Launching a book into a disaster

As if a pandemic wasn't enough

I almost didn’t write my second book. It’s about motherhood and when I sold it in 2016, I was a married mother of two living in the Midwest. By the time I sat down to write it, I was going through a divorce and having someone tell me I was a horrible mother for want to travel, for wanting to write for wanting to do more.

I knew too, that if I wrote it, I’d have to be honest. Really honest, about my life and my choices. I’d have to talk about my sexual assault. I’d have to talk about my own births. My own mother. I’d have to write the bloody ground beef pulverized truth.

And I did. I went to Philadelphia and had a trip alone where I wrote and cried in an Airbnb and walked through the Mutter Museum, then wrote and cried. Then, I went to a fundamentalist Mormon home in Idaho and sat in a room with a chair against the door and felt like I never fell asleep for three days.

When the pandemic hit, I think the publisher thought, for a moment that perhaps it would be okay in August? But we couldn’t get hard copies to people. The early review part of the book, where we get people excited, get them to want interviews and want to review, that was stalled. No one wanted PDFs. No one wanted to read. And how could they? We were all overwhelmed with disaster and disease. I too was supposed to blurb more books but couldn’t. I was working all the time. I was also writing an audiobook so during the day I’d write/home school, make food somehow appear, then when everyone was asleep, I’d write some more.

The protests came. I marched in the streets with my kids all wearing masks. We talked about the reality of violence in our cities. I joined a book club with the local police chief, we talked about reducing violence, we talked about taking money from the police. Our city seemed to be making progress toward a citizen review board. A local police officer, who shot a man and paralyzed him a few years ago, was fired from the force. It felt like something was changing.

It became clear that the book was going to be launched in a pandemic. But it felt more timely than ever. All the countries mothers were screaming, or would be screaming if we’d have time to breathe. If we weren’t on the front lines. If we weren’t working and schooling and feeding and cleaning and all from the same few rooms in which we cried, shit and stuffed our faces with popcorn in the few spare moments of alone time.

And then, it was time for my book to publish. Maybe there would be space for me to say what I felt needed to be said. That we needed change and revolution. That we needed to treat women as an essential part of our economy. And my excerpts came out and I wrote something for Time. It was happening. I was excited and proud.

It’s hard to talk about a book. A thing you did. It feels so selfish. And I can hear my group texts being like, “LYZ STOP! IT’S FINE!” But is it? Isn’t it more important to turn the mirror to others? But I can’t lie. I loved launching my last book.

Last year, when God Land came out, I went on a small tour, and did interviews — podcasts, online and print outlets, NPR affiliates. It wasn’t that glamorous. But, I’m sorry, I know no one has any sympathy for this, but it was fun. It feels fancy to lean into a mic while an NPR voice soothingly asks you your thoughts. I used to pretend to interview people in the bathroom mirror when I was 9 years old. It feels like that 9 year old is somehow proud of this 37 year old. It’s really fucking cool to see people discuss something that you wrote. Maybe I’m just Nell from the movie Nell, but it’s the coolest thing.

It’s also so fun to get out and see friends from all over and talk and drink with them after an event. It’s fucking incredible to meet people from Twitter who tell you stories about their lives and you love them because everything is real and fleshy and we are happy to see each other. And the woman who talked to me about her radical leftist West Virginia pastor granddad. Or the Uber driver who cried talking about his church in Wisconsin. When my last book launched, I remember squeezing into a booth at Cosmic Ping Pong in DC after my reading. Sitting thigh to thigh, drinking drinks, meeting some of the best people, laughing, sweating, sharing food.

Can you imagine?

This year, everything switched to Zoom and okay. Okay. Not the same as sweaty thighs in Cosmic Ping Pong. Or deep dish and whiskey in Chicago. But we had some plans and we were gonna make the best of it because I like to sing that Dolly Parton song Wildflowers, “When a flower grows wild it can always survive/ Wildflowers don't care where they grow.” So, we’re gonna put on a fancy clothes and lipstick and smile do our fucking best. Because that’s how Ellen raised me. Cheesy? Perhaps. But I need some breathy earnestness now and again. So do you.

My book was supposed to come out Aug 11. A friend said I could borrow her ring light for my Zooms.

On Aug. 10 what was the equivalent of a category 2 hurricane destroyed my town.

An apartment on the west side of town.

A neighA

My neighbor’s sense of humor.

I had heard a severe thunderstorm was in the forecast, but I didn’t think much of it. I was working and parenting and racing to meet a deadline and get some freelance assignments in.

When the sirens went off my kids raced to the basement. But Waffles the cat (who can open the screen door) was out in the storm. I went up to look for him. I looked out the front window and saw my neighbor’s tree snap in half and fall on a car. I heard thump. Crash. Thump. Crash. Thump. Then the crash was my house. Then I couldn’t see out the window. I thought my tree had fallen. I ran to the basement and held my kids. They were so scared and I kept telling them it was okay. It was just a storm.

Our power was out.

The storm lasted two hours. I’m sorry to tell you that once the kids were calm (one playing a Switch, the other reading a book) I opened my computer and kept writing. I had a column to turn in. And I was texting friends. I had to work. I had to do book events.

