I first "met" Margo Rabb when I contacted her about her four title Missing Person series for a piece almost two years ago in Eclectica on girl detective books. I sent her some emails asking about the books as I was putting the article together and those exchanges led to an interview in Bookslut. (As Eclectica is a quarterly it actually came out after the Bookslut piece, even though it was written first.) Margo told me she was working on another book that was not a mystery and promised to have a review copy sent my way when it was published. I received Cures for Heartbreak about a month ago and promptly found myself loving the story while personally becoming very unsettled by it. You can read my reaction to the book here, and see how this lovely young adult book about a teenager coping with the sudden loss of her mother rang so very true for me. Also be sure to read Jen and Kelly's rave reviews.
I am thrilled to be part of Margo's blog tour as I really think she is an author who will be breaking out soon in a very big way. I can not stress enough how her new book will appeal to both teen and adult readers and I strongly recommend adults to seek it out. It's a beautiful story and will resonate with anyone who has navigated the treacherous world of grief. (And there are some very humerous moments so don't worry that it will completely suck the life out of you.)
Margo's publisher is giving away a book a day during the tour. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and one winner will chosen at random each day.
Behind the cut - some thoughtful answers on writing in the story cycle format, revisiting in fiction the loss of a parent, and why comedy could use a bit of tragedy every now and again.
Did you consciously decide to write about your mother's death? In other words, did you sit down at some point and think "I want to write about this - I want to get some of these feelings down on paper"? Or did it just kind of sneak up on you and appear in short stories without any deep preplanning?
It definitely snuck up on me. For many years, whenever I sat down to write, the material I was drawn to and kept returning to was about my motherâ€™s death. Even if I wasnâ€™t thinking about my motherâ€™s death in regular life, it always seemed to turn up on the page. I started writing Cures for Heartbreak long before I wrote the Missing Persons series (which are much lighter books than Cures for Heartbreak)â€”but even Missing Persons had dead parents as part of the storyline.
Did you always plan to group the stories together into a cohesive plan or did that evolve on its own as it became clear that the stories had a common theme?
I decided pretty early on that I wanted to write a novel in stories. I love the genre of novels in stories, also known as â€œstory cycles.â€� Some of my favorite books of all timeâ€”The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro, Another Marvelous Thing by Laurie Colwin, The Elizabeth Stories by Isabel Huggan, and The Things They Carried by Tim Oâ€™Brienâ€”are story cycles. I love how those books give both the pleasure of short storiesâ€”the chapters are self-contained and can be read in one sittingâ€”and the pleasure of a novel, with the chapters building off each other and the characters growing and changing.
You make it clear in the Afterword that CURES draws heavily on your personal experience. How many of these experiences - meeting a young man with cancer in the hospital, Mia attending a "health camp" with her father, coping with her father's dating, were fictional and how many based on fact?
Those events in the book are fictionalized, though they were inspired by real experiences. When I was fifteen and my father was in the hospital, he did share a room with a young cancer patient who was having a birthday party. The character of Sasha, however, is a composite (characteristics of this person and that person thrown together, with equal parts imagination as well.) I never attended a health resort with my father, though he did receive countless health newsletters, and my parents did maintain an impressive library of disease books. The experience of traveling alone with my father after my mother died was another inspiration for that chapter.
How hard was it emotionally to go back to some of these places, times and feelings? Did you struggle at times with writing these stories and reconsider your decision to write about some things that were a little too close? Or was it more a cathartic/positive experience?
It was often very hard. Sometimes, while I was writing these stories, Iâ€™d end up crying hysterically over some stupid thingâ€”losing my keys, or my car breaking downâ€”when in fact I wasnâ€™t crying over the keys or the car at all, but over my motherâ€™s death, since Iâ€™d been writing about it intensely. I once attended the funeral of a distant relative I barely knew at all, and during the proceedings I couldnâ€™t stop weeping. People must have thought I was his secret mistress. Of course I was really crying because Iâ€™d been dredging up all this grief while writing fiction.
I tried to add a lot of humor to the book, though, because I like tragic comedy, and because it made the writing a lot more enjoyable for meâ€”and hopefully makes the book more enjoyable for the reader. Laughter was also how my father, sister and I coped.
And this might be an unfair question but I read a lot of books where the protagonist has a dead parent and I always wonder just what the hell the writer really knows about it. Do you think any author can truly visualize and write about such intimate loss if they have not experienced it? In other words - if you had not lost your mother, do you think there were aspects of the book that you would have, unknowingly, written differently?
Iâ€™ve also read books that featured a protagonist with a dead parent and which didnâ€™t ring true to me. I donâ€™t think Iâ€™d be able to write about it with such detail and depth if I hadnâ€™t experienced it. However, there are some authors who are capable of writing about things like that convincingly even if they havenâ€™t experienced it, which is a testament to their talent.
You know how rocked I was to read about melanoma - no one ever writes about melanoma (I think leukemia and breast cancer are the two "favorites"). I have to say you really nailed the unreasonable fear of it quite well in "The Healthy Heart". Would you feel as comfortable writing about another form of cancer - or disease - in place of melanoma? Or are there certain singular things about your experience with it that you think were necessary to convey the sense of urgency vital to that particular story?
At one point during the five thousand drafts that this book went through, I did change it to another form of cancer because I wanted to give myself a little more distance from the material. I ended up changing it back to melanoma because I think itâ€™s a particularly insidious disease, since after itâ€™s metastasized it can be so dire, as it was with my mother. Also, when my motherâ€™s doctors told me that sometimes a mole canâ€™t be found on the skin, and that it can grow undetected for many years--that rattled me and made me want to write about that fear.
It's really weird for me to read about someone dying so fast from this disease as it was such a relative nonevent in my own life. I got less than ten stitches and while it was sore for a few days, it wasn't terrifying. But that's the difference in catching it early - it can be practically nothing for one person and everything for another. Tricky little monster, eh? My father waited too long with this colon cancer - he lived for almost three years after the diagnosis but if he had gone to the doctor six months earlier he would probably have beaten it. This business with cancer makes you see the world entirely different - makes you see everything in a whole new way. Living the life you have, and losing your parents like you did, must influence the kind of writer you have become. Do you think so? It has made me darker - more cynical I think in the way my characters speak or act. (I'm not sure if that's good, it just seems to be how it is.) How do you think it might have affected you?
It has definitely made me darker. I wonder sometimes what books I would have written if they hadnâ€™t died. My agent once referred to me jokingly as â€œthe princess of deathâ€� since I canâ€™t seem to write anything without throwing death into the story. I canâ€™t help but picture a princess of death action figureâ€”a young woman in a long, pink, sparkly dress carrying a sickle. She would fly around and visit unsuspecting comic short stories, and throw a little tragedy in for good measure.
I don't think I will be shaking the vision of Margo flying around sprinkling some tragedy into comic stories for a long long time! ha! She and I think a lot alike - it comes with some similar territory I suppose - and I was quite pleased to see that Tim O'Brien is one of her favorite authors as he has so deeply affected my writing as well. I will be reviewing Cures for Heartbreak in my June column and look forward to many more books from Margo in the future.
Here's the rundown for the rest of the blog tour - be sure to check out what else this thoughtful author has to say.
3/20: Lizzie Skurnick at theoldhag
3/21: Jen Robinson at Jenâ€™s book page
3/22: Betsy Bird at Fuse #8
3/23: Kelly Herold at Big A Little A
3/26: Liz Burns at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy
3/27: Jackie Parker at Interactive Reader
3/28: Little Willow at bildungsroman
3/29: Leila Roy at Bookshelves of Doom
3/30: Mindy at propernoun