Interview: Gail Caldwell, author of Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

By Whitney Joiner

“The memories felt encased. They were so accessible. I did not have to work to find the things I needed to write about. I think when the heart seizes, the mind grabs on, for whatever purpose.”

In the mid-1990s, Gail Caldwell–staff writer and critic for The Boston Globe–met bestselling memoirist Caroline Knapp (Drinking: A Love Story and Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs). Both writers, dog lovers, former drinkers, and natural loners, the two women formed an intense bond. They became the kind of friends who live their lives side by side, speaking several times a day, walking their dogs and wandering the woods together near their joint hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Caldwell was eight years older than Knapp, with two parents still living. She’d never experienced major loss. “I thought Caroline was going to teach me about grief, because she’d lost both her parents,” says Caldwell. “But the way she taught me was the hardest lesson of all: by going first.”

In 2001, just a few years into their friendship, Knapp was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died within months. Devastated, Caldwell could bring herself to write only one sentence about the loss: “I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died, so we shared that, too.” Eventually, that heartbreaking line became the opening sentence of Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, Caldwell’s gorgeous–and strikingly honest–love letter to Knapp and their deeply devoted friendship.

From her home in Cambridge, Caldwell spoke with SMITH about Knapp and Let’s Take the Long Way Home–why it was necessary to wait years to write about Knapp and why she never hits the “delete” key in a first draft.

Photo by John Earle

Photo by John Earle

Why did you decide to write Let’s Take the Long Way Home?
For years I thought I would never write it. I really didn’t know when I wrote that sentence that it was the beginning of anything: it was all I had to say. It was five years after Caroline’s death that I felt–and this is probably a very common writerly emotion–you’re herded like cattle until you can’t do anything but write about whatever the It is. I’d gone through everything I could do to get over losing her, except write about it.

Once I made that decision, it went from zero to ten. It was as if the story had been sitting there, untouched, pristine, waiting for me to open the door, and there it was. I don’t mean that great cliché: “Oh, it was so effortless”: nothing is ever effortless. But the memories felt encased. They were so accessible. I did not have to work to find the things I needed to write about. I think when the heart seizes, the mind grabs on, for whatever purpose.

So often writers feel like they have to get the memories down right now, while it’s fresh. But you waited for four years after Caroline’s death to write about her.
Somebody asked me the other night in a reading what I think this book would’ve been like if I’d written it four years earlier. I said, “I think it would’ve been all black smudges and tear stains.” I think it would’ve lacked the insight, the considered quality of understanding that I spent years trying to do–to figure out what these things meant. It’s like the first time you tell a story in therapy and you think, This is just a story. And then you tell it and your therapist goes, “Oh!” and takes notes. And you think, Oh, I didn’t realize how it sounded till I spoke it out loud. I think writing is the same process. The unconsciousness coughs a story onto the page, and then you start fiddling with it.

Where you worried your unconscious wouldn’t cough up enough?
No. I was worried that I was going to have too much. For me, the most demanding and important part is the architecture of the story–how to do the master blueprint of where everything is going to go. I spend so much time thinking and plotting and drawing these things I call “cluster maps” about what goes where. So the first thing I did was sit down and make notes about everything I remembered, regardless of where it belonged. And I was so stunned: I had thirteen pages of single-spaced notes.

So much of your friendship with Caroline was about a shared daily life. How did you go about outlining the book and deciding how to structure it?
I sit down and without any thought–I’m not trying to write, I’m trying to herd my thoughts into one place. And then from there I make notes on my notes, and I start to see if I can make maps about the beginning of the relationship, and where we both come from, and specific points in it.

I knew that I wouldn’t have to do much to organize it once I got to Caroline being sick. The heartbreaking ease with which I was able to write the last half of the book–it was like writing a police report, because it was so heartbreakingly matter of fact: and then and then and then. There was a part of me that said, I know this is heartbreaking and devastating to me; it is presumptuous to think that it is going to be to a stranger until you make it that way. I remember that great counsel of Hemingway: “Go back and find everything beautiful and take it out.” It’s one of the best things that anybody ever said to a writer. And I did that. After the first draft, I did have to go back and work very hard to distill into the story it is now.

