My father died of Alzheimer’s ten years ago. At first we weren’t sure he had Alzheimer’s. He hadn’t been to the doctor in 35 years, so we had no real frame of reference. My father was wonderful, smart, articulate, warm, very well-read, obsessed with Eastern mysticism, a fine writer, and charmingly eccentric. In other words, it was hard to tell where any sort of illness like Alzheimer’s started and where his personality left off. Looking back, we realized he had been a master at hiding what he was forgetting.
A couple of years before he died I began keeping notes. Over time they became more than notes. These pages evolved into an attempt to render through creative nonfiction some of the interactions, the conversations, the arguments, the dramatic scenes that happened with my father. I’m not sure how many pages I wrote altogether. Between 150 and 200 pages. At first it was very helpful and felt right because the worries about my father were all-consuming. To transfer them to the page gave me a little distance. At the same time, it helped me to be extra-present, helped me to pay close attention to the last years with my father. Perhaps I also hoped to preserve some sense of who he was before Alzheimer’s wholly overtook him.
But after a while I grew weary of the facts and of the memoir. I was especially tired of driving down to South Carolina, struggling to help my mother with my father, then coming back to Asheville and writing down what I had just experienced. It became monotonous, dutiful. My father had been moved into National Healthcare, a nursing home in Greenville. I wrote a little about my father’s stay there, but then stopped. The nursing home was especially depressing and deadening to write about. The powerlessness of the situation weighed on every word I wrote. A kind of inertia settled in. It was like trying to write underwater.
I set aside the memoir and began to write a novel, The Pleasure Was Mine, one that was informed by my family’s struggle with my father’s Alzheimer’s but was not about my family. I had had an old man’s voice in the back of my mind for a long time. A lot like my Great-Great Uncle Cleve Marshbanks’ voice. Unlike everybody else in my family, Uncle Cleve wasn’t well-educated. In fact, he’d quit school in the sixth grade and gone to work in a mill. He lived with his sister, my Aunt Eddie, who was one of the first women in Greenville to attend college. It was my uncle’s voice that I began the novel with. The more I wrote in his voice, the more it felt right to me. Something opened up. With the fiction, I was free to find the humor in situations, to explore possibilities and to entertain the idea that even when a family is in crisis, good things can happen, opportunities can arise, family members can get to know each other in new ways.
Once the book was finished though, my agent had difficulty finding a publisher. She must have sent it to over 30 publishers. The gist of what the editors said was, This is very well-written but we’re afraid of the subject matter. One editor went so far as to say, “People don’t want to read about Alzheimer’s. They’re afraid they’ll get it.” As if Alzheimer’s were catching and from a book! Eventually an older editor at St. Martin’s, one who wasn’t afraid of the subject matter, accepted the novel. The irony is that of all my books it has done the best. It was read on NPR’s “Radio Reader,” was a finalist for the SIBA Award in Fiction, and continues to be chosen for city and community reads. I’ve been asked to speak and read from the book at Alzheimer’s conferences around the country and was recently a panelist on a caregiving segment of “Life Part 2,” a PBS series broadcast nationally last fall.
For me, writing and publishing have been one long, fairly relentless lesson in creative persistence. Maybe “lesson” is too tidy a word. It didn’t feel like a lesson when I finally admitted I had to jettison the memoir and start a novel. It didn’t feel like a lesson when yet another packet of rejection letters arrived from my agent. It felt like failure.
Undertaking a book, in all its aspects, feels to me like going out and intentionally getting oneself lost in the deepest, darkest, most treacherous woods. It’s easy to forget the anxiety and downright fear in the safe afterglow of publication. But now that I'm at work on a new novel, revising it yet again, I'm lost and alone in a whole different woods and have to remind myself that's exactly where I need to be.
Tommy Hays is Executive Director of UNC Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program. For more about The Pleasure Was Mine and other books by Tommy Hays, go to www.tommyhays.com.