I'm super excited to be interviewing a wonderful friend of mine, Lea Carpenter. Lea and I went to business school together and bonded as two writers in a sea of consultants. Lea has since published an incredible book called Eleven Days, published by Knopf, and has a new book coming out this summer. Welcome, Lea Carpenter.
Lea Carpenter: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
Zibby: Lea, tell me more about your background in terms of where you grew up. How’d you end up in New York?
Lea: I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, in the middle of nowhere with a lot of siblings, dogs, and horses. It was a very quiet childhood. I didn’t know if I would end up in New York. I used to come here with my mother on special occasions. We would go out for lunch, or go to FAO Schwarz, or go to the bookstore, go to the theater. I always knew about New York. When I was in undergrad, I really loved the theater and thought maybe my future would be in the theater. If you love the theater, you come to New York City. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I came here with the long-term goal of doing sometime in the theater but ended up getting a job working in the literary world. I hung around there for a while.
Zibby: Tell me more about that, your entrance into the literary world. How did you get into writing?
Lea: It started with my hearing a rumor that Francis Ford Coppola was starting a literary magazine. I wanted to get involved with that. I relentlessly hounded the woman who had been appointed the editor until she agreed to hire me as her assistant. The two of us worked together to figure out what we were doing, which was essentially starting a very small business, but a business nonetheless, which had a literary component. When I went through that process I realized that maybe what I wanted to do was be an editor. We were lucky because we had, among other people working with us, we had hired this freelance copy editor who was Susan Sontag’s personal copy editor. She said even when Susan Sontag wrote a postcard, she would hand it to this woman, Carla, to copy edit it for her. I learned there how to copy edit, how to work with writers, what it means to edit a piece, how to read short fiction, which was something that I hadn’t focused on before. I got in my head the idea that Francis Coppola was always saying that a good movie is usually based on a very simple story. He had lots of examples. His goal was to create a magazine that would publish short stories, some of which would go on to be films. That was the start.
As you know, I went to business school. I don’t know how I got in. I went to business school nonetheless. At that time, I thought maybe what I want to do is start another magazine, a larger magazine. I liked the idea of working with writers. I didn’t know what capacity I would do that. After business school, I got a job at another literary magazine called The Paris Review, which I entered into in a very tricky time. The founding editor of the magazine, George Plimpton, had just died. It was an interesting experience. At the time, everyone who knew me said, “This is the perfect job for you.” I used to say I felt like I was dating someone where everyone said, “He’s the perfect guys for you.” Then I would go home, and he’d beat me up and do drugs. It was an excruciating time. It was hard work. I realized I was not trying to help shepherd this iconic literary magazine. I was trying to desperately beg people for money so that we didn’t go bankrupt. That was an incredible learning experience.
I then went on to work as a speech writer for a politician and thought maybe that was the right avenue for my skill set. It was during that time that Eleven Days was born. It’s probably too long of a story to go into. The short version is I was working with this politician and writing a book with him. We had to get an agent. While we were writing that book, the politician got sick. The book got put on hold. That agent took me to lunch and said, “You should write your own book. I've seen your work. You should write a book.” I thought, “I think I'm an editor. I'm not an author.” He dared me. He said, “I dare you to try and write ten thousand words under your own name.” He gave me a deadline. He said, “If you can write ten thousand words under your own name, I will represent you.” He was representing the politician, not me. He gave me a deadline for those ten thousand words, which was May 3rd, 2011.
My father had died. My father had been in the military. I was reading, at that time, everything I could about the military. I was newly interested in a subject I had not had a lot of interest in before and reading everything I could, particularly on the subject of special operations because of what my father had done. One of the books I read was called Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell, who was a Navy SEAL who went missing for a period of time in Afghanistan. That was all interesting. The part of the book that really broke my heart was when he came back from Afghanistan. He arrived at his house in Texas. He saw what had gone on in that house while he was gone. What had gone on in that house was everyone in that town had come to help take care of his mother in particular. They had brought food. It was like a wake. The house filled up with people. In fact, the house filled up with so many people, if I'm remembering correctly, that they built a second structure on the property to help contain this vigil.
