Memoirville

Interview: Jessica Queller, Pretty is What Changes

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

By Rebecca Paoletti

 It’s not just about that. It’s about everything in life that matters, and Jessica Queller becomes more gorgeous with each honest word.

“Do not even think about writing a memoir until everyone is dead. It’s impossible to write about things without hurting people.”

Jessica Queller is an author, TV writer, cancer expert, sister, daughter, coast-to-coast traveler, inspiration. She’s also a vigorous, possibly obsessive, journal keeper. Her word was “compulsive.” I can relate to that. But what separates her from all of us who’ve scratched in notebooks or on laptops, tracking moments in our histories, is that she shared. Hugely.”I wrote this in my journal last night,” Jessica Queller told me during the course of a long phone conversation.

“‘Omigod, what are these people reading about me?’ I can’t really grasp it.” She’s referring to her new memoir, Pretty is What Changes, and the wide-open entry into her life, her family, her relationships; the sacred, complex intimacies around watching her grandmother die; supporting her mother through her bout with breast cancer and the ovarian cancer that would ultimately kill her.

The book details what the BRCA cancer gene is, what choices you might have to make if you have it, how your history really does define you, and some intricate and scientific details that will open up worlds about your friends, family and—if you’re female—potentially yourself.

It’s also about the complicated relationships we have with our mothers—and about a particularly complicated relationship you might have if your mother is dying. Queller’s decision to write Pretty was in part due to the intense reaction she received after she penned a New York Times op-ed piece on BRCA, Cancer and the Maiden. Her title comes from a Stephen Sondheim song from Sunday in the Park With George: “Pretty isn’t beautiful, Mother / Pretty is what changes / What the eye arranges / Is what is beautiful.”

For me, it opened up dozens of long-ago journals, years of history still sitting in boxes way up on a closet shelf. When I was 22 and a mostly starving writer in San Francisco, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. While I had the option to move back home and be treated at a very reputable East Coast hospital, my choice was to stay in my garden apartment to be healed by, as Queller so graciously described, my “urban community.”

 With a good, local hospital as my home-away-from-home, my friends and colleagues and various baristas of the Bay Area who weren’t afraid of my bald head got me through the removal of a tumor the size of a football and rounds of aggressive chemotherapy. I had singular rocks, my roommates, my college boyfriend, and my ever-loyal cat. My sister was the true hero, dropping her life and traveling 3,000 miles to find/gather/cook anything she thought a post-op vegetarian with 400-plus stitches in her abdomen, and three-times weekly chemo-IVs so lethal the nurses who mixed them wore leather aprons, might eat.

Life moves fast. It was easiest—or necessary—to simply blur a long chapter of my life that got squished under jobs and cross-country moves and other friends who needed me more. Every spring, though, on the anniversary of that diagnosis, I get sick, weird, moody. On this year’s anniversary, Queller’s book showed up on my desk at work.

I got moodier. And restless. I couldn’t wait to get home, get my son to bed (at age 31, a regular ob-gyn visit concluded that my other ovary actually worked, and that the sliver-thin chance that the chemo had not rendered me sterile was actually significant), and start reading. Fifteen minutes later, I was sobbing. I lost two moms suddenly last year, my best friend’s mom to breast cancer, my mother-in-law to a brain tumor. My husband said, “You don’t have to read it, do you?” But I did, and so do you.

“People who need to read this book are scared to read it. The subject matter is difficult,” Queller said. “I mean, who wants to read a book about breast cancer?”

My answer is easy: everyone. Everyone who’s ever had breast cancer, known anyone with it, watched anyone die from it, read the myriad and it seems always-happy celebrity stories about it. Everyone who’s ever wondered about science and fate and familial relationships that are tied to DNA. And everyone who’s ever wondered what it’s like to be a successful TV writer (she writes for Gossip Girl now, and has written for The Gilmore Girls and Felicity, among others). She’s smart, beautiful, glamorous. She lives in both Los Angeles and New York City, she had the guts and skill to write a book that’s unique in its utter candor and bravery—and, it’s not giving away anything in the book—she decided to have a double mastectomy to save herself from an unquestionably fatal disease.

One late Sunday night, I called her home number. I’d already sent her CliffsNotes on my own medical history—it seemed only fair given everything I’d already read about hers. I was prepared to be overwhelmed by aggressive cool, raw energy, and that thing that divides celebrity from the rest of us. Instead, the sweetest voice returned my greeting, and our chat became less a formal interview and more sharing, stories upon stories unraveling, on sex and doctors and men and moms.

Toward the end, she asked me if I had any “official” interview questions. What do you ask someone who’s opened up the deepest, darkest, most personal and intimate parts of her life already, and has been on TV talking about it?

