Tuesday, May 4th, 2010
“One of my nephews said to me, ‘I can’t wait to read the Grandma Suzy book, because I’ll get to know her better.’ ”
The Wall Street Journal has a zero-tolerance policy for sappiness and bull, and the same goes for seasoned Journal reporter Katherine Rosman. She was determined not to get all sentimental just because her next big (self-assigned) exposé was on her mother, who passed away of lung cancer five years ago this June. The result of Rosman’s journalistic approach to a very personal topic is If You Knew Suzy—an unflinching and surprisingly humorous book about a vivacious Pilates instructor, golfer, eBay addict, dancer, and mentor to many—who also happens to be Rosman’s mom.
I met with Katherine Rosman near her Wall Street Journal New York office, just as she was tacking from one story deadline to another, to chat with her about the writing process, death, family, and her mother’s underwear.
You were intent on reporting on your mother as a journalist. Hard journalism and the memoir genre aren’t exactly BFFs. Did you initially set out to write a memoir?
I was really uncomfortable about the book being a memoir at first. I thought, I’m a Wall Street Journal reporter, it’s going to be about these other people and how they reflect upon my mom. It will still tell my mom’s story, but I’m not going to talk about myself that much. I knew that I had a role in the story, but I thought I would only be there when it needed the forward motion.
A friend read an early version of the early part of the book and told me not to be afraid to write a memoir. She said that the book is a memoir, but the memoir part is missing. And as soon as she said that it made perfect sense to me. Once I got comfortable with the idea of memoir, it allowed me to outline things in more detail. It wasn’t like a story would come to mind and I would think, Oh, that’s too much about me. I’m not going to put that in.
Was it hard to make the transition from Wall Street Journal reporter to memoirist?
Before I went off to write the book, someone at the newspaper said, “Ugh, you’re just going to be the dead mother writer.” I was really self-conscious about still being a credible journalist and being seen that way. I was lucky to have book leave. I needed to be removed physically from the Journal and from the idea that if you don’t tell a story the Journal way, you’re not credible.
And yet, so much of your training as a journalist informed the writing of this book.
My training as a journalist had a huge impact on the book. Here’s an example of one thing I put in the book, because of the way I’ve been trained as a journalist: In the book, I have a conversation with a guy at a party who absolutely hated what I was doing. He had lost both of his parents. He was enraged by my project, and he called it bullshit, which I think was the nicest word he used for it. I decided to include that in the book, because as a journalist, I knew it was important to show readers that I had been confronted by cynicism and understood the cynicism, but here’s why I rejected it.
For many readers, I imagine the surprising element will be the humor that is coupled with both the joyful memories of your mother and the unflinching look at your mother’s death.
When I was writing, I would get to a point where I felt really bummed out, and I would say, I need a break and for sure the readers will need a break. When I had a moment where I was like, enough with the dying, I would take a breath and say, here’s something else. I wouldn’t throw in knock-knock jokes, but there is a lot of humor in crisis, the dark humor and the not-so-dark humor. I felt that was an important part of the story.
Were there books that helped you in the writing of this memoir?
The book that helped me the most during the writing was Philip Roth’s Patrimony. It was so spare but it wasn’t dispassionate, and I felt his anguish. I felt how he wanted to help his father cling to his dignity, and yet it was Philip Roth, so there was a little edge to it. It’s the only book that I quote from in the book.
Roth wrote about his grandfather getting a shave in the barber chair every Friday and how it freed him from his dour existence. I had already written about the manicures I was getting while my mom was sick, but Roth instantly gave coherence to why certain things mattered to me. They were the rituals that got me through, in the same way saying Kaddish is for religious Jews or getting a shave in the barber chair was for Roth’s grandfather. You can fill-in-the-blank sometimes with what your ritual is, and it’s not necessarily the ritual itself that matters but that you’re doing something ritualistic.
You mentioned at a Q&A session in New York recently that, though you identify as Jewish, you have misgivings about the Jewish Kaddish, the prayer for the dead that is ritualistically repeated by mourners. Why?
I had occasion to be a part of a group that was discussing the Kaddish, and somebody read it out loud in English. It’s all about exalting God. It never mentions that somebody has died. It never gives you a fill-in-the-blank spot, with put-in-mother’s-name-here. That really bothered me. I don’t want to exalt God. I had very complicated feelings about God that are not fully worked out, because God—if God exists—let this very, very healthy woman get lung cancer. Talk about a bad joke. God let my mom be the punch line to that joke, and I didn’t want to fucking exalt Him.
But in the last chapter of my book, I talk about the fact that after my mom died, I would take a walk every morning and say my eulogy out loud every single day as I walked. I would find myself saying it. I knew it by heart. And only in writing about this ritual did I realize the eulogy was my Kaddish. It wasn’t the Kaddish, but it was my Kaddish.
