First Draft, Ep. 101: Kayla Cagan (Transcript)
The original post for this episode can be found here.
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Kayla is my favorite kind of funny. A clever world view, but one that doesn’t stray too far from the heart. She may be new to the teen book publishing game, but she’s an old hat at storytelling. Kayla is trained in theater and worked as a professional in New York for years, before heading out west and beginning a new, creative phase. I loved hearing her thoughts on evolving as an artist, for reasons good and petty, and learning to accept, and appreciate, that evolution. So, get a playbill and a Frida Kahlo biography, and enjoy the conversation.
Sarah ENNI: So, Hi! How are you?
Kayla CAGAN: I am good. Thank you so much for being here, and talking with me. I’m so excited to hang out with you.
ENNI: Yeah. Thanks for having me over. So, you know how we like to start the podcast. Where were you born and raised?
CAGAN: I was born in Houston, Texas and I was raised there, and reared there, and I lived there, until I was in my twenties. And then I went to college in East Texas, far East Texas, in a town called Nacogdoches, which is the oldest town in Texas.
ENNI: When you were growing up, I read that your mom is an artist, what kind?
CAGAN: My mom owned a ceramic store, and she was a potter as well, she had a pottery wheel. She did that for about twelve years. She closed the shop, eventually. She had some arthritis going on, which is really hard when you’re a professional ceramicist, and a teacher of ceramics. I’ll say this, ceramics is not the most lucrative position. So, I think there was a point where she was like: “I need to take care of the family. I’ll go into banking for a bit, and do that.” She actually, way before gig lifestyle was a thing, and freelancing was a thing, my mom hopped around a lot in jobs. She did a lot of interesting things that a lot of women of her time, either didn’t have access to, or didn’t want to do. Or, couldn’t… and were told they couldn’t. My mom also was doing things that were outside of the box for her.
Growing up around the ceramic store, for me, definitely formed my opinion of who she was, and what she could do. And what women could be. As well as opened my eyes, much more, to people outside of just my neighborhood. I think about my mom’s ceramic shop, [it] was the place I first saw two married men. I met them at five years old, and I never knew that they couldn’t be together. And I also met all kinds of wacky characters in the ceramic shop, that were just outside the norm of who was hanging around our neighborhood. So, it was a great place to be.
My mom is really, really good at devoting herself to whatever art she’s in. Right now, she’s really into mosaic art tiles, and does that. When you go to her house, it looks like an art gallery. There’s no wall space available. Everything is these curated collections of places she’s traveled, and work she’s made. She does have a fair amount of ceramics still around the house, but the paintings are everywhere. She’s just a lover of art, and a believer that it enhances your life. And that definitely was carried down to me.
ENNI: That’s so interesting. I do want to not fall in the easy trap, of being like, “Texas is hostile to artists.” Because that’s not true.
CAGAN: It’s not. You will still find pockets of people who disagree about what art is and isn’t, and what should be publicly funded, and not. I think Texas has the idea of: “You can privately buy whatever you want, art-wise, but don’t shove it in my face. And don’t make me pay for it. And go do your art thing and have fun, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be what you do for life.” So, it’s a weird mix. There’s also wonderful chapels, and galleries, and museums there that do support the arts. Houston has also grown. It’s changed a lot from when I was growing up. It’s much more art supportive. But, it’s such a big city, and there are so many different types of people living there. It still can be a challenge to try and produce work there. And it can still be a challenge to fund your work there, and to make things, and put them out there.
ENNI: I have a lot of thoughts about this, but I’m like, “Okay, let’s focus.” What mostly interests me about it, is that not only is your mom an artist, but an independent woman. Was your dad around?
CAGAN: So, [chuckles] my dad is an interesting story. My dad was around until I was about eleven, and then he needed to leave town. My dad was a really bad con artist. Really bad. He’s not good at it. Not that he got away with so much, he never got away with anything. Which is part of the reason he had to leave town. So, I had a visual artist as a mother, and a con artist, that was not very good at what he did, as a father. God rest his [soul]. He’s passed away, so I feel free to say all this. It’s like you wait until they die, and then you can say everything. He and I lost communication with each other for seventeen years, and then I found out he passed away. I found out he passed away, three months before I got married. So, my fiancé, my husband now, and I had to go and clean out his home. It was a real surprise. Besides being a horrible con artist, and when I say horrible, I mean, I’m a better con artist than he was, and I’m not a con artist. He really was not good at his chosen profession. He had mental illness and drug issues, but he was also a hoarder. My mom really acted as both of my parents, and still has as my life has gone on. But, he’s definitely an interesting character in my life, and I have a lot of distance from him, so I can laugh about some of it.
ENNI: I was going to say, we’re laughing, but I’m sorry.
CAGAN: Oh no, no! It’s okay. When I was a kid, I definitely missed him when he left. And we, as much as he made a lot of messes of things around my family, and our neighbors, and things like that. He was a pretty decent dad to me. There were a couple of times where I was like, “Mm. Not my favorite person.” When he left, it was hard for me, for definitely my teenage years. It was hard. I kind of came to a place of acceptance. I had a great mom, who was doing everything. And I had two grandparents who are very accepting of me, always supportive of my theatre dreams, and kind of helped me still feel safe. Even though he wasn’t there.
ENNI: What, and by the way, you don’t have to talk about any of this. If I ask a question that you’d rather not answer, let me know. It sounds like he kind of got the chance to be like, “Kayla, I have to go.” What do you remember about that?
CAGAN: You know what? What basically happened, is he got into some trouble with the law. Because, again, not very good at what he did. So, he got caught. And we had family that lived in Baltimore, Maryland. He went to stay with them and basically, I guess, hide out. I knew it was coming because, I think maybe two weeks before, I was told, “Your dad’s gonna move up to Maryland.” With the promise of like, “You’ll still see each other.” And we did, actually, see each other maybe twice after that. I flew to Maryland when I was really young, and saw him. But, I remember the day he left. I thought it was gonna be a really simple goodbye. And I clung to him and I cried, and cried. I didn’t want him to leave. I was terrified that I would never see him again. This is probably the first time I’ve ever said this out loud… I cried like a baby. I cried, and cried, and cried. I was only, at that point, eleven going into twelve.
At that point, when he was leaving, he and I weren’t on bad terms. He and I didn’t have a huge falling out. You know, when your dad really pisses you off? You’re like, “Get out of here. I don’t care.” No, I wasn’t ready for him to go. We had a very tearful goodbye in my mom’s townhouse. My mom wasn’t there. And then he left. And I was by myself for about three hours, crying my brains out. I got a few letters from him, and then I think I went twice to Baltimore. And that was it. That was the last I saw of him, and heard of him, until he called me once to borrow some money. And I was like, “Oh right, you’re not good at what you do.” Even then, as a teenager, you’re like, “[makes a tsking sound] I shouldn’t have more money than you.”
ENNI: That’s a hugely disruptive thing to happen in your life. It’s not you having to move. It’s not you, actually, having to change too much of your functional day-to-day life. I have found a pattern of people that I’ve talked to, I’m mostly talking about YA and Middle Grade writers. And right around that age, it’s so frequent for something huge to happen in people’ s lives. And I can’t help but armchair therapist think, a lot of people who are drawn to YA it’s because things that happen. We don’t have boring childhoods. It feels like there’s always something there. What frequently it is, is something that’s really emotional and intense like moving, or having something like this happen, or a death. That thrusts you into a more grownup way of thinking about the world around you.
