Zibby Owens: I’m really excited to be here today with Lisa Barr. Lisa is the award-winning author of the historical thriller Fugitive Colors. Her most recent sexy beach read is The Unbreakables. Lisa was the editor of The Jerusalem Post, managing editor of Today’s Chicago Woman, managing editor of Moment magazine, and an editor/reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. She's also the creator the popular parenting blog GIRLilla Warfare and has been featured on Good Morning America and Today for her work as an author, journalist, and blogger. She earned her master’s in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern and lives in the Chicago area with her husband and three children. All right?
Lisa Barr: Yes. You got it. And a dog.
Zibby: And a dog. Welcome, Lisa. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Lisa: Thank you. Thanks for having me. This is so great to finally meet you in person.
Zibby: You too. I know, so many emails.
Lisa: So many emails. I love all of your postings. It’s great.
Zibby: Thank you. Can you tell listeners what The Unbreakables is about? What inspired you to write it?
Lisa: The Unbreakables is about a woman from Chicago whose husband and best friends end up betraying her. She loses everything in one fell swoop. She decides to go to Paris first to meet her daughter who’s also dealing with her own heartbreak. Once she gets out there, she makes a split decision to go to the South of France to really heal from her wounds. There she reclaims her sensuality and also her abilities as a sculptor which she pretty much let go of. The book came about, it was July 2015. I don't know if you remember this, the Ashley Madison hack.
Zibby: Of course.
Lisa: Ashley Madison, their motto is “Life is short. Have an affair.” Despicable, right? Hackers got ahold of this. They threatened Ashley Madison. “If you don't shut this site down, we are going to expose all of your users.” Of course, they thought it was a bluff. Very soon after, more than thirty-two million users were exposed. There I was out with friends for dinner. One of the friends said, “Got the list.” It was the list of our suburb, the suburb next to us, and the one nearby. It’s not my proudest moment, I have to say. He started reading off the names. There I was. I was completely shocked. It was friends from different parts in my life, high school, college, friends of my kids’ parents. I was shocked. I kept wondering to myself, oh, my god, what now? What's going to happen now that these names are all exposed? The story began to form.
Zibby: I emailed you right when I started reading this. “Did this happen to you? Tell me this did not happen to you.”
Lisa: This did not happen to me. It did not happen to me.
Zibby: Just the imagining what could happen.
Lisa: The other thing that inspired me simultaneously, one of my daughters was going through the traumatic high school breakup, a long relationship. It’s devastating. We all know that first heartbreak. I've been there. That has happened to me. I thought to myself, could a relationship from high school last and go the distance? With all the evolving we do as women and as men, could it go the distance? In Sophie Bloom’s, my protagonist, case, she does marry her high school sweetheart. She's been with one man. Then things started to break down. That's where it all shelled together in my crazy writer head.
Zibby: That's awesome. The stuff about being a sculptor -- the stuff, that was not very eloquent. The parts of the book where you describe being a sculptor were particularly interesting to me because I don't ever read about that. You read about artists, it’s painting. I’ve never sculpted myself. I was wondering, do you sculpt? Do you know someone well who’s a sculptor? How did you know all the terms? It was so real. I felt like now I could go try it. I could do it now. [laughs]
Lisa: Now you could go sculpt. My first book, it was about artists during the eve of World War II. I'm so passionate about art. I can't paint. I can't sing. I can belt it out in my car. My kids would be mortified. With sculpting, I decided I wanted to try something. Sculpting’s really a metaphor in this book. It’s not just that she's sculpting. In a sense, she's creating a masterpiece. What you see, she's actually creating a masterpiece, but also creating a masterpiece which is her own life. I decided that I needed to investigate that. I met a sculptor when I was in Napa. I stayed with him for a while. He gave me all the terms. He told me where to go and what to look up. I really did the research on it. I fell in love with it as I was researching.
Zibby: The way you wrote about it made it sound very appealing to me. If I ever need a new hobby with all that spare time...
Lisa: If you think about it, just taking a block of stone and creating, it’s amazing.
Zibby: It’s amazing. Sophie, in your book, her life changes in an instant, similar to your friends who were at the dinner, people that you knew. She says, “I can't believe that just a few hours ago we were all sitting at a trendy downtown restaurant enjoying good wine and celebrating my birthday.” I should say, Sophie in the book finds out -- can I say this?
Lisa: That's okay. Yes, the beginning.
