Zibby Owens: I am so excited to be interviewing Will Schwalbe who is the New York Times best-selling author of The End of Your Life Book Club and Books for Living: Some Thoughts on Reading, Reflecting, and Embracing Life. He wrote his first book, Send: Why People Email So Badly and How To Do It Better, with David Shipley. The former editor in chief of Hyperion Books, Will founded Cookstr in 2008 which is now part of Macmillan Publishers where he currently works as EVP of editorial development and content innovation. Will is the host of podcast “But That's Another Story with Will Schwalbe.” Originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and graduate of Yale University, he currently lives with his husband in New York City.
Welcome, Will. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Will Schwalbe: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me.
Zibby: Books for Living, please tell listeners what this book is about. What inspired you to write it?
Will: Books for Living is about twenty-six books that I read over the course of my entire life that taught me something, or showed me something, or gave me an insight to help me live life in a more purposeful, meaningful way. One of the things I really wanted to do with Books for Living is not put together a canon of the greatest books that everybody must read, but show the way that any kind of book can be a book for living if it’s the book you need to read at the time it finds you.
Zibby: I love how you started with the story of sitting next to a Navy SEAL on an airplane and swapping books. Tell me that story.
Will: Actually, it was a West Point cadet.
Zibby: I'm sorry, West Point cadet.
Will: It was funny. We were on a plane together. Actually, there's a little bit of backstory which I don't think I included in the book. This was in olden days before electronic tickets. We had been bumped from a previous flight. They said, “You have to take the next flight. We’re going to put you on first class, but we only have one ticket stock left. The two of you have to stay together. You have to spend all your time together in the airport. You have to spend all your time together in the lounge. You can't leave each other's side.” I had an enormous amount of time in which to chat with this West Point cadet. It turned out he was really interested in books. He wound up asking me for, as a gift to him, a list of books that I thought he should read to help him in life. In return, he gave me his West Point cadet baseball cap, which I still have to this day.
Zibby: That's so nice. You had so many amazing passages in this book about reading. I am an avid reader and loved hearing all the things you had to say. In one of them you said, “I'm not the same reader when I finish a book as I was when I started. Brains are a tangle of pathways. Reading creates new ones. Every book changes your life. I like to ask, how is this book changing mine?” Talk to me about this approach to reading.
Will: It’s really taking up the ancient Greek philosophical statement. You can never step in the same river twice. What does that mean? It means the river’s different, of course, because it’s flowing by you, but you're different. The person who steps again in the river is a different person from the person who stepped in the river before. I try to carry that philosophy throughout all my life and think, how are things changing me? Books are a controlled change experiment. You can really think, on page one, what kinds of things do I believe? Who am I? What do I think about the topic of this book? What do I think about characters like the ones I'm just about to encounter, if it’s a novel?
Then halfway through you say to yourself, has my opinion changed? Do I see this person differently? Do I see people differently? What kinds of insights have I gained? What else has happened to me in life over the last week, days, hours, whatever it is, that has changed how I'm approaching this book? I really believe that reading is growing. Reading is living. There was something my mother would never say to us when we were growing up. She would never say, “Why don't you put down that book and do something?” Reading is doing something. It’s expanding your consciousness. That’s what I meant about I'm not the same reader at the end of a book as I was at the beginning. I'm not even the same reader on page two as I was on page one.
Zibby: I love that. Recently, I reread a book that I had read twenty years ago. I feel like that was also thinking about how much, as a reader, I've changed. The book stays the same, but you read it in a whole new way from a different point of view in your own life.
Will: You really do. Part of that is the experiences you bring. Part of it is age. As you know because you've read books for a living, I'm obsessed with this writer Lin Yutang. I quote him throughout, a Chinese writer who published in the 1930s, a book called The Importance of Living. He has a passage that I just love. He says, “When you read a book as a young person, it’s like seeing the moon through a keyhole. When you read a book as a middle-aged person, it’s like seeing the moon through a crack in the door. When you read a book as an older person, it’s like seeing the moon when you're standing out on a terrace with nothing between you and what you're looking at.”
Zibby: That just gave me goosebumps. I love that. Oh, my gosh. That's really beautiful. You also talk in your book about how reading makes you feel less alone, which is something you do by yourself. You said one of the few things you do alone that can make you feel less alone, it’s a solitary activity that connects you to others. You point out in the book why this is so important in today’s hyperconnected world, to feel connected through words. Tell me more about that.
