Bestselling YA author & love junkie Katie Cotugno

On the Why We Write podcast: In our inaugural episode, New York Times best-selling author Katie Cotugno tells us about her messy, complicated, feminist love stories.

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Episode notes

Katie Cotugno is the New York Times bestselling author of messy, complicated, feminist love stories. She studied Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College and received her MFA in Fiction at Lesley University. Katie is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review and Argestes, among others. The great loves of her life include child's pose, her little sister, and mozzarella and honey sandwiches. She lives in Boston with her husband, Tom, and her dog, Avon.

Lesley Social Media Specialist Emily Earle interviews her.

Find the full transcript below.

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  • Transcript

    Announcer: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Each week, we bring new conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. This is Episode One.

    Emily Earle: My name is Emily Earle, and I am the social media specialist here at Lesley University. I'm here today with New York Times' bestselling author and Pushcart Prize nominee, Katie Cotugno. Katie received her MFA in fiction from our low-residency creative writing program in 2015. Katie, thanks for being here today.

    Katie Cotugno: Thanks for having me.

    Emily: Awesome. Let's jump right in. Can you speak a little bit about your journey to the writing program, your history as a writer, and what prompted you to seek out an MFA?

    Katie: It's a really good question. I have always been a writer. I've been writing since I could hold a pen. One of my earliest memories is going to visit my dad at his office in New York. He had a meeting, then he came back, and I had written like seven pages of garbage. I had written some pages and I was really excited about that. I went to Emerson College here in Boston for my undergrad. I did my BFA in writing literature and publishing there.

    My thesis, my senior year, ultimately became my first YA novel, How To Love. While I was in the middle of that publishing process, I realized that I loved the publishing world. I loved YA, but I really missed being in the classroom. I missed being around other writers in a workshop environment. I'm also of the opinion that you can never have too much practice. That was when I started sniffing around MFA programs and low-residency programs in particular. Lesley was just, it felt like such a good fit.

    Emily: You were in the publication process while you were an undergrad?

    Katie: Yes.

    Emily: What was that like? Can you talk a little bit about how that happened?

    Katie: When I was working on How To Love, ultimately, the dream was to get it published. It wasn't until a few years later that I started sending it to agents and publishers, and got a ton of rejections and ultimately trumped it for about a year. I didn't write anything for a year and a half after I graduated undergrad.

    Emily: What were you doing?

    Katie: I was doing all kinds of things. I was working an office job. I was watching a lot of Law & Order: SVU. I briefly considered starting a baking business out of my house. It was like I had sort of a lost year

    Emily: As many of out there do.

    Katie: I was just trying to figure out what I was going to be when I grew up.

    Emily: What made you pick it back up again?

    Katie: It just was that siren song of it always being in the back of my head. Then I wound up reading an article in The New Yorker about Alley Entertainment, which is a book packager, a development company out of New York. They were, at the time, looking. They were launching a new arm of the business called The Collaborative, and they were looking for writers who had young adult novels that needed a lot of work. I happen to have a first draft YA novel that needed a lot of work. I sent How to Love off. It was called Places We’d Been at that time.

    I sent it off through the slush pile. Didn't hear anything for a year, but at that point, I had been sending things out and not hearing forever all the time. I didn't think anything of it. Then one day, a year later, I got an email that said, "Do you want to come to New York? Do you want to have lunch? Do you want to talk about this?"

    Emily: That's what I'm saying, how did you feel when you got that?

    Katie: I was beside myself. They took me to lunch and were so lovely to me. We talked about the book, and we talked about the characters and all that stuff. Then, at the end of the lunch, they said, "Do you want to come back to the office and meet everyone?" I said, "I'm sorry, I have to just ask you what is happening?"

    [laughter]

    They were like, "We want to work with you. We want to work on this book." That moment of it becoming real was-- it was an amazing feeling.

    Emily: It's like a real turning point.

    Katie: Yes, absolutely.

    Emily: Very cool. You are a YA fiction writer. What does it mean to write for young adults, and how is that different than other kinds of writing do you think?

