When Catherine Newman first opened the box containing copies of her novel, ‘We All Want Impossible Things’, she half-expected her 44-year-old best friend to appear.
It was a moment, Newman recalls, when her own grief resurfaced even as she celebrated the release of her book, which tells the story of two women, friends for more than four decades, one of them being in hospice, dying of ovarian cancer. . Told with both piercing emotion and humor, the novel follows the days after Edi was transferred to a Massachusetts hospice near Ash’s home.
The book, which was released Nov. 8, is based on Newman’s friendship and experience with his friend, Ali, who died of ovarian cancer in 2015.
The Amherst author, whose previous titles include the memoirs “Catastrophic Happiness” and “Waiting for Birdy,” is no stranger to writing about her own life. But she told Boston.com that while her latest book — her first work of adult fiction — is largely rooted in her own experience, fiction has given her the ability to communicate the complexities of grief in a more accurate way.
With his deep personal connection to the story contained in his novel, his exit, in some ways, is bittersweet. A reminder of her own friend – and her absence.
“There’s something I think about this moment that reenacts some of that loss and it’s just kind of unavoidable,” she said. “That’s how mourning is. Things just trigger it.
Below, Newman shares more with Boston.com about her novel, her approach to balancing her real-life experiences with fiction, her use of humor in the story, and what she hopes readers take away from the book.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Boston.com: You wrote about your own personal experience caring for your friend, Ali, when she was dying in a hospice. When did you decide to write this book? Why did you choose fiction rather than memoirs to tell this story?
Catherine Newmann: I remember having brunch with my friend’s husband a year after he died. I think his young children were there too – that’s how inappropriate this story is – and I said, ‘I want to write a book about Ali’s death, but it has to be fiction because that I want the main character to sleep with everyone. ”
The thing that’s true is that while my friend was dying, I had this thing that I’ve always called my falling in love disorder – which Ash in the book has too. Where it’s like you’re overwhelmed with grief, and if you’re lucky enough to travel the world with these lovely people trying to help you, I fell in love with everyone. I was in love with everyone at the hospice. I was in love with my friends. I was in love with my family. I was madly in love with my friend who was dying.
And I couldn’t imagine trying to write that down in memoir form and communicate that accurately. That’s why I didn’t write a memoir.
There are several things you wrote about your experience with your friend in hospice—Dr. Soprano, the habit of embellishing flowers, the baby across the hall—that also appear in the novel. How much of your own experience is in this book and how much did it shape the story or character development?
The characters are really, really true to life. Every character, I would say, is true to life. So massively. This part is really very far from life.
The character Belle, my daughter Birdy that this character is based on, was living at home due to the pandemic while I was writing. And I basically just brought up stuff in real time that she was saying. I was like transcribing his conversations; she is an amazing conversationalist and she is so funny. And I was like, “Oh my God, thank God you’re here or I wouldn’t have anything to say about Belle.”
I wrote a lot of memoirs and wasn’t sure how to write fiction. I mostly wrote it as memoirs and then had to remind myself that I could do some bullshit, you know.
How is Ash and Edi’s story different from your experience with Ali? What did fiction allow you to do?
Fiction allowed me to do what Edi’s husband makes fun of Ash, which is to focus on the story.
My friend died away from me. I’ve been there a lot, but it’s not like she moved to where I live. So fiction allowed me the convenience of that as a plot device. It made it easier for Edi to come to her, but also, it’s total wish fulfillment. I mean, things worked out as they should, but there was something about having her come here with me, after the fact, that was very narcissistically gratifying to me.
What did this writing look like to you personally? I don’t know if “help” is the right word, but was that a factor in your own grieving process?
I think so. I think it was both. I think I kind of saddened her while I was writing. I read a lot of journal entries myself and read all the letters she sent me. I looked at all our photo albums. And it was both incredibly painful, but I also think there’s something about the grief, you know, it lasts longer than anyone in your life wants it to. Everyone who has ever grieved has had this experience where everyone is kind of ready for you to continue. And that’s what you do.
I felt really lucky to have this excuse to wallow in my loss this way. Where I’m like, “I have to, for my job.” Who can do this and pretend it’s for work? I have to sit, surrounded by loss and all my objects and memories and just be in it. And that, in a way, was just an amazing gift.
It’s about a lot of heartbreak, but there are a few lines in the book that kind of knocked me down… [in the] when Ash realizes all the love in the world she has and wonders what happens to that love when the people you love are gone. Can you talk about this element of this book? Where it’s about loss, but deep down it’s also really about love and the life cycle of love and relationships?
Yeah. I guess that’s how it is. It’s like all things… When I was selling the book, my agent and I met a bunch of different publishers who were interested in it. And an editor said to me, “What I don’t believe is that Ash is behaving so badly and everyone is so loving towards her.” And I was like, “you’re not the right person to buy this book.” But also, that’s what the book is. This person who is completely broken and everything everyone does around them helps them get back on their feet.
This experience is very true to my experience and is the most beautiful thing in the whole world… I feel like what I was trying to capture in the book is just this way life is all of those things at once and that you don’t get heartbroken and give up. Nobody does. You allow yourself to be loved even in your darkest moments.
The book deals with tremendous heartbreak, grief and loss, but the humor is present on almost every page. How did you approach having these emotions tied together, and why was it important to have the humor present in this way?
I feel like it’s like #Jews. I mean, I feel like it’s such a journey through trauma for an entire culture, it’s just a laugh. So a lot of that is really taken out of life.
My friend made me laugh until the very end. We laughed so much at the hospice that we made ourselves cry. It was ridiculous. Horrifying to some people there, but I think that’s just life for me. Kids laugh at me, and it makes me feel whole. Nobody’s being mean, but there’s something about being teased with love that’s so ingrained for me, and I feel like it’s true for Ash in the book. That she really feels seen by her people all the time and everyone gets a laugh. And then I also guess the narrative itself is funny and that’s because Ash is crazy… Hospice is fundamentally absurd. And I will say, even now as a volunteer, we laugh so much in hospice. The nurses will come into the kitchen and we’ll just cry laughing about something. And that’s how life is.
There’s this kind of fundamental absurdity that runs through something tragic… It’s partly because it’s so corporeal.
I was trying to write about how, it’s death, and it’s this massive philosophical problem and a theological problem, an abstraction, this unknown thing, and it has this spiritual quality. And then the truth is also that there is a body that does this body thing. And it’s really messy. And sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s rude and appalling and painful.
Anyone who’s been with someone through a long death knows that, I know that. But it’s so shocking in a way that you’re not in this pristine world of loss and ideas. In fact, you do this in a very practical way, taking care of your body.
What do you hope readers will take away from the story you’ve written?
You want comfort for everyone. People who are grieving or who have suffered great loss. There’s something cathartic, I think, about reading about other losses. Miriam Toews has this book, “All My Puny Sorrows”, which I mention in the acknowledgments. But when my friend was dying, I read this book four times cover to cover and it gave me so much relief. It’s an incredibly, incredibly sad and funny book. So I think I’m hoping for something like that.
People have already written to me saying that the book made me laugh and cry…and that makes me so happy. These are the things I would like. So I guess. And just kindness – that it’s possible to go through something terrible and feel truly loved. And that’s great; you don’t have to refuse comfort.
And the added secret, of course, is that I want everyone to be like, “Oh my God, her friend was so awesome.” Because it’s really true. I have this secret desire to spread around me the recognized excellence of my dead friend. But this is a secondary objective.
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