I'm really excited to be here today with Sarah McColl, the author of Joy Enough. Sarah was the founding editor of Yahoo! Food. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and was a McDowell Fellow. She was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Sarah’s work has been published in House Beautiful, Bon Appétit, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, ModernLoss.com, and other publications. She currently lives in Los Angeles.
Welcome, Sarah. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Sarah McColl: Thank you for having me.
Zibby: It’s such a pleasure. I just finished your book, as I was telling you. I have a million things to ask you. I'm so excited that you're here. Thanks so much for coming.
Sarah: You're my first interview. I'm very excited.
Zibby: I'm very gentle. I’ll be very kind.
Sarah: I knew you were a good way to start.
Zibby: Can you start by telling listeners what Joy Enough is about?
Sarah: I felt growing up like I was compared to my mom a lot. Probably, this is a common experience for girls. People, whether they were family members of my mom’s friends, would say, “You're just like your mother. You look just like your mother.” I had this curiosity about what does that mean? Who is my mother? On one hand, it’s about the desire to figure out who my mother is outside her role as my mother. Who is my mother as a person? Who is my mother as a woman, as a friend to her friends? I was always asking her growing up, “What were you like when you were my age?” when I was in elementary school and when I was in high school and when I was in college. The answers were sort of unsatisfying.
When I write, there is usually some sort of thing I want to know. There's a quest of discovery to it. I wanted to find out who is my mother? Who was she? As a result, what does that mean about who I am? How are we different as women and as people? That's part of what it’s about. It’s also about her getting cancer when I was in my early thirties and that being an opportunity for us to talk about the big things in life. That was always very much our relationship, was getting to the meat of it. She wasn’t a small talk person. Cooking for her and spending time with her at her house and trying to figure out, what does life mean? What does our relationship mean?
Zibby: You also went through a divorce around the same time. It was your, almost, coming of age tale.
Sarah: Yeah. It’s my divorce. It’s her divorce. It’s love. It’s men. It’s sex. Really, at the core of it is our story, and a relationship between a mother and a daughter, and two women. It’s so lovely to put that at the center also. We’re so used to seeing romantic tales as the central narrative of woman’s life. This is a love story in a way. I really loved my mother. Our relationship was very intimate, but it is between women. That felt good.
Zibby: I didn't mean to suggest it was really about the --
Sarah: -- No, not at all.
Zibby: I know it’s really about your mom. That was amazing. I was just adding that, but I’ll let you do the talking. [laughs]
Sarah: It’s an important detail.
Zibby: Because a lot of the time I feel like the threads of your own life are going through…how can they not? I found your writing style to be absolutely amazing. I have your book here. I kept dog-earing pages and being like, “That was such a beautiful expression.” I would stop and reread it. I'm to go read a few examples.
Sarah: Thank you so much.
Zibby: When you were talking about your mom’s family, as a description, this sums everything up. You wrote, “Her father shook the ice in his bourbon and gingers while he told jokes at a dinner table tight with seven plates of spaghetti.” You're right there. You don't have to tell how many siblings. Then you're on a walk and you said, “There were no cars on the road, and the hem of my skirt fluttered at my knees in the humid breeze, the sound of fireworks in the distance. Here, fireflies. I wanted to tie myself up in his arms, and he wanted to be the rope.” When you're in the car later, you wrote -- this is about your mom -- “We spent the rest of the summer driving the long way places, and when we arrived, sat in parking spaces with our seatbelts on.”
Sarah: I love talking in the car. Those are the best conversations.
Zibby: Totally. There's so much you didn't have to say. I'm not explaining this very well.
Sarah: You are.
Zibby: It’s what you're leaving out. The words you're choosing and the visuals say more than, “It was a warm summer day. We took a lot of car rides. When we were on our way to the doctor, we would often stop…” That's how I would say it, “I often found myself…” You're just, boom, in it. Your last one that I wanted to read, it was almost sexual in a sense. When you're on an airplane, you said, “I fished my fingers inside the slit of the shiny pouch and looked down at brown Colorado, rugged as a cowboy’s calloused hand.” That was about opening a bag of peanuts.
Sarah: I never thought about it before. It is kind of sexual. [laughs] Yikes.
