Rick Moody’s New Book Takes on Marriage, for Better and for Worse

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“In order to have a second marriage you can believe in,” begins Rick Moody in The Long Accomplishment, “you may have to fail at your first marriage. I failed spectacularly at mine.” In this, his second memoir, Moody comes clean about his resistance to monogamy and an adult life marked by sexual compulsivity, self-destructiveness, and “a long list of regrets.” But something shifts in him around the time he meets visual artist Laurel Nakadate, and when they decide to get married, he is prepared to commit to the vows of marriage with someone he deeply loves.

As soon as their marriage begins there are troubles, but this time the nature of the troubles is external to his marriage: the ongoing “contaminating” legal matters of his divorce; deaths and health crises of loved ones; some terrible situations involving his homes; and a long, soul-crushing struggle with infertility. How much can early marriage withstand, and how can hardship teach of the strength that marriage offers? The Long Accomplishment offers an answer to this question: It is a raw and candid account of the power of committed love to combat life’s sorrows.

I spoke with Rick Moody about marriage, artistic collaboration, infertility, and how he approached the structure of memoir when writing The Long Accomplishment.

The Millions: The basic structure of The Long Accomplishment is the first year of your second marriage, told in chronological order, each chapter organized by a month in this year. Beyond this framework, what thought did you give to structure as you embarked upon this project?

Rick Moody: With my prior memoir, The Black Veil, I had a lot of thoughts about the nonfiction novel, the way, e.g., that Mailer tried to structure certain nonfiction works as though they were novels, and about the whole theory of formal hybridizing between and among the genres, between fiction and nonfiction. These were really rewarding ways to think about memoir writing for me, but in the case of The Long Accomplishment I didn’t want to overthink or to labor for an idea of form. I wanted to tell the story, because the story was most of what I was thinking about in 2015 to 2016, when I first really started bearing down on the manuscript. I didn’t want to have a structure that called undue attention to itself. I have done that a lot in the past, preoccupying myself with forms, but I have sort of been repenting of it lately, trying to locate near at hand forms that are more organic. So in this case, beyond the chronological, there weren’t really many ideas about form, though it was a sort of solidifying and emulsifying thought that a solid year was the form chosen by a certain 19th-century transcendentalist for his memoir. In my case, the calendar year was also a valid form because I really was talking about a year, from my wedding day to the dark events of exactly one year later. The form was natural, at hand, and pretty obvious, and that seemed valid enough to me.

TM: The Long Accomplishment is a memoir about a marriage. Of course, any memoir is primarily about the experience of the person writing the book, but in this case, you are also telling the story about your partner, Laurel, and her experience of your first married year. Can you talk about approach to the main point of view of the memoir? Was it your experience as an individual in a marriage, your marriage as the primary persona, you and Laurel as two separate individuals with a common life vision, or something else?

RM: Perhaps the perfect way to write the book would have been to write it with Laurel, dividing the labor evenly, had Laurel been the kind of person who does such a thing. I talk in the book a little bit about the overlap between our creative lives, and it may be, yet, and according to the stealth influence that exists between her and me, that Laurel recasts some of these themes in visual art somehow, and then her point of view will be more exactly rendered than it is in the refracted version of her in my book. In the absence of her full participation, however, it could not, from my point of view, have been a perfect portrait of her there, because it is my portrait of her, and though I spend more time with her than anyone else does now, she is her own person, and even in marriage there are spaces that one inhabits alone. I am, I think, perhaps marginally more gifted at this than the average guy in rendering a woman on the page, and I believe in the attempt, but neither am I perfect. The Laurel in the memoir is the result of all these collisions of form, history, the politics of gender, which make her other than the actual Laurel, and that is interesting, and it is the truth of the matter. I am the writer in the family, most of the time, and it is, therefore, a portrait of myself in marriage, and, I hope a portrait of one’s vulnerabilities in marriage, one’s failures, one’s aspirations, and the way that marriage rises to meet the participants where they are, if they really want to be married. I hope I pretty well captured Laurel and myself together, at least in the moments of crisis, which make up a fair amount of the plot.

TM: What part did Laurel play in the revising of the book?