Zibby: Sophie, the protagonist in the book, finds out that her husband was on the list. That is how the rest of the plot unfolds. “My life was still the same: good, comfortable, dependable, oblivious. I was not this cheated-on, pathetic, totally lost, watered-down version of me.” I feel like this is the beginning of Sophie’s shift in identity and personality. Did you intend to weave that through? Was it intentional to show the different phases that she went through and the contrast from where she started?
Lisa: You hit it exactly on the nose. We all hear about, there’s a breakup and you have to go through the five stages of grief in a breakup, whether it’s a loss. I wanted to -- bam -- show everything break down for her and then how she was going to build herself up. In the beginning -- this is not a spoiler as well -- Sophie decides to bypass the stages of grief and in a sense, denial 101. Where I was going with that is trying to create a situation where she would end up going through the stages of grief in obviously very different scenarios and end up on the other side. It was intentional. I felt like the reader needed to feel the explosion of Sophie’s life from the get-go.
Zibby: You described the explosion really well. When Sophie’s going through the worst of her feelings, you write, “It’s as if I have been blown to smithereens and somehow survived the trauma with no arms, no legs—just remainders: a head and a heart to comprehend and feel it all. I want to die and I want to live. I want to cry and I want to scream. I want to laugh at the absurdity and I want to go stark raving mad.”
Lisa: That is when she had denied it. Then she all of a sudden went from anger, sadness, and what you hit on was rage. She was about to go postal, basically, and let it all out. In that scene is really a change you see in Sophie accepting her rage and then moving on from there.
Zibby: When I was reading all of this, in the back of my head, I was like, I wonder if this happened to Lisa. Is she really angry about something? Did she go something like this? Not to be creepy. Then I was researching you. I found out that you had also gone through a divorce. Your ex-husband was no longer in the picture from when your daughters were young. Can you talk about that at all? You don't have to.
Lisa: I totally can talk about it. I'm an open book. It’s okay.
Zibby: It’s funny when you say that with your open book on my table.
Lisa: It was exactly that in my case, which was also where my husband disappeared. We haven't seen or heard from him since 2002, literally disappeared. I even had three private detectives trying to find him. It’s out of a bad after-school special Donna Dixon movie.
Zibby: From one day to the next?
Lisa: Yes. He left. At that time -- my girls are college age now -- they were three and five. They never got to say goodbye. It was a lot of picking up the pieces. You can just imagine how traumatic that was because I know you have four kids. It was traumatic. He disappeared, cleaned out my bank account.
Zibby: He did?
Lisa: He did. I was left with -- I still have the receipt -- sixty-seven cents in my bank account. It was a lot of trauma. I was kind of like Sophie. I had this job. I was a journalist. I was a professional. Then it was this nightmare that just happened. It was pure survival. Literally for two years, I slept three hours a night in order to make our lives work. As you know when you're going through a trauma or divorce, you still have to be fun mommy even when you're going through your worst possible scenario. When you were talking about the rage earlier, that's how I felt. Later on, even though my story and Sophie’s were very different, those same emotional -- all the feels that went through this book were a lot of things that I too experienced.
Zibby: I have to ask a little more about this. Did you have any idea he was going to leave? Did you talk about maybe you should split up?
Lisa: We were married, at the time, nine years. It was pretty much a surprise.
Zibby: I am so sorry that happened to you. That is crazy.
Lisa: Thank you. Things weren’t great. Having come from divorce, to be perfectly honest, divorce scared me more than death scares me. That is the truth. I really wanted to hang onto this even though it wasn’t great for me. Clearly, it wasn’t great for him either. I wanted to hang on at all costs. Then there was a huge cost. I spent the next three years or so, it was all about my kids, getting them to go from being in so much pain to being okay. It was a lot of survival at that time.
Zibby: I was similar to you. My parents were divorced. When I got married, I was like, no matter how miserable I end up, I will never get divorced. I did end up getting divorced.
Lisa: Then look who you've got, the guy with the helmet.
Zibby: [laughs] That guy. I feel like when you start out, you have all the -- anyway, I don't want to --
Lisa: No, I get it. If it’s something you want to talk about, I'm fine with it.
Zibby: [laughs] No, I can't.
Lisa: It is really traumatic. The thing that happens and which is clear in the book is that so much of us as mothers, it’s so much about our kids that when we finally get to us at the very end, you're sort of lost. She was lost. She didn't know how to do Sophie just as Sophie because that wasn’t her experience or how she parented.
