Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode · 1 year ago

S1E8: Kristy Woodson Harvey and Patti Callahan Henry, with Jessica Strawser

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Kristy Woodson Harvey and Patti Callahan Henry talk to Jessica Strawser about her latest novel, A Million Reasons Why.

Welcome to Friends and fiction, five best selling authors and the stories novelist Mary Kay Andrews, Kristen Harmel, Christie Woodson, Harvey, Patty Callahan Henry and Mary Alice Munro are five longtime friends with more than 80 published books to their credit. In 2020 they created friends and fiction to provide author interviews and fascinating insider talk about publishing and writing and to highlight independent bookstores. These friends discuss the books they have written, the books they're reading now and the art of storytelling. If you love books and you're curious about the writing world, you're in the right place. France and Fiction is sponsored by Mama Geraldine's Bodacious Foods, the company that makes Mama Geraldine's Cheese Straws, which come in six varieties and are the best selling cheese straws in the United States. Founded by former radio executive Cathy Cunningham and named for her mother, they have melt in your mouth cookies to delicious treats and a woman owned empire. Now that is something that friends and fiction can really get behind. Try them. You'll be so glad you did get 20% off on your online order at Mama Geraldine's dot com with the code Fab five Snack on y'all. We'd also like to thank our other sponsor, Page One books who offer a book subscription package that we love the hand select books for you each month based on your preferences in their book knowledge. And because the reeds are being chosen by actual independent booksellers, you know you're more than just an algorithm. The subscription package, which can run 36 or 12 months, is a perfect gift for a book lover, even if that book lover is you. Page one books the personal touch of an indie bookstore with the delight and surprise of an online subscription service curated just for you. First time subscribers get 10% off with the code Fab Five at page one books dot com Today we are so excited to talk to Jessica Strasser about her new book, A Million Reasons Why I Love That. Jessica's tagline on her website is where fact meets fiction. And just as in this novel, where a woman discovers she has a half sister through the medical miracle of DNA testing hailed by writers like Jodi PICO and Jocelyn Jackson, we cannot wait to talk to her today about this story. I'm Patty Callahan. Jessica is the editor at large at Writer's Digest, where she served as editorial director for nearly a decade. Honored as the 2019 writer in residence at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Strasser has written for The New York Times, Modern Love Publishers Weekly and other fine venues and lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two Children, a contributing editor for career authors and an active tall poppy writer. Her fourth novel, A Million Reasons Why I Was Just Released, I Am Christy Woodson, Harvey and I'm So Excited You're Here, Jessica, Thank you guys for having me. Okay, Jessica, tell our listeners the hook, line and sinker of a million reasons Why I love the tagline. Would you change everything to change the life of someone who is turning your life upside down? Hook, You've got me. I'm done. So a million reasons why is about two adults living in different states? One is in...

