29 Nov Episode 187 #TheThankYouProjectProject
The infamous how-to meets self-help meets memoir-with-a-dash-of-stunt genre. It may be awkwardly named, but we love it.
This week’s guest didn’t realize she was laying the groundwork for her first book when she decided to write 50 thank you notes to the people, things and places that shaped her in honor of her 50th birthday—but of course she was When you can define a thing and the time frame and the reasons for doing it so clearly, what else can you do but inspire other people to do the same? But the road from I’m doing this thing to I’m publishing this book isn’t clear (although in this case it was lightning fast). This week, Nancy Davis Kho talks to us about what it took to make her book saleable, then write the damn thing and make it really really good.
Episode links and a transcript follow—but first, did you catch the #WritersTopFive that popped into your inbox Monday? (And if it didn’t, HELLO, you need to subscribe to our free weekly #AmWriting emails!)
That was just a little taste. We do those every week. I just scheduled Top Five Reference Books for All Novelists, and Three More for Special Occasions, and you don’t want to miss it. (You won’t believe the kinds of things that can be turned into an encyclopedias or dictionary.) We also recorded the first of many #MiniSupporter episodes that will slip right into the podcast feeds of #AmWriting supporters everywhere. Support the podcast you love AND get weekly #WriterTopFives with actionable advice you can use for just $7 a month.
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LINKS FROM THE PODCAST
Aya deLeon, author of the Justice Hustlers series.
#AmReading (Watching, Listening)
Nancy: The Good Lord Bird, James McBride
Jess: Sense and Sensibility, narrated by Kate Winslet
KJ: What Should I Read Next—the podcast from Anne Bogel, aka the Modern Mrs Darcy. (I’m obsessed with it. I’ve found so many great new reads!)
A Great Good Place for Books, Oakland
This episode was sponsored by Author Accelerator, the book coaching program that helps you get your work done. Check out their FREE (and epic) upcoming summit on the Business of Book Coaching if you’re intrigued, or visit https://www.authoraccelerator.com/amwriting for details, special offers and Jennie Nash’s Inside-Outline template.
If you enjoyed this episode, we suggest you check out Marginally, a podcast about writing, work and friendship.
Transcript (We use an AI service for transcription, and while we do clean it up a bit, some errors are the price of admission here. We hope it’s still helpful.)
KJ: 00:02 Hey there listeners, it’s KJ. What with Jess starting in on a new project lately, we’ve been talking a lot about nonfiction and research. If that’s your kind of work, our sponsor, Author Accelerator can help and you don’t have to go all in with full on book coaching if you’re not ready. Check out their new four week long nonfiction framework program that will help you nail down your structure before you start to write, or after your writing and realizing, dang, this thing needs a backbone. Authors of self-help, how-to, and academic texts will find the shape of their books, create a working one page summary that helps reveal that shape at a glance, and develop a flexible table of contents to guide you through the drafting and revision process. You can find a lot more, including previews of much of the material, by going to authoraccelerator.com/nonfictionframework. Is it recording?
Jess: 00:02 Now it’s recording.
KJ: 00:02 Yay.
Jess: 00:02 Go ahead.
KJ: 01:00 This is the part where I stare blankly at the microphone like I don’t remember what I was supposed to be doing.
Jess: 01:01 Alright. Let’s start over.
KJ: 01:06 Awkward pause, I’m going to rustle some papers. Now one, two, three. Hey, I am KJ Dell’Antonia and this is #AmWriting the podcast about all things writing – nonfiction, fiction, book proposals, essays, not poetry. I made that joke a few weeks ago, but I just can’t stop because I feel like it’s not all the things. I am KJ Dell’Antonia, your rambling host, and this is the podcast about getting your work done.
Jess: 01:45 And I’m Jess Lahey. I’m the author of the Gift of Failure and a forthcoming book. It won’t be till spring of 2021, a book on preventing substance abuse in kids and you can find me at the New York Times, and at the Atlantic, and at the Washington Post. And we have such a guest today. We have such a guest.
KJ: 02:05 I didn’t really introduce myself.
Jess: 02:06 Go ahead, please go.
KJ: 02:08 I just introduced myself as your rambling host and I am so much more than that.
Jess: 02:13 You go, and then we’ll let that weird person who no one even knows, we’ll let her talk after. But KJ, you go first.
KJ: 02:24 I am KJ Dell’Antonia. I am the author of the novel The Chicken Sisters, which you can’t buy yet, but you’ll be able to next summer and believe me, you’ll hear all about it. Also of How To Be a Happier Parent. I’m the former editor of the Motherlode blog at the New York Times, where I sometimes still contribute and I am working on novel number, whatever it is if you count the ones in the drawer and we don’t know if it will be published, that’s what I’m doing. So that’s who I am and why you should (or should not) listen to me.