Will: It’s one of the things that makes you feel less alone. I’ll go into that because I mean a couple of different things by that. I also am on a little bit of a crusade to rebrand reading. I have this saying. I want to call reading radical listening. I really think that, now more than ever, we need to listen to one another. All you need to do is turn on cable news, any night, any channel. You will hear a bunch of people who are not listening to each other. There's a quote that I love. It was not meant as a compliment. The opposite of talking is not listening. It’s waiting for your turn to talk. I think that's how a lot of people approach listening. It’s just simply waiting for their turn to talk, whereas books can be radical listening.
What I mean by radical listening is the person put down the words on the page. You have no choice, if you're going to read it, but to hear them out, hear their argument. Sure, you could skip ahead and hop around. Basically, you're going to have to engage with what they want you to hear. You can argue with them. It’s not going to change the words on the page. You can scream at them. Not going to change the words on the page. You can throw the book across the room. Still not going to change the words on the page. You have to put aside your ego, your prejudices, your thoughts enough when you read to take in what someone else has to say. That's a powerful thing in our lives today because we don't always do it when we’re not reading. In fact, we rarely do it.
Zibby: It’s so interesting. I'm going to join your crusade. If you need someone to carry part of that banner on your march, I will pick up a corner.
Will: I would love “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books” Radical Listening Crusade.
Zibby: Radical Listening Crusade, I love that. That's so nice. I wonder if there could be a study of some sort of -- do narcissists read less? Is there a personality type -- do you see what I'm saying? People who feel compelled to talk, do they approach reading in a different way?
Will: I actually think if we wanted anecdotal evidence, I would say that our president provides that. Not a big reader. Big talker. I’ll leave it at that.
Zibby: We’ll move on. [laughter] In the book, you mentioned that there's some questions we should be asking each other more such as, what are you reading? Would you care for a nap?
Will: Yes. Those are my two favorite questions, or two of my favorite questions. Why I think we should ask people “What are you reading?” more is because it’s a wonderful way of saying to someone, “I want to know more about who you are,” but not in a very intrusive way. There are a lot of reasons for not accosting each other with questions that we may think are perfectly innocent in one sense but can be judged offensive in another. A simple question like “Where are you from?” can take on a very hostile or minimizing tone in certain circumstances. It’s not always a great question to ask. In fact, often it isn't.
“What are you reading?” is a terrific question, or “Are you a reader? If so, what are you reading?” What's amazing is how often in life we judge people. We assume things about them. We assume, for example, that person’s not a reader. How do we know? It’s a marvelous question. I love asking it because I'm almost always surprised. It connects me to my tribe. There are people, they say, “Yes, I'm so glad you asked that. I'm reading this or that,” or “No, I haven't had much time recently for [indiscernible]. When I was a kid, I loved to read Harry Potter,” or “No, I'm not. My dad is a huge reader,” or, no shame in it, “Not really a reader.” Then I can say, “Seen any good movies lately? Are you a sports fan?” It’s just going onto someone's interests and trying to find ways to connect. When you find a reader, it’s really powerful.
There's a story I loved that happened to me. I was talking to someone who was writing an article on books and reading. She was interviewing me. I mentioned this question, this power of “What are you reading?” I gave her a challenge. I said, “When you leave the restaurant today, how are you getting home?” She said, “I'm taking a taxi.” I said to her, “Ask the taxi driver, ‘What are you reading?’” “Okay.” Goes off in the taxi. She calls me later. She said, “You can't believe what happened.” “What happened?” “I said to the taxi driver, ‘What are you reading?’” She told me he was so overcome with emotion that he almost had to pull over. He said that he was a professor, I think it was from Greece. He'd been driving a cab to make it in New York. No one ever asked him what he was reading. They made assumptions about him. He's a taxi driver. “I asked him ‘Where's the best Greek food?’ or ‘Where are you from?’” which he got super tired of. He was reading all sorts of things. He was delighted to talk books with her. In fact, she wound up writing that. It became one of those little stories in Metropolitan Diary in The New York Times. To me, that's the power of “What are you reading?”
Zibby: I love that. The power of napping, you also mention. You point out, too, that we put our computers to sleep. Yet we don't put ourselves to sleep. They get the breaks, but we don't, and the irony of that.
Will: Exactly. We’re on all the time, but we let our computers doze. Napping’s marvelous. I had real fun writing about the joy that certain readers like myself get from napping and reading, and reading and napping, and napping and reading, and spending a whole day groggily waking up, reading a chapter, going back to sleep, waking up, reading another chapter. What's marvelous about that is your subconscious gets to work. You find yourself inserted into the books you're reading. When you dream, you dream yourself with those characters or in those settings. You're on the moors with Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. It’s so fun. I'm a huge napping fan. The napping and reading combo can't be beat.
