There is nothing better than reading a book that transports you somewhere steamy and lush when outside your window the temperature has been hovering just below zero for a week. I was thrilled to be able to curl up with Hope Edelman’s new book, The Possibility of Everything, during our ridiculous cold snap a few weeks back. Edelman has written a number of narrative nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-selling Motherless Daughters, but The Possibility of Everything is her first memoir.
It begins like this:
A ragged dirt road twists through six miles of rain forest in western Belize, linking the villages of Cristo Rey and San Antonio. If you make this drive the day after a heavy December rain, as my husband, Uzi, and I do, the road will still be gluey and ripe. Its surface will be the color and consistency of mango pudding…
I tighten my right arm around my daughter Maya’s waist. Everything’s fine, I tell myself. She’s going to be fine. I press my left hand against the window and watch the landscape stream by between my fingertips. The jungle grows flush against both side of the road, tangled and pristine. The bulldozers of American expatriates chewing up the Caribbean coast haven’t found their way back here yet. Fat, squat cohune palms burst up from ground level like Las Vegas fountains spraying out of the forest floor.
In The Possibility of Everything, Edelman is living in Southern California with her husband, Uzi, who works 80 hours a week, and their three-year-old daughter, Maya. Edelman is juggling motherhood and writing and seems to have created a tense balance in her life until Maya becomes aggressive and withdrawn after developing a relationship with Dodo, a sinister imaginary friend. Then Edelman is at a loss for what to do. The answer for Maya, and it turns out the whole family, lies in Belize.
The Possibility of Everything is a story of trusting in the unknown and of letting go of fear. The main narrative line has to do with how Edelman and her husband end up dealing with Maya’s disturbing imaginary friend, but there are a number of other really compelling threads that also move this book forward: Edelman’s struggle with feeling equal as a parent and partner, her struggle with faith, and the great sense of loss she still feels about the early death of her mother. The narrative thread that I find most compelling is this last one. Edelman’s mother died when Edelman was a teenager, and she’s written about this experience in her other books, but I love the way she’s woven it into this larger story, as well.
Writing yourself takes a great deal of courage, and writing all parts of yourself, even when they are less than flattering, is really brave. At the beginning of the book, Edelman is very hard on herself and her husband, but as the narrative progresses and the landscape changes from Southern California to the tropics of Belize, we see her slowly begin to uncoil, to open herself up to possibility.
I love this moment in the book, when Edelman is watching her husband and daughter on a swing:
Whatever I need—what we need—is right here on this swing. Sitting. Playing. Now. And I realize, in this moment, that this is how a family grows. Now by the addition of more children or through the race to endlessly accumulate more or from my constant attempts to guard against loss, but in ordinary moments like this one. Deceptively simple moments that manage to be worth everything while appearing to be worth nothing at all.
Hope Edelman was gracious enough to take the time to answer a few questions about The Possibility of Everything and her writing process. So without further ado, I welcome Hope to Mother Words:
KH: You are the author of a number of very successful narrative nonfiction books, but this is your first memoir. Can you talk a little about how writing The Possibility of Everything was different and/or the same as writing your other books?
HE: In a very practical way, this was the first book I wrote that didn’t rely on a massive amount of research and interviews, so I didn’t have to be chained to the bookshelf and filing cabinet as I wrote. I was able to write large portions of the book in cafes, and at the kitchen island late at night after my kids went to sleep. That was such a relief, I cannot emphasize it enough. Being able to write in cafes gave me the illusion of human contact that I missed terribly while holed up in a single office writing my other books, and definitely gave me a renewed appreciation for Starbucks and my local cafes.
From a more literary perspective, although I’ve been writing personal essays and short memoir for many years this was the first book where I had to shape myself into a narrative character. And that was a lot more challenging than I’d anticipated. The story in the book took place in 2000 and I chose to write it in the present tense, which meant going back and inhabiting the voice and persona of who I was back then: a very anxious new mom and not a particularly grateful wife. Although my friends back then might not agree, I think I was in some ways not a very nice person nine years ago, and it pained me to come face to face with that while telling my story. I made the choice to depict myself honestly rather than trying to sugarcoat some of my less-flattering moments because I wanted to be fair and accurate to readers, but boy, it was really hard to avoid passing judgment on myself. Ultimately I had to come to a place of compassion for the lost, struggling, imperfect woman, mother, and wife I was back then. Not that I’m perfect now, by anyone’s standard!! But I am different, largely because of the experiences we had in Belize.