Jess: 02:57 We have a guest today who you should definitely listen to. Because she’s hysterical, and wonderful, and funny, and has a book coming out that is fantastic and very near and dear to my heart. We are talking today to Nancy Davis Kho. She is a writer. She’s written for Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Adirondack Life, The Rumpus, all these various places. She’s in an anthology called Listen To Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now. And Listen To Your Mother, by the way, is hysterical if you’ve never come across it before. Nancy has a fantastic book coming out this month that is, as I said, so near and dear to my heart because it’s about thanking people. And so, thank you Nancy, for being on the podcast today.
Nancy: 03:41 I pretty much wrote a book in order to be on your podcast, just so you know.
Jess: 03:46 Nancy has her own podcast, one of my very favorites. It’s the Midlife Mixtape podcast and if you are not already listening, you should. Because it’s wonderful, and fantastic, and it makes me very happy every single time I listen to it.
Nancy: 04:03 You guys are so nice. Can I call you every morning, Jess, and just have you say, ‘You matter.’
Jess: 04:09 I love this book, not only because thank you notes are really important part of not only my personal life but my professional life, but because I feel like KJ and I have had a personal stake in the project because we’ve gotten to hear about the process of you writing this book, and pitching this book, and how it all came about. So we usually like to start by talking sort of about how you got started writing, KJ often likes to ask what the first thing you got paid to write was, and we’ll go from there.
Nancy: 04:44 Oh wow, I’ll have to think about the answer to that question. Thank you so much for having me on the show. And also you guys have been such tremendous cheerleaders and sources of real pragmatic information. I have listened to so many of your episodes and just scribble down as I’m going because this podcast is so invaluable in helping people as they’re going into various, you know, the first time you’re doing this, the first time you’re doing that, you guys have had guests on who’ve talked about that. So it’s such a great resource and I really am honored to be on the show.
Jess: 05:20 And you’re going to have to listen to some of the publicity episodes – like the marketing and publicity episodes.
Nancy: 05:26 Jess, am I brand new? I’ve already listened. I started listening to them a second time, please. The one where you guys were talking about your book launch plans. I listen to podcasts oftentimes when I’m hiking and I can picture the stretch of the Oakland Hills where I was, where KJ was talking about how many rows were in the spreadsheet and I was like, ‘I can’t do all of this. God.’ But it was good.
KJ: 05:53 You’re just lucky Jess didn’t talk about how many rows in her spreadsheet.
Jess: 05:58 Tell us about how you got started.
Nancy: 06:02 My background is in international business. I studied that in college. I got a couple of degrees in that, I picked up a husband in an international business program. So it all worked out. And I spent about 17 years doing that and I loved it. But whenever anybody would ask me, ‘If you could do anything, what would you want to do?’ I would say, ‘Oh, I’d like to be a writer.’ Here’s my reason: it seems portable, I think I could do that from anywhere. That was my basic feeling about it. But I did always love writing. And you know, I’ve been an avid reader. All of us, right? Anybody listening to this show, we’ve all been reading since we were in short pants. And nothing like a 40th birthday to give you a bit of an identity crisis. And I thought, ‘My God, I’m going to turn 40. And I tell people I want to be a writer. I’ve never tried. Maybe I should try writing. That would be a thing I could do.’ So I took a class the summer before I turned 40 and by the time I finished (it was a class in creative memoir or I think it was just personal essays) and by the time I finished the class, I’d had two things published. And I was like, ‘You know what? I love this.’ I loved getting the byline and I just loved the process of writing. So that is now 13 years ago in the rear view mirror. And I thought at the time, as you do when you’re a beginner at anything, I was like, ‘Hmm, what’s the hardest thing that I’m not qualified to do? I know I will write a novel of historical fiction that deals with race issues from the standpoint of a white woman. That’s what the world needs now.’ So I commenced to spending six years researching and writing a novel that is composting very nicely in a drawer. I can see which drawer in my office it is sitting in right now. And that was hard work. I told my husband, ‘I’m a writer now, I’m going to quit my corporate job. Neglecting to factor in that I had two small kids who needed (we live in the Bay area, everybody needs to work) So it was a bumpy time – the writing I loved, the researching I loved, like the whole writing part of it was great. It was trying to figure out how to balance the lifestyle with that that was challenging. And also just realizing how much I had to learn as a writer. And I think one of the messages I try to put on the podcast all the time, so the Midlife Mixtape Podcast is about the years between being hip and breaking one. And I started it because I wanted there to be a counter narrative to midlife being a crisis because what I found was that it wasn’t an identity