Zoe FitzGerald Carter’s memoir, Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Loss, and Letting Go, received national media attention when it was published in 2010. Library Journal noted in a starred review: “First-time memoirist Carter comes close to perfection in this chronicle of her mother’s quest to orchestrate her own assisted suicide.”
Carter is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and has since written about end-of-life issues for many media outlets including The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and Salon. Carter is also a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, where she recently taught a course called “Navigating the Family Memoir.” She lives in Berkeley, Calif., with her husband and two daughters.
In a discussion with Lisa Lynne Lewis, Carter reflects back on the process of shaping her experience with her mother’s death into memoir and also shares some of her current writing projects.
Lisa Lynne Lewis: When did you first think about writing the story of your mother’s death? How long did it take you to get to this point?
Zoe FitzGerald Carter: My mother died in 2001. It didn’t cross my mind to write about it at the time — it was such an all-consuming situation, and also at that point, I was working on a different book, a mystery novel, which was as much about the experience of motherhood as my observations of race and class. I got an agent, and we got a lot of really nice rejections! At some point, probably early 2004, I knew I needed to move on.
At first I thought I would write a novel about the experience of growing up as the youngest child, with two older sisters fighting over my soul. I was seeing it as fiction, but it was based on autobiography. I wanted to have those characters dealing with some crisis and re-activate all of the dynamics between them. The mother’s death would be the crisis. It’s weird how your mind works — you kind of approach things in an indirect way.
After I wrote the first 50 pages, my agent read it and asked me which parts were true. The scene that tipped her off that it was based on real life was the visit from the Hemlock Society volunteer. She thought there was some really good material and suggested I try it as memoir. She felt that it would be easier to sell, given that memoirs were and continue to be very popular — readers are more willing to go on a journey with you if they know that it really happened.
LLL: What was it like to shift to memoir?
ZFC: It all sort of fell into place fairly quickly. I kept the structure of the novel, which goes back and forth between childhood and adulthood. I thought that structure worked very well with the memoir as well. Once I started, it became such a fascinating experience — a lot of things fell into place in the writing in terms of the tone and voice that I found.
I do think writing memoir gives you this opportunity to go back to events in your life that maybe you haven’t fully understood or metabolized psychologically and re-experience them in some way, and understand them. For me, it wasn’t cathartic, exactly, but it gave me an opportunity to really closely examine what happened and move forward with a different understanding.
The process of translating memory and emotion into writing is also really fascinating — it was much more enjoyable than I ever expected it to be. I was letting feelings and memories come up around certain events and then letting those feelings fuel the writing. An example is the scene about the Grateful Dead T-shirt my mother received as a gift. It was such a disconcerting and unlikely experience, and when I felt I had captured it on the page in all of its strangeness, it was enormously satisfying.
LLL: Was it challenging to shape your experience into a story?
ZFC: That’s where the skills of fiction come in. You’re the character, and that’s a really interesting internal process: It’s a way to contain the experience, to make the choices as a writer about what you’re going to say. Having that sense of control allows you to feel some distance from it. In the book I wrote, “Naming the pain means holding it away from you, labeled and contained, instead of allowing it to wreak its havoc inside you like some rogue strand of DNA, quietly lethal.” This describes the writing process too.
LLL: You have a background in journalism and had also written the mystery novel prior to writing this memoir. Were there ways these also informed your writing?
ZFC: Maybe I stumbled onto a genre that, much to my surprise, suits me in a way. Journalism is writing what happened, and memoir is too, on some very basic level. I was reporting on myself. Having written that mystery really helped. There’s definitely suspense in Imperfect Endings — you don’t know how it’s going to end up, and that was deliberate.
LLL: In the book, you disclose information about experimenting with drugs and about your struggle with anorexia. As a mother, were you concerned about your daughters someday reading this?
ZFC: My MO was to cut to the bone and put the truth out there. I gave myself that freedom. I did sit down with both of them and tell them what had happened. I explained to them that when you write memoir, it’s just one story — you’re pulling one thread out — but there are a lot of other things that make up who I am. I think it’s OK for them to know that.
They were young teenagers when they read it: My older daughter read it in manuscript form, and my younger daughter read it when the book came out. They were positive about the book; also, they already knew about my teenage years to some degree.
LLL: What kind of response has the book received? Are you surprised?
ZFC: I had a lot of anxieties that people were going to think I had done something terribly wrong and that I was going to be judged. Or, they would wonder why I resisted my mother’s plan to end her life so much. But I was heartened by how much support and gratitude was expressed about my having written about this — so many readers wrote to me and told me their stories. Many of them wished that they had been able to help their parents rather than watch them suffer. I still get stories and try to respond to them.
I think that people often don’t have a place to talk about these experiences. In this culture, we think that death is very depressing. Death often happens behind closed doors — people die with no preparation because they don’t want to think about it, or they think that other people don’t want to talk about it. There’s a real isolation that happens. When you do pull the cover back and talk about death very directly, it allows other people to think about it and talk about it and share those stories with each other.
LLL: You have an essay in the anthology Exit Laughing: How Humor Takes the Sting Out of Death, which came out recently. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
ZFC: The book came out in May. The essay is more overtly humorous than Imperfect Endings — I ended up writing about an incident in my childhood. There are serious aspects to it too, but it’s much lighter.
When I was about 9, I ended up getting my hands on a dead mole when we were visiting my grandfather’s house. The adults around me allowed me to have this dead mole as almost like a pet! It was about exploration — I knew it wasn’t a stuffed animal, and I was trying to figure out: What did it mean? Death has always interested me — in Imperfect Endings, I mention that I used to ask people, ‘Would you rather be shot or burned?’ I was trying to understand the concept of death in some way.
I ended up taking the mole back on the airplane and even taking it to school. I kept it in the freezer, but eventually my mother talked me into getting rid of it.
LLL: What are you working on now?
ZFC: I’m working on a novel called 21 Days to a Perfect Life. I like to think of it as the Revolutionary Road for 2012. It’s about our self-help culture and the idea that in three easy steps, or seven days, or something similar, we can take the chaos and confusion of our lives and make sense of them. It’s about how therapeutized our language has become, and how it can be used as a bludgeon even as it seems to be inviting understanding and connection. The novel is a somewhat satirical treatment of modern life but also of middle age; it’s a novel of assessment at the midpoint in your life and of answering the question, ‘How did I end up here?’
I’m also exploring another nonfiction project: I met somebody on Facebook who shares the FitzGerald Carter name, and we’ve started having weekly conversations where I interview him. One of the things we’re exploring is that my family is descended from slave owners and his family is descended from slaves. It’s a conversation that covers race, gender, class, opportunity, privilege . . . part of it would also be my experience growing up in DC and my feelings of racial guilt and discomfort and not wanting to celebrate my ancestry. I would take our genealogies and put them side by side. I’ve gone back as far as I can in terms of online records; the next phase will be going to the South and looking into records and courthouses. I’m also getting our DNA tested. I did actually have an ancestor who was a plantation owner, so we may find some degree of separation.
I’m starting to understand his hunger to discover his own history, and how important this is to somebody whose past and history have been negated. Part of the story is about our friendship, as well as my guilt and his excitement and the intersection between the two.