You dedicate this book to your mother’s grandchildren, “so they may know her.” Many of us writers often keep an ideal, intended audience in mind as we write. Were your children and your sister Lizzie’s children that audience for you?
The dedication came when I was almost done with the book. I went to L.A. for a story, and I stay with my sister when I go there. (Mr. Murdoch, I’m very economical.) And one of my nephews said to me, “I can’t wait to read the Grandma Suzy book, because I’ll get to know her better.” And it was a very powerful moment. I realized I had done something important for my family and for my mom. So no, they hadn’t been my intended audience, but I think they’ll be a beneficiary of this book, and they are the people for whom this book is the most important.
What would you say to your readers who are caring for a terminally-ill loved one right now or mourning the death of a loved one?
When I was going through it, people would say to me, “You will be okay,” or “You’ll get over this,” or “This isn’t going to ruin your life.” I had no capacity or interest in hearing that. It would piss me off to hear that it was going to be okay, so despite the fact that I’m living a very, very happy life right now, I would say to people that I know how badly it sucks. You feel like you’re really alone—I did at least—and that people couldn’t possibly understand how seminal of an event it is. I would just say: It sucks. It’s horrible. I get it, and I think other people do, too.
As I was writing, I thought about people who had cancer in their family, people who had gone through the unbelievable drama and catastrophe that is loving somebody who is dying of cancer. And as I reported and started talking to people, what I found was that everybody has transcended loss in one way or another.
You mention how private your sister is. What has her response been to the memoir?
She was really uncomfortable with the book in the beginning. It was a difficult thing in our relationship, because, to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t negotiable that I was going to write this. So I really involved her in the process. It would start with me calling her and saying here’s who I interviewed today, here’s the funny story I learned, and she often would be a little bit bitchy and dismissive about it.
But then things started to change. She would ask who I had talked to or what I found out in the interview. When I finished a chapter or even a significant section, I would send it to her. That often brought on a difficult moment for us, because she would almost always hate what I had written based on two or three moments in the chapter. She would say, “This is so painful for me, I can’t bear for this to be public” or “You got this wrong” or “You’re missing the bigger picture.” In 90 percent of the cases, if it was that painful to her, I took it out. She would also come back and say, but you missed X, Y, and Z. She became an editor and the most important source for the book. These days she often refers to it as “our” book.
Your mom made you promise that you wouldn’t eulogize her, but you did at her funeral, and now you’ve gone and written a whole book about her. How do you think she would react to this book if she could read it today?
I think she would love the book. She would hate certain parts of it, but that speaks to the integrity of the book, to that original goal of not writing something that is whitewashed or like those Lifetime movies with the soft focus at the edges.
And what specifically were your mom’s objections to being eulogized?
She was terrified of dying. The eulogy was about acknowledging death. That was horrifying to her. She was horrified that she was going to disappear from this life she was a part of. But she certainly hasn’t disappeared. And this book cements her in the lives and minds of a lot of people.
Throughout this book, there are frequent reminders that your mother was firmly ensconced in the upper-class—the Pilates, the beautiful house, the golf club, her obsession with fashion. Was there ever a concern that the deeper messages of this book would not be able to transcend the, shall we say, extravagant accoutrements?
There’s no way around it. She was materialistic. She was from a class that many others aren’t. It is what it is. It was what it was. She was who she was. All that. I thought it would destroy the credibility of the book to try to ignore that. It’s a part of the story. I am honest about her complicated relationship with and reliance upon money, and I just hope that the reader won’t be disgusted with her for it, because it doesn’t define her. She was about a lot more than money and materialism.
You write that when you want to pull out all the stops, you slip on something from the Dead Mother Collection (the DMC)—sometimes even wearing her underwear! Do you have anything on from the DMC today?
This dress is Jill Sander from the DMC. My mom wore it to my sister’s rehearsal dinner. I think that pre-cancer, if she’d found out I was wearing Jill Sander on some random day at The Wall Street Journal, she would be like, “That was expensive!” But I am very much of the mindset that you can’t take it with you. Why not enjoy it?
Any underwear you want to “fess up” to?
Nothing to say about the underwear right now. I decline to comment. I will tell you that a surprising number of friends, after reading early copies of the book, would send these packages of new underwear. People could just not handle the idea that I was wearing my dead mother’s underwear.
Finally, are you aware that throughout the book, your characters have a penchant for excellent six-word memoirs?
I wanted to (posthumously) throttle her.” That’s six words on your mother. “I wore Missoni to my biopsy.” That’s what your mother says when she wakes up after having her tumor removed and realizes she wore the same sweater to her biopsy a month earlier. “I’M BACK! I couldn’t STAND retirement.” That’s what your grandmother wrote when she got bored of retirement.
Rosman repeats the memoirs, counting to six on her fingers as she goes over each one.
There are lots of six-word gems in this book. But how about one more for the road?
We’re all a little bit Suzy.
BUY If You Knew Suzy.