“I decided to start making this list of happy-making things: things that I loved. It was everything from Eudora Welty’s ONE WRITER’S BEGINNINGS, to a gray muzzled dog with kind eyes, to fat goldfish, or a really good burger–just things that … brought me joy.” Todd Doughty discusses Little Pieces of Hope with host J.T. Ellison on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Hi, I’m Todd Doughty and this is Little Pieces of Hope, a carefully curated book of lists, essays, and playlists designed to give you a burst of happiness in your day.
J.T. Ellison: Todd, thank you so much for being here with us today. Welcome to A Word on Words.
Todd Doughty: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Ellison: We should maybe call this one, a lot of words on a lot of words. [[laughter]] Can you tell us about Little Pieces of Hope?
Doughty: Absolutely. Thank you again for having me here. It is a surreal and wonderful experience to be on this side of the publishing fence and I didn’t really know that this was going to happen when I started making these lists. Last March 11th, it was a Wednesday, the WHO declared a global pandemic and I blame this book into being squarely at the feet of my commuter rail Metro North because that night on my way, home from the office, I decided to start making this list of happy making things. Things that I loved and it was everything From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil, Frank Wiler, to Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings to a Gray Muzzled Dog With Kind Eyes, to Fact Build Fish or Really Good Burger. Just things that I thought about that brought me joy.
And after that first list, I just kept going and going, and it really became this sort of little devotional every day that I would sit down for about a couple of hours and just kind of think about things that brought me joy. I’m a pack rat by nature. I save postcards and articles and every Christmas card my mother has ever sent me, books, you name it, and so I just sort of drew from this treasure trove of things that had brought me joy. A friend of mine described once that each one of us carries an individual and invisible bag of rocks and we don’t really know what that weight for a person might be. So that original list, and now this book, is basically a way to just lighten that load for just a little bit.
Ellison: Do you feel like it’s a memoir?
Doughty: Wow, that’s a good question. Probably not, but I would say there’s a lot of me in there. I mean these are things that I love. There’s also 16 essays that I expanded. I write about everything from sort of taking the leap, which for me was a big move––I grew up in rural Southern Illinois and moved to New York City. Literally after I graduated from college—I write about Mary Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” My parents are big Jimmy Stewart fans and of course, like everybody else in America, that movie is a holiday staple. I write about small towns, which is where I grew up. So, I mean yeah, it is autobiographical in a sense that I’m there, but I think what I tried to do with the book was to make the experience of reading it as universal as possible.
There’s a fine line between discovery and memory, of reminiscence, and so some of the things folks might recognize and love, some of the things you may not immediate lead you down a very happy rabbit hole to finding something new, a new song, a new painting, a new writer, or maybe it’s something that you remember and brings a good feeling back to you. That was sort of my initial thought on what this could be.
Ellison: And I mean just the memories, songs, smells, just everything with notes. I was a child of the eighties. Of course, reading the eighties list just always makes me smile and laugh and recreate those moments for myself, and that’s what this does. It allows people to recreate their own moments.
Doughty: Well, yeah and I think the other thing too that I say, and there’s a little intro to the book about there might be things on these lists that you don’t like, so feel free to cross them out and put in things that you do love. The hope of this is that it would spark something joyful in your life. Be it just kind of a regular battle day or a tough time, like the past 19 months have been for all of us. You talk about that song, there’s an essay about that song for me in this book, there is an essay about my grandma’s red velvet cake, which I have her handwritten recipe [[LINK?]] here in my apartment to this day, but it’s all about connecting those things that bring you joy or that thing that got me through that tough time, whatever that may be, we all have those little touchstones. I mean it can be a family photo, it could be a song that you love from when you were in college, but those are the things that stick with you. Those are the things that last.
Ellison: Okay. So yesterday the word of the day was ‘chosime,’ which was a new one to me. It’s a literary style which focuses on descriptions of objects, not on interpretation, plot, characterization, etc. I think Little Pieces of Hope fits this exactly. Did you know of that word and is that what you did, or did I surprise you when I sent that to you?
