Jewish Writer Catherine Newman Wrote a Funny Book About Dying – Kveller
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Jewish Writer Catherine Newman Wrote a Funny Book About Dying

"I didn't choose humor. Humor chose me."

catherine newman author

photo credit: Lyndsay Hannah Photography. Design by Grace Yagel.

The moment my conversation with Jewish writer Catherine Newman ends, I realize my problem. How will I capture her laughter? How many times can I write [laughs], [laughter], [warm inviting giggle that makes you feel included] without cluttering the article?

With anyone else, a conversation about grief would never invite this conundrum. But the magic in Newman’s writing, on powerful display in her latest novel, “We All Want Impossible Things,” is how she brings her readers into a searingly painful moment and then cracks them open with tears and laughter.

I spoke with Newman about her novel — a love story in hospice about two lifelong best friends, Ash and Edi, the latter of whom is dying. There were 104 [laugh] notes in the transcript, so just imagine a lot of laughter throughout.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This is not a “Jewish book,” but for Edi and Ash, their Jewish background is core to the story. This novel is very much based on your experience of losing your best friend, Ali. Was incorporating your Jewish background intentional or just a part of the story?

It just leaks out of me. I was raised in a very atheist household; my dad is Jewish and my mom is a recovering Catholic. But it was New York City. Everybody I knew was Jewish. I went to a progressive private school that was so Jewish that I grew up imagining somehow that most people were Jewish. I can’t even explain how Jew-ly saturated my childhood was. And then I got to college and was like, where are all the Jews? Who are all these people? Why is everyone wearing L.L. Bean boat shoes?

And Ali was Jewish. When I say it was the air we breathed, it was the air we breathed. We didn’t even think about it that much. It was the classic thing of, it was normal growing up, and then later I was homesick for it. 

Humor drives your book. It’s so weird to tell my friends, “You have to read this book, it is SO funny. Also, it’s about dying.” But that’s kind of a bitterer gelekhter, or the Jewish idea of laughing through tears, right? 

Yes. Like, I didn’t write an unfunny book and then add jokes. It is that way because that’s how I think and talk. That’s how the experience in hospice really was. I volunteer in a hospice now, and honestly, it’s the same. I make dinner every Monday at hospice and I come home and cry and laugh and it’s just all the things.

I was wondering about that. There are many scenes where Ash is laughing with Edi. You were experiencing the most horrific loss of your life, but in the moment, did you laugh?

Totally. I laughed with Ali and I laughed with her family. There was a friend, another friend because she insisted on having other friends, and we were together for a really intense stretch. We were losing our minds and we laughed so much. It was just super grounding because that was the way we were, you know?  

I read somewhere where someone asked about the humor, and you said because #Jewish, this is how we process!

It’s funny because I do get asked that question at public events. “Why did you choose humor?” And I keep having to be like, “Oh, I didn’t choose humor, humor chose me.” I just was joking that we didn’t have time to let the bread rise, but we had time to tell a really long joke. It’s the survival of a culture. 

Years ago, you wrote about spirituality, and it seems that love is a driving force in your spiritual understanding. Can you share more about that?

Oh, I love that. It’s so true. The spiritual practice of love and devotion is how I felt about raising my kids and how I feel about my parents. I was just describing hospice as the closest thing I have to a place of worship. I go there every week and it’s a hugely spiritual practice. I’m not really sure, because I’m like Ash, where I’m like, “Oh, pray for somebody?” And I just imagine putting heart stickers all over their face. But there’s something about being in a place where the only thing I’m there to do is a certain kind of devotional caretaking. 

Maybe that feeling is what it is like to have a faith practice? I’ll do something like drop soup off at someone’s house, the way you do when somebody is ill or somebody dies, and that feeling you have getting smugly back into your car, where you’re kind of like, yeah, I’m kind of helpful. I’m kind of doing the thing. I think maybe that’s religion?

Yes! Exactly. Nothing gets me more excited than filling a mason jar with soup for a meal train and thinking, yes, here we go.

You should volunteer in hospice! That is what my whole life is like there filling a mason jar and bringing it to hospice. It’s so good. 

Ash is a caregiver, yet somehow amid her grief and exhaustion, there is so much pleasure. It is a very sensory novel, with the food and the love, and I found the contrast of her weariness with pleasure fascinating. Was that similar to your experience?

I really appreciate your use of the word weary because when I was writing Ash, it was about her weariness. The original, working title of the book was “Wake Me.” I had this feeling she was so absolutely bone tired, which is how I felt when my friend was dying. And after. Maybe a month after she died, I was still sleeping 15 hours a day. We would eat dinner and I would put on my pajamas and go to bed. At some point my husband was like, “Hey… do you think maybe… you’re depressed?” And I was like, “Oh! No, not at all. Just really tired!” And it’s so funny to me of course I was depressed.

I really wanted to write a book about being tired in that way, as a grieving person, a caretaking person, and as a mother and a wife. The way there are so many demands on you and it’s not one thing. And the pleasure is so real. Ash gets so much pleasure from her kids, which is how I’ve always experienced it. I get so much pleasure from them, and you open your eyes and they’re standing next to you at midnight with a computer open asking, “Can you read my email?” And you’re like, “Wait, what?! I’m sleeping!”

Is there anything else you want to say about your friend Ali? 

It’s been eight years, and it’s both remarkable and a little dismaying to me how much I miss her. There’s something about a really old friend that is not quite replicated anywhere else. I could just tell her anything without a big preamble. You know that feeling where you’re like, “I’m about to complain about my parents, but I need to tell you that they’re really great…” She grew up with my parents. She knew me before I met my husband. We knew each other in preschool. It’s that feeling of somebody having an encyclopedic knowledge of your life. It’s just kind of lonely, I guess. I don’t mean I’m lonely in a global way. I’m just alone with our shared history and that’s sad.

I heard you have a second novel coming out. Can you share more?

Yes, it’s tentatively titledSandwich.” It’s about a woman on vacation at the Cape with her grown kids and her parents. It’s a very Ash-like character, another pseudo-fictional book.

I wanted to write a book about menopause as a woman who’s been in a marriage with a man for a long time. By the time you hit menopause I mean, first, there’s menopause itself, and it is just a fucking shit show. Then there’s the fact that, like, I’m 54, and having sex with a man is a lovely and wonderful thing on the one hand, on the other hand, I have been pregnant so many times. I’ve had miscarriages. It’s how I got pregnant and had our kids. I can’t even believe this sort of baggage now that comes with having sex. And then I’m married to this person for whom it has mostly been a consistent experience of pleasure. He does not have this shared experience of trauma, profundity, nostalgia, a billion things.

Like, I’m into it, don’t get me wrong. But there is just something really comical about the idea that it would just still be this thing purely for pleasure rather than this quite complicated enterprise. Anyway, feel free not to include any of that. It’s so deranged. Honestly, it’s mostly just these people eating sandwiches on the beach.

Which is the best!

Right? Is there anything better thing than cramming potato chips into a sandwich on the beach? 

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