ENNI: Writing books at that age seems natural because I don’t feel like that person was childish.
CAGAN: No, not at all. One of the things I really don’t like, and most of the books I read don’t have this happen, but every once in a while, I stumble on one. Where I feel like a young person is written in a really condescending tone. They don’t get divorce. They don’t get a family breakup. Or, that they’re not aware that something is wrong in the house, or in their life, or at school, or wherever. And that really irritates me. Because I know now, in hindsight and being older, of course we don’t know everything. And we grow, and we learn, and we hopefully become smarter as we get older. Or more perceptive, or more insightful. But definitely as a kid, I was fully aware that our family was not functioning the way that I had thought it was supposed to. I don’t mean Leave It to Beaver, I just meant, leave it alone. It should be okay. This should be a little more okay than it is.
My father and my mother, before my father left, they had divorced. He had an apartment, which I thought was really cool because I had grown up in a house. Not only that, I had my own bedroom there, but I had two beds in it so I could have friends come over. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. And that’s what I remember feeling the most kid-ish about. That might have been the most naïve I was, because there were definitely circumstances around that, that I should have [noticed]. At that point, he was involved with some mob situations. Again, not very good at them. I was around a lot of dangerous people. I should have never have been around. It was a naïve quality to it because I wanted to see my dad a certain way and be around my dad a certain way. However, I was fully aware that our family was not healthy.
Other people didn’t have the police coming to their house a lot. Other people didn’t have secrets, as far as I knew. My mom used to say all the time, I think from her experience of working at the ceramics store, she was like: “Kayla, every family has problems. Every family has problems. They may not be the same problems. They’re not your problems. But, they’re problems.” And I used to be so violently angry at her about that. Like, “How could you say that? I have friends. I go to their houses. They don’t have problems like me.” However, they did have their own problems. They just didn’t show them every time I came over. I was furious at the idea that I was told we had normal problems. We did not have normal problems. And most of my neighbors probably didn’t have normal problems, in their own ways. I really hate when I see a young character built, in TV, film, books, whatever, I hate when they are treated like they don’t have a brain. Or, that they are so young and fragile that they couldn’t possibly understand conflict. We’re born under a state in conflict, I think. We don’t always know what to do with it. We don’t always know how to survive it, but [chuckles] it is there. And it is real.
ENNI: Kids pick up on things. Whether or not they’re able to address it eloquently, or on the face, that’s where you can have, like you’re saying, the naïve feeling sometimes. But, I’ve read similar books where the author and the character, there’s actually such a deep divide between them, that this is the least effective story about a kid ever. It’s not meeting a teenager where they’re at, and being honest about that experience. Which is frustrating.
CAGAN: When my parents started getting divorced, I think it was about a month before that, I was given a diary. It was blue and white checkered, and had a little bear on it, and a little lock. I wrote a lot about the Dukes of Hazzard, because I was obsessed with the Dukes of Hazzard boys. They used a lot of language that I didn’t understand, at all, but during the divorce – when I had knowledge that they were actually getting divorced – the diary became my best friend. That’s what triggered me to start writing. It’s not a blame thing, but, if they didn’t get divorced, I don’t know if I would’ve taken to the diary. Except to write about the Dukes of Hazzard. It was my safe place, and safe haven. Writing it didn’t necessarily make me eloquent as a child, and it certainly didn’t make me more insightful, but it gave me a place to process. And back then, I wouldn’t even say process. I’d write my feelings down, and draw pictures sometimes, and it was a place where I felt like I was being heard.
My family weren’t disrespectful to me, but there were bigger problems to handle than me maybe being upset. There was a lot of learning to keep my emotions, to me. And not necessarily depending on people to take care of them. Which is also, I think, [what] a lot of teenagers and young people learn, unfortunately. Or, they have each other. When I was growing up, it wasn’t as social as it is now. Not everyone shared every feeling they had. I find it both fascinating, and fear making. There’s a part of me that’s like: “Don’t you want privacy? Don’t you want to have time to figure things out yourself, before you announce things?” My husband and I talk about this a lot. The difference between privacy and transparency, and what is more important in life right now for people. Transparency and visibility are extremely important, and I value it, but I grew up in such a different way that it’s hard for me to be like that. I respect people who do.
ENNI: That’s a really interesting point. I think teenagers today, first of all don’t understand the degree to which they could be more private. Because, it is so run of the mill to put all of your stuff on-line. I’m trying not to sound like [an old] fogy here.
CAGAN: I’ll say, I’m in my forties, I feel like friends in my thirties are way more transparent than I am. I don’t even think it’s a teenage thing. I think I’m off by five years of being one of the people who are willing to expose more of myself, but also, get more help for that. I, literally, see certain friends post things and my first thought is, “Do we call 911?” I’m so worried about them. They’re like, “No, no, no. I was just letting it out.” I’m like: “Oh. I don’t have that gauge, or edit, to know if that means you’re on the last of your rope, or you just needed to vent because you’re angry.”
ENNI: Especially when you have found so much solace, and so much positive and helpful personal work, within a diary context. It’s like the outside voice… to what degree would that even be helpful?
CAGAN: I think it can be helpful when you are feeling on your own, and you want to connect. Certainly, using Twitter… and right now, these days, I’m really more into Instagram, because it’s cutting out a lot of the noise for me. I can’t wait until later this year. I’m gonna take a very long break from it because the input I get, I’m not good at filtering it. I’m not good at editing it. I think about it. There was a point when I was going to bed at, let’s say, twelve or one [am]. Where the last thing I was doing before bed, was reading Twitter, being upset, falling asleep for six hours, waking up at seven and reading Twitter. So, six hours of not letting my brain rest. Or, letting my brain rest and then poisoning it again. It is a struggle. I think social media is a great place for young people to reach out to each other, who need help. And when I say young people, I mean still people under fifty. I also think you have to analyze what you’re getting back. You can’t just be the sponge.
ENNI: What we just said about social media, does make me think about part of being off line is finding other ways to express yourself, like in art. And figuring out these other ways to process things. You have your diary, and your mom is an artist, so you’re seeing that as a way that people can work through things, and express themselves. Then you got into theatre, right? How are all of those things at play with you, as a young person? And also, books and reading?
CAGAN: Books and reading were, people always say, “They were my best friends, growing up.” They were some of my best friends. I had actual human best friends, but I was a big reader. I loved reading as much as the next kid, but I wouldn’t say I had the best taste in the world. I loved CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE, and SWEET VALLEY HIGH, and also THE OUTSIDERS. I loved the mix of high and low. It wasn’t like I started reading WAR AND PEACE in fourth grade. For me actually, because I was a latchkey kid most of the time, TV really was a big source of entertainment for me. When we got our VCR, I’m dating myself here, but when we got our VCR, it was really crazy that I could watch movies that I wanted to watch. And then, by about middle school, I was really involved in theater. I had told my mother, very early on, I had decided I was moving to New York City.
CAGAN: Oh yeah. Around sixth grade, I was like, “That’s the city.” I never wanted to come to Los Angeles, or Hollywood. I love it here now, by the way. But, as a kid, I was like: “Why would I go there? That’s not theater. That’s TV and film. I’m going to be in plays. And I’m going to work on plays, and I’m going to make plays.”