Zibby: Then it was so empowering how she finds herself. She's like, “I'm just going to do this.” She deletes everything. Is she really doing this? She's starting over from scratch. It’s a perfect novel because you're like, what would happen if I just rebooted?
Lisa: Also, where it’s The Unbreakables, it has a lot of different symbolism in various points in the book. What it really is, is that your spirit is unbreakable at the end of the day. It’s the triumph of the spirit with all the adversity and things that can happen. I’m still standing no matter all these things that happened.
Zibby: In the beginning, there was so much of her trying to understand how she missed it. Now I'm wondering if you had felt that. You must have. Sophie kept saying, “How did I miss this? How did I miss that?” Then she starts taking it apart. “Well, there was this thing at the prom. There was that night when I was sick. Maybe... I don't know,” when you go back and doubt yourself.
Lisa: Haven't you ever been sideswiped? You think, I'm together. I see myself as a smart person and intuitive and perceptive. Then how did I blow this? How did I not see what was right there? Yes, that's exactly the same thing with Sophie.
Zibby: Part of Sophie’s new persona is she does her hair all over again. She highlights her hair. I'm sitting there reading this. I just highlighted my hair. Maybe this is a divorce thing.
Lisa: Then even more drastic, she got bangs.
Zibby: Yes, and bangs, which no.
Lisa: [laughs] You see that a lot. Whatever problems were in a marriage, you see someone who will get a boob job right after the breakup. They’ll all of a sudden start to work out, or a husband who's done nothing but sit in the couch and all of a sudden, he's everywhere and doing things. You wonder why couldn't that have happened during the marriage? When it comes down to it, all of a sudden, you're raw again. It’s just you. You're thinking to yourself, how can I be the newest, freshest, best version of myself? Maybe it comes down to highlights.
Zibby: Right before I got remarried, I went to a SoulCycle class, which I haven't done in years. I used to go before my wedding. The teacher said that the word recover -- you know how when you rest, recover between spinning? The word recover applies to so much because you're actually recovering physically but also re-covering yourself, making a new a body, almost. I thought about that when I was getting married because not only do you recover from whatever, but you're oftentimes dying your hair. You're getting new clothes. You're taking off to the South of France or something to make yourself new again. That allows you to recover.
Lisa: Exactly. Then you also think, in this lifetime if you're blessed with years, it’s like there's so many lives that happen in one. My divorce was so traumatic. The second time around, I got it right with the best guy in the world who ended up adopting my kids.
Zibby: No way. That's so nice.
Lisa: They have this beautiful father who taught them to do everything. He’s the guy. He’s the “there dad.” He’s there for these girls. I could well up thinking about that. That's the dad that they know now. They're going to have a great experience with men because of this man who I married. I think of all the trials and tribulations that you go through. Everyone goes through them if you're having a divorce or loss or something. Then you come out of it on the other end. It’s almost like it fades. It starts to really fade away.
Zibby: How resilient are you, though?
Lisa: How resilient are you?
Zibby: Then to have it be in book form and all the things you've contributed, and the GIRLilla blog and everything. It’s great.
Lisa: I have to tell you a funny story, funny/not funny. In between my first book and this book, there's another book that was written. It was a memoir of our experience. I asked both of my girls, “Can I write our story?” They said, “Only if we can pick out our names.” I'm like, “Done.” I spent over a year and a half writing this memoir. I put it all out there, my heart and my soul. Then one of my daughters was entering high school. She said, “Mommy, please don't put this book out. It’s going to be so embarrassing.” Here I just spent all this time. You know how it is when it comes down to book or your kids, it’s your kids at the end of the day. I shelved it. I put a lot of those emotions in this book. That's what happened there.
Zibby: Did you have the ridiculous sex scenes in the version that your daughter saw? I could see her finding some embarrassment in that. This is a steamy -- I was blushing at some of the stuff in this book.
Lisa: Let's talk about the sex scenes. I have three daughters. I have a stepdaughter, but they're all my daughters. I don't call them step or originals or whatever, biological. They're all my daughters. I did tell them, “This book is very different from Fugitive Colors. It gets a little racy.” They're like, “Oh, my god.” I said, “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. I promise. It’s the character. It’s not me.” It is. It’s the character. It’s not me. I've had my experiences, just not Sophie’s experiences. I was thinking about this on the drive over here because I knew sex would come up with our discussion. If you look at the sex scenes, it’s really what's going on in the sex scenes that's aside from the sex. It’s what's in Sophie’s head. This is the first time she's been with anyone else outside of her husband at forty-two years old, so this is going to be big. Obviously, this was blow-your-mind sex. I needed to have something, again, so profound for Sophie that it would make her stop in her tracks. It really forced her to think about the before. It forced her to think about her husband, [indiscernible] about passion, and what her takeaway was afterwards. When you're writing a sex scene, the least important part about it is actually the sex itself.
