By all accounts, Robin Romm is an accidental memoirist. Her first story collection, The Mother Garden (Scribner, 2007), was praised by critics and named a finalist for both the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Book of the Year Award. But instead of turning to a novel like so many short story writers inevitably do, Romm decided to revisit a manuscript she had written—and shelved—during graduate school. What had begun as an exercise in navigating the loss of her mother evolved into a memoir, The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks, published this month by Scribner.
Much of Romm’s fiction deals with the aftermath of tragedy, but in her memoir the reader is in its midst. Using every tool from her fiction-writer’s toolbox, Romm vividly depicts her daily battles for sanity and control in the weeks leading up to her mother’s death following a nine-year fight with cancer. Romm’s narrative, while locked in a gaze with the imminent void, finds levity in the details: a Tombstone pizza bought accidentally for dinner, or a grandfather who speaks only in a yell. Critics have described Romm’s work as “unsentimental” and “piercing,” and it is this inability to turn away from heartbreaking truth or unremitting loss that defines both her fiction and nonfiction.
Romm grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and after studying creative writing at Brown University, spent time as a federal investigator in San Francisco. She received her MFA from San Francisco State University in 2005 and has since taught writing at several colleges and universities. She has received fellowships and awards from the MacDowell Colony, San Francisco State University, and Brown University. Her stories have been published in Tin House, Threepenny Review, One Story, and Quarterly West. She now lives in New Mexico where she is an assistant professor of creative writing and literature at the College of Santa Fe.
Romm spoke with Poets & Writers Magazine about transitioning from fiction to nonfiction, and back again, and the difficulty of releasing a memoir into the world.
P&W: According to the book jacket, this memoir wasn’t initially intended for an audience. How did it begin?
Robin Romm: The Mercy Papers was an accidental book. I’d been writing fiction since I was a child, writing chapters in a blue binder on a pillow in my closet. But when I returned to Oregon in the summer of 2004, I couldn’t get interested in fictional worlds. My mother was dying; I didn’t need made-up characters as a conduit to mystery. The unknown was all around me—in gestures, in medications, in the colors in the paintings on the wall. Urgency flooded me daily. I worried over my disinterest in writing. A professor of mine said, “Why don’t you just put fiction aside for a little while and write what you see?" So I did. I went upstairs and took out my laptop and started writing a depiction of our hospice nurse. She was obsessed with death. She wore bad clothes. She was condescending. A character took shape. And because I am a fiction writer and see the world in terms of sensory detail and narrative structure, the writing had a natural shapeliness.
I probably wrote thirty pages of the book in the three weeks leading up to my mother’s death. And then I returned home after she died, moved into a small writing studio, and wrote ninety more pages in about ten days. I typed furiously, getting down the oddness, the vividness of the world in the throes of change. I was still reeling from the trauma of losing my mother in the hellish way that I did. And so the details were really quite easy to pin down. Later, after it was over, I was able to see it all as a narrative.
P&W: During the drafting process did you ever have an impulse toward fiction that you had to reign in?
RR: Why would I reign in my fictional impulses? Pam Houston came to one of my classes recently and told my students that there is not a significant difference between fiction and nonfiction. A battle cry! This culture is so caught up with literal definitions of truth, but the fact is that everything you are reading is subjective, a way of narrating an event, an idea. Not the way. Is this not the first step of fiction? Figuring out what to focus on? Which details to choose? The craft tools of narrative nonfiction are the same as in fiction: character, detail, dialogue, scene. The only difference is that [with nonfiction] the writer “knows” what will happen. But narrative nonfiction is less interested in action-driven plot, I think. It’s more interested in how the narrator is going to change, how life affects the person telling the story. Emotional truth is the most important thing in memoir—as it is in fiction. I could never have written this book if I hadn’t written fiction. It is a close cousin and everything I learned about fictional craft I used in the creation of memoir.
P&W: One of the most difficult aspects of memoir is the unflinching emotional honesty it requires. During the editing process did you ever second guess yourself and think, “No, this wasn’t really how I felt, this was how I wished I felt,” and have to go back and dig deeper?
RR: No. Here is where personality comes into play. I felt what I felt and I knew what I felt and I wrote what I knew that I felt. The questions I confronted were more along the lines of: Will this hurt someone?
P&W: Your relationships with your father and boyfriend play a central part in this memoir. How did you navigate the tricky business of writing honestly, yet remaining respectful of those relationships?
RR: This was a giant task. I was angry with my mother for dying and I was angry with the people in my life who couldn’t help me. Which was everyone. How do you express this rage without compromising love? I wrote and rewrote these two men, searching for a way to make anger respectful. I guess I settled on critiquing myself rather than them. That’s how I managed the complexity.
P&W: What was the publishing process like with this book?
RR: In grad school I showed the pages to a professor who told me that the writing was candid, vivid, worth putting into the world. She told me to get an agent. And so, in typical Robin Romm fashion, I shoved the whole thing in a drawer, determined to forget about it. I sold the story collection a year later and never showed the memoir pages to my agent or to my editor. They asked if I had anything else and I said, “Pages of a memoir in a drawer,” and they kindly asked if they might be able to take a look, and I kindly said, “No way, you’d have to kill me first.”