I remember thinking at the time, how would I feel if I was in that house, if my son was missing, and I was in that house? I answered the question, “I would want to get out of the house.” I thought I would write ten thousand words about a woman whose son is missing who has to get out of the house. She goes for a jog. I wrote that. Whether or not it was because of Marcus Luttrell in particular, I decided to make her son a Navy SEAL because I knew some Navy SEALs. I thought at least I can call them, and they can tell me if I'm spelling something wrong.
I went to meet that agent on May 3rd. On May 2nd we had killed Osama bin Laden. It was SEAL Team Six who killed Osama bin Laden. I sat down to meet him. I said, “Here are my ten thousand words.” He said, “What is it about?” I said, “It’s about Navy SEALs.” He said, “Oh, my god. You're kidding me.” They were on the cover of every newspaper. I said, “I'm actually serious. That's what I wrote about.” On the basis of that ten thousand words he said, “If you write another twenty thousand, I want to take this out to publishers.” Suddenly everyone knew what a Navy SEAL was. I ended up writing forty thousand words, which is not a book but was enough. On the basis of that forty thousand words, we sold the book to Knopf. That was the start of the journey.
Zibby: That's amazing. That's an amazing story. I didn’t even know that background.
Lea: Then I actually had to write a book because I had a contract. That August, August of 2011, I got pregnant, which was not planned. Suddenly I had an even bigger deadline than the book, which was I was about to have my second son. I thought, “I've got to write this book before I deliver this baby.” I went to meet with my editor at Knopf. She said, “Take your time with the book.” I said, “I won't take my time. You'll have the book in April because the baby’s coming in April.”
Then I was in an unusual position being a pregnant woman writing about the SEAL team community. It helped in making me seem less threatening than other journalists. At that time so many people were trying to talk to Navy SEALs and ask them questions like, “Who killed Osama bin Laden? Who was in the room? Tell me about your gear.” I was going and talking to these people and saying, “What's your relationship with your mother like? How many times a day do you Skype your girlfriend from the base? Do you get depressed?” After someone's talked to you about their mother, their girlfriend, and the fact that they use whatever they use to manage their bad days, almost invariably I would then say, “Thank you very much.” They would then say, “Aren’t you going to ask me about the Captain Phillips? Don’t you want to see my weapons?” There would always be, at the end, this moment where they would want to actually talk about, nothing classified, but they would want to talk about what they do, of course. I accidently got a lot of interesting stories, many of which I tried to weave into the book. I got to know some pretty remarkable people.
Zibby: I want to talk a little more about Eleven Days and your beautiful writing in it. I'm going to read a passage from page 131 of the hardcover when the mom is on her way, Sara is on her way to find Jason, having been notified that something is up. She has to take a plane and go rescue him. As a mom, the feeling of what she must be going through emotionally, having to get on a plane and travel knowing that, is her son alive? Is everything okay? This is what you wrote, which is beautiful.
“At the station in DC, she thought she would stop and get something to eat. There was never anything edible in airplanes. She knew they were in for a long flight, perhaps several flights. She would buy something to eat and something to read. She had the same feeling in her stomach she had each time she knew Jason was about to come home, the feeling of anticipation and relief that before long she would be laughing with him as they had always done together and hearing what was new in his life. It was the feeling that coupled the ease of being with family with the comfort of no longer being alone.”
What I liked about this little passage was as a mom, sometimes you're sitting there by yourself, and then immediately you're in it again with your child. The juxtaposition of not having a family and then having Jason return. What shape would he be in? The dynamic of that interaction between the mom and the son, I really liked that passage. Maybe you could speak more to the…
Lea: Mothers of people serving in the military don’t generally fly on private planes to Afghanistan to meet with their children. That part of the book is almost like a fantasy element. I wanted to take a mother to the battlefield. Another very famous book that had a huge impact on me is a book called Black Hawk Down, which was also made into a movie. That book opens with the line, “Sargent Matthew Eversmann puts on his helmet.” I opened Eleven Days with the line, “In the bedroom, Sara puts on her running shoes.”