In the beginning, I had to write the heartbreak into the pages. It was a reverie of my loss, but that’s mine–you can’t make it be the readers’. I didn’t want to hit anybody over the head with it. It’s the weird thing you have to be as a writer: You have to be completely nurturing and tender and forthcoming to coax your story into the room, and then you have to be ruthless–get rid of your adjectives or whatever it is. It’s that dual process.

It’s such a split–it’s like different synapses are firing off in your brain during those separate processes. I think a lot of writers are held back by their internal ruthless editor from the beginning: Were you able to let it flow and then go back?
Probably from writing on deadline for many many years, and also having incorporated some of the best editors in the world in my head, I’m able to have that coexist, so that I can be writing in a fugue state and also knowing [what to change] at the same time. I make notes at the same time–I write in longhand.

You do? Really?
I used to write on the computer for The Globe book review deadlines every week for many years. Whenever I had writer’s block as a young critic, I’d go sit on my kitchen floor with a pen and a legal pad–I could write myself out of it in 30 seconds. So I learned very quickly to use that as a trick to relax my brain. I wrote my first book in longhand and transcribed, and that’s what I did with this book, too.

Is it easier to silence that immediate critic in longhand? You can scratch out, but that’s not the same as deleting.
I never delete in a Word doc, either. If I know I’ve made a mistake, I write WW for “wrong word” and keep going. You can’t delete when you’re in that state, because it might take you somewhere important. When I transcribe it, I understand what I was trying to do, and it often takes on a second form on transcription. It sounds laborious, but for me it is what it needs to be.

Where was Caroline during the process of writing this? Was she in the back in your mind, or sitting there next to you?
She was right in the room. I dreamt about her a lot–I still do. I have a photograph that I would look at every day when I was through and say “How am I doing here?” I felt like she was just completely with me. I couldn’t finish the book for months–it was like, Okay, I’m just going to stay right here with one chapter to go, and everyone will be alive as long as I keep writing.

One of the fascinating things about the book is the portrayal of your friendship. Our cultural reference points for female friendship seem to be either the Sex and the City ideal or the folksy Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Or, we’re talking about “frenemies” and the “toxic friendship” aspects of how women can relate. But yours is such a loving portrait of your day to day; I found it hard to believe that a friendship that close wasn’t competitive or codependent at times.
But it was! We did have that; the difference is that we dealt with it. Caroline and I had both suffered those terrible breaks that women have, that empathic failure–the, Well, never mind then, goodbye, and you start to drop away from each other. We were so attached, and both of us were so loyal, and our MO in the world was to go toward a problem as opposed to away from it. I really wanted to write about the struggles that we had, I could hear Caroline saying to me, “You can’t make this all happy.” We were incredibly competitive and all we did was sublimate it. We arm-wrestled and she beat me; I’d try to beat her in the pool. I knew I had to talk about the struggles and how piercing they can be.

One of the most heartfelt aspects of the book is the way you write about your love for her–it feels very clear and pure and unapologetic. And you’re not writing about your parents or child or partner; you’re writing about your best friend. We often give lip service to the importance of female friendship but we don’t talk about the possible depths of that kind of love.
That was paramount for me, and I’ve been really appreciative of the reviews that have gotten that. In a reading the other night, someone asked me if I ever had that horrible disappointment where people would go, “But it was just a friend.” It’s jaw-dropping when someone does that, because if your friendships are primary, as this one was–grief is not a stair-step of who gets the most attention.

I lost my dad after Caroline died, and my mom after that. I’d become an expert in grief and the way that the culture honors certain kinds but not the others; I was very clear that what anchored the grief was the incredible love that preceded it. Without that, you have no story. This is what we know about loss: Honoring the dead is in complete correlation to what they meant to you when they were here. The best thing I could do to honor the memory of us was go straight into the depths of who we were before she got sick.