crisis to become a writer. It was like I was adding something to myself. I was doing something that made me happy. And now it didn’t work right out of the gate. I didn’t publish a novel when I was 41, but I was challenging myself, and learning new stuff, and eventually I ended up going back to corporate work and doing that part time. And that’s kind of been my gig ever since. I have a day job, I work in digital content licensing. I really like it, I have mastery at it, I’ve been doing it for years and years. And then I have this creative side where I can do the writing. So I think as a writer, I just feel like I’ve been pragmatic in terms of forgiving myself for not being successful right away. And so, I spent six years getting better and better and still not having a novel that needed to see the light of day. And then when I finished with that, I got frustrated and I had started the blog, Midlife Mixtape, and I realized that what felt very comfortable to me was humor writing. It came to me naturally. I’m the youngest of three in a family of very funny people and you really have to bring your A game all the time in my family. So, for me that was a much easier voice to write in. I always say my goal is to sound like Erma Bombeck meets David Sedaris, you know, not mean spirited but funny, and kind of poignant. And so after a little while writing in that voice on Midlife Mixtape, I thought, ‘I know I’ll write a book about my midlife music crisis.’ And I wasn’t really having a midlife music crisis, to be honest. What had happened is, I went to a concert and a bouncer said to me, ‘Are you just here to drop off your kids?’ I mean, I’ve been an avid concert goer since I was 14 and that shook me. So I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I am too old to go to a Vampire Weekend concert. Maybe I should try to find more midlife appropriate music.’ But the truth was, I still kept going to shows like that. I started going to the symphony, I started going to heavy metal shows, I was trying all different kinds of stuff. But I felt like I was manufacturing the arc of my story a little bit. And I think that always kind of stuck with me that I was telling a funny story people could relate to, this memoir that I spent only three years writing that one. So I doubled my speed from which I had written the historical fiction novel. But there was something about that story that never connected, even for me, because I just felt like, okay. As this one writing mentor of mine said, ‘What, you wanted to go to a concert, you kept going to concerts. There’s not a lot of character change here, you know. Any good memoir needs that needs that arc.’ And so I got to see a lot of fun shows and I wrote about those on the blog. But that book also came closer to what I wanted to write, but it still wasn’t quite the right thing. So that one went into a drawer and that was now I guess about three years ago, four years ago.
Jess: 11:55 Well, and I have to say you’re definitely learning your lessons. Because all of the things you’re criticizing about the early work that stayed in the drawer is like the antithesis of what I found when I opened The Thank You Project. So keep going with your story, but I just want to say that like all of these realizations, you’re having, you know, the sort of there being no trajectory, there being no personal connection. Like that’s what The Thank You Project is about from the very first page, a very personal project that came out of a very important moment in your life. I think even if I didn’t know you personally, I would be very connected with you as a writer from the first page of this book. So, those lessons were really important for you to learn. I think that’s how we get there, as KJ and I both know, you got to write a lot of bad stuff.
KJ: 12:48 We never talk about this, but you and I both, Jess, have memoirs in drawers.
Jess: 12:53 Yup. Yeah we do.
KJ: 12:54 I mean that just, it just doesn’t come up. Like we talk a lot about my novel in a drawer. But it rarely comes up that I have, I can’t remember if I wrote the whole thing, but I definitely have a memoir proposal in the drawer. And you have a memoir proposal and I think pretty much the memoir.
Jess: 13:10 Oh no, I have the whole thing. I sold chunks of it as essays and and that was sort of the thing I got out of it.
Nancy: 13:22 Well, and I think this is really my message to anybody who’s listening, and feeling frustrated, and wondering why the project isn’t working. Fast forward to spring of 2018, which is when the idea for this book, The Thank You Project, came along and I know we’re going to talk about it, but my message is every misstep I took was actually getting me closer to this book that I feel so strongly about, I feel so proud of, I feel like I’m the right person to tell this story that’s in this book. And all that other stuff, all those years I wasn’t getting published. What was I doing? I was meeting great writers. I was reading books by great writers. I was very happily sharing the work of other writer friends and promoting them and I was getting better at my craft. I was building my network of support. And so now I’m hugely gratified, but you know, there’s so many people trying to help me with this book and that’s because I put in 12 years of work that didn’t feel at the time like it was amounting to anything. But now it’s all paying off. So anybody who’s listening and feeling frustrated, I would just say, please don’t give up. Because there’s a reason, there’s a path.
