Bestselling author Nic Stone on motherhood as a form of storytelling

In this episode, Liz talks to Nic Stone, the bestselling young adult author of Dear Martin and the recently released Dear Justyce about creating a new narrative, not just in her fiction, but also through motherhood. She also talks about the pressures she initially put on herself for not being the stereotypical mom and explains how she managed to write her first book in the chaos of early motherhood.

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Liz Tenety: I have been a writer for pretty much my entire life. Some of my earliest memories are being alone in my room or being alone in our home office with my own words. It is where I've always felt the most free. The most me.

When I first sit down to write, when I find that inspiration, I have no idea what the whole story is, but I always have a sense and a conviction about that little seed of an idea of the insight that I want to share or get across in my work. I see so many parallels between that and motherhood. You know, each of my kids has begun as an idea, as a little longing, as a sense of my story isn't finished yet. My motherhood journey isn't closed quite yet.

And I think that motherhood in its own way is a story. It's a beautiful story. It's an incredibly dramatic and meaningful story. And the impulse around writing and creating is such a parallel impulse to that of bringing children into the world.

Liz Tenety: Hey mama, welcome to The Motherly Podcast, honest conversations about modern motherhood. I am Liz Teneti the co-founder of motherly and a mom of four myself. Today's interview is with Nic Stone, the New York times bestselling young adult author of Dear Martin, the recently released Dear Justyce, and a lot of other books.

I talked to Nic about the parallels between storytelling and motherhood and how she's creating her own narrative, not just in her fiction, but in her life as well. Nic also spoke about some of the pressures that she put on herself when she first became the family breadwinner and how she was able to write her first book amidst the chaos of new motherhood.

Nic stone, welcome to The Motherly Podcast.

Nic Stone: Thank you, my dear. It is lovely to meet you.

Liz Tenety: So, I know you have two sons -- four-year-old and an eight-year-old boys. What do you think makes your approach to mothering them unique?

Nic Stone: So, interestingly enough, I am the primary breadwinner in my house and my partner, my male partner is the stay at home parent.

And it's been important to both of us to kind of try and unpack some of the toxic masculine stuff that our kids would be exposed to in a different environment. And like, they love stuf… my little black boys love stuff like Frozen and Beyonce, and they know that mommy works really hard and has a cool job.

And I think with my kids, it's important to me that they not only recognize that girls can do amazing things and are just as powerful and magical and capable as boys, but that they also recognize that it's on them to make sure that they are delivering these messages to the girls around them. So, we're really big on respect and consent and empowerment.

Liz Tenety: I'm so glad you brought up. Your partner, who is this new kind of dad. And can you tell us some examples of what that looks like for your family and practice? What kinds of things does he do that many other boys don't get to see their dad do?

Nic Stone: Dishes and laundry and just stuff around the house. He cooks.

It's important for boys to see that these gender role things aren't actually things that all people can do, all things and that when you're dividing responsibilities in a household, it's up to the two partners involved to just decide what each person is going to do, right? There's no, mommy does the dishes in the laundry because she's a woman. It's, mommy's working, daddy's doing the laundry.

Liz Tenety: Do you think they even know that that is unusual?

Nic Stone: I hope not. I really don't want them to know that it's unusual because… I had, um, an interview yesterday and I got to talk about how it has really solidified for me that we as parents get to set normal for our children in our house. Our normal might look different than it does in somebody else's house, but that doesn't make our normal not normal.

It doesn't make it strange. It doesn't make it bizarre. It's just, people do things differently and that's actually something I want them to take into life and apply across the board. The idea that there is no normal, there is just what works for each person and each family.

Liz Tenety: Has that been liberating for you to not have to conform to another family's idea of what you should be doing?

Nic Stone: Oh, absolutely. But it took some work.

Liz Tenety: Tell me about that.

Nic Stone: Yeah, so I'm in therapy like twice a week. One of the reasons I started therapy is because I had all this guilt, right? Like I had all this guilt about not being that ideal mom and not being there when my kids got home from school, not doing all the cooking and the cleaning and not being like they are to kiss the boo-boos, et cetera.