Cincinnati, Ohio, and one is in Brevard, North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Mountains. And they are linked as half sisters, as you said by a DNA test. So one of them Sylla, who lives in North Carolina. She knew she always knew there was a possibility she had more family out there. She grew up with a single mother and always knew that she didn't know her father. So she has sort of allowed herself to be talked into taking this test for a medical reason. She's very sick with chronic kidney disease, and, um, she has a better chance of finding a live organ donor match from a family member. And all her known family members have been tested and and no one is a match. But she has major reservations about doing the test. For that reason, she really lets herself be talked into it, more out of curiosity, knowing that she could have a sibling out there and a father out there, whereas the other sister, Um, and Cincinnati, she's a busy mother of three. She's very close with her parents. She's very close with her in laws. She has absolutely no clue that there could be anything else out there. The only reason she has taken a DNA test was as part of a Christmas gift. Her whole family took it and found out. You know what percentage Irish they are and really put no thought into the fact that there could be other implications for having taken that test. And, you know, I never, ever talk about the premise of this book, um, on Facebook or at a bookstore at the library without somebody saying, Oh, that happened to me. Or that happened to, uh, somebody, my neighbor, my friend, somebody that I know there. There are so many real stories along these lines out there. Yeah, it's so true. I've written about some things, like similar, not this exact thing. But you know, similar situations, and it is amazing how many people have been, like affected by this DNA testing. I mean, it's opened up just all of the secrets to that. It's opened up. The people never expected to be let out of the bag. I mean, there are a lot of implications, and I think that's why the premise of this novel drew me, and so quickly because I was just like, yes, I mean, this is going to be happening to so many people, and we don't really think about the implications of what we're doing when we set out to take that Little 23 me that's in our stocking, like you said. Um, but I am always so curious about the origin story of a novel and where it comes from. So what was your like? Ah, yes, this is the book I'm going to write. Did you have that moment or did it come to you little by little? Well, I'm not one of those authors who has, like, fully formed novel ideas cluttering up my office. I just have little things that interest me. I have more a list of like random topics or professions that always seem to catch my interest and because, you know it takes, you have to really be kinda into something to want to write about it for an entire year. And one of the things I noticed was all of these real life stories of surprised any test results just kept catching my attention, and I noticed that they really fall into two camps. There are the people who took the test hoping to find something, and that's particularly powerful with, um, say Children of adoptive families, um, people who took the test looking for something and hoping to find something. And so if they do find it. It's like an answered prayer. It's the best thing ever. Or there are people who are completely blindsided by the results and find out something that they may be. Wish they didn't know. But they cannot, then a know it. So I had the idea, you know, I was thinking about what makes people fall into one camp or the other, and I had to. I had the idea to challenge myself, to tell a story where we had one person in each camp, you know, the person who was looking for something, and then the person who is going to be blindsided. It thinks it's the best...

...thing ever. But then something happens to make them sort of switch positions where maybe the person who wanted to take the test sort of ends up wishing that they hadn't and the person who was blindsided it could end up being a good thing. So I wanted to tell a story where they sort of switch places and then it becomes, you know, can they switch back? Can they come over to the same side? Um, yeah, I love that. Right before we got on, I was checked. My email, and I got one of those 23 me emails that says You have a new D N a relative, you'll get those and it's usually like 1/7 cousin, 42 times removed. But it was just so coincidental that right before we started talking, I got that email and I didn't check it yet. But there is that Ping like you have a relative you don't know about, and your mind goes straight to secret life, right? So not only speaking about origins of stories, but we here at Friends in fiction always think it's interesting to talk a little about the origins of why we became writers and a question we love to ask our authors because it's so enlightening is what were the values around reading and writing and your childhood. And I know. And how do they? How do you think those values around reading and writing not only formed the writer you are today, but maybe even specifically how it influenced a million reasons why, Um, well, I think I've just always been a voracious reader, and I was read to as a child, and that's something that, as a parent now, um, I try to instill in my own kids. I have a nine year old and a seven year old, and we still read together every night. Um, that was one of the only good things about school going remote for them last year was that they both red so much more, including my first grader, was a kindergartner at the time, and I think she ended up reading by the end of remote schooling. All these kids were backsliding, but because just because we were reading so much and reading together, she ended up reading on, like, a second grade level. So I think, you know, that is something that I grew up with just learning to appreciate the love of story. It's a great way to end a day all reading together at bedtime, kind of winding down together, setting aside your problems of the day and sinking into something else and spending that there's a connection. I feel like when you share, uh, story with somebody else, and I think that was what my parents raised me to feel by sharing stories with me and what I hope to share with my own kids. And I guess if I think about the themes of a million reasons why it really is a book about how all of our stories are connected and about connection and the idea that you could have a connection if you want it and deciding whether or not you want to pursue it. I love that. That's so well said. And that is I mean, it's just such a new, interesting whole world, that is, that's opening up, I think. And and it's it's been the story I think has really kept me for sure, Like feeling like myself and, um, connected to people in the outside world during all of this craziness. Um okay, so I know we talked about this just a little bit, but I want to delve into it a little more deeply. So I know you said that you had been reading about, you know, this DNA testing and how there were the two camps and was there any story in particular, like anyone you knew or any specific moment where you were, like Okay, this is something that I really want to talk about or like, This is a story, and the answer may be no. I mean, I'm just I'm interested. Well, actually, reading all the stories almost makes you not want...

