The Rumpus Book Club chats with Emily Rapp about The Still Point of the Turning World, the universality of grief, constructing a memoir in real time, and divinity school smack talk.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Rebecca Rubenstein.
Brian S: So it’s the top of the hour—who wants to dive in with the first question?
Charlotte: Hi Emily! How are you doing?
Emily Rapp: Good! Hi! I mean, goodish.
Noah: How do you think the book would’ve been different if you’d written it after Ronan’s passing?
Emily Rapp: I think it would have had less urgency, because I was writing it facing an inevitable end, and I very much wanted the book to be about Ronan’s life, about what it meant to me, and I wanted him to be alive in the book when I looked at it years later.
Noah: That’s lovely. Have you read it again since it came out?
Emily Rapp: I have not read the book. It’s very hard for me to read it, in fact. I mean, since it came out. I’ve obviously read it.
Jack W.: One particular part that really resonated with me is when you wrote, “One thing I knew: Ronan would not, like Frankenstein’s monster, be sitting out in the middle of a dark forest, lonely, perched on a log and wishing somebody loved him. Not my boy.”
Emily Rapp: Thanks, Jack. That story was such a touchstone for me—this idea of a “wrongly made” man being cast out. It used to make me physically ill thinking about poor Frankie.
Anonymous Guest: Has any mom, whose son has been diagnosed, read the book? Or its first draft?
Emily Rapp: Yes, several moms read advance copies and sections of early drafts.
Anonymous Guest: I’m glad they got the chance to read something that was written by someone who went through the same things they did. What did they have to say about it?
Emily Rapp: The other moms were happy to have their story told, although obviously everyone’s story is different.
Charlotte: Did writing the book make you stronger while facing it all?
Emily Rapp: I wouldn’t say stronger. I would say it gave me a way to focus all my despair, rage, sadness—all of it. Tremendous focus. And putting words down and sending them out into the world was a nice antidote to wailing and hitting my head against the wall and being hysterical.
Brian S: How long ago did you finish the principal manuscript for the book, I mean before you did serious editing and proofing and all?
Emily Rapp: I finished the first draft of the book in November 2011, and then edited it for many, many months. Many agonizing months.
Brian S: Are there plans for you to do a book tour? Or is everything on hold right now?
Emily Rapp: No, there are plans. Book tour [started] March 6th.
Brian S: I really enjoyed the way you wove in other writers, quoting from them and then riffing off of them into your story. How did you come to that decision?
Emily Rapp: It happened naturally. Part of being a writer is being a reader, and the wisdom from other writers helped me hone my own ideas.
Brian S: So in a sense, this book is also a literary bio of you? You’re sort of giving us a glimpse into who you read and how they’ve affected you over your lifetime?
Emily Rapp: Yes.
Rebecca: This is tangentially related to an earlier question, but: what do you think this book would’ve been like if you’d waited to write it, say, twenty years afterward like Cheryl Strayed did with Wild? What would be different? What would be the same?
Emily Rapp: I think the grief would still be very much alive, but it would be qualitatively different if I had waited twenty years. Writing the book in the midst of the wild grief was an experience that was incredibly cathartic, and I hope I never have a similar experience again. It was tiring—exhausting, really—but absolutely necessary for me to survive the slow fade of Ronan’s life.
Rebecca: I totally understand that. I’ve been writing through a lot of pain in dealing with my father, and I always hear to have distance, but for me it’s cathartic and raw to write right now. I appreciate that about your memoir: it’s very raw. And I mean “raw” in a good way.
Emily Rapp: I think “raw” is a good term, but I will also say that I edited a lot, and I had a great editor.
Rebecca: Oh no, please don’t misunderstand: I know a lot of work went into it—a lot of revision. This is a beautiful, well-written, well-edited work. I just mean “raw” as in not numb, not dispassionate, not watered down. Strong.
Noah: Agreed. I love the anger that is present in it. You really beautifully rail against the obnoxious clichés associated with someone having a terminal disease.
