Courtney Zoffness is the author of Spilt Milk, a collection of memoirs available from McSweeney’s. It is the official May pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.


Zoffness writes fiction and nonfiction. She won the 2018 Sunday Times Short Story Award, the most valuable international prize for short fiction, amid entries from 38 countries. Other honors include an Emerging Writers Fellowship from the Center for Fiction, the Arts & Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize, and two residency fellowships from MacDowell. Her writing has appeared in various outlets, including the Paris Review Daily, the New York Times, The Southern Review, Guernica, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and she had “notable” essays in Best American Essays 2018 & 2019.

Zoffness holds graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Arizona, and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She directs the Creative Writing Program at Drew University and is a faculty member at Writing Workshops in Greece. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.


Otherppl with Brad Listi is a weekly literary podcast featuring in-depth interviews with today’s leading writers.

Launched in 2011. Books. Literature. Writing. Publishing. Authors. Screenwriters. Life. Death. Etc.

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Let’s just get it out there, and try to have a thick skin on this one. Who in the hell writes four memoirs?

(Laughter. Jennifer falls over laughing.)

No, I’m serious. Who does that? What are you, Maya F*$%ing Angelou? Are you like a career memoirist?

Okay, first, if you swear in my house—you owe me a quarter, so let’s do the math. You are fifty cents in debt.

I’ll give you a couple dollars. (More laughter and this reporter hands over two bucks.)


No problem. So what’s the deal?

First, we have to talk about Found. If we don’t, my publisher will get pissed or we’ll run out of time. Whatever. Let me just tell you a little about Found.

Fine. Two sentences.

Just two?

You’re wasting space here.

Fine. Okay. Found is the true sequel to Blackbird and a really satisfying but surprising end to that story.

So it’s a cliffhanger?

A bundle of surprises and a page-turner.

You still get one more sentence.

Really? Great!

In Found, I re-approach the deaths of my parents from the perspective of being adopted and manage to find my way back to original family, so it’s a story of a hero with amnesia who comes home to a different kind of reality.

Man, did you pack that sentence!

You just gave me the one.

Okay, so answer the first question. Are you a career memoirist?

No, not really. It just worked out that way. And Still Waters (the second memoir) was not my idea. It was a “marketing memoir.”

Marketing memoir?

Right. My publisher, Pocketbooks, Washington Square Press, Atria (I really can’t keep all the imprints straight), let’s just say Simon & Schuster, saw Blackbird go through the roof after I was on Oprah in 2000 and the pressure was on. WRITE ANOTHER BOOK. WRITE A SATISFYING SEQUEL.  NOW!

At first I said, “no way, it cannot be done.”

What changed your mind?

A mind-boggling amount of money.

So you’re a sell out.

A woman in her right mind does not say “no” to that kind of dough, especially a woman who has been homeless as a child.  In fact, I’m pretty sure Jenny circa 1972 took that money. And there was my husband who came from a depression era family.  His parents still eat only potatoes—for days.  They are conditioned to this poverty mentality and so, even when they have money, they live a Spartan existence.

He has that same mentality.

Little Jenny and my husband won!

Also, our marriage was on the skids. I rationalized that maybe all that cash would take some of the pressure off our relationship.

Did it work?

No. But we did stay together for longer than we might have which was good because I had my beautiful daughter, Josephine. She is the cake, the icing and all the candles. Both my kids are pure Grace.

Don’t get all purple on me.

(Laughter) You’re tough!

So you wrote this “marketing memoir” but it wasn’t the sequel. What was it?

It was a follow up to Blackbird, a continuation on the timeline but since memoir is a genre that requires reflection and introspection, Still Waters didn’t shine. In the end, that book torpedoed me too.

You mean the marriage?

No, me personally. As a writer, it set me way back. Simon & Schuster released the damn book the month of 9-11. Can you imagine? I called them on the phone, from my tour for Blackbird in Amsterdam and begged, “Please, please, pretty please with sugar on top, hold the book.” My editor was like, “no can do.”  My agent said it was all going to be fine but it wasn’t. I toppled into an abyss of obscurity.  No media interviews happened, other than a great spot on Rosie O’Donnell and I spent my entire tour in hotel rooms eating pineapple.

But hey, hold on. I have the numbers here and you sold like 30,000 copies of Still Waters? In hard cover. And another 30,000 in soft cover. That’s a very successful book.

Apparently not successful enough. Simon & Schuster was like “Jennifer who?” after that. My agent was able to get them to take on another book, Show Me the Way, but that was also considered a flop.

Okay, that book was a flop. I’ve never heard of it.


I love that book though. It’s this collection of short stories about being a mother and how I’m doing from the perspective of being parentless since nine. That book, in my opinion, is when I became a writer. A real writer.

Okay, again, never heard of it.

Point made. Can we move on?

Touché! Let’s get back on track.


So you took about six years off the whole “publishing” gig and did you think that was it? Did you think you’d ever write another memoir?

I certainly didn’t think I would write Found. No. I wrote a couple novels, one about dreams and another that was loosely based on the life of the Virgin Mary but these were just lame attempts at avoiding the fact that more of my own journey was ahead of me. Now I look back at that time in my life, I realize I was resting. Blackbird was a beginning and the stunning success was overwhelming and totally unexpected.


You got a lot of shit for that early success. I have an issue of this paper (we did a Google search) and it’s called like the Will-ah-met something?? Anyway, in this article we found online, you’re called a Stepford wife and they question why you deserved being published at all.

