When Robin Romm started The Mercy Papers, she didn't know she was writing a book.
A short story writer by trade, she explains, "I started it because I couldn't write fiction. It was a project to keep writing, and to explain to me what was going on around me."
What was going on? Romm's mother was living out the last weeks of a terminal illness — breast cancer — downstairs in the family home, alongside Robin, Robin's father, a hospice nurse, and the good friends who moved in or stopped by to lend a hand.
The New York Times Book Review, in a front-page feature, called The Mercy Papers "a furious blaze of a book."
"When the Times review broke," Romm recalls, "a couple people who hadn't read the book wrote to me, trying to help me with my anger issues. It was interesting. I don't feel like a particularly angry person. I don't walk around furious at the world. This was such a particular time."
Nineteen at the time of her mother's diagnosis, the Oregon native reflects, "There are so many measured books out there about loss. This one wasn't to be part of that."
Maybe that's why The Mercy Papers is holding readers in thrall. Did the author really just compare the hospice nurse to a cockroach? Is it okay that I'm laughing? Yes, and yes. The San Francisco Chronicle proposed, "The raw honesty of this book may be as healing to read as it must have been to write."
The Mercy Papers is no small accomplishment. As Pam Houston put it, "Romm takes on the hardest subject (the death of a person you can't live without) the hardest way (no easy answers, no gratuitous nod toward redemption, and not a whisper of sentimentality). Only a very fine writer could create this slam dance of sorrow, rage, helplessness, and laugh-out-loud humor; a book that is unapologetically raw and undeniably artful at once."
Dave: Many authors say that they wind up writing books they wish they could find in a bookstore. In the afterword to The Mercy Papers, that's more or less how you explain your treatment of "the particulars of loss." Clearly this book didn't come out of nowhere, but I'm wondering how you decided to approach the subject the way you did.
Robin Romm: I didn't start The Mercy Papers to fill a hole; I started it because I couldn't write fiction. It was a project to keep writing, and to explain to me what was going on around me. It wasn't a journal — it wasn't simply a rant and it wasn't just my private thoughts — but it was a way of making order out of chaos, the same way that fiction often is.
I was doing an independent study with a professor in grad school; that's how this book started. Only later, once it became a book, did I think about the role it would have as a book.
Definitely, when I was writing, it was the stuff that I couldn't find reflected. It challenges the platitudes and false comforts that are offered to people confronting tragedy. That was important to me for myself; and then, when it became a book, that was part of the project, to allow other people to feel love and fury at the same time, to honor the complexity within their lives.
Dave: "I don't feel the way I am supposed to feel," you wrote. "I don't feel grief. I feel irritation." My guess is that you'll be hearing from a lot of people who felt exactly the way you did.
Romm: I'm already getting a lot of email. The headers say, "Thank you for this book!" They tell me, "This is how I felt."
Grief is full of this ugly, or vivid, chaos that nobody tells you about. And it's shameful because of that. We're told there are supposed to be five stages, it's supposed to be orderly, you're supposed to be grateful for your own life, and you're supposed to let someone go peacefully. When all you want to do is hold on and have another moment, you wind up feeling guilty. Everybody's comforts feel irritating. It can feel like you're a bad person.
It's interesting to get the letters because I did feel alienated in what I was feeling. My mom understood, actually, but I wasn't able to articulate it to anybody else so I was writing this book up in my bedroom.
Now that the book is out, I see that it's kind of a universal experience. I don't think I knew that then.
Dave: At one point, you ask, "What gives Barb the right to decide when Mom's no longer meant for this world?" If you and your father had known what you know now about hospice, would you have managed your mother's treatment any differently?
Romm: That's interesting. Probably.
Hospice had snuck up on us. We never had discussed it. It's something that we should have discussed. Considering that we were dealing with a terminal illness for nine years, it's amazing what we didn't discuss.
Nobody thought about what it would mean, really, to have somebody else in the house "in charge" of managing the end of her life. I don't know if we understood that the power was going to shift the way that it did. And I don't know that it always does. I've never experienced an in-home hospice care other than my mother's.
I've heard both sides of the story. I've heard from families who had similar, difficult experiences; and I've heard from families who had meaningful experiences. The meaningful experiences tend to be shared by people who have older, elderly people in care, grandparents in their nineties, where they're ready for the death. It can be jarring to invite someone in when the death is premature, for whatever reason. There's more rage.
I don't know that we could have avoided having somebody come in, but we probably should have made sure that the person was a better match.
I say that, and I don't know if it even would have helped.
Somebody asked me recently if Barb was a bad hospice nurse. I couldn't really answer the question. I talked to my dad about it, and he said, "One answer to the question is that she was really good at her job. Her job was to let Mom die. Your job was different. There's the conflict."