Emily Rapp: I’m super angry. I’m still angry! I mean, not violently so, but yes, it’s hard to hear those clichéd statements that sound like someone knitted them on a napkin, and you’re holding your dying child in the marsupial pack at Trader Joe’s.
Noah: What do you do with that anger now?
Emily Rapp: I run. And do cross-fit. I abuse exercise machines.
Noah: Are you writing about Ronan’s passing now?
Emily Rapp: I am writing some about him, but not tons. He died February 15th, and I’ve been consumed with plans for his memorial, sorting through feelings, etc.
David B.: I thought your book was a guide for living.
Emily Rapp: Thanks, David. I learned so much about what it means to live a big, beautiful life from a child who never had the opportunity to make any choices in his own.
Anonymous Guest: Having followed your blog, I was surprised to find the book was placed in the past (past perfect?) tense. It felt like less of a chronicle, more of a looking-back. How was that editorial decision made?
Emily Rapp: I wrote the book in past tense because it already had such an urgent, breathless quality. It was too overwhelming in present tense in book form.
Noah: What made you want to end the book with the description of the dream sequence?
Emily Rapp: I wanted to end with a vision that had come to me often as a comfort. Something that paid homage to the idea of an afterlife without expressing any ardent belief in one, which I don’t have.
Brian S: When the club members first got the book, a number of us noted that we had a hard time reading in large chunks, myself included, because we had similar stories in our lives. My nephew died of SMA seven years ago, and for the first six to seven chapters, at least, whenever I saw Ronan, I saw my nephew as well. And I’m glad I kept going, because it reiterated a lot of what I felt, even from a distance, watching my nephew.
Emily Rapp: That’s interesting, and makes sense. It just goes to show that everyone has an experience of loss that guts them, changes them, whether it’s their own child, or a close friend’s child, or a parent, or a partner, or a friend.
Melissa: Yes, it was hard for me to reconcile the reader in me with the mother in me. I was dazzled by your beautiful way of storytelling, but I have to say it took everything in me to be able to read it. I cried pretty much the whole time.
Emily Rapp: I cried pretty much the whole time I wrote it, so I totally relate to that.
Melissa: But I will say that I truly feel like I will be a better parent because of you. And Ronan. So thank you.
Emily Rapp: Thanks, Melissa. Ronan was an incredible teacher in his way.
Noah: Surprisingly, and not to say I didn’t find it a sad experience, but the first time I cried was the very last paragraph of the Acknowledgements when you talked about your husband. And maybe it was because I could relate easier to Rick because he’s a male character, but every section with him was so hard for me.
Emily Rapp: Many people have said that same thing to me.
Noah: How did you decide what moments featuring your husband ended up in the book?
Emily Rapp: I looked at the narrative and figured out which moments were most salient. In terms of plot, because nonfiction also must have a plot!
Anonymous Guest: About this incredibly sad, truly heartbreaking experience you are going through now: is it similar to what you imagined (anticipated), or is it completely different? I’m talking about Ronan’s passing. You wrote a lot about this moment in the book—how you thought it would be, how much you feared it, dreaded it—and I wonder if any of those feelings were…accurate? (Such a bad word, but I can’t think of any other.) Could you have felt, back then, what you are feeling now?
Emily Rapp: I couldn’t have predicted how I felt after his passing. I felt relief that he was no longer suffering, and a deep fear of living the rest of my life never seeing him again.
Rebecca: What I really appreciated throughout the book was that you had this strong grief, this bullshit thing that was happening to Ronan, but you very much didn’t make your grief to be worse than anyone else’s. It always seems so empowering to be able to grieve but not make your grief worse than anyone else’s. And also made us relate more.
Emily Rapp: There is no grief ladder, truly, I believe this. Sadness is not qualitative, you know? It’s flat and intense and also unique to everyone.
Rebecca: I think that’s something I had to get older to learn—that grief wasn’t a ladder. I really appreciated that you wrote that.
Brian S: Yes, that there’s no hierarchy of pain.
