Hello, friends! Today I am posting the first of two interviews with someone who I not only admire enormously, but someone who is very near and dear to me, both professionally and personally: Bridget Watson Payne. Bridget is not only an amazing writer and artist (more on that in a second), but also my longtime editor at Chronicle Books. I have worked with Bridget on SEVEN books (five of my own, two that I illustrated for other writers) — all over the past six years. We’ve become good friends in that time, and Bridget has been a steadfast champion of my ideas (even my weird ones). Working with her has literally changed and expanded my career path (and basically my life) in ways that I cannot even begin to enumerate. And I won’t, because this interview is not about me, it’s about Bridget and her recent book: The Secret Art of Being a Grown Up, which she wrote (and which was illustrated by a colleague at Chronicle).
While Bridget’s main job is helping other people make beautiful, interesting books as Senior Art Editor, she is someone who has never neglected her own creative spirit. This is part of why I love working with Bridget — she intimately understands the creative process, and also what it means to make stuff and put it into the world, which makes her enormously sensitive and humble. You can view Bridget’s super cool paintings of mostly ordinary objects on her Instagram feed under the hashtag #bwppaints.
Bridget is also a writer. Today’s post is dedicated to Bridget’s first book, The Secret Art of Being a Grown Up, which is one of my favorite books of the year. Taking advantage of being an adult is all about understanding basic things — some that we don’t even know we don’t know (but Bridget breaks them down for us), and some of them are not secret, but that we just forget sometimes (even in my case, at 49). Rather than being preachy, the book is written with humility and humor. And it’s a great gift for anyone going through a big transition in their teens or 20’s. I’ve included some great spreads below so you can get a flavor for it.
I’ll also be back in a few weeks with Part Two of my interview with Bridget, in which we discuss the second book she’s published recently. Stay tuned for that.
And so it is my great pleasure to introduce Bridget Watson Payne, in my latest Interview with Someone I Admire!
Lisa: When I was a little girl, my mom had a jar of candy that she kept up high in a cupboard in the kitchen. Every time she ate some, my siblings and I would whine – because we wanted some too. She used to say very emphatically: “When you are a grown up, you can eat as much candy as you want.” In other words, no, you can’t have any, it’s MINE, but your day will come. I remember thinking that while that seemed like becoming a grown up would take FOREVER, it also seemed like the ultimate freedom. When I read The Secret Art of Being a Grown Up, I felt like one of the overriding messages of the book is: while some parts of being an adult are tedious and painful (like navigating relationships), ultimately, you get to eat as much candy as you want. In other words, you make the rules about how you live your life. Talk about when you began to make this realization.
Bridget: That’s exactly it! And, you know, it’s funny—I actually know exactly the minute I started to make that realization for myself: it was a few weeks after my twenty-seventh birthday. I was meeting some friends after work at a bar, and I was early, and it was crowded, and the only place to sit was this big seating area with a big sofa and several chairs. It was the perfect place for me and my friends to hang out — but they weren’t going to be there for at least another twenty minutes. And I questioned, can I do this? Can I sit here all by myself and hold down the fort until everyone else gets here? Will people glare at me? Can I get away with this? And that’s when it happened. I answered myself, in my mind, loud and clear: “I’m twenty-seven years old!” I thought, “I can do whatever I want!” I sat down and held the spot and no one cared in the least. That’s when I saw it for the first time: being a grown-up means making your own rules — you decide what you can and can’t do, you decide how much space you’re going to take up in the world.
Lisa: Tell us more about The Secret Art of Being a Grown Up. How did this book come to be?
Bridget: I was waiting for kind of a long time on a crowded train platform with my friend Wynn who’s a fellow book editor at Chronicle. Finally the train pulled up and everyone started to squash onto it, even though there was another train directly behind that first one. And we turned to each other we were like, obviously we should wait two minutes and take the second less-crowded train! And then I said, oh, I should remember that, that’s perfect for my list of tips for being a grown-up! And he asked me to tell him more about this list, so I started to describe how I’d been collecting these kinds of tidbits for over a decade, and someday when I was elderly and had hundreds and hundreds of them I would try and put them into a book. And he suggested that, hmm, perhaps it ought to be a book a little sooner than that. And he went on to be my editor!
Lisa: I know because I’ve talked to you about the book that you’d been keeping a list of “adult tips” for a long time. But once you started writing it, did you come up with more? What was the process like of narrowing down to the right amount of tips for the book and getting the right balance all the flavors?