Zibby: That's awesome. I love that. You wrote really beautifully about your relationship with the librarian at your boarding school, Miss Locke, and how she perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, affected the whole trajectory of your life and how you felt accepted at the time. Tell me a little more about your relationship with her and what she did that was so great.
Will: I was incredibly lucky. I went to an episcopal boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire. I generally really liked it. In fact, I loved it. I was a pretty happy, outgoing kid. It was the late seventies. Very soon, I realized -- I had realized all along that I was gay, but I started to admit it to myself. The news was filled with horrible things at that time. That was Anita Bryant’s crusade against gay people. That was when Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were shot to death. The person who assassinated them was sentenced to only months in prison on what was called the Twinkie defense. He said he'd had so many Twinkies to eat that he had too much sugar in his body. At my boarding school of five hundred kids and a hundred faculty members, there was no out gay student or faculty member and never had been. It was happy on one sense and incredibly isolating on the other.
When I was feeling low or in need of some solitude, I would go into the library, almost always the same time in the afternoons. There I would find Miss Locke, who was the school librarian who was a fantastic figure. She would make these special brownies that she had. One day, I walked in and Miss Locke wasn't there. The library cart was where it always was, in front of her desk. I noticed that there was a book. I knew she knew when I usually came in. I suspected that book was for me. I read that book. She would leave various books for me. One of them was Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. This is a book about a young man named David who goes to Paris and falls in love with a young man named Giovanni. It’s a very dark book. Things do not end well.
There are these glorious scenes that show two men in love as they're walking down the Champs-Élysées throwing cherries in each other's mouths. It really showed me a vision of a life that I had not been able to imagine for myself, a life that could be lived without dread. I don't quite say that book saved my life because I think that's overdramatic, but it saved the life I have. It showed me a vision of a life that I could live. I always had this intense gratitude for Miss Locke. As I write in Books for Living, I did go back at reunions and tell her how much she meant to me and what she’d done for me. I don't think I did it enough or to the extent that I should have. In some ways, I really wanted to put that chapter in this book as a thank you to Miss Locke.
Zibby: Did she read it? Do you know?
Will: No. She had been long dead.
Zibby: Aw, I'm sorry.
Will: She died of ALS. She left -- what a legacy. When I meet other people who went to my school -- it was co-ed, girls and boys, now women and men -- one of the things, “Oh, Miss Locke.” She had such an impact on so many people. It’s also not just a thank you to her, but it’s a love letter to school librarians.
Zibby: That's so nice. You wrote in Books for Living about your experience answering phone at the...
Will: Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
Zibby: Gay Men’s Health Crisis during the beginning of the whole AIDS epidemic. Talk to me about that. I had not read anybody's account of that particular -- your particular point of view was so interesting. Tell me about it. I’ll stop talking.
Will: It was a pretty awful time. I knew how awful it was when we were going through it. I actually had no illusions about that. I'm still stunned about how unprecedentedly awful it was. In the early eighties when AIDS started to hit, the first time I read about it there was a small number of gay men affected. It was in The New York Times. Within a couple of years, the number still was 1,112 and counting, according to the famous Larry Kramer article in the New York Native, which for a gay man living in New York was a staggering number but the rest of the country really didn't care. It was happening to gay men. Who cared? I felt deeply, the need to do something. I also had a boyfriend who, it became clear to me, had died of AIDS. Somewhat out of altruism, but more just to stave off panic -- there was no test for AIDS. No one knew what caused it. HIV hadn’t been discovered. Actually, at first it wasn’t even called AIDS. It was called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, G-R-I-D, GRID.
I started working at the hotline in the just-founded GMHC. We were working out of a single room in a townhouse in Chelsea. I would go to the hotline and spend hours there. I was still in college at the time. This was on summer breaks or vacations. While at college, I worked in AIDS Project New Haven doing the hotline. Received one unimaginably horrible call after another. They were literally calls like, “My lover’s in bed. He's dead. I'm lying next to him. I cannot get any funeral home to come and take his body away.” I would have a list. “I have a couple funeral homes. You can try this one. You can try that one. Good luck.” People being thrown out of their homes, people losing their jobs, and just people in despair, maybe because of someone they lost, maybe because they had just been diagnosed, or this group who had worried themselves sick, many with very good reason.
