A Conversation with Kelly Corrigan
Lisa Sadikman: In your book, your dad, Greenie, is diagnosed with cancer at the same time you’re going through your breast cancer treatment. How are you both doing now?
Kelly Corrigan: I’m healthy and perfect, saggy, misshapen. I’ve been in remission for three years. My dad’s great. He finished his treatment and he’s coaching lacrosse. It’s shocking really. It’s more than I ever would have guessed in a million years. He’s amazing.
People don’t live forever and this is the type of cancer that reoccurs. You have to acknowledge that, let it motivate you and move on.
LS: What was it like for you when you learned your father was ill at the same time you were going through cancer treatments yourself?
KC: Having my father be sick was really, truly the most adult experience of my life. It made the other experiences on which I’d hung my adult life seem inconsequential. I would have thought getting married, having children, buying a home would have been enough to make me an adult, but no, it’s staring into mortality. The fact that it was his mortality, not mine, that was surprising to me.
LS: What is it about the relationship between a father and a daughter that’s so special, so heart-crushing?
KC: My relationship with my dad is uncomplicated, which is remarkable. Usually there are layers, hot buttons, issues not discussed, points of irritation. Any relationship that’s void of all that is remarkable for its mere simplicity.
The thing that he, as a parent, did for me that I don’t feel anyone will do again was that he was just consistently and enthusiastically interested in what I had to say. That will never happen for me again. It’s too tall an order for a husband to fill.
Every time anyone stands in front of him, he smiles. Everyone is special to him. He’s open to being delighted. It’s a gift. It’s really just a fluke, rather than an achievement. A true gift.
LS: Do your girls have that with your husband? Is it something you relish or something you’re a little jealous of?
KC: Yes, but Edward’s not goofy like Greenie is. I think part of what I’ll thank Edward for the most is the way he is with the girls. Especially since I had that relationship with my dad, I just so wanted to be with someone who was interested in [the girls] and Edward is.
You see grown-ups where the father was not interested in them so much; it wasn’t their job. Their job was to go to work and make money. Our generation of men is just so different, so much more present. Still I do see guys working really long hours, taking a lot of business trips, avoiding the hassles of being home. Edward doesn’t fight against his nature to be a family guy.
LS: What is the middle place?
KC: For me it’s the place where you transition in your identity from being someone’s daughter to being someone’s mother. Some people transition quickly and easily and without even the recognition that they’re making this major life transition. Then there are other people like me who have cause to notice it.
Being sick is an incredible childlike experience, assuming you have people who want to take care of you. All that coddling took me back to a child’s life. People just do stuff for you all day long and you’re not responsible for anything. Everyone’s just helping you have a great day.
At the time, it felt lovely, like mercy itself, but looking back I have some guilt. And also the lingering feeling that I didn’t deserve all that and I’ll never be able to repay it. My solace is that I probably spend an hour a week on the phone with someone who is newly diagnosed, just talking them through it all, initiating them really.
LS: What did you learn about living in the middle place yourself and what it means for you as a grown woman to realize that you won’t be there forever?
KC: It’s kind of sad. My initial reaction was, “Oh my God, this sucks.” So many people have already been through it and I hope I’ve given other people room to grieve or enough support when they’re going through this with their parents or any other hard time. My gut is that I haven’t. Everyone has their own transition that’s a struggle for them. This is mine.
I’ve always been described as this independent, daring woman, someone who’s done some adventurous things. I was still hanging my hat on being George’s daughter. It’s a matter of identity.
I can already see how much your identity changes as your kids age. It’s much easier to think of myself as [my daughter] Georgia’s mother now that she’s 6. I was picturing this stage of parenting when I was picturing motherhood. Parenting a slightly older child is so much more specific to who you are than when they’re these little babies and you’re just a warm, physical, vague presence. Then suddenly it’s about who you are. Your kids become more specific, your parenting style becomes more specific. Then suddenly it’s really incredibly personal, what you’re doing, and what I’m giving my kid is really different from what you’re giving yours. Your family becomes more specific too, more particular. Home is more than food and dry clothes and a fresh diaper. Home becomes more complicated and more interesting. Dynamics and chemistry become bigger than everything.
LS: When did you find time to write between chemotherapy treatments, emotional trauma, caring for your kids, general life crisis?
KC: I had this one year when Georgia and Claire were in the same school three mornings a week. That’s when I did my writing. My rule was tea and pee: I could get up for more tea and to pee, that was it. I wrote for four hours straight on those mornings. Then I’d sit on it for two days because the girls were in school every other day. I could draft a chapter on Monday, revise it Wednesday, then really think about where it should go and do the work on it Friday.
LS: What prompted you to write this book?
KC: I was an English major undergrad and have a master’s in English Literature. In my college yearbook I answered the question “What will you be doing when you’re 40?” with “I’ll be an author.” Then life got in the way and I thought I’d never get published. Then, when I found out my dad could be dying, it was an incredibly natural reaction to write. I couldn’t sleep, so what else could I do? I really wanted to write down the stories of my childhood [for him and for myself.]
LS: Did you believe it would get published?
KC: My practical self that killed all my projects, previously, the one who said, “What are you doing? You’re going to write a book, get published and someone’s going to pick it up off the shelf and read it?” That woman became a person who could imagine a way to get it into the hands of someone who could make it into something. I just needed a sliver of hope to keep going.
