Thursday, October 3, 2013

Lisa's List

In late September I was fortunate to have my memoir, "Riptides & Solaces Unforeseen," reviewed by Lisa Dolan in her Lisa's List column in the Register-Star. Below is her article. 

‘Riptides’ Author Shares Her Process
By Lisa Dolan
Lisa Dolan is the literary coach for the Hudson City School District. Her book column, “Lisa’s List,” appears every Wednesday in the Register-Star. 

Late last week I passed a lovely hour with author, blogger and journalist Debby Mayer. A few weeks back I had finished her recently published “Riptides & Solaces Unforeseen” (Epigraph Books, May 2013). There was no need to revisit the pages before our interview. Her story stayed with me. I am guessing it always will.

Mayer’s memoir is a personal, honest, often brutal account of her life partner Dan’s rapid passage from life to death. And all that happened in between. A nightmare of appointments, doctors, nurses and hospitals.

Mayer eloquently chronicles the “altered reality” of Dan’s decline. Dan, who at age 55 was diagnosed with a fast-onset brain cancer that claimed his life in four harrowing months.

I found this memoir too raw to put down. Readers having navigated the health care system from diagnosis to hospice will be nodding their heads; grateful for all of these sentiments, finally expressed in print.

From an early chapter, titled “Home”:

Dr. Ehrlich says that he can’t make a diagnosis based on the MRI film; he needs to do a brain biopsy. He explains the procedure, one I’ve never heard of, and its risks; the importance of getting enough of the brain to study, but not too much.

Think about it, he says. But if you decide to go ahead, I wouldn’t put it off — I’d have it done in the next week or two.

I should have spoken up. I should have said, but this is a man who skittered up and down the pyramids at Chichen Itza, who shovels snow off our roof in winter, who could recite the 26 words of James Coburn’s dialogue in ‘The Magnificent Seven.’ Three weeks ago he was running and doing the Times crossword puzzle daily. Today he is crippled and no one knows why.

What a treat to sit with Hudson resident Mayer after reading her very personal journey of loss. The questions came easily, as did her thoughtful responses:

Dolan: What compelled you to turn the tragic events of Dan’s illness into a book?

Mayer: What kept me going, through the long process of writing and publication, was to create this work as a tribute to Dan, my life partner for 25 years. I could quote the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night . . .  Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” but it’s not even that simple. I also wanted to report on how our health care system had treated Dan, and by extension, me. I would not, could not, stand by silently.

Dolan: Would you talk about your writing process?

Mayer: After Dan’s death, I wrote out, on my computer, everything that had happened to us, every discussion we had been part of, everything that had been said to us during the four months of his illness. I had notes in my daybook, I have a good memory, and with my experience as a journalist, a good auditory memory. By doing this — my own sort of narrative therapy — I didn’t have to hang onto the story. I could let it go and move on. If I needed any detail, it was there. And it still is, electronically and in hard copy.

This took a long time. I worked full time in the Publications Office at Bard College, and I was now a team of one who had to take care of everything — dogs, house, self, in that order — by myself. I found that I was too tired to write in the evening, so I began getting up half an hour earlier every morning—at 5:30 a.m.—which gave me an hour to write before the rest of the day. I continue to do that today.

Having written everything out, I then began to pare it down, to try to get to the essential, to create a memoir, not journal entries. This also took a long time, during which I moved from Claverack to Hudson, so I lost several months in being consumed by real estate.

I spent time putting together an excerpt from the book. I thought that if I could get the excerpt published, that would generate interest in the book. I couldn’t get the excerpt, “Therapy Dogs,” published until the winter 2011 issue of Our Town. 

But in the meantime, in 2007, the excerpt won a grant in creative nonfiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. As a result of my winning this grant, several literary agents read the book, but while they complimented the writing, they declined to represent it.

In May 2009, I went to Book Expo America, an annual publishing conference in New York City, as a sort of last-ditch effort to identify publishers that might be interested in “Riptides.” While there, I attended two workshops, one on print-on-demand and the other on self-publishing. And I realized that I had been stuck in the 20th century, seeking a literary agent who would then seek a publisher for my book. We were now well into the 21st century and writers were skipping the middle people and going straight to the reader, publishing their books themselves, online, in hard copy or both.

It still took me a while. Agents and publishers want writers to have a platform. To me, a platform is a good story, well told, but today that’s not enough. Publishers urge writers to have a blog, so they can write about what they’re writing about. In January 2011, after I had retired from Bard College, I started my blog, 2becomes1: widowhood for the rest of us. It was fun! For about two years I posted short personal essays about moving on after loss. This year I have been posting chapters of my new, untitled novel.

“Riptides” waited in the background until last year, when I started to work with a professional coach, Millie Calesky ( She helps me organize my projects. Slowly but surely, I added “Riptides” back into the mix. I decided to publish it with Epigraph Books in Rhinebeck, and it came out this past May.

Dolan: What do you think Dan would have thought about the book?

Mayer: Dan was private man. Yet he always supported my writing and my efforts to be published. A character based on Dan plays a small but vital role in my novel, “Sisters,” and Dan didn’t object to that. So I think at the very least he would have put up with this and maybe, even, he is proud of it. (I think of his spirit as a living thing.)

Dolan: Will you share the genesis of the title?

Mayer: I had a hard time titling this book. I used one title for years as I wrote it, until a friend advised me that I simply couldn’t use that title, it would be confused with something completely different. This friend and I sat in The Parlor (now Rev) coffeehouse on upper Warren Street and brainstormed titles. 

We came up with “Riptides” because that’s what the experience of Dan’s illness felt like: a strong current that pulled us away from our “shore,” our normal life, a current over which we had no control. We could struggle against it, but we would never get back to the life we had previously known. “And Solaces Unforeseen” was added because there were solaces, in our friends, our families, and even in our two dogs, which I brought weekly to the hospital to visit Dan.

“Riptides and Solaces Unforeseen” is available at Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson, the Chatham Bookstore and the gallery at the Greene County Council on the Arts office in Catskill. “Riptides” can also be borrowed through the Mid-Hudson Library System. Mayer’s blog can be accessed at

Posted in Lisa’s List September 25, 2013
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