Zibby: Whoa. I’ll never open a bag of pretzels the same way again. About your writing itself, did you learn to write like this? Has this always been your style? I know you've gotten an MFA and all that. Tell me about that more.
Sarah: The short answer is no. I don't think I always wrote like this per say. I've always loved poetry. I think back. One of the most formative writing experiences for me in my life was seventy thirty English class with [sp] Katherine Lynt. Shout out to Katherine Lynt at [indiscernible] Central High School. I remember she read us this Marie Howe poem. Have you read any Marie Howe? She's wonderful. She's actually the reason I first went to Sarah Lawrence, even though I'm not a poet and she's a poet. I just thought, “I want to be at whatever school she's at.” It was this poem, it’s called “What the Living Do.” I had tears in my eyes. It’s seven thirty in the morning. I've always loved poetry. I started writing poetry. I've always read a lot of poetry.
That image, Carl Jung database, of you say an image and it’s so resonate, everyone knows what it feels like to click the seat belt in and be in the car beside someone. If I say that, I don't have to go on and on and say, “We felt so close together side by side.” You've been there. You know what it feels like. I have a very visual memory as well. I was trying to make the most of that. I’ll remember, “Oh, I remember that day. So and so was wearing a red scarf. The sun was really bright.” I like writing in that very visual way. You're right. It does do a lot of the work for you. There's a lot I don't have to say.
Zibby: Not to say you're shortcutting this book. It’s brilliant. I hadn’t read anything similar since The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
Sarah: I'm done. Thank you. I can walk out now. My work here is done. That's the best compliment in my world. I love her.
Zibby: I love her. Who doesn't? She's great. My other question, Joy Enough as a title, what were your other top three? Did you have any other contenders?
Sarah: Yes. The title was really hard for me. I'm good at titles for essays. They always come really easily to me. I'm happy with them. This was really hard because I felt like it somehow had to encapsulate everything. How do you encapsulate everything? There were other contenders. I really loved The Joy of Death. I thought it played on The Joy of Sex and The Joy of Cooking, both of which are prominent in the book. From a marketing standpoint, people want to read about death, but they need to maybe take the back door into death. That was a contender. I'm trying to think what else. The very first version had some very long, garbled, pretentious title like The Life and Death of Celestial Objects or something. Oh, my god. Get a grip. It was hard. It was really hard. You start looking at poetry. You start looking at quotes. This is from an Emily Dickinson letter. She says, “The mere sense of living is joy enough.” That felt like that's pretty much it. That feels right.
Zibby: That's awesome. I love this cover too, this simple yellow cover with these little dots.
Sarah: Isn't it so pretty?
Zibby: I'm describing it in case anyone happens to be wandering through a bookstore right now.
Sarah: I love it. They did such a great job. I love it.
Zibby: They did. It’s really awesome. Your mom gives you a lot of great advice throughout the book, including about parenting itself. At one point she says, “‘There is no reward in the end,’ my mother said of parenting. ‘The only reward ever is ongoing. It must be the day itself,’” which really hit home for me with four kids. Sometimes I'm like, “I know this Saturday is really long and we’re running place to place, but if not for this, then what?” This is what it’s all about is days like today. How do you feel like your mom’s advice on parenting really hit home for you?
Sarah: She had four kids too. The idea that there's no award -- you're not going to get a medal. I don't have kids. I sometimes jokingly call this book my firstborn. It relates to writing for me in the sense that -- really everything, not just parenting, but everything, writing, approaching day-to-day life -- I have to find pleasure in the work. This is so amazing getting to sit here with you. I'm so excited to go to a party later and celebrate the book coming out. That is a version of an award or the award in the end. As much as possible it’s so important to enjoy the doing and the process of things. We live in such a results-oriented culture and a product-oriented culture. Writing is so much like life and parenting. Are you in it? Are you enjoying the doing? If you're not, god, what's the point? Why bother?
