Hi, listeners. First, I want to thank you all so much for listening to my podcast. I see the numbers. I know you all are out there, but I don’t know anything about you or who you are or what you like or what you don’t like. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach me through my website, ZibbyOwens.com, through Instagram or Twitter @ZibbyOwens. I would love to hear from you guys and to know what's working, what's not working. What could I do better? Are you all moms? Are you not moms? I'd love to hear from you. I want to thank you for making this a top-forty podcast. I couldn't do it without all of you. I want to know who you are out there. Thanks so much again for listening. Thanks for reaching out.
I'm thrilled to welcome Molly Flatt here today. Molly is the author of the novel The Charmed Life of Alex Moore. She's a journalist and author who writes about the way technology changes the way we think, work, and live. She's the associate editor of FutureBook and writes about technology, publishing, and culture for the BBC, The Guardian, and other publications. She contributed a story entitled “A Darker Wave” to the science fiction anthology Women Invent the Future. She currently lives in the UK. Welcome, Molly.
Molly Flatt: Thank you so much. It’s lovely to be with you, sort of.
Zibby: Molly and I were introduced by Jeff Norton who was on the podcast last week. It’s nice to finally get to chat.
Molly: It’s lovely to be connected.
Zibby: Molly, I started reading of all the essays that you’ve published that you have on your website, one of which is called “What it’s like to have a baby in Zone 1.” I was so surprised to find out that your husband delivered your baby in your freezing cold bathroom with a cell phone operator on the floor. You have to tell me this story.
Molly: Zibby, you'd almost think we did it just so I get could get a Evening Standard article out of it. [laughs] To be honest, that’s one of the few compensations. It made for a really good web story. The backstory is that I had decided that I wanted a home birth. This was only a couple of weeks before my daughter was due back in 2016. Obviously, was planning on a having some midwives there. We were hooked up with NHS local midwife team. We hooked into a local community birthing pool scheme. We had this deflated birthing pool sitting in the corner of our lounge. The plan was that when the time came, we'd inflate it and put it up somehow in our tiny, tiny flat. Long story short, I was really stubborn. I do have a high pain threshold. I decided that my daughter was going to be late because my sister’s first child was late. By that point in your pregnancy, you're getting all kinds of pains and discomforts and weird feelings. In retrospect, when I was sitting in a café having a green smoothie, taking paracetamol, and thinking, “This is really uncomfortable,” I was about five centimeters dilated. [laughs] It didn’t help that my water didn’t break right until the end.
When we definitely knew something was happing, we were in contact with the home birth/midwife team. They kept on going, “It’s your first baby.” They're obviously quite weary of overreacting new mothers. “Has your water broken?” We’re like, “No.” By the time that my husband could see the head, they realized they weren’t going to get there in time. He phoned the ambulance. Unfortunately, there was a bar brawl in Hatley where we live, and all the ambulances were tied up. Basically, Yanni had to trap the 999 call handler on the mobile, hopped on the bar, I crawled to the bath. The call handler talked Yanni through it. We were super, super lucky. Thankfully, my daughter did come out without any complications, screamed as soon as she got above the water. We were alone for about fifteen minutes before the ambulance crew finally arrived and tried to find a way into our apartment block.
Zibby: Oh, my goodness. The way you wrote it was so funny, not that it wasn’t funny now too. [laughs] The article was just hilarious. I couldn't believe it. Sorry for starting off with something intensely personal. I had to find out more about it.
Molly: It’s fine. I’ve dined off that story.
Zibby: You also talked a lot in that article about how you thought you would move out to the suburbs like your sister who has two kids. You wrote, “They're now walking their rescue mutt through wildflower meadows and crafting with salvage wood.” You said you thought you would end up there, but when push came to shove you were excited just to stay in London. What do you think that was about? Can you share what it’s like to rethink what are thought your adulthood would look like and then when it comes down to it, you want to do something different?
Molly: This is so timely because we’re actually clearing out and selling my childhood house at the moment, the house I grew up in in the countryside. It’s stirring up all kinds of memories and comparisons of what my childhood was like in rural Oxfordshire. I was this kid who barely got dressed and spent all day running about by herself in the fields in a nightie. My sister’s now a forester, so she very much took that side of herself and kept it going. That was so part of my creative growing up and my identity. It’s very tempting but impossible to recreate your own childhood. That wasn’t just a rural childhood. That was a rural eighties childhood. Nowadays, would I let my six-year-old run around by herself [indiscernible] fields all day? Probably not.