ENNI: What was your introduction to theater?
CAGAN: I remember seeing a couple of plays in elementary school. Where I grew up, I was one of the only Jewish kids. We had holiday pageants, and Christmas plays. And as one of the only Jewish kids, you always get asked to read the Hanukah passage, right? Or, sing a song about Hanukah. But in fourth grade, I had a teacher, Miss Graham, who was in charge of the Christmas musical. And I remember her saying: “You should be on stage. You have a loud voice, and you don’t mind talking.” Which is not a compliment, necessarily! But at the time, I was like, “You’re right. I should be!” I took it as a compliment, because I’m just an optimistic person [chuckles]. But I was really excited. And I thought that meant, again, the Hanukah part, because that’s what I always do.
She said, “You’re going to be the narrator, and you’re going to be on stage the entire time.” And to me, I was in heaven! I was like, “Yeah! Put me up there. I’ll do a one woman show!” I didn’t know what it all entailed, but I had this little elementary school love, because I loved being in plays, and I loved being in front of people, and making people laugh. And then my mom enrolled me in a little theater training workshop class in Houston. We did THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES and I got to work with all these cool adults and teenagers.
So basically, in elementary school I started a love of theater, and in junior high it was nurtured by teachers. And my family was always very supportive of it. I think they were really happy that I had an outlet, and a thing to do after school, to go to rehearsals. In high school, I devoted even more time. And decided actually, the more and more that I was on stage, the more I wanted to play with the words. I definitely thought I knew better than some playwrights, which is not a great thing to do as an actor. It really started developing a love of playwriting, and directing, for me. And really acting, not only was I not a great actress anyway, it kind of fell to the wayside. I just really wanted to work on the plays. I really wanted to direct. And by the time I got to college, that was what I was going to put all of my energy into.
ENNI: I feel like we all take as a given, that theater geeks, or theater nerds, that’s such a thing at every high school. And it’s interesting, to me, that plays and the theater are so integral to so many people in high school. Even if acting, or plays, don’t end up being their calling. Even kids who end up going to do totally different things. That ends up becoming an incubator for a certain kind of person at that age. What do you think?
CAGAN: Okay, so, I think kids are drawn to whatever they are interested in, or what they’re good at. Whether it’s sports, or arts, or music. But I think that the theater kids, geeks, nerds, that I hung with… there were a lot of damaged kids in there, to be honest. We all had kind of weird stories going on. So, you’re thrown together to work on a project, and you all have the same goal in mind. And if you have a theater teacher like I did, Mr. Brad Cummins, who was a great teacher. Who really gives you the space to trust yourself, and to be professional. And believes that you can do it, even if you have a screwed-up life at home.
Or, even if there’s some shady things going on in your life. He trusts you to be an adult. He teaches you how to use power tools. He teaches you how to respect each other enough to be on stage, and not screw up your lines, or your blocking. But I would say the heavy emphasis was a lot of people looking to belong. A lot of people wanting to work on something together, and feel like, at the end of it, we’re going to have a successful result. And maybe something we all feel pride in. I think we all want the attention of being liked. If it was a comedy, it would be great to have some laughs come out of it. If it was tragic, it maybe gave us a place to put some of our emotions.
ENNI: It strikes me as interesting that - and I do want to be clear that I’m using theater geek as an endearing term - it is sort of a grab bag of people, who maybe don’t have another place to feel a kind of belonging. And then, at the end of it, you have an audience full of people, who are maybe in every other context of your life, not supportive of what you’re doing. But you put on something, and then the rest of the school has to come in, and sit down and see it. And they clap for something that you did, when in every other avenue of your life, there’s no communication there, or there’s no support between your peer group.
CAGAN: It’s so perceptive. Absolutely. And, calling it a “grab bag” of people, that is the most accurate description I have ever heard of a theater department, for sure. I guess I never thought of it, but that’s true, the audience that comes in may be people who disregard you outside of the theater department. Including family members, not just other students or teachers.
ENNI: You were pretty young when you realized that the words were what you really wanted to focus on.
CAGAN: Because I fell in love with theater, and because I was reading more plays, it actually translated to me to start to be a better English student. I started reading a lot more. I figured out who I liked and who I didn’t like. And then my senior year they offered a creative writing class. And then all the lights went on. Everything that was supposed to happen, felt like it was happening for me. So, I got to be a theater student, and a creative writing student at the same time. If I could give that senior year to anyone, I would. Because it was so fantastic for me, and my teacher was great.
ENNI: Was the creative writing class what sparked that?
CAGAN: I have to say, reading plays I think, is what jumped me from, “Oh, I like reading SWEET VALLEY HIGH once in a while.” Plays started my taste for writing. And then, really, poetry was my next love. I devoured poetry in high school. I had a tiny bit of a shop lifting problem in high school [says sheepishly].
CAGAN: See, this is the part of my dad that I inherited [laughs]. But, I used to steal poetry books.
ENNI: By the way, that’s so adorable!
CAGAN: If I was gonna get busted for anything, that’s… I guess I don’t have shame in it. By the way: “Nobody Steal Books! Don’t steal stuff off the internet. I don’t do it anymore.” Because of that, I make larger than large contributions to libraries, because of my horrible behavior. And if you’re doing that, “Stop it and go donate to your library!”
Tennessee Williams was my big playwright that really moved me into wanting to write plays. I didn’t want to write anything better than him, I wanted to write as good as him. I wanted to break hearts the way I felt he broke hearts. He was the first playwright - even though Shakespeare writes about dysfunctional families – to me that was all language, language, language. I didn’t necessarily take it in. But GLASS MENAGERIE broke me in a way that I didn’t know was possible with a play. I liked funny plays up until then, and then I was like: “Oh, guess what everyone? I’m gonna wear all black. And read Tennessee Williams. And I’m gonna smoke a pipe [chuckles]. And I’m gonna find my way into being the saddest poet, and the saddest playwright you’ve ever met.” So, there’s a big chunk of time in my life, that I tried to be that. Hoping, I think, that it would help my writing. But really, you write the stories you’re gonna write.
ENNI: So, talk to me a little bit more about that. Going to college and thinking that directing…?
CAGAN: I went to a school called Steven F. Austin State University, in Nacogdoches. I was in this small, almost conservatory like feel, of theater people. We all stuck to it, and we all really banded together. I met my best friend there who, eventually, introduced me to my husband. That place really gave me a lot of growth. We were allowed to have a lot of opportunity. [And] to have hands-on in all areas. I studied lighting, and set, and costume, and acting. But, also, writing and directing. I had professors who encouraged me to build out my studies more in writing and directing. They hadn’t had a female student, at that point, who really was trying to push through and focus on it.
When I found out I could also be a writing minor, I started taking more writing classes through the English department. My Theater department agreed to let them count towards my degree. I started becoming a little more entrenched, just a little bit, with the English department. They had a writing contest and I entered a bunch of poems, and a short story. In the poetry, I won first and third place, and in the short story I won first place. And there was a financial reward, and I won $600. To a college student, for your writing, it was the first outside validation of any writing I had ever done. At that point, I was like: “Oh. Poetry pays. I could definitely be a poet now.” It was the first acknowledgement.