Bridget: Yes. Initially when I first started collecting them I was in my early-to-mid-twenties and was learning my way around the kitchen — so a lot of them had to do with cooking. Things like: “turn the bottle not the cork” (that’s how you open a bottle of champagne), “the meat stops sticking when it’s done” (a key lesson in patience), and “you don’t need a garlic press” (I’m a big believer in a less-is-more approach to utensils). But as time went on, and then as the book started to evolve, I realized I wanted to cover a lot more kinds of things — tips about socializing and relationships, tips about work and money, home stuff, fashion stuff — I wanted the book to run gamut of different parts of life we encounter as adults. And whereas I’d originally pictured a very long list of hundreds of tips, each tip just maybe five or ten words long, I pretty quickly realized (with my editor’s help!) that each tip should actually be a whole spread, should have a bit of longer text explaining it, and so we wouldn’t need nearly as many of them as I’d first thought. Because it turns out, I might say “turn the bottle not the cork” and think that’s totally self-explanatory, but other people who aren’t inside my head aren’t going to know that’s about champagne—they’re going to be all “what bottle?” “what cork?”
Lisa: Speaking of different flavors, some of the tips in the book are sort of everyday, trivial things like secrets of opening a bottle of champagne or properly using a tin foil dispenser. But other things are actually about big and more weighty topics like setting boundaries in relationships, valuing yourself as a lovable person, the importance of expressing your feelings, and accepting that you can’t change your parents. How did you approach writing the more in-depth parts of the book so that they weren’t out of balance with the simple kitchen tips?
Bridget: It was a little tricky. I definitely had a few of those same “can I get away with this?” moments! But I just applied my grown-up skills and told myself “I can do what I want!” And what I wanted to do was really to include that mix of simple practical things and bigger deeper things—because to my mind those are two of the important things, and ultimately the really fun things, about being a grown-up: you get to master your environment in little practical ways and you also get to set up your emotional and interpersonal life in a way that works for you. In terms of writing, I did want the book to have a coherent voice—I wanted it to all feel like the advice you might get from an older sister or friend who not so long ago was struggling with the exact same things you’re struggling with and who is here to tell you that your adult life is going to be rad, that you get to do what you want, that you deserve to be happy.
Lisa: Tell us a little bit about your trajectory as a writer. You are currently Senior Editor for Art Books at Chronicle. Have you always wanted to write your own books? Or did the idea to write books happen once you became an editor of other people’s books? Did you enjoy it? Will you write more? Did being an editor prepare you in any special way?
Bridget: I’ve always wanted to write, but it took me a really long time to figure out what I wanted to write. I’m a very committed reader of novels, so for a long time I thought that if I was going to write that meant I needed to write fiction. It took me ages to figure out that neither my interest or my talent lay in that direction. And several years I’ve written a good deal of poetry (you can read it on my blog). But it took working on non-fiction books as an editor for about a decade before it occurred to me that, oh, hey, I could write non-fiction! That’s the thing with being a grown-up, right? We’re never really done figuring it out! So, yes, once I got going I loved writing this sort of book. It’s so satisfying to get to use my own natural conversational voice and tone, to get to express some of the things that have been on my mind, in some cases for many years. I am definitely hooked and want to do more! I’m chatting with my editor now about what I might do next—I’ve got a number of half-baked ideas in mind but nothing concrete yet. I think the thing about being an editor myself is that I really appreciate the editor’s art—I found it just fantastic to have editors of my own, someone to help make what I was doing the best version of what it could be. I’ve loved doing that for others and I really valued having folks do it for me.
Lisa: I am 49 years old and yet I felt liberated by reading The Secret Art of Being a Grown Up. I don’t think we ever outgrow the reminders that we deserve to be loved or that we should always be ourselves. Talk about the purpose the book serves in reminding seasoned grownups that life is supposed to be fun and that you can make your own rules? Sometimes we forget these things.
Bridget: Definitely! Whereas perhaps the most obvious audience for this book is among young adults—recent college grads, people moving into their first apartments, that sort of crowd—I really wanted to make a book that ultimately would work for all of us, for grown-ups of all ages. I once had a conversation with my ninety-year-old great-aunt about how, even though I was thirty-something at the time, on the inside I still often felt like I was about twelve years old. And she surprised me by saying, oh! Me too! That she would look in the mirror and think “who is that old woman?!” because, like everyone does sometimes, she still felt like a kid on the inside. I’m 41 now and I know I need constant reminders that other people’s snobbery is not my problem, that 95% of the time no one is looking at me, to set boundaries, to think long-term, to pay my bills on time, to go get an ice cream cone in the middle of the work day with a friend if that’s what we both want, or need, to do. There’s always more to learn. We all need reminders.
Lisa: We’ll be back next month with an interview about your other new book How Art Can Make You Happy. In the meantime, where can people find you on social media and the internet?
Bridget: My website bridgetwatsonpayne.com has info on my books, my drawings, my work as an editor, and links to my blog Pippa’s Cabinet. I’m @watsonpayne on Instagram and also @watsonpayne on Twitter.