When it came to having my daughter and finding out that I was pregnant, we were tempted to do the massive life change. We also realized it would probably be a really good thing to let that be the massive life change rather than throw everything in our lives up in the air. We ended up staying in our little flat in London. I love it. It does help that my mom still lives in the countryside. Really regularly I go spend time with her, get that country fix. My daughter can get muddy and eat worms and run around and have that space. I must say as a mom living right in the center of London, it really allows me to juggle the different sides of myself in a way that I think would be really, really hard if I was somewhere more isolated. I've got an incredible nursery just a few minutes’ walk from our flat. The GP surgery’s just across the park. On days when I look after my daughter and she's not in nursery, we can spend all day at the Natural History Museum for free, the Science Museum, or one of the amazing parks. Last night we were out to the ballet at the Royal Opera House. I'm really spoiled actually. It’s worked out well in the end.
Zibby: That's great. I could relate when you were talking about all the different things you do in London. I don't even do all that stuff in New York. I'm just sitting here. Why am I not at the ballet? I don't do any of that stuff.
Molly: Oh, my god. Zibby, not to idealize it though, right? That's the journalist version or the Insta version. Any sort of [indiscernible], it’s rural or urban, of course there are days also when I'm like, “Her lungs are literally going to dissolve from the saturation of pollution in the air around here.” There's some drug addict on the corner of the street opposite our flat mumbling stuff and throwing things. There's the knife crime. There's the terrorism. There's just the rubbish days where you feel like an awful mother and they're being an absolute a-hole and it’s stressful and horrible. I'm not sure location’s really going to change the bad day. I generally try to be a super positive thinker. I try and paint the picture in my head that this is the life I want to live. A little bit of self-delusion can go a long way.
Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I love that. You wrote that other amazing article for The Pool which was called “How writing taught to me to let go - and finally accept my flaws,” which I loved. I loved, loved, loved it, shared it on social. Everybody should read this article. It was really about what you had to give up to start and finish writing a great novel which became The Charmed Life of Alex Moore. You had to give up your salary as a social media marketer, your relentless need to self-edit, your perfectionism.
You described your earlier days working in the tech industry as “days spent high on groupthink and Vitaminwater, my nights spent alone in hotel rooms, lovingly tending to my social feeds while my stomach ached.” I thought that was such a brilliant description. Then you contrast that to writing one hundred thousand words again and again. What you wrote at the end was so great. You wrote, “Perfection is a form of hiding. It’s a way of shutting your true, weird, complicated self away in a shiny, air-conditioned car. It can feel like a refugee, but it’s also a prison and, one day, however diligently you drive it, it will crash. So get out of the car. Kick, scream, and cry on all available shoulders. Then find something to do that matters to you - and get the hell on with it, with all your terrified heart.” All right. I'm going. I can't wait. [laughs]
Molly: That sounds so good in your accent. You make that sound really smart and ethical. I need an audio version of all my articles read out by Zibby Owens. It sounds so much cooler in an American accent as well.
Zibby: You're so funny. I feel like everything sounds cooler in a British accent. A British accent alone makes you sound fifty times smarter than anybody else. Thanks. Nice to know it goes both ways. Tell me more about this process of writing a novel and what you had to go through emotionally to let yourself really feel and write.
Molly: It’s hard, isn't it? An article is slightly different because normally as a journalist or as a copywriter or other sorts of writing that I do, you're imparting facts. You've got an aim. You’ve got a kind of angle. For me, novels are about your truth. You're not going to commit to writing something that long and that challenging and that personal unless you really have something that you want to say and you're going to try and explore. Ambiguity as well, that's what novels are so great at. They're great at real life, which means not black and white, which is what a lot of media and journalism comes down to. They're great at the messy, weird, grey areas of feeling and relationship. That's stuff we tend to try and avoid in our lives. We try and make everything boundaried and clear and clean and Instagram-friendly.
