I am so thrilled to be interviewing Nora McInerny who is the author of two memoirs, It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too) and No Happy Endings. She's the founder of the nonprofit Still Kickin in memory of her husband Aaron who passed away from brain cancer at age thirty-five. She also founded the Hot Young Widows Club. A graduate of Xavier University, Nora has contributed to many publications including Elle, Cosmopolitan, Vox, and Time magazine. She's also the host of the podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” She currently lives in Minneapolis with her husband and children.
Hi, Nora. How are you?
Nora McInerny: Hi. How’s it going?
Zibby: Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Nora: No problem. You can hear me okay? It’s not too noisy in here?
Zibby: Yes. No, it’s great. Can you hear me okay?
Nora: I can. It’s wonderful.
Zibby: Excellent. I'm so honored that you agreed to come on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I'm really such a huge fan of you and your writing and Still Kickin and basically everything that you're doing. Thank you for taking the time.
Nora: Thank you. It’s super fun. I'm glad we finally get to talk. Thank you for being so flexible. Things are bonkers. We’re getting snowed in every other day here. My kids basically have not had a full week of school since winter break. Either there’s a random day off, there's a teacher in-service, or it was a snow day like yesterday. [indiscernible-talkover] scheduled this for yesterday or it would've been me yelling the whole time.
Zibby: That's funny. No, I get it. They keep shortening my kids’ school days just to make all the logistics really confusing.
Nora: It’s good. It’s very helpful.
Zibby: Can we talk a little about your books?
Nora: Yeah, I'd love to.
Zibby: Your latest book, No Happy Endings, is just amazing. I couldn't put it down. I felt like I was sitting talking to you or something. It was amazing. At the beginning of your book, you had the funniest little thing in your introduction. You said, “‘Wait,’ you may be thinking with an eye roll at the ready, ‘Is this entire book going to be about this lady complaining about how sad she is that she got to fall in love twice?’ Well, no. That's not what the entire book is about.” Then you say, “I'm happy, but I don't have my perfect Hollywood ending because it isn't always happy and it isn't the end. This is life after life after life in all of the chaos and contradiction of feelings and doings and beings involved. There will be unimaginable joy and incomprehensible tragedy. There will be endings, but there will be no happy endings.” If that doesn't make someone want to read a book, I don't know what does.
Nora: Thank you.
Zibby: For people who might not know your story and what your books are really about, the gist of them so to speak, can you tell listeners a little more about your background and what made you even start writing your two memoirs?
Nora: Yes. Good golly. Every time I have to say the origin story of my writing, I have to preface it with I'm going to have to leave a pause for the “ugh” moment, which is that until about November 2014 I was just a lady in her early thirties working in marketing and advertising, and going every day to my office job, and making PowerPoints, and being very highly stressed about I'm not even sure what. There were a lot of emergencies. In November 2014, my husband Aaron died after three years of brain cancer. Six weeks before that, my father died of, I guess, regular cancer, just a general cancer of the everything. Five days before that, I had lost our second pregnancy. Aaron and I had been hoping to have another baby. I lost it like eleven weeks and six days, a rude date where you're like, “No, because tomorrow would be second tri, so now this can't happen.” If I could've made it one more day, it would've been impossible, which is of course false. That's what it feels like.
My first memoir is called It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too). It’s a love story. It was written in the six months after Aaron died. It is a story told from the chaos of that grief, which I'm very grateful that I got to do. I know that there are a lot of really, really helpful books, books that I love, that were written from a distance, from a certain amount of time past the event which does give you a different perspective. Being in something is a perspective too. This book, No Happy Endings, is written in it, in the blending of my family as it currently stands. I have a living husband now. His name is Matthew. Combined, we have four children in our family. It is wonderful. I always wanted four kids. I have them. I do not have them the way that I thought I would have them.
I do know -- part of that first sentence that you read -- that I am incredibly lucky. I am also incredibly unlucky. That is what makes me so boring and so human. All of these things that happen to us that are so extraordinary are also completely ordinary. This is life doing what it does, which is breaking our hearts. Any moment that things are not terrible, I now know that's a good day. My definition of a good day has definitely changed. I never stopped writing after the first book came out. Then I started writing this one as soon as I turned in the other one. In that, I met Matthew. We had a baby. We got married, in that order. We built this family. Our family is so wonderful. Also, our family came from two broken places. It took a divorce and a death to make this family. We have a beautiful thing that came from two really, really difficult, traumatic events. I think that's true of most of us. We have these really beautiful things. We have to hold them alongside these really difficult things that we've gone through or will continue to go through.
