If you think death ends relationships, think again. Because it’s entirely possible to continue, evolve or begin a relationship with someone after they have made their transition. And that’s the premise of the memoir, Starting with Goodbye.
The author, Lisa Romeo ,has been my writing coach for more than a decade. I’ve been a published writer since I was 16, I’m 69 and yes, I still use a writing coach/editor. That outside look, the keen eye she provides, is necessary.
When I heard her memoir was out, I couldn’t wait to read it. It did not disappoint. Here’s my conversation with her.
When someone asks what your book is about, how do you describe it?
I say it’s about the unpredictability of grief, and about how a relationship can still evolve even when one person is gone. I often quote the late playwright Robert Anderson who said, “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind towards some resolution which it never finds.”
What was the hardest thing about writing the memoir?
During the revision process, working through how to portray the sibling relationship with my (living) brother. I wanted to be as honest as I could–because there’s no sense in sugar-coating the very real and challenging ways in which our father’s failing health, death, and post-death time periods tore holes in the fabric of that relationship. (In fact, many readers tell me they appreciate that I included those arguments, disagreements, and attendant ugly feelings.). And yet, one wants to be compassionate too, and not completely alienate others. I think I arrived at a reasonable solution. Well, my brother is still talking to me anyway. Sometimes.
You seemed pretty calm and collected about your father’s appearance after death. Had you other similar experiences with loved ones in the past?
Not personally, but I never thought of the idea of the dead visiting us to be very strange. I was more curious than anything else, and since talking didn’t always come easy to us in life, I welcomed the idea of getting more time to be in the conversation.
When I was in my early 20’s and living in southern California, once a week I drove to Los Angeles to take an evening acting class and stayed overnight at my cousin Larry’s house in Hollywood. He was an actor and we stayed up late, me listening to his on-set stories. Many times, after I finally went to bed, I’d hear him in the living room talking, a one-sided conversation. This was in the early 1980s; I assumed he was on the telephone to someone back east. Finally, after a few months of this, I asked him who he was talking to. “My mom,” he replied. “She visits me a few nights a week and we talk.” She’d died many years earlier. I just accepted this; in a funny way, it made sense to me.
How concerned were you about revealing this in your memoir–in fact, making it a focal point?
I went through a period where I was concerned readers would either think I was lying or else I was a loon. But when writing a memoir, your story is your story; you can’t change the essential elements to make it more palatable for readers and still feel right. So, in the end—and I might add, after good advice from my publisher—I decided to let the readers come to their own conclusions.
I think that was the right decision because I keep hearing from readers—especially when we get a chance to meet in person—that they had similar experiences after losing a loved one, but had always been reluctant to reveal it, afraid friends and relatives wouldn’t believe them, or maybe pat them on the head and suggest a therapist. That’s what’s so personally satisfying about memoir: you let your story into the world, worried and unsure, and find it helps others free up their own stories.
You were brutally honest–some would say even hard on yourself — in the book. What was it like to see those intimate thoughts about yourself on the page and to think others would read them?
If you had seen some very early drafts, you might think the opposite—that in the book I’m actually less harsh on myself than I originally felt about my behavior. I’ve always been very hard on myself and that shows up on the page.
I’ve never had any qualms about revealing myself to readers; if you are going to write about your life, you must be willing to let your flaws and warts show—to show up on the page utterly human, all your foibles on display. To my mind, anything less, any glossing over or prettying up one’s part in the past, wouldn’t connect honestly with readers. We’re all full of faults, broken in places. In the memoir, the narrator stands in for the reader, so she (I) had to be that flawed human being.
Did any of the responses to the book surprise you?
When you’re waiting for a memoir to be published, I think most authors anticipate all the possible scenarios and responses. I knew some folks wouldn’t care for the “talking to my dead father” sections and I did get some skeptics, who poked me in the ribs and winked, saying, “Yeah, but that part’s made up, right?” One odd moment was when someone at a book event told me I was secretly embarrassed by my family’s Italian heritage; this took place at a gathering celebrating Italian-American artists, so I was thoroughly confused by the remark!
Mostly though, readers have been wonderful. Many have sent me heartfelt, beautiful notes about their own grief experiences, how they’ve connected with their departed loved ones, and it’s been such a privilege that they’ve trusted me with those stories. I had one lovely experience at a bookstore in the Boston area when members of a Jewish book club came to the reading and afterward stayed to chat with me—an Italian, lapsed Catholic girl—about families.
What’s next for you? What are you working on?
I was working on a memoir based on returning to (horseback) riding, after a 25-year hiatus. I once owned (well, more accurately, my father owned!) six horses, rode on the show circuit, judged horse shows, etc., from age 14 until 34. I was five months into that, riding twice a week, when the pandemic closed the stable to those who didn’t own their own horses. So I set that manuscript aside, and went back to working on an essay collection (or maybe memoir-in-essays?) I had started before and will finish this fall. We’ll see.
Do you meet with online book clubs if they ask?
Yes, certainly, and I love doing that! Sometimes, we play a little trivia game, and I send out small prizes in the mail afterward.
Find the book right here.
And this is Lisa’s website, where you can connect with her. If you’ve got any comments or questions, feel free to leave them in the Comments, below.