Doughty: I am not that smart so you surprised me, but it does fit perfectly. I think one of the great things about these little lists for me was it was a lot of fun to craft them. There are things that are connected. There are things that I call it kind of zigzag or scattershot. One of my favorites in the book––I love Thanksgiving and I love Christmas and Halloween too––but Thanksgiving was always a really special time. You can focus on food and not gifts. It’s your family coming together, and when I wrote that particular list, we call it a special edition in the book, there are a lot sort of sensory memories that came back to me, like the stack of coats that are on the bed, and just different moments that I focused on throughout either the holiday or the experience or whatever, but it was getting very specific about the details that was kind of the road in for me.
Ellison: I love it, and I think every writer and every person should keep this on their desk and pick it up every day and just flip it open to a page and experience that and sit and think about it. I mean a lot of us do morning pages so that would be a perfect entry to morning pages. What are the things that bring you joy? What are the things that you should think about? You started this on Instagram. I know a number of people said Todd, I think you’re writing a book. You really should write it as a book.
Who was the first person that told you that and when did you start realizing maybe this could be?
Doughty: It was early on. I think it was at a certain point. So again, I started in March of last year, I think it was in April when a couple of friends, the amazing writer, Helen Ellis, author of Southern Lady Code and American Housewife, Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light, getting all the books in there. Helen and my colleague Christian Cochran, who is the CEO of Penguin Random House Canada reached out and both of them said exactly that. This could be a book and again, it was something that I had never even thought of, but then when I started looking back, there were X number of pieces after a couple of months, and then it sort of struck me as well, maybe it could. I didn’t know how exactly, or what that would feel like, but all of that credit goes to the brilliant editor, Meg Leder at Penguin Life who sort of showed me how something can transmogrify from one medium into another.
That’s a big word and I don’t mean to sound that fancy, but it was basically going from Instagram into book form. It was something very different. We had to make sure that the experience for the reader was rhythmic, but that you could read it all the way through if you’d like, you could take a break if you wanted to. Exactly as you’re saying, you could dip in for a morning, you could dip in a day or a week later. We broke things up to kind of establish that rhythm within the book and then, what I think is really special, we found an artist named Josie Portillo [[LINK]] who did line art throughout the book, these beautiful drawings, and I was really lucky because I got to choose and talk with her about things that really meant a lot to me, like Dan Levy and the cast of Schitt’s Creek got me through the early days of the pandemic. I wanted David and Patrick’s wedding in there. I have Margaret Atwood tweeting in there, there’s a drawing of Margaret, but everything from a bicycle with a basket full of flowers to the Jewelry’s Garden in Paris to Anne Rice’s former house in New Orleans that was the setting for The Witching Hour, one of my favorite books ever. Those are interspersed throughout and Josie is just genius. The other half of the credit goes to Sabrina Bowers who works at Penguin and she’s the designer, and when we were talking about the look and the feel of the book, I was saying the lists as I mentioned earlier, had this sort of zigzag curated feel. I see different fonts and different sizes of fonts and maybe we break things up and that’s sort of all I said.
And she worked her beautiful magic throughout the book and that’s the object that you hold in your hand. She even created…like child of the eighties, we had our mix tapes. She even created a little cassette mix tape for all the playlists that are in the book. There’s eight different ones. I just have been so lucky to work with this amazing team, that I say The Velveteen Rabbit became real. We took that first list and then it grew into this book and it’s been an awesome experience, and again, each day for me was just a way to focus on okay, what’s something that saved me? What’s something that made me feel better? and put that into this list and now it’s in a book form for others to experience. I mean, I say if we have that connection where I make you remember something or discover something new, then my job here is done and that’s really a gratifying thing.
Ellison: Can you tell me, other than Lin-Manuel Miranda [[laughter]] your favorite thing from the favorite things?
