A few months ago, we published an essay by Emily Rapp called “Solving the Body Problem at the Bikini Bar.” We are damn lucky that it appears on our site. I don’t think a single person on staff read it with dry eyes. Emily’s forthcoming book, The Still Point of the Turning World (she’s also the author of Poster Child, a memoir about growing up with a prosthetic leg), expands upon the narrative of that essay. It’s the story of her relationship with her son Ronan, who was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a rare and terminal degenerative illness.
I was scared to talk to Emily about her book. I don’t have a child. Emily was going through something impossibly sad. She was watching her baby die, powerless to stop it. I’d just read The Still Point of the Turning World with a hunger that surprised me. From the instant I opened a PDF of the galley it was a magnet lurking behind all the open windows on my desktop, pulling me in—I couldn’t work, I couldn’t answer the phone. I didn’t look up until I realized, after over two hours, that I desperately had to pee. There was nothing but the page, Emily’s magnetic voice, her rage, and her explosive, articulate grief.
How dare I ask Emily anything? Her tragedy felt so off-limits. I was terrified I’d fall back on any of the conversational tics and clichés that get humans who don’t know each other to the end of a phone call. I know what you mean, I’m so sorry. Or, I can’t imagine what you’re going through; a sentence Emily hears a lot, and one that she rejects. You could imagine it, if you tried hard enough.
Toward the end of this interview, Emily talks about how grief has no ladder. Everyone suffers; everyone’s suffering is utterly personal and impossible to measure, no matter the cause—a zit, a dying baby, a bad break-up, a rainy day. That generosity and empathy makes Emily easy to talk to and her book so much more than a story of a mother losing her child.
In a recent blog post on Role/Reboot , Emily describes how Ronan’s life led her to reconsider a writing assignment she often gives her students. Instead of having them write a Thanksgiving dinner scene, she asks that they write about a holiday dinner attended by the people they love most in the world. Except add the knowledge that this is the last time they’ll all be together. “Write it knowing that the only conflict worth worrying about is this one: When faced with the choice between shutting down your emotion, at the fear of risking pain, or opening up to everything and trusting that you’ll survive it, which will you choose?”
In The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily bravely (my word for it, not hers), with urgency and wisdom, chooses the second option. There is no question about whether or not you should read her book. If you’ve loved someone, you have to.
It’s obviously—and you talk about this a lot in book—difficult to ask about someone’s grief. I’m going to stay away from the details of what happened to you, and instead structure this conversation around something else that struck me as a huge part of this story—how you read and why you read and why reading is at the forefront of the book.
But first I was hoping you could talk a little bit about how you came to writing, in general. We have a lot of readers who are MFA students or aspiring writers and those stories are really helpful.
Um, I started as a reader. And that’s I think really reflected in the book. I find it frustrating when MFA students and undergrads don’t read. You can’t really be a writer if you don’t read. It’s just not possible. That’s how I started. And then I wanted to make stories. I’m kind of a story-whore—that’s what I wanted to do.
I really liked writing papers in college, I was totally a nerd—so I started writing academic papers and I did academic work for a really long time. When I started to write creatively I stopped writing academically because it suddenly felt like such a snoozefest, way less appealing, but I do think I started mostly as a theological writer. What was fun about writing this book, well, I don’t know if fun is the right word, is that I’ve always wanted to marry my theological academic interests with a more creative, deeply subjective voice.
I wanted to ask you about that. This book definitely feels like a kind of hybrid of those two worlds or styles of writing and thinking—on the one hand, the ultra-personal story of what happened to your family, and on the other, a philosophical, academic investigation into the nature of grief.
That’s something I’ve actually been doing a long time—when I was an undergraduate five thousand years ago I wrote a paper that kind of did that. So for me, this was a return.
I can’t remember how long I’ve been writing. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was like, six—but in my family, that was like—get a job, have a career.
Yeah, like do a thing.
Yeah, like WHAT you’re not going to be a lawyer?
I didn’t think of myself as a writer for a long time. It still often seems like a completely dubious, ridiculous profession.
Along those lines, you made reference to something in your book that I was super curious about—you briefly mentioned four-years of writers block you had in LA—
Yeah that was awful.
I went to LA and I was like all I want to do is take yoga and run around the beach—I didn’t do SHIT. I don’t know what happened to me, I just was so enamored with living in LA that all I did was go to the gym and run around. I had this really inappropriately young boyfriend...
It sounds fun!
