One of the most important things Leslie Brody hopes readers will take from her book, The Last Kiss: A True Story of Love, Joy and Loss, which appears tomorrow (TitleTown Publishing, $17.95, 9780985247850), is that even though it's a natural reaction to believe that life after receiving a "horrible" diagnosis will be "bleak and dreary" afterward, that does not need to be the case. When her husband, Elliot, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he would be lucky to live another year or two, "we managed to make the best of it and have a rich time along the way," she said. "It was not like life ended. We focused on each other more than the disease."
In the book, which is by turns a sad, humorous, poignant account of her life with Elliot and coping with his death, Brody gives plenty of evidence of that rich time. There are lots of short chapters "in different moods because I wrote them in different moods," she said. She quotes from the many notes, letters and e-mails that she and Elliot exchanged. ("They were very sustaining," she said, "and I hope this would inspire more husbands and wives to write to each other.") In this way, Elliot, a journalist like Brody, has a voice, too. (Brody called him "a funny, warm guy. He was a kinder, gentler Larry David.")
In part, the book grew out of a series on living with cancer that Brody co-wrote for the Record, the northern New Jersey newspaper she has worked many years (and where she met Elliot). Although the series relied significantly on her experience (and her co-writer's experience), it was a journalist piece that included quotations from experts and discussions about trends in cancer and patient care. The series got "tons of comments," Brody remembered. "It was satisfying to write something that mattered so much."
From there, it was an easy step to writing more about her own experience, something that began with the remembrance she wrote for Elliot's memorial service. "While writing the piece, I felt peaceful," she said. "So I thought I'd keep writing for a while. "
Although she was "not at all confident" that the results would become a book, she worked on it for a year. ("I was lucky to be working part-time then and had a full six hours each Thursday and Friday to myself.") Writing about her life with and without Elliot gave her a purpose, she said. "I saw the narrative of my life gone, and writing gave me a thread. It was wallowing, but because it was wallowing with a purpose, it wasn't really wallowing. By the time it was done, I felt ready to deal with what was next."
She found it liberating, too, to write "whatever I wanted" and to write long, she said. At the newspaper, she has many constraints involving length (1,500-word pieces), timing ("I have to hand in a story by five o'clock.") and what she can write about. And she found it exhilarating to "make something good out of an excruciating experience."
While writing, she was guided in part by Nora Roberts's famous basic rule for writing: "ass in the chair," as well as a concept discussed in Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott that went counter to her training as a journalist. "Lamott talks about how after four pages of writing, maybe you have one sentence you like," Brody explained. "I liked the idea that I wasn't wasting most of my time if I worked for hours and had only one good sentence."
Brody also got inspiration from attending the Writing Matters series about "the craft and business of writing," coordinated by Marina Cramer and Jenny Milchman, at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J., where she lives, as well as from "the many talented and generous people" in town, which includes a range of book people.
Perhaps most important, she took part in a weekly memoir writing workshop led by Laurie Albanese, author of Blue Suburbia: Almost a Memoir, which she called "the greatest thing. I couldn't have finished without it. She gave me deadlines."
Albanese also gave Brody writing prompts, the results of which became a major part of the book. For example, one prompt was to write about sound. Brody wrote about sounds she heard while staying overnight in the hospital some nights with Elliot, which became the chapter in The Last Kiss called "How to Sleep with Your Husband in a Hospital Bed."
In the end, she had 40 responses to the writing prompts, which she laid out "all over my bedroom," then put into order. "I had written at first about after Elliot died, then the earlier parts," she said. "Basically I wrote the book backwards in snippets and then stitched it all together. I wouldn't recommend this."
Does Brody have plans for another book? "Maybe in a while," she said. For now, she is working full-time at the Record, covering education, an "intense, demanding job." A book is such a commitment of time--involving "a lot of sitting inside on beautiful mornings"--and the subject would have to be special, she said. The Last Kiss was "our story," she added. "No one else was going to do it."
Publicity for The Last Kiss starts on Thursday, with a reading at Books & Greetings, Northvale, N.J., followed by a Wednesday, October 10, appearance at Watchung Booksellers, whose Writing Matters series mattered greatly when Brody was writing her book. --John Mutter