Longtime Literary Mama readers will recognize Christina Consolino’s name from her years with the magazine as both a Profiles editor and a Senior Editor. For over a decade, she has worked as a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader. Consolino’s work can be found in HuffPost, Short Fiction Break, The Sunlight Press, and Tribe Magazine, among others. She co-authored Historic Photos of University of Michigan (2007) and published her debut novel, Rewrite the Stars, in 2021. Her second novel, The Weight We Carry (Black Rose Writing, 2023), launched in October. This novel chronicles protagonist Marissa’s struggles to keep her own life afloat while managing her aging parents’ health crises.
Literary Mama Blog editor, Carrie Vittitoe, met Christina at a Women Who Write conference in 2016. In this interview conducted via email, Carrie and Christina discuss changing parent-child dynamics, caring for aging parents, and the cathartic nature of writing about these topics in The Weight We Carry. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Carrie Vittitoe: The Weight We Carry doesn’t have just one central character; rather, it has a triad of narrators—a daughter (Marissa), father (Frank), and mother (Angie), with chapters told from each of their perspectives. Why was it important for you to tell the story in this way rather than only from Marissa’s point of view?
Christina Consolino: From the moment the first words landed on the page, I planned to include three fictional voices. Marissa participates in all three “stories,” but she’s the main voice of only one. She can never truly know what Frank and Angie are going through because she doesn’t experience what they do, and they don’t share all their thoughts with her. I wanted more than a narrator, more than an observer of what happens to Frank and Angie, and the only way for me to do that was to give each of them their own point of view and story arc. If I had focused only on Marissa’s side of the story, I would have missed so much! In my opinion, the novel is richer and covers more ground with the three points of view.
It’s also very important for me to tell a story with characters who are active rather than reactive. Angie’s voice is arguably less active than Frank’s or Marissa’s, but considering what she’s going through (Spoiler alert: she’s diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s), that makes sense.
I often think about the old expression (that has various forms): there are three sides to every story—yours, mine, and the truth. In this case, the “truth” is still out there for the reader to decide, but I hope I’m closer to the truth than I might have been with only Marissa’s side of the story being told.
CV: As a middle-aged woman with parents in their 80s, I found the story resonated so much for me. I felt a kinship with Marissa—having to watch her parents slowly decline and trying to manage that while keeping her family afloat. Why was this a story you wanted to tell?
CC: I had hoped the story would resonate with someone exactly like you, so I’m both delighted and sorry that it did. The truth is, the more people I talk to, the more personal stories I hear that touch on this idea of being sandwiched between two generations. And that’s no surprise: 2022 data from Pew Research Center shows that “a quarter of U.S. adults (23%) are now part of the so-called ‘sandwich generation,’” and more than half of Americans in their forties “have a living parent age 65 or older and are either raising a child younger than 18 or have an adult child they helped financially in the past year.” That’s a large number of people who take on their own familial responsibilities as well as those of their parents.
I’m one of those people. My parents moved to a nursing facility a half mile from my home in December 2019 because my mother required memory care, and my father, who could still live independently, needed some assistance. Up until my mom’s death in October 2022, I was the point person for them both, juggling their doctor and dental appointments with my own family’s, trying to fit in clothes shopping for them when my kids needed attention, and visiting with my parents between meetings with students. At times, my parents’ needs superseded my children’s and my husband’s, not to mention mine. I took on that responsibility willingly and would do it again in a heartbeat, but it didn’t mean I wasn’t worn out at the end of the day. Now, my dad has vascular dementia and is confined to a wheelchair, so the pattern continues. Sometimes, the weight of ten thousand feathers sits on my chest. Each feather itself—the tiny minutiae of ordinary life—doesn’t make that much of an impact, but the collective whole? That makes the difference. For me, for Marissa, and for people like us.
Stories that touch on this topic do exist, especially in the women’s fiction genre, but what I set out to do with Marissa, and all my fiction, really, is to tell the story of your neighbor, your friend, your family member, you. A relatable, believable, everyday story that resonates with the reader and helps them recognize they are not alone.