And then the English department was trying to get me to come in and do things with them. I have to admit, I was rude a little, I felt like, “This is a big deal. Even the Theater department knows how much the English department liked my stuff.” The chair of my Theater department, Dr. Clarence Bahs - in case you’re listening Dr. Bahs, “Hi” – he brought me into his office one day and said, “We’re going to start an internship program in New York City, and I think you might be the right one to go.”
He set up an interview with me for a Theater Administrative Office. I actually ended up doing it for about half a month, and then transferred to a theater in New York City. I was like: “I didn’t know I was gonna have to come here and type up letters! That’s not what I came to New York City for.” For some reason, at eighteen, I definitely had figured out why I was gonna do things. Or, not do things. Instead of accepting the responsibility – by the way, good on me for not accepting it – but, at the time, who was I to think I could be like: “Screw this internship you guys got me. I’m gonna find something better!”
ENNI: I can see both sides of that.
CAGAN: Yeah! I was fearless about it. There was somebody who worked in the theater’s administrative office, a wonderful woman by the name of Holly Wolfe. And Holly said, “Um, I think I have the theater that you should work at.” And she helped me get away from the other place, that I won’t name. And I had a great relationship there.
In college, I got to direct a lot. I directed the plays by Samuel Beckett. I directed short plays of Tennessee Williams. I directed Paula Vogel’s THE BALTIMORE WALTZ. I just had a wonderful theater experience. At the time, all of those students they had, we all thought: “If we were at NYU, we would have been doing better. If we were at Yale, we would be doing better. If we were at Julliard, we would be doing it better.” And maybe, in some ways, we would be. For the networking, and of course, from the things you learn. But the people I know who got through the program with me, they’re still creative. One of them is the head of acting at Penn State now. And one of them has her own theater company in Illinois. And one of them is the technical director at High School for Performing Arts in Houston. My crew of friends did really well, and are working theater artists. And to me, that is the goal. That’s what we wanted. Work breeds more work, you know? I don’t think any of us were trying to win awards. I think all of us just said, “If we can make a living doing the things we want, we’ve done it.”
ENNI: I like hearing that, because it is interesting. And it is something important to talk to kids [about] who are looking at college. Because there is so much of a tyranny of like, “You have to go to someplace that’s gonna be a huge network for you.” Or, like, “I’m not a serious artist if I’m not at NYU.”
CAGAN: Oh, yeah. It helps really push “Imposter Syndrome”. I lived with it for so long, that I thought I could have done more, if I had just gone to an East Coast school. And cut to years later in New York, I ended up working for Julliard for eight years in the theater department. I got to Julliard. Just not as a student, and not as somebody who’s gonna have an acting career from it. But, I got to do projects there. And I got to work there. Was it valuable and great for networking? Absolutely. All those things were true. But, I didn’t have to study there. Sometimes we get on our road to where we think we’re supposed to be, in a way that we don’t think we were gonna take. There’s a detour here and there.
ENNI: It’s something that we don’t talk about enough. You’re truly only limited by the scope of your imagination and ambition.
CAGAN: Absolutely. Absolutely.
ENNI: I think, the community that you’re describing, that’s the thing [I found] when I moved to LA. I found this was the first time, as an adult, where I found this. I was like: “Oh, what it is, is finding your group. And then making each other stronger, and better.”
CAGAN: Absolutely. I can’t agree more with that. When my husband and I moved from New York to out here, a friend of ours said, at the time, “Why would you want to move to LA? Everyone’s so stupid there.”
CAGAN: And we’re like, “Well the few people we do know, are pretty creative and smart.” And my husband had already been making a living doing some work out here, even though we lived in New York. So, we were like, “Look, if we hate it, we’ll go back.” But, I think he’s actually the one who said it, “You find your own tribe of weirdos.” For me, it’s recreating my theater experience. I’ve made so many good friends out here. And a lot of them I’ve made because Joshua’s on Twitter. And he made cool friends. And now, because of that, it’s a small group of people. And we kind of circle each other and invite more friends in, and suddenly, you’ve been living here almost ten years and you realize, “We have a great life here. We know so many people who are creative and smart.” And by the way, yeah, we know stupid people too. We could be stupid people.
ENNI: There’s plenty of stupid people in New York, by the way.
CAGAN: Oh yeah, stupid people are everywhere, so don’t get it twisted you guys! [both laughing] But, we see people who are self-motivated here and energized. For us, we had to find our tribe of weirdos. I agree with that. You have to put yourself out there. I don’t think I ever thought, going to Nacogdoches, Texas was going to be beneficial to my theater career. But I could afford to go there, and I got a scholarship there, and if I didn’t go to school there, so many of the things in my life would not be how they are now.
ENNI: You’re shaped by it.
CAGAN: Oh, I a hundred percent was shaped by college.
ENNI: I think we need to tell more stories like that. And the people that I know that went to Ivy League schools, it doesn’t always end up great for all of those people.
CAGAN: No. I had the same thing. I had a lot of friends who went to graduate school, and I didn’t go. I felt envy, and jealousy, and competitiveness, and embarrassment, and humiliation. Because, I didn’t think I was as good as they were. Because I didn’t know how to speak the same language that they spoke. I didn’t workshop the way they workshopped. Instead of taking a pride of like: “Fuck it. I’m an outlaw! I can do it my way. I’m the Sam Sheppard of all this!” Instead, I was like: “I am not as good as they are. I’ll never be as good as they are. They know that about me, and I don’t know why they’re friends with me.”
My internships were kind of like my graduate school, and my life experience took me to [it] a different way. And, I didn’t end up $80,000 in debt. Or $120,000 in debt. Or, miserable that I went through all of the work of training with people I really admire, who then told me my work was awful, and still didn’t get the work I wanted afterwards. It’s always a trade-off. I also have friends who went to grad school, and it worked out really well for them. So, don’t knock it… if you want it, and you’ve got it. There were a lot of lessons put out there that were like, “Do it this way because that’s the way that works.” I don’t think that’s true at all.
ENNI: Take me through college, getting to New York, and then coming to LA.
CAGAN: I started working with Julliard as an assistant director, stage manager type, for the second-year projects, with a teacher named John Stix. He’s passed away since then. But he was my mentor. And he, and the administrative director now of the program, Kathy Hood, who was there at the time, both started getting me lots of free-lance work. Without being agents, they just kind of started recommending me for things. And I started getting a little name around the city. John Stix was a mentor in so many great ways to me.
One of my favorite stories about him is, I was directing THE ZOO STORY at a small theater. An Edward Albee play. And I asked John to come and see it for the final dress rehearsal. And he said, “Absolutely not.” And I was like: “Don’t you believe I can do it? I’ve been working on your shows for a long time.” He was a much older man, very curmudgeonly. I said, “Won’t you please come do this for me?” “No, absolutely not.” I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because I’ll ruin you.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Kayla, I directed the very first workshop of this play with Edward Albee.” He’s like, “There’s no way I can be unbiased.” And then I was like, “Oh my god, thank you. Don’t come! Please don’t come!” I was terrified. How I missed that in my research, I don’t know.
And I asked him, I was like, “I researched. You weren’t listed on the Broadway production.” He was like, “I didn’t direct the Broadway production. I directed the first draft of this play.”