There's so much pressure on mothers to be everything. But also like, pretend like they're nothing, if that makes sense. And it's something I've always hated because the thing I'm best at is making money. I'm not great at cooking. Like I'm a terrible cook, terrible, terrible, terrible. I gave myself food poisoning once because I cooked myself some like salmon or something and next thing I know, I was like, hunched over my toilet and I'm glad nobody else ate it, because that would have been a disaster.

But there are things that I am great at and things that I am just not great at. And for a while, the things that I'm not great at, they caused me a lot of guilt. I always felt a lot of guilt over them because I'm supposed to be great at them.

Like you're a woman you're supposed to be great at all of these things. You want to keep a man, you've got to know how to cook. The way to a man's heart is through his stomach. And I'm like, well, my man's stomach is probably pretty empty right now. So, what do you want me to do with that? But it did take, it has taken, and still takes me constantly reminding myself that I don't have to conform to standards that honestly weren't created for me.

Liz Tenety: It sounds to me like among many other things, you are writing a new narrative for your family and the story of gender and parenting for your kids who are growing up. So, I guess I'm wondering, stepping back on you in your career and your journey growing up, did you always know you wanted to be a storyteller? Did you think of yourself as a writer when you were growing up?

Nic Stone: I didn't. So, what's interesting about this. So, I'm like a queer black woman and growing up, I never saw myself in books. I never saw myself writing the books. It took me a long time to realize that I could actually insert myself into the places that I wasn't seeing me. I was 27, when the realization hit me.

Liz Tenety: What books did you read as a kid that, you know, maybe are some of those really common books that they hand you at school that you didn't see yourself in? Do any books in particular stand out?

Nic Stone: Yeah, so interestingly enough, the one book that stands out as like the book where I realized I'm not actually in this is Charlotte's Web. I read it in middle school and it's like before, you know, we've read all of these books with animals at the center. I remember reading Animal Farm in eighth grade and like, why do we torture children? So, um, but that was all animals, so it was different. But like with Charlotte's Web, everybody was just so geeked over this book. Same thing with The Giver.

So like The Giver and Charlotte's Web, I realized that I wasn't in them. And I think it came at this time when you hit adolescence, you start recognizing that, oh, my body is changing. I'm noticing things about myself that weren't there before. And there's this new level of self-awareness that comes into being, and you care more about the opinions of your peers and there's all of this developmental stuff that's happening.

So, at that time is when I recognize that like, wait a minute, all of the stuff that I've always loved to read has never had me in it. Like, I was like a huge Judy Blume fan. I remember meeting Judy Bloom—I think I was 28 or 29—and I almost cried because she was such a pivotal part of my childhood, despite the fact that I never saw myself in the books that she wrote. It was okay at that point because I was too young to really recognize, but as I got older and I got into high school and like, I just came to a point where I hated reading because I wasn't seeing myself in it. And that shifted in my late twenties when I read Veronica Ross's Divergent. So like, I've always loved to read, but it wasn't until I read the Divergent series, it's a trilogy, and the black character lives all the way through the end. And like, that was a revolution for me.

And that's when I realized like, wait a minute, maybe I should give this fiction thing, a shot. So, I decided to give it a go. And I'm glad that I did. I'm getting to write these stories that I didn't see. I have a book coming out next August. It's a Sandlot retelling about a softball team of little black girls and I got the cover comps, basically like a sketch of what the cover is going to look like, and I sobbed—like burst into tears and because it is me on the cover and I'm 35 years old and have never seen that.

Liz Tenety: I read that you started writing amidst the chaos of new motherhood. That word stuck out—the chaos of new motherhood.

And I'm curious how motherhood actually both compelled or maybe inspired you to really launch this career. It's easy to sit here now and think, look at all these bestselling books you had in front of you, but when you started writing, you were not that bestselling author. So how did new motherhood inspire you?

And talk to me about the chaos of those early years and how you found, you know, the flow of that writing requires inside of that.

Nic Stone: This is a good question. So when my older son, my first born was five-months-old, a young man named Jordan Davis was killed in Jacksonville, Florida. And I heard about this story.