It was pretty shattering to sit there and take call after call after call. We had some information, but not much. That was a very formative experience in my life. It was, as someone else described it, like we were at war and everybody around us was at peace. You would then leave the Chelsea townhouse and get on the subway and go somewhere else where there was a party or a show. You would come from a battle zone, and these people didn't even know it existed. The city wasn't doing anything. The president of the country, years into AIDS, had never said the word AIDS. We later found out when he did talk about it, it was only to laugh about it in private. It was a horror.
I wanted to put this down for lots of reasons. One of them was I think when people who didn't live through it look back on it, they don't realize the span of time. They don't realize the decade that we lived with friends dying left and right while nobody knew anything. ACT UP came later. Antiretrovirals came later. There was almost a decade of living in this environment and also living -- as a young man, I was right out of college. I was in college really believing with fairly decent evidence that it was likely I wouldn't live to thirty. One other thing I want to say about that is -- this is the context I wrote in Books for Living about it. A lot has been said, quite rightly, about the writers that we lost. We lost so many great writers to AIDS. I wanted to talk about the readers we lost. We lost hundred of thousands of readers. When we read, I feel like I'm not just reading for myself, I'm reading for them. I'm reading for people who aren't here to read anymore.
Zibby: I could sit here and listen to you all day. I see why your books are so -- you are the consummate storyteller. Every question is a well-crafted -- it’s true. What can I ask you next?
Will: My storytelling, I think there are times when people at dinner parties are like, “Can we have a little timeout from this story, please?”
Zibby: Oh, my gosh, no. Come to my dinner parties. I'd love it. Tell me a little more now about the writing side. Books for Living, it’s really a memoir. You talk about all these important things in your life and your loss of your friend David Baer, which you wrote about so beautifully, and all these other milestones and experiences. Yet the lens through which you wrote it was books that conceivably can help other people. Your first book, of course, was amazing, The End of Your Life Book Club, where you share books with your mother as she's dying. Talk to me about these books, this book in particular. What made you write it in this way and your whole writing process?
Will: It’s so funny, Zibby. You really picked up on exactly what I wanted to do. Books for Living is a bit of a fake out. The End of Your Life Book Club, about the books I read with my mom when she was dying of pancreatic cancer, is really about celebrating life and living each day with joy and purpose even though she was dying. Books for Living is a memoir. It is disguised.
Zibby: I figured it out. [laughs]
Will: You figured it out. It’s a memoir. It is a memoir about living each day more purposefully and with more meaning as a tribute to those we've loved who aren't here to live anymore. I also wanted to inspire other people to do their own books for living, and put it forward as a way of understanding your life, and to remember your life through the books you read that gave you insight at the moments you needed the most, and to say to people, it can be any kind of a book. It can be a mystery novel. I write about The Girl on the Train. It can be a children’s book. I write about Stuart Little. It can be a cookbook. I write about A Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis, whatever books they are, not just as a kind of log, but really about a way of conjuring your whole life. The way books, getting back to what we talked about earlier, connect to you to people, they connect you to people, also, who are no longer here. When you read a book that you know someone loved who's dead, it brings them back. When you read a book that you think a friend who's no longer here might have liked or a parent or sibling or whoever you've lost, it allows you to be in a kind of dialogue with them.
When I was writing, I found the writing really joyful because it allowed me to bring back all these friends. It allowed to me to bring back, when I was writing about The Little Prince, Lee Harkins who had been a pal in high school who had died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Then it literally connected me to her because I thought, this is crazy, I haven't called her mother since she died, since the memorial service. Forty years later, I'm on the phone with Lee’s mother who became a hospital chaplain. The Little Prince brought back Lee and led me to Lee’s mom. The writing was so much fun. It was, what books do I remember? What books influenced me? What books did I just read that conjure something from my life that I want to write about?
Zibby: Now this book is that book for other people. It’s the whole circle.
Will: Yes. Thank you. That's what I really hoped, is that Books for Living will do that, get people to say, who haven't I spoke to? What haven't I thought about? What kind of context can I place on my life?
Zibby: The writing process itself, where do you like to write? Do you write right here? How long did the book take you to write?
Will: Here we are in my home. Thank you for coming to visit.
Zibby: Thanks for having me.
Will: I write at the dining table. We’re looking at my laptop, which is on the dining table.