I had to relearn partly how to think. I'd been a digital marketer and a writer, that kind of journalism, for a long time. Learning how to think in that more architectural, long-form way was quite hard. Also, it was part of me growing up. I don't think I could have ever written a novel before I did. I completed the manuscript two years ago or so when I was thirty-three. I really needed that time to know what I wanted to say and who I am. Yes, have the strength to be vulnerable, if that makes sense in any way, and the courage to put it out there. That's a terrifying thing about a novel. You're putting out there, “Here's what I think is true about the world. Here's what I think it interesting about the world. Here's how I see things. Here's what I think is funny. Here's what I think is surprising.” You’re going, “Am I a total freak or does this resonate with anyone,” which feels very exposing.
I had a really seminal meeting with a woman who I’d only met once before. She’d asked to see me because she read an article of mine. This was back when I was working on the manuscript and had deleted another hundred thousand words, wasn’t quite making it work. She said something to me about, “I really like that article. I'm excited to see your novel. If you can have the emotional freedom that you had in that article with your novel, then I think I'm going to love it.” It was a moment where I went, “Oh!” I had the plot. I had some smart characters. I had a type of plot. I had the concept behind the book. That really unlocked me. I realized that if I was going to finish the book and make it into what I wanted it to be, I needed to really give in and go there with the emotions and have that emotional freedom. If there's anything that screws up [indiscernible], it’s emotions. It was one of those amazing, serendipitous conversations that was the right place at the right time and that really unlocked the key for me. Then that's where the real hard work started.
Zibby: You wrote somewhere else that it took you fifteen years to end up writing the whole book. Is that true?
Molly: When I wrote that, I was talking about the concept, the concept at the heart of the book. The library, which will mean something to you but probably won't mean a lot to anyone listening to this, but if you read the book, you'll know what I mean, the concept of the library had been -- I don't know where it came from. It had just been in my head for ages and ages and ages. That's kind of the fifteen-year book. In terms of writing, it still took me a good seven years to write the thing. Again, that was giving it a whole draft that then got deleted and I started again from scratch and things like that. I'm hoping that was a debut novel thing and that was because I was figuring out so much about myself as well as how to write the book. [indiscernible] done it, no idea how that happened, and this is not going to take me seven years to write all of my future books. It was certainly a long haul with this one.
Zibby: Can you tell listeners what your book is about and then how you came up with the idea not just for the library, but the whole idea, the whole plot? How did you come up with it? What was it about?
Molly: You'd think I would have this down pat. It was published in May. We’re putting together the marketing for the paperback next February. You'd think, Zibby, that I would have a really good pitch.
Zibby: You don't have to. I could try.
Molly: What I really love is the way my agent sold it to my editor. She says this book is Bridget Jones meets The Matrix. Of course when I first heard it -- The Matrix is amazing. I'm a massive fan of William Gibson. Bridget Jones, I was a bit like, “Oh, god, rom-com,” in a snobby way even though I love Bridget Jones and rom-com. Actually, I think it’s a smart way of putting it because what that does is it juxtaposes two things where there's certainly absolutely elements in my book of a heroine journey through job and relationship and success with the slightly speculative element of The Matrix. There's a bit of a tech element. When you put those two things together, you really have no idea how they work together and what's going to come out of it, which I think is the effect my book has. The one key note I get again and again is, “I've read nothing like this,” which is awesome. That, for me, is the real compliment and very cool. Doesn't make it the easiest thing to market.
In more layman’s terms, it is basically about a thirty-one-year-old woman living in London, tech startup scene, for whom six months ago, everything in her life suddenly went right. She used to be grazing along in life, doing fine but nothing is exciting, not really fulfilling her potential, this dead-end job, spending her evenings eating ready-meals and watching box set, feeling her use and her potential sliding away. Then six months before the novel starts, something clicks. She finally found the startup that she had this amazing idea for. She becomes the toast of the town. She starts making lots of new friends. She's on the front of a magazine.
As the novel goes along, of course you realize that change doesn't really work like that and that something happened six months ago to make all this happen. It’s connected to this island in the Orkney Islands. These are real islands off the north of Scotland. She's invited there to go and do a research project. As soon as she's there, she discovers that there's this big secret hidden on the island, that her success is mucked up and that her success has been caused by. It’s kind of a detective story. She has to go on a detective story about herself and about what was holding her back before this happened and how she's managed to free herself from all her own self-limiting beliefs.