    Katie: That's a good question. I love YA. [crosstalk]

    [laughter]

    As a genre, it's so elastic and it's so versatile, and I think things are really happening in the YA community. YA is really on the forefront, I feel like, of a lot of social justice issues, and a lot of really different kinds of storytelling. In a lot of ways, it's further ahead for me than the rest of publishing, I think. Story level, what is so interesting to me about YA is, when you're a teenager, you're experiencing so many different firsts. You're kind of in a feeling tsunami all the time. Everything you're feeling is the most intense. I think that's just really fertile ground for storytelling.

    Emily: We are seeing a lot of activism, strong voices, bold statements from the next generation of teenagers and young students. What is it like to write for that generation, specifically, knowing that you have their ear?

    Katie: It's a huge honor. The thing about writing for teenagers is that they are so incredibly honest in their feedback, and they're also such an incredibly tough crowd. If you are not sincere, if they are not buying what you're selling, they will let you know, and I love that. It ups the stakes, but it's really exciting. A question that I get a lot is if I feel like a particular responsibility to register with a moral or to--

    Emily: Find teachable moments.

    Katie: Yes, exactly. I think that's always in the back of your mind. I think that there are some stories that are maybe not as tellable for the YA market. Right now, I'm reading All The Ugly and Wonderful Things, All The Ugly And Beautiful Things by Brynn Greenwood. I think it's an incredible book, and it's a great example of a story that I think there isn't really a YA way to tell.

    Emily: Why do you think that?

    Katie: It takes place in 1970s meth country campus. It's about a relationship between a kid-- She's-- when the novel opens she's 8, and a guy who is-- He works for her father in the meth business. I guess he's like 19 when the story opens. I know. It's just an incredibly unsettling book. I think it's a great example of empathy building but also the kind of thing that there isn't a way to tell that, I think, for an audience of teens.

    Emily: It doesn't necessarily fit that genre.

    Katie: Anyway, I think as a YA author, your obligation and your duty is always to just tell the most honest story that you possibly can. I feel like the teachable moments hopefully will follow.

    Emily: You don't want to go into it with an agenda, and the storytelling gets maybe eclipsed.

    Katie: Yes, exactly.

    Emily: You write about a variety of relationships, it seems like, in all of your books.

    Katie: I just perked up like a prairie dog. Relationship talk.

    Emily: Relationship talk. We're going there. From romantic relationships to best friends to family, is one more challenging, it's one more relatable to write about? Do you have a favorite?

    Katie: I will always be upfront and say that I'm in love with junky. I love kissing books, I write kissing books. Romantic relationships tend to be really interesting, fertile ground for me. I will say as I-- To me, family relationships have also always been from the time I was working on How To Love, have been--

    Emily: Very all-encompassing?

    Katie: Yes. Then really important to me, I noticed myself returning to relationships between sisters over and over again.

    Emily: Do you have a sister?

    Katie: I do have a sister.

    Emily: Excellent.

    Katie: I'm interested in the ways that you can love a person desperately, and they can also be the most difficult person in your life.

    Emily: Like a real life.

    Katie: I'm interested in messy, complicated relationships all across the board.

    Emily: Do you think that that's definitely a relatable thing for the audience?

    Katie: I think so.

    Emily: You also develop a great sense of place in your books.

    Katie: Thank you.

    Emily: Yes, of course, and I tend to want to live in your story sometimes. Fireworks is Orlando and summer in the '90s, and then Star Lake from 99 Days, is this beautiful picturesque as lake town. What is your world-building process? Orlando is a real place, and Star Lake is not or maybe based on a real place. What is your process in creating these locations?

    Katie: Setting is always so much fun for me. I feel like in a lot of my favorite books, the setting becomes a character. The atmosphere informs the relationship between the characters. For example, Star Lake is a vacation town in the middle of the mountains. I really wanted it to feel like this town exists, and then all around it is trees and mountains basically. It feels claustrophobic and insular in that way, which underlines what Molly is going through to feel like the drama of her entire life is taking place in this small town, and it doesn't feel like there's necessarily a way out. So 99 Days is about a girl named Molly who is caught in a love triangle between two brothers. It is about first loves and second loves and girl friendships. Also, I think most specifically about the double standards that we hold guys and girls to that in romance. [crosstalk]

    I think Molly has in a lot of ways been a bad actor when the book opens. She cheated on one brother with another brother, but it takes two to tango. I think she's really experiencing a lot of blowback that gave-- her partner in crime has not experienced. A lot of the book is her coming to terms with that and really trying to unpack how much of it she deserves, and how much that she doesn't deserve, and what is the line between taking responsibility for your actions, and not letting yourself be entirely blamed for something that was not entirely your fault.