Jess: 15:03 Well what’s funny is before I wrote the proposal, as KJ well knows, for the book I just finished, I actually went through the trouble of writing proposals for a bunch of books that weren’t quite right and what they were was sort of circling around the topic, but also really important work for me to do to figure out, Oh okay, so this aspect of this topic fits in somewhere, but I’m not quite sure how. So that finally when that idea comes, you have some familiarity with the things that aren’t particularly interesting, or working, or whatever. So when you have that moment, it’s super exciting when you have that idea for, Oh this is the thing. In fact, I pulled off the road and I texted Sarina and KJ right away and said, ‘This is it. This is the thing, I know this is the right thing.’
Nancy: 16:26 Well, and that’s how it felt. So the book is called The Thank You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time. And what happened was I found an agent for that music memoir, it did not sell. And I really had a time where I thought maybe I’m not a writer, I know I’m good at writing these little blog posts and I get essays published, but maybe I don’t have it in me to do a full length work. So I’m going to take this creative energy and I started the podcast and turns out I love podcasting; I’m a tech nerd at heart. A lot of the work I did the first 17 years of my career was in the software industry. So I love working, learning new technology, and everything. I was really struggling a little bit with this idea that maybe I’m not an author, I’m a writer, but not an author. I guess that’s probably not an uncommon thing. And it occurred to me one day (and I was 49) it occurred to me that the reason my book didn’t sell was because my character, myself in the memoir, wasn’t unhappy. There wasn’t a transition because she started off happy and she ended up happy. And I’m like, that’s not a problem, that’s something to be really grateful for. And this was at the end of 2015, and in 2016 I was going to turn 50. And I’m like, ‘You know what, the thing I should do to honor and commemorate my 50th birthday is to thank the people that have made it possible for me to be where I am.’ You know, my parents were alive, my husband’s great, been married to him since forever, we’ve got two girls, you know, everything’s fine. So I thought the way I want to celebrate my 50th year is I will write a letter every week, a thank you letter once a week, to somebody who has helped, or shaped, or inspired me up to this point in my life. And of course when you tell the universe that you’re doing this because everything’s going great, everything goes to shit pretty darn quickly. So I started writing my letters and it was really great. I’d sit down every week and you know, write a letter to my nephew Tristan, or to my friend Kitty who lives in Australia. And it just was wonderful every week to sit down and think about this person who had been meaningful in my life and what lessons that I learned from them and how they’d help me.
KJ: 18:44 I’m going to interrupt, cause I know where you’re going. At this point, this isn’t a book?
Nancy: 18:49 No, no. These are just letters.
KJ: 18:51 This is just something you’re doing. So this is not like stunt journalism, in which you’re, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll write…’ This is a genuine thing, right?
Nancy: 18:59 I wasn’t even an author at that point, anymore. I’d kind of tried it and not gotten through anything. So I was just writing thank you letters because that seemed like a good way to mark a period of my life. So halfway through the year, my dad gets diagnosed with cancer and he is gone in six weeks. We had no idea he was sick. My older daughter left for college a couple of weeks after the funeral and that was certainly not a sad thing, but it was a big adjustment to have your older kid to go off to school and she goes to school on the East coast. So she’s far. And then it was the 2016 presidential election, so everybody’s anxiety level was through the roof. And I realized the worse things got, the more I needed the thank you letters. Because it was just this moment every week where I could crowd out all this sadness, and this tension, and the worry, and I’d be like, ‘Hmm, I’m gonna write a letter to the city of Oakland. Because you know what? It’s not even just people who have shaped me, it’s places I’ve lived. And then I had a period of writing letters to cities and then I started writing letters to dead authors. Like I love Jane Austen. I’m going to write her a letter, but I’m going to have to explain some things to her. And it got to be really fun. And anyway, I got to the end of the 50 letters, (took me longer than a year) printed them all out, bound them in a book, and flip through that book all the time. You know, you rifle through it and you go, ‘Oh yeah, my Aunt Nooney is so nice to me.’ You’re having a bad day, read about what your Aunt Nooney did for you. You know, it’ll cheer you up, it’ll remind you that when you’re in hardship, you’ve almost never been alone. That there’s always people around you. So, just in and of its own self as a writing exercise, writing the thank you letters was really important. So now it’s spring of 2018 and one of the people who got the letters, Ann Imig who is the editor of the Listen To Your Mother Anthology and the founder of that empire said, ‘Nancy, that’s your book. You need to tell people how to do this.’ And I’m like, ‘What? It’s so straightforward. You write a thank you letter.’ But then another friend of ours who knew that I had done it, sat me down and she’s like, ‘Okay, who did you write to? How long was the letter? What did you put in the letter? How did you organize it?’ And I answered questions for her for like an hour. And I thought, ‘Okay, maybe it’s not as straightforward as I thought it was.’ So I thought, you know, at this point, the podcast was cooking along, my day job’s cooking along. My kids are, you know, I’ve got one in college, one in high school, nobody needs me around anymore. I got some free time. So I thought I’ll just start writing a few chapters of this, just think about how I would write a book that explains to people how to do their own thank you project. And it poured out of me, I wrote that proposal so quickly. Why? Because I had two other book proposals that I’d already done. Yes, I wrote a book proposal for a fiction novel. Don’t ask me, I know it’s wrong. And now I know that. At the time when I was writing my historical fiction I didn’t know. So, there’s the reason I wrote two proposals because when I really needed one, I literally just could do a find replace, for the most part. So it was just kind of a proof of concept to myself that this could be something. And I wasn’t going to get an agent, because agents hadn’t sold my book before, so why would I bother? And then people like KJ, and Jess, and a couple other people said, ‘You should talk to an agent.’ So I started in April 2018, at the end of May 2018 I reached out to a few agents who I’d met in person and online, and three or four of them came back and said, ‘I would love to see this proposal.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s weird.’ And I got it out the door. And then the timeframe was I signed with our wonderful agent (we all have the same one, Laurie Abkemeier) who’s been wonderful, signed with her in June, we worked on the proposal together in July, and I signed a deal with Running Press in the end of August. This is all last year. So I signed the deal with Running Press in August. My deadline was November 15th for the finished book.
Jess: 23:16 You had written parts of it -Yes? No?
Nancy: 23:19 Well, I’d written the first three chapters that belonged in the proposal…
Jess: 23:25 So what had you been smoking to make you think that you could set a deadline that quickly? What was the thinking behind that?
Nancy: 23:33 I knew how to write this book, I knew how to tell this story. I’d written the letters. I knew how impactful they could be. I really wanted other people to know. I am spiritual, I’m a church lady, I go to this Episcopal church. And I do think this is one of those cases where I was given a message to share because that’s something I can do. I can tell like a funny, uplifting story. It’s taken me 13 years, but I know how to do that. In the places where the other two books had been a struggle – I don’t want to say I couldn’t have told those stories, but this one just was easy for me. I just knew what I wanted to say, and I and I knew how to say it. And let’s face it, I do use snippets of the letters and there were days that I needed the #AmWriting podcast, I’m like, ‘Ooh, I need a burn chart. I need to know what my daily word count is. And there were days where I’m like, ‘Well I’m talking about a letter to write to a doctor, maybe I’ll include a snippet of the letter I wrote to my OB.’ I just covered my word chart, like put in two paragraphs, and I’d be done, go get my coffee. So there was a little bit of source material in that I do include snippets of my letters to kind of get people started. But I didn’t want it to just be my letters. I ended up interviewing a few people who had done something similar, so I’ve got some other people’s examples. And then the thing that I loved about writing the book was that it gave me a chance to delve into the science of happiness and gratitude. Cause I didn’t want it to just be, ‘This is what I did, so you should try it.’ I wanted to steep it in some quantitative research that talks about why gratitude letters are so magic. And you know, low and behold, during those 13 years when I was freelance writing, I interviewed a bunch of happiness researchers for various publications. So I had the Rolodex – does anybody listening know what a Rolodex is? I had the phone numbers, okay? So I called the researchers and I got to interview them and you know, again, that was not wasted time. All of that stuff is why I could do it in two and a half months.
Jess: 25:50 And it’s why KJ, over and over again, insists that I’m not allowed to say, ‘You know, boy, I got really lucky with Gift of Failure, right place, right time.’ Well, no, it was a lot of work and it’s that work that other people don’t see.
KJ: 26:04 Preparation meeting opportunity.
Jess: 26:06 Yeah, exactly. There you go. There you go. The thing that I was really interested in – let’s say you’ve got all of these letters, and you’ve got this idea about how you want to do this. In terms of organization, I really liked the way you organize the book and it was a little unexpected. I thought it was going to be like sequential, but you did a really interesting thing with the organization. I’m kinda wondering how you arrived at that particular sequence.
