Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Q&A with Zibby Owens- Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature

November 11th, 2022
Books & Authors

All bibliophiles will find solace in this memoir Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Literature Its author Zibby Owens, author, podcaster, publisher, CEO and mother of four,  charts her major life events and the books that marked her during these periods, starting with Charlotte’s Web when she was eight years old. In her award winning podcast Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books Owens interviews authors daily. Yes, every day! This woman has a lot of energy. One of my favorite interviews, and hers, is with her father Blackstone founder Stephen Schwarzman where he discusses the importance of failure, how he breathes to get through stress and how vital it is to give your children “unqualified love.” Owen’s style is warm and inquisitive, and makes me want to launch a podcast, only I’m a slow reader so an interview a month would be my ideal.

Here’s my Q&A:

Zibby, before I delve into that Herculean feat of producing a podcast every day, I’d like to focus on your book. You are so honest and open about your fascinating life. Books have always been a huge passion for you. You write:

And then, with a deep breath, I plunge into the first chapter like I’m flying off the white diving board into my black-bottomed childhood pool. That underwater intimacy stays with me for decades and returns when I just glance at the book’s spine, humbly lined up next to others on my shelf.’

With every life event you list several books that you were reading at the time that helped you somehow. The reading list at the back of your book totals several hundred books. Can you tell us about the first book that moved you, Charlotte’s Web and why?

Charlotte’s Web was the first book that made me cry. It made me realize just how deeply books could penetrate my emotions. I loved it.

What inspired you to write your story? And how long did it take?

I’ve been writing and rewriting part of the memoir since 2003 when I took a year “off” from life to write a book about losing my best friend on 9/11. It has gone through a zillion iterations as my life has changed.

In your memoir you write “It’s the corrosive power of secret keeping that propels many works of fiction and memoir.” Does that apply to you and if so, how?

Ha! Good question. I only have a couple secrets. But I’m not telling.

Writing comes easy to you. Tell us about the first article you wrote for Seventeen magazine.

I was really upset after I’d gained about 20 pounds in the aftermath of my parents’ divorce. After I passed a man on the street who said, “Hey, big girl!” I cried and then wrote. My mom found my stream of consciousness journal entry and said, “Zib! You need to send this into a magazine. It could help so many other girls.” So I did. And so my life changed.

Later, you lost your best friend in 9/11 just after you started Harvard Business School. You wrote a beautiful essay about your loss just a few weeks after she died. How do reading and writing help you make sense of things?

Writing allows me to dump all the thoughts in my head in one place and organize them. It’s like when I clean out my drawers. I dump it all on the floor and then put things back, one by one. But first: the dumping! Then I can slide the drawer back in, sorted. Calm.

When quoting Sue Shapiro, a writing professor you once had (me too! She’s great), you wrote, “Sue taught me that rejection isn’t personal.” What did you mean by that?

I mean that editors are looking for particular stories. Or they aren’t looking for anything at all! Or they’re busy. Or they only use trusted freelancers. Being rejected isn’t a reflection of talent. It’s a reflection of availability and matching.

You’ve had a very full life marked by profound sadness and joy and some light comedy. Can you tell us about your first job after Harvard Business School?

 My first job, while I was writing a novel and freelancing for magazines, was as a receptionist at Weight Watchers. I’d hit my “goal weight” and applied to help other women weigh, deal with all the funds, process sales, and restock the shelves. Definitely wasn’t putting my freshly minted MBA to use, but I was helping and connecting with women. Soon I was leading the meetings, inspiring women to lose weight and feel better about themselves.

You write about falling in love with your husband- at the time, you were married with four little kids. When did you know Kyle, your tennis pro back then, was your soulmate?

I don’t know if there was one exact moment but it was a feeling that built over time until it couldn’t be set aside.

You write about the difficulties of young motherhood, the constant stress you were under trying to be the perfect mom. You wrote an essay for the Huffington Post called “A Mother’s Right to Sanity.” Your experiences eventually spawned your podcast- Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books. Can you tell us about that?

Sure! After that essay went a bit viral on Huff Post, I started writing many more parenting essays. After a year, Kyle suggested I turn them into a book. I sighed, rolled my eyes, and said, “Moms don’t have time to read books.” Then I said, “That’s so funny! That’s what I’ll call my book.” So I decided to try to sell it. A new girlfriend, bestselling author Sarah Mlynowski, met me for coffee and said she didn’t think that a parenting essay collection was a good idea but that I should start a podcast. I took the name from that proposal and turned it into a podcast!

You write about attending author events before you launched your podcast and not hearing enough of what you wanted to learn: “My favorite moments were when the author thanked her husband or her agent and I got to see who else was in their lives, like watching the proud wife cry when her husband wins the Oscar.” Please expand on this.

I just liked seeing what the author was really like, in her unguarded, non-performative moments. What I saw on the page. That’s what I was after.

You’re a prolific reader. You must come across some lemons. How long do you give a book that’s not working for you?

Two pages. Max.

Tell us about Zibby Books.

Zibby Books’ general ethos is: stories are best when shared. We’re publishing 12 books a year in contemporary upmarket fiction and memoir. All of them have a strong sense of voice and place, propulsive narratives, and beautiful writing. Our first book comes out in February 2023. We’ve acquired 27 books already! We’re also rebuilding the house from scratch from an author’s point of view and rethinking the relationships between publisher and author. I think we’re all on the same team. We even have profit sharing to further enforce that.

You read a book a day. And interview authors every day for your podcast, in addition to everything else you do (!!!).  I am almost afraid to ask, what’s next? But from reading your book, I know you always have new goals. There is no moss under your feet. So, what’s next?

Secret: I’m opening a bookstore!

What books are on your nightstand now?

I just finished Justin Bateman’s FACE and just started Joanna Margaret’s THE BEQUEST.

And lastly, tell us something surprising about yourself?

I don’t read the New Yorker.

Thank you so much for answering these questions. And for everything else you do to promote the love of books and help authors.

You too! Thanks!

November, 2022

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