CV: I found myself becoming pretty darn angry at the parents—Frank and Angie—because they didn’t want to deal with their very apparent declining health. At the same time, I could also appreciate their desire for their lives not to change. Tell me a little about the emotional gamut these characters go through. Was it difficult or therapeutic to write from the aging parents’ perspective, their desire to keep their independence even when it seemed (and was) risky?
CC: Anger. Frustration. Sadness. Fear. Anxiety. Guilt. Annoyance. Disappointment. And those are just the negative feelings that permeate their stories. Eventually, love, compassion, and acceptance sneak their way in. Thank goodness, right?
Because Frank and Angie are modeled after my parents and my experience with them in 2015, writing their points of view—the whole novel, really—was therapeutic. After this same experience with my parents, I wrote a short blog post for Literary Mama’s After Page One series that examined writing as healing. That’s what writing the book, especially from their perspectives, was for me: a way to process my feelings and find some healing during that grief period after Mom’s diagnosis.
Another completely unexpected benefit also arose while writing: I came to understand my parents, my mom in particular, much better. This will sound completely over the top and sentimental, but I’ll hold to it: reflecting on my experiences, digging into my emotions, and writing this book unearthed a level of understanding about the human condition that I hadn’t found elsewhere. I’m a much more compassionate, patient, and empathetic human than I was prior to writing the book.
CV: The chapters written from Angie’s perspective show just how vulnerable she has become to the changes from Alzheimer’s. The language is simple and stilted. Tell me a little about your process for writing these segments. Did you write first and then step back to simplify?
CC: Angie’s chapters are meant to evoke vulnerability because she is vulnerable, but she’s not willing to admit it. Angie lives inside her head, more than other characters and more than she probably should, but that’s where she finds peace and order. It’s also where she’s not afraid to be honest with herself. Judgment from others can’t happen if those people aren’t privy to her thoughts.
My writing process for those chapters certainly differed from that of my other chapters. I’m more of a pantser, so I usually spill out the story into a messy first draft—not worrying about word choice or length of sentences—and then I revise for what seems like eons. However, in the “Her” chapters, I was intentional right from the beginning. I specifically chose the third person instead of the first (as I had with Frank and Marissa) to provide an initial sense of distance, which I hoped would compound with Angie only referring to herself as she/the woman. Each word mattered, as Angie’s vocabulary had already dwindled (thanks to aphasia), and the cadence of her speech was important. Angie relies on shorter sentences, filler words, and long pauses, but that changes when she’s angry—then she can articulate rather well.
CV: Regret is a theme of the novel: both Frank and Angie have things from their younger years that they say they regret. Frank’s regrets focus on his brother, Antonio, and Angie’s are about marriage and motherhood. Why did you want to explore regret in this novel?
CC: As I sat by my mom’s bedside the morning she passed away, my mind filled with so many thoughts. The one that wouldn’t leave my mind? How sorry I was that we wouldn’t have more time together. To this day, that’s the thought that haunts me. We’ll never have enough time with the people we love.
The more I thought about that idea, the more I came to understand that if I had any regrets in this life (thankfully, I have very few), it was that I didn’t find more time to be with Mom, especially after her diagnosis, but before she moved to live near me. A good four years existed in which I didn’t take time to go on short road trips, visit museums, walk through the flowerbeds, or make more memories with her. So I looked at my draft and—would you believe this?—I’d already sprinkled regret in the story. All I had to do was tease it out! How fortuitous!
Regret is another theme I hope readers will identify with. People from Frank and Angie’s generation—especially women—might have more to say about regret than my generation or my children’s. Those women didn’t have the choices or opportunities that (some) women have today. Women my age and my daughters’ ages are still subject to societal expectations, but when Angie was a young woman, those expectations were heavier and often harder to push back against. At the very least, even if regret doesn’t personally resonate with readers, I hope they will empathize with the characters’ feelings.
CV: You’ve written about PTSD and Alzheimer’s and their impacts on families. What are you working on now?
CC: My next novel, The Marriage Debt, features Nika Stewart, a perimenopausal woman who has lived for years with shame from various sources surrounding sex and sexuality. The shame adds weight to her already decreased libido, impacting her marriage. She tries to navigate menopausal changes, work through her past, increase communication with her spouse, and find comfort and ease with her body and sexuality. It will be released in 2025 with Motina Books.