Zibby: Okay. [laughs]
Lisa: It gets steamy. It gets exciting. That's what I was going for as well.
Zibby: Tell me a little more about your process of writing this book. You wrote that memoir, shelved it, decided to import some of the feelings. Then how long did it take to write this book? Where and when you do like to write? Do you write at home?
Lisa: Those are great questions. My first book took a very long time. It was a lot of research. This book just spilled out of me, literally spilled. I made a deadline for myself. Now that my kids are older, the time is mine. I'm sure you know because you have a mix of ages of kids.
Zibby: My time is not mine.
Lisa: When my kids were younger, it was all about stealing time. Put a video on, I've got twenty minutes. When I was nursing one of my daughters, I would type one-handed. I never slept when they slept when they were babies. Who does that? Who sleeps?
Zibby: Sleep when they sleep? I have so much to get done. Are you kidding?
Lisa: Who sleeps when they sleep? It was all about stealing time. Now I have time. I wake up early. I get to work. I work most of the day. Then I do all my mom errands and stuff later on. I usually write at a café. It’s been where I've had my little spot in Starbucks. It’s funny. Someone will sit there and see me coming and get up from their seat. I'm like, “It’s okay. You could sit there.” I found my new, little French café. That's where I write. I work every single day. Sometimes whatever it is, I could put out a thousand words. The next day I’ll look at it and say, “Oh, my god. This is crap,” or the next day I’ll say, “This is great,” and keep going. This one just spilled out of me. It was in me. This took about a year or so to write, which is a pretty short time, or reasonable. Then obviously there's the editing, revision, rinse and repeat. That's been the process there with the writing.
Zibby: Are you working on another book now?
Lisa: I just turned something in to my agent. I'm going to hear where that all went tomorrow. It’s, again, very different from this one. I have achieved the cardinal sin in writing where I've been genre jumping. You're supposed to stay with your brand. My first book was historical suspense. This is hardcore women's fiction. This next one is a little bit of a combo. It is suspense. It utilizes all my journalism background. It’s about a young journalist whose [indiscernible] lands on this story. It’s against the top terrorist who actually happens to be a woman. It’s a woman versus woman type of story. She's a mom. Different things happen.
Zibby: Has your agent given you any pushback about the genre jumping?
Lisa: We’re going to talk about it tomorrow. We’ll see. I've got another book as well that goes in lines with The Unbreakables if this one has to be put aside. I'm prepared.
Zibby: We could have a whole nother podcast just about your article “Woman, Interrupted” in GIRLilla which talked about -- is this okay to talk about?
Lisa: Of course.
Zibby: You write about how when you were twelve, you battled anorexia nervosa. You were hospitalized. It took two years to get back to a normal weight. You had been down to forty-five pounds, which just breaks my heart, the whole thing. You write the essay about going back to the treatment center and doing good, talking to families and patients and how that was so emotional for you on so many levels, which I can only imagine. Tell me -- just go.
Lisa: I was twelve years old. At that time, eating disorders, they really didn't know very much about them. In fact, my dad had to write to the Library of Congress to get information on anorexia nervosa. At that time, I had a lot of friends. I was in the center of things in school. I was dealing with a very traumatic divorce with my parents. I was the eldest of four and holding down the fort. It was a lot of pressure for such a young girl. I hid it from my friends. No one knew how bad things were at home. That pressure and trying to stay in control broke down my system. I started losing weight, not understanding, started exercising relentlessly. The weight just started to drop. Then it became uncontrollable. At that time, I was always small. I went from probably a normal seventy-five/eighty to forty-five pounds and nearly died.
It’s heartbreaking. I think back to that little girl back then, how much I went through. Even with everything, I knew I was going to be okay in the end. I had great therapists at that time and a lot of help. I got back on my feet. A lot of young women don't. Because I was so young, all I wanted to do was to go to overnight camp with my friends. In order for me to go, I had to gain thirty pounds. I think had I been in high school or later on where these habits are so cemented, I would not have been able to do it. At that time, I just wanted to be with my friends. I was able to put on the weight in order to go, a year later, to overnight camp. The real work probably took ten years of dealing with a lot of the pain that wraps around divorce and a lot of the pressure that goes with it.