Emily Rapp: Thanks. It took me a while, too.
Deborah: Totally loved your thoughts about the grief ladder. I lost a few young family members, including my sister, and found it so challenging not to feel, well, more hard done by, than someone facing another loss.
Rebecca: I also really liked that you were able to incorporate C.S. Lewis’s grief into your work even though you talk about not really believing in a god/afterlife the same as he does. Your vision was very inclusive of religion without buying into all of it.
Emily Rapp: I love that weird book Lewis wrote. It’s so wise and gripping, and it wrangles with issues without coming up with “answers,” which are always bunk.
David B: I read that C.S. Lewis book when my mother died. It was a help.
Willie: Jumping off of that: I found it very interesting when you wrote about C.S. Lewis’s belief that “it is impossible to truly care about the sorrows of the world until they are own,” while simultaneously reading this wonderful book about sorrows that were just that—not my own. Did that influence the way you approached writing the book?
Emily Rapp: I don’t know. It didn’t influence the way I wrote the book, but I certainly think that’s a wise and true statement.
Brian S: I identified a lot with your moments as a teenager in that Evangelical world. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness (stayed one until my mid-twenties), but can so relate to those questions about healing and such. How long were you in that world, and how did you wind up leaving it behind?
Emily Rapp: I was in it to make friends, for about three months, and then I just couldn’t take it anymore. I love the study of religion, but I’ve never been so into the practice of it.
Brian S: Ha! I feel that way now.
Anonymous Guest: Were you ever in trouble with your parents (your father) for not practicing it?
Emily Rapp: No, my dad is a very cool dude.
Melissa: It must have been a very, very difficult task to edit this book. To have to guide you in how to tell this intensely personal story.
Emily Rapp: I actually welcomed my editor’s thoughts because she’s a genius and she totally got what I was doing. We had a weird mind-meld.
Anonymous Guest: Which one was harder, writing it or editing it?
Emily Rapp: Writing. Absolutely.
Rebecca: What do you feel like your narrative arc is? It’s not a Freitag’s pyramid, I think. But maybe more like a snake? What was your vision of plot?
Emily Rapp: I wanted the book to have a nine month arc, for obvious reasons, and I wanted people to see Ronan and to witness how my moments with him transformed me, and others as well.
David B: I’m reading your first book now and loving it.
Emily Rapp: Thanks, David.
David B: Like Brian, I enjoyed the authors you mentioned who gave you inspiration.
Charlotte: I wrote down all the writers you mentioned and I am inspired to re-read or try somebody new…grew up in Sweden. Loved the way you incorporated them all.
Emily Rapp: Writers must read! This is essential. You can’t write well if you don’t read a ton. I believe that.
Brian S: Who are you reading lately?
Emily Rapp: I’m reading a book of stories by my friend Betsy Brandt. And We the Animals by Justin Torres.
Deborah: I love We the Animals! I read it right after your book. Wonderful together.
Emily Rapp: It’s a great, slim, deliciously brilliant book.
Noah: Do you still read philosophy, Emily?
Emily Rapp: I do in spurts. I read philosophy when I’m blocked as a writer, because it’s like doing gymnastics with your brain. Loosens stuff up.
Anonymous Guest: I cried a lot when I read that on the day Ronan was diagnosed, you called your parents every ten minutes for seven hours until they finally got to your place. It is the same thing, the first thing I would have done. I’m glad they were there for you.
Emily Rapp: They were very present with me throughout this journey.
Noah: Has your husband read the book?
Emily Rapp: I’m not sure. Rick and I are no longer married, and I think his experience is very private to him. He was a wonderful father to Ronan.
Noah: It’s interesting to be asking questions about a memoir, because it makes me, at least, feel like I know you on a more personal level than I actually do. I keep writing questions and then deleting them because they seem intrusive.
Deborah: Me too, Noah.
Willie: I agree Noah—and on the other end, nerdy, writerly questions feel a bit cold.