Zibby: I think you did a good job there. That was pretty good. You can take that on the road. One of the things that I found really interesting about your book was how when Alex was reinventing herself as this tech star, her fiancé and her family feel like she's changing too much, like she isn't herself enough. Her fiancé takes a lot of offense when he overhears another colleague saying that Alex had described her life before she saw the proverbial entrepreneurial light as her being a “dead-eyed desk monkey about to become a baby machine” and that she had “escaped the life of terrible mediocrity,” but that was their life together. He's not too happy about that description. He thought it was fine.
Do you think this is common when one spouse tries on a new identity and leaves the other behind? Has this happened to you? Did you see this in a friend’s relationship? How did you come up with this?
Molly: There were a couple of things. One is, absolutely, I think a lot of people think they're really terrified of failure when actually what's much more scary is success. One thing that really interested me is friends who I know -- and myself as well -- friends who I know who are super talented, super smart, could do anything they wanted but never quite found their mojo, or always dissatisfied, or always doing something that was okay but that didn't really set their spirit alight, and always felt they could do better, I was interested in what's the breaking point? What distinguishes people who push from people who don't? Obviously, sometimes it is pure circumstances. What is that thing that some people seem liberated from to just go out there and fight for whatever their dream is? In myself, I know this thing about it’s so much easier to want to keep your head below the power pit and to not try. It seems like a sort of arrogance, trying for your full potential or trying for brilliance or trying for just not terrible. That's quite a British thing as well, this fear of fighting to the top. It feels very prideful and it’s quite embarrassing.
A lot of people are more afraid of putting themselves out there. If you're not a victim and if you're trying with your whole heart, then it puts you in a very vulnerable position. Actually, the consequences of getting what you want in life can be more scary than being someone who's always striving for it because then you have to ask what next? In fact, do I really want it? That takes me to the second point about that sentiment in that scene that you read out, or that line. I am always exploring these grey areas with the book. That comment is partly, of course, a comment on the sadness of people settling for something that feels not quite as amazing as it could be. It’s also a bit of a critique at how much we fetishize leadership and amazingness. Actually, having an okay job that allows you to go home at five PM and see your kids, that can be amazing too. That could be a totally different form of success.
Success is not always about being the flipping Instagram-friendly entrepreneur who’s smashing it. It can be being a follower, not a leader. It can be being someone who has different priorities and different values and lives their life differently. I'm always trying with this book to question both sides, to say absolutely don't settle and try and pull apart the things that are holding you back. At the same time, don't forget to question what you really want because once you get there, you might realize that you've been chasing a dream that someone else has set. It’s a [indiscernible] dream or a media dream. Indeed, there are different values and different kinds of brilliance other than the obvious or the flashy ones.
Zibby: Do you think that's why Alex’s mom also pushed back against her success when she said, “I just wonder about if you're about it all a little wholeheartedly.” Do you feel like the people closest to you are the ones who are most rattled or affected by the change, like they don't know what to do with it in a way?
Molly: As a mom, there's partly that feeling where of course you want your children to fulfill their potential, but you also want to protect them. Like I was saying, putting your head above the power pit, throwing your whole heart into anything, that's scary because hearts get bruised. If you throw your whole self into everything, you're putting all your eggs in that basket. What if they get smashed? That's partly maternal protectionism. That's partly that British reaction to [indiscernible]. It’s a personal thing. I've always felt in my life, and growing up certainly, that I was too much. I was too loud. I was too tall. I was too enthusiastic. I wasn’t cool, which means being a little bit restrained or more elegant or more measured. That was, for me, an interesting way of playing with the pros and cons and the social judgments on being someone who goes for it, and also being a woman especially who goes for it.
Zibby: I always think back. I had this moment when I was young. We had these Secret Santa’s at school. Do you have that? You give a gift, but you don't --
Molly: -- Yeah.
Zibby: I spent hours on my Secret Santa gift. I was in my closet making wrapping paper and making it so perfect. I had to get it just right. I remember my mom coming in and saying, “You know, Zibby, you shouldn't spend all this effort because probably no one’s going to be giving that much effort to your gift. Maybe you shouldn't be working so hard at this.” I think about that moment a lot now that I have my own four kids. Like with Alex going out on her own, if you want to put yourself out there, do you have to get it back? Is it just the effort? Random story.