    Emily: It takes place over a specific timeframe.

    Katie: 99 days, [crosstalk] so it's for one summer.

    Emily: Very good. Actually, that leads me to something else because, in a few of your books, you use timelines in a pretty unique way. In How to Love, every chapter jumps forward and backward in time. Top Ten jumps over four years, different semesters at a time, different seasons. How do you write that, and what do you think it is about this nonlinear timeline that helps tell the story?

    Katie: I am such a sucker for nonlinear storytelling, and I actually think a lot of my fascination for it comes from my love affair with television. When I think about shows that I've really loved-- stuff like the West Wing or Lost-- those are shows that really played fast and loose with the time. Do you leave the viewer scrambling to keep up and place themselves in time and space based on what the characters are going through?

    I know that is not everybody's cup of tea, but for me, I love that trick. I think it's really interesting to be able to see how characters grow and change over the course of-- be it a summer, be it your high school career, and to be able to check in on them at different points.

    Emily: I think that makes sense. You, as a reader, really need to pay attention really hard, but it's a good thing. You're creating these layers, I think, that might not necessarily be there if someone was just plowing straight through.

    Katie: Right. My goal is always for a book to be satisfying in a different way on reread because I was such a re-reader as a teenager.

    Emily: That makes a lot of sense. Absolutely.

    Katie: I think playing with time helps with that.

    Emily: Yes. It looks like one of those things that you're talking about TV, and I think you can go back, and you always find something new. By doing that, I think that you create these extras that people can go back and find. This may seem obvious, but is there a specific place where you start when you get into a novel? Is it a character, place, time period, a combination, if you have the blinking cursor in front of you?

    Katie: My answer is one of the things that I think drove-- When I was at the program, I worked with Hester Kaplan and also Michael Lowenthal, who were both amazing and wonderful in so many ways. I tend to start with a plot, which is not the "literary" way to start.

    Emily: What is the literary way to start?

    Katie: I think that the prevailing MFA wisdom is to start with character, to let the character take you on a journey, and I think that that's true for a lot of writers. For me, if I let that happen, I wind up with-- my character will take me on a journey to the garbage.

    [laughter]

    I am someone who really needs to work from an outline, who needs to be familiar with what story I'm trying to tell before I figure out what characters are going to help me best tell it. Sometimes the plot starts with an image. With How to Love, it was a boy. I want to write a story about a boy coming back, and I wanted to write a story about every-- I started to fall in love when I was 16, so I wanted to write a story about every unrequited crush I'd ever had.

    Emily: You're mining personal experience there a little bit.

    Katie: Yes, exactly. With Top Ten, I was really interested in-- I love romantic comedy tropes. I was really interested in a guy and a girl who were best friends and what does that-- Not that I'm trying to prove, one way or the other, that can guys and girls be best friends without turning romantic or whatever, but I was interested in a pair of best friends.

    Emily: Where that could go with all the kinds of constraints that high school puts on you.

    Katie: Exactly. Yes, and then I was like, "Okay, who are these people?" and then I went from there.

    Emily: That's really interesting. The construct is there and then you can fill in-- paint in the colors.

    Katie: For me, that's how it works.

    Emily: Okay. Very cool. You recently became a full-time writer. What prompted you to take that step, and what was it like before, and what's it like now?

    Katie: I had it on my mind for a while. It's something that I would eventually like to do. For 10 years, I had the world's best day job. I was an administrator at a nonprofit and it was-- They were amazing. They were like my work mom and dad, and they were very much like-- They were so accommodating as I started to publish and as I would need to leave and go do books stuff. I'd be like, "I'm on deadline, and I can't come in." They would be, "All right, well we'll see ya." They were amazing.

    Emily: That's a very accommodating job.

    Kaite: Very, the world best day job. As I've been getting older, and as I've been wanting to take on more, on different kinds of projects, and as I have been thinking about, do my husband and I want to start a family, all those things, at the end of last year, a couple of ghostwriting opportunities came my way, which was very exciting.