Nancy: 26:37 Welcome to my brain, cause I do think it’s sequential. I knew that I wanted the introduction because (I’m not gonna give away the whole introduction) but basically when my dad got his letter (I wrote to him and my mom first) and my dad was very cute and called me and he’s like, ‘Aww, Nance, I loved it. I put it in a frame and it’s over my desk.’ So I knew I wanted to start with the fact that my dad had this letter framed and sitting over his desk. And then I figured I would need to go through exactly all the questions that Melissa asked me on the porch that day. Like, ‘Who did you write to? How did you…’ So there’s a first chapter that’s all about how you can organize this. And I want to say at the outset, throughout this book, I say, ‘But that’s what I did, do what you want.’ Like nobody is in charge of your pace, what you write, who you write to. And the amazing thing about gratitude letters (as I found out from the researchers) is that even just thinking about what you would put in a letter creates happiness benefits for you. So it’s all about firing the neurons and getting the positive outlook kind of codified within your brain pan. That’s how I would explain it. So writing it down is great, but even if you read this book, and just think about the things that I’m talking about, people will get benefits. But then, after that section, the whole rest of the book is, here’s the kinds of people who you might want to think about writing. And I think some of the categories are obvious – from friends and family. Although less obvious, because do you ever write a thank you letter to your spouse, or to your kid, or to your parent? Probably not. You know, there’s a whole category of people that we take for granted and so that’s kind of where I start. And part of the reason is because it gets the juices flowing for when you’re writing the thank you letters, you know, you have a lot of source material for those people. But as I went through my own process and I just kept coming back to this idea of, okay, who helped me, shaped me, inspired me. Well, one of the people who helped me was my German ex-boyfriend when I lived in Germany and didn’t know how to file taxes. It didn’t work out with him. But man, he made sure my taxes were done every year on time and properly, and I wouldn’t have been able to stay in Germany if I’d screwed up, their bureaucracy is on it. Like I’m sure they would’ve found me and sent me back to America. So I wrote a letter to him and this is when I figured out that I could write letters and not send them. Nobody needed to know that I was doing this. So I could write a thank you letter to anybody. I could write it to my childhood bully; I was so sensitized to bullying because I had been a victim of it, that my kids from the minute they started school, we talked about bullying. What do you do if you see it? What do you do? How do you help somebody going through it? How do you make sure you’re never the perpetrator? You know, I’m not sure I would have been so tuned into that if I hadn’t known this person. Now, that was a letter I actually chose not to write. That was one where I was like, ‘You know what, I don’t want to spend any more time on her.’ But you could. And so, it was fun to kind of expand and so I did that in writing my own letters. But in writing the book, what I loved was thinking about, ‘Well, who’s going to read this? Could be anybody.’ So what other things, like what’s outside of my world, that I should think about and prompt people to write about. Like, I’ve never been in the army, but I made sure to say like, ‘You might want to write a letter to your drill instructor.’ You know, there’s so many kinds of people, and I just tried really hard in writing it to have as an inclusive tone as I could. And I had a few people read it who had very different experiences from me, and that’s what I asked them to read for. I wanted to make sure that someone who wasn’t heterosexual would also feel like this book spoke to them and somebody who wasn’t white would also feel…So I was at a conference that I had the chance to hear Aya de Leon, do you guys know her? She’s a Bay area writer and professor. She writes these really great crime capers with African-American heroines. And a lot of times her heroines are sex workers and she’s really about like, they’re very feminist, but they kind of they have a message that’s a little bit hidden.
Jess: 31:18 I’m looking at the covers right now, they’re so good. They’re these women, sort of face forward at the camera, The Boss, and then another one called Side Chick Nation, and another one called Uptown Thief. They’re fantastic covers, I love them. And really strong women with their shoulders back and sort of facing you like, yeah, bring it. I like it.
Nancy: 31:40 Right. And she’s really smart. And at this conference I went to, she was just saying, ‘If you want to write diverse character well, have diverse friends.’ I just thought that’s so obvious. But as writers, if you want to reach out to a diverse audience, make sure you’ve got those people in your real life so that you can go to them. And that was, again, my 13 years of preparation. I knew who I could ask to read for different things. And so that was a part of the review process.
Jess: 32:14 One of the things that you said, you asked a lot of people who had experience outside of yours to help you, but the thing that you did really well in the book is to create these ideas about how you should think about the thank you notes. And one of the things you said was, ‘Who or what has shaped me?’ And that is such a personal question, but a question that is universal. Because as you said, it could be the ex-boyfriend that things didn’t work out with. But everyone’s got those people that you realize, Oh wow, I didn’t actually thank that person. And it may not have been a particularly positive experience at the time, but that question alone right there, I think, makes the book nice and generalizes it for everyone. I love that question.