Molly: That's a brilliant story. Exactly. What are you doing it for? It’s not always about the end. Sometimes the means in themselves, that approach to life is the approach you want to take to life. Sometimes it can be perfectionist or exhausting or too extreme. There is beauty in balance and moderation. Again, the joy of novels is you get to explore these things in which there is no right answer. One day it might be one answer. Another day it might be another answer. This book for me was such a fun way of putting on these different personas and putting on these extreme situations. What would happen if you were a woman that totally goes for it? How would people react? Trying things on for size and figuring out there were great things and there are awful things about all these approaches.
Zibby: Now that we’re chatting, I don't know if you've read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
Molly: Of course I have.
Zibby: I would love to see Alex and Eleanor in a coffee shop together and see what they would have to talk about. You know what I mean? Wouldn't that be funny?
Molly: It’s really interesting. Eleanor reminded me of Alex six months before the novel begins, the Alex who is before all this stuff happens. That was really interesting for me. She's really like old Alex. That was the collision. The joy of the writer is you get to see these things. I'm going to take a past-self and this liberated future-self and smash them together and play with them and things like that. I love the way that books can speak to each other like that as well. They can speak across genres, types. It feels a very lonely profession where you sometimes think you're totally insane. It can be a very reassuring thing.
Zibby: I wonder if your experience with science fiction writing played into twist and turns that ended up coming in this book. You wrote a piece for The Guardian called “Is the future female? Fixing sci-fi’s women problem.” You were asked to write a sci-fi story. You had your doubts originally. You wrote, “What on earth did ‘women inventing the future’ mean? Was I supposed to write some sort of feminist space opera, full of menstruating aliens? A utopian version of the singularity, with robots who like to talk about their feelings?” I laughed out loud when I read that.
You wrote in that article that science fiction had traditionally been male dominated both in its readership and the writers, yet you've always loved reading sci-fi and in a way you've end up -- I don't know if this would even be called sci-fi, I'm not exactly sure of the definition -- definitely with some unexpected twists and turns that are not in the course of daily life. Did you try to marry those genres like that? Did you have such a good time writing the science fiction essay that you decided to move the book in this direction?
Molly: The short story for the Women Invent the Future Anthology, that was commissioned by Doteveryone, who are a kind of think tank. The whole point of this anthology is they were going to ask these female sci-fi writers -- which is interesting because I don't think my book would really tick any sci-fi boxes, although someone did describe it as neuro-science fiction, which I kind of loved. My publisher was like, “Don't tell that to anyone. They’ll find it terrifying.” The whole idea is that they wanted to get the fresh, female sci-fi voices out there and also some more female characters to be role models to girls who want to take science, technology, engineering, and math subjects or might want to become tech entrepreneurs or whatever it might be. It was a really interesting project.
Actually, when I wrote the novel, I just wrote the novel. For me, it was just the story. I didn't really think about genre. Of course when it comes to then working with a publisher, they're like, “What do we call this?” We can't call it urban fantasy because then people think it’s werewolves and vampires. You can't call it science fiction because it isn't really science fiction. We [indiscernible] call it speculative fiction. Then they decided on commercial fiction with a twist, which is a great cop-out. Partly for me, it was that I read very broadly across all genres. I don't really think in genre terms. I just love the story. I think I trumped [indiscernible] over genre validation to the story. There's a bit of sci-fi and a bit of fantasy and a bit of detective fiction and a bit of rom-com. I was probably playing with a lot of those expectations and those tropes.
What was really interesting about the article that you mentioned that I wrote in The Guardian off the back of that short story in that feminist sci-fi anthology was the reaction. The Guardian, I don't know if you guys know this in the States, but in the UK, The Guardian is famous for having, shall we say, quite vociferous commenters on any online article. I got this whole wave of comments about, “You've obviously never read ‘list here - a bunch of amazing female sci-fi authors.’” Or “You've never read The [indiscernible] Way. Female sci-fi feminism, blah blah blah.” Hilariously, they were making exactly the point I was making, which was what's unhelpful in genre is to have any sense of right. I would be terrified to ever call myself a science fiction author because I would feel like I hadn’t read all the canonical classics, or I wasn’t reading the right kind of woke authors, or I didn't have a totally comprehensive academic overview of the genre. I hate that.