CAGAN: And then I was like, “Well there’s a story. Give me all the juicy [details]. Why didn’t you end up directing it on Broadway?” But the fact that he saved me [from that]. Sometimes you don’t want the people you idolize to come see your work. And you don’t let them. Because that could be a huge risk. You have no idea what their own experience brings to it. So, I learned all of the weird, little, invaluable lessons outside of just staged lessons. And then, I was offered a full-time job at Julliard. I was there, full-time, for six years. So, I did that for a long time. And because of that, because of working at Julliard, it opened a lot of doors. And that’s where the networking came in. I worked at the Manhattan Theater Club. I worked at Lincoln Center, [and] SoHo Rep, and stayed with Julliard for a long time. And then left Julliard partially because, as much as the networking was great, and the people were great, what I felt I was doing was giving up my own [pauses] willingness to be an artist. It was a lot easier to be jealous. It was a lot easier to be envious of other playwrights, who I saw succeeding. Because they were training, and they were getting better at what they did. And I wasn’t.
ENNI: You were working at your job.
CAGAN: Yeah. Instead, I was like: “That’s great that they get to go be playwrights, and I’ll support them. And that way I’m still directly close to playwrights. But I’m not doing the work. I’m not taking the risk. I’m not rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting. I’m not studying with Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang. What I’m doing is watching them do it.” And what that did, instead of inspire me, I became one of those people who were like, “I can do that better.” I sure didn’t! I didn’t go on to write David Lindsay-Abaire plays, and David Auburn plays.
What I did, was go, “Wow. They’re doing it, and I’m doing nothing. And I’m getting to be a worse human being. And a lot more intolerable. Because I’m so filled with greed, and jealousy, and envy. Because I want to have those skills.” But I wasn’t doing the work. So… I left Julliard. Started trying to write a novel. I started working part-time with the Manhattan Theater Club. Started working with St. Mark’s Bookshop. And between the two part-time jobs, I did find time to start writing again. And learning how to write again.
ENNI: It’s interesting to me that you said that you left Julliard and had these feelings, and then you chose to write a novel, in that time.
CAGAN: I think, because, in my head, I was like: “Playwriting is something people do if they’re really good at it. And, apparently, I’m not good.”
ENNI: Oooh [drawn out].
CAGAN: Instead of going: “Playwriting is something people do when they keep writing plays. Oh, you’re looking at people’s applications about playwriting. You’re not doing the work.” But in my head, it still all felt like it was in the playwriting world. Well it is, but there’s administrators, and there are directors, and then there are people who write the plays. I think it really started to hurt me too much to be around it, and not be doing it. And it hurt me too much to be jealous that much. It really hurt me. And I had a lot of the dreams that a lot of people have. I was like, “I will write my first book by the time I’m thirty. And if I don’t…” I was totally, at the time, like, “I will kill myself.” I think I told Josh, “If I don’t have my first book by the time I’m thirty, I will kill myself.” And he was like, “Whoa. I don’t know if I want to date you. If that’s gonna be the situation.” Luckily, he was the smarter of the two of us, and he was like, “It takes a while sometimes.” And I was like, “Yeah. For you maybe.” I was so bitchy about it!
ENNI: That’s intense!
CAGAN: And that was more about publishing than writing. Let’s be honest. Anyone can write a book by thirty, nobody’s stopping you. When people are like, “I want to be a writer.” I’m like, “All you’ve got to do is write.” Wanting to be published is different than wanting to be writing. You know? Again, what is it about? Is it about the success? Is it about the publishing? Why does the jealousy come out? And for me, it was like:67 “The jealousy is because I want to be better at what I do. And people aren’t thinking I’m good enough to even get my foot in the door.” And that’s really hard. It’s hard to keep going, “I guess I’ll believe in myself, even if no one else believes in me.” Or, am I delusional? It’s okay if I’m both, but am I delusional like my dad? Who’s a con artist who thought he could get away with everything? Or, am I delusional like someone has to be to keep making stuff? Like my mom [laughs]. So, it plays into the deeper psyche shit.
Leaving Julliard was the best for me, creatively. But, it was hard to leave because I felt comfortable there. I had a family there. I did have a family member say, “Why would you leave the cream-of-the-crop theater job?” But it wasn’t directing plays on Broadway, it was helping people learn how to do that. And I don’t disparage any of the time I spent doing that, but I know for my own mental health, it wasn’t great. So, I left. Did these other gigs. During this time, I was trying to learn how to write a novel. I sold the novel. It never came out.
ENNI: What happened there?
CAGAN: It was a combination of my editor being fired. The senior editor not wanting the book in the first place. The publisher briefly, possibly, closing with a bankruptcy, and then coming back. And I don’t like to say the name of it, because the publisher is still around now.
ENNI: Okay, but “one of those” publishing stories that we’ve all heard.
CAGAN: Yeah, which I’ve kept pretty quiet for a long time, because it hurt really badly. I thought I was really close to having a novel that people would read. And then it didn’t happen. So, I was like, “Okay. Shut that down.” That’s where the privacy versus transparency thing, for me, I had to deal with it my own way. And go dark for a little… for a few years. And I also had an agent who [chuckles], I seem to attract some weirdos. I had an agent who… um, was not a good “mental health” fit for anyone. She had a compulsive lying problem. And set up all kinds of deals that never existed. So, yeah, it’s a whole thing.
ENNI: Oh my.
CAGAN: I freelanced around. And my husband had been working at MTV in the animation department, at the time. He then, at one point, had to go freelance after the animation department closed. So, I was like: “I’ll be full-time. You write what you need to write. And we’ll just figure this out as we go.” During that time, he wrote his first screenplay. And that took about five years. He sold it, and it gave us enough of a little cushion, that we go: “Okay. I may not have to do two part-time jobs right now. Or, a temp job. So, maybe, I’ll take some time off and also get on my writing path again.” He kept doing really well, and it allowed me some space to go, “I’m gonna keep one job.”
ENNI: That’s the cutest little sleeping puppy sound!
CAGAN: Sorry if you heard that, you guys. He’s just woofing in his sleep.
And then he had to keep coming out here for work, and we decided that we’re gonna take a chance on LA. I was still a little bit in the rut of going to Broadway plays. Because I had a lot of friends in the theater department, or the theater world, after twelve years of living there. I pretty much got to go free to most shows. Which is not a humble brag. It is a confession of, I was going to see shows all the time, and becoming more, and more, jealous. And Off Broadway shows. And filling myself with a poison that is not filling the well in a good way.
So, when we moved to LA, we had a real honest talk with each other. Like, “Maybe I’m gonna take some time off from trying to do any theater out here. And maybe I’m not gonna take a full-time job. And I’m gonna see if I can write.” That was almost ten years ago. I have taken freelance gigs since then, but there was one summer when my husband was working on a show for the Sci-Fi Channel, and he was gone every day. And that’s when I started writing PIPER. So, if he didn’t take that job, and it didn’t give me a way to set up my own schedule - not that he was ever preventing me – but when you’re alone, sometimes that’s the best way to start.
ENNI: Having your best friend around, you know what I mean?
CAGAN: It’s hard not to want to go out to lunch!
ENNI: Exactly. Exactly, it’s no knock on Josh.
