By Jennifer Massoni
This month, Red Room author Glenda Burgess releases her memoir, The Geography of Love (Doubleday/Broadway). I read it on a recent plane trip across the country and felt significantly different—moved by the power and evidence of true love and commitment—when I touched down. Burgess shares a love story about—you might even say a love letter to—her husband Ken Grunzweig, who battled lung cancer with Glenda and their two children at his side. It’s also a story about the joys and challenges of family, summoning strength, and the power of place. Because many of us will learn from and relate to Burgess’s honesty, here is a Red Room Q&A with the author about her process and passionate pursuit of meaning at every turn.
Red Room: Please tell me about your decision to write this memoir—a moving account of falling in love, true commitment, and enduring illness.
Burgess: Writing this story began in a moment of quiet realization that an accounting—a coming to terms—was inevitable for me. We know when we are in the presence of the truly life-changing, and the loss of love, love that completes one’s own soul, is without doubt one of the shifts within that forces us to come to terms with ourselves and, for want of a better word, fate. I have always been a journal keeper, an observer, someone who needs to write to process and understand. These notes began as journals, not a memoir. I never intended to write memoir, I am far too private a person. But these solitary essays somehow interleafed, building a compelling narrative of principle themes: who in life we discover ourselves to be as young explorers in the world; whom we choose to partner with, and in the context of circumstance and fortune, what evolves of that togetherness. These experiences had neither an easy nor obvious explanation. It was a rather humbling and ironic conundrum to discover most often the answer to my efforts at science was poetry. I was left with the haiku of an experience, like the ash line after a fire.
Red Room: Your first agent Kimberley Cameron initially told you to “write the pain,” in reference to what you were going through at Ken’s side during his treatments. Did you find the act of writing therapeutic or healing?
Burgess: Perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say writing centers me and allows me to step outside and more wholly comprehend both the demands and implications of the moment. This, in turn, allows me to place the enormity of real suffering and confusion into a vessel of safekeeping. Stephen Levine, I believe, said that “One loss is all loss…” that suggests real and raw suffering are both universal to us all, and universal in nature—forces of life experience. Translating emotion into language allowed me to bend under pressure, not break.
Red Room: Spokane, Washington, seems as much a character as a setting in this book. It was the location of your youth, first immediate family, and where you and Ken met and fell in love. In the book you and Ken decide on a coin toss to return and raise your family there. I’d love to learn more about your decision to live there and the role Spokane plays in your work.
Burgess: Spokane, if I can poke gentle fun, is either the Bermuda Triangle of my life, or a fey spiritual place to which all things resound in great reverberating force. This region of the Inland Northwest is the location of my best and favorite childhood memories visiting my grandparents. The Palouse Hills were also my parents’ choice of home after years of moving around with the military, and ironically, led to the disintegration of their marriage. The Spokane area is not so much a city-character to me as magnetic land formations—from the ancient seabed rock of Steptoe Butte where you can listen to the winds cross from the ocean to the desert interiors to the earthly peace and timelessness of the bluff trails overlooking the Hangman Valley. Spokane has been the place I think of as a safe haven and inevitably a dead-end: The settling of energies here represents closure to me. Here I can take stock, understand, and move on. In deciding to return to Spokane I believe we were looking to complete something we had begun here. And that certainly proved to be true.
Red Room: Many aspiring writers may read this. And you wrote for many years before this manuscript sold this past February. What can you tell us about perseverance?
Burgess: Avoid it. Seriously, the best advice is still that old saw: Do anything else if you can. For those committed (and seeing a good therapist), I would tell you that the successful writer is indeed the one who doesn’t quit. I wrote two novels prior to this memoir that I sincerely put my best into, and yet neither novel really left the runway. I feel proud and supportive of both books and, for me, that feeling is the faith that keeps me writing. To find success with this memoir is both a surprise and, in some ways, not. If you write, and keep writing, your craft inevitably continues to improve, as well as your understanding of storytelling.
Red Room: What is the best part of achieving success now? With this particular book?
Burgess: The sense that something good might come of something that was extremely difficult, shattering. That I found a way to honor those I love. And that I might have written something meaningful and supportive for someone else out there—someone hoping for love, risking for it, or dealing with life in the raw, hoping and believing in the “silver lining.”
Red Room: With such personal subject matter as this, how did you find your story arc? Did the structure of the book come to you easily? What was your overall process with this book, and was it different from how you wrote your previous two novels?
Burgess: I began this narrative reflection with our family decision to leave the San Francisco Bay Area and move to Spokane. It was my editor, Christine Pride at Doubleday/Broadway who observed with such simple truth, “This is a love story.” That small shift opened the focus from one year in our lives to the entire stunning arc of falling in love, becoming a family, dealing with differences in age, background, life experience, and coming together—and staying together—through crisis. It is different to write memoir as opposed to a novel, because while memoir— “my story” from the French—is experience translated through personal interpretation, it is nonetheless based in history. A period of time and place and event that is not invented, not designed to suit a storyline. In fact, this is one of memoir’s appealing aspects….life bending to circumstance, not the other way around as with our fictional characters. It was important for me to represent the reality of events as accurately as possible and make clear my interpretive reasoning and philosophical questioning. Once that structure was researched and written, our personal history became the spine of the memoir. It is the emotional search for truth that makes memoir both special and daunting. I can’t honestly believe one would undertake to write memoir without significant preparation: sieving experience with thoughtful reasoning. Some writers begin memoir with insight, or critical emotional epiphany or memory. For me, the reality of experience was the beginning.
Red Room: Your two children factor prominently in the book and were at such young ages while your husband was sick. How are they doing today?
Burgess: It would be fair to say they were significantly affected, but not wounded. Such was the gift of Ken’s love and openness. Still, this difficult loss had its adverse challenges, as well as a deep positive impact. Loss is something that alters a child’s landscape in ways that adults do not experience. That said, adversity can have a strengthening and enriching effect. In our case, I am happy to say our daughter, Katy, is now a sophomore at Yale University, and that she still plays her cello (in the Jonathan Edwards Chamber Orchestra). She is an art history major carrying premed requirements, working towards medical school. She is interested in pediatric oncology and is currently Vice President of Yale’s chapter of Colleges Against Cancer (associated with Relay for Life). Our son, David, is a graduating high school senior this year and looking at pursuing a college degree in physics and engineering, which has been his first love since he discovered as a boy what a Lego could do. He wrote a winning scholastic National Outdoor Writing essay on completing his first centennial (one hundred mile) bicycle ride for charity on his Dad’s 30-year-old touring bike and what that experience meant to him. He plays the classical guitar. Like his father, he is possessed of both a quiet leadership and genuine charm that earn him lifelong friends. Navigating the last few years, the three of us have developed a special closeness we particularly treasure.
Red Room: Please let me know if there is anything else you would like to add about the process of writing and publishing this moving love story, and what’s next for you.
Burgess: What I would like to offer readers is my personal thank you for reading this story and opening your hearts to us. I think readers of memoir are in some ways the curators of human experience. In reading the life stories of others we develop a shared literature of wisdom and courage we hopefully all benefit from. What’s next for me is a return to fiction. I’m working on the final edits of a novel, an epic saga of love and secrets that plays out over three generations—from a trattoria in Italy to the elite Manhattan art scene to the vineyards of Argentina. It’s nice to be back in the world of make-believe.
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