...to write a novel about it, because I think you think what could I possibly come up with that would be stranger or more interesting or more engaging than what is like. It's a total, um, fact is stranger than fiction kind of situation, you know, Um, but I was thinking about when I was thinking about, you know, the two camps of people who take these tests. And also, there are also people who find out that they have connections out there. Like Patty said, There are people. There are people who are okay, and you just get that email and no matter how close, the connection is just kind of know about that and never want to pursue it. And then there are people who it really means something to them to have somebody else, you know, it's like, What does it mean to you to be a family? How much does it mean to you, um, to share DNA with somebody? There's not necessarily a right or wrong answer to that. Um, it's different for everybody. It's really personal, but I was thinking about, You know, some of the personal reasons that people might have for taking these tests, and I landed on the idea of a medical reason. You know what if somebody had a medical reason for taking this test, that would make it really complicated right out the gate. So I was looking at initially I was trying to think of what sort of medical condition this character might have. And I was looking at things like meeting a bone marrow transplant and kind of digging around. And I landed on a chronic kidney disease because, um, for a few reasons, first of all, it's really common. And second of all, there is a really wide range of experiences with it. Um, well, it's just such a such a fluke thing, and you can end up with kidney disease from something as simple as a strep throat infection. Um, so it's one of those things. I think I'm always interested as a storyteller and just as a human and the kind of thing that can just really seem like rotten luck, you know, like Oh my goodness, this totally innocuous thing just changed my whole life. And another thing that can bring it on is sometimes pregnancy. A certain kind of experience with your pregnancy can bring on chronic kidney disease. So I was thinking it would be interesting to have a young mother who started suffering from this in her pregnancy and who is now raising a child on her own and sort of started building this character in my head. And I have a really good friend who is a renal dietitian, and I already knew a lot about the work. You know, if your kidney patient your diet is extremely important. So she's the nutritionist who will go into the dialysis centers and speak with patients about what they're eating and what changes they can make in their diet to be healthier. And she every day spend time with people who are on the transplant list. So I had this idea for a character, and I went out to lunch with her and ran the idea of the story by her and asked if she thought the premise was plausible and she thought it was very plausible. And then she gave me a whole bunch more information, and I would say by the time we got done with our lunch that day. I was really up and running. So it wasn't necessarily one, um, particular story. But it was. I think having a friend who worked in that profession and having her insights early on, um really kind of sparked my curiosity. And that was how I landed on Scylla as a character. Mhm. So funny. It's not just D N A. That connects us, which is part of what your story novel is about. But it's the stories that connect us, right? So they connect us his family as friends, and you read the novel and loved it, and I didn't tell you them. But you're talking about it now. When I was a nurse in graduate school, my job was as a research nurse for kidney failure. Oh, so I know. So for two years, I worked on a research project for how to change diet in kidney disease so they didn't have to have transplants. And so I saw that story play out over and over and then...