RM: She did read the galleys very closely, and had a lot of opinions, and thus in a late stage, she actually did help quite a bit with the text. We have a tradition of staying out of each other’s creativities, by and large. I don’t tell her what to do with her photographs, and she doesn’t tell me what to do with my writing. But she did have to be involved, this time, for all the memoir reasons: She is in the book, her family is in the book, our life together is in the book, and so she had to read it pretty closely when I had a finished manuscript. I think she read it twice before we got to the fifth pass, which was when I started to feel good about the whole.

TM: In a discussion with the LA Review of Books in 2015, you told the interviewer: “I like novels best when they have nothing at all in common with the tradition of the American realistic novel. I like when they don’t really seem like novels all that much.” Do you have any similar feelings about the memoir genre?

RM: I’m sort of bored of myself and my passionately held opinions, of which this is one example. These days, what I want from a book is simply to care deeply about it, in whatever condition it is to be found. And mostly I care about things that thoughtfully observe, and which note what there is to say about human emotions and human consciousness, about the great convolution and mystery of consciousness and being. It doesn’t really matter, anymore, what the shape is. Whether it is revolutionizing the form or not. It doesn’t matter what genre it is in. (Though it is also true that there are non-fiction and memoiristic books I love that are expansionist with respect to genre: Cheever’s Journals, Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Nelson’s Argonauts, Yvonne Rainer’s Feelings Are Facts, Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, etc.) I have made some attempts to revolutionize, in my way, and I’m glad for my attempts, but how many books do I have left now? Six or seven? I don’t know. I want to make something lasting and meaningful, and I’m tired of aesthetics and aestheticizing all the time, I’m tired of debate, a sort of artistic fiddling while Rome burns, and I’m tired of the sort of self-regard that goes with my own interviews. What does the heart want in a story? Something like the truth. I am trying to head there now, where the human emotions find their genuine evocation, however complicated.

TM: You sometimes offer your services as Rick Moody, Life Coach. Now that you’ve “failed spectacularly” at your first marriage, as you write in the opening of The Long Accomplishment, and written a meditation on how a strong marriage (in your case, your second) can weather all kinds of storm, what “life coach” advice can you offer people about how to enter into marriage? Is it about where you are in your life? About what kind of partner you choose? Luck? All of these things?

RM: The book is probably a terrible primer on marriage. I am not holding myself up as any kind of model. (Indeed, my position on why I am a good life coach is because I have failed so badly at so many things. I have broad-based and intensive experience at failure, especially interpersonal failure.) In so many ways, in life, I am sort of hanging by a thread. That said, I believe in being honest about marriage, that is at the heart of the book, and I simply wasn’t any good at it, and wasn’t going to be any good at it, until there was a person, a time, and an age of life, when I really wanted to be here doing it, being in a marriage. I never thought I was commitment-phobic, really, it bears mentioning, I was just intensely interested in my work and didn’t want anyone in the way of it. But then the middle of life’s journey comes, and one sees how little time might be remaining, and the poignancy of attempting to love and be loved, accepting love, these all become things that seem rather precious. I counsel people to avoid marriage if it is in the least a result of normative pressure, or because your parents want you to, or because you think it is what heterosexual couples do, or because now you can marry because it is now permitted for people of the LGBTQ community to do so, or howsoever. Marry only because you want what marriage offers, which is a crash course in intimacy and support and responsibility and community.  When you want those things, for uncontaminated reasons, and you believe you have found a person with whom that seems feasible, then of course go for it. But if you aren’t there yet, there is every reason to wait. There is no shame in waiting. All things are possible in time’s fullness, and according to the mysterious road forward.

TM: You describe the emotional toll of assisted reproductive technology in detail in this book, which is something a great number of people experience when trying to have a baby later in life, but which male partners in particular don’t frequently talk or write about. What did you learn about IVF, fertility, pregnancy, etc. that you think people should know more about? (There is a movement to encourage young women who want to be parents in the not-near future to seek fertility testing, educate themselves on fertility and age, and potentially freeze their young eggs, which I personally think is an idea that should spread, having gone through IVF myself.)

RM: Really Laurel should answer this question, as she was the more educated of the two of us on the fine print. There was a period in which she had a lot of acronyms at her command, and I was frequently having to look up these acronyms so that I was sure I knew what we were discussing. I know that she believes strongly in freezing (eggs and embryos, where relevant), as I do, too, and she has counseled people of our acquaintance who might need what we needed to freeze. Obviously, she might have done so herself earlier, had she known sooner what we were up against. We sort of blundered into the whole world of assisted reproductive technology, adjusting to our difficult circumstances as they got more difficult, and we would spare some others the floundering, if we could, which is one reason for the book. The percentage of people who experience infertility is extremely high, of course. I think the CDC says 10 percent of women experience infertility, and I believe the number is trending up, for reasons that are not yet a matter of settled science.