Zibby: I'm going to argue that your life is not boring. I was like, “Did I hear her right? Did she describe her life as boring?” I understand what you're saying. Of course, these things happen. It’s still quite a story. It’s so amazing for you to have shared it. The fact that you did it while you were in it is so compelling, to feel everything you were going through, especially knowing how helpful it is to other people.
Nora: Thank you. I honestly didn't know what else to do to get through things. I definitely could've waited. If I wrote this book or my other book, if I wrote them in ten years, they would be very, very different books. The edges would be dulled a little.
Zibby: You started writing a blog when Aaron was sick. Is that when you started writing to process everything?
Nora: No. I'm sitting in my office which used to be our family’s dining room until we realized we used this dining room less. No, this is now mom’s office. The doors are always shut. I'm sitting here in this office with boxes and boxes of my old journals from childhood. I was always documenting. I was always writing. I was always processing things that way. It definitely took a backburner when I was in my mid-twenties. I was working all the time. What story would I have to say? Who cares? [laughs] I don't even have a life because all I do is work. I don't have anything to say. I'm so bored of myself. I met Aaron. He was like, “You're really funny.” We would text -- not even text. We would G-Chat. This is 2011. We would G-Chat all day. He was like, “You're a good writer.” I was like, “Thank you.” Writing was a part of my job, but it wasn’t in my job title. I always felt self-conscious about it as if I were faking that part of my life.
I started writing for a few really small websites. Aaron was so encouraging. He read everything I wrote even when they were stories about my dating life from before I had met him. Aaron got sick, and it’s not as if the first thing I did was start a blog about it. I definitely didn't want to have a cancer blog. Anybody who has been somebody's person during a tragedy, during a trauma, knows that it’s really hard to get all of the information to all of the people. I started with an email list. I was always forgetting someone important like one of my brothers, always the same brother by the way. I'm so sorry, Austin. Constantly, he would be like, “What? Aaron’s having another brain surgery?” I'm like, “Oh, shit. You weren’t on the email.” It’s so hard to manage that. Also at the time, I was writing every day in a journal. I still find notebooks that have bits and pieces of our life in the hospital from that first week.
I made a Tumblr -- again, 2011. I made a Tumblr. It was private. It was password protected, as if anyone would find my secret feelings and care. Just our family read it. Then more people started asking for the password. I unlocked it. That became how I updated people on what was happening, but also how I dealt with it. I would write everything. Aaron would read everything. I was never telling his story, telling the side of the story that was mine to tell, and only with his approval. Aaron and I did write his obituary together. That went viral when he died in 2014. That is how my literary agent found me. Whenever people are like, “How do I get an agent?” I'm like, “I don't know. I guess you could hope that your husband dies and you two write a viral obituary together. Other than that, I don't have any tactical advice for you, unfortunately. I'm so sorry.”
Zibby: I feel bad even laughing at that. I can't even. Oh, my goodness. You mentioned in No Happy Endings that after all the stuff you've gone through, you've now found yourself drawn to people who tell you truth when you ask how they are, who've also experienced hard things, and as you said, who had also “walked through the fire.” Can you tell me a little more about that? Can you suss people out and tell when they're on the same wavelength?
Nora: Once you've gone through something difficult, you can tell if somebody is going to be able to handle it or not. I also have to say that I was in the latter group for most of my life. I was definitely a person who would ask how you were and if you gave me any answer other than fine, I would just sit there awkwardly and not know what to say. Once you've gone through something difficult or you're in the middle of something difficult, you just don't want to BS anybody anymore. You unintentionally find yourself gravitating towards people that you can just tell something about them, they are in it or they’ve gone through it and they will get it. My social circle did change a lot. That's something that a lot of people struggle with after they’ve lost somebody that they love, is that huge, huge shift in their social world. That's really, really painful. What I want to say is it’s okay. It’s okay. Sometimes people leave so that the right people can take their place.
Zibby: That's beautiful. I went through a period of a lot of loss in my life as well. When I was twenty-five, I lost five people really close to me including my best friend on 9/11, and college roommate. Since that year, my whole life, my perspective on everything has changed. When someone I know loses a parent or something like that, I'm the first one to be like, “Yes, you do still email. You do still call.” People check their emails through whatever is going on. Just show up. Do this stuff. People are like, “Oh, I don't want to bother them.” Really?
Nora: What do you think sadness is? It’s just an all-encompassing little sleeping bag you zip yourself into? No. The world keeps turning. They still need milk. They still got to do stuff. Also, I feel for you. Twenty-five, very, very few people have gone through anything. I can only imagine how isolating that must have been. I had a very good friend who lost his father when we were twenty-seven. I went to the funeral, and then that was it. I never brought his dad up again ever. I thought that was the right thing to do.