It was also fun to try to impress my husband. He’s hard to impress and it’s kind of a buzz to have him be surprised. He’s not a believer. He’s a skeptic in general and really quick to say, “That will never work.” He thinks I’m a test-your-limits person and he’s a know-your-limits person.
LS: What do you do when you get blocked? Do you have a writing routine that works?
KC: I switch mediums. I paint or take some photos or move the furniture around. I make cootie catchers or French braid my girls’ hair or decoupage an old coffee table — anything to be creative in a joyful, uncritical way.
If I don’t, the big thing that happens for me is questioning whether or not to bother [writing]. It’s so much work, just writing, then it’s so much work to get published. When that’s all done, who knows if someone’s going to pluck my book off the shelf and actually read it. It’s hard to work on the second book — you know you’re going to get crushed, but that’s not what’s keeping me down. Is it really worth all this time and effort? Mine, my publishers?
I say let’s make a list of the 50 books we should read and just read them. I start thinking, “How dare we make more when there are so many books to read!” That’s not a good place to be.
LS: Do you write linearly or just whatever comes to you that day, that moment?
KC: It helps me to have some kind of master structure in mind so I can write whatever part I want. I know basically the blocking of the book. I keep wanting some super structure because it’s motivating. Right now I’m not sure that anything I’m working on actually fits into the bigger project.
I’m hung up on structure. It’s easy to get lost if you don’t have it blocked out. I’m reading a lot, copying and pasting a lot, gathering stuff. I’ll write something down on an index card and think, “That could be a chapter.” All this research, though, has to be hidden inside a story.
LS: What do you get out of writing? What’s your high?
KC: A lot of times I get clarity on something that’s nagging at me. I get that buzz of “Oh my God, I’ve been productive!” It’s very validating. I get so high when I figure something out and finish it. I can’t get that feeling anywhere else, from anything else. It’s like the completion of a puzzle, especially because I’m always afraid I’ll never finish. I’m always afraid I’ll quit or that I’ll disappoint myself, leave myself unimpressed. Every time I haven’t quit, I’m doubly high.
LS: Your book is a collection of wonderful stories that really place the reader right there with you. Do you consider yourself a writer or a storyteller? What place does storytelling have in your family?
KC: What I enjoy is telling the stories. I like the twist of phrase stuff and finding the perfect metaphor too, but it’s a waste of time unless there’s a story there. We used to have a chair at Christmas night dinner when you’d get up on the chair and tell a joke. You did whatever was required to make the joke work. That’s how I learned to tell a story.
I once heard that there’s a high correlation between kids who look back and say they had a happy childhood and kids who can tell you lots of stories about the parents and grandparents. They have a strong connection with their tribe and that’s one of the things that makes you feel like you had a happy childhood.
LS: How did you handle the personal bits in your book about other people? Did you show or tell them what you’d written before it was published?
KC: I did show it to people before it was published. If I couldn’t get their personal approval, I changed names and a few other things to protect the innocent. There were definitely other things I would have written if there were no feelings involved.
LS: What was your mom’s reaction to the scenes about her? Your dad’s?
KC: My mom stands by her decisions as a parent. She actually called after she’d read the book and said, “Kelly, that was beautiful.” She finally said the right thing after years of saying the wrong thing. I could live off those three words forever.
LS: How has your life changed now that you’ve published the book and it made it to the New York Times bestseller list?
KC: It’s amazing how little has changed, especially in terms of my moods, what it feels like every day. I still get totally annoyed with my kids for losing their shoes, whining that they’re still hungry even though they just ate.
I do get to do some nice things, which is great. I love doing readings, lately, as fundraisers. That’s the perfect outcome of this whole thing and I do that about once a month. I did one recently for a woman raising money to fund a house where you can stay while you’re doing your [cancer] treatment. One hundred fifteen women paid $100 each to come to the reading. It was a feel-good event. Made ’em laugh, made ’em cry.
LS: Has being ill changed the way you see your kids and mother your kids?
KC: The biggest thing that’s changed is my assumptions about how long I’m going to live. I used to live in a world where it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t live until I was 80 or 90 and now I don’t. It comes up for me everyday: Can I imagine seeing my kids go to college? Getting married? Let’s hope so, fingers crossed.
LS: I read your piece about Obama on your blog. You liken your feelings leading up to seeing him like Dorothy on her way to meet the Wizard of Oz. Your experience once you do see him in action is similar to Dorothy’s when she sees the Wizard for what he is an ordinary person.
KC: I’m completely nuts about Obama because he’s so sane and grounded and he’s so not bombastic. He’s not trying to be the great and powerful Oz. He’s trying to be sane and incremental.
I liked Hillary, but I didn’t think she had the ability to motivate the country to take some responsibility. God forbid we have to get involved in solving our own problems.
LS: Your next book is about faith. That’s a big, wide world. Can you give us a little more detail? Why did you choose the topic?
KC: I want to get to the bottom of it for myself. Basically, people are going to start dying and I want to know how I feel about that. I want to know what to say to my kids. They’ll hear something in church, then on the way home I want to tell them how I feel about it.
The clock is ticking for me. I grew up Catholic and if Georgia is going to get her first communion, we have to start working on that. If she doesn’t, it would be the first Catholic sacrament I let pass me by. It would be my off ramp. I feel like I should make that decision in a really deliberate way and not let it slide by and not know why.
1 reply on “A Conversation with Kelly Corrigan”
Kelly Corrigan, Your words really hit home for me and you speak beautifuly. Please, if you have a list of devoted readers, keep me on it. Thank you so much. Joan Ellis