When Mary Anne Schwalbe was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, she didn’t want to slow down. A tireless advocate for refugees around the world, Mary Anne didn’t stop striving to build a library in Afghanistan — or continuing to discover new literature with her son Will. In his engrossing, deeply moving new memoir The End of Your Life Book Club (EW grade: A), Will Schwalbe writes about his mother’s last days through the prism of the things they read together. He took the time to talk to EW about his mother’s inspiring legacy and the transformative power of books.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your mother Mary Anne was clearly an exceptional person with very impressive accomplishments and passions — but in a way, I felt like she was every great mom, and you were like every child of a great mom who wanted to give her the tribute she deserved.
WILL SCHWALBE: There’s no reaction that could make me happier than that reaction. I’m very proud of my mother. But when she died, there was no obituary in the New York Times. She wasn’t famous. In fact, I don’t think her name was ever in the New York Times, and that’s true of most people’s moms. I like to think of her as an extraordinary, ordinary person. There are so many extraordinary, ordinary people across the country — people who are fantastic mothers and adore their children, and their children adore them, and do incredible things in their communities. I was in publishing for 21 years, and I saw a lot of really wonderful memoirs by people who had very difficult times with their mothers. In fact, it’s almost a kind of genre, yet there are a lot of people who have great mothers. In some ways, I feel like this is a celebration of moms.
When did you decide you wanted to write this book?
It was a couple of months before Mom died, and I’m not quite sure how it popped into my head first, but I mentioned to her that I wanted to write a something about our conversations, the books we’d read. It was something I suddenly felt really compelled to do, and her reaction was very typical to her: She was like, “Why would you want to do that? There’s got to be something else that’s more interesting to write about.” But then she sent me an e-mail, and in the e-mail was a list of all the books we’d read. She followed up with e-mails that were like, “Don’t forget to talk about Healthcare Reform,” and “Remember Mariatu, that extraordinary woman who was maimed by the Sierra Leonean boy soldiers.” We never talked about the book again, but she would send me notes, and in the end, when she died, she left for me a pile of her speeches, her notes from her refugee trips.
Even though the book is written from your point of view, it’s almost as if your mother was backseat-writing parts of it.
I think she felt very strongly that the message is more important than the messenger. There were things that she wanted to say in her life, but she didn’t care of she said them. She just wanted them heard. That was pretty much in keeping with her work as a refugee advocate, bringing refugees’ voices to the front. For example, the need for Healthcare Reform – she was passionate about that. She needed someone to say that, but it didn’t have to be her. It very much was an emphasis on the message, not the messenger. She loved the idea that the causes and books she was passionate about would get out in the world, and if that had to be through my telling her story, then that would be okay.
It’s interesting what you said wrote about grown men having a hard time writing about loving their mothers, because the subject is regarded as “a bit gay.”
It’s funny. When straight men write about their mothers, and other straight men talk about those books, they’re very nervous about that aspect. So when they’re talking about The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer, which is a love letter to his mother, it’s like, “Oh yeah, that book about the bar and the guys in the bar and drinking.” The other thing is, whether it’s a straight man or gay man doing it, talking about your mother after she’s dead is something that I think people are sometimes nervous to do. There is a sort of, especially with men, a kind of prejudice against being seen as a Mama’s Boy. You’re supposed to be manly and get on with your life. But I like talking about her – continuing the conversation, telling people about her. If the book does that, I’ll be really proud. If it helps people feel like it’s okay to talk about how much you love your mom and it’s also okay to talk about people when they’re dead. You don’t have to exclude them from the conversation. Some people said to me, “I’ve always been nervous asking you things about your mom because I didn’t want to make you sad.” It actually makes me really happy to talk about her. It makes me sad when I forget about her.
Were there parts of this book that were really hard to write?
I really had fun. I was talking to my mom, and she was talking back. It was that act of remembering, so most of it was very joyful. Writing about her death was hard. What I tried to do there was just say what happened. Just as simply as I could, just say what happened. And I also tried to be really honest about things that I hadn’t seen before. I talked at one point in the book about how, as emotionally distraught I was, and how wrenching it was to sit by her bedside when she was dying with this alternating vigil with my brother and sister, there was an element to it that was tedious, too. It’s not easy. Time goes very, very slowly. But that whole passage was very hard to write about. I just tried to let the facts try to speak for themselves.