Zibby: Totally. I had a coffee with a girlfriend the other day. We’re both trying to write novels. I was telling her how stressed I was. She was talking about it. Then I was like, “You know, I realized the other day, I don't have to do this.” Nobody's sitting out there waiting for my book. Nobody asked me to write a book. I'm not Michelle Obama. If I don't want to do it, I don't have to do it. I'm not going to stress. If I'm not enjoying it, why am I doing this? What is it for? Same things with kids really. I chose to have kids. I'm choosing to do these things. It still doesn't always make it stress-free.
Sarah: You’re not going to remember that every second of every day. When you can remember it, it’s powerful. I have this friend who says, “You literally don't have to do anything you don't want to do.” That's kind of not true. We have to do our taxes and stuff. For the most part, it’s pretty true. You can just decide, “Why am I doing this thing I don't want to do?” I don't have to. I'm an adult.
Zibby: I could just turn this podcast off. Forget it.
Sarah: Yeah. Just go get a bloody Mary or something. [laughs]
Zibby: Too funny. Your mother also said about parenting -- my last parenting question about your mom -- which is another example of your beautiful writing, you said, “Introduced at a cocktail party or turning to a fellow dinner guest, she could see the boredom in their eyes when she said she was a mother. But hers was the real work, she thought, the kind that defines a civilization. Her materials were empty toilet paper rolls smeared in peanut butter rolled in bird seed that hung from the honeysuckle bush outside the dining room window.” So beautiful. I used to feel that same way when I was at a dinner party and my twins were really little. I was like, “I'm at home. I'm a mom.” They were like, “Ugh, okay. Now what do I have to talk about?” Then she went on to say even how she was anticipating her depression when her kids -- kids meaning you -- her kids were going to leave the nest. She was mourning it before it even happened, which I think is one of these crazy parts about parenting. You know it’s ending. Life too, not just parenting. As you go through, it’s on its way to ending.
Sarah: A friend of mine over the summer started calling it “the fleetings,” your sense of that. For me, it started happening in my thirties. I’ll be walking down the street and the leaves look a certain way and I feel happy or whatever. All of a sudden, I'm seized by the most incredible bittersweet but pained happiness. This moment is so great. I’ll never have it again, and I'm going to die someday. [laughs]
Zibby: Totally. I'm so glad I'm not the only one.
Sarah: No, you're not. The fleetings.
Zibby: I love that, the fleetings. Oh, my gosh. That's the best. I'm going to think about that next time. That's amazing. Let's shift gears a tiny bit and talk about food. I know you're a food editor, started the Yahoo! food thing. Cooking in this book was such an important piece of the book, how you cooked for your mom. You were determined that she wouldn't lose weight, and yet her body was fighting against retaining food at all. You said how cooking helped you. You said, “Cooking was a meditation, I thought. It anchored me in my body. Here was my hand holding a knife, slicing through celery. Here I was standing on the black and white kitchen tile of my first apartment in Brooklyn listening to records making dinner. Here I was, I thought, living.” You tell me, how does cooking help you?
Sarah: It’s so embodied. I can be in my head a lot, probably as you are too. We have a case of the fleetings. Kids or cooking or anything that makes you feel really in your body and getting out of your head can be such a powerful way to return to the moment. It’s like knitting maybe too. You're slicing an onion. It takes enough of your concentration that you're present for it. It is that meditative, a little bit of attention so that your mind doesn't get busy, but also a kind of placid attention. Cooking for me, it’s not just that it’s embodied. It’s so sensory too, the smells and the colors. I love a farmers’ market, the French breakfast radishes and that crazy kohlrabi or whatever the things are. It’s such a feast of the senses. It really helps me be present.
At the same time, especially working in food media, I used to glorify food in this way. It took an outsized importance in my life. As my daily life felt a little bit unsatisfying, commuting and email and whatever the daily life stuff is, suddenly dinner takes on this incredible importance. It’s like, “Today sucked or was hard, but I'm going to make the most incredible thing.” It’s a lot of pressure. I think about women, not just women, but it often ends up being a woman who is trying to put dinner on the table five nights a week or seven nights a week after working, raising kids, whatever. It’s this extra pressure. I ended up finding a middle ground with food. It doesn't have to be such a big deal. I’ll make a big pot of beans. We’ll have tacos. It doesn't have to be a big production. That was finding -- again, back to this idea of being present in the moment -- finding joy in the process as opposed to putting all this pressure on an end product.