Brian S: That’s something the book also did for me—helped me really understand why the things we say are empty. I mean, I’d always known they felt like they weren’t enough, but I get why now.
Emily Rapp: I think that’s part of writing memoir—I feel the same way when I read other memoirs. I think part of this is that when you read a book, the person is frozen in time, but in reality, they’re a person who is moving on with their life, changing, growing, moving along in the time-space continuum. It’s like watching a movie and then seeing the celebrity on a talk show, and feeling weirded out that their hair is fourteen inches longer or something. Lots of distance between the process and the person.
Ana: One part that interested me was a bit where you talked about other people’s invasive stare and categorization of the lady on the the plane as a freak—the “big reveal” of our otherness, or our wounds. You’ve put so much out there, on the page. Do you feel a bit naked—or a bit lighter—when the knowledge precedes you? Or is it entirely different?
Emily Rapp: I do have a lot out there, but it’s controlled, edited and polished. Memoirists are actually private. If someone asks me, “What was it like to have a dying child?” I can hand them the book, but those are the things I have decided to share. Other things will stay private.
Noah: Have you done other publicity events since Ronan passed?
Emily Rapp: No. I’m in the process of moving house, believe it or not. So I’ve been going to Goodwill and packing boxes of shoes.
Noah: How are you feeling about the book tour?
Emily Rapp: I want to share this book with the world. I’m very motivated to do that, because Ronan was such a huge teacher for me, and as I’ve said, for others. I will say that the last time I was on book tour, someone came to a reading and thought I was the cookbook author. So I hope that doesn’t happen again, since I can hardly pour milk over cereal in an efficient way.
Brian S: Ha!
Jack W.: Has your writing method changed in the past few years? Ie the feverish writing you mention from your time at Yaddo when you were pregnant? Are the things you plan on writing henceforth altered?
Emily Rapp: My writing method has changed a lot. I used to whine and groan a lot about the writing process, and now I have no time or space for that. I write with intention, and I don’t have patience for my neurosis. It’s a relief.
Melissa: At what point did you choose the title, and why? It’s perfect, by the way. I love Eliot.
Emily Rapp: My editor helped with the title! I wanted Dear Dr. Frankenstein, but we ended up thinking that it didn’t say enough about what the book is about.
Melissa: Would you consider selling the rights for a film, if approached about it?
Emily Rapp: I don’t know, Melissa. That had never even crossed my mind.
Rebecca: I have questions relating to this being a memoir. What do you say when someone says they can’t approach this memoir critically because it’s about your life? I mean, there’s that famous V.S. Pritchett quote, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.” Do you give someone a pass for saying that? Do you welcome the criticism, given that it’s about this book that is so very personal and yet so polished.
Emily Rapp: I welcome criticism as much as any writer, because I’ve made what I consider to be a piece of art. I don’t think you get credit for living, but i do think you should want to be, as a writer, part of trying to make meaning from chaos.
Emily Rapp: It’s a story, pure and simple, in my mind. If people don’t like the way it’s told, that’s fair. If they don’t like the person or the subject matter, that’s not criticism, it’s more of a kneejerk opinion. In my opinion.
Noah: Do you think you’ll continue writing as a memoirist? Is there a novel or a book of short stories kicking around in there?
Emily Rapp: I’m working on a novel.
Noah: Why the decision to jump from memoir to novel?
Emily Rapp: I started as a fiction writer, in fact, and I’m very jazzed about this book. And it’s a very different experience from memoir writing, and as you know, writers crave novelty!
Brian S: So you’re saying after the novel, a book of poems?
Emily Rapp: I wish. I love poetry, but no dice, I think. I write one semi-decent poem once a year, usually in January or February. That’s all I’ve got.
Rebecca: Have you heard about Poetry Lent? Heather Sellers does it every year, to give out instead of take away. I tried it. It’s…hard.
Emily Rapp: Ooh—no. I will look that up!
Rebecca: The idea is just to write a poem every day. It’s on the Brevity blog.
Brian S: Oh, like the poem-a-day thing for National Poetry Month.
