Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: New on the bookshelf: "The Cure for Grief" by Nellie Hermann

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

New on the bookshelf: "The Cure for Grief" by Nellie Hermann

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My friend Susan Ebert, always a source of great reading suggestions and important ideas, introduced me to the work of Nellie Hermann. Nellie grew up in Newton, Massachusetts and earned an M.F.A. from Columbia and has a first novel out, “The Cure for Grief.” It tells a story of unimaginable sadness and creates what Kirkus Review terms, “a gorgeously readable meditation on mourning and survival.” It is newly out in paperback and has just been selected by Target as one of their “breakout books” for the summer. I asked Nellie to tell us about the book and here is what she said:

“’The Cure for Grief’ was not my title, originally, and I had some hesitation about its finality. Would people pick up my book expecting a true “cure,” and then be disappointed? As time has passed, though, I have grown to like it more and more, if for no other reason than the recognition that writing the book was as close to a cure as I will ever get.

“When I was in high school, I lost both my father and the youngest of my three brothers within a year, to brain tumors. A few years before that, when I was in fifth grade, my oldest brother was diagnosed with a severe mental illness. My father, who died when he was 58, was a Holocaust survivor, whose story had always been fascinating to me, as well as out of reach.

“The ramifications of all of this tragedy, the tendrils of which went back a long way, were deep and long and inappropriate for a blog post, but suffice it to say that it took me many years to be able to tell people about my story (and even now it’s still hard). Writing was where I felt comfortable letting out even a little of what I felt, and even there I wrote around my own story for a long time. It was when I was in graduate school, and a teacher diagnosed my stories as always having “damaged males on the side,” that it dawned on me that it was time to confront the story head on.

“’The Cure for Grief’’ is a work of fiction, and for me this is a lot of where the “cure” part comes in. Processing what I had been through was a necessary act—revisiting scenes that were painful for me, confronting images that I had been carrying around for years and that were beginning to fester—but just as necessary was the act of creation around what had really happened, the act of transforming my own story into one that could be given away. There was no way I could do justice to my actual family—I could not bring them back—and accepting this was crucial to being able to write the book and create Ruby, my main character, and her family, that resembles mine and yet is not mine. Giving coherence and shape to something that in real life did not (and does not) necessarily have such qualities was a truly powerful act, and one that transformed my life. Creating a new family, and watching them go through the pain and come out the other side; giving the story a home that was outside of my own body, was not a cure, but was as close as I can come.

“And the title, which I approve of more and more, came about in a way that could not be denied: many titles were being thrown about, none of which were quite right, and my editor typed the word “ruby” into an internet search engine and came up with the fact that in ancient times, rubies were thought to be cures for grief. I had not known this when I named my main character, but it seemed too significant a coincidence to be ignored.

“It is my hope that the book can be of help or interest to people who have or are experiencing grief, or can help those who haven’t to perhaps understand better the people in their lives who have. Being in touch with a few readers who have reached out to me to tell me their stories has been a great joy and an unintended consequence. I believe deeply in the power of narrative to transform the most terrible moments of our lives, in the act of reading as well as writing, and getting to share my story in this way is a gift that only continues to grow.”

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Blogger Mim said...

Thanks to Nellie Herman for her thoughts about the strengthening powers of writing and reading fiction.

July 15, 2009 at 6:47 AM  

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