CAGAN: No, no, no. And he’s been the biggest cheerleader and supporter since way, way, way, way, way back in the day. But I needed to be quiet enough to hear my own thoughts, and to figure out if I’m going to attempt a novel again. And between that very first sell, until now, I’ve written three other novels. But none of them were in a shape to send out, or to consider. And mostly, they were me trying to figure out how to tell a longer story than a play. How to use plot and structure. And then I realized that, what I really wanted to do, was write a diary and a journal, from Piper’s point of view. At the time, I just knew it was the character’s point of view. I kind of thought it might be the last novel I’d write. I’m like: “This is it. If I don’t sell this, or, if I don’t like it at the end. And I don’t want to put it out in the world. Then I think I’m just gonna take a break. And I’m going to go back to finding a normal job, with normal expectations.”
I had to get real quiet. And Josh and I, even though we have a very quiet dog, we are two loud, loud people. We take up a lot of psychic energy, and a lot of space. I think I needed a quiet, quiet house. You know, Virginia Woolf had a room of her own? I think I needed a kitchen table of my own.
ENNI: Talk to me a little bit about New Year’s Resolutions. The genesis story for the book.
CAGAN: I’m in a writing group here, and they’ve seen several drafts and pieces I had worked on before. But I had come up with the idea, I told them, I said: “I think I want to try and write a book, where I write every single day. And, at the end of this year, I’ll have a draft of a book. But it’s only a page or two a day, or however much I feel like. But I’m gonna try and take 30 minutes a day and write.” And they were like, “Cool! Go for it.” And I was like: “I think it’s a high school senior. I think it’s her diary.” And that’s why it could be every day. And so, I started it on January 1st, 2013, and I did it. I wrote for a year. Got through a draft, and I had, I think, 383 pages at the end of the year. And then I started reworking it, and reworking it. And they helped me a lot to get specific, and the voice down.
ENNI: It’s interesting to me, the idea that you felt it was time to explore a story through diary. Are you still keeping a diary?
CAGAN: I do. I’ve been keeping one since fourth grade. I am still writing a diary, and a journal, that is not an everyday thing, but at least four or five times a week.
ENNI: Yeah, wow, that’s really consistent.
CAGAN: So, almost every day. I wanted to write in the diary form, because I actually thought I would commit to it that way. And it allowed for a little space of, “Oh, well, I’m not lying if I do the work where, all her diary entry is what she had for lunch.” It worked for me. I have to say that there’s a famous Robert Haas quote, who’s a poet. And it is my gospel. I tell it to everyone. And it’s: “Write half an hour a day, or write 30 minutes a day, you can do your life’s work, in half an hour.” I know other writers have used it. I know people in my writing group have used it when we’ve felt overwhelmed. And a little bit clinging, like, “We need to get through this chapter, or these pages.”
I think for writers, it’s really a great starting point. Emerging, or established writers who are maybe just in a rut. Or maybe just trying to find a way to fit into their life schedule with children, work, two jobs, three jobs [chuckles], you know? It’s really hard to squeeze time in. For me, writing every morning from ten to ten-thirty, and sometimes a little longer. I tried to stick to that so that I actually gave myself a boundary. Like, “You can’t write anymore.” There’s nothing better than leaving off on a word, that you know the next sentence, and you’re so excited to get back to it. And I go: “Nope. You don’t get to enjoy it today. You get to do it tomorrow.” But it starts you off at this great place of anticipation, and not dread.
Once I started my habit of thirty minutes a day, and really got hooked on it, when something would throw me off of that pattern, I got frustrated. But, not enough to stop working. Just enough to be like, “Ugh!” And then, that’s a good thing. When you’re like, “Ooh! What I’m mad about, is that it I’m not writing.” Instead of what I’m anxious about is, “I need to write.”
ENNI: That’s a whole paradigm shift.
CAGAN: Yeah. And I realized, for me, the best cure for anxiety is to start working.
CAGAN: Because, when I think about the work I have to do… I’m a mess. When I do the work I have to do, even if it takes a lot longer than I thought. Even if I am really jammed up on a sentence, or something like that, it’s so much easier. So much less anxiety.
ENNI: The thing I started to say to myself, my mantra, is, “The answer is always the work.”
CAGAN: It is, every time. Even if you have to make a list and go: “These are the things I want to tackle. But, number one, what is the priority?” And figuring out what your priority is. During the process of PIPER, I had a dream… okay, this is gonna sound really “Hippy- Dippy”.
ENNI: I love it!
CAGAN: But, it has weirdly kept me on track, in a very strange way. So, the dream I had, was that Grace Jones came to me in my dream. She took me by the shoulders, and she had a great suit on, because she always has a great suit on. She shook my shoulders and said to me, “What is your creative priority?” And I looked at her, and she said it several more times, and then my dream ended. And I woke up and I felt this joy, and this light, and this focus, and I was like, “She’s come to let me know that it is time for me to do my work. She’s come to let me know that I am here for a reason.” I took it with me, as my guiding force. I don’t have typical dreams of visiting artists [laughs]. I don’t have visiting “dream artists”, or anything like that.
ENNI: This isn’t one of a series [laughing].
CAGAN: No, I wish it was. That would be so great! I could use that every week. At the time, I was balancing other things as well. And I was like, “My creative priority is this book.” A friend of mine, who’s an artist back in New York, she’s an actress and she’s recently become a writer. She’s telling me about all these different projects she had going and interests in, and she said, “I don’t know what to pick.” I was like, “What’s the one you care about?” She kept saying, “Well, I want to do this. And I want to do that.” I was like: “What is the thing that you can’t stop thinking about? What is the one, that you know is the right one?” We have to get really, really serious. Because you could have all those projects, but not all at the same time. They don’t have to go away, they’re just not there right now. And she started focusing, and then she created the project she wanted to work on. She, of all people, started working with Al Roker because of it. Because he also has a producing company. And he took on her webisode that she was making and things have been going super well for her since then.
But it was a thing where she had to get focused. She had to. Because we have to eliminate all these great things we want to do, and the great ideas we want to do. But it also causes anxiety. It also is a distraction. My worst distraction, when I’m not writing, is suddenly, I get anxious. And I go: “I should be going to the gym. I should be working out. I should be taking care of our taxes. I should be doing these things.” I’m just spreading the anxiety everywhere. Instead of, if I do my work, then afterwards, “You know? I’ll go to the gym. You know? I’ll do the taxes.” It’s misplaced anxiety. It doesn’t have to be there.
ENNI: I don’t want to poke too hard at the diary thing, but it is so interesting to me. It’s such a specific style of writing. It’s sort of like when people choose first person present. It’s so immediate. And it’s also like a shorthand. If you wrote a traditional, prose novel, then characters aren’t always interpreting what’s happening. In a journal, you cut right to, “This is a character who is thinking about the experiences of their life.” Not only what happened, but, “What does it mean and how do I feel about it?” So, it feels like you really broke through a lot of what can be really challenging when you’re writing a book. And got to where you could be more immediate.
CAGAN: I definitely think it’s more immediate. What the challenge is with writing a journal, or diary, from a character’s point of view, is that often times you are telling what’s just happened. You’re not showing it until you enter the scene after she set up, “Oh, my god. At lunch, this happened.” So, a lot of it is telling versus showing. In novels, you have to show. A play, you can tell, because then somebody else is gonna see it, because somebody else is gonna direct it and show it. But in a novel, you’re supposed to show everything. Who wants to be lectured, right? I think, for young readers, it’s a little bit of a challenge to be like, “Oh, my god. She’s so inside herself.” Well, when you’re writing a diary, or a journal, no matter who you are, it is your point of view. You’re not writing it for an audience. It’s myopic.
