I'm really excited to be interviewing Susie Orman Schnall today. Susie is the author of three novels, The Subway Girls, The Balance Project, and On Grace. She founded The Balance Project interview series, in which she interviewed 163 women like Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Michelle Gellar about how to achieve work-life balance. She has contributed to many publications including Harper’s Bazaar, HuffPost, Glamour, and others. An LA native, she attended the University of Pennsylvania and now lives in Purchase, New York, with her husband and three sons.
Welcome, Susie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Susie Schnall: Thank you so much for having me. I'm honored.
Zibby: For listeners who haven't read The Subway Girls, which is my personal favorite of yours, what is it about?
Susie: The Subway Girls is about two strong and ambitious women who are trying to realize their dreams both personally and professionally. It’s all set against the real-life advertising campaign of the Miss Subways advertising contest. To give you a little sense of what that is, in the early forties, the MTA wanted to increase rider morale and also draw eyeballs up to the advertisements on the subway system. They hired J Walter Thompson, which was the preeminent advertising agency at the time. J Walter Thompson came up with this idea for a beauty contest. J Walter Thompson hired John Robert Powers, which was the big modeling agency, to judge the contest. It wasn’t a beauty contest where the women were walking up and down the aisles of the subway cars. The women mailed their photographs in to John Robert Powers. John Robert Powers chose a woman each month to be Miss Subways. Her photograph along with a few sentences about her ambitions and her personality would be posted up on subway posters for millions of riders to see every single month.
My story is dual storyline. In 1949, you have Charlotte, who wants to go into advertising. She ends up competing in the Miss Subways contest. In 2018, you have Olivia who is a female advertising executive. She is pitching the MTA account, comes across the Miss Subways contest in her research. The two storylines end up intersecting. That's where the fun begins.
Zibby: Excellent. How did you come up with this idea?
Susie: I was listening to NPR in my car one day. A story came on Radio Diaries about the Miss Subways contest. I listened to it. I was blown away. Beauty contest of the subway system, it seemed so unreal to me. I didn't grow up in New York. I had never seen or heard of this anecdotally either. I went home. I relistened to that Radio Diaries story. It spoke a lot about this nonfiction book called Meet Miss Subways where two women had researched the Miss Subways contest and also had sought out all of the two hundred winners. The contest ran from 1941 to 1976. Two hundred women won the contest during that time.
These two authors, Fiona Gardner and Amy Zimmer -- one was a photographer, one was is an author -- they tried to locate all of the two hundred winners, found forty-one of them, and photographed and interviewed all of them. I then bought that book, started reading that, became even more fascinated and enthralled with the contest, and thought that it would make such an interesting premise for a novel. There's so much to unpack there. There's the really interesting slice-of-life history of New York City that very few people know about. Then there's all the female ambition, juicy material in there to really wrap my hands around. That's an interest of mine in exploring through fiction.
Zibby: I really loved the part in the book when Olivia is talking to her associate Priya -- this is in the modern-day part of the book -- at the ad agency. Priya says, “When I meet women in their eighties and nineties, it’s easy to forget that they were living these vibrant lives when they were younger. It’s awful, but I admit that I underestimate older women.” Olivia responds, “I know what you're saying. You just assume that the times they lived in were so different, that they couldn't possibly know what it’s like for us. But you know what? From reading those posters and all the other articles, those women were going through the same shit we are. All the conflicts with work and personal lives, that is nothing new.” I was hoping you could tell me more about that scene, and the takeaway, and how you personally decided to add it to the narrative. You said you were interested in the work-life balance and the balance interviews. Tell me more about it.
Susie: It’s a few different things. It’s the fact that I, myself, feel that way. I underestimate older women sometimes. I'm always interested when I meet an older woman to really talk to her and find out her story. I do this a lot now. I love going out with friends and their moms or their grandmas. I love hearing their stories and what was interesting to them at the time, what the obstacles were, what the challenges were for them, and what their views and ambitions were. I really was able to absorb that and use that information for this book by reading Amy and Fiona’s book Meet Miss Subways, which gives the history.
Let me back up for a second. When I first heard about Miss Subways on NPR, I wanted to know who were these women that entered the contest? Why would they enter the contest? What was like for them to win? How did winning affect the rest of their lives? In the book Meet Miss Subways, the nonfiction book, that's what the stories were. Each woman has about three or four pages. I got to find out the answers to those questions. It allowed me to learn a lot about a lot of women. I mainly focused on the women who won in the forties and fifties because that was the focus of the book. It opened my eyes to what women were going through at the time. It’s all about the social construct at the time.