    Emily: Really?

    Katie: Yes.

    Emily: Wow.

    Katie: I think that it's always the responsible thing when you're talking about writing full-time to point out that. Financially, it's a really hard thing to do. I'm working on my stuff that is published under my name and then I am honestly working on other stuff.

    Katie: Really, so you're supplementing-

    Katie: Exactly.

    Emily: -with other things.

    Katie: I have health insurance through my husband's work. There are all of those things I always want to stay and that stuff is always really important to me.

    Emily: You really want to paint a clear picture of what it is.

    Katie: It's been really fun so far. I really love it. It's felt really freeing to me to be able to structure my own days in the way that I best work. It's only been two months, so I'm still figuring that stuff out. When am I most productive? How long can I work before I start to work before it becomes checking the internet time and all that stuff? It also feels like a real privilege to be able to spend the time figuring that stuff out about myself as a writer. It's really exciting. If I have a bad writing day, then it feels really bad now in a way that it used to feel bad.

    Emily: Again, the stakes are a little higher in terms of how your day is shaped. Can you talk a little bit about that? What is a prime writing day for you? I would imagine that maybe not every day is typical but to the best of your ability.

    Katie: Absolutely. I'm an early bird, so I am definitely-- Something that takes me 20 minutes before noon will take me an hour and a half in the afternoon. Once I eat lunch, I'm done for the day, so I tend to get up really early because of that. I usually get up around 5:30 or 6:00. Take the dog for a walk. I like trying to be dressed. Wearing shoes is important to me. I try to be wearing shoes at the computer by 7:30 or 8:00.

    Emily: Wow, did that feel different to you than when you are--?

    Katie: Yes. Working at the desk versus working on the couch feels really different to me. As I was transitioning to being full time, I wanted it to feel as much a job, a grownup job as possible. I'll work on two projects before lunch usually like, "I'm working, I'll have two hours where I work on something for myself, and then two hours where I'm working on something supplementary." I'm ghostwriting some romance right now. It's really fun. It's my favorite, [crosstalk] and it's such a different part of my brain. It's great.

    Emily: Romance novels. Wow. That is very exciting.

    Katie: It's really fun.

    Emily: Growing up in the late '80s, early '90s what influences were you taking in at that time and were you inspired by different books, different series things that? You were a big reader.

    Katie: I was a big reader. I was like definitely The Babysitter's Club, Sweet Valley High. The only book my mother has ever taken away from me was the Sweet Valley High. There is one where Jessica dates an older man, he's got a big '70s mustache like really comical cover-- [crosstalk]

    [laughter]

    That was like it's in bad taste, but everything else she was like-- your Judy Blooms. As I got older, I was very into early Sarah Jessen. That was my first big foray into YA. For television, I was like a Saved by the Bell, Dawson's Creek. The fact that I write YA was not surprised, that's definitely where my bread is buttered.

    Emily: Nice, so those were the influences.

    Katie: Absolutely.

    Emily: With all of that in mind, how have you seen the genre change over time? Obviously, that was what it was when we were growing up and you are what it is now. Then drawing that line, do you think it's cultural influences, just different voices, the advent of social media stuff like that?

    Katie: Absolutely, I think the most amazing thing that happened in the last 15 years is just how much more YA there is. I remember when I was 12 and 13, I was a very skinny-- like one of those little revolving library shelves. Weren't you a tiny thin part of YA. Now, there is so much out there, and the push to hear from a broader array of voices is something that is happening in YA again in a way that it has not-- I don't think quite happened in literary fiction as much yet.

    Emily: How interesting and that's what you mean by saying it's at the forefront.

    Katie: Progress is slow, I feel like there is-- that it's happening. There definitely feels like there's a ground flow and a wave of hearing from really innovative fresh voices.

    Emily: Do you feel like there's more of-- just in terms of storytelling, pushing for diversity, pushing for representation things like that?

    Katie: Absolutely.

    Emily: It's definitely something that you see emerging [crosstalk] .

    Katie: There's totally room to grow, a lot of room to grow and not just hearing-- not just authors but also there's a ton of room for more diversity on the publishing side. Editors to look at who would make the decisions, who is acquiring books, who is in charge of publicity for those books all that kind of stuff. It's common.

