A Python Swallowing an Antelope: An Interview with Gail Griffin on Grief and Writing

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Only four months into her marriage, writer Gail Griffin entered difficult and unfamiliar terrain. “Everything I am has been subsumed by catastrophe, like a sinkhole. After all I have been in my years, I am now only one thing: the person to whom this happened.” This is the death of her husband, Bob, who drowned in the Manistee River after stepping out one spring night to bring in a bird feeder. This is Griffin’s entrance into Grief’s Country, the wilderness of loss.

Griffin has charted her path through that terrain in Grief’s Country, a “memoir in pieces” out this March from Wayne State University Press. The book comprises 10 essays and four poems that fuse the intimate portraiture of a marriage and its end with an interrogation of grief in literature, nature writing on the northern Michigan landscape Griffin and her husband made their home in, and an exploration of the line of young widows the author comes from. Her path is lit with humor and surprise, including an impromptu trip to Graceland, burning cat food, and the peculiar comforts of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

As Griffin considers her position in “the Widows Club,” she tries to make sense of that most private of pains we often say there are no words for. A retired English professor from Kalamazoo College, Griffin knows better. She excoriates our tendency to squirm and sputter platitudes. “Sorry for your loss,” Griffin laments. “Not even a complete sentence, subject and verb both excised. Oftener than not the four words are rushed together. Sorry fyaloss. Hearing it is like hearing silence, or worse, depending on who says it.” She adds, “Many of the cards I receive employ some variant of You’ll always have your memories. If each of these cards produces a paper cut, I will bleed to death.” Instead, Griffin commands we confront, we consider, we listen. There is so much more in Grief’s Country: rage and sorrow, love and resilience.

Kelsey Ronan (KR): As a widow myself, I want to first thank you for writing this. So much of it resonated with me, but particularly the experience of young grief: in the title essay of Grief’s Country, you write about how your experience didn’t align with The Widows’ Club— women often older, married longer. What writing around grief resonated with you? Whose work spoke to your loss?

Gail Griffin (GG): You might have noted that Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast provided the book’s title and is also quoted several times: that was the book I “felt” most deeply. The connection has very little to do with the “plot”; Doty’s account of his partner’s decline and death from HIV bears no discernible resemblance to my husband’s death. Doty even believes in an afterlife, a question on which I remain agnostic. The power of the book for me came from the depth of its consideration of grief, suffering, and death, and of course from the beauty of its prose. It’s also a somewhat cerebral book, without ever being chilly or detached, and grief was a partly cerebral territory for me as well.  

I’d also mention Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, which recounts her husband’s very sudden, shocking death and her experience of loss. Her experience has more in common with my own, I suppose, though the presence of children in her life radically shapes the grieving process, I think. Her time in grief’s country seemed much less alone than mine. 

Finally, poetry has its own way of darting straight to the heart of the matter (and of the reader), and while I can’t cite a particular poet, many poems along the way seized and focused me. Three of them–by Katy Ford, Sharon Olds, and Carol Ann Duffy–are in my book as section markers of a sort.

KR: Leading memoir workshops, I encounter writers who feel righteously obligated to write their story because they’ve gone through an uncommon pain (lest righteous sound like I’m making fun, I should say—I’m in this camp), and writers who draft their story with reluctance and apology, because others have suffered so much more. I’m wondering—did you find yourself on either side of that divide?

GG: That question fascinates me, as is obvious in the book. Grievers inevitably turn their attention to other people’s losses and do the terrible comparisons. I think it’s all part of that struggle to find a place for our experience in a world of suffering. I stand (as usual) on both side of the divide. I often think that no one’s story measures up to mine—because they were married longer, because they had a chance to prepare for the death, because whatever. Hence my uncharitable anger at the Widow’s Club members who lose husbands just after their 45th anniversary. I have a very righteous griever inside me, whom I try to keep at home most of the time. But I also often think of how manageable, how “ordinary,” in some way, my loss is compared to the tales that surround us of horrendous abuse, soul-destroying and long-term and traumatizing for life. That’s my conundrum. I guess I try to keep those two views in balance. And I think our only recourse it to acknowledge that everyone’s grief is their own, immeasurable.

As for being obligated to write the book: Obligation always suggests, to me, some duty to others. I felt none, and in fact I felt and still feel some guilt for opening up this dreadful episode when Bob’s children and siblings will read it. If ‘obligated’ means ‘driven’ in some way, I didn’t feel that either. The last book wrote, an anatomy of a student femicide-suicide at Kalamazoo College, absolutely gripped me and drove me. This one snuck up on me, chapter by chapter. It probably took on a kind of drive of its own once I committed to it.

KR:   You call the book a “memoir in pieces.” How did this hybrid form take shape? What did poetry, for instance, allow you to do that you couldn’t in the essay form?

​GG: The truth is that the form evolved as I tentatively approached the prospect of writing an entire book about grieving. I began with the final essay, “The Messenger,” which probably has the least to do with my husband’s death in any literal way. The original version was about my cat bringing a live owl into my house one night. Even as I sent the piece to a local magazine, I knew that the truly mystical experience of the owl had something to do with Bob’s death. So I rewrote it and allowed that connection to emerge. I published that essay, wrote another, published that, and went on that way for a few years until I was ready to commit to a whole collection. Then I had to write the really eviscerating pieces that begin the book and deal directly with our life together, the event of his death, and the weeks immediately after. So, in fact, the memoir really was written “in pieces.”

