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Episode 172: Frank Talk With Novelist and Relauncher Laura Zigman : Part I (Part I of a two-part series)

Laura Zigman headshot

Episode Description

Laura Zigman is the author of the recently released hit novel Separation Anxiety, her fifth. One of her earlier novels, Animal Husbandry, was made into the movie Someone Like You starring Hugh Jackman and Ashley Judd, and another, Piece of Work, features a relaunching publicist as the main character. Laura has taken career breaks for her own health issue and for eldercare reasons, both of which she discusses. Laura’s frank commentary is a gift; she covers difficult topics ranging from feeling shame when she didn’t replicate her initial career success for a long time, to writer’s block and financial stress. She shares how ghostwriting was a skill she developed and used to smooth the income swings of a writing career (even published authors with multiple hit books can experience these income swings), and she does so with humor and a healthy dose of dog reverence.

Links to Episode Content

Laura Zigman

Separation Anxiety

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:00:00] Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies and advice and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen,CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host for today. Today we welcome Laura Zigman.

We are going to be talking to Laura in a two-part series. We had so much to talk about and I'm thrilled that we could cover so many topics, but we decided to do it in two parts, and this is Part 1. Laura is the author of the highly anticipated and very popular book Separation Anxiety that was published in hardcover and just recently released in paperback.

It has received praise all over the media and beyond, and here's what USA Today had to say about it. They start by talking about the main character, Judy. "Judy is in midlife limbo, her career as a children's book author crashed and burned. Her son has hit his obnoxious teens and she can't afford to divorce her pot- addled husband. Oh, and she's taken to carrying the dog around with her in a baby sling just to feel connected to something. A frank and funny portrait of the everyday anxieties we try so hard to hide.” We'll talk more about this with Laura.

Laura is also the author of Animal Husbandry, which was made into the movie Someone Like You, starring Hugh Jackman and Ashley Judd. And she's also the author of dating Big Bird, Her and Piece of Work. She's been a contributor to the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Huffington Post, produced a popular online series of animated videos called Annoying Conversations and was the recipient of a Yaddo residency.

Laura lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband, son, and deeply human Sheltie. Laura, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Laura Zigman: [00:02:04] Thanks Carol. So happy to be here.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:02:06] Well, it's great to have you, and I have so many questions to ask you, but I want to start by asking about your career path. I know that you have relaunched a couple of times along the way, and I wanted to know if you could just give us a brief overview of where you started and to where you are now.

Laura Zigman: [00:02:27] Sure. My career started really in a very traditional way. I, after college, moved to New York, which I had never planned on doing, and I ended up getting into book publishing. And I worked for 10 years at Random House, I was a book publicist in various divisions of Random House. So I had a very traditional, I was going to say nine to five career, but in New York publishing it was like nine to nine, a very long, exhausting job.

And after 10 years I really burnt out. And that's when I moved to Washington with no job. I had been working either as a waitress or in some capacity since I was 12 or 13. So this was the first time I moved to DC without an actual “job” job. And it took me a while to find one, and I found one.

So that was a little bit of a relaunch because there were no book publishers down there and I ended up getting a job after months of looking at the Smithsonian and it was kind of a weird job, but it was a six month contract. And so I was under a lot of pressure to kind of like find another job after that.

But when I got that job, it was very nine to five because it was a government job and I was home at my new apartment, which had a bedroom, unlike my one in New York. And I was able to finish this novel. And that's when I was very lucky right before my contract at the Smithsonian ended to sell that first novel Animal Husbandry.

And it made kind of a splash, was one of the first books of its kind which was later called "chick-lit". But at the time it was just a novel, just a book. And I got really lucky. It sold in a lot of countries and film sale and all that. So I was able to really quit my day job and become a full-time writer.

I wrote four novels in total, that was Animal Husbandry, and then I wrote three more. During that time I met my husband, we had a baby, we moved back to where I'm from, which is Newton outside Boston. And I assumed that my career would just kind of continue. When you're in your late thirties, early forties, you're on a path and you just assume that it will continue.

And of course that's not what happened and that's not what happens with a lot of people. I was shocked to hit a wall in terms of my career, mainly because life was interrupting. I had a lot of things happening at home and it just really affected my ability to be creative and to write.

And that's when my fiction writing really stopped. My last novel had been published in 2006 and I had terrible writer's block, and yet I had to earn a living. And so I "pivoted" as they say to ghost writing. So I was ghost writing for several years. And I'll just wrap up the answer to this question.

