The debut author of If We’re Being Honest talks about setting a story in the “ecosystem” of a small town.
Sometimes you read a book that is so relatable you start to worry that someone has been secretly filming your family reunions. If We’re Being Honest by debut author Cat Shook is that book. Set in a small town in Georgia, If We’re Being Honest follows the Williams family as they navigate love, loss, grief and confusion after the passing of their beloved grandfather, Gerry.
Plagued with the individual issues infiltrating their lives and the grief of losing their patriarch—the one thing they all had unquestionably in common—the Williams family certainly have their emotional work cut out for them. This clan is big, complex and a perfect example of how no one can understand you while completely misunderstanding you quite like family.
Cat Shook currently works in TV and film development in Manhattan, a place she also calls her home. Though the debut author has left her hometown of Georgia, she has certainly retained her Southern hospitality. She approached this interview with warmth and excitement despite the stress of a time-zone mixup that caused the meeting to start late. After confirming that she and her interviewer (whose middle name is Shook) weren’t related, a conversation that Shook described as “so gloriously Southern,” they were ready to talk about her equally gloriously Southern novel.
Wilhelmina Durham: You live and work in Manhattan. What made you decide to take the plunge and write a book?
Cat Shook: I wanted to be a writer my whole life, and I’ve always written short stories since I was a little kid. I went to the University of Georgia and majored in English with an emphasis on creative writing. But I had no idea how that worked on the business side. I moved to New York and eventually got a job with a talent and literary agency, and I was an assistant in the book department. I learned how people got an agent, got the books out to editors and how the deals worked. But I didn’t tell anyone I wanted to be a writer, because I didn’t know if I was good enough.
So, I was basically secretly writing a book that, well, wasn’t very good. But then we all got sent home in 2020 because of the pandemic, and I was like, OK, now is the time to try and write a book and see if I could do it. And so that’s how this book came to be.
WD: Your characters are so vivid and unique and, yet, I felt while reading that I’ve met them in real life before. From where did you draw your inspiration?
CS: Well, first, thank you so much for saying that. It’s so fun to speak to you as someone who has read the book. I’m so excited for people to meet the characters and who they are. No one in the book is based on someone in real life. It’s so strange and will make you think I need to be institutionalized, but I hear them talking in my head. So, it is much more of a process of discovery rather than creation.
The first characters that I met in this process were Alice and Delia. I heard these two sisters talking in the airport and thought, ‘Who is that?’ It feels like they made themselves known to me. But, there are also cultural touchstones that seemed interesting to me, and I had a fun time building characters around that as well. For example, “The Bachelorette” is something that I find endlessly fascinating and entertaining, so I wanted to have a character that had been on that show.
WD: Every Southern author at some point must choose which parts of the South they want to represent; how did you decide which Southern themes you wanted to portray in your book?
CS: That’s such an interesting question. The part of Southern culture I wanted to explore in this book is how Southerners are around death. When my grandfather passed away a few years ago, my mother drove in the middle of the night to the hospital in the city where my grandparents lived. After he passed, by the time she and my grandmother left the hospital and drove to my grandparents’ house, there was a line out the door of people holding casseroles.
In these small towns, there’s also something about the absolute invasion of privacy that goes on in tragic times that I find fascinating, funny and kind of beautiful. I live in New York now, and I meet all these East Coast WASPs that keep people at arm’s length, and you can’t do that in small, Southern towns. That is something that I wanted to explore in this book and something that I’ve found entertaining.
WD: Which character, if any, do you feel is most like you?
CS: I can relate to aspects of all of them, and I definitely didn’t base anyone off of me. I feel like Alice is who I wish I was, and Delia is like who I am on a bad day. But I say that with love! I love Delia. The funny thing about Alice is, when I started this book—I don’t know if it was a self-protective thing or what—but I did not let myself think about it becoming a published book. I was listening to the audiobooks when we first got them in and realized ‘Oh my god. Alice wrote a book, and I wrote a book. Everyone is going to think it’s me.’ I didn’t even think about that because I never thought about it being an actual book.
WD: Some of your characters have quite a few quirks. Which, if any, would you find yourself having the hardest time getting along with?
CS: I would definitely have the most challenging time getting along with JJ because he can be such an ass. It’s funny because I anticipate everyone’s response to that question would be Carol Anne. After all, she can be so annoying. But she’s so funny that I would enjoy spending time with her more than I would enjoy spending time with JJ. [He] is so set in his ways and needs to see the world in one very specific way. That can be boring. I think JJ is going to be triggering for some people.
WD: Were there any challenging parts of your writing process?
CS: I want to be careful not to romanticize the process of writing this book too much. Something hard was that this book had a lot of characters. On a technical level, it took a lot of work to weave all those storylines together in a way that I was doing right by them without being overwhelming. Grant and Red even had a sister—there was another character—so early on, I had to cut her. It was getting too overwhelming. That was hard because I loved her! But she had to go because it was getting too confusing.
Otherwise, the process of actually writing this book, because I wrote so much of it during Covid in true Manhattan lockdown, was such a wonderful part of such a dark, lonely time. I know writing a book is hard, but it was a wonderful escape.
WD: You live in New York now but are from Georgia and attended college in Georgia. How do you think this stark change in scenery affected If We’re Being Honest?
CS: Oh, that’s interesting. Certain aspects of Southern culture were brought into sharper relief when I moved to New York. As I mentioned, the small town and everyone-is-in-each-other’s-business thing. The move helped me appreciate those things more and think about them more. I wanted to write a book in that setting. I’ve always liked smaller-town stuff. It’s a cool ecosystem to set a story in.
There’s something about these people, especially the cousins who live all over, coming back home when they don’t live there anymore, that I find delicious and exciting. I’m intrigued by what coming back to this place where they were young would bring up for people.
WD: What authors, if any, were you inspired by when writing your book?
CS: Oh my gosh, I mean, so many! Of course, Emma Straub and her book All Adults Here; Jonathan Tropper and his book This is Where I Leave You. Those books were two big family stories that were really influential.
WD: What is next for you?
CS: My second book is in editing right now. It’s coming out next year, and it’s called Humor Me. I’m focusing on that right now, other than getting If We’re Being Honest out into the world.