As for the poems: they were written quite separately from this project. It wasn’t until I thought the book was finished that I saw how it fell into sections and realized the poems belonged there too, as another kind of voice, a possibly more intense, immediate rendering of grief. When I look at them now, I realize that the four poems of my own also speak in very distinct, pronounced voices: sarcasm, rant, torrential narrative, and finally comedy/satire opening into rage. 

KR: The bereaved often have unofficial timelines imposed on them—what “moving on” should look like and when it should be done—and there’s a pervasive idea that things can be “too soon.” Though she’s not writing specifically about grief, Mary Karr, in Art of Memoir, recommends putting at least eight years between an event and its telling. You mentioned the evolution of this project—could you talk about that timeline? Do you have any general advice about processing loss on the page?

GG: Let me respond to Mary Karr first: I think her advice, which is pretty common, is addressed mostly to students, of whatever age, who want to write about the death that happened last month. A bad idea, unless the writer is simply after “expression,” or relief. To do more serious work, aimed at (forgive me) “artistry,” you just don’t have perspective, or a frame on what the loss means to you, until time has passed. On the other hand, for more experienced writers I don’t believe time limits are necessary: I think you know when it’s time, as I did. You simply feel you’re ready to write about the thing. That feeling in itself is highly reliable, I think. It tells you that you have the perspective you need, though the actual writing and revising and revising and revising gives you even more.

Which leads me to the first part of your question: the official timeline. I have rejected all the phrases like “getting over it” or “moving on.” I think the metaphor is all wrong. What happens with an enormity like Bob’s death is that you must now integrate a colossal new thing into your selfhood. For a while that feels impossible: the colossus IS your new selfhood. Then you start to integrate it. I think of it as a process of digestion, where what is outside you gradually becomes part of you. To be truthful, the most righteous image that’s come to me is a python swallowing an antelope. I believe that when you feel ready to start writing, the antelope is mostly digested.

KR: I suspect that many people, hearing you were writing a book about your widowhood, would anticipate a portrait of your relationship with Bob. To me, Grief’s Country seems that and not: looking back often means looking past Bob to your family history. I wonder if you might talk about those strands of the book and their relation to grief.

GG: I’m so glad you saw that the book is really not an account of my relationship with Bob. In fact two early readers of the manuscript, both fine writers, said they really wanted to “see” Bob more clearly and get a sense of our life together. That’s when I realized I had all but shut him out of the book. And I knew why: looking at my own solo journey was difficult but possible; looking at Bob, and at the two of us together, seemed unbearable. But when two good and very different readers agree, you’d better listen. So, I sucked it up and wrote “Ghost Town,” about our time in Colorado.

For me, grief’s country is really big. It goes on and on, and its terrain is various. It takes you to the edges of yourself and forces a reexamination of the premises of your life, your world. Family history–a legacy of early widowhood–was part of my effort to place myself in some understandable context, feeling as estranged from the human race as I did. Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” finds its way into one essay because I tend to think and feel through literature, especially 19th-century literature. Elvis shows up because life dropped me unexpectedly at Graceland seven months after Bob died, and the surreality of the place mirrored the more surreal areas in grief’s country–distortion, exaggeration, strange colors.

KR: “Its terrain is various”—yes. Some of the most gratifying parts of the book for me were its articulations of anger and unease. I’d love to hear your thoughts about sharing those candid moments rather than the poised and veiled Jackie O-ish widowhood we may collectively aspire to.

GG: Well, the grieving Jackie O is something we saw through cameras. What was going on inside her we have no idea. If she’d written a memoir in which she was gravely composed throughout, I think it would be a very bad book. If you’re going to write a memoir, you’d better get honest with yourself and your reader. We’re really talking about two different things: what you present to the world vs. what you write about what you did NOT present to the world. I’m sure that when I went back to work in the fall of 2008 people found me to be mostly, maybe even remarkably, composed. There’s no book there, though. we don’t drag the complexity of grief or its grittiness, around in public with us, for the most part. And we’re not even the First Lady!

KR: There is also so much humor here, so many moments—I’m thinking especially of “Heartbreak Hotel” and your descriptions of Graceland—that made me laugh out loud. How do you see humor functioning in your work?

GG: I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that you enjoyed the humor, truly. It was emphatically NOT “inserted” to provide relief of any kind. I found that a kind of dark humor was a distinct feature of my own grieving–not, I think, a way of avoiding or deflecting, but just another mode, another language, in which suffering expresses itself. Gallows humor, they used to call it. Hamlet is full of jokes, as is King Lear. Both include jester/fool characters (though poor Yorick is just a skull). As I mention someplace in the book, I resonate deeply to the Mexican “celebration” of death, with skeletons dressed as living people doing living things, grinning as only skeletons can. There’s a real sense of the absurdity of life, death, and everything in between. Grief sent me to that place.