Zibby: Do you miss being in the food business side of things, the food world, the food reporting, and all that?
Sarah: I miss comped dinners or getting invited to come and sample all the cocktails at some place with great pizza. I feel like I could still be in it as much as I want to. What I've always loved about food writing -- I love MFK Fisher; I love Amanda Hesser; I love Ruth Reichl; I love all these writers, Laurie Colwin -- any kind of entry point to talking about what matters, all I ever want to do is talk about love, meaning of life, sex, art. It’s like art, love, sex, the meaning of life, that's all I really want to talk about. If food can be a way into those, and it often is in the beautiful food writing, then yeah. I miss it. I'm all for it. I want it as much as possible in my life.
Zibby: I keep jumping around. I'm sorry. There's so much I wanted to find out. The demise of your marriage dovetailed the whole timeline of your mother’s illness. Then after she passes away, you go into this new phase where you're more exploratory and --
Sarah: -- cattin’ around.
Zibby: Cattin’ around. Thank you. You wrote, “Pleasure became the escape hatch of my grief. I loosened the valve in me that had been turned right tight, and my skin became my sail, directing me toward an island of belief.” Literally, every time I read one of these sentences -- I don't usually read this many quotes. I'm sorry. I just have to keep reading.
That turn to pleasure and all that, did you feel like that helped? Can anything really help after a period of loss like this? Do you regret it? Are you happy about it? How do you feel about it?
Sarah: This is a great question. It did help in the sense that I was so into all my feelings. We were talking about feeling things deeply. I was so feeling my grief and so deep in my grief that I thought it was great to go completely to the opposite and really feel pleasure or excitement. In the book, I had this friend who says, “I think it’s great that you're dating. What are you going to do, fill the full weight of your sadness?” I was feeling the full weight of my sadness. It also created space to -- grief expands you. Any kind of emotional experience expands you. There was room to feel some good stuff too. Also, I'd been married all through my twenties. I was roasting chickens when I guess other people were going out. It was fun. I thought it was really fun. It seemed to me that actually this is the great time to be dating, when I'm a confident thirty-something woman. I don't feel as attached to these situations or looking for some kind of validation that I might be otherwise. I thought it was fun. [laughs]
Zibby: Talking about things that can help, you just wrote this Modern Loss article which was so beautiful. As we were just talking, Rebecca Soffer was on my podcast in the past. She was amazing too. In your article, first of all, you say to your mom, you're talking about how you feel things so deeply. Your mom says to you, “You feel things very deeply. Your highs will be higher, and your lows will be lower.” I literally jumped back from the screen when I read that. My mother says the same things to me all the time. I was like, “I can't wait to talk to her.”
This extreme highs and lows, how do you think this experience of emotions, how do you think it informs your writing in particular? Also, how does it make you feel the grief even that much more intensely?
Sarah: It’s weird writing a memoir. You're like, “Here are my guts on the page. Here's my experience on the page.” On the one hand, it’s very exposing. On the other hand, emotional experience is so universal. It’s not like I feel like something is really being revealed that's so private. It actually is like, “You know what I'm talking about, right?” That's what's so satisfying when you write about an emotional experience, is having people say, “I get it. I've felt that. Thanks for putting it to words, something that I've felt.” I almost don't even know how to say how it’s informed my writing because I feel like my writing is so saturated with emotion in some ways. Even those images that you were mentioning, they're so saturated with emotion too.
My mom used to say, “Feeling is living,” to me. I really identify with that. That is the way I experience the world. Today’s a happy day; tomorrow’s a sad day, or whatever they may be. That colors everything. I'm just along for the ride. There's this tarot card. I think it’s the two of pentacles. There's a wave in the background. There's this ship going on the waves. This guy’s juggling the two pentacles. You got to go up with the ups, and down with the downs, and ride those waves. I'm up for it, I think.
Zibby: Tell me a little more about the process of writing this book. How long did it take? Where would you write? When did you write?
