You may have seen prize-winning novelist Merrill Joan Gerber in the fabulous documentary Lost in Living by Mary Trunk. Or maybe you’re a New Yorker fan, a Redbook reader, or favor The Atlantic, and have read one of her many short stories. Maybe you’ve seen her walking the campus of Caltech where she teaches fiction writing. If you haven’t, we recommend that you accomplish at least two of the three mentioned above.
Hometown Pasadena had a chance to catch up with Merrill in between her many engagements surrounding the release of her newest novel, The Hysterectomy Waltz. In answer to our questions, she wrote a perfectly written piece upon which we could not improve, so we have decided to publish it verbatim.
Imagine being told before the age of forty that because you have an ovarian cyst, the surgeon wants to take out the “whole kit and caboodle.” Imagine being told that “because you already have your children, who needs “all that,” you can “keep the playground but get rid of the plumbing.” Imagine watching a film at the hospital which assures you that though you will no longer have your female organs, you will still have romance in your life and will be “able to waltz the night away with your husband.”
For me, writing an actual book, after months or years of thought, comes like a lightning bolt. Finally, the voice arrives; the tone in which the story can be told, the sound of that voice, its energy, its entire point of view about the world. Once you have that, you have it all, and you can move forward, often very quickly.
“Waltz” was written in a period when debates about the losses of a women’s sexual organs (uterus, ovaries) generally came to no easy conclusion about the effects of their removal on a woman’s sexual life. Those debates continue today—when thousands of hysterectomies are still performed each year, often when no such radical surgery is required.
Not intending to write a traditional “hospital operation novel,” I turned the material of The Hysterectomy Waltz into a satirical, lyrical, fantastical ride that brings to light these critical issues in every woman’s life.
The Film: Lost in Living
About eight years ago, Mary Trunk put a request in the Pasadena Arts Council magazine about a film she wanted to make, hoping to find some women who wanted to discuss how having children affected being an artist. I had at least a thousand thoughts on the subject, and replied to Mary. We met and at once made contact, and now have become close friends. She began by talking to me at my home, filming me as I made baked apples, as I sat in my office (piled to the ceiling with books and papers), then she followed me to the class I teach at Caltech, and then to the meeting of my bookclub–she came to my readings at Vroman’s, and over those years I watched her little daughter grow up (now a lovely pre-teen). Mary even followed my husband and me to as we considered gravesites at the Sierra Madre Pioneer Cemetery!
One of the issues we talk about in the film is how writers and artists invade the personal space of their children and mates.
In my early years of writing short stories (many for women’s magazines such as Redbook, where I sold a record number of stories, 42 of them) I freely used family events and adventures and crises (like the death of pets) in my work. Twenty five of these stories were collected in “This Old Heart of Mine: The Best of Merrill Joan Gerber’s Redbook Stories.( This book –among sixteen of my earlier books– is being put on line by Dzanc books as an e book. Eight e books are already available at Amazon, and elsewhere.
After the children grew up and left home there was actually not more time and peace to work. By then, my older relatives were sick and dying, and again, I became the responsible party, the one to take care of, the one to reassure, and appear when they called, and listen to their grave complaints. My mother spent eight years in a nursing home, paralyzed and on a feeding tube: the book that resulted from my visits to her was “Old Mother, Little Cat: A Writer’s Reflections on her Kitten , Her Aged Mother…and Life.” Writers write in spite of life, and in fact, they must use the life that comes there way as their essential material.
Merrill will be discussing and signing her new book The Hysterectomy Waltz at Vroman’s on Monday, May 13th at 7 p.m. VromansBookstore.com.
Merrill Joan Gerber is a prize-winning novelist and short-story writer who has published twenty eight books–among them The Kingdom of Brooklyn, winner of the Ribalow Award from Hadassah Magazine for “the best English-language book of fiction on a Jewish theme.” She has published stories in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Mademoiselle, Redbook, Commentary, The Sewanee Review, Salmagundi, The Southwest Review, The American Scholar and elsewhere. Her newest novel is The Victory Gardens of Brooklyn. Ms. Gerber teaches fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology. She was a Wallace Stegner fiction fellow at Stanford and the winner of an O.Henry Prize.
Below, please watch the trailer for Lost in Living.
Merrill: “I guess you could say that an artist’s life is a tossup. It’s a crapshoot. And, I took it. I did that life.”