Zibby: Beautiful. It’s so clean. [laughs]
Will: Very pristine. I need twenty-four solid hours to write. I have a full-time job. I cannot write an hour before I go to work. I write all weekend, every weekend. I need every second of it. I behave like a crazy person. I'm like in The Shining, Jack Nicholson. I don't bathe. I don't shave. I sit there, hour after hour after hour doing what any writer does, dawdling, going into internet rabbit holes, following weird Twitter feuds, getting up, walking around. I will write without stop for four hours in a twenty-four-hour period, but I don't know what four hours they are. I have to clear all of the decks. My husband goes nuts because I can't do anything when I'm writing. He’ll come back from doing errands and this and that. He’ll say, “You couldn't put the coffee mug in the sink? You couldn’t get up from --” As you see, it’s not a big apartment. It’s not very far from the dining table to the sink. I'm like, “Nope, I could not.” [laughter] That's my writing process. Then how long it took me, I try to come up with a first draft somewhere between one and two years and then work on it for another year. It’s about three years.
Zibby: Do you have plans for more books?
Will: I'm writing one right now. I'm loving it. All I’ll say about it is it’s about a forty-year friendship with someone totally different from me.
Zibby: I can't wait to read that. You have a full-time job. You also have a podcast and Cookstr, which you started. Tell me a little about the rest of your life.
Will: I started as a journalist. I was a journalist in Asia for a couple of years, then grew up in publishing and wound up as editor in chief, first of William Morrow book publishers and then of Hyperion Books. Quit to start a cooking website called cookstr.com, still thriving. Did that for six years and sold it to Macmillan. Where I work now is Macmillan. They own it. I run that. I acquire and edit and all different kinds of books. I edited Melinda Gates’s most recent book, The Moment of Lift. I also, for Macmillan, do a podcast that I love. It’s so much fun. It’s called “But That's Another Story.” I interview people I admire, mostly writers but not exclusively writers, about a book that changed their life. What was happening in their life? How'd they find that book? How did they change? You don't have to know anything about them. You don't have to have read their book. It’s about my topic, the way books find people when they need them most and change them. I've had Jodie Foster on and Melinda Gates and Min Jin Lee and a wonderful writer, Monique Truong, who has a new book out called The Sweetest Fruits. I'm just having a blast.
Zibby: You can send all those people to me. You could be like, “Your next stop will be...”
Will: [laughs] We’ll do a circuit. Absolutely.
Zibby: What advice do you have to aspiring authors?
Will: Two sets of advice. I’ll start with memoirists. I really believe there's a lot of terrible advice about memoir out there. What's most important about memoir is that it’s you. It’s true to you. If you are a kind of person who always sees the best in everybody, write a memoir that reflects that. You don't have to be scathing to write a memoir. If you're a scathing person, do that. It needs to be true to your voice, your core, who you are, not adhere to some artificial notion of what a memoir is. In fact, one of the reasons that I really wanted to write The End of Your Life Book Club about my mother is I loved my mother. She was an incredibly admirable woman. I wanted to present her life to the world and show how I felt about her and what she taught me through the books we read and the way she lived her life. A lot of people had terrible mothers and difficult childhoods and a lot of trauma. That's their truth. They need to write that. Those make very powerful books, but a lot of people didn't. You can write about whatever it is as long as it’s true to you. I do think that with writing, people get way ahead of themselves. They think about agents and publishers and this and that. Write the best book you possibly can. Just do the best book you possibly can. Then worry about that. That's tough advice. It’s easy to get ahead of yourself. To me, it’s really as simple as that. That applies whether it’s fiction or memoir or essays. Whatever it is, it needs to be there on the page.
Zibby: Did you have a follow up? You said you would only talk about memoir. Do you have advice to other types of authors? Was there something else?
Will: [laughs] This is my advice to all authors. There's a question. You're not going to be surprised what question I like to ask any author. What are you reading? Read, read, read, read. You cannot be a writer without reading. I believe that to the depths of my soul. You don't have to read in your genre. You can read anything you like, but you have to read.
Zibby: Easy enough. Great. Check! Thank you so much. Your stories, your books, your advice, all of it is amazing. Thank you for sharing it and your love of reading. I can't wait to hear what other people I pass in the course of my day today are reading, maybe people I wouldn't have thought to ask. Thank you for the [indiscernible/crosstalk].
Will: Great. I want to hear too. When you find out, let me know.
Zibby: I will.
Will: That's how I've gotten some of my very best book recommendations. Oh, I have to add one other thing on the “What are you reading?” thing. It will not surprise anybody that there are two groups of people who it is very important to ask this question of particularly, people who work in indie bookstores and librarians. I have discovered a huge percentage of my favorite books by simply going into -- we live in New York City. I go into Three Lives bookstore. I ask them, what are you reading? All the booksellers tell me. I choose the best ones. They’ve given me so much joy. Yes, ask everybody everywhere. I love to go into indie bookstores and libraries and ask that question.
Zibby: Excellent. Thanks, Will. Thank you.
Will: Thanks, Zibby.