The part of the saga of assisted reproduction that I would want to reiterate here for the lay people in the audience is the idea of infertility as a “silent disease.” So-called, because those in its grip don’t often talk about it. It’s pretty obvious, if you dig in, think about it a little bit, why it doesn’t get talked about, but if you do think about it, attend to it, the affliction is more sad, more harrowing, the more you learn. Our story, in comparison to friends we met along the way, is not that bad. We know well people who had to terminate pregnancies very late, so-called stillbirths, we know people with twice as many losses as we had, and worse. In every case, these stories involve women and men who then went back to work and pretended it was all fine. Who lost children, not potential children, mind you, but actual children, and then went back to work—since few, if any, employers, give time off for miscarriage. They discussed their grief, mainly, with other people going through it. Not with friends and family. Their strength and dignity, it seems to me, is a thing to be revered. Their sorrows should be our sorrows.

That men discuss this even less frequently than women do is in some ways not surprising: first, it is women who disproportionately do the work, and thus who perhaps have a greater share in the way the story might be told; second, where the men themselves are afflicted with infertility, it is in a way that men are often particularly sensitive about; third, there is the politics of men talking about a subject that has in large measure to do with women’s bodies. I am obviously acutely aware of all these problems, these traditions of male silence. But just as one has seen men, in recent years, coming to feel that they have a role in the discussion of choice, a voice in support of women, so do men have a voice, it seems to me, in a discussion of infertility. Let me describe the nature of my support. Laurel was not alone in her struggle, and I too wanted to have a child. I didn’t want to have a child so that Laurel could go through it and do all the work. I wanted to have a child because I love children and love being a father, no matter how ridiculously hard it is, and I wanted to do it with Laurel and to share in it with her, at every step. That means the story, in some impossible-to-quantify portion, is also mine. I too had feelings about it, had, for example, feelings about the twin boys we lost (and by saying this I am not overlooking the daughter we lost, but am just not belaboring the discussion). My feelings, and the biological root of these feelings, cannot possibly be identical with Laurel’s feelings, but that doesn’t mean that I have no part. And, since I am the writer in the family, it is logical that I could try to tell this tale. If we can help one other couple not feel alone, if I can help one other guy not feel alone, if I can help a few more people who don’t know about the real, tumultuous grief of infertility to see how intense is the suffering of those who are afflicted with it, and in many cases how immense are the sacrifices that people make in the world of assisted reproductive technology (we are a very privileged couple, it bears mentioning, and we couldn’t even get close to being able—as citizens of New York State, where there is no coverage for IVF—to being able to pay the fees), then it is worth it. (And: I know you know about this too so I hope it’s obvious I’m not saying it to you, but with you, I think.)

TM: What was the most surprising or important thing you learned about yourself during the writing of this memoir?

RM: In a way, a lot of my thinking lately has been about gender, and about a sense of myself in near constant conflict in the matter of my own gender. I don’t mean in the sense of traditionally dysphoric, as in I don’t have the right body, but rather simply I am terribly conflicted about what it means psychically, ontologically, to be a man. On the one hand, I am satisfied with the idea of difference within masculinity, and I am happy saying: I am not conventional at being a man, at least according to popular preconceptions, and that is fine, because my saying so, that I am unconventional, helps others who have the same experience, who might not identify with masculinity (though I would probably use stronger terms for my inner feeling). But at the same time there is for me an insurmountable interrogation of self that has accrued to me, that has been internalized, for my lack of ability to conform, psychically, ontologically. It was the basis of my depression in the ’80s, or one of its bases, and was a not infrequent topic in my earlier memoir, The Black Veil. But my intense discomfort about one chapter in The Long Accomplishment (I will keep to myself which, for now, as I don’t want to skew the reading experience), my discomfort about my own conduct, has stuck with me, and my feeling about the book, sometimes, about this one portion, is of shame. I think I am enough self-aware to know that this is who I am now, I am a person who has these issues, and the goal is acceptance and appreciation of and respect for the soul in discomfort, with an eye on wholeness, at the end of my journey. But in the meantime, the work, again, has indicated some of the ways that I am not whole, am, in fact, rather injured, and I bring this injured self into my marriage. And though to many people I look, act, and have all the privilege of being a certain kind of man, a white straight guy, inside I have a rather stark dislike of this kind of masculinity, and can’t seem to let it go, nor to avoid feeling accountable for it. It’s like having been burned in one spot, and still having the sensation of the burn, the burn being called forth, as it were, on every sunny day. And I know this is a sort of heavy answer, Alden Jones, but you asked, and because the subject is this book, a nonfiction book, I am honor bound to tell the truth.

