Interview: Robin Romm, author of The Mercy Papers

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

By Chris Teja

“I think if I knew that I was writing a memoir, I would have felt really constrained by that. But I never did sit down to write a memoir. I was just writing what I saw, what I felt was true.”

Robin Romm

The death of a loved one is something that you can never be really be prepared for. Even when you know that it’s coming, the reality of the situation is that there is little you can do to mentally ready yourself for the loss of someone you love.

This is the subject of Robin Romm’s revealing new memoir, The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks, in which the young author chronicles her visit home to see her mother for the last time. Romm doesn’t make any false claims about having a handle on the heartbreaking situation. She explores her feelings about her mother, her entire family, and the process of dealing with an impending death in a way that is completely honest and fascinating. It’s no wonder that the New York Times gave The Mercy Papers such a stellar review.

Straightforward, engaging and incredibly honest, Robin Romm accomplishes with The Mercy Papers what every great storyteller hopes for: She completely draws you into her world and makes you understand how she feels (even when she is still figuring it out for herself). Romm recently talked to SMITH’s Chris Teja about her experiences, her process, and the cleanliness of her office.

I read that The Mercy Papers wasn’t originally intended for publication. What made you decide that you wanted to share it with the public?
The heart of this book was written quickly, during and right after my mother’s death. Though I tried to keep the pages in a box once I’d gotten the facts down, they’d call out to me when I sat down to write fiction. It was like some weird affair. Every time I worked on The Mercy Papers, I felt really connected to my life—my mother, myself, my past. Eventually, I got curious about what someone else might think of it as a real writing project, so I took it out of the box.

This is a really intense, revealing look at your entire family. Was there ever a concern about casting them, or yourself, in a bad light?
Of course. I think if I knew that I was writing a memoir, I would have felt really constrained by that. But I never did sit down to write a memoir. I was just writing what I saw, what I felt was true. Only much later did it become a book for the world. When I did my final edits, I softened some places, balanced out others. It’s still a very honest piece, though. Which is scary. But life is scary.

What was your greatest fear in putting so much of yourself out there?

Were you at all tempted to hold back on anything?
Of course. I had to make a lot of decisions. That’s what writing memoir is—a series of decisions and a bundle of craft. There were times I wanted to hold back everything. Eventually, though, I kept everything that felt necessary.

What was your writing process like?
It was a matter of getting it all down on paper. I worked furiously on this project during and right after my mother’s death. I then folded in memory and structure. That’s why it reads like it does. It’s a product of those moments. If I had waited, I never would have written this book.

I loved how you talked about the death of a loved one as something you can never entirely reconcile. Was there ever the urge to end the book with a neatly wrapped-up understanding of the situation?
Oh, that’s really not my nature. I hate tidy things. I can’t even keep my office tidy. I have a messy and unwieldy soul.

What did you learn about yourself as a writer—or as a daughter—in the process of writing this book?
This book taught me a lot about risk. It’s scary to reveal yourself to the world. I wasn’t sure it would be worth it. But seeing so many people respond and connect, well. It makes me feel grateful I went ahead and jumped. It also makes me feel hope. I’m so glad there’s room for a curious and honest book.

Finally, what’s your six-word memoir?
Thankfully, there is no such thing.

READ an excerpt

VISIT Robin Romm’s website

BUY The Mercy Papers

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5 responses

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  4. joker123 says:

    It’s hard to come by experienced people on this subject, however, you seem like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  5. Fiona says:

    Writing the final project was a real test for me. Can someone suggest something? How did you get out of this situation?

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