Dave: In the book, you mention fighting with your mother about a short story you'd written in which you portrayed her as disabled. How would you compare the challenges, telling your mother's real-life story in The Mercy Papers, as opposed to using it as material for fiction in The Mother Garden?
Romm: I struggled with this book at first because I thought she wouldn't like it. She got sick when she was forty-six. She had a long, vibrant life without cancer, and I think that is how she'd prefer to be remembered. The project of making her forever sick is the problem.
At the end of the book, there's that line from her journals: "Deaths are small." Well, she might not like the fact that she is now forever a sick person in this book, but if that can be used to validate the experiences of other people, if it can carve out a different space for grief and the literature of loss, I think she would be okay with it.
But it sounds like you're asking something a little different.
Dave: What brought me to the question... A few years ago, in an interview with OneStory, you said, "Writing fiction that uses elements of reality is a dicey business. I'm not sure where I stand on the matter."
Writing nonfiction can be a dicey business, too.
Romm: I'm going to say this, and then I'm probably going to think it's wrong in twenty minutes, but it's easier to make full characters in nonfiction. You're confronted with the actual person, and they do have different sides. As long as you're paying attention, people are complex. Everyone is complex.
In fiction, you have to imagine all those details. It's okay if every character is somehow a part of you, but you also have to make sure that they're different, and that you're throwing your imagination far afield. Fiction presents more challenges.
The challenges that memoir makes you confront are the ethical ones of writing a true story. That's what's really tough about memoir. Fiction is difficult because you just don't know. You know nothing. You're grappling around in the dark. Obviously, in this book, I knew what was going to happen. Everyone knows what's going to happen. It's just a matter of putting it down so that the process of watching it is meaningful to the reader.
Dave: One reviewer concluded, "The Mercy Papers is an important work in a young voice. It speaks truth to complacency. But its perspective remains the narrow one of a child."
I bring this up not to taunt you...
Dave: Seriously. The review was overwhelmingly positive, but that last line seemed to be taking issue with your basic approach to the book. Did you ever consider setting the narrative, the voice, at a more measured distance?
Romm: The book started in time; I started writing it before my mother died. Then I wrote a lot of it very quickly, right after she died, to get it all down. That was the scaffolding.
The project was to not have distance. There are so many measured books out there about loss. This one wasn't to be part of that. That was not the idea. In fact, my editor warned against over-refinement of the book because its truth is in its rawness and its insistence on that.
As for the child thing, I'm not sure I understand what it means. I read that review the other day for the first time, and I was like, "Huh." It's not all young people who are relating to the book. I see now that these things are complex and furious and messy for everyone. You can be sixty-five and still not want to let go, and still be battling for more time. I don't think it's a child's book; I think it's a human book on loss. It's going to speak to some people more than others, as most books do, but especially a book that's so honest.
Dave: I'd guess that it depends on when any given reader confronts loss, and how. For instance, you write about kids you knew, growing up, who had lost their parents, and how inconceivable that loss was to you. You lost your mother in your twenties; someone else might have a similar experience in their teens or in their fifties. We all know people who've died, but they're not necessarily the ones who are fundamental to our life.
Romm: And that is the central tragedy of the book, losing someone who's so important to you, not a distant relative or even a grandparent that you know will die. It's losing a mom, and losing a whole lot of your life to the illness. It was that struggle that made this book feel different. But it's certainly not everyone's experience.
Some people read the book and think I should have meditated; they say I should have figured out a way to let go and make more peace for everybody. If the book reveals that I'm maybe not a good person, I can't do much about that.
Dave: It's a memoir. You're not holding yourself up as a role model.
Romm: That's true. I was just trying to tell it like it actually was.
Dave: In one of your short stories, "No Small Feat," your narrator says, "I'd love to write stories about surfing teenagers, international spies, funny grandmothers, dogs that fly. But death is my map, the thing I've been living next to for years."
Now that you've written The Mercy Papers, is this what comes next? Surfing teenagers and dogs that fly? Have you been bottling that up?
Romm: Yes, that's been bottled up!
But I do think I'll be putting mortality issues aside for a while. I'm working on other subjects. I'm working on short fiction right now. I can't seem to stay away from certain kinds of darkness, although this time the darkness isn't so much death. And there's also humor. I have that humor and darkness thing going on in both books. I'm sort of attached to that. But I don't think I'll be doing any surfing teenagers or flying dogs.
Dave: On Saturday, I talked to Nan Graham. She compared your writing to Amy Hempel. I asked whether she was referring to your compulsion to include dogs in everything you write.
Romm: What did she say?
Dave: She laughed. But she also said something very complimentary about the economy of your writing.
Romm: Certainly I'm not as economical as Hempel, but I do believe in the tight sentence. Amy is a force unto herself. There's nobody quite like her.