I enjoyed it very much, because I like to know how people think. I like to know the dirty side of them. I like to know the messy lives. Especially of creative people. Artists and writers intrigue me. Those are my super heroes. So, I like the idea of, “Let’s make a super hero origin story.” A lot of times when we learn about artists or writers, we hear about their infanthood and then we hear about maybe college and on. I kind of like the stage of like, “Wait what was Picasso like as a teenager?” I just wanted to get immediately inside of a young artist’s head, and that was the easiest way for me to do it. Writing a diary, from a character’s point of view, is basically to me, the sneakiest way to be a playwright in a novelist’s cloak.
ENNI: Before we go too much further, do you want to give the pitch for PIPER?
CAGAN: Sure, PIPER PERISH is a story of a high school senior, who is about to graduate. That’s Piper. She lives in Houston, Texas with her two best friends nearby, Kit and Enzo. And the three of them have made a pact that they will leave high school, after graduation, and go to New York City together. And attend art school together. Assuming they all get in. And, what happens, as we know when you make best plans, they don’t always go as planned. So to speak. So, Piper gets accepted, and her friends have other life curves thrown at them. And it’s about what happens to their friendship, as well as in her own family. And the dynamics of her family.
It’s a contemporary, with some romance thrown in there for fun. It’s seeing the everyday life of this high school senior trying to navigate what her future is supposed to be. It’s her journal, where she sketches, and scribbles, and does drawings. But it’s not her sketchpad. I like to make that really clear, too. We have these great little drawings that have popped up, by Maria Ines Gul, who is the illustrator over at Rookie Magazine. I love her take of how Piper would draw in this. Because these aren’t finished pieces. These aren’t Piper’s great masterpieces that she’s going to be making outside of the journal. There’s ink blots, and there’s scratch-outs, and fun little scribbles, that let us she that she’s still visually alive in this world. It’s not just words. Because, as an artist, you want to see the work. And you want to see what she’s doing, a little bit.
To just give her art to worry about, would not be enough. And to just give her family and friends, that could be enough, but I like stories about people with a drive for something. I often thought, weirdly, about my niece who is a former gymnast. Her incredible drive to do what she was doing. Not because she ever thought, maybe she did, but not because she was ever like, “I have to be in the Olympics.” But the adrenaline and the ambition that she had when she was pursuing it, no matter her concussions, her broken bones, everything that came along with the struggles of being a gymnast. None of that threw her off her course. She had struggles with my family. She had struggles with her friends. But, where did we find her day-after-day? Always at her gym meets. And always at her practices. I think, when you love something outside of your friends and family, and you’re a teenager, you’re very lucky. It can be your safe place, it can be your worst enemy, it can be these other things, but it adds dimension to who you are in your life.
I resisted making Piper a theater kid, because in my own head, I was like: “That’s too easy, because I know theater. And everyone will think it’s straight-up biography.” And it’s really not. There’s a couple story points that I reference, because that’s what I know. I can write about Houston. I could write about wanting to go to New York. If I started writing about theater stuff, it would really be too hard not to make it biographical. I will say that, I just did an interview yesterday, and the radio show host I was talking to has a degree in Fine Arts. And he was talking about, he’s a visual artist outside of being a radio DJ, and one of the things he said, was that, “I like that Piper thinks that she can make a difference in the world, by her art.” I think, just tying in to what you’re saying about the world, and politics, and charity. When we give the best of ourselves, we do make a positive difference. And sometimes, we start off in a very self-serving way, but a lot of times we can turn… and it can become a public service. There’s nothing wrong with that. It should only increase the joy that comes from it. I was happy that he connected with that on an artistic level and also, he felt art was a service. That was a good eye-opener for me. A good reminder.
ENNI: And it has been tough for people in artistic fields, to be like: “We’re not lawyers. We’re not doctors. What we do and [how we] help, can’t always be seen.”
CAGAN: I also see people online now reading more than ever. What we’re doing is providing a little escape. I mean, honestly, no matter what kind of story you’re telling. You’re providing entertainment and an escape when people need it. Just an hour, or ten minutes, to have a break in their brain and enjoy something. And then go back to reality.
ENNI: I love that. You start Piper with this very specific methodology, and you said it was like: “This book… if this book doesn’t work out, it’s time for something new.” So then, it does work. You get this great deal, and you have a second book, that now is on a deadline. How did you go about the follow-up project?
CAGAN: [chuckles] So, the deadline was last night at midnight.
CAGAN: So, my brain’s a little hurting right now. My agent Molly, at the time, [now represented by John Cusik], she negotiated a two-book deal. When we were still finishing up editing, and getting book one ready for everything, I was on hold waiting to find out if they wanted a one-off, or maybe a sequel. I wrote Piper not with a sequel in mind. I was like, “That is a stand-alone book.” And then Chronicle said, “We want a sequel.” And I was like, “Okay. I’ll figure this out!” I found out in mid-May they wanted a sequel. My first draft of it was due August 1st. And this was at the time when I was doing the social media for the LA Times Festival of Books. That’s not a whole lot of time to write a complete, brand new draft of a sequel, for something you had not planned. So, I wrote an outline, which I had not done for book one. And because Piper has a lot taken away from her in book one, I decided to give her everything she wanted in book two. I was like: “This is gonna be Piper and the Wizard of Oz. It’s gonna be great, and technicolor, and wonderful.” And then, it didn’t sound anything like the sequel should sound. My editor was like, “Okay. Let’s look at the direction of what we’ve done here.” So, we had to rework that. I had two months to turn in another draft. I turned in that draft, and we were closer. And then from November until now, I was supposed to turn in this last draft. I got back my draft January 19th, and then I was supposed to turn it in at the end of February.
CAGAN: Yeah. We were going on a scheduled trip that we had already planned. And it was right around the promotion of book one, that’s just come out. I had to get an extension until last night at midnight. So, I turned in a draft that, hopefully, will be something that we all like. It will definitely need revisions, and work on it, but I think it’s a good working draft. It’s been a process.
I’ve always heard people that I follow on Twitter, kind of complain about, “Wow. When you’re promoting, andhaving to write another book, definitely make your writing time happen. And definitely make time to not be doing your business when you’re doing your creative writing.” And I used to be like, “Boo-hoo! It must be so nice to have two books to have to worry about.” All that gross jealousy inside of me was like, “Boo-hoo. You’re so successful that you have to manage two books!” And now that I’m in it, it’s no joke. It is a brain destroyer. I understand that I’m not fighting in the Ukraine right now. I understand that I’m not digging ditches. So, I try not to sound too “complain-y” about it. But the mental attention of trying to achieve a very good story, and then do social media and promotions, and publicity for a different book… it’s very hard to keep them separate. And, it’s very hard to not accidentally say something from book two that’s not supposed to be out yet.
ENNI: Oh. Argh!
CAGAN: Yeah, a little challenging. But it was a lot of work. It’s been a lot of process. It’s a lot to have a debut and a deadline in a 24-hour period. Or, not 24-hour period, but a week period.
ENNI: Even just having the podcast and marketing that, right? And promoting that, and trying to write my own stuff can be really…
CAGAN: I don’t know how you do it?
ENNI: It’s nuts! Because it’s so functionally, two different brains.