Doughty: That is a difficult question. There are over actually 3,000 different individual items in the book. Yeah, the brilliant copy editors, Randy Marillo and Karen Wise, there is a master list of everything that’s in there, and it’s broken down by genre. It’s books, it’s TV, it’s movies, it’s songs, it’s paintings, it’s plays, it’s sports stuff, and everything else, and I think that there are a few things that I separate out in those essays. One of them I mentioned earlier, my grandmother and her red velvet cake. So Peggy actually knew every recipe by scratch. She really didn’t have to look at stuff. She cooked amazing food, and every time that I came home and even from New York or when I was little and growing up, she always made me a red velvet cake and it was eight layers. I actually have a picture of us together that unbeknownst to me, there is actually the cake behind us, and I counted each one, and that’s always been my favorite dessert, so that’s in there. I think that it’s really hard to pick just one thing. It could be anything on any random given day. There’s a lot of Lin-Manuel in there. There’s a lot of music in there. There’s a lot of paintings in there. So I’d say the red velvet cake is pretty special to me.
Ellison: Do you have the book right there?
Doughty: Yeah, absolutely.
Ellison: Can you just open it at random and read us a few, just so that the viewers can get an idea for the cadence of this and how beautiful it is?
Doughty: Sure. Hold on here. I wanted to get an eighties list for you. Okay, here it goes.
‘Happy making things in a difficult world. Hand-built choirs, hand-lettered invitations, kids in school uniforms, a 1971 MGB convertible, that moment after a storm when the clouds break and the sunshine has a strange glowing hue, Henry Mancini recording a baby elephant walk, deadlines, the writers of the headlines of the New York Post, someone who saves you a plate, someone who does the late night walk with the dog, Tony Kushner, national treasure, Lynn Nottage, national treasure, Tracy Letz, national treasure, making friends with your seat mate when traveling all the while knowing you may never see each other again.’
It goes on from there, but you get the idea. There’s also stuff in here that there’s a couple of themed ones called things ‘You Might Consider Doing Today.’ Where I just kind of give you a litany of things to try and or do throughout the day. Those were always fun to do, too.
Ellison: Because I watched all of this unfolding on Instagram and I was one of the ones saying God, I hope this is going to be a book one day, I’m fascinated by how that did make it all the way. I’m also curious, did you ever feel any pressure as this was unfolding, okay, this is now becoming not just me sharing my joy with the world, but now it’s becoming an economic proposition. Did you feel any pressure with that?
Doughty: No. I felt pressure when my editor Meg said to me, we need 50 percent new material for the book and I was like oh, okay. I did all of this on my iPhone. I wrote in my Notes app. So I made a little grid on a piece of paper and I listed each date that led up to the date that the book was due and I would do a little list every night. I would write on my little piece of paper, Not Posted #1, the next day would be Not Posted #2 and then on and on until I believe the final total was 50 plus extra lists, so that I had all of that content.
And the great thing was I tried to not repeat. You’ll see recurring things in the book, little hidden Easter eggs. Like there’s some Adam’s family stuff in there. There’s a couple of Jacqueline Onassis things in there, but I really tried to kind of just keep it to one thought, one idea, and then move on. The other thing that was interesting was to go from crafting a list of all these individual items––let’s say there’s 40 or 50 things in each list––to writing one thematic essay. That was sort of a brain switch that I had to have.
But I mean…look, I’ve never done anything like this before. So it was all gravy and kind of amazing to me just to have this experience, and I just kept going, that was kind of the thing. I have worked in publishing for a really long time. I’m old and I have often heard writers talk about the discipline of the work and I never really understood that until I was sitting down each day trying to plan all of these out, and it actually was just a real enjoyable calming experience, but it was that thing of you need to put your butt in the seat and do the work and knowing that you could sit down and do that and plan and work in that sort of discipline manner actually was really helpful.
Ellison: Can you tell us a little bit about your publishing career?
Doughty: Sure. So I work at Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House. I moved to New York in 1995. I was a book seller that worked at Books-A-Million all through college and then I worked at a Walden Books in New York City, and I worked on Wall Street at the store downtown for about three years. And my friend Jerry Krasner at work one day, she said––you really like to read and you can talk to a wall. I think you would be really good at this publicity job––and I was like okay. I had no clue what publicity was. I didn’t know, but I did come from a long line of readers. My Papa was a coal mine who took a book down into the mine every day and read on his lunch break.