Rebecca: Apparently she said it’s what started a piece she got published in Brevity.
Emily Rapp: Interesting. I’ve done Tony Hoagland’s “Five Powers of Poetry” class, which was fantastic. Poetry boot camp.
Rebecca: Ooh. I’ll have to look that one up and do it.
Brian S: Are you still teaching in Santa Fe?
Emily Rapp: I’m on leave this term, but yes, I’m still at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
Noah: Did your separation from Rick affect his presence in the book at all?
Emily Rapp: Not really. I think he is very present as a father to Ronan in the book. Ultimately, though, I think the book is about my experience, and because every grief experience is different, and because it’s not a book about our marriage, his presence is mitigated by those factors. I mean his narrative presence, to be clear.
Noah: I actually really appreciated that about the book, it had a sort of cast of characters, but the book was your story. You didn’t try to explain how other people grieved.
Emily Rapp: Grief is so personal, and yet everyone will experience it. Strange.
Noah: It’s always amazing to me that grief is really something that we will all face in our lives and when we’re growing up, learning up on wars and algebra, no one ever thinks to do some general description of the generic grieving process.
Emily Rapp: I agree. We need a lesson in grief. My friend Gareth wrote a guest blog for me about that very thing.
Noah: Just like a, “Heads up, this is going to happen and it’s going to be really, really hard.”
Emily Rapp: Exactly.
Rebecca: I used to teach at my university as a grad student, and turning thirty was really hard for me—all sorts of awful things happening, not even related to my age—and my students would say, “Something has happened to you.” And I wanted to tell them that things would change as they got older, that the hurts would pile up, that they would really grieve. But I didn’t know how.
Deborah: Nothing prepares one.
Brian S: Because so much of what we do get about grief is, as you put it, ultimately empty.
Emily Rapp: Yes, true. People are so afraid of death. If we were less death-phobic, we’d know how to “do” grief better, I think. Or differently, at the very least.
Noah: Yes! I loved, loved your idea about a Day of Mourning.
Brian S: Yes! Although I noticed that when you described the Day of Mourning cards, you didn’t have birds on them. Fucking birds.
Noah: Death is a terrible thing, but an inevitable thing, so why not make it part of our existence?
Emily Rapp: We have a kind of Day of Mourning at the Tay-Sachs family conference. Very powerful.
Willie: Well, in terms of being death-phobic, that gets back to the Montaigne quote that learning how to live is about learning how to die.
Melissa: Well, and on another note, I wish someone would tell you how fucking judgmental other mothers can be when you have a child who is late on milestones.
Brian S: How judgmental other parents can be, period.
Emily Rapp: Seriously. The “smug mother” syndrome. Unlike button. Children are people, not projects. Some parents don’t realize this sometimes. It makes me sad for everyone involved.
Melissa: It’s awful. It’s something I never expected. I imagined I would connect so easily with other mothers. Not so. A-holes.
Rebecca: I really liked how much you talked about how goal-oriented parents are, how much of parenting is about the future and future accomplishments. It made me re-think parenting, if I ever were to become a parent. I want to put the book in the hands of every parent I know.
Emily Rapp: Yes. None of us knows what the future holds. To think that we do is just, well, wrong. And I think it blocks us from fully living and making choices that make us (and hopefully others) happy. I’ve been to such a sad place, such a despairing place, that I feel like my gift to Ronan is to live a big, beautiful life. For him, because of him, in honor of him.
Deborah: You will, Emily.
Brian S: And when you spend your life, as I did until my mid-twenties, planning for a future existence beyond this one, it cripples your ability to live in this one.
Emily Rapp: Yes, no more future existence. I could log off this chat and get hit by a car. Anything can happen. That’s a terrifying thought, as well as a liberating reality. I think.
Brian S: I think the piece of knowledge that really did it for me was learning about the future death of the universe. No matter how immortal I could potentially make myself, eventually this is all going to end.
Emily Rapp: And maybe the end is the beginning? Nobody knows. I am, however, planning to go have a nice Italian dinner with one of my closest friends.
