Q: Your new book, And There Was Evening and There Was Morning, about your life with your first wife and her passing, was written with some distance. Explain the timeline for our readers, if you will. What benefits did this interval bring to the book?
MS: This summer and fall marks ten years since my wife Emily’s diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer in July of 2007 and her death that December 1st, a fact I keep remembering and forgetting in the heat and busyness of these late August days. The short answer to your question is that I began to write the essays that make up the memoir three and a half years ago, after my stepdaughter’s recovery was sure, as a way to make sense of the radical changes the last few years had wrought to our lives. The year before my first wife’s death, our life together had seemed, finally, to take the shape we’d hoped it would. Emily had begun her dream job teaching Comparative Theology at Georgetown, and my daughter Virginia and I had fallen in love with our new home of D.C. We’d made neighborhood friends almost immediately, and, just before school began, I picked up a part-time gig at American University, just up the street from our apartment. Three years later and 1,000 miles away from Washington, in the in the first year of a new marriage and a new job in a new hometown, my 11-year-old
stepdaughter, also named Emily, was diagnosed with cancer, and spent the next four months at St. Jude hospital with her mother, my wife Jennifer. The first essay I wrote took note of these and other odd parallels between my wife’s illness and death and my stepdaughter’s illness and recovery, including the strangest coincidence of my late wife’s book arriving in the mail the day of my stepdaughter’s diagnosis.
Q: Describing the book as a grief memoir doesn’t feel correct, or I should say, complete. This story isn’t centered on the self. It has an outward look. I feel like it has multiple duties, maybe first to Emily, then to your family, then finally, to your needs. Do you think that the generosity we aspire to in real-life is integral to memoir-writing? Do you think some memoirs fail because the priorities are messed up?
MS: Ah, this is a difficult question. I’m not experienced enough as a reader of memoir to answer confidently, but obsessive inwardness must be an easy trap to fall into, just as it is in lyric poetry. If the book has an outward look, it’s because part of my purpose was simply to communicate how brilliant and tough and filled with grace my wife Emily was, and how bravely my stepdaughter faced her own illness on the heels of adjusting to three new family members, a new state, and a new school.
Q: Prior to this book, you published three books of poetry: Multiverse, Byron in Baghdad, and How to Make a Mummy. Your prose writing in And There Was Evening and There Was Morning is lyrical, and evidences the precision that we see in poetry, so this wasn’t a surprise. I’m curious about your choice to go with prose for this book. Have you written about Emily, your first wife, in poetry? Both forms offer closeness and impact, but in different ways, and since you write both, I’d like to hear more on that.
MS: In fact, I have. About a year after Emily’s death, I gave myself four days of solitude to write. I drove to her college town of Asheville, NC, and checked into the Day’s Inn downtown, walking to Malaprops Bookstore to write five acrostic poems, one for every letter in her name. As rewarding as that was, the focus was on me, my grief, my loss. When I began to write about my two Emilys, I hoped prose might allow me to provide a record of the courage they both displayed, and to show others a little of who they were and are to me.
Q: While this book isn’t specifically about your children, they are in there. To not include them, your children from your first marriage as well as your stepchildren, would leave the
reader with an incomplete idea of your life, especially the time immediately after your wife died. Talk a bit about your decisions around including them as well as any general thoughts you might have. I also wonder about the passage of time, since they will be looking back at a version of their lives that they won’t remember.
MS: Yes, Langston was only five months old when his mother died, Virginia five-and-a-half. Virginia actually introduced me to Jennifer, so I couldn’t very well leave her out! For eighteen months after Emily’s death, Virginia, Langston, and I kept a playdate at Jennifer’s house with her and her three children, and the story of our new combined family of seven is as much their story as anyone’s.
Q: I don’t sense that this book was an act of catharsis or worse, therapy for the writer, but rather some sort of offering. What is to be gained by reading through other people’s worst moments? Their best?