KH: Along that same line: One of the most important narrative threads in this book, for me, has to do with the loss of your mother when you were sixteen and the intense fear of loss that this engendered in you. I know you wrote extensively about your mother’s death in your previous books, but I’m wondering whether it felt/was different to approach this subject in a memoir.
HE: My first four books were about mother-daughter relationships and/or mother loss, and they all had the word “mother” somewhere in their titles. When I started writing the memoir, I said to my editor, “Please, please don’t ask me to put ‘mother’ in the title of this book!” And I said to myself, Thank god I’m finally writing a book that’s not about my mother. Because I just didn’t think the world needed another book about my story of mother loss. And then about halfway into the writing, I called my editor and said, “Oh, shit. Guess who’s showing up in the book?” And she said, “Your mother. Of course. I was wondering how long it would take you to figure that out.” Because it really is impossible for a motherless woman to write about being a mother without reflecting on how the loss of her own mother has affected the choices she’s made. I think any motherless mother would tell you the same.
At the same time, I was very conscious that my story of mother loss had already been told in great detail in Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers and I didn’t want to be redundant in this book. So I tried to write my mother into the book in a way that would make sense to new readers who had no idea I’d lost my mother and also repeat readers who’d read both of my prior books and were already familiar with my childhood story. I’m happy with the way it turned out, although I did read one online review of my book in which the reader said he thought I’d stuck the sections about my mother in just so I could capitalize on the audience of my earlier books. And I thought, Mister, you have no idea.
KH: Was there anything—either in terms of what emerged or the process of writing this memoir—that surprised you?
HE: I had a big a-ha! moment just before I finished the book. We were at a condo in Lake Tahoe for what was supposed to be a family ski vacation to celebrate the end of my book, except I hadn’t finished it by the time we left. So I was inside writing while everyone else was out on the slopes. A big theme of the book is my relationship (or non-relationship) with faith, and how after my mother died I became a hardened, jaded cynic who didn’t believe in anything larger than myself any more. Because who can believe in a benevolent spiritual world after such a terrible thing happens to a mother? I was in the midst of the book’s final chapter when literally out of nowhere I had a Dorothy-and-the-ruby-slippers moment. In the middle of a sentence, I realized that if I didn’t have any faith at all left after my mother died, I never would have agreed to make the trip to Belize. Because talk about a leap of faith, that trip was. And I realized that I must have been afraid to admit I had any faith left, even to myself, and how broken and scared I must have been to have responded that way. It was an incredibly emotional moment for me. I was sitting alone at this dining room table in a rented condo with the snow coming down and these huge evergreens outside the window, just sobbing. I always cry when I uncover a nugget of truth about myself, so that’s how I know it was real.
KH: You’ve incorporated sections of history/research about the Maya and healing into the narrative. One of the things I wondered while I was reading was: when did you learn this information? From other interviews I know you did some of this research after your initial trip to Belize. I think this issue of how to weave into a present-tense narrative research and information that you learned after the time period of the narrative is really tricky. (I struggle with this in my own memoir.) I’m wondering if you can talk a little about how you approached this issue as a writer.
HE: Some of the information I already knew when we made the trip, such as the Maya calendar details presented at the end of Chapter Four. I’d heard most of that on the radio not long before we left. But I didn’t learn about the majority of information about healing and cosmology until 2008, when I went back to Belize for a workshop in Maya healing with Dr. Rosita. When I got back, I spent several months reading about Maya history, astronomy, mythology, and cosmology. I hadn’t originally planned to include all that in the book, but after that 2008 trip to Belize I felt very strongly that I wanted to ground the story in something larger than myself, because I understood that what happened to us happened because of the ancient Maya’s relationship to nature, the stars, and the land. By that point, I’d already written half of the narrative in the present tense, so I then faced the challenge of weaving in the research so it wouldn’t feel interruptive. On some pages I’d rely on a turn of sentence or phrase to indicate when I was stepping out of story time—like in Chapter Seven, when I talk about the World Tree—and at other moments I inserted the history in isolated paragraphs so the readers could tell it was separate from the action that was unfolding. For me, the key was to integrate these passages so they would read with the same consciousness I’d had in 2000, even though I discovered and synthesized much of the material years later.