My mom is a voracious reader. My uncle Dennis is a voracious reader. So there’s a long line of readers throughout our family and so I went on this job interview for Random House and it was as a publicity assistant and I had never worked in an office before, but I loved to read and that was the thing that I guess they decided to take a chance on me. So publicity is what I call the caboose of the publishing train. When you see an author on TV or hear them on the radio or read something in print or online, or you go see them virtually, or you go to an in-person event, which hopefully we’re coming back to that, a publicist has helped arrange that all behind the scenes. So that has given me my professional life.
I started at Little Random House. I worked with amazing authors like Caleb Carr and Fannie Flag and Mike Angela and Christopher Reeve over the years, and then over the past 16 years at Doubleday, I mean it’s just been in an incredible ride. I’ve had the experience of working with some of the most amazing writers being published today. Everybody from John Grisham to Margaret Atwood, to Dan Brown, to Kevin Kwan, to Candace Millard, David Grand, Hampton Sides and for a little book nerd who grew up in Carterville, Illinois, and went to the library every day during the summer, it’s just anything beyond my wildest dreams that could have happened.
Ellison: I just love that. Will you tell us the story about your grandparent’s answering machine? You tried to give one to them, and they didn’t want it.
Doughty: It was Christmas one year and I didn’t know what to get my grandparents and they didn’t have an answering machine, so I thought this is the absolute perfect gift. I gave it to them and they opened it and they had a physical look on their face and they say thank you, because we’re polite Midwesterners and things like that, and they start to hook it up. I think it was a few days later, if I remember correctly, that my grandmother said here is the answering machine, you can take it back, and I didn’t know what she was talking about and I said no, this is so that if I call you and you’re not home, I can leave a message, and other people can leave a message, trying to explain an answering machine. She was like no, we don’t need it, and I said what are you talking about? And she said well, we don’t need this because the person can just call back and isn’t that the connection that you want anyway?
And these were people who everybody showed up at their house for dinner. As I said, my grandmother was an amazing cook. I would be out there on the weekends and folks stayed till midnight or late into the night visiting and talking, there was a social aspect to my childhood with them that was all about human contact, and they were the most amazing people. I mean they were really incredible, and I think the answering machine was indicative to me. It’s about the connection. It’s about the actual talking of the person, they didn’t need that because you call back.
Ellison: It’s amazing and leads into the idea that I wanted to get to, the pandemic. We didn’t realize how much we needed each other until we couldn’t be with each other. Do you think that we’re going to continue on with this or do you think we’re going to lose touch again?
Doughty: Well, that’s a good question. I mean, I don’t know. I have talked to friends about how important it is to get together and to see each other and to get a letter or to get something tangible in this moment that’s not ephemeral at this time. We’re back into the office now for a few weeks. Some of us are in and it’s been great to see colleagues. I think what one of the things that has happened during this very difficult time, I think it’s been a moment for people to decide what matters to them. What matters to you? What is important in your life? What does that mean? And I think there could be a point where my grandparents were depression-era children, and that never left them. My mother-in-law had the same experience. They were savers. You stretched every penny, you made everything last. You took care of things. And there is a part of me that wonders if this moment might create some sort of connection like that, where you never forget what these connections mean or being together or celebrating or sort of experiencing things or taking the time to seize out or to search for those little moments of joy in your life. That’s sort of the only way I can describe it. I feel like I’m rambling, but I think that makes sense.
Ellison: I thought that made tons of sense.
Doughty: It’s kind of like, well, what has fallen away? Does it matter? And I think that a lot of people, myself included, have tried to suss out: what does matter to me? What do you want things to be for yourself?
Ellison: No, you’re absolutely right. It is this sense of dislocation of everyone saying wait a second, this doesn’t matter. This thing that I’m worrying about, this thing that I’m doing, this habit that I have, it doesn’t matter. I need to stop that and I need to do something that does matter. I feel like that’s what you’ve done with this book.
