Will Schwalbe, author of the New York Times bestselling memoir The End of Your Life Book Club, and I have never met, but we recently became friendly via reading each other’s books and writing emails back and forth to each other. Oh how I loved Will’s book and oh what a kindred spirit Will is! Will graciously agreed to answer a series of questions I posed to him; here is our exchange:
1) I’m a quotation nut, and I’m wondering if your mother had one favorite line, passage, or quotation that she felt summarized her philosophy, could serve as her motto, or captured her essence. Do you?
Mom loved quotations and would sometimes scribble them on bits of paper or yellow-stickies (Post-It notes). And she was always pointing out to me passages in books that were particularly meaningful for her. One of these was in GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson: “This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?”
2) There is some poetry in your book- most notably the gorgeous poem by one of my favorites, Mary Oliver- but I found myself wanting to know more about your and your mother’s feelings about poetry and poets. Who were some of her favorites and who are some of yours? What do you think poetry can offer its readers that fiction and non-fiction can’t?
Mom adored the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Lowell, and Wallace Stevens, among many other poets. I’ve always been crazy about Longfellow and W.H. Auden. And we both shared a love for Mary Oliver, Nikki Giovanni, and Elizabeth Alexander. I carry in my head dozens of poems I’ve memorized, and these are a huge comfort to me because they are always with me in a way that no work of prose can be. I find that poetry concentrates my mind and makes me focus. I also have “go-to” poems that take me to particular places – certain poems that calm me, distract me, amuse me, or stir me up. Knowing poetry by heart is like having a quiver of emotional arrows ready at a moment’s notice.
3) What books that have been published since your mother’s death do you most long to share and discuss with her?
There are so many! I know she would have loved THE HEADMASTER’S WAGER by Vincent Lam, a novel set in 1960s Saigon. I’m reading and in awe of THE FORGIVEN by Lawrence Osborne, a very dark novel set in Morocco. I’m fascinated and moved by FAR FROM THE TREE by Andrew Solomon and she would have been as well. And HELP, THANKS, WOW by Anne Lamott is a book she would have read the day it came out, just as I did.
4) I attended the school your mother and your sister did, and I must say your mother seems to have been a quintessential Brearley girl: deeply intellectual but not pretentious or insular in her interests, artistic but grounded, a do-gooder committed to social justice, interested in education in all its many senses, tireless and possessed of boundless energy, a master juggler, endlessly curious, and over-extended. I loved your story about the headmistress telling the girls they could have it all, your mother obediently and determinedly following her injunction by balancing very ambitious and pioneering full-time work with raising 3 children, and then many years later finding out that the headmistress thought that having it all was possible only if one had lots of help! How do you think your mother was able to achieve so much in the world while still being such a devoted and caring wife, mother, and friend? What, if any, were the costs of such busy-ness? Do you think that your mother’s commitment to “soldier[ing] on with her busy life” also drained her to some extent and/or made it hard to help, support, or communicate intimately with her? How did her diagnosis of terminal cancer provide her with a certain respite from the incessant doing that had characterized her life up until that point and what were the benefits of that respite?
It’s such a great series of questions. I write in the book about the obliviousness of childhood. To some degree, most children don’t give much thought to what is going on behind the scenes. They assume that there has always been a set and props and costumes; that the theater was always booked; that there have always been treats to be eaten at intermission; and that none of this has a cost. The entire production (to way overextend this metaphor) is simply there – just waiting for them to go on stage and improvise and be applauded. Then at a certain age, most kids start to realize that someone did produce and direct all of this, and sweat over it, and pay for it: a parent, or two. Over the course of my young adulthood and life, I’ve come to see more and more how much effort went into the production – and appreciate more and more how difficult it must have been for Mom to do everything she did for us, to stage all that, while working full-time, and reading, and doing all that she did.
I don’t think, however, Mom’s commitment to continue to soldier on with her busy life, even after her diagnosis, drained her – in some ways, it energized her because it was so much a part of who she was. Mom loved her friends, her organizations, her commitments, and her family; she had a work ethic that was an essential part of who she was. Even up until her last weeks she did her best to keep up with her email, to return calls, to write notes – not because she felt she had to, but just because that’s what she did.
There’s a great expression – if you want something done, ask a busy person. And it was actually on the days when Mom did slow down that it was hardest to talk to her, because on those days she really didn’t feel well enough to talk much or at all.
5) Your mother took comfort in the doctor’s description of her illness as “treatable but not curable,” and her authentically positive attitude- she was never in denial, never minimized- was truly inspirational to me. What do you think enabled her to approach her illness with such courage and such genuine, not blind, optimism?