...searching for someone for to get a kidney from. So your book is really powerful by bringing in just like the tagline on your website, bringing in the real things of our life and unfolding them in fiction. And this is your fourth novel, right? So do you see any themes that you continue to come back to time and again and time and again as you're writing? Um, I think the idea of secret people always say, Oh, you write about secrets a lot. I think on the surface, it looks like I'm really into the secret keeping secrets, which I'm not in my real life. Um, but I think when I'm actually more interested in beneath that is just, um yeah, the stories that we tell and the stories that we choose not to tell and not to share about our own lives. I mean, whenever people talk about keeping a secret, they say that like, it's a nefarious thing. But you don't necessarily have to go around, you know, broadcasting your story all the time. So, you know, in all of my novels, I like, really like they're all told from multiple points of view, and I like to tell stories where you know it's not extraneous. I like to tell stories where you really need this person's perspective on the story and this person's perspective in order to get the entire story. I mean, we're all sort of unreliable narrators just by virtue of our own by it. So all of my other novels have been told by at least three different points of view, but a million reasons why It is the first one that I've told from only two. It's the two half sisters, and I was literally thinking of it as two halves of a story. And we have we have to have the two halves to get the entire story. Mhm. I love that. That's why I like to do that. You know, I don't know that I could have verbalized it, but I think maybe that's why I like to my multiple points of view to, because we are unreliable narrators of our own life story, that's for sure. You can tell the exact same. Don't you feel like you could rewrite any of your novels? And if you change the point of view from of any given scene, you would change the You change the novel a little bit. You're absolutely right about that, and I know you do this as well, but I try not to. There might be like a key scene or two that you see from both PVs. But in general, you're really the story is moving forward like one character at a time. But you're right. If you switch that PV, you would have a totally different story. Interesting. This is why I love doing these. Teaches me what I'm doing, what I'm already doing. Um, so speaking of writing and this great community that we have, you and I are both tall poppy writers, which is so great, Um, and I love the group, and I just was interested about you know, your experience about being a part of a writing and kind of networking community. And, um, if that had affected or changed your work or even this side of the work, sort of the more marketing side of the work for you. Yeah, I think. Um, well, for me, since I started as an editor, you know, I was working at Writer's Digest magazine. I'd worked my way up to being editorial director there, and I was interviewing. I was surrounded by writers, so I was interviewing writers for cover stories. I was working with writers who were writing for the magazine. You know, I was a writer myself, Um, as part of that job, I was constantly at writing conferences and workshops and, you know, just fielding questions on email and on Twitter every day and things like that. And when I started, um, publishing not. And I guess, for anyone listening. If you're not familiar with what Writer's Digest magazine is, it's a magazine for people who want to be writers, whether they want to be, you know, journalists or novelists or memoir is really any kind of writers. And it's the it's been around since 1920. It's the leading publication for writers in North America, and the whole time I had that job, I was. I've always been a...

...journalist and a nonfiction writer, but I was sort of moonlighting as a closet fiction writer for many years before I sold my first novel. And speaking of secrets, right? Exactly, I was Yeah, I was. So, um, you know, I felt very confident in my editorial work and as a journalist, and I really had no idea if I was any good at fiction writing, so that was a huge step to even attempt to, you know, put myself out there. But once I published a couple of novels, it was when I signed my third novel contract was when I realized, you know, to really little kids at home. I'm running a magazine. I'm on more and more novel deadlines, and then you have all the marketing and promotional work come in and something had to get. So I stepped back from the magazine where now I contribute from the outside as an editor at large. And I think at that point when I became a full time writer, it would have been so isolating to just step back from the writing. I was so involved in the writing community. So for me, joining with a group of other writers who are also working on their own careers and supporting each other and treating information and support behind the scenes. But also just, you know, friendship, even if it's just, you know, water cooler chatter. It's so important. And especially this year, if I didn't have these groups of, you know, friends online, and if we didn't have things like what the two of you have done with your other colleagues friends and fiction. It would be so lonely. I mean, that's what I really think of it as, like colleagues, you know, you're all working on your own career, but it would be very lonely if you didn't have each other. You know, that's so interesting, too, because I think I don't know about you, Patty. But I came from like the exact opposite of that, like, whereas you came from this group of always being surrounded by writers and then kind of stepping back from it. I came into writing, not even knowing anyone who is a writer and so along that way, trying to find those people because I knew I needed advice and help and community and someone that knew what I was talking about. It is well, And for me, it was almost the opposite problem where I had to really get people to stop seeing me as an editor and particularly as the editor of Writer's Digest. Like you know, once you become a novelist to you know, somebody will sort of make a seat for you at the table, literally, sometimes at a conference like save you a seat at the table and you sit down, and it's like if a whole bunch of people were just trading stories about their age, what what their agents were or were not doing for them or, like real talk, complaining about something they would all stop as soon as I sat down because it was like that circle of trust is broken because now we have the this editor here, and but I'm having the same problems and concerns as everybody else. Like, I don't want to wear this editor hot right now. I'm at the novelist table. I need you guys to like, yeah, I need some real talk. So for me, it was almost the opposite where I had to, you know, I feel like there was, um I had this professional editorial persona. People saw me as a publishing insider on the other side of the desk, and I had to kind of earn my stripes on the other side. It's so funny. Not only was I thinking it was the opposite Christie like you, not only about having to find I did not know a soul when I was writing my first book, not one, but also the flip and opposite is I had no idea how to edit. Right. So you came from this, Whether we want to call it right brain left brain. And we came from left brain. Right brain. You came in. You came in the side door where Christie and I came in the front...