I was also building up my teaching life—I had a full time teaching job and almost no experience. My only experience was working with drag queens and housewives and fisherman in Providence for one winter. So I went to LA and I was like fuck. I don’t know what I’m doing.
I spent a lot of time in those four years working on my approach to teaching creative writing, about which I knew zero. I think that was partly why I didn’t write—I also don’t think I felt a lot of urgency. I was feeling like there were too many writers in the world. I’d written this awful novel—I mean literally, it’s objectively awful—and I just thought what am I doing, why am I doing this, I should have gone to law school. I had those career doubts—like oh my god, I’m 31, I’m so broke, like fuck this.
But when I wrote the book about Ronan, I was completely compelled to write. I wrote it so fast, I couldn’t stop—I wrote it in like a manic spit.
It feels like that. It has this crazy magnetic urgency. I actually could not stop reading it. I was at work and I was like oh shit, my boss is looking at me, I gotta stop reading this. And I couldn’t.
I was definitely crazy when I wrote it. I don’t even remember writing some of it. I was having like a hyper spit I just couldn’t stop.
It’s interesting that your first book was a memoir, and I wonder if your background in theology, your intense reading, if this had some influence on you finding urgency in writing through nonfiction, as opposed to fiction. In nonfiction you don’t have to digest your reading and make it into a story, you can just grapple with it on the page the same way you grapple with it in thought.
I guess I just wondered why you choose nonfiction, or if you felt like it was a choice.
Well first of all, I’m done writing nonfiction—I’m not done, I mean I love it, I find it extra easy to do. But I write fiction—I haven’t done it for a couple years, but I’m writing fiction now. I think nonfiction sort of choose me. A lot of people don’t want to write nonfiction because they think it’s going to expose them as people too deeply. I’ve had an artificial leg since I was four. People have been asking me inappropriate questions my entire life. Personal questions, voyeuristic questions. I’ve never had an expectation of privacy.
That’s so interesting—
So I don’t have a lot of walls—it doesn’t mean that I don’t maintain privacy as a person, because I do. I just think that I’ve been telling my story so much, my whole life, that I don’t have that cringe factor that people feel when they think about writing nonfiction.
I was going to ask you if you think writing nonfiction requires a certain amount of bravery. Did you read Sheila Heti’s book? How Should a Person Be?
Anyway, some people are calling it a fictional memoir. There’s been this whole slew of books lately that are getting classified as fictional memoirs or something, it’s a stupid publishing industry term for a thing that’s already in existence, which is just nonfiction that’s inflected with the writer’s imagination, but I wondered if you’d heard of it and you thought it was a way for writers to protect themselves from having to come right out with like, this is my truth, this really happened to me. But it sounds like because you’ve been telling your story so baldly for so long, that whether or not you had to be brave to do so wasn’t really an issue.
Yeah, memoir is a marketing term. Also the best memoirs read like novels, they’re still stories, just like, by a person without a net. I haven’t read the book, but I think those terms are really strange. They’re just designed to pick up interest. I don’t think writing memoirs is about being brave. The experience of being a writer in general, you have to be sort of emotionally fearless. You’re inside people’s heads, you’re talking about fundamental issues in human life, love and all this shit... But brave? I think you have to be brave to be a fricken’ person, frankly.
I really hate that stuff. And it’s happening all the time to me. Like I hate the word raw, and unflinching, what does that even mean? But if you’re telling a good story—great. People want to psychologize the writers of memoirs really badly. It’s a little bit freaky. There’s that tendency. But actually memoirs tend to be private in some weird way. Because we’re saying: What was it like to have a baby that was dying? Well, it was like this. I’m telling you what it was like in a controlled way. The rest of the story you’ll never see.
So in that sense, I think memoirs are deeply secretive. And more introverted than people normally think.
Yeah, it’s like this super controlled way of revealing story—
Super controlled yeah—
I was really taken by the part in the book, chapter 10... the list of images about what grief is, it’s the first time where you don’t start a chapter with an epigraph—
Right, I’m an epigraph whore—I love epigraphs.
I LOVED that. But the list, it reminded me of something you said earlier in the book, about the seams of grief being easily split—I’m not quoting you right. How you just touch them and they burst open. It felt to me like the book couldn’t be controlled in the moment of the list. Like it was just, there is no way to say this. Here is this is list. Was that a thoughtful structural choice, or an emotional one?