It’s very difficult to look at it through our eyes and our reality in 2018, or even when we were choosing professions, because the cultural constructs and the expectations for women were so different. I'm not going to use the word “expected to marry early” or “expected to have kids younger.” It was just the norm. When you're brought up in a way that this is normal, a lot of women -- I don't want to say it doesn't occur to them to go against the norm because that makes them sound as if they don't have agency. Sometimes when something is the expectation, it’s just what you do. Gosh, I don't even know where I was. I think that when you really start to focus on what women wanted, you may learn that they wanted something different, but it was because of either their own financial situation or their family’s situation that they had to take a different path.
Zibby: You did such a good job of that with Charlotte, who was in your 1949 narrative. You juxtaposed her professional life now with Olivia’s at her ad agency. You wrote, “But now that she has graduated and none of her other job prospects had come to fruition, Charlotte realized that she had to just resign herself to the new reality that she would be living at home, working at her father’s store, and that was that. Not every girl’s dreams came true. Not every girl was destined to feel like she had sidestepped expectations. Not every girl could be significant.” I thought that was so depressing. Did everybody feel like that? Was it so hard? Charlotte’s dream was to be in the typing pool of an ad agency. Now she's like, “I guess I can't do it. My four job applications didn't work out.” It was a very good highlight of how things were back then.
Susie: Yes and no. As I said, it depended on the woman. It depended on her own personal ambitions and her own family situation. Look at Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was approximately the same age as Charlotte is in the story. Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from Cornell and went to Harvard Law School, was one out of six or nine women in the Harvard Law School class of five hundred. It really, really depended on so many things. Again, looking at it through our lens is difficult because if it was the norm to get married and have kids younger, which Ruth Bader Ginsburg did as well -- she got married young, right out of college, and had children young.
It was hard to, at the time, to have children and go to law school and then become a lawyer and all that. Many women, it didn't even seem like something they could even aspire to. The rules were different. A lot of companies required a husband’s permission. If you got married and you worked, your husband had to give permission for you to continue working. I don't want to underestimate or minimize the ambitions of these women by judging them from our reality. Everything was so different. What's amazing are the women who defied those odds and defied those expectations and paved the way for us. I'm so thankful for them.
Zibby: Me too. To switch gears a little, you wrote in such this knowing, touching way. You had Charlotte’s brother die in this book in the war. You wrote in such a nuanced way about how it was affecting her mom, her dad, herself, and over time, how it was in the beginning, how it evolved. I wondered where that storyline came from, if that was a personal loss for you, if you just were interested in exploring that in a novel.
Susie: It wasn’t a personal for me, in my family. A couple answers. First, it was a device for the novice because if Charlotte’s brother were alive, he would have taken over the family business. This isn't really giving anything away, but Charlotte’s father is requiring her to come work at their family store. If the brother had been alive, he would have done that which would have freed her up to pursue her ambitions. In order for her to be the one who was required to work at the father’s store, there couldn't be a brother in the picture. I also wanted her to have a brother so that there was a lot of family relationships and her family reality that is based on the fact that her brother did die in war. It was a reality of the times that young men didn't come home from the war. I've also, as we all have, witnessed young people taken too early from their families. There definitely was some reflection on what I've seen with friends and families and was able to build the story from there.
Zibby: You did such a nice job of that. It was very gritty and real. I really liked it. You also had this lovely scene towards the end where Charlotte is talking to her mom who had been pretty withdrawn up until then. I'm not giving anything away. I try not to in my questions. Her mom suddenly opens up and says, “I've learned valuable lessons from a lot of experiences.” She's talking about the store. “Each of those scenarios seemed so important, like nothing else in the world could continue as normal because I was experiencing something so critical. But you know what? Life goes on. The world outside does not stop for a second for our little -- and that's what they are in the scheme of things -- little, individual problems. It took me a long time to learn that, and I don't want you to have to be my age when you figure it out.”
Do you think when we’re in the thick of it -- I love the wisdom of the mother looking back -- all the younger people like me, everybody, can we stop and have that vantage point now? Do you think we have to get older? You can hear things and not internalize it. Do you think it’s possible? What do you think?