The Baby Question

Near the close of the book, there is mention of visiting sperm banks, of taking control of this next step, even without a mate, and having a baby. Before I ask her for an update, my fingers are crossed behind my chair, because maybe, just maybe, there will be some happy news. “I’m really trying,” Queller replied without hesitation. “Have tried five times. I have no apparent fertility problems. All doctors say, ‘You have a great supply of follicles.’ They say nothing but positive things; it should work this way.”

We agree that perhaps frozen sperm is not that great.

The Boyfriend Question

Which leads into the next question, which I prefaced by telling her how many boyfriends I had who didn’t stick around because they wanted to be natural fathers, and I believed for 15 years that pregnancy was impossible for me. She was quiet but not shocked. Humans can be challenging, and her book reveals more than a few complicated partner relationships.

“I don’t have the fun of having [sex] personally. Life is never simple.”

The Truth Question

Again, I wanted to hope that Queller really did have some kind of angel on her shoulder, that she’d been able to deal with everything that she had—and has—with only a perfectly supportive network. I said that it wasn’t jealousy, but amazement, that she had so many friends who were so cool, open, supportive, honest through it all. And how I’d experienced some heart-breaking friendship fissures from those who just couldn’t deal.

“I dropped some friends who disappointed me. I was pretty ruthless,” she said. “But I couldn’t write the real dark side, because I didn’t want to hurt anyone. It has to be surface.”

We did conclude also that people are allowed to mature, and that the same people who were freaks when I was 22 might have actually been a bit more open-minded in their late 30s. At least, they might have had some experiences that would’ve disinclined them to be quite so absent, or hurtful. But I’m still amazed, so she sets the record straight.

“I keep telling everyone in my life, do not even think about writing a memoir until everyone is dead. It’s impossible to write about things without hurting people. Everything I wrote was true. But it was a version of the truth.”

The nagging concern that her turmoil wasn’t actually blessed with perfect blessings in the form of perfect friends, returns. And I think back to my own journals in the closet, and the bits that would never ever see the light of day.

“The person I was able to write most honestly about was my mother. Had she been alive, I would never have been able to write such things about her.”

This opened up a torrent of girl-talk, about sisters ,mothers, and friends; how you can say things and how you can’t, and how some things are just better off left unsaid, untold, unwritten. She talks in her book about how hard it was for her sister when Queller’s New York Times article hit, and how that forced an invasion of privacy into her life that wasn’t at all welcome. I wondered how the book had been received, now that it was “all there.”

“Everyone was okay because I wrote such a loving portrait,” she explained. It is truly loving and honest and intimate story. But for the first time, I wonder about the spaces between a few of the words.

The Writing Question

I had to ask her how she actually got the story out: what made it in, what didn’t, how to pick and choose and confront all that was there. “I’m a compulsive journal writer,” she explained, matter of factly. “I wrote down every single thing [my mother] said. Bearing witness to it all was my way of coping.”

Writing it down once is one thing. And then there’s the reality of putting your own life into a book that literally anyone could pick up and read.

“When I put my writer hat on, I asked myself, what’s the most evocative scene?” To tackle the book, Queller literally went back to her journals. “I just had to pick and choose. Every sentence was verbatim. Writing the book was my mourning period…because I was just in shock for a year or two.”

I ask her if there are things that didn’t make it, that she wished were in there, that had been edited out, or changed or, as histories often are, rewritten. Apparently not.

“The manuscript is pretty much intact as I wrote it,” she admitted and sounds understanding of how rare that is. “My editor took out one section about a boyfriend, that was it.”

We have to talk a bit more about that. And how she dealt with a few of the doctors, one who it seems could be after her for libel. “Oh,” she laughs, “the doctors I wrote about that I liked, I kept their real names. The ones I didn’t like, I changed their names.

“[The book] was published exactly as I wrote it. Of course the language was cleaned up, but my editor just trusted me and allowed it to be.”

I don’t have to push harder on what’s going on in my mind about the fact that one couldn’t be so blessed as to only have perfect, understanding, supportive, symbiotic personal relationships with family, friends, lovers. We leave this truth telling with, “There is a lot of stuff that I couldn’t write.”

The Glam Question

I have to dig into the life of a Gossip Girl writer, since it’s very much in the center of her world—and one of the best TV shows ever. Surely Queller’s existence has to in some way mirror the glamorous, celebrity lives of her characters, gliding from one shopping spree to the next uber-hip cocktail party. It must. “It would probably be a more glamorous job if we were hanging out with the actors,” she said, stomping on my vision. “We’re completely separate.”

We talk about the rigors of her schedule, how she’s been fitting in her day-to-day work plus the book, plus all the other things that come with being the author of such a book. For the first time—because there’s not a single moment of self-pity, anger or complaining in either her book or our conversation—she admits it’s hard.