Finally, I finished my assignment as the winds died down and went outside. Neighbors were standing around looking at whole trees uprooting, branches through roofs. We just stared at it and each other. We couldn’t go anywhere our streets were blocked, power lines fell down around us like the sad streamers from an abandoned party. A roving band of men with chainsaws began clearing streets and driveways. My daughter helped me flag some down who cleared apart of my yard and my driveway.

When we came inside I knew I needed a plan. I sat trying to text people and my daughter came up to me with a pillow. “If you’re gonna scream, scream into this,” she joked. We both took a turn screaming into the pillow. Waffles came back.

I barely had cell service. No internet. No power. Elon Green had tried to book me a room on the edge of town. So I drove out there with the kids. We saw billboards snapped in half. Whole buildings collapsed. I began crying. My kids didn’t ask why I was sad.

I cannot tell you what it feels like to have the place you love suddenly crumpled and twisted by the hands of nature. Everything just gone. I’d been here in 2008 and 2016 when it flooded. This wasn’t that. The flood was isolated to portions of the town. You could escape it. You couldn’t escape the crush of the wind.

When we got to the hotel we saw pieces of it’s roof on the parking lot the lights were out. I sat and texted a couple friends. Did I drive north 50 miles to the next big town? What did I do? It was already past dinner. We were so hungry.

We drove. We got to Cedar Falls. I got a room at a hotel that lets you bring dogs. We ate McDonalds on the bed and the kids collapsed. I worked until I couldn’t anymore.

Because the storm had taken down cell towers and internet, even Cedar Falls was having a hard time taking credit cards and it took me two hours to find lunch for my kids. Did I mention it’s a pandemic?

It’s a pandemic.

I emailed my publisher about the disaster and lined up people to do the event for me should my internet fail. They send hamburgers and champagne. I smiled and took a selfie. We’d make this happen. Down fancy clothes and lipstick, I’d smile because that’s all I had.

What is it like to launch your book into a disaster?

I’ve turned interviews that were supposed to be about the book into interviews about the disaster to get help for my town. I used writing energy to write about the disaster. I used my Twitter to amplify how people were struggling. Going without power for days, sitting outside waiting for a Red Cross who didn’t set up a shelter in our town for four days. A mayor who said we didn’t need the National Guard, when senior citizens were sitting in their apartments, unable to leave because no elevators, no food, wondering where the help would come from. A governor who took a full week to ask for federal disaster aid.

I’m not a martyr. Sorry. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I love my book. I love it. I am so proud of it. I’m even prouder of it than the first in so many ways. I barely remember writing God Land. I wrote that in a fog of work in about a month. But Belabored took months and months of late nights, when the words felt like they were being lanced from me like a boil.

I remember every word of that book.

But who the fuck can think about a book when neighbors are calling you because they haven’t had a hot meal in days and you randomly put your cell phone number in your newspaper column because you thought maybe if someone needed something they might call and you can help? Who can think about a book when a neighbor had her walls blown off around her while she huddled in a closet with her 4 month old grandson? Someone from another state DMed me to say, “I want to support your book!” And I was so moved, so we decided to buy everything off the Eastern Iowa Diaper Bank Amazon registry. So, she helped me make that happen. So did many of you. Thank you. You also raised over $80,000 for Meals on Wheels.

I’ve been trying to write this news letter for weeks now. I was without power for nine days. I finally got internet after 18 days. I’ve been trying to work in a pandemic in a disaster zone. With kids. I’ve been in and out of hotels. Chloe Angyal did my laundry. And I had to wash laundry in a tub on my neighbor’s lawn and do interviews. My friend Serena let me work out of her house. I lived off of peanut butter sandwiches and water for a very long time. I was gonna cut a bitch for a while because I’d only had hotel coffee for 8 days. But my friend Colin Dickey sent coffee and whiskey. the Tuesday Agency in Iowa City let me use their rad as hell offices for my other Zooms. Other friends let me call them and sob and sob and sob until I could finally fall asleep.

I am the lucky one. In so many ways, all of us feel like the lucky ones. Because we are still alive.

What’s it like to launch a book in a disaster?

I still have a giant tree branch on the trampoline in my backyard. Piles of debris line my road. I have to somehow find someone to help with the trees and fix my roof (minor damage). But also work. Also kids. Also book. Some roads are still impassible in town. Now, almost three weeks since the storm, Covid is more uncontrolled than a drunk 18 year old at the Airliner in Iowa City.

I once asked about my sales numbers, but I cried and regretted it when I found out.

What’s it like to launch a book in a disaster?

This is a year of ruin. A year when everything that could be good or wonderful — all our celebrations, all our triumphs — it’s all been crumpled and twisted by disaster both national and personal.

I feel like I’m supposed to say something wise here. About life and how it comes at you. But that feels so glib in the face of the pain, the real raw pulsating pain we are all feeling right now.

And what can I even say about launching a book in a disaster except that I made something small and beautiful and set it adrift in a world of ruin. And I hope that’s good enough. It has to be good enough. These days, it’s all I have.

And I feel so silly sometimes. All I have are my words. But if all they do is cry for help for other people, maybe that’s enough. Enough for now.

If you feel compelled, and I know it’s a rough as fuck year for everyone, here is a place to donate to help Iowans. May I recommend the Catherine McAuley center who offers services for immigrants and is doing an amazing job.

Also, our incredible photo staff has some amazing storm photos. You can find them here.