The good, the silver lining that comes out of it, I've worked with a lot of girls and some young men with eating disorders. I still to this day work with different young women privately, just between us, talking about the real stuff that goes with that. I'm fully recovered. It’s something that's always part of you and part of so many young women, whether we’re battling weight or we’re battling different messages. For so many women it comes to, “You are not enough.” That's the bottom-line message. If I could give anything to young women, to teenagers, to women our age, you are enough. That's what I really try to push. Even in this book, it’s Sophie trying to figure out everything. In the end, she figures out, I am enough. She really, really tackles all the different things that go around what happens to her and really blossoms. I wouldn't take back what happened to me. It was traumatic, as you can imagine. It made me who I am, the writer who I am, the mom who I am. A lot of my girls’ friends seek me out to talk to. I wouldn't have gotten that. When you've been through hell and back, you have a lot that you can help people. That's what happened there. It’s all a part of me.
Zibby: Thank you for sharing your experience.
Lisa: Absolutely. I'm always open to any questions about that because so many women battle food, weight, relating, whether it’s overeating or undereating or the pain around it. It’s so important to address it and talk about it as women. I'm always open to talk about it.
Zibby: Did you have a plan with your daughters? I know you said in the article anytime they said, “Do I look fat?” or all these things, you're like, “Oh, my gosh. No.”
Lisa: It’s hard because girls doubt themselves. They compare themselves, especially in this awful cyber world of everything you do or say. Not only that, you can take your image and alter it. The sense of what's real and what's not is so mixed up these days. It’s really hard for girls and young women these days to develop, to be themselves. There’s always a picture or an Insta shot or something like that at all times. There's no break from it. I would imagine it’s really hard to grow up as a girl to a young woman these days. I've got three of them. There's a lot of stuff that goes with that. It’s work on a daily basis. Even though I've been through that experience, that's not their experience. They're going to deal with it differently. It’s hard. As moms, you just have to keep making them feel like they are enough in whatever they weigh, whatever they do, whoever they are because society tells them over and over that they're not enough. It’s a hard thing to combat as a mom raising daughters, especially. Boys go through some of these things, but not the same.
Zibby: You did such a lovely job of your mother-daughter relationship in this book, the push and pull with a college-aged daughter and how she needs her mom when she gets hurt. Then when she's feeling better, she's fine. Then she wants her dad, and that whole dynamic, which is complicated.
Lisa: It’s really complicated, especially an only child having to navigate two parents. It becomes the three of you. You're a trio against the world. When that falls apart, you're left standing as Eva is, the daughter, but she's not really standing. As the mom, you're going through, sometimes, your own hell. Yet you still have to be mom. That's a lot of work. At the end of the day, you're splat on your bed. I would literally drive into my driveway and feel like I could just plop on the driveway after dealing with a lot of things that I was going through and then dealing with your kids’ stuff. Those rare moments when it all works are treasured.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors, especially having written some very different books?
Lisa: Yes. The obvious is don't give up. Rejection is very hard. Especially as writers, we’re probably the most sensitive people out there. There's a lot of rejection. I also think the one thing that's really great about this whole cyber world -- there's things that are really tough. Here's the good thing. You can create a community. That's the beauty. Here you are doing this. You've got a whole community you've created. As a writer, I have all these different writers’ groups that I'm part of. Sometimes it’s so great. I've become very close friends with people through the internet or whatever it is. Then you meet them in person. We’re going through all the same experiences. It doesn't matter if you are a starting-out writer or you're a New York Times best seller. We all have the same insecurities. We all have the same things we’re going through. A lot of us are moms struggling. “Oh, my god. If I can just get time to write. Where? When? How?” Or we put out a book and you put so much into it, and someone criticize it. Someone gives it a one star with no reason on Amazon and you can't do anything about it.
One is don't give up. Two, develop a community. Find it, even if you're the new kid on the block. You find it. It’s going to feel like middle school again, a little bit, breaking in. Once you do, you're in. You become part of a community. That is probably the most important thing. As writers, we do so much alone. We’re alone. Don't be alone here. You don't have to be alone. That's what I would really recommend. Surround yourself with writer friends who are going through the same experience. It helps. It really helps. It nurtures you as well along the way.
Zibby: That's great advice. That's really good advice. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books,” or write books.
Lisa: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. This is great.
Zibby: Thank you.