I tried to weave throughout the book this idea that the mother is the warrior. She is the warrior. We all are fighting the battle of being mothers. I thought if I really want to take that to a conclusion, she's going to have to go there. I have to take her to the Middle East. Normally in these kinds of cases, the child comes home to mother. By the way, he’s not a child. He's a grown man by this point. Of course we will always think of our children as our children. I wanted to contrast in the book the incredibly complexity of the training that her son has undergone. For example, all of the things that he wears when he goes out to do what he does and the relative simplicity of her life. She's a very complex woman. For her, she wants to wear something appropriate and eat something healthy. She’s trying to think about these simple things in a moment of incredible crisis. She's trying to stay calm.
Zibby: I know as a mom, recently you’ve gone through a divorce, as have I. Do you use exercise in that way? Do you feel like you grab on to simple things in the face of chaos?
Lea: I do. I'm not really a runner. The idea of Sara being a runner I stole from -- back to Francis Ford Coppola. When I was working for him, one of the stories I read that I had never read before is an incredible short story by John Cheever called “The Swimmer.” It’s a perfect short story. It’s a story of a man who goes running through his neighborhood, swimming through his neighborhood swimming pools. As he goes from backyard to backyard and swims each pool, he has this train of thought. I sort of stole that structure for the opening of my book where Sara goes running. While she’s running near where she lives through her neighbor’s property, she’s thinking about her son. I don’t use running. I don’t use meditation. I probably should. I do use exercise. I do feel that that is a simple way for me to do one thing that I can do. If I do nothing else the whole day, I feel I've done that. It’s a way of having some kind of routine because our days as parents, as you well know, are hard to predict.
Zibby: What do you think is one of the hardest parts of parenting, at least right now? Your sons are --
Lea: -- My sons are nine and five. Yesterday my nine-year-old told me that he knows what it means when someone puts up their middle finger. My response to that was to tell him when I was little, my best friend’s mother used to put up her pinky finger. She would say, “For those who don't deserve the very best.” This woman was so cool. She was cool, beautiful, funny, bright mother who was also deeply religious, who would talk to us about Christ and gratitude and forgiveness and responsibility. Always what I remember and what I think about when I think of her, was holding up that pinky finger. “For those who don't deserve the very best.”
The hardest thing about parenting is to own the fact that no one else’s judgement matters. We feel judgment. I feel judgment, whether it’s from other parents or teachers or coaches. To say what matters and who matters is my ethical arrangement, my ethical contract with myself. What matters is my children. Pretty much everyone else can have the pinky finger. It’s remembering that everyone’s trying to get through the day and to judge less.
Zibby: I get it. I totally agree. Eleven Days was absolutely amazing. Moms don’t have a lot of time, but Eleven Days definitely should be at the top of the list. I know you have a new project coming out. Talk to me more about that.
Lea: The new book is called Red, White, Blue. It’s coming out from Knopf in August. I've been saying it’s about the CIA and marriage. I chose the title Red, White, Blue because the book is a lot about China. There's an avalanche that's very central to the book. There's a scene involving the ocean that's very important. I always had that as a placeholder title. It stuck. A writer I admire pointed out to me the other day that Red, White, Blue is a nice title for a book about marriage. You have the red heat of the love and the passion. You have the white of what can often be very chilly, lonely moments. You have the blue, which is water or tears of joy or tears of sadness.
It is a story of a woman who is married to a very successful music producer, and who sells his company, and comes to her and says, “I want to be a politician,” and how she then goes down the rabbit hole of having to be a politician’s wife and how that changes her, that story told in parallel with a confession from a former China-based CIA case officer. As you learn the history of this woman, I also try to tell the history of the CIA. I hope it finds its audience. [laughs]
Zibby: It sounds amazing. I can't wait to read it.
Lea: Thank you.
Zibby: Thank you so much for coming in and talking to this podcast, "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days. Look for her new book this summer.
Lea: Thank you so much.