Alden Jones is the author of the forthcoming bibliomemoir, The Wanting Was a Wilderness, and the previous books The Blind Masseuse and Unaccompanied Minors. She teaches creative writing and cultural studies at Emerson College and is core faculty in the Newport MFA program.

Life Chugs Forward Even When the Worst Has Happened

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Around the time Charles Bock’s first novel emerged in 2008, life looked pretty great. Beautiful Children, a novel of youth and Las Vegas, was released to great fanfare, including a rave review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Charles and I had become friends during our time as residents at the Vermont Studio Center; I had the privilege of seeing very early drafts of Beautiful Children and beholding its evolution over the course of 10 years. To writers like myself, Beautiful Children was a bright example of what a writer’s perseverance could achieve. Charles was married to Diana Colbert; they were happy and in love, and they soon had a doted-upon baby girl. For a while the most obvious challenge he faced was how to follow up Beautiful Children.

Then one day Diana wasn’t feeling well, and thinking it was a bug, she went to the doctor. Within hours their lives were upended. Diana was diagnosed with leukemia. Chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, and insurance battles followed. Two years after her diagnosis, Diana passed away, their daughter just shy of three.

What does a writer do when confronted with such wrenching tragedy? When the writer is Charles Bock, he writes a book. Alice & Oliver embraces both the pain of loss and the reality that life chugs forward even when the worst has happened. While Bock speaks openly about the fact that Alice & Oliver is rooted in his own experience, he is nonetheless a writer preoccupied with style and language and the function of narrative — Bock is “good with structure,” as Garth Risk Hallberg wrote here in 2008; the result of his efforts here is not exactly an autobiographical novel.

I corresponded with Bock via email about the writing of Alice & Oliver and how the book and his personal life have been woven together.

The Millions: Charles, let’s assume that any reader who makes it past the front cover of Alice & Oliver knows your story, and knows that this novel was inspired by events from your life: your first wife, Diana, receiving her cancer diagnosis when your daughter was an infant, and the horror of losing her so early in your lives together and with a young child. Alice & Oliver was a book you obviously needed to write. What would have happened if you hadn’t written this book?

Charles Bock:  It’s an interesting hypothetical. Let’s go with the assumption that I would have written some other book, or had some other writing project. My guess is that all the emotions would have been channeled and translated into whatever other project I was working on. Now, how that might have worked out, I can’t say. We’ve both taught students, or known talented writers, who might not have been working on the right thing. The student whose escape from his/her homeland and childhood memories are obviously the story for her to write, but who can’t take it on just yet and is writing a coming-of-age romance. With any luck, a writer does connect with that internal imperative, the thing they must work on. George Saunders’s short stories being an example in that no matter how fantastic the world he creates, or how bizarre the terrain might be, certain ideas about selflessness get through. So even if I had been writing some kind of caper novel about art forgery in the 1800s, my guess is that all the larger emotions and ideas — love, selflessness, care-giving, generosity — that dominate Alice & Oliver would have seeped through. Fairly early on during Diana’s illness, I knew I had to write about it. So this never really came up.

TM: Diana was a truly lovely person. The first time I met her, not five minutes had gone by before I thought to myself, “Charles is very lucky.” And I remember when I learned of her diagnosis, and especially considering you two had such a young child, my reaction to her diagnosis was that it seemed shockingly unfair. “This is not fair” is something one of your characters utters, while drinking with Oliver early in the book, but the novel manages not to dwell on the unfairness of Alice’s cancer. How did your characters manage to so gracefully avoid feeling stuck in the unfairness of their situation? How might knowing them help readers get through similar situations?