CAGAN: I’ve always been curious, do you set aside time, like, two to five every day you podcast and ten to one you work? Do you have to schedule it like that? Or, how do you work it?
ENNI: Well, I have a day job also. So, the day job takes place every single morning of the week days. Without fail. And then in the afternoon, it’s about whether I’m doing podcast or creative writing and often it’s day-on, day-off. Whichever needs work on that day. Sunday is always, podcast only all day. It ends up being this weird way that works for my brain. But I do feel like I go through phases, where the podcast takes priority a little bit. What sucks is that every time it goes back and forth, I’m like, “If I was just focusing on the podcast more, or promotion more, there’s all these ideas I have.” But I can’t do that at the expense of my own work. It feels like you’re always making sacrifices, but you just have to. It’s hard.
CAGAN: Do you ever take a day off? Or, have you had a day off since you started all of it?
ENNI: [chuckles] Um, [pauses], I mean, yeah. Sure. Every once in a while. But not often.
CAGAN: You might want to schedule once a month, to have one day where you do none of it.
ENNI: None yeah, that’s a good idea.
CAGAN: I know your brain will probably spin and you’ll be like, “I have twenty things to do.” But, take one day a month. Go to the beach, or somewhere where you can’t access anything. It’s hard to balance it all. Again, I know my number one worst quality as a human being is my jealousy. It is in everything. And I hate that I’m a jealous person. I wish I was confident enough to never be jealous over things, but I would get so jealous when I’d hear people be like, “I have to publicize my book, and I have to go on a book tour, and I have to buy new clothes, or whatever.” And I’d be like, “Oh, poor baby!” And all I wanted, was that. When you’re doing daily work, and answering to several different people, and trying to do your best for several different people, as well as keep your normal life running…
ENNI: I think it’s really good to acknowledge, because everyone feels jealous. And those things are easily enflamed. It’s good to acknowledge when you’re feeling jealousy. And important to talk about, now that you’ve had the chance to be on this side. It’s like, “No really, trust me.”
CAGAN: It is hard. And, guess what? I also get jealous on this side! Somebody who’s gotten a lot of accolades recently, has written a terrific book… deserves every accolade she got, and I’m like, “[sighs exaggeratedly] I’ll never write a book like that.” Instead of being like, “I’ll never write a book like that. Thank god she did!” I’m like, “I guess I’m not talented!” Why? Why brain? Why not just be happy for someone? And I actually am happy for her. The jealousy thing is gross. I would like to scoot it under a mat and walk on it.
ENNI: Yeah. It’s tough to realize when your impulse… because then, it’s like, “I’m an evolved human!”
CAGAN: Kind of! [laughs]
ENNI: Right?! You get to the point where you’re like, “Where is this coming from?” At some point, it’s like, “We’re just like creatures.”
CAGAN: This lizard brain! Jealousy can point us to where we want, too. It can be a signal, and a sign post. Like, “You keep caring about this. Why? Maybe do something about it.” And then, when you do the work, don’t you feel less jealous?
ENNI: Oh god, yes. Yes. There’s no better feeling than having written. It changes everything.
CAGAN: It takes the sting away a little.
ENNI: Yeah. Your whole chemistry changes.
CAGAN: It’s like reset.
ENNI: Well, as you know, we like to end with advice. You’ve already given a ton of amazing advice. Is there anything else that comes to mind for what you would recommend to young people? Or, starting writers?
CAGAN: Well, to start, I’ll speak more to writers. For most creative people, and theater people, I think sometimes when we lose our passion, or lose what we’re focused on, or get scared of trying to tackle what we want, I think we forget why. And sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know why I want to write. I’ve been wanting to write since I was born.” Or, “I don’t know why I want to paint pictures, I’ve been painting since I was little.” And that’s all true. But in the point when we’re feeling our most tested, or our most challenged, I think it’s a good time to step back and go, “Why?” It doesn’t have to be because I’m gonna solve the world’s problems. It doesn’t have to be that this is gonna make me a million dollars. It can be, because it feels so good when I do this. Or, because it’s my therapy. Or, because when I do this, and then my reader, or my visitor to the gallery who sees my work, it makes them happy. And what I do is spread this news. Or, if you’re a writer, it’s because this story is burning inside of me.
Then, the “How Comes?” Sometimes when we get lost it’s like: “So how do I finish writing this book? Why was the character doing what they were doing? Why are they supposed to be going to this new place? Why do you want them to be there? Why do you want to finish this story?” And I think, once we go back to the “Why?” We get to the “How”, and then we “Do”. I guess it’s the moments you get a little more challenged, or you think you can’t… just sit down, take a minute. Ask yourself why, and maybe keep asking yourself until you really get to know more answers. Then start again. And keep going.
If you aren’t enjoying what your making, then that might also be a sign that that’s not the right thing to be making right now. Or, maybe you need to work in another genre, or another medium. But, if you’re not getting some joy, or relief, or happiness when you’re doing what you do… for me, it does relieve my anxiety when I actually do the work. I do get hopeful and optimistic, about seeing my character make it all the way through her problems. I think going: “This moment I’m in is temporary. This work I’m doing is temporary. I get to do it again tomorrow. It’s not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere. But, if I need to close off for the day, I can. I can start again tomorrow.” But, if it just keeps being something you keep quitting, and if you can’t figure out how, anymore… then ask yourself why. And go back again.
ENNI: I love that. That’s really, really, good advice. There’s a book called WRITING AS A WAY OF HEALINGthat was really important to me, at a certain point in my life. And it was more, or less, talking about that. How to intelligently ask yourself questions, until you get to the heart of it. It was really helpful for me to get there.
CAGAN: I may write that title down after I leave. The two writing books I like to tell people [about]… this one’s really common and popular, but I swear it helped me. ON WRITING by Stephen King, I still love it. And WRITING DOWN THE BONES by Natalie Goldberg was a really great one for me. So, if you’re looking for some inexpensive advice at your bookstore, get those two books.
ENNI: Yes. Don’t shoplift though!
CAGAN: NO! No more shoplifting everyone! Take it from an old pro. Don’t do it.
ENNI: Thank you so much for taking the time.
CAGAN: Oh, my gosh. Thank you! It’s been a blast. I love this podcast! I listen to this podcast all the time, so I can’t believe I’m on it.
ENNI: You’re so sweet. It was a good one. It was a great conversation! Thank you.
CAGAN: Thank you, my friend.
[Background music plays]
Thank you so much to Kayla. Follow her on Twitter @kaylacagan and find the show @FirstDraftPod and me @sarahenni. You can also find the show on Instagram and Facebook, but for show notes with links to everything Kayla and I talked about, as well as archives, transcripts, and to sign up for the First Draft Newsletter, try FirstDraftPod.com. If you are going to be in the Los Angeles area, you should check out some upcoming events. Including, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, April 22 and 23, at USC Campus. And, YALLWEST on April 29th at Santa Monica High School. I will be there milling around and talking to a ton of amazing authors.
If you liked what you heard, please subscribe to the show on iTunes. And, leave a rating or review there. It helps other people learn about the show, and every five-star review buys me some patience in my wait for Godot.
Thanks to Hashbrown for the theme song and Collin Keith and Maureen Goo for the logos. Thanks to super intern Sarah DeMont, and transcriptionist-at-large, Julie Anderson. And, as ever, thank you, dramaturgical wonderkinds for listening.