Zibby: Right, as if I'm not going to be thinking about these people. You're going to bring it up and that's going to make me sad, not the loss of the person I loved?
Nora: Or I’ll bring it up and you'll be like, “I forgot my dad was dead, so thanks a bunch. Wow, way to ruin my day.”
Zibby: Unfortunately, I think most people have a “first, do not harm mentality” about loss. They just don't want to mess something up. People often, maybe, don't do enough. I don't know. I could go on forever.
Nora: That's a really generous outlook. I like that.
Zibby: In No Happy Endings, you have so much great stuff in there. Even if there had been no loss, just the fact of the blended arrangement of your family would be a hilarious book in and of itself. You write, “We do not choose our parents. We do not choose whether their marriages last or when they end, and we do not choose whether or not our parents fall in love again. In short, being a child totally sucks and nothing is in our control. These kids have seen love die and seen love grow, and I want them all to know that love is a choice that we make and a job that we do. We choose each other every day.” Then you said, “I've stepped into this life as a mom, as a stepmom. I'm still walking, stepping lightly, often tripping, sometimes falling. Is it as easy as it looks on Instagram? Yes and no, but it’s so damn worth it.” That was so great. I'm just going to sit here and read your whole book out loud.
Nora: I'm so glad because I've completely forgotten writing it at this point. You look at it so much and then you hand it off. You're like, “I can't see it again.” You were reading that, I was like, “Yeah. Wow. Good.” Thank you for reminding me my book is good. Thank you.
Zibby: Glad I could help. Anytime you need a pep talk, you just call me, I’ll read you another passage.
Nora: I absolutely will. Your number came up as restricted, so you're going to need to text me after this.
Zibby: Will do.
Nora: Full contact info, thank you. I love parenting in all of its forms. By “love it” I mean sometimes I think, “What have I done? Can I escape? How much gas is in my tank? Could I make it Mexico?” Also, I look at all these kids and I think, “God, how cool.” How cool that we get to do this? We get to show them what love is and what it can do. The grind of parenthood and the grind of marriage, it is a grind to have a family. There are moments where you feel so light and fluffy. Yesterday, there was a snow day. We were all laying in bed watching a terrible movie, Spy Kids. No offense, but it does not stand the test of time.
Zibby: No offense taken.
Nora: No offense to children, who all love it by the way. Seventeen-year-old was like, “Greatest movie ever.” Twelve-year-old, “Oh, this movie.” Five-year-old is complete attention. Two-year-old went catatonic, loved this movie. There are those moments where you think, “What could be better than this?” Most of it is a very complicated relay race. “I’ll get this kid at this time. Which one of you is going to actually eat this dinner that I spent time making? You didn't do your homework.” It’s so much. You're managing four other human lives and all of their emotions. It’s very easy to forget that these kids are learning love from you. You can teach them through your actions how big love is or how small love is. You can teach them that love is possession and that there's only so much to go around. If you love this person, that means you love another person less. We’d also be surprised how pervasive that action is around us. You can also teach them that it is complicated. It is work. That's okay.
Zibby: Yup. I literally said something similar to my five-year-old daughter. I have four kids also. I said something similar to my five-year-old daughter yesterday. She had a friend come over. She's like, “I don't know. I think maybe my friendship bucket is filled for today.” I was like, “It doesn't work like that. It’s like love. You can't have enough friends. You don't fill up on friends and not have any more room. There's always room for more friends. There's always room for more love. That's just not the way it goes.”
Nora: You'll just make more. My five-year-old is me as a child, very, very concerned that there won't be enough, that he is somehow not as loved. All of them have that. They all came from -- minus this baby who was just born into this family -- they all really do need that assurance that they have a specific place in the world and in this family.
Zibby: How do you do that?
Nora: It’s so hard. I also do try to explain and verbalize my own feelings to the kids as well so they can see it’s not as if Dad and I know absolutely the best way to do everything all of the time. I'm careful we don't overburden the children. I do want them to know, I will say out loud like you said to your five-year-old, “It doesn't work that way. I want you to repeat after me, ‘My sister loves me. My brothers love me. My mom loves me.’ We’re all on the same team.”
Zibby: That's good. I like that mantra. I'm going to steal that.