    Emily: You have an upcoming sequel in the works. [laughs]

    Katie: It's a sequel to 99 Days. It's called 9 Days and 9 Nights.

    Emily: Is this the first sequel you've written?

    Katie: It is.

    Emily: How did that come about?

    Katie: Will there be a sequel to 99 Days was hands down the most popular question that I get from readers.

    Emily: Why do you think that is?

    Katie: 99 Days has an open ending but a lot of my books have open endings-

    Emily: They do. [laughs]

    Katie: -so I don't know what it is specifically about that one that speaks to people but it seems to. I love an open ending, and I'm not someone who needs a resolution, so it hadn't actually been a thing that I even felt strongly about doing until-- Actually, my publisher and I have discussed it hypothetically as we're talking about what are the next things you want to write? Actually, that's something I would ever consider, and we started talking about it and came up with-- I wanted it to feel really different, I wanted it to feel fresh, and I wanted it to stand on its own. I didn't want it to feel like you had to have read 99 Days to enjoy 9 Days and 9 Nights.

    Emily: You can pick it up without--

    Katie: You can absolutely. I think that there are things-- I think it will be a richer experience if you've read 99 Days, but you definitely don't have to. I feel like that's how I've come upon some of my favorite books, you know what I mean?

    Emily: Yes.

    Katie: It's at a vacation house or it's like-- you know what I mean?

    Emily: [crosstalk] beach house [unintelligible] things.

    Katie: [crosstalk] or a friend of yours has it and it definitely can stand by itself, so it takes place this summer after Molly's freshman year of college and she's spent her freshman year turning herself into this entirely new person. She's drama free.

    Emily: So a big switch.

    Katie: She is very well behaved, she's pursuing this business major and she's serious and she dresses in a capsule wardrobe [laughs] and really is organized and pristine in a way that is in direct opposition to the way she's trying to stock herself during 99 Days. She's got this great new book nerd boyfriend and they are on a trip in Europe and dun dun dun dun, her past knocks on the door, [laughs] as you know everything gets shot to heck.

    Emily: That's really fun. She's trying to be good but then--

    Katie: She just can't escape it.

    Emily: What was it like to come back to Molly as a character and the other character that I imagine popping up as well but Molly specifically?

    Katie: It was a lot of fun in a lot of ways. It was like seeing a high school friend you hadn't seen in a really long time and thinking about the ways in which she would be different and the ways in which she would be the same. It was interesting to try and slip back into her voice because she's the same person, but she's had new experiences. She's a little bit older. She's a little bit wiser in some ways. It was exciting, it was a really good time.

    Emily: You talked about ghostwriting so what is that process like? Is that something that you are tasked with by a publisher, is that something you seek out yourself? How does that work?

    Katie: It can work in a bunch of different ways, it can definitely come through the publishing pipeline for the romance novels I've been working on, a friend of mine was ghostwriting for a particular company. They were looking for more voices and I did an audition and got the job.

    Emily: What kind of an audition do you have to do for something like that?

    Katie: They sent a scenario and you-- they give you the characters which is-- you know how illustrating works. They give you the characters. They give you the character. They give you the plot. They give you all that stuff and a chapter by chapter outline. You wind up and go.

    Emily: Did you have to write a chapter for them and then you submit it [crosstalk] ?

    Katie: Yes, for the audition, I wrote a chapter. It's so much fun. It is a completely different-- it's like going on vacation in a lot of ways. It's all the stuff that I really enjoy about writing the pure pleasure parts. Like someone has already solved all the problems.

    Emily: Sure, so the pieces are in place.

    Katie: I get to come in and write funny dialogue, and you know what I mean? Write kissing scenes and do all that stuff and somebody else has done the heavy lifting already. The flip side of that is that there are always those moments of I might do this a different way or the voice is-- this is not quite the voice, I'm not comfortable writing it or any of that stuff. For the most part, I love it. [laughs]

    Emily: That's great, that's awesome. For the Lesley program specifically, it's a low residency program how do you think that was beneficial to you as a writer? Do you think you benefited from more in person or do you think it was better that you took the writing back and then workshopped it when you were here, how did that work for you?

