Interview with Laila Tarraf, Author of Strong Like Water

13 Apr 2021

What can you tell us about your new release, Strong Like Water?

Strong Like Water is a leadership book disguised as a memoir. It has been described part memoir, part leadership guide, part psychological probe. It chronicles a period in my life when I lost my husband, my father and then my mother as I was trying to raise a young daughter and establish myself in my first senior executive role. As is so often the case, times of tremendous adversity become powerful teaching moments in our lives. For me, it was the moment in my life when I realized that if I didn’t allow myself to be vulnerable and feel the pain associated with those losses, I would become hard and brittle and unable to raise my daughter with compassion and vulnerability. I was terrified the journey would make me soft, and it did. But soft turned out to be strong.

What or who inspired you to become an author?

I have always enjoyed reading and writing stories. Throughout my life I would catch myself trying to capture the moment in a few words in my head as if I were writing a book, but I never consciously thought I would be an author until a friend invited me to a daylong workshop for aspiring writers led by Laura Munson. I was so moved by that day that I signed up for a 5-day author retreat at Laura’s home in Montana. Throughout the retreat, she had one or two participants read a scene we had written out loud in front of the others. I remember being really nervous and feeling like an imposter. I chose to read a scene that represented a particularly poignant moment with me and my mom and when I finished the piece and looked up, everybody was crying. Something clicked in my brain in that moment. I had touched them with my writing. Maybe I could do this.

What’s on your top 5 list for the best books you’ve ever read?

I never know how to answer these questions because it’s so hard for me to compare vastly different stories to each other.

I love reading the books of contemporary writers like Ann Patchett (Bel Canto), Kristin Hannah (The Nightingale) and Jodi Picoult (Small Great Things). They are all amazing writers.

I love sagas like Ken Follette’s Pillars of the Earth and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I’m always so sad when I finish reading them because I have completely immersed myself in the worlds they have created.

Classics by the Bronte sisters and Jane Austin like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and Pride & Prejudice and books we all read in school like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck are near the top of my list.

And finally books that have had a big impact on how I see the world are Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and more recently The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer.

Say you’re the host of a literary talk show. Who would be your first guest? What would you want to ask?

Two women whom I would love to speak with are Diana Gabaldon author of the Outlander series or Margaret Atwood author of The Handmaid’s Tale. I would ask them all about their process in conceiving, structuring and writing in such rich detail the worlds they create. I can’t even get my head around what that would take, and I’m fascinated by their ability to do it so masterfully.

What’s your favorite thing about writing?

My favorite thing about writing is when you are so into a scene that it almost writes itself. It is revealing itself to you as you write it as if it’s not coming from you at all. It’s a magical space to be in.

What is a typical day like for you?

Well, I still have a full-time job. I’m the Chief People Officer for Allbirds and right now I’m pulling triple duty as a full-time leader, an emerging writer and a single mother of a high school teenager. Lots and lots of coffee!

What scene from Strong Like Water was your favorite to write?

I actually loved writing about my Aunt Helen. She was iconic. Everything she said and did could be turned into a bumper sticker. She had her own way of looking at things which was maddening and hysterical at the same time.

Do you have a motto, quote, or philosophy you live by?

I used to have a Maya Angelou quote up on my whiteboard at work for years, that said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”

I think it captures my philosophy to life. I can be dissatisfied with something and even complain about it a bit, but I pretty quickly either figure out how to change it so it works for me or how I can let go of my attachment to it if I can’t.

Laila Tarraf is the author of the new book Strong Like Water.

Connect with Laila Tarraf
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