And after ghost writing for a bunch of years, I was really bereft that I was not writing my own work. I was able to start a novel in between the ghost-writing, I was still ghostwriting, but I was able to start a novel in between. I can go into more detail about how I did that. But it took me about three and a half years to write Separation Anxiety, I had been out of the game for, I mean, 2006, Bush was still in office, it was a very different world, it was many, many…

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:05:20] Right, it feels like eons ago.

Laura Zigman: [00:05:23] Eons. And I kept thinking to myself, I have to finish this novel while I still have friends in the business who haven't retired. I mean, we're getting old because I had been working in Random House in my twenties and all my friends were, I have a really good friend who's the publisher of Putnam. I have friends who, they're all in really senior positions and I'm like, "They're going to start retiring soon." So luckily I was able to, I had to get an agent and that was always fun, and not fun, but I was able to sell it in the summer of 2018 and the book was published last March.

As we all know unexpectedly, it was published really on the eve of the global pandemic. And so I would to be able to get out to a few bookstores in real life in person before, right? So that's my answer. A long, winding road, and many different points of relaunching.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:06:13] Well, that is a great answer because it reflects reality. And I especially appreciate the discussion about pivoting into ghost writing, because I do want to talk to you a little bit more about what it means to make a living as a writer and the realities of that and all the different ways that can happen and ghost writing is one of them.

I'll want to ask you about that in a little bit. But thank you for going into the detail, it was important. So I found out about you originally, because when I was doing all of the research for a book, a nonfiction book that I wrote with a Vivian Rabin called Back on the Career Track, which came out in 2007, we were doing research in 2004 and 2005 for this book and read everything we could get our hands on, mostly non-fiction and academic studies and having all these conversations with people in the work-life world. But we also read fiction about any time we could come across something that had to do with a relauncher, and your 2004 book Piece of Work is actually about a woman who relaunches her career as a publicist.

And so I was quite fascinated with this and you, and you didn't even know it at the time, but that was my first introduction to you. So I wanted to know, how did you get that idea to write that book? Because at the time, I relaunched my career in 2001, 2004, very early on in the relaunch world. And no one was really talking about the concept. So with some of this even a little bit autobiographical or what was the genesis of that story?

Laura Zigman: [00:07:57] Yeah, I mean, for me, the way I write fiction, it's very thinly disguised autobiographical fiction. I never pretend otherwise, but it's funny you say that because my career started to tank so much earlier than most people's. I think by 2002, right after we moved to Newton and I can sometimes try to figure out why this happened timewise, but it's not important for the purposes of our conversation. But my career really started to take a nose dive in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, et cetera. And that was way before a lot of people really hit the wall in 2008, 2007 because of the banks.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:08:32] Oh yeah, the recession.

Laura Zigman: [00:08:33] Right. So I always like to think I'm kind of a trendsetter, like with Animal Husbandry as well, later called "chick-lit". So I like to think about, I really was on the forefront of going really going under. My husband was a teacher and I was supposed to be making the big bucks and suddenly it was like nothing. And there was a real sense of shame. And I know, I think you and I have talked about this. There was a real sense of shame and I'm using air quotes here, "failure," career failure, which is what we’re perceived as, especially if you're a writer like I was, where I had a movie. People were like, "Oh, what happened to you?" There's a sense of shame, like, "Where are you?" "Where's your stuff?" "Why aren't you as successful as you were before?" It's very public.

I mean, not that I'm like those really famous writers, but within my circles and people that I knew, it was really either unspoken or people really would say, "What happened to you?" And they would say it, sometimes they would say it with compassion. And other times they were sort of like "Gee, what happened to you?"

So there is that sense of shame I think for all of us, when our careers are going down a path that just something happens, where either something's happening at home or we're dealing with loss or grief or illness or something, or the industry changes. And for me, it was kind of all of those things.There were health situations going on. There was a situation with my marriage. There was a situation with my kid, all this very common stuff that happens with people's lives.

And it affects the ability to earn and your ability, if you're in a creative field, it can really affect your ability to be creative because you have to generate the work. I've been on both sides in terms of, I've had a job where the work, you sit at your desk passively and work is just dumped on you and you have to do it. Very difficult if you're depressed or if something's going on. But at least the work is there.

When you're in a creative field, you have to generate it. If you don't come up with the idea, if you don't execute the idea, there is no product. So the plan is even more on people who make their living by creating stuff or producing their own material. So that just made everything more difficult. But back to your initial question yeah, it was very much based on this bottom falling out of my own career and trying to figure out how to come back.

