing writer. We'd always collaborate on creative things. I said, “Should we try to write a comedy for teenagers? This stuff that they're putting out is totally different from the Paula Danziger and Baby-Sitters Clubs that we grew up on.” We had so much fun with that. That's how I started writing young adult fiction.
Zibby: So cool. Do your kids -- is it still too old?
Lauren: Sometimes I get bored of what we read at bedtime. I did, the other night, pick up -- it was on the shelf -- I did start reading a scene that was set in an art gallery. My son was laying there listening for a little bit. Then he said, “Mom, this is terrible. [Indiscernible/laughter] change it. What is this?”
Zibby: [laughs] That's really funny. Aside from producing the book I want you to do about the #cloglife, what do you have coming next after this?
Lauren: I'm going to write another novel.
Zibby: Do you have an idea for it already?
Lauren: I have an idea. Yes. I'm excited to make space and get really started.
Zibby: You're still a contributing editor at Vogue. Does that mean you still go in?
Lauren: I don't go in. I write about books for them every month. That takes a lot of time too. I spend a lot of time reviewing galleys of new books and figuring out what the column should be. Most of my columns are about several books. I'm a very slow reader. I like to hear a book when I read. I like to imagine what it sounds like. That's what I do. I split my time between writing about books, and I'm currently spending a lot of time putting a book out in the world. Then I will go back to writing another book.
Zibby: When do you find all the time to read all the books for the ones you review, the ones you do for fun? Maybe they're the same.
Lauren: The question is really then when do I find time to write? That's something I need to work on better. I have deadlines for when I read the books. That's how I find the time. I wake up, and the kids are at school. I need to have a column by next week about three books I haven't read yet. I get to it.
Zibby: That's how I found time to read. You make it a thing. I'm interviewing these people. I have to read these books. I'm going to do it. That's what I'm doing. I do it because I love it. I'm sure you love it too.
Lauren: It’s the best job ever.
Zibby: Before, I was like, “I can't read.” Reading, to me, was like getting a massage or something. I'm going to what? Sit on my couch and read in the afternoon? No.
Lauren: Eating bonbons and reading a paperback.
Zibby: Exactly. My dad always, “What are you doing today? Sitting around eating bonbons?” Every time in my head, I think that. When you make it into something, then you have every excuse to do what you love, reading or anything else.
Lauren: See? Contracts are wonderful for so many reasons.
Zibby: There you go. [laughs] Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Lauren: The cliché advice is read a lot. I will not say that. I will say be honest. Write something that you feel a little scared of people seeing. It might be really good.
Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Lauren: Thanks for having me. I love the show. It’s so great to meet you in person.
Zibby: Thank you.