Mary Anne did so much and meant so much to so many different people. Was it difficult to choose which parts of her story to tell?
I mean, I was frustrated because there was so much I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell so much of her refugee missions. I mean, she was in Bosnia during the Bosnian War when it was being shelled … her trips to Liberia during the chaos. She was several times in Monrovia, and she had amazing stories. But I just had to remind myself when I was writing: This is about my relationship with my mother and our love for books and how books showed us what we needed to do in life and how books helped us. It’s not a biography.
Did you know immediately that you wanted to write about your mother’s life and death by talking about books?
Yes. I wanted to write about books and our conversations. I loved these books, and she loved these books. So I feel like in some ways that if this book does nothing but get more people to read Wallace Stegner, my work is done. Stegner! That was a revelation for me. In some ways, I worried that this kind of all-enveloping experience that you have when you’re a kid and you read The Hobbit – can you have that as an adult? And I was in publishing, so I read a lot of books, but there are certain books that gave me that. Stegner was one of them, and I want that for other people.
It’s amazing the breadth of reading you and Mary Anne did at the end of her life.
One of the things that I didn’t think about until afterwards – and it’s so Mom – was even while she was dying, she wanted to discover new things. That’s living while you’re dying. Some people said, “Wow, Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, that’s kind of an unusual book to choose as one of the last books you’ll ever read.” But it got this great review in the Wall Street Journal, and it sounded really interesting. I wanted to make it really clear too that it’s really this kind of natural thing where we read what we wanted to read. It wasn’t, “Let’s read all of the classics.” Just read.
You read everything from hefty literary tomes to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo!
Everyone was talking about it! If everyone was talking about it, she wanted to read it. Also, that was very much part of her thing about the message and messenger. Just because a book is selling zillions of copies and is enormously popular, that doesn’t mean there aren’t extraordinary things to be learned and gained from it. That education and inspiration can come from all different kinds of messengers.
What was really impressive to me was that even though I hadn’t read most of the books you wrote about, I still found reading about them really engaging. Did you find it hard to write about books in an interesting way without giving away all the details?
Actually, no! In 21 years in publishing, I had to get up two times a year and talk to a roomful of wonderful sales reps who were book lovers and passionate about books, but who then had to go to booksellers and then tell them about books. I had to talk about books in such a way that they would want to read them. Tell them enough so that they will have a sense of it – hopefully tell them something interesting about it that would stick in their mind, but not give away the plot. So in some ways, that’s how I talk about books. We always used to say at sales conference is the minute the editor gets up and starts to tell the plot of a book, that book is dead in the water because there is nothing duller than something telling you the plot of a book. If someone could describe to you the plot of Moby Dick, then there’d be no reason for reading it – the fact is, it’s impossible. I really wanted to show how my mother and I talked about books, which is we’d talk about what was interesting to us in a book. It doesn’t have to be the best thing you ever read or the worst thing you ever read. It can just be interesting.
What was the one book that was most important to you and your mom during this whole period?
It probably was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. That was a book that was so important to her. It perfectly described her faith, and it was a book that she re-read so I could read it with her. Also, a book like The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly. It’s an extraordinary book. Her reaction to her book, which was to write a check to the campaign for Burma, is one of the lessons she left me. It’s not enough to be moved by a book — you have to do something. I think of her very pragmatic view that books are calls to action. Sometimes they’re calls to action to do something very specific in the world, like write a check for the campaign in Burma. But sometimes they’re calls to action to see things differently, to treat people differently, to change the way that you move in the world … recognize things. She felt very strongly that if you don’t read books about cruelty, you don’t recognize evil. And if you don’t recognize evil, you can’t stop it.
What are some books that have been published after your mother’s death that you would have liked to read together?
The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam. She would have loved that book. I think she really would have been fascinated by Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. I think Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie — I just started it. She’d be really interesting on that topic.
What do you hope The End of Your Life Book Club accomplishes?
Being a grandmother was Mom’s favorite thing in the world, and to some degree, I realized as I was writing this book that I also wanted the book to tell the grandchildren know who their grandmother was. I think that’s another thing that books do—you can get to know someone by reading the books they love. The books you love form a portrait of you.
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