Nancy: 32:56 Well, and I hope that given that it’s coming out before we start another presidential election year, people are so isolated and people are so quick to judge now, and maybe we always were, but it just feels different. And part of what I think these letters can do is remind us the small ways that people in our lives have helped us. Even if we were on opposite sides of a divide now, they’ve made a difference for us. And just sending those letters (or even if you write and it’s not possible for you to send it) even writing it to remind yourself of the humanity of the people on the receiving end, I think is really powerful. So I’m glad it’s coming out when it does, I hope it is helpful for people next year. I’m just really excited for it to come out. Can I say one thing? Because of this audience, I think I can share this. The one thing that I wanted to mention is that the same week that I got the book deal, my mom was diagnosed with lymphoma. And my mom’s 86, and she’s in an assisted living place, and she’s got dementia. And they initially gave my mom a two and a half month…I was going to say sentence. That’s what it felt like, they said that’s how much time she has left. And it was awful, because on the same week I got this amazing news, I got horrible news. And I’m not going to leave you in suspense, Mom’s doing fine, we took her to a specialist a few weeks later who kind of said, ‘It’s not nearly as dire as the first guy said and here’s a bunch of treatment options.’ And so mom is hanging in, she still loves John Denver, we talk a lot about John Denver. No, but it was a real exercise in compartmentalization. That’s why I bring it up, because I knew I had to get this book done, and my siblings are amazing. I would have probably said like, ‘I can just not do the book.’ and they would have never forgiven me. So they’re like, ‘Figure out what your schedule is, come home if you can, and you’ll get it done.’ So the shitty first draft was done in six weeks, and I flew to Rochester to visit with my mom, and spent a week with her, came back, and then I finished the book after that. And the whole time I just had to keep these two things separate, because I could not have finished the book otherwise. And when it was over, I completely fell apart for a little while. And the irony was, writing the thank you notes again, writing about thank you notes, I got to kind of use them a second time in just the same way that I had the first time I wrote the letters. You know, to kind of say, ‘My mom’s got an X-Ray today, and we don’t know what it’s going to find, but Hey, I’m writing about how funny it was that time I wrote a letter to so-and-so.’ If you think of writers sitting in a cabin somewhere, and having all their diversions taken away, and there’s nothing but good whiskey and the sound of this pounding surf, I think that’s bullshit. You know, you just have to write through what you have to write through. And I felt lucky to have the opportunity. Who’s the biggest reader I know? My mom, you know, back when she could read, I was not going to let her down.
Jess: 36:39 Is she pretty stoked for you?
Nancy: 36:42 She’s pretty hilarious, my mother. She is stoked; she remembers that I have a book, that’s landed somewhere, I don’t think she knows what it’s about. She’s astonished that I told her I will bring her a book in person and hand deliver it to her. Well, she literally was the one who put the love of reading in me, so there you go.
KJ: 37:06 I mean we’d all like that cabin, but you know, both Jess and I had big deadlines this year, and we both also had big personal stuff that our families overall prefer that we left as as family. But yeah, it’s part of being a pro, and it’s also just part of like embracing that part of who we are. It’s like, you know, I’m a writer, I’m a writer with the sick parent. I’m a writer with whatever other problem that you have. But I’m a writer and this is what I’m doing now, and then in three hours I’ll be doing something else. And I think you’re so right to shout that out, because I know frequently I will sit there with my personal problems and with my deadline and go, ‘Other people don’t have to deal with this.’ But honestly, yes they do.
Jess: 38:07 Yeah. There were plenty of times going towards this deadline where I would hang up the phone having dealt with some of the personal stuff that was going on, and just take a couple of really deep breaths, maybe have a good cry, and then turn on my monitor, and get back to work.
Nancy: 38:21 Did you both feel like the writing part was like safe haven? Because that’s how I felt. And then I was writing from like five to seven in the morning, cause I still had the day job. But I was like jumping out of bed cause I knew the next two hours I’ll be happy.
KJ: 38:39 Having the abiity to focus on it – like having spent, (you’ve been talking about putting in the work) having spent the past decade or more, turning stuff off, and turning to the keyboard or the paper or whatever, and saying, ‘You know I got to get this.’ So having that practice, the ability to just shut everything else down and focus on it, I’ve been so grateful – past-me for teaching present-me to do that. So thank you letter to her, I guess.
Jess: 39:13 It was also really nice for me occasionally to not feel guilty. You know, I feel like when other people need me or I’m supposed to be feeling a certain way about something, it’s nice to have a pass to say, ‘Nope, I can’t do that. I can’t spend emotional attention on that right now because this has to happen.’ I have this deadline, so I get to turn that off for a minute and not feel guilty about feeling bad for someone else while I can focus on the words. And so for me, it was an incredible safe haven. It was license for me to focus on something else that really was about what I love doing. And if I hadn’t had that, I think it would have been an even more challenging summer than it was. But this really gave me a way out of that.