    Katie: I love the low-residency format because I feel like first of all it opens up the program so people who for whatever reason are not in a position to be in school full time. Just like people from a broader variety of walks of life and so you get to hear stories that you wouldn't ordinarily hear. There was a guy in my cohort who was writing a memo about being one of the guards at the lsabella Stewart Garden Museum the night that the heist happened. I know it's so weird.

    Emily: That's crazy.

    Katie: That was amazing. [laughs] I'm like “Guy, I'm interested in your writing.” He was doing this two weeks out of--

    Emily: That's not necessarily something that he would have heard in a different kind of program.

    Katie: It was also really nice for me because I was already publishing to have a place to go where it's so craft-oriented. For me, it was really fun and then also like meeting other writers and workshop and going to luncheon, doing all that stuff.

    Emily: What kind of things did you work on, were you working on your book or was the book already published at that point?

    Katie: I did the straight fiction track while I was here, so I wasn't working on YA when I was here. That was good for me, too, I was really using a different part of my brain from that.

    Emily: That great. That's fine.

    Katie: I was working on a novel that I've been noodling with for years and years. It's tentatively called World Without End. It's about three brothers, brothers are also perceived in my work. Sexy brothers who his parents have been missionaries in Central America when they were young and they had a sister who might or might not have been mentally ill. She's not an angel, so the question was, was this really happening or was she saying a psychiatric episode? Then she later disappeared and so the novel was about the parents had died, they needed to divide the property and they were trying to find the sister.

    I have not finished it, I hope to--

    [laughter]

    I had a great time working on it while I was here.

    Emily: Is that something that you pick up and put down periodically?

    Katie: Yes, and I definitely want to write on the adult literary side at some point. Now that I'm full-time, that is a thing that I hope to have more time to devote to. We'll see.

    Emily: What else is next for you?

    Katie: That's a really good question. Right now I'm working on my next book, which is tentatively called Water Land. It is different than anything that I've ever written before in that it has a fantastical element. It's contemporary. It's a love story but it is about a girl who turns up in a Fall River-eque Gloucester-eque town. She is neither who nor what she seems. It's a family story. It's about grief. It's about the opioid epidemic. It's about all kinds of different things, but I wrote it and so there's kissing in it and there's probably going to be a festival of some kind. There are things that I return to over and over regardless of what story I'm telling, and so it's still very much a Katie Cotugno book.

    Emily: It sounds amazing.

    Katie: [laughs] I got to get it written.

    Emily: That's what you're working on right now?

    Katie: Yes.

    Emily: Very cool. What kind of research do you do for these books?

    Katie: I do all kinds of different research. Right now, a character in Water Land is a boy named Hunter who lost both his legs in a car crash when he was a freshman in high school. Now he's a senior, so it's been several years since this happened. Of course, when you're writing a character with a disability, you want to do as much research as possible. You want to make sure you're being as sensitive and writing him with as much empathy as humanly possible.

    A lot of that was doing a lot of googling, reading a lot of medical books, figuring out what his experience would be like, what is the treatment for chronic pain like that? What are the specific obstacles that he would face? What is it like to fit a 15-year-old kid with prosthetic legs? All that stuff, stuff that I had no background in, that I now-- I can talk about that stuff now. [laughs]

    Emily: Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

    Katie: Thanks for having me. This has been amazing. This was such a good time.

    Emily: I'm so glad. It's such a joy to read your books. Again, I just want to disappear into the world. A lot of the times, it is very messy, but it's sometimes the high school experience that maybe I wish I'd had.

    Katie: You are the best.

    Emily: Thank you so much for being here. This was a pleasure.

    [crosstalk]

    Emily: Super wonderful. Awesome. I'll look for upcoming work from you. Can't wait.

    Katie: Me too.

    Emily: Yes, definitely. Thanks, Katie.

    Announcer: Thanks for listening. Next week, we've got a great conversation with Rachel Kadish, the author of The Weight of Ink. Here's a sneak peek.

    Rachel Kadish: I know these people because I grew up among refugees. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors. My mother was born on the run. There was something about that fierce determination to rebuild, the beauty of that, the fear that everything is hanging from a thread, and everything could fall apart at any moment. It was so familiar, even across the centuries and different communities, different issues, so I thought, "These are the people I want to write about."

    Emily: For more information on anything that you heard today, please check out the show notes or visit lesley.edu/podcast.