Brian S: Mmmm. Italian.
Jack W.: Mmmmm. Entropy.
Emily Rapp: Nothing better than butter and oil and bread. And wine. All on one table.
Donna: Did you realize at some point the blog was really a book, or was it all just writing, writing, writing? It seems like there would be a major difference between writing for a small community of friends and a manuscript, but your blog was like few others.
Emily Rapp: My friends told me I was writing a book. I was writing those blog posts because it was a way of staying alive and connected and I couldn’t always talk to people on the phone.
Rebecca: I’m glad you listened to your friends.
Noah: Agreed. I also loved your thoughts on good and bad luck.
Brian S: Yes! Luck has long seemed to me as a substitute for being blessed (or not), and I was glad to see you pair them.
Emily Rapp: Thanks. I think luck is such a dubious term. I go around and around in my head about that one.
Noah: Yeah, luck is like religion for us atheists.
Emily Rapp: I don’t like the idea of being “blessed,” either. I think it’s great to be grateful and happy about certain things in your life, but who is doing the blessing? We use it a lot in secular culture, when it’s actually a very religious term.
Brian S: Yeah. I mean it’s good to acknowledge that there are things that just happen, good and bad, which are out of your control. You wind up like a character in an Ayn Rand novel if you believe chance has nothing to do with outcomes.
Emily Rapp: Think of it this way: Ronan was horribly unlucky because he hardly had a chance to live before he died, and he experienced suffering. On the other hand, we’re all going to die, and he was completely and wonderfully and fiercely loved. So there you go.
Rebecca: Very true. That was a very powerful thing to think about in the beginning of your book.
Emily Rapp: Although one can study religion and not be religious. Like, at all.
Noah: What draws you to the study of religion?
Emily Rapp: Religion is a nice blend of history, philosophy and literature. All of my favorite nerdbag things.
Rebecca: One of my best friends went to Vanderbilt’s Divinity School and was surrounded by atheists, Mormons, and very devout Christians. They instructed everyone there to call God “Her.”
Brian S: Really? Vanderbilt?
Brian S: That place just rose in my estimation.
Melissa: My best friend’s mom was on her way to an A.A. meeting and was going to make them change the Our Father to Our Mother, but a bird came crashing into her windshield before she got there. True story.
Emily Rapp: Wow.
Rebecca: I once sat next to a man on a plane who was Christian. I told him my best friend was going to Vanderbilt Divinity School, and he narrowed his eyes and told me that it did “bad things” to Christians.
Emily Rapp: Ooh!
Emily Rapp: Divinity school gossip!
Brian S: Something I had no idea even existed.
Emily Rapp: Indeed.
Rebecca: I was wondering if Harvard was similar in some ways?
Emily Rapp: Harvard was. People were very thoughtful and interesting there.
Willie: Now let’s just wait for a divinity school to refer to God as “phe.”
Brian S: What does divinity school smack talk sound like?
Emily Rapp: Hmmm. Div school smack. Well, we used to covet the cafeteria at the Business School. Sinful!
Brian S: “You can’t even read Aramaic!”
Emily Rapp: “Jesus spoke Coptic! For reals!”
Brian S: Yes!
Emily Rapp: I was in a cubicle most of the time, attempting to read Aramaic. Or something like that.
Brian S: I learned the Greek alphabet when I was an undergrad—part of a fraternity thing. That’s as far as I go.
Noah: Brian, I’m proud that you just fessed up to fraternity life. How’s the party scene at divinity school?
Emily Rapp: Lots of beer. True story.
Brian S: As well there should be.
Rebecca: “Those Div School kids know how to party!”
Willie: Party scene in the Bible > party scene in div school.
Emily Rapp: It’s hard to study God. One needs a bit of relaxation at the end of the day.
Brian S: And in the beginning, I might think.
Rebecca: I would’ve thought wine for div school.
Emily Rapp: Or just water. Spiked water. That converts to wine with very deep thinking.