Norton executive editor Jill Bialosky has published several books of poetry, including Paterson Poetry Prize finalist Intruder, and two beautifully crafted novels. Perhaps all this was merely laying the ground for what is clearly a momentous personal task: writing History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life (Atria. Feb. 2011. ISBN 978-1439101933. $24). Here, in quietly piercing language, she delivers a sure sense of a beautiful girl who took her own life at age 21 and of what it means to grieve such a death, burdened with an awful sense of responsibility that can’t easily be shared with others.
All the self-help titles Bialoksy has perused in the intervening years did not give her what they’d promised; as she said at a recent lunch, In those books, I could not find my sister. So she took the task upon herself, beginning with an essay ten years ago and then expanding to this book. Those seeking understanding here will find that it’s imbued with a strong literary sense; indeed, there are powerful quotes from a range of writers, including Bialosky herself: the sky closed its eyes on our house/ as if in shame and claimed her. In the following Q&A, Peter Borland, VP & editorial director at Atria, considers what a memoir like Bialosky’s can accomplish.
Why do we find memoirs of grief so persuasive?
At some point in our lives, we all come face to face with loss‚ whether it’s the death of a parent, child, sibling or beloved friend‚ and that experience can feel incredibly isolating, as if no one else can possibly be feeling what we are feeling. We often don’t even know the words to convey our emotions and the confusion and sense of displacement we feel. So to find a beautifully written book that shines light on the experience of grief and the long process of healing that follows is rather like being handed a chronicle of the journey someone else took through a strange place that you thought no one else had visited but you. In the case of Jill’s book, the fact that her sister took her own life makes Jill’s emotions even more complicated and confusing. After a loved one’s suicide, a survivor’s grief is often comingled or even for a time overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, anger, and shock.
Do you see this as primarily for those mourning the suicide of a loved one (more folks than we know) or for anyone interested in an affecting memoir?
It’s a book for anyone interested in a beautifully written, emotionally powerful memoir. Of course, the book contains specific details and insights that will be a source of great comfort for those mourning the suicide of a loved one (and I think we all know a lot more people who have been affected by such a death than we realize). But Jill also does a brilliant job of showing how crucial it is for us to deal with the pain and unhappiness that some families seem to pass down from generation to generation. It’s her own son’s coming of age that sparks in Jill the need finally to come to terms with her sister Kim’s suicide at 21. The danger lies not in telling Kim’s story but in keeping silent.
Of course, tell us what makes Jill’s memoir so special.
Besides the quality of the writing (reflecting Jill’s background as a poet and novelist) and the deeply personal subject matter and the fearlessness with which she wades into her own family history and interior life, I love the way Jill weaves into the book what she has gleaned from other writers. She finds insight (and sometimes comfort) in a marvelous cross-section of literature and poetry, citing Shakespeare, Plath, Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and most of all Herman Melville, whose stormy presence hovers over much of the book.
Finally, how do you promote a book like this‚ the topic is sensitive, and one does not want to sound sensational.
We are focusing on getting the galley into the hands of as many early readers as possible and are giving special attention to the independent booksellers and libraries, since we think this is a book that they can (and will!) champion. In fact, we did something rather unusual and printed a special run of the galley aimed directly at the indies, with a letter from me and a handful of terrific early comments we received from key independent booksellers. We will promote the book to therapists, college guidance counselors, suicide prevention organizations, etc., and to the increasingly important online market. Jill will do a blog tour around the time of publication and some speaking events‚ she’s already been invited to be part of a panel at the Los Angeles Times Book Fair in April. The message I’m trying to send is that this book shines a light on a dark subject in much the same way that William Styron’s Darkness Visible made clinical depression accessible or that Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking made grief something that could be discussed publicly. It’s a subject I’ve noticed people are eager to talk about once they realize they are allowed to do so.