Tantor Media sat down with the University of Baltimore professor, Marion Winik, and author of The Big Book of the Dead and winner of the 2019 Towson Prize for Literature. Among her nine other books are First Comes Love and Highs in the Low Fifties. Her award-winning Bohemian Rhapsody column appears monthly at Baltimore Fishbowl, and her essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Sun, and elsewhere. A board member of the National Book Critics Circle, she writes book reviews for People, Newsday, The Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews; she hosts The Weekly Reader podcast at WYPR. She was a commentator on NPR for fifteen years; her honors include an NEA Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction.
Tantor Media (TM): First off, you’ve done a wonderful job narrating. You had a lot of confidence and humor while you were reading despite the subject matter. Were there any essays that were particularly difficult to record?
Marion Winik (MW): Thank you! It was such a pleasure to record the book – like living my whole life over again in 5 hours, each character sort of materializing and then fading, like a parade of ghosts. The only audience was the engineer, a twenty-something musician who reminded me of my sons; I was energized by his attention and reactions.
I have read almost all of them aloud many times before and I was surprised at how much they still affect me. The Carpenter and The Skater, my brother-in-law and my first husband, both of whom died very young of AIDS, in particular, hit me hard. The last line of The Carpenter, “I miss him more, not less, as time goes by” came as much from my heart as from the page.
TM: For a memoir, it seems like you have taken on the role of narrator, making only small appearances in the lives of those who appear in your book. Each essay focuses on a specific character and their death, and some characters appeared briefly, playing a very small role in your life. How did you decide to arrange your memoir in a way where you assume a minor role?
MW: I’ve written about five of books of memoir and personal essay where I am center stage – my character, my choices, my mistakes. There are many things about that fierce spotlight that are challenging. So actually, it was a relief to be off to the side. When I was first writing the pieces, all the way back in 2007, I didn’t quite realize that whomever I was writing about — whether it was my father, my son’s second-grade teacher, an old boyfriend, or even a cat – I was also writing about myself. By the time there were 125 of the little essays (each is no more than 400 words), I saw that they could be assembled to tell the story of my life – in terms of the people lost from it. So the book starts with characters from my childhood in New Jersey, goes through people I met during my 20 years in Texas, moves on to rural Pennsylvania and finally to where I am now, Baltimore.
As a writing teacher, I’ve had the chance to notice that you can sometimes learn more about a person by what they say about other people than what they say about themselves, which is always a bit fraught. I’d think that dynamic might be operating here.
TM: Despite your book showcasing death, there isn’t a whole lot of time spent on the dying process or grieving; rather, you pinpointed meaningful moments in each person’s life. Was this an intentional choice, or did your work start out as something different?
MW: The book is not really about death – it’s about people, and it’s about life. But in some cases, the way the person died felt like a big part of the story. That’s particularly true of the young people in the book – The Virgin, The Graduate, The Boy With the Wrong Story, The Very Tiny Baby. The Innocents, which is about victims of school shootings. For the older subjects, the death is often more of a footnote to the life. Still, in each case, I try to give the sense of how it fits into the story. “The only consolations of Alzheimer’s, and they are small indeed, is that it doesn’t hurt much and that once the full nightmare is underway, you are long gone.” “She certainly did not believe a clot in her lung could bring her down, that smoking for sixty-five years would actually cause lung cancer, or that lung cancer was definitely fatal.” “He was fifty-six, just like my own father who died the same way: the heart in the dark of the night that loses its place.”
TM: Are there any people you wanted to include in The Big Book of the Dead that didn’t make an appearance? If so, is there a reason why they weren’t included?
MW: I relied heavily on information from surviving family and friends to fill in details about the subjects, and luckily no one turned me down when I asked them for help. As you know, there are a few famous people in the book. Towards the end of the writing process, I was thinking of writing one about Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade that would talk about their suicides – how suddenly a subject no one ever talks about was being discussed at every dinner table. But I found I didn’t have the personal connection to either one of them that I would need to strike the right tone. Not like, say, Prince, who may not have known he was in my life, but definitely was. David Bowie, Philip Roth, Keith Haring – same.
TM: Who did you write about first? Whose life or death compelled you to start writing your series of books about the dead?
MW: The first one was The Jeweler, a guy I briefly dated in Austin in my twenties. How it came about was that I was sitting in on a writing workshop given by another teacher. She read the students a poem called “Tenderness” by Stephen Dunn, and asked them to write about someone for whom they felt the same blend of regret and nostalgia that is captured in the poem. The Jeweler came immediately into my mind… and then I realized I had dozens of people I felt this way about. I wrote a list right then and there that eventually became the first table of contents.
TM: What would you like listeners to come away with after finishing The Big Book of the Dead?
MW: A desire to read my other books? Ha. Perhaps a renewed appreciation of our short time on earth. Maybe the urge to make something or write something in memory of their own lost loved one, to bring them back in the way the characters in the book are. Think of it as a writing prompt.
Questions created by Marissa Woble
For more information about Marion Winik visit: www.marionwinik.com