Santa Fe resident and College of Santa Fe professor Robin Romm’s second book, The Mercy Papers, is an intense memoir of the three weeks before the author’s mother’s death. The book’s very first review appeared in The New York Times, which was quickly followed by favorable reviews from papers across the country, including People magazine. In an exclusive interview, Romm tells SFR the details about the book’s creation and the public’s response.
SFR: Why write The Mercy Papers? Or, more specifically, why publish it?
RR: [At the time that I started this book], I couldn't write fiction because everything was so urgent in my life. I was on leave [from San Francisco State University], and my professor at the time said, “Just do an independent study with me, and just write whatever's happening."
So this book was written in real time?
It was started in real time, when I was at my parents' house while my mother was sick. I started writing in the upstairs of our house in Oregon, and I probably wrote about 30 pages. The scene that the book opens with, the Robin being mean to Barb scene, was written when I was sitting up there, waiting for [Barb to leave]. Then, about two or three weeks after my mom died, I went back to California and I just wrote everything else down. And then I stuck it in a drawer. I had no intention of publishing it. None.
But then when I sold The Mother Garden, of course the publishers always want to know if there's a second book, so they could buy that too. I wouldn't show this book. My agent would ask me every once in a while, and I'd say no. But I was taking it out and working on it, and I felt like it was still alive—it wouldn't die. Then suddenly I was confronted with an opportunity in the spring of 2007. I didn't know what to do, I didn't know whether to say yes or no. I decided to say yes to Scribner, and I thought that if I didn't want to later I could just tell them, 'Never mind.' But of course once you're in, you're in.
If I'd given myself more time [to think about whether or not to publish] I probably would have chickened out, because it is so personal and risky. And no one knew what would happen to this book in the world, either, because it's dark and sad and honest, really honest. People think people want ‘dog-on-vacation-in-France’ books, but I think there is a need for honest books.
How was your experience writing The Mercy Papers different from The Mother Garden?
You don't know what's going to happen in a fictional story. You really have to be willing to tolerate a lot of mystery with writing fiction, which is hard—I think one of the hardest skills that any writer has to learn. The only way a story is going to be good is if you don't know what's going to happen in it. That's a difficult psychological space for any person, that giving over to the unknown. But with memoir you know what happened. Everybody knows what's going to happen in my memoir from the first page. It's not like you're turning the pages to find out what happens. With nonfiction, you know where you're going, but the trick is knowing what to include, what not to include, and also knowing what you can reveal about humanity through what's going on in your own life.
While I felt like I was dealing with difficult material in some of the stories I wrote in The Mother Garden, I feel like I took a lot more risk in The Mercy Papers. Just because it was a personal book, there was no fictional veil to hide behind. And if someone is going to hate the book, they generally hate me. There's no room for saying, 'Oh, this character wasn't well-developed!' It's usually more like, 'She was selfish!' So, that's hard.
There really wasn't anything in this book that made the reader feel very tenderly toward your mother. There wasn't any of this, 'I sat in her arms and she smelled like soap'—the kind of sentimental stuff that you get in memoirs about the death of a loved one. Can you speak on that?
My mom never smelled like soap. [laughs] I think that, in writing a book about someone dying of cancer, one of the biggest mistakes you could make would be sentimentality. Part of the project of that book was to resist all the easy ways that people talk about cancer and death and mother-daughter relationships. I had a lot of people shoving literature at me that really didn't ring true, like the pamphlet that the hospice nurse gave me. There are other books that people give you when you have a mom that's dying, but they didn't feel like my life. And I wanted to uncover something authentic—not sentimental, but true. My relationship with my mom didn't feel full of cliché. It felt really particular. So I just wrote about that.
Does the honesty in this book ever grate on you?
[long pause] No.
[laughs] Not yet. I really believe that there needs to be more honesty rather than less, so I just went for it.
You say in the afterword that you don't believe in healing; that the girl dealing with her mother's illness is still inside you. But that suggests that a new you has then come to the surface of the self; perhaps a more functional you. Couldn't one call that healing?
I think what I don't believe in is easy healing, total healing. You never get over loss. Loss lives inside of you and you just incorporate it. And I felt like that was missing from a lot of the condolence cards and the pamphlets and the books—the idea that it's okay if it's always with you, if it's always painful. I think that what I was trying to say was that you certainly move on and certainly do more things, and there will certainly be lots of pleasure in life, but there will also be this pain that is palpable and real and will go on forever—and that that’s okay. That doesn't mean you're damaged or bad. That just means there are things in life that are big that you can't ever make sense out of.