We were living abroad. We were living in Israel. So,my first son was born in Israel. And I'd heard about this story. And there's something about having a creature that you created in your arms when you're hearing about terrible things happening to other people's children. It really sparked something in me.

And I think it reminded me of the lack of things I had that reflected me and my experiences when I was young. I knew I wanted my children to be readers, but the death of Jordan Davis highlighted to me that my little boy that I had just birthed—there would be potential for him to just have a target on his back simply for existing at some point, because he will get older, he will get taller.And my son's going to be very tall and I know from experience and from the things that I've seen, that, you know, even 10 years in the future, there are going to be people who look at my kid and see a threat. So, when I originally started writing, it was with my own son in mind. I wanted to create something that I could give him when he got older and he started to kind of see how unkind the world can be.

Dear Martin was my debut novel and it was also a way for me to explore the why behind some of these like tragedies, these incidents where you had these black teenage boys. Being killed by police officers, unarmed. Why are these men, these grown men looking at these children and seeing threats before they see children?

Liz Tenety: So, what did it look like in practice to have a little baby who is unpredictable and needy? And I have a 15-month-old right now, he is getting into every dangerous thing possible every second of the day. How do you write a book? Of this magnitude in the midst of that, like literally, were you writing at night? Were you putting them in a play pen? Like how did you actually, how did you pull it off?

Nic Stone: When he was that age it was a whole different ball game. It's one thing when you have an infant and you can just like latch him to you when you type, or put them on your chest and type. So, that was the thing that I did a lot.

Like I would write while I was nursing, but yeah, once they get a little older, that part, I had a lot of assistance from my partner and my parents. When they got to the age that they could get into stuff, I did a lot of writing at night. I absolutely had to do it at night or early in the morning, before they woke up.

And my dad lived very close. My dad was my neighbor. That was helpful. So, it's one of those things where like, you figure it out. And I think that's true for anybody who wants really, really, really wants to do something. If you want it bad enough, you figure out a way to do it. You figure out a way to pull it off.

Liz Tenety: I relate to the feeling of having creativity within you and the tornado of new parenthood around you. Right now, my mom is watching my four kids, so we can have this conversation. I'm reminding myself just to stay totally focused on you and this work, but there are seasons too, where parenthood can be so demanding that that might not be your week or month or year to write a book.

Nic Stone: Right? 2020, my friend, like these kids were in my house from March through mid- August. And like writing was almost impossible. And it's, you know, especially like when they get older and they are so rambunctious and they just like somebody getting kicked in the throat or punched in the eye or like all of a sudden I hear this crash. And like a bag of Legos is tumbling down the stairs.

Liz Tenety: That sound, we all know that sound…

Nic Stone: I'm like, Oh God. And then you wait for the scream, right? Like you hear the bang and you wait for the scream and if there's no scream, everything's fine. Nobody's hurt. It's fine. But I did have to take a break over the summer, like I'm like four months late on a book.

It was honestly easier for me to write with a baby than it is for me to write with like a four-year- old and an eight-year-old running around the house. But like I said, my partner is super, super helpful. There was one point in the spring where I pitched our family tent in the backyard. And I would go right out in the tent because it was quiet and I had these nature sounds and the breeze was nice and cool. And I would turn off my wifi. And you said the word focus, and I think that it's probably the trickiest thing about being a mother creative having, because our minds are so used to having to go in so many different directions at once, getting them to focus on one thing is almost like, what are we even doing?

So, eliminating the distractions as much as possible, but like you said, also recognizing that not every day is going to be a good day. Not every week. You just take things as they come, I think.

Liz Tenety: I do want to talk about Dear Justyce. It's your new book. You have another book coming out next year. You are a busy, busy woman. Tell us why this book was so important for you to write right now.

Nic Stone: So interestingly enough, I wrote it a couple of years ago and that's the thing about the publishing industry. It takes a couple of years for a work to actually be published.