Nancy: 40:02 So the message is for writers, if you’re having a terrible time, try writing, maybe that will cheer you up.
Jess: 40:08 Well, but we do have to move on to what we’ve been reading because we’re running over, so let’s talk about what we’ve been reading. Nancy, would you like to tell us?
Nancy: 40:33 Yes. So I was visiting my mom two weeks ago, and even if she can’t read anymore, she still demands that we do. And in the assisted living place, there’s a giant bookcase outside her apartment, and she always makes me take a book when we go by, just take one. They don’t care, just take one. So I grabbed one off the top. It was The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, which was a 2013 national book winner that I finally got to in 2019, it’s been out for a while. Oh my gosh, I loved it so much. I actually just finished it last night. Ironically, one of the small characters in the book is the main character in my historical fiction novel in a drawer. So I think maybe that’s why I avoided it. I didn’t want to see him be alive in somebody else’s book. But oh, it was fantastic. It was like Mark Twain on steroids. I loved it. It’s all about John Brown and Harper’s Ferry. I love abolitionist. You know, abolition is lit. And it’s really, really well done. It’s a fun story.
Jess: 41:34 Yeah, that shelf in the bookstore, it’s the popular one, The Abolition Is Lit shelf. I have a whole shelf on fishing in New England in the 1850s or so. That’s a whole section in my library cause I’m obsessed with the whole Gloucester, fishermen thing. That’s a thing for me. I’m still reading away on some of the stuff that’s on my Audible. But I will say, that I just found out and I had mentioned this before, that when I am writing stuff, I like to reread things that are comforting, and I had been relistening to a whole bunch of Jane Austen and I just found out that there is a recording of Sense and Sensibility with Kate Winslet. And so that is going to be a evening listen for me.
KJ: 42:33 We have recorded multiple episodes this week and I am out, but I have already shouted out the What Should I Read Next? Podcast, but I have to shout it out again. So it’s What Should I Read Next? With Anne Bogle, who some might know as the Modern Mrs. Darcy, she’s had a blog for a long time. So I listened to an episode of this podcast earlier this week and I ended up downloading samples of four different books and they only talked about like eight. Somebody goes on and says, ‘These are the books I like and this is what I’d like to read next.’ And it’s just such an incredible joy. So, try the podcast and I guarantee that you will come away with something to read, even if I can’t suggest anything at the moment. Yeah, it’s a really good one.
Jess: 43:34 Alright, Nancy, do you have a bookstore you love?
Nancy: 43:38 I very much have a bookstore I love, it’s called A Great Good Place for Books, here in Oakland up in the Montclair neighborhood. And Kathleen Caldwel,l who owns it, is the neighborhood treasurer. Everybody’s kid has worked at that bookstore at some point. And she pays them in books and it’s just fantastic. In fact, Great Good Place is doing my launch party, which is on December 3rd, and she’s just one of those people you walk in the door and she says, ‘Oh, Nancy, I knew you were coming in this week, so I’ve put aside three books for you.’ And my favorite story about her was the time I ordered Skippy Dies, it’s very dark Irish boarding school, it’s like a comedy tragedy. It’s an amazing book. And she sold my husband a gift card for me for Christmas, cause that’s what I get every Christmas. Andrew, if you’re listening, I need a gift card. And I took it in and I said, ‘Okay, I want to get Skippy Dies.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m going to order you the three part version of the book.’ And I said, ‘I think it’s just a novel. I’ve been reading reviews, it’s one book.’ And she goes, ‘Oh, it’s so much cooler when it comes in the case. So I’m going to get you this. And I know how much is on your gift card, you can afford it.’ So I love Kathleen, she is always hustling for those authors. She brings in great, great authors for readings and yeah, so if you’re in Oakland check out Great Good Place For Books.
Jess: 45:08 Alright, everyone needs to run right out and get The Thank You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time by Nancy Davis Kho. It is going to make such a good gift, that’s my plan (sorry, spoiler alert to everyone who’s getting presents for me this year) that’s what you’re getting. So get excited to read this book, it’s fantastic. So congratulations on your long path to publication and thank you so much for being on the podcast today.
Nancy: 45:35 Thank you guys so much for having me. And everybody out there – keep writing, you’re on the path, you’re doing it.
Jess: 45:39 And in order to do that, everyone has to keep their butt in the chair and their head in the game. This episode of #AmWriting with Jess and KJ was produced by Andrew Parilla. Our music, aptly titled unemployed Monday was written and performed by Max Cohen. Andrew and Max were paid for their services because everyone, even creatives should be paid.