Sarah: I wrote from home mostly. I wrote it over three years. I was in graduate school. I actually didn't think I was writing a book for a long time. I thought I was writing essays. Then I thought this is just my weird art project that will never be published. I really was concerned that it would never be published. [laughs] It was over the course of three years, and in workshop. Sometimes when you really want something, like to write a book, which I think I've probably wanted to do since I started my first diary in first grade, you almost don't want to say out loud, “I'm writing a book.” It might not happen. Then everyone will know you didn't do it. I was chugging away at it.
I kept sending it out. I had my spreadsheet of my agents. They'd write back. They'd say no. Then I'd send it to the next one. I queried agents for a year. I got seventeen passes. I remember the day I got an email back from my agent now. No reservations, she was like, “I would love to represent you.” I remember crying all the way down Broadway. I was teaching a class and then I left. I was like, “Oh, my god.” You start to feel like, “Am I crazy?” Does this thing that I want so much -- am I crazy? Then to have someone say, “No, you're not. I believe in you. Let's do this,” for every writer, support comes in lots of different ways throughout the process. Every time you get it, it really means a lot. We’re all so insecure. That's a universal.
Sarah: Writers in particular.
Zibby: For sure. Your book is now literally about to come out. By the time this airs, it will have already come out. What's the best thing that you could imagine happening to you right now? What's the best thing someone could say or do, the best response you could dream of getting? Is there something you're really longing for in this aftermath? I know it’s about the process, but now that we’re in the reward time…
Sarah: The Joan Didion comment is pretty much the best. That's a gold star. I want what anybody probably wants of their book, a rave in The New York Times Book Review, and movie option, and never to have to do paid work again that I don't want to do so that I can spend the rest of my days living in my feeling life and writing about it. I was thinking about what do I want out of this? I always only ever wanted -- I was like, “If just six people read my book and think it’s great, that'll be great.” I've eclipsed six at this point and gotten some good feedback. It’s so hard. This part is so hard. Writing is so private. All of this is so public. The great reviews are great. My family keeps saying, “Just enjoy it.” This part is the victory lap. You did the work that you could do. I just keep thinking to myself, I wrote the book I wrote at the time that I wrote it. I like it. I hope other people like it.
Zibby: Other people will like it.
Sarah: If I win some awesome literary award, great. That’ll be wonderful.
Zibby: I feel like I put you on the spot with that question. I apologize. I haven't actually asked that before. I thought you'd have an interesting answer, which you did. I also feel like you are helping people, not only the people going through loss of someone really close to them, but also, you're helping people with their own relationships with their close family members. I've gone through a lot of loss in my life too. I always feel really connected to stories about other people’s loss. Obviously, every situation is different. When you read someone else's experience, when you're in the world and you bond with somebody, it’s the same sort of feeling. This book also is going to be so helpful for people with all their various relationships, especially this mother-daughter relationship. So many moms and daughters have really complicated relationships. I imagine people are going to stop you and say, “Thank you for reconnecting me with my mom. Thank you for helping me see her as a person more or apologize.”
Sarah: That would be amazing.
Zibby: That's some of the things I took out of it. Your mom is so humanized in this book, not as a mom, but who she really is.
Sarah: In terms of what's the best thing that could happen, whenever people say to me, “Your mom sounds cool. Your mom is so alive on the page,” in some ways -- I don't want to sound corny, but I am little bit corny so I can't help it -- she lives in the book. If it becomes a shorthand for people that's like, “This is a way to tell my mom ‘I see you. I love you. Here's this book,’” that's amazing.
Zibby: You need to do a Mother’s Day push. Is that in the marketing plan?
Sarah: I hope so. I think it is. If it’s not, it will be.
Zibby: I will post this on Mother’s Day. Remind me if I forget.
Sarah: My mom used to say that we all walk around with this idea that we have some semblance of control over the universe. If I do this, I’ll get this result. That's why I've got to be on my mark all the time so that I can control the outcome. When you have kids, now I'm aware that I have absolutely no control over whatever is going to happen in life. I've been thinking about that in the publication process. I did the part that I had some control over, which was writing. Now, I have no control over what happens from here on. You got to go with it. There's something really relieving and takes the pressure off to be like, “Oh, I'm putting all this pressure on myself to control outcomes that is actually an illusion. Why don't I stop pretending that I have any control over outcomes, and just let it rip, or let what happens happen, and let the chips fall where they may?” I'm keeping that in mind.