It seems like it could be hard to separate writing for an audience about this kind of loss versus writing as a way to process your own pain. How did you separate the two?
With time. By the time I started this book, the narrative was primary. The grief was already known; it was a country I had traveled in for so long that I knew how to write about it as opposed to being in it. Because I waited for years, I think the narrative superseded the grief, as it should have. Otherwise it would’ve been a whole different kind of book.

You really had moved beyond so much of the sharpness of the grief that reliving that loss while writing about it wasn’t devastating?
It wasn’t devastating because I was writing about. Writing is the ultimate sublimation.
Some people write for catharsis, and that’s primary. But if the writing itself is primary, it’s such a freight train that I think the emotion is hitching a ride on the engine, and the engine is the power to write, and that propels me. There was a great joy in much of it, because Caroline was alive for me. That was less devastating than clanging around in the world without her.

Still, were there moments where you thought: This is just too painful. I wish I hadn’t committed to doing this?
There are always moments like that. Sometimes there are months like that. Maybe that’s not true for James Patterson, but I think it’s true for most writers, no matter what you’re doing. I remember something Annie Dillard said to me once: “Sometimes all you can do is go in the room and hold its hand.” There were lots of days when I just sat upstairs and knew that thinking for an hour was all I was going to get.

After you turned it in, did you feel apprehensive about the publicity process?
I felt really tender and protective and–not wary, but cautionary. A good friend of mine is also a writer, and he said, “It really helps if you feel you have something important to give people.” I learned so much about grief and how little we know about it and talk about it, and I decided that if I can help one person who was stumbling around in the ravages of early grief, then it will have been worth it.

You have to believe in what you’re doing. I’ve gotten so much back–people have been so hugely gratifying to me in terms of what they’ve shared and said; it was less angst-producing than what I’d expected. Besides, Caroline was so revelatory in her writing. She was my compass. If she could write about everything she did in her books, then this is nothing.

Finally, Gail Caldwell, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Texas, whiskey, odyssey. Words, dogs, water.


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14 responses

  1. Arliss says:

    This is a wonderful book, touches your emotions. I heard Gail on NPR being interview by Diana Rheme. IT IS wonderfull. Grab the Kleenex box. I did not want the book to end.

  2. joanna says:

    The dailyness of the friendship is most real - and its honesty - nothing held back - it was complete. It is complete. Thank you.

  3. Peg says:

    Carolyn’s “Pack of Two” was a favorite of mine and it was only by scanning Amazon and finding Gail’s book that I discovered she had died. I finished …Long Way Home this evening and am deeply affected by it. I will miss the books Carolyn will not write. I hope to read many more from Gail.

  4. American Booksellers Association Indie Choice Awards « Kanlaon says:

    [...] Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home [...]

  5. MostlyFiction Book Reviews » LET’S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME by Gail Caldwell says:

    [...] Interview with Gail Caldwell [...]

  6. Sharyn says:

    I am a friend of Bill’s and planning a retreat with a group of women in recovery Feb. 8-10
    I would give anything ( not my sobriety) if you would speak to our group . We are meeting at the Espousal Ctr in Waltham. If yo woul share your experience strength and hope with us for just a few minutes of your time. I have walked Fresh Pond with my dog for 14 yrs. she is gone now. Your book warmed-my heart.
    sharyn Guarnieri. 617 489 1198

  7. Sharyn says:

    PLEASE Sharyn

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  9. Diane says:

    What a beautiful story. Although I couldn’t stop crying. I finally figured out I could live without a man, but never without my dogs. I am presently being crowded in my large bed by 2 large dogs and 2 cats. I would love for you to write a book on dogs and the people that love them

    Thank you,
    Diane, Bailey, Izzy, Sammy and Annie

  10. Writing Trauma: Notes of Transcendence, #2–The Book as Companion says:

    [...] Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home helped me to grieve: “Hope in the beginning feels like such a violation of the loss, and yet [...]

  11. Mary Stallins says:

    Enjoyed reading through this, very good stuff, thankyou .

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