No I didn’t think about it at all. I wrote that list when I was getting on a plane to go to Spain and write for a month in an empty farmhouse. Which was already probably not the best choice, but whatever. And um, I’d gotten this writer’s residency and I decided to go for like half the time they offered me. I was sitting on the plane and I was feeling so guilty and crazy. I made that list, of course I never have pen and paper, I made that list on a napkin. It did feel like a fracturing moment. Like, why am I on a plane, why am I doing this. This is so messed up. And it just kind of came out on the napkin. And I was looking at it later and I was like, wow, this is actually interesting. Initially I just thought—I need something to do before this plane takes off or I’m going to get off it. And then later I thought—this is kind of an interesting moment, where things...
There was another section in the book that got cut that was very fractured and nonlinear—too fractured and nonlinear, it didn’t make any sense—but this was more of a list-ish poem. I do think your observation is right, about where it falls in the book—of which, I don’t even have any memory.
Yeah, I think that’s true. Grief is so strange. It’s a wild ride. It’s everything, it’s everything.
I just thought there was something so emotional about that. There’s all this discussion in the book about writing being ordered chaos, and you say all this beautiful interesting stuff about how it wasn’t actually about Ronan, it was about you, how you couldn’t do anything to save Ronan but you could do this. But ultimately something is done for Ronan, you know?
Whatever, anyway for the reader that was this crazy moment, almost like a transference of your grief. Because when the structure cracks open you can feel the book in a different way. It’s like oh, is this what I thought it was, like a reminder of what’s behind what you’re reading—like what you said before—a reminder of all that stuff that the memoirist isn’t choosing to include, or that can’t be controlled by language.
Which leads me to—what did your editor think about the list? In editing such a personal book, were there moments where you were like this CAN’T GO?
Oh my god, well, first of all, I have the smartest editor in New York. She’s a total saint. If she were a man, I’d be chasing her around like a crazy stalker. She’s a fucking genius. Genius, genius. She’s totally rare in publishing in the sense that she’s smart, not an asshole, and deeply intellectually attuned to all sorts of different things. I gave her a five hundred page manuscript and she was like: My back is fucking breaking on the subway, we’re cutting this in half. What’s wrong with you?
She liked that list—I mean, she needs to be on the cover of the book. The way she helped me structure the book is completely brilliant. There were things I wanted to keep where she was like NO, and she ended up being totally right—things that dated the book. I gave her basically everything I had written in the past year collected in a binder. She helped me find the through-lines, the structure, clarify some of the time elements. Another writer friend of mine, Rachel DeWoskin, also helped with the structure. I think writers really need a good editor. And they exist, especially in New York.
With my editor I was just like, whatever, I’ll take your lead. And her lead was always right.
Oh! And just for the sake of including this in the interview, because I wanted to touch on it more deeply, the writers you quote—Thomas Mann, Mary Shelley, Vaclav Havel, Sylvia Plath, Jane Kenyon, Louise Glück, Wislawa Szymborska, C.S Lewis... it’s insane. And also people like Megan O’Rourke, your peers.
I’d like to hear more about that.... were those organically the books that were cropping up in your head, or did you find them through research, or is there something about the process of grieving that made you turn to language or to reading or to other people’s experiences in an explicit or desperate way?
I think it was desperate. I was just like whaaat. All I could think was, books, please help me. Who’s done this, what’s happening to me, am I normal? Which, I’m totally not.
How can I make sense of this feeling. The answer is, of course, you can’t. Just in the process of grappling with all that.
The book that was probably the biggest influence on me, were those poems by Louise Glück.
She’s so good.
Yeah, she’s just so full of rage. It’s a response I really appreciated.
And CS Lewis. It’s just, that book, A Grief Observed, is so great and so weird. He’s totally weird. When I read that book I was like oh good, I’m not completely insane.
Even Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, didn’t appeal to me as much. Her experience was so outside of mine, in terms of class, I was just like how is she not worried about insurance? So I didn’t get as deeply involved.
CS Lewis is just in the garden rubbing his face in the dirt, and I was like yeah—
I can get behind this!
People compare books to other books, but grief is different for everyone. I mean, it sucks for everyone, but everyone is going to render it differently, or deal with it differently. For me I just wanted to read, and write, and think about anything else.
That part where you quote Glück’s “Matins,” the whole poem, and you ask why condolence cards don’t have poems on them, why do they have the stupidest things, bunnies and shit—instead of something necessary and helpful like a poem. That felt like an important question. I also couldn’t help but notice that the poetry you love seems to have leaked into your prose in a really direct way.
