Interview with Beth Kephart

Once, in a conversation on the PBS show NC Bookwatch, Judy Goldman reflected on a writing career that had begun in poetry, stretched toward fiction, and transitioned into memoir. Memoir, Judy asserted, was a form of poetry. Memoir was, to her, like returning home. The details of her life would always be her most affixing emotional current.

Together is Judy’s second memoir, after the deeply affecting Losing My Sister. It is a book that wonders out loud about what makes a marriage last—after the whirlwind, within the framework of routines, in the aftermath of a shattering error or accident. It is a book about the routine medical procedure that left Judy’s husband in a terrifying paralytic condition—and upended the unspoken rules of a long-time partnership.

I read the book in a single sitting. I called Judy the instant I was done. “Look at what you have achieved,” I said, rushing to enumerate. A tenterhook suspense. A tentacled tale. A meditation on what happens to love—over time and all at once. Together is a book whose author explores and finally celebrates imperfect love. It is a book that dares to shatter the expected reminisce, pivots on a poem, goes long and short in both sentences and chapters, builds scenes out of just the right components, which is to say credible dialogue, telling detail, and overriding purpose.

“I want to interview you,” I told Judy, at the end of my breathless monologue, and she agreed. Together will be released on February 12, 2019, and you can pre-order now.

In order to understand how the medical event that left your husband paralyzed from the waist down changed not just your husband but your marriage, we readers have to be taken on a tour of your before. Tell us about the journey of your remembering. What photographs, questions, conversations carried you back to your earlier selves?

My older brother has always called me “the little historian.” I’m not only a noticer; I’m also a rememberer. Not surprising then, the starting point for my memoir about my marriage: remembering why we fell in love in the first place. Which led me to a million tiny scenes from the past, all those early snapshots, moments of bliss. But memoir requires that we write about the things that unsettle us, so I needed to also include the times we wondered if we’d made a mistake. My husband is a noticer and rememberer, too. When I began writing this memoir, he and I would be side by side on the sofa, legs outstretched on the ottoman, and I’d ask him, “Name things that happened right after we got married. How ‘bout when our daughter was born? When our son left for college and we were alone again?” Marriages are always moving into a new and unfamiliar world where we have never been before. My job as memoirist was to probe the past so that I could record that progression. All the different versions of a marriage.

 

Memoir is the art of elision. How did you decide what wouldn’t be shared in these pages?

It’s a struggle, what to leave in, what to cut. We must constantly decide where we will fall on the continuum: silence or song, loyalty or betrayal. (Those terms are borrowed from the poet, Sharon Olds.) The good thing, my family is accustomed to being written about. Also, my husband is always my first reader, so he knew that he was the star of this book. I gave an early draft to my grown daughter and son and their spouses, promising to delete anything they were uncomfortable with. No complaints though — even the chapter where I write about their marriages! I do believe we say whatever we need to in initial drafts, let everything that feels essential to the story get onto the page. Later we can decide what must go.

My greatest fear in writing this memoir was that I would sound like the person you sit next to on an airplane who spends the entire flight telling you about his gall bladder operation. My book is a braid – one thread, the chronology of our marriage; the other, the medical crisis. My dilemma: How much of the medical crisis to include? My agent happens to be a wonderful editor. Her suggestion was to tamp down the medical and ramp up the marriage. The minute she said those words, I felt my whole body relax. She would keep me from being that gall bladder person on the plane! The chapters about midnight runs to the ER, chapters that had bodily fluid in them, chapters I worked hard on for so many months – cut!

 

Life is hardly indefectible, and neither are we. One of the things I loved about Together was how willing you were to expose the minutiae or gestures or thoughts that illuminated the truth not just of your circumstance, but also of you. There’s that fabulous moment, late in the book, when your children talk to you about the expression that slips onto your face as you converse with the medical staff. “‘But to someone who doesn’t know you,'” your son says, “‘you just look…angry. You know I understand. It’s hardnotto feel angry. But you’ll be more helpful to Dad if you figure out a way to curb it.'”

Why was it important to write and include this particular scene? Why must every memoir switch the focus of the camera from time to time so that readers can see not just what the writer sees, but the writer herself?

I would like to believe I was kind and sensitive to the hard-working nurses and doctors who cared for my husband. But the reality is, my fear kicked in, my face turned grim, I was not my best. There’s a famous tip for writing memoir: Be twice as hard on yourself as you are on everybody else. I couldn’t do this in my early drafts. In those versions, I was just perfect. I didn’t reveal the real Judy until I was well into revision, discovering the deepest patterns of my personality. The reward for writing memoir is self-understanding.

 

In the immediate aftermath of your husband’s sudden paralysis, you wait for your children to join you, and as you wait you try to project a super-human calm. It’s a beautifully rendered scene—just the right sensory details, just the right interior monologue, just the right words inside quotation marks. What do you think about when you set out to craft a scene in memoir?

I read somewhere it’s the little things that break our heart. This tells us everything we need to know about creating a scene. However, my natural tendency is to rush on to the next page, leave the scene half-done. I have to consciously remind myself to slow down, go for the specific, concrete details first, try to describe everyone (including myself) in a way that no one has ever done before. And, the most important task: reflect. What do I see now that I didn’t see then?

 

You write, “I never miss the section in the Sunday paper that posts the fiftieth-anniversary photos of couples, alongside their wedding photos. I scrutinize their young faces, their old faces, their hair, their clothes…. I want to know their pet names for each other. Their in-jokes. I wonder how many times they hurt each other. How many times they did not call it quits. Two people living through history, becoming doughy caricatures of their younger selves. I love the way they appear so committed to the long term.” Tell us something you’ve learned about marriage since this book was finished, the galleys bound.

I’m now 77, my husband is 79, we’ve been married 51 years, and the changes just keep coming. The central question in my memoir was: How do we adjust to the changes that occur in every relationship – the slow, expected changes brought on by the passage of time and the sudden, dramatic ones that catch us by surprise? Honestly, I’m still trying to learn the answer to that question. I just want us to be safe and happy. Isn’t that what we all want? Until my last breath, I’ll be trying to learn how to face the unheard of.

I Love Giving Interviews and Talks!

When I was little, I entered talent show after talent show, never winning but always hopeful. I’m really just a ham. I no longer tap dance or twirl a baton, but I do love giving readings and talks. I especially like tailoring a talk to a specific group — whether it’s a Friends of the Library event, book fair, writers’ conference, civic group, religious organization, or any gathering of women.

For example, I can talk about relationships (the changes that take place in every marriage – the slow, expected ones and the sudden, surprising ones); the importance of taking on new challenges as we grow older; how we patients must navigate today’s health care system; the craft and process of writing – or more specifically, writing memoir and personal essays. I can talk about the similarities and differences in writing memoir, novels, and poems; how I’ve used details from my life in my writing. I also love encouraging others to write their story. I believe there are a lot of people out there who want to turn their memories and real-life experiences into art.

Got another idea? Run it by me. I’m always happy to come up with a new talk.