Poignant, first personal novel for adults by Catherine Newman
Catherine Newman writes parenting memoirs, blogs, mid-level novels, essays, and an etiquette column for Real Simple magazine, and her first adult novel, We all want impossible things will be published by Harper in November. The poignant and personal story of Edith and Ashley’s decades-long friendship is set in a hospice ward, where Edi is dying of ovarian cancer. Does that sound sad to you? Heartbreaking? He is. But it’s also heartwarming and invigorating – and yes, hilarious.
They are surrounded by family, friends, caregivers (the handsome hospice doctor whom they nickname “Dr. Soprano”, whose member Ashley compares to a very large zucchini) and other patients, like Ruth in the next room playing the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack on loop and asking Ashley if she just got off the school bus. “I did it, Ruth!” I came straight to you,” Ashley says in the book. “Me, forty-five, fresh off the school bus with my bags under my eyes, my plantar fasciitis and my breasts hanging down my chest like legless beige socks. Nothing like the hospice to remind us that decrepitude is all relative.
When Edi forgets something, his response is usually “Fuuuuuk. It’s suuuuuuks. And Ashley, Newman writes, “imagines her mind like a bar, her thoughts and memories nursing their last turn. closing, and you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. I untangle her tubes and wires, hang them on a pole behind her and climb into her bed. A few small tears fall from her eyes , which close. “Right,” I say, laying my head on his pillow. I touch a tear with my fingertip, my fingertip touches my lips. ‘That totally sucks.’ ”
Newman explains that her best friend of her life died of ovarian cancer seven years ago. “I was completely changed,” she says. “Not just by the loss, but by the experience of his death. I started volunteering at the hospice. My kids called it my ‘weird hobby’. The novel has always had a place in my brain and then the pandemic hit and I sat down and wrote it. A novel seemed the best way to tell the story. I needed the mantle of fiction; it gave me space, distance.
Although Newman says the novel “came out of her,” she adds, “I hate that shit when writers talk about channeling and the mysterious process. I write for a living. the money. Give me $100 and I’ll write 14 lines on the stamps. But this story really sank.
Newman is gregarious and fun to talk to, and I totally love it when she tells me about her personal “sticker board.” She joined a friend’s sticker of the month club and gave herself a sticker for every 500 words she wrote. “So absurd,” she adds, “but I’m a simple person and I need a very simple reward.”
Writing the book, she says, changed her feelings. “It was incredibly sad to work on it, but when someone dies from a long illness, you remember the ending, and while writing the novel I was able to immerse myself in our relationship, the moments that we spent together. Being in this space was wonderful. I was so lucky to have this friendship; it was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.
Jennifer Gates, Newman’s agent and partner at Aevitas Creative Management, has known Newman “lifelong.” Their relationship began when Newman talked about his 2005 book Waiting for Birdy, a memoir about anticipating a second child and raising a toddler.
In February 2021, Newman emailed Gates saying she was halfway through a novel; when the first draft arrived in March, Gates recalls, she was “blown away.” We All Want Impossible Things was sent in May 2021 with great interest and she has started scheduling meetings with editors. The plan was to go to auction, until Harper’s editor Sara Nelson offered pre-emption. “When you fall in love with a book, a number of people to send it to come to mind,” says Gates. “And Sara was at the top of my list.”
Nelson recalls receiving the manuscript and not immediately looking at it. “I got a thumbs up from Jennifer who said she thought I would really like it,” she says. “I picked it up on a Friday and I was hooked. I responded this weekend – which I usually try not to do, but I did – telling Jennifer that I wanted.
Nelson says KJ Dell’Antonia’s blurb sums up his feelings about We All Want Impossible Things: “The funniest, happiest book about death — and life — I’ve ever read. ” She adds that the book had huge domestic support – “Everyone was crazy about it” – and Newman accepted a substantial offer for North American rights in mid-June. Doubleday will release it in the UK in December, and so far the rights have been sold in Germany and France.
Gates says Newman’s decision to write a novel was a natural progression. “Catherine is a fine writer. I knew that if she wrote a novel, it would be great. The book is about loss, but also about family, friendship and love in all its dysfunctions.
Newman, from the personal sticker board, is more pragmatic. “The book is so sad,” she tells me, “I expect people not to say horrible things, but to keep it to themselves. I get so many hateful messages from my column and my parenting books that this one makes me think I’ll be protected.
Tell me who the bad people are, Catherine. I’ll go get them.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 07/25/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: When life gives you lemons