Finding Inspiration in Grief

Finding Inspiration in Grief

Being a fiction writer forces you to deal with characters’ emotions on a daily basis. Oftentimes, an author’s life can filter through.

We’re taught to write what we know, but since I specialize in thrillers, that tends to be difficult. My past books have been about a shadowy agency that acts like a mob, a psychotic professor, and an aspiring director who would kill to make it in Hollywood. People who I have little in common.

My new novel The Ancestor is about a man who wakes up in the Alaskan wilderness with amnesia, believing he was frozen in time as a prospector from the Gold Rush. The book is populated with those who live at the edge of the world. The town Laner where it takes place is fictional, but described as closest to Nome. I'm from New York City, but became drawn to these characters who have chosen this life of frigid isolation. My dad passed away when I started writing this book, which became therapy to tap into a type of grief I never experienced before, since I became frozen, too.

My dad was my best reader and editor. Even though he was a pension planner by profession, he read on average a book a week for as long as I can remember. Bookcases were devoted to Agatha Christie mysteries and pocket science-fiction tomes. He always supported my love of writing at an early age, but more importantly, he was honest. If I wrote something that wasn’t good, he would tell me. I remember at around 14, writing a story called Cloning (this was around the time of Dolly the Sheep), where scientists found a way to clone humans and animals, except the humans developed animalistic qualities. A woman cloned with a cheetah could run fast, etc. Since he was such a sci-fi fanatic, I figured he would love it, but he read it and replied, “This was not your best.”

Later on, I’d learn while entering this career that to make it was to deal with a ton of rejection and that “your best” was usually not good enough. Luckily, I had been well-versed as a kid to strive to be better. As I got older and started to publish, he became my first and best reader, mostly because I knew he would never bullshit. Born in Brooklyn in 1927, he was a Depression baby and didn’t have the time or patience for dishonesty. It’s important to have parents who support a crazy career like writing, but it’s even more crucial that they don’t blow smoke up your ass and help train you to reach your pinnacle.

When my dad got sick at the age of 89 with cancer in his carotid artery, he chose to do radiation, likely for me and my mom. As tough as he was, he went into remission, but then had a massive heart attack. He had such a routine every morning that when my mom felt he was taking too long in the bathroom, she investigated, and sure enough, found him on the floor. He was taken to Bellevue hospital and the prognosis was grim. But he defied all the doctors’ predictions and survived, almost for another year until a mysterious infection put him back in the hospital. At 90, it was too much for one person’s body to handle, as tough as they might have been.

I had already started The Ancestor, and during that last month of his in the hospital, he perked up when we would talk about it. He stopped eating and lost 30 pounds, but still kept his mind sharp, doing the Times crossword puzzle every day. He would ask me to describe the book and say what he liked and didn’t about the plot, whatever it took to keep him focused. Passing away at 90, he had a full life. He retired at 60 and had all the time to do exactly what he wanted: watching Yankees games and reading, going to the gym, and playing the stock market. I never saw him bored or unhappy. When someone lives that long, their death is not a tragedy, but it was a tragedy to me.

After the funeral and sitting Shiva, I didn’t think I would be able to write. I felt numb and was prone to crying in the middle of the street. I’d lived in New York my whole life, and every corner held a memory of him. I had no escape. The thought of never seeing someone again was difficult to grasp. It was January 2018. In nice weather, I write against my tree in Central Park to be surrounded by nature in the midst of an urban metropolis, but it was the coldest winter I could remember with days dropping below 20 degrees. I was stuck at home with my thoughts and picked up my work-in-progress. I had only written about 20 pages when he passed. By the end of the winter, I would finish a first draft.

My protagonist, Wyatt, deals with losing his memory, but slowly he starts to remember his wife and child, except they are from the 1890s. Believing he was frozen in time, that means they would be dead, no chance of ever seeing them again. I had dealt with death before, my Uncle Monty had passed away about 10 years before and my only grandma when I was seven, but it was hard to imagine a life without my dad. So, I related to Wyatt’s turmoil. We both only had memories left of our loved one. Wyatt ingratiates himself toward a family in town because they help spurn memories of his wife and child. The family’s grandfather is dying at the time and became the closet character to my dad in the book. The scenes written in the hospital are the most my fiction has bled into reality. While they were difficult to write, they were necessary emotions I had to access.

After I finished a draft, I emerged from my cocoon of grief, wiped the ice chips off my body, and wasn’t prone to crying in the middle of the street anymore.

I left it all on the page.

There’s humor in most of my books, and while there are elements of it in this one, the book does not hurry in its mournful and melancholic sway. It traps the reader on ice as well, hopefully comforting them in a way that it did for me. Loss unites us, since we’ve all experienced it. Or will. We’re prepped to deal with losing a parent, and time does heal, even now so in the midst of living through a pandemic. His death feels like many more years ago than it has been.

Recently, I had to look over the ARC for any final edits. I hadn’t read it fully in a long time and was worried how it would make me feel. The Ancestor is about loss and longing, and I was afraid it might bring up too many memories of my dad’s deterioration. But it was the opposite. He existed on every page and always will. The book is dedicated to him, but more than that, he’s alive in every sentence, between the lines, in every character’s voice.

While it reads as fiction to anyone else, to me it’s a time capsule of a moment when I needed guidance and found it in the power of words. It was the therapy I required and a way to keep him immortal.

And I’m so proud to share him with everyone else.

*Feature Photo: the Brooklyn Bridge - New York / photo by Guilherme Rossi (Pexels)

Lee Matthew Goldberg is the author of six novels: The Ancestor, The Mentor, Desire Card, and Slow Down. He has been published in multiple languages. Runaway Train and Orange City forthcoming in 2021.
More posts by Lee Matthew Goldberg.
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