I think part of it has to do, unfortunately, with the nature of pancreatic cancer. It’s the most lethal of all cancers. And if it’s diagnosed after it has spread, then the prognosis is, sadly, very grim and very clear. In a way, this particular cancer makes denial very difficult. But I think a huge part of it was Mom’s character. The thing she said over and over again – to herself, to us, and to all her friends – was how lucky she felt. Lucky to have been able to see her three children grow up, to have grandchildren she adored, to have been married for almost fifty years, to have been able to travel, to do work she loved, to have so many friends, to be old enough so that she was on Medicare, and to have such great medical care – among dozens of other things. She focused on her luck and not her lack of it.
Finally, her religion was a huge comfort to her. She wanted more time here and was deeply saddened that she wouldn’t get it. But she knew there was a life everlasting waiting for her.
6) Tell me one book you loved and she didn’t and one book she loved and you didn’t.
I loved Josephine Tey’s BRAT FARRAR – a book that hinges on a twist that my mother said she would have found entirely predictable even if she hadn’t read the end of the book first, as she always did. She loved JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS by Thomas Mann, a book I couldn’t get through then and still haven’t.
7) What advice would you give to the family members or friends of someone who’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer about how best to support their loved one? And what’s the one thing you would advise them *not* to do?
I would advise them to read THE ETIQUETTE OF ILLNESS by Susan Halpern. It’s an incredibly wise book. And the one thing I would advise them not to do is try to figure out everything by themselves. There are amazing people working in palliative care and hospice who have enormous wisdom to share. They helped all of us immeasurably.
8) In an age where humanities departments are shrinking and the worth of a degree in literature is being questioned, can you speak to the value of an English major in a person’s life?
I was actually a Classical Civilization major (Latin and Green language and history, with a little bit of archaeology). I would describe the value of any kind of humanities education simply as this: Books are how we know what we need to do in our lives and in the world, and how we tell others. The study of literature is the study of life. It trains you for everything, including being a human being.
9) How do you think parents, teachers, and our culture more generally can best motivate and inspire children to read widely, voraciously, and passionately?
I’m not a parent so I don’t want to go too far out on a limb here. But I think children need to see adults reading. If you tell kids to read but you are always glued to a screen, they probably won’t be convinced. I also think you should give children books that are maybe just a little bit too daring for them, books that are a bit transgressive. I love giving teens RULE OF THE BONE by Russell Banks, which has a ton of pot-smoking in it. I don’t think it turns kids into pot-heads – but I do think it shows them that books can take them places where much of the culture fears to tread. You’ll rarely if ever see pot-smoking on prime-time television, for example.
10) Other than your remarkable mother, who inspires you? These can be public figures, historical personages, people from your personal life, even fictional characters!
I’m deeply inspired by Barack Obama. I’m inspired by my friend Larry Kramer, author and activist. Oprah Winfrey inspires me. Christopher Isherwood, my favorite author, is a profound inspiration – for his radical honesty and for the simple elegance of his prose. Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash are part of the soundtrack of my life, and I turn to them for inspiration. Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer. As for characters: Bilbo Baggins, for sure, and also David Copperfield.
11) You touchingly describe your mother’s planning the music and readings for her own memorial service (not to mention how the family’s responses to condolence notes should look and read!). Is there a passage or poem that you would like read at yours?
I’ve actually specified in my will that I want Hanson’s song “MMMBop” to be played at my funeral. It’s my favorite song and I listen to it almost every day. To me, it’s really about the impermanence of life – how everything can go in a minute. And it just makes me happy. As for a poem, it would be Auden’s “The More Loving One.”
Will Schwalbe is the author of The New York Times Bestseller The End of Your Life Book Club. It was published in October 2012 by Knopf, and has been sold for translation into nine languages. It was a #1 Indie Next Pick, a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, and is #4 on Amazon’s Top Ten Books of 2012.
In 2008, Will founded Cookstr.com, which aggregates recipes from many of the world’s major publishers. It powers recipe search for companies and organizations including the AARP, Bravo Television, Kaiser Permanente, and American Media. Will served as CEO from inception until March 2011. He is currently chairman of its board.
After graduating from Yale in 1984 with a B.A. degree summa cum laude in Classical Civilization, Will went to Hong Kong where he wrote for publications including The New York Times and The South China Morning Post. Subsequently, he held positions as Senior Vice President and Editor in Chief first of William Morrow and Company, where he worked from 1987 to 1997, and then of Hyperion Books, from 1997 to 2008. Authors he has published include David Halberstam, Nigella Lawson, Mitch Albom, Nikki Giovanni, Jamie Oliver, Rev. Peter J. Gomes, and Chris Anderson (THE LONG TAIL). He founded Hyperion East, the only imprint of a major trade publisher devoted to Asian literature in translation. Will is also the co-author, with David Shipley, of SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better (Knopf 2007).
He lives in New York City with his partner, David Cheng.