Oh that’s interesting—
Like when you say the air on the jetway was like heavy cake, or the snail’s face was the size of a fingertip. Something about those images reminds me of Sylvia Plath, how visual they are, how strange, how they snap you out of your normal perception.
Do you read poetry with an eye toward being a prose writer who writes like a poet, or is that just a natural side effect of reading so much poetry?
You know, I love poetry. I always wanted to be poet but I am just not a good poet at all. I write one poem a year that’s like, marginally good. Poetry is so different—it bypasses the thinking, but it’s still intellectual, and it hits you in the gut. I love to read poetry. I read poetry more than books, right now, just because it’s like little snippets, and each of them has huge impact.
I always wanted to be a poet, and it turns out, no. But that’s okay. I really appreciate poems and I think prose writers should read poems more because of the facility of language poets have to maintain and develop.
Even vocabulary-wise. Rendering the whole world in like—my friend Paige Ford is a poet and she can render an entire experience in one line. It makes you hate her a little bit.
The thing I can’t deal with with poems is like—what do you do with line breaks. I’ve never really gotten that. So, therefore I can’t be a poet. I don’t understand that—I could read countless essays and still wouldn’t get it.
Fiction writers often don’t read poetry. In grad school I knew a bunch of fiction writers who just wouldn’t read poetry. It was so odd to me. Saying I don’t read poetry is like saying I don’t read books with lots of descriptions of landscapes—it’s like okay, you’re arbitrarily knocking out an entire universe of reading and literature.
I do think it’s crap when fiction writers say stuff like I don’t read poems, or poets are like ew, novels. It’s just writing. You’re going to find something in there if you’re observing. What’s great about poetry is that the observations are deep because they’re fast and effective. Grief deepens your level of observation in an intensely focused, horrifying way. Poetry was a reflection, at the time, of how difficult it was for me to be out in the world just like looking at regular things, being in the park—
Just like, seeing things in this elemental way—
The effect of a really good poem is to be stunned into a different understanding of the world. That’s kind of what grief does. It made sense that I was chewing up Jane Kenyon and people like that because it offered me a reflection of my own stunned feeling.
Was your husband okay with you writing the book?
Rick and I are divorced now. But yeah, he was just like do what you want. He wants more privacy than I do around it. If you have a really different experience of grief than someone it’s really hard to come back together after that.
It does seem like it would be so isolating.
We were pretty shattered by this and our relationship didn’t survive it. Sadly, or not sadly—whatever. He was fine with me writing. It is not what he would have done—which is fine. At the time that I was writing it he was just glad I wasn’t banging my head against the wall, for that moment.
Yeah I mean, you had found a way of channeling some of that violent grief.
Oh god, I was a fucking maniac.
What do you want to leave readers with?
I’m eager to say this book is not a parenting book. It’s not about how to be a parent. It’s about how to be a human being, and how I come to terms with that. I know it’s a sad book, but it’s not a despairing book.
I have a hard time when people find out about Ronan and they say things like I can’t imagine, your life must be hell. Actually that is NOT what’s happening here.
I guess you cannot have a deep love without a deep loss. We think we can in this society and this culture and therefore we have no structure to manage somebody’s wild grief. Because we don’t think it’s going to happen to us—we think we’re insulated somehow.
I don’t write cookbooks because I can’t cook, and I don’t write parenting books because they annoy me.
I really think that’s the one thing I would wish people wont say about it. But they will.
The thing about it is—I mean, there’s no way of getting around how unrelentingly sad it is—it’s just sad. But also there is this beautiful—the parts where you try to imagine what every moment of Ronan’s life is like, and especially without developmental milestones. I thought there was something really gorgeous and hopeful about that. And the ending—it isn’t this head against the wall sadness—it isn’t like that at all.
In a way, that’s the most emotional moment. That’s the part where I was crying at my desk. Not because it’s so brutally sad, but because it’s some other, more complicated feeling—
Sadness and peace, yeah. Anyone that’s ever loved anyone beside themselves will identify with some of the things that happen in this book. To love is to be kind of liquefied with terror that something’s going to happen to that person. Life is suffering. Everybody suffers. There’s no ladder. That’s part of what we do. We suffer. Even if it’s like oh my God, I have a zit. Or oh my God, my baby is dying. There’s no quantifying these feelings. I think that’s the lesson I learned from Ronan and this experience. There’s no ladder.
An update: Emily’s son, Ronan, passed away on 2/15/13. Emily and her family have asked that anyone wishing to express sympathies either do that here: facebook.com/OurLittleSeal or make a donation in Ronan’s memory to the National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association.