And so the original title for that book I think was called The Comeback, but it was helped a lot, and I've been fascinated for years and years with the sense of failure and success and how those two terms and thoughts are very subjective.

What is constituted as failure, and what's constituted as success and just how we see ourselves as has-bins or losers and and how that is just an unfortunate way to think of the times when we're transitioning from one thing to the other.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:11:16] Gosh, there's so much packed into what you're saying right now. We've actually done some podcasts on mental illness and the long-term job search. And that comment you made about shame is sort of wrapped into the whole process of people who are in a prolonged job search. You're talking about how shame was produced as a result of the prior public and big time success.

And when you said that people had come to you at that point "Gosh, what happened to you?" It reminded me of the introduction to a book called The Price of Motherhood that was written by Anne Crittendon, who was a Pulitzer Prize- nominated writer who worked for The New York Times. And in the introduction to her book, she said, one of the reasons she wrote the book is because I think she had focussed her career elsewhere for awhile after she had her child and she was walking around her neighborhood one day or was walking around somewhere, and someone ran into her and looked at her and said, "Didn't you used to be Ann Crittendon?" Her identity as that Pulitzer prize nominated writer was like her person, like the two are fused.

So anyway, I always remembered that quote and yeah, I thought it just captures so much about what all this means. And then this other piece about the creative process and how, when all these things are happening in your life, but your work is based on you producing something that, you can't actually schedule and say, "Okay, so now between this date and that date at these times I am going to produce this book.” How do you get yourself into the mindset where you can be productive, and is it a scary feeling to think about that it's not that predictable and sometimes you can get into a stretch where you're not as productive?

I guess I'm interested in your creative process and you've written about writer's block and you wrote, "One of my favorite things to do is not write so anything that involves research is high on my list of baby steps toward writing." And I know it's a serious topic, but I thought that was a humorous way of looking at it.

Laura Zigman: [00:13:40] Yeah. For me fear and anxiety and humor are all kind of fused together. The serious answer to your question is, it's terrifying if you don't have, and even if you do have, if one of the spouses is having a really stable career, that's great.

But you know, I always look at couples who have that and every now and then the bottom falls out of that spouse too, in terms of, they get fired or their company closes or you can't really be completely secure. But, we were in a situation where my husband was teaching and so the big paycheck was always looked to come from me. And then there were just years and years where it just wasn't happening, it was not happening. And then I had my own health issues. I had breast cancer, it was caught very early, but I had a lot of surgery, so I kind of lost a year.

Then my husband had some mental health issues. My son had some learning issues and then both my parents got sick and died and I was taking care of them, consecutively. It was first my mother, then my father. And so I lost years, especially taking care of them. I was running from dropping off my son to going to the hospitals or chemo things or whatever, and this is something that's very common, I wrote about it for The New York Times last February, right before my book came out, because it really was another shameful thing.

You're not supposed to talk about the fact that you're going broke. I remember when, very early in my sort of slide from making a lot of money to not making much for many years, my agent at the time, I've had a few different agents, but my agent at the time called me, she said, "Oh, don't put that on your website. Don't write about that," about making a mortgage or something. And she said , she actually said, "People are going to feel really sorry for you, it's going to make them uncomfortable, it's cringe-worthy." I didn't listen to her, and I did it my own way. And I don't know if that was right or wrong, but it felt very important to me.

I was like, "I'm not embarrassed." I mean, it is reality. And over the years, I think people have gotten more and more comfortable talking about it because, unfortunately, it is so common now you see a lot of people especially during this pandemic and all that but even before, really struggling financially and trying to fit everything in with being in that middle generation where you're taking care of kids and parents.

So the creative process has always been difficult. When I was single, it was difficult. Given these constraints was even more difficult, but I found ways to do it. One way was, the ghost writing made it very much a business. I had to do the work because I was under contract and I also have this very, after college, I went on a whale watch and I'm very seasick and it was a miserable experience, it was like four of the worst hours of my life. And it was mostly because the boat made two very different motions. One motion of the boat was searching for the whale and the other was sitting and watching the whale.

And both motions to me were just horrendous. When we were in motion, I wished we would stop. And when we were stopped, I wish we would were in motion. And that's kind of how I am with writing. When I don't have a book contract I'm full of anxiety, and when I do have a book contract, I'm full of anxiety because then I have to produce.