Nora: I also have to really remember every day to thank the kids for the things that they do for our family. “Thank you. Oh, my gosh. You emptied the dishwasher. Thank you. That is awesome. I appreciate it.” Everybody wants to feel appreciated. Everybody wants to feel like they have a place. Really, our biggest insecurity as humans is maybe we don't. The things that you think are obvious as an adult are really never that obvious. How many reassurances do you need as a person every day? I need a lot.
Zibby: More than I want to admit.
Nora: I call my friend Hannah sometimes. I'm like, “Tell me I'm not a failure, please.”
Zibby: You had another great line at the end of the book. You said, “The worst that can happen isn't that I die. I'm going to die. It’s spending our time here trying to avoid the depths of misery and, in the process, missing out on the climb to happiness. It’s spending our time in the middle, being alive without living,” which is very inspiring. What do you think? How can we avoid this? How can we wake people up so that they know not to do that, not to passively watch things go by?
Nora: It’s so different for everybody. I also want to be so clear that I'm not promoting this frenetic internet energy that is very easy to get swept up in. “Be a boss. Do your own thing. Quit your job. Follow your dream.” That's a path for some people. That's not a path for everybody. I am talking about not waiting for the absolute perfect conditions, which will never arise, and not trying to avoid any negative consequence. It sounds a little silly. Who does that? I get messages constantly, all day on whatever, emails or DMs. People are so sure that they're going to make the wrong choice that they just can't make a choice. What if I quit my job and the next job is worse? If you were in a position where you can even consider quitting your job, trust me, you have enough privilege to find another one. It’s okay. You will. You will do that.
You can trust that not every decision is going to necessarily lead you to the very, very best place. You can learn and grow from wherever you end up. Truly, I would never have, in a million years, found Matthew on the internet. I would not have. He was on there for sure. I was not going to set my settings to divorced father of two who is 5’11” on a good day with his shoes on. There's no way. We have these ideas of the things that we want, and not just what we want, but how we’ll get there. I have, on paper, everything I wanted. I am a writer. That's my job. I have four kids. That was always what I wanted since I was a little kid. I have a really, really big love, and I got another one too. That's even more than I ever dreamed of. I did not get here the way that I thought I would. That doesn't mean that here is not a good place to be.
Zibby: That's a great way to look at it. If you don't mind if we switch gears for one sec, I know we’re almost out of time. I wanted to hear a little more about your podcast, “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” which of course I listen to and is amazing. Although, sometimes I have to turn it off because some episodes get to me a little too much. What gave you the idea to make it into a podcast? Do you enjoy it? How much time does it take?
Nora: It’s a lot of time. That is a full-time job. You make a podcast.
Zibby: I do. [laughs]
Nora: It sounds like it shouldn't take any time at all. I don't know why it sounds like that. It seems like you're just talking. Yeah, right. No, you're not. There's so many other things. I do have a fantastic production team, which is great. It was just me and [indiscernible] for two years, just the two of us. The podcast, the title was a rejected book title for my first memoir. They thought it was too negative for a book about my husband dying, which I think is so funny. I also think it’s perfect. It perfectly fits the podcast. The most common question that we ask or answer in our lifetime has got to be, “How are you?” Here in America, it’s just small talk. We say, “Fine, yeah. Fine. Good.” I would say fine even when Aaron was at home dying. I was at the grocery store getting a case of red Gatorade because that's the only thing that he could drink, “Yeah, good. Never been better. See ya.” You shouldn't dump all your personal problems at the checkout person at your supermarket, but I would tell everybody that I was fine.
I was also simultaneously, because of the writing that I was doing, getting so many messages from so many people all around the world who were not fine for various reasons and who had all told their friends and family that they were fine, or whose friends and family stopped asking because like you said, they were of the “first, do not harm” mentality. If I don't say anything, then I can't say the wrong thing. All of these people were reaching out to a complete stranger to feel heard and to feel like what they were going through was real. The first season truly came from my inbox. The first ten episodes were all people who had messaged me before I even had a podcast who I replied to and said, “Hey, would you like to be on a podcast that I haven't even pitched yet?” For whatever reason, they said yes. Here it is. We just talk to regular people, people who are going through stuff. That's it.
Zibby: That's great. That's the best way. That’s where stories come from. All of this artifice around storytelling, it’s just really what's going on with people. You can make it up. It can be a memoir. It can be a podcast. We all just want to hear what's going on with everyone. I find it so helpful. I know other people do.
I ordered my green T-shirt. I have it. My Still Kickin shirt is on my bureau. Can you tell listeners about how you started it, and the story of the T-shirt, and now how it’s this amazing nonprofit?