...door, Completely lost on both the community and the editing. So Okay. Are you ready? It's time for a lightning round for lightning round. Okay. Lay it on me, Patty. You be kind. Are you ready? If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? Oh, just keep. Just follow your gut. Keep doing what you're doing. Following your gut is so, um it's like it sounds so easy. But it's not because sometimes it's really not the practical, logical thing to do. And I think it's harder as we get older, I look back and this is supposed to be lightning round. I'm not supposed to be making comments here, but I started it started. I was just I was just thinking about this to myself in the car, like driving alone the other day. But when you're younger, it's easier to listen to your gut because I think your decisions feel maybe they feel bigger. But in reality, there's sort of less writing on them, you know? And as you get older, you start to question a little bit more because you've lived a little bit more and you, like, know what can go wrong or well, I think the older you get, the more you feel like your decisions affect other people to Yes, you have Children and the spouse and aging parents. And when you're younger, you can kind of be selfish isn't the right word, but it's okay to be a little bit more self centered at a certain stage. Yeah, that's true. Okay, So where do you get your inspiration, Uh, from leaving my house, which I'm really excited to do again. That's such a perfect answer. Okay, You weren't a writer. What would your dream job be? Oh, wow. That's tough. Maybe a maybe a therapist. I say that all the time. I'm a pretend psychotherapist. She does say that I'm gonna be a country music star, so you'll need to dream a little bit bigger. Can we have any talent? Do you have singing talent? Can we pretend we have. No, that wasn't the question. Just just I am great at memorizing song lyrics. Um, if only I had the voice to go with them, so Well, I bet you do. Mm. If you could trade places with someone for one day, who would it be? That is That is a really hard question, baby. Um, raise Weatherspoon. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, that's good. I mean, you want to talk about being surrounded by them cool women's stories she has. She can just wave her magic wand and make it happen for somebody, you know, But she's got such a cool sense of style and such good taste. And she's just such an amazing person. Yeah. Keep for only one day you can. There's a lot to her and then choose all our books and then come back to being you. That would be great if we can work that into the plan wave my magic wand. Okay, last one, who would you invite to your dream dinner party? I mean, besides us, besides you and raise Weatherspoon, Um, I can I give a total schoolgirl answer and just say Jake Gyllenhaal? Yeah, Jake Gyllenhaal and I want to come. And one of the last one of the last and best things I did in 2019, before everything shut down was I was in New York City for the Writer's Digest annual conference. I was on the faculty there, and I got tickets to see Jake Gyllenhaal on Broadway and a two man show. And so it...

...was 50%. They killing all live, and it was just It was amazing. It was so cool. I'm so glad I got that was my last Broadway experience before Broadway. Like, really go out with a bang before everything man was mean Girls, which was dear Evan Hansen. That's a good one to those both sound so good. I can't wait to get back to it Cannot wait. Well, I was by myself, and I grabbed one of those like single tickets because I just realized I was going to have time to go. And I was like, What is something that I know for sure, like my husband is not gonna want to go see. And I think being girls in it Well, this has been so fun. Thank you for coming on, Jessica. We're so excited about your new book. We're just thrilled for you. It's going to be a huge hit, were absolutely sure. And so everyone who's listening If you have not read a million reasons why yet Go get it right now. And Jessica before we leave, can you tell our listeners where they can find you around the Web? Yes, I'm on the Web all the time. Way too much way too much. I over you will be so shocked. How fast I replied to your comment way on Facebook and Instagram at Jessica Strawser author. And I'm on Twitter, Jessica Strawser and you can also go to my website. I'm doing a fair amount of virtual events this spring, promoting a million reasons why. And you can go to my website Jessica strawser dot com, for updated events links or to sign up for my newsletter, which I hardly ever send only if I have a real news. Uh, all right, well, thank you so much. You'll have a great afternoon, Thank you guys for having me on. Thank you for tuning in. Join us every week on Facebook or YouTube, where our live show airs every Wednesday night at 7 p.m. Eastern time. And please subscribe to our podcast and follow us on Instagram. We're so glad you're here.

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