Today I’m happy to host my friend and colleague Monica Wesolowska on this blog. Her answers show her gift for startling imagery, emotional acuity, and just darned good writing. Her book, Holding Silvan (publication March 2013), is gorgeous.
Also, today, I have some good news to share. I have two short stories—“The Ruins” and “Moles”—that will be out in 2013 between the covers of Arroyo Literary Review and Pisgah Review. (No firm dates yet.) After a dry spell of not writing (or publishing) much (or any) fiction, I’m thrilled to see these two stories find a home in print.
And, now, to Monica:
What is the working title of your book?
It’s no longer a working title but official: Holding Silvan: A Brief Life. It wasn’t easy for me to come up with that title. My first title was: Bird Grief. That title didn’t speak to my agent. My second title was In My Arms. That didn’t speak to my publisher. I went through almost 100 titles after that. Only after multiple people suggested Holding Silvan – from a chapter title – did I settle into it. Frankly, I was afraid that it would be too hard to say Silvan’s name over and over to total strangers, but in fact it has been an unexpected gift. I’ve since noticed that most parents, no matter how sad or conflicted they are about their children, love to say their children’s names. Our children’s names in the hollows of our mouths feel like love.
Where did the idea come from for this book?
Even as my son Silvan was dying, I knew I would have to put my experience into words someday. I was solely a fiction writer at that time so I didn’t know for sure what form the writing would take, but to understand it, I knew I would have to write about it. I knew, too, that since we had made the unusual choice to let our son die of the medical complications he suffered during childbirth, that I’d experienced something that society as a whole needs to talk more about.
What genre does your book fall under?
More than one person has joked when I’ve told them I’ve written a memoir, “But you’re too young to write a memoir. ” Clearly they weren’t avid memoir readers. This memoir dips back into my childhood, and forward to my current children, but mostly it takes place over the few weeks of Silvan’s life.
How long did it take to write the first draft?
In fact, I had just joined Lindsey’s writing group a few months before I wrote the first draft. I went from turning in a novel excerpt one month, to announcing the next time my turn came around that I’d written a whole new book. I’d been trying to finish various books to my satisfaction for almost 20 years when this book came out of me. I was in the middle of the third year, the middle of the third draft, of my second unfinished novel, when I literally turned from what I was typing on the computer to consult the diary I kept while Silvan was alive. By the end of the afternoon, I was 50 pages into writing my memoir. Three months later, I had a whole book.
What actors would you use for a movie rendition of your book?
That’s a scary thought. Scary because I always think first of how to cast Silvan. He was a beautiful baby, and even in his dying he was beautiful to us, but still…Whoever played us would have to capture the intensity of loving briefly. There’s plenty of precedent for brief love–think Romeo and Juliet— but this is brief love between parents and their dying child.
What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Doesn’t every writer want to say, “Just read the book?” I guess my one-sentence synopsis would be this: a mother explores the love and ethics behind her choice to let her newborn son die. That, of course, is not what the marketers might suggest. What’s interesting to me is how differently readers react. Some people almost turn away in horror at the subject, but far more perk up as if a book like this is just what they’ve been waiting for.
Will it be self published or represented by an agency?
How lucky I feel that the first agent to whom I sent the book said she had to take me on because the book had “changed her life.” What more can a writer hope to hear? She’s also a very reputable agent who worked tirelessly to sell the book even after all the major publishers turned it down for fear that it might be hard to market. We were thrilled when Hawthorne Books took it on.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My son Silvan inspired me, of course, and all the many, many people who said to me, “You should write this story down.” I feel strongly that this is not a narrative we usually hear in the media. Usually in the media, when a child is ill we read about how the parents go to extraordinary lengths to save the child. And that is a moving story. But my husband and I felt strongly that, for us, the best way to love our child was to go to extraordinary lengths to let him die. I know that that is a horrifying thought, especially for those who are doing their best to raise children who are severely damaged. This is a very personal choice. We made it but then we had to get approval from an ethics committee. It was very important to us that others agreed. I wanted to tell the story so that parents in similar situations would be able to make a decision for their own children based not just on one narrative but by choosing from multiple narratives the one that makes most sense to them.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Certainly there are some beautiful books about parents losing children – The Disappearance by Genevieve Jurgensen, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, Paula by Isabel Allende. But in some ways, I would compare my memoir to a book by Peggy Orenstein called Waiting For Daisy. Orenstein chronicles the emotional roller coaster of not being able to become pregnant. That’s not my story at all but the way in which she links her ethical doubts and sorrows to other women’s doubts and sorrows, and to the different ways different cultures deal with childbirth and child loss, reminds me of my book. I’d like to think that my book is large in that way, offering a way to think not just about my particular situation but about parenthood in general.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Recently, a friend who read the galley told me that the book had already affected her daily life. She said, “At dinner last night, my kids asked about your book and for the first time in their lives I felt totally empowered to talk to them about death.” That gave me chills of pleasure. I’d like to think that this book might empower many people to talk in a real way about death. Because ultimately, isn’t acknowledging death the best way to learn how to love and live well now?
And now Monica will keep the chain going by suggesting you check out Peggy Orenstein’s blog.