Joan Wickersham answers the Newtonville Books Questionnaire

Joan Wickersham’s most recent book is The Suicide Index.

–Name a childhood hero.wickersham

Clara Barton and Edith Cavell. They were nurses, and I had biographies of them that I read over and over. I had no desire to be a nurse, but when I was a kid a lot of the biographies were about nurses.

–Name a work you wished you’d written.

There aren’t any. The books I love, I love as a reader – if I’d written them I wouldn’t enjoy them in the same way.

–If you had to order your work by how successfully you completed what you set out to accomplish, what would that list look like?

By the time I finished The Suicide Index, after ten years struggling with it, I knew I’d told the story in the way it needed to be told. But there were many earlier drafts that just didn’t work. It couldn’t be told in any straightforward way, because the experience of losing someone to suicide, and restoring your memories of that person, is so chaotic and shaded. I needed to come up with a structure and a way of storytelling that really reflected the nature of the experience. When I finally hit on organizing the book as an index, I knew it worked – it at once put my father’s suicide in order and acknowledged that it’s something you can never really put in order.

–Name a writer in history you would’ve like to have been a contemporary of and why.

Tricky question. If I’d been around at the same time as my favorites – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, Flaubert, Maupassant, Turgenev, Tolstoy – my eyesight would have been too bad to allow me to read their books, and I probably would have died in childbirth. So as much as I love those writers, I’m happy to be a contemporary of all the writers working during an era of good optometry and obstetrics.

–Name a work of yours whose reception you’ve been surprised about and why.

I was so happy when The Suicide Index was a finalist for the National Book Award. There’s a horrible, stigmatizing silence and recoil around the subject of suicide – it really is one of our last taboo topics – and I’d been afraid it would be pigeonholed as “a suicide book.” But the book got a lot of nice attention, which not only put it in front of people who’d been touched in some way by suicide, but also out to a much wider audience of people who just like to read.

–Correct a misperception about you as a writer in fifty words or less.

To be well enough known that people have misperceptions about you as a writer? I should be so lucky.

–Name a trait you deplore in other writers.


–Name your five desert island films.

All About Eve, The Apartment, Ninotchka, Rear Window, The Earrings of Madame de…

–Name a book not your own that you wish everyone would read.

Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoirs Journey Into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind.

–Name a book you suspect most people claim to have read, but haven’t.

Proust. (And no, I haven’t.)

–If you could choose one of your works to rewrite, which would it be and why.

There are things I did years ago that I could probably do better now – but I’m interested in different things now, so wouldn’t want to spend time rewriting them.

–Share the greatest literary secret/gossip you know.

I’m not very plugged in on current stuff, so I guess it would have to be that George Eliot and George Henry Lewes weren’t legally married. (Pass it on.)

–Name a book you read over and over for inspiration.

Great Expectations and Middlemarch are the two I read over and over – but just because I love them, not really for inspiration.

–Name the writing habit you rely on to get you through a first draft.

Be willing to write it wrong.

–Name a regret, literary or otherwise.

I’m sorry I didn’t learn other languages when I was young. My father was German, but I never learned it; and I wish I’d studied Italian.

–Name your greatest struggle as a writer.

“Be willing to write it wrong” is great advice – but so hard to actually adhere to. Writing it when you know it’s wrong is just unbearable. And believing it’s terrific, and then figuring out later that it’s wrong, is also awful. But necessary.

–Name a question you get about writing to which there really is no good answer.

“How did you know you wanted to be a writer?”

–Name a question you wish you would’ve been asked.

“What are your fifty favorite books?”