I sold this in late 2017, worked on it in 2018. And it just came out. So my debut novel, Dear Martin was about a black boy doing everything right and still having to face systemic racism and also racism from people that he encountered on a daily basis. He was super high-achieving. He's headed to Yale. He was doing all of these amazing things, captain of the debate team, he was ranked number three in his class, all the right things, and still had to deal with some pretty ugly stuff out in the world, which is reality. A lot of his story, a lot of Justyce's story, and Dear Martin was pulled from my own life.

Well, I had a set of a pair of mentees, both of whom read Dear Martin as sophomores in high school. They came to me in November of 2018 and they basically said, we love dear Martin. Our lives are not like Justyce's. We are not headed to good colleges. We do not have these excellent grades. We are doing well to just stay out of trouble. Can you write a story about us? You're our voice.

So I decided to take them up on that. The opening scene of Dear Martin, we see the main character get racially profiled by a police officer while trying to help his drunk ex-girlfriend get home without driving. And the second chapter of Dear Martin, we find out that the police officer who profiled Justyce in chapter one has been killed.

And the person who admitted or who confessed to the murder is a boy named Quan. And Quan happens to be a boy that Justyce grew up with. And they were like friends at one point in the second half of dear Martin, we see Quan. We meet him in person in the detention center where he's being held. And Dear Justyce is a book where his story gets expanded. So, I spent a lot of time in juvenile detention centers, interacting with the young people who are there. These people who have been deemed delinquents or ministers to society and at their core, they're all just kids. You know, most of them have had life circumstances that were not conducive to them doing very well.

They come from, there's like a lot of poverty. There's a lot of, kind of this repeated cycle of like their parents grew up in poverty and one of them was locked up. And so now this kid is locked up, but Dear Justyce was an important book for me to write because. I don't know, I wouldn't feel like I'm doing my job or using my platform slash position very well if I'm not highlighting the struggles of like the least of them, if you will, the ones that society has either forgotten or written off. So my hope with Dear Justyce is that people begin to recognize how important it is to choose compassion and choose empathy, because those are not things that actually come naturally to us. We have to decide to make ourselves vulnerable and put ourselves in somebody else's shoes that are different from us. And it's not an easy thing to do.

Liz Tenety: I'm in the middle of reading Dear Justyce and it was so gripping. From the very beginning, I had that breathless feeling, reading it. One of the things that stuck out to me was the complexity of the parents in these stories who have their own traumas and are trying to navigate really, really hard stuff while trying also to guide and love their kids. So, what stories are you trying to tell about parenting within these young adult books?

Nic Stone: Yeah, I mean, look, parents are human, you know, like we need the space to be human. Just like we need to give our kids space to be human. I have like a therapy fund for both of my children, because I know that they are eventually going to wind up in therapy because of something that I didn't do right or something. Somewhere that I failed. And I think that's okay. You know, it's a part of, it's just a part of being human. We all have trauma. I feel like even the kid who grew up filthy rich. There's probably some trauma there too.

So, it's one of those things where all of us are fighting some kind of battle, every single one of us. And when it comes to parenting, I really want parents to shake off the idea that like, we need to be perfect people or that we need to present as perfect people. I have never met a person who has never yelled at their child ever.

If you're out there, please email me. I would like to know how you do that, but in a very general sense, I think that parents are complex, and it's the reason our children wind up being complex. And I think the more that we just get okay, with that being a fact, the better off the world will be.

Liz Tenety: Well, it gives us permission to do better in real time, because we don't have to act like we always get it right. You know, and I think that when I have that humility, which I don't have all of this time, but when I do, you know, I think my kids feel more respected because sometimes I screw up too.

You know, I'm going to discipline you when you make a mistake or punch your brother in the head, but you know, mom makes mistakes too. Or like, I just lose my cool too. And I think that somehow, I mean, there's a balance in that. I don't want them to grow up in a angry or chaotic environment, but when I can be vulnerable and show that I genuinely want to keep growing, it gives them permission to say, okay, I'm okay. I haven't nailed it yet either. And that's okay.

Nic Stone: Yeah. Completely agree. This summer with this quarantine team foolishness, my husband and I got into some shouting matches. Let me tell you, there is so much togetherness. Stuck in the same house for seven months. And there was screaming, there was cursing going on, and this is super like—we've been married for almost 11 years—and this is very new.