CB: The thing, of course, is that it all is unfair. In terms of real life events, I was angry, I did wallow, quite a bit. I put up the best front I could, but of course my anger and fear came out in all sorts of ways. The truth is, we were all under ungodly amounts of stress. I fought a ton with hospitals and doctors, new-age types who wanted to help, and even could get into it with random people who might look at me on the street. For long stretches in the years afterwards, I had weird mood swings. In the middle of teaching my writing workshops, reading this or that emotive sentence out loud from a story could send me into tears. A lot has happened in the years since. But I’m still not over how unfair it is that Diana does not get to watch her daughter grow up, that her daughter does not get to know or remember her birth mother. Often, at bedtime my daughter will tell me that she misses her birth mommy, that it’s not fair. What can I do but answer, you are right, it’s not fair, you get to be unhappy about that, you have every right to be unhappy.

But that’s not all that we get to be. Her, me. Or the characters in the book.

Does yelling about how unfair it is help make anything fair? When you’re done acknowledging cosmic injustices, does self-pity solve one stupid thing? The facts on the ground are still the facts. Very early on in the novel, Oliver helps center his wife. He says something to the effect of, Let’s not worry about hypotheticals. Let’s focus on the tasks in front of us, the day ahead, we’re going to get through this thing, so what do we have to do right now to do that? Alice dabbles in Eastern ideas, which very much focus on the moment. Doing this helped prevent any wallowing from the characters. I didn’t want to have characters feeling sorry for themselves. Very early on I also made the conscious decision that I didn’t want an angry book. Characters could feel anger, but I didn’t want anger, or self-pity, or what have you, to derail plot, momentum, development, really anything. My goal was always the larger, better struggles. It is unfair, yes, so what do we do? What is there that we can do?  

Once this turn gets made, then characters — or people — can start to concentrate on what truly matters: the moments we have, the people we care about.

TM: Beautiful Children, your first novel, took you a decade and eight drafts to complete. What did you learn from that experience that influenced the writing of your second novel?

CB: This is going to sound hokey, but it’s true anyway. I learned to trust in the experience of writing, the larger, long-term process.  That dyad of trust and process just keeps appearing in the world, you know? Whether a person come to them through Eastern ideas of selflessness to the larger good, through a basketball coach screaming the main thing has to be the main thing, through the example of your parents showing up to work every day for 40 years to unlock their store and get to work, through the 12 steps of a recovery program, or the simple belief in your feelings for another person,  all sorts of different roads lead to trust and to process, and these two things play a huge role in my writing. During a long-term project like writing a novel, you don’t necessarily need, at every moment, to have huge amounts of faith in the wide-angle vision of how that novel is going. You just need to take care of shit in that moment. Wash the food, eat the food, wash the bowl.  

An example. While organizing the outline to Alice & Oliver, figuring out some signposts to guide my way, a truth became obvious: the back third of the book — which deals with the born marrow transplant and its difficulties — was going to be really emotionally difficult for me. Now, at whatever point — probably gradually but then all at once — I also realized that this rear section also was going to require a structural switch, one that, with any luck, would make the novel more dramatic and direct and even more intense. So, organization gets to a decent point; I’m starting to write; however good I think that rear section can be, there’s still no way in hell I’m put back together enough to take on writing through that bone marrow transplant, and all of its emotional complications. I didn’t have distance from Diana’s second transplant, let alone from her passing. But I also didn’t need to have it. I wasn’t going to write that part of the book anytime soon. Time was going to pass, I knew this. I knew its passage would provide me with a little protection. I also trusted that the aesthetic imperatives and character demands inside the book would grow as I worked, they’d come to occupy whatever place in my psyche. Certain immediate emotions or connections from real events were also going to recede, some, into my subconscious. It was unavoidable, just as my present life also was going to have its own immersive, daily demands. All this had to happen, I told myself as much, even if there was no way to be prepared for it.

It still was emotionally taxing. And I certainly wasn’t ready for how the experience would turn. Because time would work the other way as well. Looking at my notes for the transplant would still bring so much pain; but there would be a large part of me that needed to remember and wanted to be put through that wringer. The memories, no matter how hard, were still better than the forgetting, because forgetting wiped away the details, the love, the bad meals, the quarrels, the humor and tenderness, the true marrow of it all.

Being able to trust in the large process — over and over again, in different iterations (edits, rewrites, etc.), in so many areas of the novel — was hugely helpful.  So I was indeed fortunate that I’d been through this during the 100 years and 50,000 drafts it took to get Beautiful Children done.