Okay, I do not, under any circumstances want to talk about that paper which is not even a newspaper. It’s free for god’s sake. It’s filler material for when you want to pack boxes and move or put things into storage. No one reads that rag.

You’re bitter.

I’m not bitter.

You’re seriously bitter!

Am not.

Admit it. You’re fuming. Your ears are red and you’re flushed. That’s just not good for the nervous system. Come on, share, let it out.

Fine. I’m stung more than anything. That pub is like a middle school bully. The woman, who interviewed me, came into my home and told me how much she loved Blackbird. She also took almost all our time talking about her dad, how she lived in a car as a kid and how tough her writing career had been. She cried! I was feeding her muffins and handing her tissues. Unbelievable. I was thinking, “Oh my god, is this a therapy session or an interview?”

And then she writes this mean, bitchy, backstabbing article accompanied by an equally mean, bitchy review. They cut my face up like a puzzle too.

I think you look kind of cute.

It was just mean. That is a very unkind group of people.

Okay, isn’t this publication known for being mean? Isn’t that their reputation?

I know. Everyone I knew said to stay away but I thought, “no, I can win them over.”

You’re a WOO.

A what.

Win others over.

Optimistic. I was riding the high of the success.

So, your career tanked, Simon & Schuster was not returning calls and then what? What got you back to do another memoir?

It was worse than that.  My marriage had ended, I had these two little kids to raise, I had canned my agent, my beloved editor and primary advocate had left Simon & Schuster and I was at this turning point in my life. So, I took six years off and got really involved in Tibetan Buddhism.  I practiced all the time, taking these insanely intense retreats.

That’s what I thought I would write about next.


The spiritual quest and how really screwed up people use spirituality to hide from their problems.

Like you were doing?

Easy now.


Okay, fair enough. I was very screwed up but in contrast to some of the people I met—not so much. And some amazing things happened high in the Rocky Mountains. I learned meditation practices that blew me wide open and showed me a whole new way to look at being, the mind, life, form, formlessness.


To you, maybe, but not to me. I loved it. I don’t think I have ever been so happy as I was being a student of Buddhist meditation. Those Tibetan’s rock.

I’m falling asleep here. You mean like the Dalai Lama guy? So boring.

All right, forget it. The point is, I was meditating up there at this place called Tara Mandala and doing this Tara meditation practice and that’s what changed my life.

But I thought Found was about reunion with your birth mother?

Hold on! Did you even read the book?

Well, ahhhh, actually, I’ve been overloaded…a lot of deadlines recently but I did read the press release.

This interview is OVER! Go read the damn book. I cannot believe it. I’m going to have a breakdown here.

A Nervous Breakdown?

Ha ha! That’s enough out of you. Go read the book.

Your first book, In My Skin, was about you becoming a heroin addict and then a sex worker before getting clean. The second, The Romantic, is about what happened next, when you moved to Italy to get your shit together. How embarrassed are you to have written a second memoir?

Embarrassed and horrified enough that, in order to prove I am correct in thinking that you should do things that terrify you in order to mature and progress as a human being, I forced myself to publish yet another book all about myself and my insistence on this maxim and the various ways I ill-advisedly dated several men in succession in pursuit of this very path. Like the relationships, I may yet regret the book. But then, I don’t believe in regret, so what I am I on about? Onwards and upwards, that’s my motto.

Is it true that you were celebrated in the media for having been a prostitute (and thus, having had lots of sex) but for writing in the new book about having had consensual sex as a non-prostitute, as a regular woman living her life, you were mocked, insulted and pruriently interrogated about your promiscuity?


Does this give you the shits?

Don’t. Start. Me.

Not meaning to dwell on the sex issue, but is it true that you had better sex as a prostitute than you did in the several relationships described in your new memoir?

Hell yes. Er, I mean…

Moving on. What are you readers like?

I get all sorts, from 14 year old boys in Germany to dear old ladies in country Australia. They send me presents: a dictionary, a stuffed toy, a pair of stockings, and a book of homely epithets (though later the person who sent me that, when he unexpectedly got my number from the phone book and rang me at home at 7.30 one morning to ask advice about his niece who had started taking ecstasy, responded to my polite request that he not stalk me, wrote a letter saying he’d now burnt my book and thought I would be happy to hear he’d realised he had been stupid to think I was a nice person: his fault, he said). Many of my readers manage to meet me and not blink at the fact that they’ve read about my vagina. The majority of them are not psychotic but they like to give me hugs. One elderly man always encloses a couple of stamps wrapped carefully in tissue paper so I can write back without inconvenience.

What is the weirdest thing about being a memoirist?

The feeling, whenever someone gives me a compliment on my writing, or more particularly, on the life I’ve lead, that they’re actually talking to someone over my shoulder. I feel like I’m the friend of someone called Kate Holden, the only person who’s ever heard her stories, and as the sole custodian of her secrets, I am her representative in public. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m doing her a favour or not. I keep forgetting the punchline to her best jokes.

You said you don’t believe in regret. Brave words. Surely there’s something you regret?

Ah I’m not so big on wishing the past were different: that’s a great way to waste your time. But I regret that, as someone who writes of lot of personal pieces, it’s not more widely appreciated that I know just how narcissistic such writing is, and that I’m constantly trying to mock myself for it. People have such a way of taking the publication of a book all about yourself as an example of ego. They don’t notice that my books are all about what a fallible, sometimes-irritating nit I am. This interview, perhaps, might be an exhibit for the prosecution.

Heroin, or writing?

Heroin was nice enough but it costs too much, in everything. Writing is the best buzz, and it’s free.