We have never screamed at each other before, but now we are, and it's a thing like, gey, life changes, right? Life changes, things shift—you kinda gotta go with things as they come. But even after that, when my kids would come to us and be like, we don't like when you're talk-fighting, I'm like, sorry, bro. I don't really like when you're talk-fighting with your brother, empathize here, because this is the thing with human beings. Sometimes we disagree and it can turn kind of loud and scratchy. I'm not recommending this way of communication, but it is what it is.

Liz Tenety: I want to talk about motherhood as a form of storytelling and bringing maybe my own background. I'm a journalist and I'm actually talking to you from my childhood home where I grew up and we had a nanny, my whole childhood, who was obsessed with Oprah. So, every day when I came home from school, Oprah was on. And so I got to watch Oprah, my whole childhood, which was lovely. And one of Oprah's sort of driving principles. And I remember when she said it, because it just touched me and lit something in me was that every human being has a story worth telling. And it's summarized her work, but it also was like, yes! And it's also infinitely interesting. And that's just a moment that stayed with me.

I'm talking about it now, 20 years later, that people are so fascinating and complex. And for me, I get to be a person who helps to share or tell some of those stories as a journalist. But I also look at motherhood as its own form of storytelling.

I know motherhood for me has been a way deeply to connect to my ancestors, especially my grandmothers and great-grandmothers. And I think about them every day. Great, great, great grandmothers. And then I also know that there's this thing about motherhood and giving birth to these people who will carry on far beyond you. They will write their own stories. You will be a chapter in their stories. I'm wondering if you personally see motherhood parenting as a kind of storytelling or if it has caused you to reflect on the story that you're writing as a family.

Nic Stone: Oh, absolutely. Like I'd even take it a step further and say that I see it as a form of story living. Like we're like living a story and it's a really cool one. Right? And it's one of those things that, as a storyteller, walking in the unfolding of my own life story and how that life story relates to my partner's life story, how it relates to the life stories of the lives that we created together, it's all, like you said, it's fascinating. It's like infinitely fascinating. And I also love that stories are the things that connect us, sitting down and talking with my grandmother about her own childhood is one of my favorite things to do. She'll be 87 this year in about a month. She'll be 87 and like, there's just such this wealth of information. Like you said, this kind of ancestral thing where you're getting to tug on stories of people that you've never met, but that shaped your life anyway. it's fun, you know, like I think it's so... it's so fun.

There's so much fun inherent in living out your story and just kind of seeing what's going to be on the next page. It's impossible to know what's coming on the next page, but seeing it happen and unfolds. I mean, this is the reason we read isn't it? For that feeling of like, what's going to happen next?

If I apply my storytelling process to motherhood. I do think sometimes that as mothers, we take on too much of what everybody else says.

Liz: We're supposed to be everyone else's stories!

Nic: Exactly. We're taking on that, and it's not it's, what's interesting. It's not even everyone else's story. It's like this—a serial story that continues to be passed on though. I don't think anyone has ever actually lived that story instead of figuring out like, okay, what are my goals in motherhood? Like where do I want my story of motherhood to go? How do I want my children?

Who are the characters in this story? How do I want them to turn out for me? That's the thing that's more important than looking like a good mom. What does a good mom even mean? Like, it's this subjective thing we toss around, but what are my goals as a mom? I want children who feel empowered, who know that they can pursue anything they want to. Who feel accepted and who eventually don't need me to pay for them to live anymore. Like, those are my goals as a mother, and that can play out in so many different ways. So, outlining in the sense of like, seeing that there are so many different ways to get to that point in a story is another thing that was helpful for me with regard to kind of letting go of that dominant narrative of what motherhood is supposed to be like.

Liz Tenety: It's really, really powerful. And I love the way you wove it back to storytelling because, you know, we all have the structure of the story or the routine of the day to day. And maybe we have an idea of what kind of kids we're trying to raise, but just even the exercise of wondering, like, what are those big goals that I hope for these children, there are so many ways that that could play out, but what am I really trying to do here? I mean, that's a great question to ask yourself as a writer. It's funny. That's exactly what I do sometimes when I'm writing and I can't get the idea out. And I think to myself, what is the simplest way? Seven words to express what you're trying to write here, and then you get the essence of it and you can kind of massage it from there. But to really take the time as a mother. We're doing all this work to take care of these kids, there's power and purpose and meaning, and taking the time to sort of declare this is my mission with these kids, I think that's really powerful.