Zibby: Good. You moved to LA from New York. How do you like living there?
Sarah: I love LA. I hadn’t moved anywhere since I was twenty-two. When you move later in life, it’s a different experience. It’s a tricky transition. Now, I pretty much love it. I really was charmed by LA in December, Christmas with palm trees and New Year’s in the desert. I like it a lot.
Zibby: We just did that too. It was pretty awesome. I've never been in LA when the Santa is over the trees.
Sarah: It’s awesome. All people put on their cars, those Rudolph noses on the hood.
Zibby: I saw that. That was so funny. My kids loved that. That was so funny. You've abandoned New York, but you're here for your launch. You're teaching writing out there or online? What are you doing?
Sarah: I mostly teach online, postsecondary and college level teaching right now with Gotham Writers Workshop. I love teaching creative nonfiction. Let's get to the real stuff. What have you learned? Let's write about it. I love teaching. I’ve also loved my teachers. I feel so grateful. I know I mentioned Katherine Lynt at the beginning of this podcast, my sophomore English teacher, I really feel like I lucked out with a lot of great teachers. The people who hand you the books that change your life, that is such a powerful relationship. I saw I Capture the Castle on your bookshelf. It becomes this shorthand, not just “Hey, Mom. I see you. Here's this book about a mother and a daughter.” It becomes a shorthand for a way to see the world. If someone says, “I love Wallace Stegner,” and you're like, “Me too,” it’s really elemental.
Zibby: Giving someone that experience, that's part of why I do this podcast, really. If somebody says, “I read whatever book because you talked to the author and it made me want to read it. Then I got this amazing experience. I got to live through their world,” there's nothing better. It’s not like a TV show. It’s not the same. You're immersed in it because you put yourself in the book.
Sarah: You take it in. You literally have someone else's word in your body. It’s super powerful. Then when you get to teach teenagers, which I do in the summer, they are so ready to have their minds blown. When you blow their minds, it’s the most satisfying experience in the world.
Zibby: Are there a few things that you teach your students or that you would say to aspiring authors, any tips or things that they have to know, or advice?
Sarah: Read. Read everything. Read outside of your time too. When you're aspiring to be in the book world, there's a tendency to focus on, “What are the new books coming out? What's fashionable right now?” I love going way back. I was rereading Anaïs Nin. I love her writing. Go back. Read broadly. Read poets. My favorite prose writers are poets. It’s not fair. They get to do it all. Reading is really important.
Zibby: I have this author Jamie Brenner who’s coming on the podcast soon. She's written several books. She's coming on for her upcoming book called Drawing Home. She just posted on Instagram this whole section of the library of Judith Krantz novels. Do you remember from the eighties?
Zibby: Those were my first grown-up fiction that my mother gave me because I was a huge reader. She was like, “You can get inspiration from anywhere.” So true. They don't always have to be the poets of old. It can be anything from any era that really speaks to you and makes you think a certain way.
Sarah: Weird stuff, comic books, graphic novels, all of it. The reason why I think it’s important is because you were asking me earlier, “Did you always write this way?” No. The more you read, the more you realize, “Oh, you can do that?” I so often will read something and I’ll be like, “Oh, I didn't know you could do that.” Other writers make you aware of what's possible. I want to invent new ways of saying the same old thing. We’re all saying the same old thing about everything. There's nothing new under the sun. Our consciousness gets put on the page in new and interesting and beautiful ways. I want to keep discovering those.
Zibby: That was amazing. I truly adored your book and your writing style in general. I want you to write more books. I hope you're planning on it. Are you planning on it?
Sarah: Yes. I hope I get to. Yes.
Zibby: Did you start one, or no?
Sarah: Yes. I've started something new. I'm very excited. It’s a novel.
Zibby: A novel? Awesome. Excellent. Any more?
Sarah: No. I think that's all I can say for now.
Zibby: That's good. All right. You said you don't want to tell anyone you're writing a book. We won't hold you to it. Thank you so much for coming and being here in person and sharing this launch week with me. Thank you.
Sarah: It was a blast. Thank you.