MS: I’m not sure. What can be gained other than more evidence that catastrophe is inevitable in this life in a way ecstasy, even pleasure, is not? We endure as long as we can because we must, but I’m not sure we profit from it. I’m certainly no wiser now than I was ten years before and often feel stupider. I suppose people’s responses to their worst and best moments are as varied as people themselves. I do think writing this book helped me figure out a little of my life. It’s given me structure, a perspective, but it wasn’t something I could have begun immediately. I mean, the year after Emily’s death, I was a wreck, a machine, metal, someone I didn’t recognize quite. Plus, I was desperately needed by, and needed, Virginia and Langston, so it was an easy thing to give up reading and writing for a while. I took it up again, finally, because it was how I’d always processed things and I missed words.
Q: I’m curious about your strategy of putting the facts of your memoir in the introduction. I think this was a wise move, turning it from a “what happens” kind of story toward more of a character study, something that goes much deeper. Rather than being a page-turner, the book asks us to linger, to empathize, and to absorb. However, given the life you’ve led, it certainly could have been approached as a timeline. I’m interested in this decision, and your thoughts on how writers can direct the reader’s attention.
MS: This is a very good question. The truth is that I didn’t set out to write a memoir exactly. As I mentioned earlier, the book began by just paying attention to the odd parallels between my wife and stepdaughter’s illnesses. Recording the events of the past ten years seemed much less important than trying to articulate what they meant and might mean to me and my family.
Q: What was your greatest fear in writing the book? And what was your counter-argument?
MS: My greatest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to convey to strangers, family members, and friends just what a remarkable woman Emily was and how grateful and happy I am to have been found by Jennifer. I am terrifically proud to be her husband and to be father to our five children, and I hope that is clear in the writing as well. The counter-argument became clear in the writing of the essays. Once I had resolved to try, I simply had to see this book through. There are other projects of mine that I care deeply about, but I can imagine not having written them and feel I would still be the “me” I recognize. Not this book.
Q: You met Emily, your first wife, through your bookstore employment, and you both were immersed in the literary life through academia, and as authors and avid readers. Your love of the written word is threaded throughout the book. Talk a bit about including the words of others in your text. What kind of solace has reading offered you?
MS: As you can tell from a couple of the essays, one of the ways I make sense of the world is by relating what I see and experience to books I’ve read. This ties the memoir to my late wife’s book, which argues that we ought to stay in relationship to challenging texts, to reread them and reengage with their ideas, the way we’re obligated to stay connected to other people, particularly strangers. Books are great company, and it’s almost always helpful to tackle tough subjects by running your responses by a trusted friend.
Q: Would you share with us the names of the things you read that got you through the worst?
MS: Well, I have to mention Emily’s book, which was in the process of being revised with an eye toward publication at the time of her diagnosis. It was published as Demanding Our Attention: The Hebrew Bible as a Source for Christian Ethics. Because of the main thrust of her argument, it has functioned as a parenting guide for me. Other books I mention in this memoir are Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which I was a little too harsh on in the book, and a strange book, called The Greek Way of Death, which investigated burial rituals practiced in ancient Greece. Some books I should have mentioned were those I read to Virginia and Langston. We read I Miss You: A First Look at Death and Wilde’s The Selfish Giant so often, I’ve memorized them.
Mike Smith has published three collections of poetry, a collection of two anagrammatic cycles, and his translation of the first part of Goethe’s Faust was published by Shearsman Books in 2012. He is co-editor of the anthology, Contemporary Chinese Short-Short Stories: A Parallel Text, published by Columbia University Press. Recently, the critic Robert Archambeau has called Mike “the American poet of my generation most clearly writing in a Byronic mode.” For the last seven years, he has lived with his second wife Jennifer, their five children, deep in the Mississippi Delta. By day, he is an associate professor of English and directs the Honors Program at Delta State University.
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Linda Michel-Cassidy’s writing has appeared in Jabberwock, Harpur Palate, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and others. She podcasts for the Mill Valley library, interviewing guests on the eight books that made them, and teaches flash fiction, experimental prose, and memoir. She also works for the literary reading series Why There Are Words, is a contributing editor at Entropy Magazine, and is a co-editor of the Trumpwatch newsfeed. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and another, in visual arts, from the California College of the Arts. She recently served a decade of voluntary exile in rural Northern NM, and now lives on a houseboat in California.