Grieving at a Distance

August 25, 2009

simone

Last week I got some terrible news.  A friend of mine, Simone Katzenberg, has passed away.

Simone was a divorce lawyer I had known in London.  She was South African by birth.  We had got to know each other through our shared interest in writing.  We used to meet up every so often in coffee shops early in the morning to discuss books and anything else that came to mind.  She was a sharp and funny person.  She loved writing and harbored ambitions to finish a novel.  She was struggling with that; but with typical generosity was happy to enjoy my (relative) success in the field.  She was friends with a few writers.  She used to go to their readings and then, with her utterly unpretentious curiosity, ambush them afterwards with extremely direct questions that paid no heed to the supposed literary prestige of the author in question.  She was a riot.

In 2002 Simone was diagnosed with a rare and severe form of leukemia.  She should have died back then.  After that our visits took place at the Royal Free Hospital (where she lived on and off for two years), or at her home.  Against extraordinarily long odds she successfully battled the disease.  She loved her three young boys more than anything else in the world and I think she was just determined not to leave them quite yet.

But by then her immune system had pretty much collapsed and she was in and out of hospital for the last years of her life and the smallest bug could lay her low.  And now she has gone.  She was 51 years old.

Here’s the thing, though.  Simone died in February 2008.  I only found out at all because I was thinking about her, and did a search on the internet.  My sadness over her passing is compounded by regret that I should have discovered the news in this way, so long after the event.  Because, really, what kind of friend could I have been?  Of course, it’s inevitable that when you move to another country, you lose touch with people.  I get that.  I suppose nobody she was close to knew me or how to get hold of me, so I wasn’t notified when she died.  Would I have returned for her funeral?  Probably not.  But having to grieve at this distance – both in terms of geography and time – just feels all wrong.

There’s no point feeling sorry for myself.  (Simone would never have approved of that.)  This is just a newly-discovered downside to moving away from home.  Note to self: keep in touch with your friends.

Travel well, Simone.


Death Becomes Me

August 20, 2009

All of my previous books have taken place over a relatively short time period, and one of the things I wanted to do with my new novel was to try something altogether bigger in scope and subject matter.  But I hadn’t realized until I was well into the book is that there is a severe drawback to writing a story that takes place over an extended period of time (just over a century, in this case): people have to die.  And it is my job to kill ’em off.

tombstone

Despite the rampant megalomania inherent in the act of making up stories, I’ve found this to be a surprisingly tough gig.  As you live with characters and watch them grow, it’s hard not to become quite fond of them (even the bastards – perhaps especially the bastards.)  And it’s only with extreme reluctance that I’ve consigned them all to their various fates, sorry to see them go.

You can’t just have them expire from old age, either.  Most unprofessional, don’t you know.  So in this book there is death by: enemy sniper fire, arson, drowning (twice), hanging (suicide), lynching, massive stroke, cycling off the edge of a cliff, Parkinson’s disease, and myocardial infarction brought on by a malfunctioning pituitary gland (you’ll just have to trust me on that last one.)  The only person who does die of old age is 106.  If you’re going to do it, do it properly, I say.

It may be wearisome, this endless trudge of death, but I suspect (or hope) that all those morbid endings contribute hugely to the book’s vitality.  After all, a life lived without fear of death is not much of a life at all.

Death Becomes Me

September 12, 2008

For all those of you who are contemplating writing a multi-generation saga for your next novel (come on, admit it), a word of warning for you.

All of my previous books have taken place over a relatively short time period.  One of the things I wanted to do with my new novel was to expand that rather tired palette (to mix artistic metaphors) and try something altogether bigger in scope and subject matter.  But I hadn’t realized until I was well into the book is that there is a severe drawback to writing a story that takes place over an extended period of time (just over a century, in this case): people have to die.  And it is my job to kill ’em off.
Despite the rampant megalomania inherent in the act of making up stories, I’ve found this to be a surprisingly tough gig.  As you live with characters and watch them grow, it’s hard not to become quite fond of them (even the bastards – perhaps especially the bastards.)  And it’s only with extreme reluctance that I’ve consigned them all to their various fates, sorry to see them go.
You can’t just have them expire from old age, either.  Most unprofessional, don’t you know.  This is a novel, for heaven’s sake!  So we’ve had death by: enemy sniper fire, arson, drowning (twice), hanging (suicide), lynching, massive stroke, cycling off the edge of a cliff, Parkinson’s disease, and myocardial infarction brought on by a malfunctioning pituitary gland (you’ll just have to trust me on that last one.)  The only person who does die of old age is 106.  If you’re going to do it, do it properly, I say.
It may be wearisome, this endless trudge of death, but I suspect that all those morbid endings contribute hugely to the book’s vitality.  After all, a life lived without fear of death is not much of a life at all.