I first met Anne Edelstein a million years ago. She was starting out on her own as a literary agent. I was starting out on my own in New York City, and we became friends, and then life intruded and we didn't reconnect until recently! I'm thrilled to host her here (we share the same extraordinary agent, Gail Hochman). Her book, Lifesaving for Beginners is a deeply personal and profound exploration of grief, love, and how one death impacts every other death that follows. Thank you so much for being here, Anne.
“Anne Edelstein’s remarkable debut is an unforgettable―and unputdownable―portrait of a singular American family. Reminiscent of Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and Daphne Merkin’s This Close to Happy, this slyly powerful memoir reads like a conversation with your kindest, funniest, most incisive friend. ―Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year and A Fortunate Age
“Loss, grief, and ‘the proof of love’ are at stake in this poignant and penetrating memoir of a daughter’s quest to understand her elusive mother, the suicide of her beloved brother, and the mystery at the heart of the will to live.”―Jill Bialosky, author of History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished life
What was the ‘why now’ moment that jump started this memoir? What made you feel brave enough to write it?
On one level I knew immediately after my mother died suddenly while snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef that I had to begin taking notes in order to make sense of her death and understand my conflicted feelings about her. But the real turning point that made me know what the core of this book would be, and that actually got me to start writing came two years later, when a man with MS intentionally drowned himself in the pond where I swam every summer in Maine. That act that was the catalyst for the book.
What was the writing like? Was it strange to be on the other end of the agent/writer relationship? The book, which is magnificent, feels as if you were healing yourself through the writing. Would you say this is the case?
The writing allowed me to revisit scenes of my life that were difficult, but at the same time it was good to be in those scenes again, a way of holding onto them and contemplating as I let them go.
Writing the book was very separate from my work as an agent. I isolated myself on certain days or partial days of the week, and over longer periods of vacation, as writing was a very different state of mind from the everyday workings of the literary agency. I did come to understand the notion of, ‘I have changed through writing my book,’ something I that had always believed happened in the process of writing a successful work and something I had long repeated to my authors. After completing my own memoir, I came to comprehend this in a more literal way.
At the end of the memoir, you have a scene with you telling Eli that you will talk more about your mother when he is older. Have you?
Both of my kids read my memoir some time ago when it was in manuscript form, and both were very moved by it. This is not so surprising, because really they are the heroes of the book! But before reading the work, over the years they already had come to know most of the details about both my mother’s and my brother’s deaths. The thing that both of them told me struck them most when they read the manuscript was that even though they already sort of knew most of what was in it, they hadn’t understood just how much the family had kept quiet for so long.
The title Lifesaving for Beginners is so evocative, and yet I found it so hopeful, too, as if there is no time limit for saving ourselves. Can you comment?
Lifesaving for Beginners at its most literal is a swimming term. Even after achieving my badge as a ‘Senior Lifesaver’ I questioned whether I would ever physically be able to save someone’s life. Today I still don’t know if it’s possible to save the life of another person, and by that I mean spiritually more than physically. But it is possible to begin a conversation about it. By looking into what has been kept quiet in the past, it may be possible to shift family patterns that haven’t been acknowledged, and with this some lives might be saved, especially one’s own.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
In one word, my biggest obsession is ‘time.’ And it will undoubtedly be the subject of what I write next. By time, I don’t mean only the passage of time, but more a sense of the meaning of ‘timelessness,’ although I think it may be understanding one that helps solve the other.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Your questions are impeccable, and allowed me to say just what I wanted to about my memoir. Thank you!