A few months before the book came out, you put out a call for support groups or hospices that could possibly use the book. What came of that?
I did that because we thought that that might be an interesting way to reach out. I don't know that the book is going to appeal to too many hospice workers.
'Cause you talk so much shit about the hospice workers?
Yeah, I talk shit about the hospice workers. But that's actually more where I can see the book getting interest—how to deal with families of dying people. People who are caregivers, they face this kind of fury and grief; in the face of that, doctors often just become blank and sterile. A lot of medical schools are trying to talk doctors through patient narratives and family narratives and humanize the profession a little bit. And I feel like The Mercy Papers could be a really interesting book for that purpose. My editor thinks it would be a great book to use to train hospice workers. But I have no idea if hospice workers would feel that way or not.
Can you tell me about the cover?
Sure. It was a struggle to find a cover for this book. The designer, Rex Bonomelli, read the book, and he responded strongly to it. He's the one who thought of the popsicles. I thought it was really lovely and beautiful and simple. In the book, my mom is eating these popsicles and dropping them by the end and they're cracked and broken. So there's this way that something starts out whole and ends up melted and disintegrated. It's a very intriguing cover, I think. I really love it.
While it doesn't necessarily have answers, the book feels like it wants to teach the reader something. How has your experience actually teaching creative writing at the College of Santa Fe affected you in a bigger scheme?
I'm interested in what you think the book is trying to teach.
I feel like the book wants to have answers of how to deal with something like this, how to go on after something like this. Throughout, there are a lot of places in the book where you say what you wish would be happening instead of what is happening or that, in hindsight, such-and-such should have happened. Or it feels like you want to be a Virgil type character, leading the reader through the underworld.
I remember being in the house alone, trying to deal with all the stuff I was dealing with during those months that my mom was dying... And I had all these friends who knew what was going on who would ask—‘How are you?’ And the book's kind of the answer to that. I could not answer those questions. I felt like this is so intense, this is so full of questions and rawness, the only way I'll ever be able to express this is if I just write it all down. So in a way I suppose the book is trying to honestly respond to people who had no idea.
With regard to teaching at the College, I certainly don't feel like I sit the students down and tell them about my mom's death. That's not what I'm trying to do in there. But I do hope that people will think about why art is important, what it can really do, how to make human connections through it. I hope that it can sink in and become something more universal, [that their writing can] grapple with what it means to be alive. I think that's when a book goes from being just fiction to being literary fiction, or something that you might even be able to call art.
What has been your reaction to, your experience of, this explosion of praise?
I don't know if it's been an explosion. I think that the one thing that has struck me more than anything else is that I was a nervous wreck about this book. I've been really scared about putting this book out. I don't know if it was scarier to think that it might just come out and nothing would happen, that it would be this roar of pain that, like most roars of pain, just gets swept away—or I was scared that people would dislike me or say hurtful things. It would be very hard not to take those things as an attack on my actual being and my actual life. This one was going to be a much harder and I knew that.
And there were times when I just thought—‘I'm such a dumbass for writing this book. I shouldn't have done it. I should have been more careful. I'm gonna regret it.’ But then I actually got the Times review a little bit early, and all of the feelings that I had that were so painful and weren't being validated anywhere during my mom's death were suddenly being validated—by the New York Times!
It was a really emotional thing, because it felt like it wasn't just about the book for me. It was about the taboo feelings that the book seeks to uncover. The critics were saying, ‘Wow, this seems human and this seems alive and this seems different from the books that are out there.’ And that's a huge relief. I'm pretty blessed.
Do you fear future loss? Could you bear something like this happening again?
I think everybody fears future loss somewhere in their psyches. People bear all kinds of things. There's so much horror and tragedy in the world and so many stories of people who survive so much worse and have found ways to go on—but maybe never be the same person they were before all that loss. I think about books like Night by Elie Wiesel, books about genocide. The authors of those books, it's not like they sit around mourning day in and day out. They may be doing that all the time in some small way, but there's also coffee to be had and books to be read and books to be written. So I think people do continue to go on, full of all kinds of different loss. That's part of being a person.
Read SFR's review of The Mercy Papers.
Reading and Book Signing with Robin Romm
7 pm Tuesday, Jan. 27
O’Shaughnessy Performance Space, College of Santa Fe
1600 St. Michael’s Drive, 505-473-6011