Nora: Yes, thank you. Oh, my gosh. I love talking about this. I feel like I don't do a great job of talking about it. Still Kickin is a nonprofit that I started after Aaron died. It is based on Aaron’s favorite T-Shirt. It was this threadbare, vintage, homemade T-shirt, kelly green, very faded with [indiscernible] white letters that said, “Still Kickin.” He bought in ironic good health at the apex, I would say, of ironic tees, probably at the turn of the century. Probably 2002, he bought this shirt. He thought it was so funny. It was one of his favorite shirts. I wasn’t allowed to borrow it because I sweat too much. He was wearing it the day that he had a seizure. I remember going into the ER and seeing him wear that shirt. He was laughing about it. We didn't know it was serious. We’re like, “Seizures, that's weird.” We didn't know that he had stage four brain cancer. We didn't know that night we would get the news that he had a brain tumor and that it looked aggressive but they can't diagnose it until they give him brain surgery. We just knew that he was thirty-two. It was Halloween. We had stuff to do. We laughed. We laughed about that shirt. That shirt definitely changed in meaning.
Still Kickin as an entire organization is Aaron’s idea. He wanted to recreate the shirt, sell it, and use the money for something good. What we use it for, for our organization -- we’re mainly retail based, like you mentioned the iconic green shirt, but we sell other items as well -- is give unrestricted financial grants to people who are going through something difficult. This does not need to be cancer. This does not need to be illness. Although, the status of our healthcare system in America means that we do get a lot of nominations for people who are experiencing a medical hardship. There are so many difficulties that we face. We give people the two things that I know from experience are really helpful when you're going through something. One is to be seen as more than just a sad story. We tell these people's stories without pity. The second is money. I don't care what you use this money for. You can go to Disneyworld. You can pay your mortgage. That's up to you. To date, we have given over a $150,000 away the last time I checked. We are three years old.
Zibby: Wow. That's fantastic. That's so great that you do that.
Nora: You buy a thing. You help a person out. I love that those two words -- Still Kickin means something different to everyone. I love that. I love it. I love seeing people wear them and send me their stories and why they bought them or who they bought them for. It’s definitely the thing that reminds me the most of how special Aaron was, especially because he would have loved that it is not just about him, and that it’s not just about cancer, and that we are able to and willing to help so many people through many different kinds of things.
Zibby: That's awesome. I know we’re almost out of time here. I have so many other things I would want to talk to you about. I could talk to you all day, or just listen to you talk, really. Do you have any parting advice for aspiring authors, obviously not to have bad things happen so you can get book deals, but something else? We’ll eliminate that.
Nora: Find a husband. Second, give him a brain tumor. That's really it. No. People get very caught up in their own insecurity, myself included, by the way. Every day I have to truly remind myself to keep my eyes on my own paper and do my own thing. If you are looking for a reason to believe that what you have to say is unimportant or that you're not a good writer, you will find it. You'll find it on the internet. You don't need that. You really don't. The only thing that all writers have in common is that they write. It does involve discipline. You have to sit down and do it, which is to me, the hardest thing. You don't have to worry about sounding like what's cool or being the people that you admire -- I get a lot of messages that are like, “I read your book. Shit, my husband died. Now, I can't write a book about that.” Do you think I'm the first person whose husband died that wrote a book? No. I did not invent this.
Zibby: I can't believe anybody said that to you. I cannot even believe that.
Nora: I get this message constantly. Don't worry. You can. When my husband died, he wasn’t your husband. Your experience, totally different. Your point of view, totally valid. Don't worry too much about that kind of stuff. Especially for women, that is the easiest thing that we can do, is find a reason not to do something and look for validation that our idea is not good enough, not clever enough, not unique enough. Just start. Start your thing.
Zibby: Awesome. Nora, thank you so much. I really appreciate all your time. I'm hoping that you don't have too many more snow days in your near future.
Nora: I can't believe you gave me the opportunity to talk more about the weather because I'm staring out at our cul-de-sac. Our mailbox is completely covered. I can't receive mail right now. I'm pretty sure it’s my responsibility as a citizen to dig out my mailbox, but I don't have it in me. I don't have it in me. Please don't mail me anything. Thank you for giving me the chance to talk and for being a promoter of books, which is so important and so wonderful and really means a lot as an author. To be able to talk about your work is very cool. Thank you.
Zibby: Thanks. Take care.
Nora: Oh, wait. This is called a Minnesota goodbye where you don't let anyone go. If you want a hardcover to do a giveaway with, just send Hannah an email and we’ll get you one.
Zibby: Totally. Yes. I will definitely do that. Thank you so much.
Nora. Thank you. Bye.