Doughty: Wow. Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I appreciate that and I think for me, it was just such a fun way to kind of remember what you hold onto. What do you hold onto? What lasts? What gets you through? The essay at the end of the book is the one that I’m proudest of. The dedication is to my mom and to her parents and her grandmother as well as my Randy and his mother. My mom’s parents and grandmother all sadly died the same day in 1960 and the last essay is called the things that last. It didn’t really come to me until almost at the end when I was writing this and that essay sort of poured out of me one night and I think what I realized I was doing was all of these objects and things and feelings and memories that are featured in the book.
These are things that lasted to me or that I’ve discovered that I hope will last and at the very end of it all, and I say it in there––sorry, I’m going to try not to get emotional––but love lasts and love begets more love. My mother was five when her parents and her grandmother passed away, and I have to believe because of my shared experience, that the love lasted because it was imprinted on her, has now been given to me and my sisters and is being passed on to my nieces and nephews. So things often aren’t the only thing that survived the test of time, and I believe that.
Ellison: That’s absolutely beautiful. Love begets love is really a theme that we all need to connect with.
Doughty: I think so. I mean…I think the love that you show to others and the love that you have for things that have been meaningful to you in your life were some of the most important things to come out of this unprecedented time.
Ellison: I could not agree more. So do you have any advice for writers, readers, viewers, people, on where to find their joy?
Doughty: Good question. I don’t propose that I am an expert whatsoever, but all I would say is this all started on a train ride home for me, kind of looking out the window and thinking what made me happy? What are some things that I love? I think being a noticer in the world is a very good thing. Being back in the city now, after being home––we were lucky enough to work from home for 18 months––being around, seeing people and seeing the traffic and just sort of the ins and outs of your daily life. I would just encourage folks to look out that window and notice.
Ellison: I love it. Are you going to write more, by chance?
Doughty: Well, another good question. I have kept going on all of my lists. I turned the book in about a year ago and then we revised and did things, and I did keep going. There are a bunch of lists that have happened after the book. There are additional things there. I did keep that going. There is a first page of a novel that I have written, but that depends on me sitting down and actively pursuing that, to see where it goes, but I mean a tentative answer…yes.
Ellison: I love it! I’m thrilled to hear that.
Doughty: Oh, thank you.
Ellison: Just thrilled to hear that. You and I have talked about Nora Efron’s lists.
Ellison: How does that play into this?
Doughty: Well, I’ve always loved her. I remember seeing ‘When Harry Met Sally’ in the theaters and they’re like who wrote this, the greatest romantic comedy of all time––that’s in Little Pieces of Hope of course. A lot of Nora’s essays are in Little Pieces of Hope as well. I actually met her a couple of times at a couple of book parties and she couldn’t have been more lovely, but she had these two lists, I believe in I Feel Bad About My Neck, her nonfiction, huge bestseller, and they were called ‘Things I Will Miss’ and ‘Things I Won’t Miss’, and she wrote these at a time when she had been diagnosed with her illness.
I didn’t really rediscover of those lists until about a couple of months ago when someone did a version of them on Instagram and then I remembered that they were in that book, and so if there is some weird spiritual connection to that, I will happily take it. I will never be as cool as her, I will never be as smart is her, but if there’s some connection, then that makes me really happy.
Ellison: Oh, I don’t know that I would say that. I think that you definitely are as cool and definitely are as smart.
Doughty: No, she came into this party and she had on all black and she had on a striped shirt and she had on this leather jacket with a popped collar and she just looked like the coolest person ever and she could not have been more nice or kind to a starstruck book nerd who was over there, fawning over her. So it was an ugly moment for me, but she could not have been more lovely.
Ellison: Oh man. Todd, I’m so excited for you and I can’t wait for everyone to read this book and experience your memories and start making some of their own. Thank you so much for being here today.
Doughty: It has been my true pleasure and thank you so much for having me.
Ellison: Keep reading!
Todd Doughty Recommends
Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me & You, by Lin-Manuel Miranda
The Good Left Undone, by Adriana Trigiani
What Is a Dog?, by Chloe Shaw