Susie: I think it depends on the person’s own individual experiences. If you went through something as a teenager, I think you have to come out on the other side of something big in order to have that wisdom. It obviously depends on what each person has gone through in his or her own life. It’s incredibly difficult to have any perspective on anything when you are the one in the middle of it, whatever it may be, illness or death or losing a job, anything like that. I've always appreciated the perspective of older people who have gone through so much. At that time, her parents had gone through the death of their child and lived during the war. It was such a different reality than what we’re dealing with, luckily. That's what older, wiser people are for is to give us that perspective. The adage, “This too shall pass,” is really, really true in most things. When you're deep in the thick of it, “This too shall pass,” though it doesn't seem like it’s possible at the time because everything's so heavy and so fraught, when you do come out on the other side, you're able to look back and then learn from that experience the next time something happens.
Zibby: I had this coffee once with a girl I worked with at my very first job. She couldn't have been more than thirty at the time. She took me out to lunch. Something had been going on. I can't remember what. She said to me, “Think about the worst thing that's ever happened in your life. Do you have it?” I was like, “Yeah.” She's like, “You got past that, didn't you?” I was like, “Yeah.” I cannot even remember her name. I think about that a lot, having that advice from someone older, the perspective.
Susie: I don't know about you, but when I've experienced things that were none too pleasant, some big things, you realize you can get through it. You are stronger than you thought you could have been. Sometimes when things seem so dire, you think, “What's the worst thing that can happen? Could I get through that?” Yeah, you could. That's just life.
Zibby: Didn't mean to get so heavy for a minute. From a writing perspective, the two storylines at different times, how did you go about writing that? Did you write a whole book about one character and then a whole nother book? Tell me about your method to the two storylines.
Susie: When I realized that I wanted to do dual storyline, I questioned how to attempt it, as you're asking right then. I reached out to a couple of authors I know who have written dual storylines to ask them how they did it. Of course they all came back with different answers. Then I decided to do what worked for me. I found that I wrote one storyline at a time. I wrote all of 1949, Charlotte’s story. Then I wrote all of 2018, Olivia’s story. Then what I did was I made an index card for each chapter of what happened. I laid 1949 out on my floor in one row and 2018 on the next row. Even though they were in chapters already, I moved things around to figure out to interlock them.
The thing that was tricky and what I had to go back and forth on a couple times was there were certain things that the reader knew in 2018 about Charlotte that Charlotte didn't know yet about herself in her 1949 story. I had to decide whether it was more fun for the reader to know something about Charlotte that hadn’t happened to her yet or if the reader should find out when Charlotte did. I had to manipulate that a little bit and go back and forth testing out which way I thought worked. When I would decide one way, then I would have to go back and edit and pull out little clues that I didn't want to be clues yet. That's how I went about it. I would do it exactly that way another time. I know authors who write one chapter, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. They find that it helps them be fresher because they’ve taken themselves out of storyline A to work on storyline B. Then they can go back to storyline A. That would not work for me. It’s interesting how everybody does it differently.
Zibby: That is interesting. In terms of when you were writing, how do you like to write? Do you write right there at your desk with the beautiful wallpaper? What's your structure? What's your method?
Susie: I've now written four books. Three are published. My fourth book, I'm in the editing process for. It’s been different for each one. I've written them all in different places. The similarity is it’s at a desk, in a very quiet place. I prefer to write on a desktop as opposed to a laptop because I feel like have a bigger screen. Especially for this book, for my third and fourth books which have more a historical aspect to it, I have Safari open. I'm looking at different things online. I'm on the internet doing some research and stuff like that. I like to have a big screen. I have my piles of notebooks all around.
My writing of my first draft is the shortest part of my process. For instance, for The Subway Girls, I started writing in January and ended in about October. The writing of the first draft took only two weeks. I spend a ton of time, especially for that book, doing research and plotting and outlining and trying to figure out how the story is going to go, what the journeys are of the two main characters, how they're going to evolve from the beginning of the story to the end of the story, making sure I have enough conflicts and enough high points and low points and really wanting to be authentic and accurate with the history.
I write the first draft. Halfway through, I throw out my outlines and all that. I follow it to some extent. Then everything changes because the story starts to take on a direction of its own, re-outline and plot. I spend a great deal of time on my revisions. I write very, very fast. I get the bones of the novel out. It might be sixty thousand words, when the finished book is closer to eighty thousand words. Then I layer on. Once I'm done with the first draft, then I make the language prettier. I add a little bit more setting and mood and all of that sort of stuff. I find it’s easier to get the story out onto the page and then have something to work with. Then it goes through the whole editing process at the publishing house. It’s a process.