Honestly, I can’t imagine trying to write Alice & Oliver as a first novel, without the experience of the first book behind me.

TM: Readers who remember the Manhattan of a few decades ago are likely to experience a delightful nostalgia when reading Alice & Oliver. Tell me a little bit about the decision to set the novel in the Manhattan of the ’90s, and situating Alice and Oliver specifically in the Meatpacking District.

CB: It’s really gratifying that you say it was delightful to read, because that was a big part of what I wanted to do. Back during the ’80s, when I was a teenager in Vegas, I used to go to the local grocery store and read Spy magazine and Details and Andy Warhol’s Interview. Those gave me a vision of a certain kind of Manhattan, one where freaks and stockbrokers did lines together at Danceteria and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jay McInerney and Jama Tamowitz (not her name, should have been) commandeered the back table at Nell’s. I wasn’t part of that downtown scene, but it was fun to imagine Alice coming to the city back then and maybe on the scene’s margins. I ended up moving the novel back 15 or so years from real events, having it take place during the ’90s, specifically 1993 to 1994, in New York City. This is on the other side of the famed downtown ’80s scene, on the cusp of a new era, I think. The first Web browser is about to become commercially available. Forty Second Street is all porno and weirdness, but Disney is moving a store into Times Square.

It’s a time and place that in my mind is still close enough to reach back and touch, although honestly it’s not that close any more. There are organizational and macro reasons why putting the book in this period made sense to me — the change gave me some more distance from the real events of my life, which gave me more license and creative room with the characters, for instance. It also tied in with the book’s ending and the impermanence of time, its effect on all of us. Just for that reason, putting Alice and Oliver in an illegal loft in the Meatpacking District makes for a great backdrop. The Meatpacking District back then was a place where big slabs of meat actually got packed and shipped, Hogs & Heifers was just a shitty bar where the owner and his biker pals really did used to ride their Harleys around inside. Sex workers and after-hour clubs pretty much ruled the night. Now that district is gone, it’s the High Line and shopping and big glass towers. Manhattan itself has more than followed suit.

I wanted to have fun with the weird gritty absurdity of that period, but wanted to do it with the right touch, a backdrop tinted with that gorgeous patina of nostalgia, kind of the same way that nostalgia for a different version of the city suffuses Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Honestly, the nature of the project, a young mother with cancer, is naturally so emotional, my own personal connection and investment is so high. So I knew this was going to deal with the biggest ticket items. I wanted some breathing room, some joy — for me, for the characters, for the readers. Stuff that would hit pleasure notes. Simple things like references to early chat rooms and the nascent Web and the CD-ROM-loaded magazines that used to stuff mailboxes. By my thinking, they added to the book, helped to form this fascinating and fun backdrop. And so far, it’s been gratifying: early readers who happened to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn back then have always made sure to tell me about the references that hit them right — the crowd at Florent or the line for the Village Voice classifieds on Tuesday afternoon at Astor Place, or maybe inside references from college radio culture, like “Shut up, little man!” (Those who recognize the story behind the story get a thrill and a treat. If not, that’s fine, you’re in the story, all good).

I also got to do some cool and more serious things with that time frame. It’s right after the great ACT UP wars on AIDS, in the aftermath, and I wanted that in the novel. I also wanted to acknowledge the racial tension that Rudy Giuliani had used to get elected mayor (at the time he had a lot of support, New York magazine’s political coverage was pretty fawning for a while). It was a subtle way of getting in just how far we’d come in some ways, and how little progress we’d made in others.

TM: Well, as someone who lived in lower Manhattan in the ’90s, I smiled at so many of these references, and there was real pleasure in that. Structurally, you made an interesting choice to begin the novel more or less at the moment of Alice’s cancer diagnosis. It seemed there would be nowhere to go but down. But there was also the spunkiness of the characters as we get to know them, and that buoyed this reader throughout the reading of the book. Did it feel risky to begin the book at this point in the story?