Dave: You told Poets & Writers, "I'd been writing fiction since I was a child, writing chapters in a blue binder on a pillow in my closet." Did you mean that literally — you were writing on a pillow in your closet?
Romm: That is right. You know those 1970s houses where the closet opens so that there's a big open space? It's not one door; it's sliding doors with hinges? The closet had one of those. And I didn't have very much in my closet because I was a kid, so I could sit in there and do stuff. And my memory is that I did all sorts of stuff. I used to do crafts in my closet. I don't know why. That was a place that I liked to hang out.
It's funny what I've said to people.
Dave: As long as we keep asking questions, things are bound to come up. You do realize that this whole exercise is just meant to help you learn about yourself?
Dave: Were you ripping off any particular authors at that age, in your closet?
Romm: When I was really small, no. I was writing about the raccoon that goes to the creek and has a problem with the possum. Maybe I was riffing off kids' books. But when I was cleaning out my childhood room recently, I found a story that I'd written. I have no memory of writing it, but the penmanship looks like I was about ten or eleven. It's about a girl who has a best friend, and the best friend has another best friend. It's about the trauma of loss and the difficulty of being in relationships you think will last. Impermanence.
I thought, Wow. I was fascinated by this stuff long before my mom ever got sick. Here's this child that can't believe her best friend would ever turn on her. I thought it was funny because in some ways you can tell it's me. You can see the seeds of the story I ended up writing in this juvenile account of best friends breaking up.
Dave: We might find the same themes if we look a little closer at the raccoon and the possum.
Romm: We might. Maybe I'll dig it up when I go to Eugene.
Dave: What do you miss about Oregon?
Romm: I miss the west coast a lot. The air and the light and the green. I do miss the green. It's just so bodily, the way that I miss the vegetation. The desert has a different kind of beauty. It's foreign to me, like trying to appreciate the moon. It's beautiful in New Mexico, but it's not a kind of beauty that's familiar at all.
I miss the rivers, and I miss the ocean a lot. I used to go to the coast frequently, growing up. The ocean to me is both terrifying and soothing at the same time, and there's no similar experience. And I miss my family. I like the west coast.
Dave: How did you get Ken Kesey to speak at your high school graduation?
Romm: I looked him up in the phone book and I called.
Dave: Do you remember what he talked about?
Romm: He read something. This was the year Ken Kesey got in trouble telling the students of Springfield High that smoking cigarettes was worse for you than smoking pot. I could be getting it slightly wrong, but there was all this buzz, so he was being very careful. He did a great job, but I don't remember what he spoke about.
I spoke, too, at that graduation. I gave some talk about how you had to invent your own experience in Eugene because it was such a sleepy town. It was about a night that friends and I went out and had a party in a park.
Ken Kesey liked my speech, and he gave me a copy of The Last Round-Up. Inside, in all different color highlighters, he wrote, "Good on you, girl!" Which I love. I still have it.
Dave: Your MySpace page greets visitors with "Acid Tongue" by Jenny Lewis. What else have you been listening to?
Romm: I just recently bought the Beirut album. I'm always a little late. I don't keep up and so then I join the party a year later. But I have wide-ranging taste. I like Johnny Cash. I like Iris Dement. I really like her weird, born again stuff; for some reason it appeals to me; it's very strange. I like Kanye West and Common, and I like Jenny Lewis and Conor Oberst.
I like a lot of things, but I feel like I have to be shown music these days because I write and work in total silence. Because of that, I don't reach out and find new music. That's bad. I love music. When I turn it on, I realize how much I've missed it.
Dave: You must hear a lot of the same questions. Is there a point of entry to your writing that people aren't picking up on?
Romm: One thing that has come up a lot, mostly on the review side, people will say, "This is a very angry book." That's not my relationship with it. I know that there's fury in the book, and a lot of rejecting of different kinds of comfort. And there's a real rage against death. But when I read the book, I see love and grief primarily. And there's humor in that.
Mostly I think it's grief, not fury, that the book excavates. But the fury and the anger, the more I think about it, that's the taboo. I don't know that I realized how taboo that was, ever, until I started getting reviews.
That's the ugly thing, right? The thing you're supposed to keep to yourself. But that's also the universal experience. People are angry when they're losing something that they don't want to lose. It's very hard not to be. There are going to be flickers of it even if the primary feeling is sadness.
So that's been strange. When the Times review broke, a couple people who hadn't read the book wrote to me, trying to help me with my anger issues. It was interesting. I don't feel like a particularly angry person. I don't walk around furious at the world. This was such a particular time.
Robin Romm spoke by phone from San Francisco on February 3, 2009. Two days later, she visited the Powells.com office to sign copies of The Mercy Papers.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State