Zibby: Wow. How did you get into writing to begin with?
Susie: My career before I had kids -- I have three boys. They are thirteen, fifteen, and seventeen. Before I had my seventeen-year-old, I worked in marketing and communications for nonprofit organizations, advertising agencies, internet companies, and magazines. Then when I had him, I stopped working full time and wrote articles, freelanced for magazines and websites. It evolved. I had always thought that I wanted to write a book but never took that very seriously until at one point I was not loving the journalistic side of what I was doing. I was more interested in the creative side of writing and thought that it would be a good next step and a good challenge and good project. I decided to do that around 2010 and wrote my first book that year or the next year. It became something I really enjoy doing. It’s a great job for me as a mom because it’s very flexible. I can do it from home. It’s turned out to be a great career choice for me.
Zibby: Do you structure it like you go into your office and work from this time to this time, like, “I'm at work, don't bother me?” How do you do it?
Susie: For me, my experience as an author is it’s a very cyclical business in the sense that there are some authors who write every single day no matter what. I'm not like that. Here's a perfect example. I finished the last revision on my fourth book, which is not out yet, in May. I turned that in. I started working on all the prelaunch stuff for The Subway Girls, which came out in July. I basically spent my entire summer just working on The Subway Girls launch, on book tour, marketing and all of that, did not even take a look at my manuscript. The next revision was due November 1st. Starting today, when the kids started school today, I'm back in my office and ready to start working on my manuscript again. I still have a lot of book tour events to go to for the next six months or so. I am focused now on the writing. Once I turn that revision in November 1st, then I’ll have a break from writing. It’s not like the very next day I’ll start on my next book. That's how I work.
Yes, on a work day -- it depends on the work day. If it’s a writing day, I like to exercise in the morning but as soon as that's done, it is sitting in my office. My kids are older now. I don't even have to go pick up at school because my oldest one drives. I can sit in my office and work until five o’clock, and that's fine in my house. If I'm in the middle of writing a manuscript, it has to be a day where I have at least eight hours. I need to know that I have two weeks straight of eight to nine-hour days. I need to get into the story. That's when I feel that I'm the most productive. If it’s an editing day, I can have three hours or two hours or four hours. If it’s a marketing day, I can have an hour here and an hour there. It really depends what I'm working on.
Zibby: That's great. That's what's so great about writing. You're not just doing the same thing every day, all day. It’s always new people, and the characters you invent, and the characters you read about.
Susie: And then there's social media.
Zibby: Social media, marketing. It’s a whole thing.
Susie: We have to spend so much time on social media too.
Zibby: That's kind of a bummer. Tell me a little more about The Balance Project interviews. The book was a novel, not about these interviews. Then you launched the project and interviewed 163 women.
Susie: Other way around. I was struggling myself, how to be the type of mother I wanted to be with how to be the type of professional I wanted to be. I couldn't figure out how to do it. I really wanted to be that present mother for my kids. I am not judging anybody's choices at all. It’s so fraught. I talk to a lot of groups about work-life balance. There are so many expectations to be a “good mother.” It’s so harmful to women. I'm all for doing what works for you. I was having trouble figuring out what worked for me in terms of what I wanted for my own life. I started asking friends who had jobs that I respected and clean children, how do you it? How do you keep all the balls in the air?
I decided to formalize those questions and created The Balance Project interview series. I post the interviews on my website, SusieSchnall.com. To date, I have 175 interviews up there. Every woman answers the same fifteen or some-odd questions. When I set out to do the interviews, I was hoping, as I said, to find out how to balance it all. What I found out instead is that nobody is really doing it all. Everybody's making sacrifices. Anybody who says that they are perfect in all of the realms of their lives all the time at sustainable levels is lying to you. I've found that a woman who I had great admiration for and was trying to emulate in many ways, she was sleeping four hours a night. I found that another person was having a lot of relationship issues. I realized that I want to sleep eight hours a night. I don't want to have relationship issues. Therefore, I'm going to have to give on some of the hours that I put into my job. These are the things that we have to figure out.