So I'm never happy. It's very anxious, anxiety producing. But with ghost writing at least there is the job in front of you that is pretty much clear what you have to do. You have a deadline and you have someone you're working for. And so it's less amorphous.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:16:54] Does it feel different because it's not like, you're someone else's translator or I don't know how you describe ghost writing, but it's not your direct product, it's their product that you're working on?

Laura Zigman: [00:17:06] Exactly. So that's really true in the sense that, when I had this terrible writer's block and then I had all the surgery and I was recovering, I was watching a lot of television and I ended up watching a reality show about a television matchmaker on A&E who was based in Buffalo, New York.

I had a blog at the time and I blogged about the show. About two months later, I got a call from her producer and he said she wanted to write a book and was I interested in ghost writing? And of course I said “yes,” even though I had no idea how to do it. This is one of those tips when you're relaunching, just say yes and we'll figure out how to do it later.

I said, “yes,” and I had the meeting and I got the job. And then of course I had to figure out who to ask how to do it. And so I lived in Newton at the time and, a lot of people know BJ Novak from The Office, but BJ Novak's father I'm sure you know, Bill Novak, William Novak was one of the preeminent ghost writers of the eighties and nineties. I mean, he made a fortune. He was just an incredible, he's an incredibly talented writer. And he wrote a lot of the really biggest books and kind of redefined ghost writing for all of the rest of us. I think he started to get his name on the jacket, that kind of thing.

I had met him at some library fundraiser, and I emailed him. I said, "Listen, we met once. I was wondering if you could just, if I could just have five minutes of your time." He called me, we spoke for two hours and he gave me so much helpful advice. That really helped me do something I had never done before, which was ghost write this book for this person.

But in terms of relaunching, it was really by the seat of my pants in terms of, I just was like, "Well, I have these skills from fiction writing," which is to write in someone else's voice, write in a character's voice. And so I had to talk myself through a lot of my fear of doing something new.

Which was just like, "No, I have these skills," I've written books before, I write in other people's voices because when you're a fiction writer, you're writing characters. And so I can do this, and I'm like a curious, super nosy person. So I can ask questions. I sort of had the skills and a lot of times you have to just talk yourself down from the sheer terror of it, and just say, "No, I have the skills. And I'm going to match them for this new thing and I can do this." And I did, and I wrote, I don't know, six or seven books and I enjoyed it to a degree. It was great work. It always sounds like you're getting paid a lot, but really not because it's a whole bunch of payments and they come at different times and the work is really, it's intense.

You're sort of traveling a lot to meet with them, that kind of thing. But I was really grateful for it and I'm sure I'll have to do it again. I'll be very happy to get ghost writing work when I need it.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:19:45] Wow. So that's very interesting. Just commenting on a couple of things that you mentioned the interaction with Bill Novak, reaching out to him based on you just happened to meet him at a library event and you reached out to him and I don't know if you felt nervous about it, or, “How can I lose? I'll just reach out to them and maybe he'll respond, maybe he won't,” and then it turned out to be such a meaningful conversation. But that just illustrates for relaunchers to take the chance to reach out to someone who even you might even think of as a long shot.

Laura Zigman: [00:20:19] Absolutely. I think that's such an important point because it was totally out of my comfort zone. I'm not a natural networker. I don't do that. I don't ask for, it was beyond anything. And I had to really, you have to force yourself sometimes to do those things because you have to if you have to work and that was always the frame with which I viewed everything, "I have to do this. I need this job." And so it forced me to do things that I normally would never do. And yet he was so kind and I think most of the time and that's why I really try, I often fail, but I really try if people contact me, I really try to be kind like that because people have been kind to me and have given me their time.

So when I'm able, I really do try to do that or I try to connect them. I'm a big connector and you're probably the same way, I connect people because people have done it for me. And it's so useful. It's, "I can't help you, but you know what? I know someone who can." And if you can make that one little connection for someone it's huge, if you put them in touch with someone and that can lead to something, even if you can't, you're not in a position to help them, or you don't know. Like someone did contact me recently. And she goes,"I can't help this person. He's a student. He's trans and he wants to get into publishing." She said, "I have no..." and I was like," I'll do it." Because I know how important, he's 21, he's doing zoom from Oberlin College.

I can at least put him in touch, you know what I mean? So it's just that kind of feeling of, if you do it, you help someone and people have helped me. So yeah, you just have to bite the bullet and make that call or send that email.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:21:57] I hope everyone is listening because it's a really, really important message. And it's something that a lot of people are, a lot of relaunchers are so hesitant to do.

And that is the conclusion of Part 1 of our conversation with Laura Zigman. Thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host.

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