“Every other writer went to recharge on a beach between grueling writing sessions, while I traveled from cancer center to cancer center.” You have to admire her continual support, dedication to the awareness of—and testing for—the BRCA gene. At the same moment, I want her to be on a lounge chair on a gorgeous beach and armies of tanned Adonises waiting on her.

Well, at least she stays in fabulous hotels in New York or Los Angeles in her bi-coastal existence?

She explained that she has homes in both places, which sounds great until you think about dividing your life in two. “I need to pick, she said. “It’s exhausting. I definitely feel unmoored. Hands down, I would choose New York. But my career is in Los Angeles. And trying to be a single mom, I don’t think I could make it in New York.”

The “What’s Normal” Question

In all the revelations, all the work to help women understand and face their own BRCA situation, all that she’s seen and done and felt and what has—quite literally—changed her body, I wonder if there are any moments when she’s not thinking about cancer, when she’s just feeling, “normal.”

“I don’t know how I’d feel if I’d never written the book,” she said. “I’m talking about it constantly, identified with it constantly.” She described “the lull” while working on Gossip Girl, before the book was published, when her story “wasn’t really common knowledge.” Those days, she recalled, would have been fairly normal, save for one thing: “The ticking clock about my ovaries is very stressful.”

If you have the BRCA gene, not only is the likelihood of breast cancer wildly increased, the likelihood of ovarian cancer becomes scarily high. Queller’s considering more surgery to remove the threat, but she wants to have a baby first. When I think about the trials and anxieties that so many of my friends have been through to get pregnant, and then add this particular overlay about a time bomb, it’s overwhelming.

She describes a visit to MSN.com, and saw her face “flashing” on the screen, with the headline, “Why I removed my breast.” She described the whole scene of sitting there, seeing first a flashing picture of Dr. Phil and a headline about one of his ex-girlfriends. “And then, it was me. And I thought, ‘Omigod, this is my life.’ And I had an anxiety attack about, ‘This is me.’”

The Oprah Question

She should be on the show. Have there been discussions? Yes, but they haven’t turned into anything yet. As always, despite the late hour and all the work she’s doing, she remains optimistic.

“We have secret high hopes for Oprah. That kind of visibility can save people’s lives.”

The Six-Word Memoir Question

I asked, because we always do around here: What’s your six-word life story?

“Never lacks drama, yet seeks peace.”

Rebecca Paoletti is the director of Yahoo.com’s video strategy.

  • BUY Pretty is What Changes: Impossible Choices, the Breast Cancer Gene, and How I Defied My Destiny
  • READ an excerpt from Pretty on SMITH
  • WATCH Jessica Queller on Good Morning America
  • VISIT Jessica Queller official author site

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2 responses

  1. Lisa Kamins says:

    Read the article and shared with everyone. I am so very sorry for the loss of Ms. Queller’s mother. My father was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in October of 07. From what was a normal visit to see family in Chicago while on a business trip to my headquarters, my father announced the news just the day after we arrived. The news struck me vigorously. My children were with me,(boys- 9 and 7) and we stayed until dad was out of the hospital with his first mastectomy. My step mother led a strong supportive role, and I am so very thankful they have one another- she is a brain cancer survivor of 12 years…….she is doing great…..

    We returned to Phoenix and I just felt lost- I wish I could have been there for the removal of his second breast, but kids had to be in school. I did however, immediately sign up for the Breast Cancer 3 day here in Arizona. I started fundraising right away.About a week later my father rec’d his pathology reports, called me and I was elated to hear no chemo or radiation was necesssary…… then he said “we’re not out of the water yet kiddo” & he gave me the information about being gentically tested for BRCA2. My sister and I are both positive. I am 36 and my sister, 34 this year.I underwent a bilateral mastetcomy with reconstruction in March, and a total hysterectomy the first week of June this year. My sister also had a total hysterectomy. Our thoughts were much ike Jessica’s- this was a no brainer. We both have children. Only now, the fear is knowing they have a 50% of carrying this gene. We will not know until they are 18. I had the EXACT same diganosis as Ms. Queller -Atypical ductal hyperplasia-.3cm. When reading her article, I felt as if I was reading my own biography. I was out of work for 4 months and it is a struggle in this economy today, but Your Health is Your Wealth and I will never regret my decision. Unfortunatley now, through my surgeries I cannot participate in the walk I signed up for itself, due to no chance for training and the shear fact my body needs to heal, I do have one more final surgery to go in the Fall, but I am not stopping fundraising!!!!!!!- After all, it is foundations like the Susan G. Komen that has allowed us to have this chance!
    Without the support of my husband, children, family, friends and employer I could have never been so strong….

    Cheers to you and I Jessica! If only everyone was given a chance at saving their lives. We are blessed. Good luck and best wishes in all of your endeavors

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