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Author Interview: March 2007

March 23, 2007

Margo Rabb's CURES FOR HEARTBREAK is a poignant novel about a 15-year-old girl's struggles to cope with family tragedy.

In this interview with Teenreads.com's Brian Farrey, Rabb reveals why she chose to portray her real-life experiences in a fictionalized account and describes her own personal battles with overcoming grief and loss. She also discusses her preference for reading and writing "story cycles," explains what she wishes her readers will take away from her book, and shares an amusing anecdote on indulging a guilty pleasure.

Teenreads.com: Your portrayal of Mia's grief is stunning and realistic. In the Afterword, you reveal that much of what Mia went through is based on your own experiences. Why did you choose a novel rather than a memoir to write about these emotions?

Margo Rabb: Though the book is based on my experiences, it's a fictionalized version of them. Many events in the book didn't happen in real life, and many of the characters are completely invented. There's a Tuscan proverb I have pinned above my desk: "A tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it." Writing nonfiction doesn't usually give me anywhere near as much pleasure as writing fiction, because it's the creative process of writing fiction that's magical for me --- imagining people, places and conversations, letting the story take over with its revelations and surprises --- which makes writing really enjoyable.

TRC: At one point in the book, you note that dancers endure the pain of bleeding toes and torn ligaments to make something beautiful, prompting Mia to observe, "I'd embraced my pain, shouted it, flaunted it, as if it was something unique." Do you feel it's essential to move past one's own "unique" pain before healing can begin?

MR: I think that the pain of grief comes and goes over time --- I'm not sure that it's ever really possible to move past it. This January was the 16th anniversary of my mother's death. The grief isn't as intense and pervasive as it was 16 years ago, but the pain is still there. Certain milestones in my life have made my parents' absence more acute: it's hard to accept that they'll never know my husband or daughter. That said, the grief is much easier to cope with now than it was years ago. But I wouldn't say that I've "healed" --- I think grief is a fluid thing from which you never entirely recover. The loss will always be there, it's just buried under new joys and heartbreaks.

TRC: In CURES FOR HEARTBREAK, you quote Cynthia Ozick who claims that "History…[is] a judgment on what has happened." How much of the book is your own judgment on the grieving process, and how much of it is how you WISH the grieving process had gone?

MR: I don't really view the book as a judgment, but as a portrayal. The book took me around eight years to finish, and part of the reason it took so long is that I struggled with the last chapter countless times, and threw out many versions of it.  (I probably threw out over a thousand pages during the writing of this book.) I wanted Mia to have a hopeful ending for her story, but for some reason the right ending didn't present itself for a very long time. Interestingly enough, after I met my husband, I finished that last chapter fairly quickly. Perhaps that's because after I was married, I felt I had a semblance of family again, that I belonged, that things were essentially good. I think that helped me to be able to finally finish the book, to write the hopeful ending that I wanted Mia to have. 

TRC: You won Grand Prize in the Zoetrope All Story contest for "How to Tell A Story," a satire of life in an MFA program. What is your educational background as a writer? (In other words, how close to truth is the story?) And how has that background informed your path as a writer?

MR:That story is also partly fiction and partly autobiographical (the story itself plays with the notion of autobiography.) I studied creative writing in workshops at The Writer's Voice in New York City right after college, and then I received my M.F.A. from the University of Arizona in Tucson. I found my M.F.A. to be really valuable (though "How to Tell A Story" might not give that impression!) During the years that I was getting the degree, I was incredibly productive, completely immersed in writing fiction. Even the difficulties of a workshop and early submissions --- insensitive comments from workshop participants, hundreds of rejections from magazines --- toughened me and fueled my ambition to become a better writer.

TRC: In an interview, you asked Anne Tyler, "Do you still write short stories? Do you prefer the form of the novel, and if so, why?" Your turn to answer.

MR: I love writing both novels and short stories, and I have a special fondness for the genre in which the two meet, which is often called the "story cycle" or a "novel in stories," and which is what CURES FOR HEARTBREAK really is. Some of my favorite books of all time --- THE BEGGAR MAID by Alice Munro, ANOTHER MARVELOUS THING by Laurie Colwin, THE ELIZABETH STORIES by Isabel Huggan and THE THINGS THEY CARRIED by Tim O'Brien --- are story cycles. Those books give both the pleasure of short stories --- the chapters are self-contained and can be read in one sitting --- and the pleasure of a novel, with the chapters building off each other and the characters growing and changing.

TRC: If you could have one wish granted and be assured that readers would walk away from CURES FOR HEARTBREAK with one bit of information/thought/feeling, what would that be?

MR: What I love about fiction is that a story can mean different things to different people --- and a good story, one that's rich in complexity, often leaves readers with varied and sometimes even contradictory meanings, feelings and thoughts. I know that when I read a book I love, the feelings and impressions I have after finishing it often change over time, with each re-reading. Really, I'm thrilled if CURES FOR HEARTBREAK affects any reader in any way.

TRC: What writers do you admire? Are there any books on your "Gee, I wish I'd written that" list?

MR: Alice Munro, William Trevor and Laurie Colwin are three of my all-time favorites. I wish I'd written I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith --- when I finished that novel, I was so sad that I'd never again be able to read it for the first time. I also love reading poetry --- Louise Gluck, Rita Dove, Donald Hall are a few of my favorite poets.

TRC: Mia admits to a penchant for shopping, an activity she loved doing with her mother. What are your own "guilty indulgences" and with whom do you enjoy sharing them?  

MR: The character of Kelsey is based on my friend Julien Yoo, who is a perfect shopping companion --- she encourages all types of purchases. As for guilty (or not so guilty) indulgences, I'm a native New Yorker, and one of my favorite things about this city is its variety of food.  Lately, I've been into cheeses. One night recently a friend and I indulged in the stinkiest cheeses we could find. Our husbands came home and thought the entire apartment smelled like a men's locker room. Don't ask me why something that smells like sweat socks can be delicious --- it's a mystery.

TRC: In CURES FOR HEARTBREAK, Sylvia reads Mia's tarot cards and tells her that "one card is never all that we are." Describe three tarot cards (real or of your own design) that give us a hint as to who or what Margo Rabb is.

MR: I just asked this question of my friend Matt, who knows tarot cards well, and he suggested two of them: the tower card, which depicts a crumbling tower; it usually heralds massive upheaval and catastrophic change, but from the ruins something new and good can be created. ("An obvious metaphor for your parents' deaths and the book being born out of that sorrow," he said.) He also suggested the queen of coins, "a creative woman who finds delight in the world around her." For a card of my own design: I had a baby girl three months ago, so if they had a card with a very sleepy person on it, that would be me.

TRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

MR: I'm working on a new novel. I don't like talking about unfinished work, but I'll just say that it has a lot of food in it, and working on it makes me incredibly hungry!