But I kept working on the pages, unable to let the project totally die. The writing was so alive, so honest and true. It made me feel closer to myself and to my mother. And right before the publication of the The Mother Garden, I decided to let my agent read it. She thought it was a moving and well-written stack of pages, but she wondered about its viability in the market. “Let’s show it to your editor casually,” she said. Two days later, my editor called back with a bid on the book. Suddenly, I had to make up my mind. Was I going to publish it? I agonized over the decision, but I had faith in my editor. And ultimately, I decided to risk the exposure.
P&W: So what was holding you back before?
RR: There are many more reasons not to write a memoir than there are to write one. Will people think I am using a tragedy for personal gain? Would my mother like being portrayed sick in a book? Is it a trespass to tell other people’s stories? What right did I have to them? Will I be disowned? Will critics be mean? Will some petty blogger go, “Egads, another cancer book!” I could fill a page with these questions. I often considered giving Scribner back the advance check and trashing the memoir. I’d write a novel about sex and dogs! Yes! And I wouldn’t have to grapple with any of this. But then [my boyfriend and I] moved to New Mexico and I took all my mother’s journals into this little loft our crappy rental had. I read them. Then I came across a passage. My mother wrote that she felt that her sphere of influence was small. That she helped a lot of people locally—she was a public interest attorney—but that would be her only legacy. And I had a moment of thinking that maybe her story, my story, our story, would find its way into the hands of others in the middle of a tragedy, or those trying to help someone in tragedy’s clutches. That this story—so small, really, just a mother’s death—might have the power to be more universal.
P&W: This memoir covers the span of three weeks, yet it is so much more expansive than that. Did framing the narrative this way come naturally during the writing, or was it a conscious decision you made up front?
RR: This came naturally. I started writing one random day in the Oregon house. The book opens there. The hospice nurse is about to visit and I hate her. Then it winds through the last weeks, ending with the reception after the funeral. But of course, the book is about love and family, so it’s important for the scenes from the past to erupt during the present, which is always happening in the daily. We are always living in multiple layers of time, so that is what the book does, too.
P&W: Do you think the fragmentary nature of time in this book says something specific about death or dying?
RR: Maybe. I think death happens on a strange timeline. Those last weeks had no sunrise or sunset. I’d be up at five in the morning eating pretzels and adjusting a tube. I’d be making scrambled eggs at two in the afternoon. Death had its own schedule, and we were all at its mercy.
P&W: Why didn’t you wait longer to write this book? Don’t you think your perspective would have been broader with time?
RR: Had I waited a year, two years to tell this story, it would be a totally different memoir. The rawness and clarity of detail would have been inaccessible. I probably would have been more forgiving and less likely to capture the rage that is inherent in grief. I do feel this is a book that could only have been written right after the death. Most of the revisions in the years following the initial draft were the memory scenes. The urgency of the death was all recorded right as it was unfolding—or in the weeks following—and I think you can get a sense of that when you read it.
P&W: At the end of your book there are twelve blank pages. Can you tell us about the decision to end the memoir this way?
RR: I can tell you that when the designer saw the manuscript, he went straight to my editor and said, “We don’t do this; this is never done.” I had several ideas about how to end the book. In one draft, it ends with the violence of my mother’s actual death. But how traumatizing for a reader! And how untrue. Nothing stopped at the moment of her death but her body. It took my mind a lot longer to understand how final her disappearance was. And then I thought of ending the book in Hawaii with my father right after shiva. We cashed in our [frequent flyer] miles and fled the well-wishers, anxious to get away, but of course we just sat in silence in the tropics feeling awful and mean-spirited and a little bored. (The most interesting thing I did was knit about a hundred fingerless gloves while lying on the wicker couch there.) Obviously two shell-shocked people sitting in the sun is an odd ending for a book. The most true ending felt like quiet, like a place for the reader to just be. In the memoir (and in my life), the hospice nurse gives me a pamphlet on how to deal with losing a loved one and it was full of typos and clichés and terrible formatting. The first page was blank, and I thought that was how the whole book should have been. That blankness pays tribute to complexity in a way no self-help manual ever could.
P&W: Where do you see The Mercy Papers falling along the spectrum of nonfiction? Does it have a niche within memoir?
RR: I think of The Mercy Papers as a kind of anti-self-help grief book. It offers comfort to those people who know instinctively that they will never cure loss and that the only way to understand life on earth is to just go headfirst through the struggle. To let it awe and stun and transform.
P&W: How did you find the transition back to fiction after this foray into memoir?
RR: I am still transitioning. Fiction is more difficult, I think, than memoir. Not only do you need to depict the world in all its detail, and characters in all their complexity, you also need to figure out what’s going to happen. In memoir, you know what’s going to happen. The magical elements seem to be mellower in my newer fiction, as if through writing memoir I learned how to deal with things straight on rather than through metaphor.
P&W: What are you working on now?
RR: I’m working on some essays, some stories, and a novel idea. But I will admit to loving the short story form above all others. In my fantasy world, I would do nothing but write stories until the end of time.