Nic Stone: Yeah. I think actually that's a really good idea. All the mothers listening, take a moment at some point and figure out seven words that you want to apply to the story of your children. It's super liberating when you realize what you are actually after and, and you recognize it like, oh, I don't have to be able to roast a good chicken in order to make my children not be like assholes.

You know, I think there's something epic about figuring out what your goal is and then eliminating all of the stuff. The obligations you feel that don't actually contribute to the story

Liz Tenety: Editing!

Nic Stone: Right? Yes!

Liz Tenety: Editing the garbage and the cultural pressure for sure. There's also something too, you know, I have four kids, they have the same parents and they are each so incredibly different. The character development of parenthood and for me, I think one of the absolute best things is feeling like I can take no credit for who these souls are. Like, they're just like miracles. Like, how are you so creative, how do you have so much boundless energy? Like, how are you so affectionate? Just witnessing the character development in my own kids is like just the best.

And I love it. That's why I keep having them. New characters.

Nic Stone: Yeah. No, I'm good. I'm good. I got enough characters. However, I do agree with you. I can't remember who said it, but I once read a book, children are books to be read, not stories to be written. And I just think that's like, yeah. That's sounds about right.

Like my younger son, my four-year-old. He just loves villains. Like we went to Universal Studios for spring break before the country shut down. And the only people he wanted pictures with were the Grinch, Gru from Despicable Me. And I was just like this kid, like his favorite movie is the Nightmare Before Christmas and The Adams Family, those were his two favorite movies.

And he's just like... Grumpy Monkey is his favorite book series. Like he's just like this grumpy adorable kid. He stole my whole face. So he looks just like me, but he is just this little grouch and he's sweet, but he's also like, yeah.

Liz Tenety: Right! It is already in the script.

Nic Stone: Yeah, he's like Oscar from Sesame street.

Liz Tenety: I have one of those… I love that quote, children are books to be read, not stories to be written. So, when you reflect on your own, you as a woman, is there a story? That you hope to look back and say, that's what I was doing or that's what I have done. What is the story that you think you're writing with your life?

Nic Stone: I'm one of those strange people who honestly doesn't care very much about legacy.

If I happen to vanish or pass on and everybody forgets me. I am totally okay with that. Like being remembered is just not a priority for me at this point in life. Perhaps that'll change as I get older, but my goal is just to make as much of a positive impact as I can on the world while I have the opportunity to. I just want to be able to look back and be like, you sure did have a good time.

That's like my main thing. There is so much magic and joy to be found out in the world, even during a global pandemic. And I want to experience as much of that magic and joy as I possibly can. Let's just have some fun, you know, even in the midst of very ugly, terrible things. Let's find the things that bring us joy, that things that we can be thankful for, do the most we can for the people who have less than we do.

Liz Tenety: Well-said. Well, Nic Stone. Thank you for this beautiful conversation and thank you for joining us on the motherly podcast.

Nic Stone:Thank you for having me.

Liz Tenety: (To her child) What books have you been reading lately?

Liz's son: The Shark Book.

Liz Tenety:Do you relate to the shark in the book? How do you relate?

Liz's son: He likes to eat a lot just like me.

Liz Tenety: Well, that's it for our show this week. Thank you so much, Nic. And thank you for listening to our podcast. This season, we have more great guests coming up. I can't wait for you to listen as always. We would love it if you spread the word about the motherly podcasts. So, if you can, leave us a review on Apple podcasts. It takes about 30 seconds, maybe less.

I really appreciate it. I read every single review and it really helps other mamas discover our show.

The Motherly Podcast is produced by Jennifer Bassett with editing from Seaplane Armada. Our music is from the Blue Dot Sessions. I'm your host, Liz Tenety. Thank you so much for listening.

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Hosted by Liz Tenety

Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.

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