CB: Yeah. It’s a gamble. But that’s fine. The diagnosis was such an odd an immersive experience, one second a woman’s feeling a bit under the weather and assuming she has a bug, the next she’s being told she has to be rushed to a hospital and admitted and tested for cancer. It’s impossible to believe. I made a connection to thriller page-turners and wondered if I could try to recreate that immersive rush, where a reader couldn’t put the book down. So it did begin the novel at a high point and a breakneck pace. But even as I was doing that, I kept thinking of the beautiful passage that starts The Known World, where Edward P. Jones describes the rain beginning and falling on the trees, and the character Moses’s reaction, and his grief about his wife. It doesn’t take place four pages in probably, and it’s so gorgeous that pretty much any reader has to be addicted and hooked. I just love that book and that passage. So hey, were there spaces in the early pages of chaos where I might have moments like that? Was it similarly possible to drop in the seeds and clues that would grow into character traits? The stakes are so high, the level of suspense is so high, that it seemed to me possible to create some bonds with the reader. Then I could expand on those bonds and have the book open up. If that happens, then like you said, all the character traits have been set and we’re ready to follow these characters, to expand their worlds some.

These are some of the formal questions of how you open a novel, how do you ask artistic questions and come up with strategies that can keep a person engaged. It’s not enough to write a pretty sentence, although, yes, we all love pretty sentences. I tell my students that there’s checkers, and there’s chess, and then there’s three-dimensional Star Wars chess. Why not play the game at the highest possible levels? That doesn’t mean bluster and showing off. Rather, it means connecting with the best possible way to tell your story. In Alice & Oliver the connection between the suspense of that diagnosis day and the idea of a thriller was the key, it was organic, and there was a logic to what could happen, how the book could expand, from there. Again, I don’t know that something being risky is a reason not to do it. It’s a reason to figure out the risks and to react the best you can.

TM: It’s almost impossible to discuss this book without focusing on events from your life. Do you kind of wish people like me would quit asking you personal questions?

CB: Let’s be honest, it’s really hard to get attention for a novel. You work years on it and then there’s a cycle of a week — a month if you are extremely lucky — when there’s any attention on it, and even then you start to worry that anyone who consumes those pieces is going to decide that the interview, feature, or review is enough, they know about that book, they don’t need to read it. So it creates a weird place. I’m very thankful that anyone is asking any questions about this book, and that it’s getting any interest. That itself is seen as a form of currency in this business. I also want to be professional and answer questions. In my case there’s a hugely personal aspect to this book, so it logically follows, who wouldn’t ask personal questions. I understand as much. Being asked personal questions is part of this gig. I also know it is up to me to decide how to respond. The fact is, I didn’t write a memoir, and the reasons for this are concrete. Still, I do want to answer you, and to charm, and entertain, and intrigue, and impress, enough that you — and readers — will be interested, will want to check out my book. So, what happens in response to a personal question, or at least what happens today: I write an answer that deconstructs and, essentially, deflects the question.

TM: In that case — one more personal question! Surrounding the release of Alice & Oliver, you’ve been rehashing your first marriage in a very public way. But you are recently remarried, and the experience of writing about one relationship while beginning another must be fraught. Can you talk about that?

CB: Two years after Diana passed away, I was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with the writer Leslie Jamison. I don’t know how or why she fell in love with me, let alone agreed to take on so much (grief, widower, five-year-old daughter), but she did. And every day I sacrifice a live goat in thanks. We’ve married, and she’s given my daughter an amazing maternal figure. My daughter calls her mommy (now she has two mommies, Mommy Diana in heaven and Mommy Leslie here). We all have the best time together, we’re building our family. I feel very lucky and very happy. We have a loving home. Leslie happens to be a genius and a superstar in her own right; if she walks into a room full of Nobel Prize winners, she’s still going to be the smartest person in the room. She’s also hugely generous and decent, and she helped immensely with this novel, reading and editing and chopping down various drafts. My feeling is that she and Diana have a ton in common, and would have gotten along tremendously well. And each woman is different, each relationship is different. More than once I’ve been asked about what it’s like writing about Diana while building a new, loving relationship. What I’ve found is that all I can do is to try and apply my appreciation for life and for the love I had, as well as lessons I learned during that time (mistakes I made, things I wish I could have done over, all of it) to my current day. So I do. But I also am in something new that has its own momentum and fun and energy and challenges as well. After Diana passed, I never would have guessed this could happen. But Leslie really helped put me back together and make me whole again. So every day I try to honor Diana’s memory and also to do right by Leslie. I try to be a good father, a good husband, a good friend, a good teacher and writer, doing good work. I’m lucky that I got to fall in love twice, with two amazing women. The fact is, time does move forward and there’s no choice about this. You do what you can.