KH: All memoirists must decide how to approach writing about family, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little about what it was like to write and publish writing about your husband and daughter. Did you get their approval before you went to print? How do you balance your need to create as a writer with your family’s need for privacy (if they do, in fact, feel they need privacy)?
HE: My husband gets full veto power over anything I write about him or us. He has a stellar reputation in his industry and in our community, and I would never want to damage that by putting my point of view about his actions or behaviors on public display. That said, he was enormously generous with this book, and hardly asked me to remove anything at all, even when it was potentially unflattering to him. He felt that the book’s overall message was more important than his ego, and I so admire him for that.
My daughter was a little more complicated, because I started the book when she was five and finished it when she was eleven. As a five-year-old she thought it was really, really cool that her name would be in a book. At eleven, though, she had a much more developed sense of privacy and didn’t want her childhood to be written about, so we negotiated and horse traded on some of the details. I wound up changing some that didn’t affect the story at all, but helped her feel as if I weren’t actually writing about her. Since then, she’s made me promise not to write my next book about her. As a nonfiction author who writes about family, I’m not sure where that leaves me. I’m thinking seriously about trying a novel next.
KH: I think you did a really nice job of creating a sense of urgency in the book by beginning it where you do, on the muddy road in Belize. Was this always where the book began or did this become the introduction later in the writing/editing process?
HE: Good question! No, the book didn’t always begin with that scene. I began it as a novel in 2002, soon after my second daughter was born and about a year after the initial trip to Belize. I started it as a novel because I didn’t think anyone would believe it was a true story, and I began with the back story of a couple with a troubled child who eventually chose to take her to healers in Belize. Even after I chose to write the story as memoir, I was structuring it in a linear fashion, starting in California and moving forward in chronological sequence. I was in a writing group at the time (I still am, but a different one now) and one of the women in the group, a novelist, read the scene on the muddy road and said, “What if you started the book here?” I realized that would give me a very classic memoir structure, insofar that the book would begin right before a climactic moment and then back up to the very beginning of the story, before catching up to the opening scene right around the halfway point. I tried this structure and it seemed to work, so it stuck.
KH: Can you talk a little bit about how you began writing this book? How did it change and grow over the years of writing it?
HE: I tried it as fiction for about a year before switching to memoir, which is how I think the story really wanted to be told, because it wasn’t working as a novel at all. I puttered around with it for about another year, and then decided to write Motherless Mothers so it went on the shelf for a couple of years. I took it back down in early 2007, and by October had about 100 pages ready to show to editors. I finished it on New Year’s Day 2009. So I guess you could say it took me five years to write the first 100 pages, and fourteen months to write the rest.
KH: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
HE: Finding time to immerse myself in it while in the midst of life. My kids are young, so I have to write around their schedules—mainly when they’re in school, and after they go to sleep. On several occasions my husband would watch them for a weekend and I’d check into an inexpensive hotel up the coast for a night or two and write nonstop, emerging from the room only to eat, and sometimes not even then. I’d get an enormous amount of work done that way, but then I’d come home and have to dive back into to lunchboxes at 7 a.m. again. Not that I’m complaining about lunchboxes!! They’re a form of creativity all their own.
KH: Now that The Possibility of Everything is out in the world, how does it feel to see this part of your life in print and have people react to your experiences? What are some of the responses you are getting?
HE: Having written several books that were largely beloved by readers, it was a big shock at first to discover I’d written one that inspired controversy and even sparked some Mommy Wars online. I’d been prepared for readers thinking I was a whack job because of my spiritual views, but oddly that never really came to pass. Instead, a small but vocal minority of readers have really taken me to task for my parenting style and choices, introducing me to the tyranny of the blogosphere. But a much larger group of readers have contacted me personally to thank me for writing the book, and to tell me how much they appreciated my honesty and my willingness to portray myself as an imperfect mother because it gave them license to embrace their own imperfections. I recently got a letter from a 70-year-old male M.D. who thanked me for writing a book about “cracking molds and obliterating the ordinary crap we all have to deal with and…expressing how you felt and thought without apology and rationalization.” That email was worth a dozen angry Amazon reviews. I’d frame it if I could.
Thank you, Hope, for taking the time to talk about your lovely memoir here at Mother Words. I look forward to reading more of your wonderful writing! You can learn more about Hope’s books on her website.