What we need right now more than ever is a sense of welcome, a sense of diversity, a sense of quirkiness, a sense of individuality in writing and in reading. Reading is under threat. It’s under pressure. Not just a whole generation, but all of us are spending a lot more time watching Netflix or just simply scrolling mindlessly through our social media as opposed to reading long-form books. What really doesn't help is making people feel like their voices, their experiences in different genres or different stories or different hybrids, aren’t valid because they haven't read the canon or read the classics or read this feminist author or read that iconic writer. Actually, what I think is great is the more disruptive voices you get from all over the place bringing their partial bits of reading and their partial experiences and their lived experience of the world into their writing.
That has sometimes been an issue, especially with science fiction and fantasy. It’s been a very self-protective community, which in some ways is amazing. That's also where you get real passion. You get amazing, dedicated fans who adore the genre. I used to be an obsessive X-Files geek. I know of which I speak. It can also be incredibly unhelpful to make people feel that they’ve got to tick certain boxes to qualify. “I've been this sort of writer or that sort of writer.” They need to do a kind of apprenticeship by reading whichever authors are particularly well thought of at the time or quirky enough or be discovered enough or whatever it might be. That was a very interesting experience for me writing that. Come on, anything where you're going to be saying about female science fiction, you know you're going to create a shift in [indiscernible]. I knew it was going to come.
Zibby: I think you're right though. One of the greatest things about writing is that there's no barrier to entry. This is not needing a patent to start producing some sort of tool. Writing, you just open up Microsoft Word or whatever and just start doing it. Anyone can do it. To make people feel that someone's guarding the gates is totally against what's the greatest part, hearing so many different voices. That's why reading is so great. You never know. There are all different people's stories and visions.
Molly: A hundred percent. I'm a voracious reader across all kinds of genres. If you are a writer, there is huge value in trying to interact with that history and that tradition. We’re all on the shoulders of giants. I can only write because of all the books I've ever read. What we need right now is a sense of experimentation and play and inclusiveness and fun. Also Zibby, it’s just pointless. Genre boundaries are dissolving. The real world, quite frankly to me at the moment, feels like a Neil Gaiman/William Gibson near-future experience. I feel like I'm living in the sci-fi, cyberpunk novels that I was reading in the eighties and nineties now in real life. Nixon was a good bit of Cold War/Russian spy thriller. The world at the moment seems so far away from the kind of literary novels that were always held up in realistic literature, people going for walks in parks and sitting round dinner tables having existential conversations in West London. That to me feels totally unreal compared to lots of different genres. Boundaries are dissolving everywhere. That's a great thing. People shouldn't feel afraid to jump in the pool and splash around, to mix all [indiscernible].
Zibby: I know, Molly, we’re almost out of time. I don't want to take up all your time all day. You've been so generous to spend the time talking to me. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors before we go?
Molly: Goodness. That's a big one. Whenever anyone asks me something like this, I always basically plagiarize Richard Skinner. He's actually got a book out at the moment on how to write a novel, which I really recommend people go out and look out. He’s the director of the Faber Academy novel-writing course. I did a six-month stint of that a good six or so years ago now. What Richard always said at the end of every session our groups did with him was, “Just keep going.” That is everything. Look, maybe you'll write for seventy years and at the end of it, you'll have one book that will be amazing and you love it. There are so many distractions. There are so many things you can worry about, about playing the market, about different [indiscernible]. You just got to keep going because nothing exists unless you have the thing itself. Get everything and just keep going. It will take its own time. Sometimes it will be a one-year project. Sometimes it will be a seven-year project. To be fair, that's the joy of writing. You don't need anything except for a pen and a paper, or a Dictaphone, or a laptop, or however you choose to do it. As long as you're writing, you're a writer. Just keep writing.
Zibby: Awesome. Very inspiring. Thank you so much. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books,” and taking the time. It was amazing chatting with you.
Molly: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure. I'd love to continue the conversation with anyone who's out there, if you disagree or agree or anything else. I'm on Twitter @MollyFlatt, two t’s. Come and throw digital tomatoes or otherwise.
Zibby: Perfect. Good idea. Thank you. Bye, Molly.
Molly: Thank you so much. Bye.