I, then, continued those interviews. When was deciding what to write my second novel about, I was so inspired by the interviews and the responses that they had been getting that I decided to write a novel about it. Again, as you mentioned, The Balance Project novel is not a compendium of the articles. It’s just about the topic of work-life balance about two women, a young woman who’s twenty-five and her boss who’s forty-five, and how they work together. Each of them is struggling with her own work-life balance. The characters are informed by the interviews that I did and also women that I speak to during my talks.
Zibby: Why did you not make the interviews into a book?
Susie: I did consult with one agent a long time ago about that who said that books like that don't sell. That's one person. Whether or not that's true or not, I don't know. That was also when I had like fifteen interviews. It’s nothing that I’ve focused on. What's interesting is that in the novel The Balance Project, my forty-five-year-old main character Katherine, she’s basically a Sheryl Sandberg-esque type character, instead of coming out with a book called Lean In, she’s come out with a book called The Balance Project. It’s all very tricky. Everything's named The Balance Project. I outline in that book, the four sections of The Balance Project book. Someday maybe I will write that book. I never really wanted to be academically expert at work-life balance. There are a lot of people doing that. I'm more interested in the anecdotal aspect of it. The interviews have been picked up. Working Mother republished a lot of them and did a video series of them. They're definitely getting exposure in other media, but someday maybe.
Zibby: I feel like you love digging deep with all the women you're interviewing, the elderly people. Have you always been interested in other people's experiences? Is that part of your personality and now you're using it for good? [laughs]
Susie: I always say that if I had to start over, I might be a social anthropologist. I'm fascinated by how people live their lives. That's why I watch reality shows sometimes. I think it’s fascinating. I'm very somewhat mainstream, straight and narrow, a nerdy girl who likes to write. These people are doing these crazy things. I like to watch and see how other people live their lives. It’s fantastic that there are so many different ways to go about it. Yes, I do love hearing people's stories and what makes people tick and what sort of life circumstances led them to be that way. That's only something I've only come to as I've gotten older.
I was a lot more judgmental when I was younger. Now, I think about what was it like to walk in that person’s moccasins? I don't know what it would be like to grow up this way or that way. I can't necessarily judge somebody for being this personality or that personality or this driven or not driven without really seeing how they were formed and how their parents were formed. That really informs a person’s personality a great deal as does -- I talk about this a lot in my work-life balance talks -- as does a person’s just makeup.
I get overwhelmed very, very easily when there's too much on my plate, except if it’s a cheese plate. I really like a lot [indiscernible-laughter]. I get overwhelmed very easily. I look at somebody like Sheryl Sandberg. You can't compare yourself to Sheryl Sandberg who is killing it professionally because she, I'm imaging, I don't know her, I imagine she must be able to handle a lot more, her constitution, her composition, how she's made up, mentally what she can handle. I try not to compare myself to other people that way. Again, that just feeds into why I really like talking to people and asking how they tick.
Zibby: It’s like when you go in the gym and everybody can lift a certain amount before they’ve done any training. It’s just what you can lift. It’s just how it is.
Susie: I met somebody. It was at a dinner party at a friend’s house. There was this couple that I'd never met before. I ended up talking to the husband. I was asking him, “Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?” He's like, “Are you trying to box me in?” It’s funny because he thought I was trying to label him or identify him as to whether he was worth talking to. It was the complete opposite. I just like knowing what stepping stones people had been on and how it frames who they are today. I can see how somebody might take it the wrong way.
Zibby: That's a shame. It’s nice to show such interest in other people. It’s refreshing. I know we’re almost out of time. Do you have any advice to aspiring writers out there?
Susie: Advice to aspiring writers, I would say stay true to yourself. Don't write for any other reason except that that's what you want to do. Also, manage your expectations of yourself. Don't listen to all these myths of you have to write every day, or you have to do this, or you have to do that. I've done a lot of events now with other writers. We always talk about process and all that. Everybody's doing it differently. Some people have an MFA. Some people have never taken a writing class in their lives. You can be successful in so many ways. I would say stay true to yourself. Figure out what you want to write.
Then, also get input from professionals. If you are writing a manuscript and you do want to become an author, my number one advice would be don't submit to agents. Don't query agents until you've had your manuscript professionally edited. Agents need opportunities to say no to manuscripts because they get too many. It’s just a math issue. Make sure that you're putting your best foot forward from the very beginning.
Zibby: Thank you so much. I really appreciate all of your time. It was really great talking to you. Thank you, Susie.
Susie: Thank you for having me. I'm so glad that you invited me.
Zibby: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much. Buh-bye.