It seems terribly fitting that memoirist Marion Winik (First Comes Love, The Lunch-Box Chronicles) has scheduled our telephone interview to take place while she’s on a five-hour car drive through Maryland and Pennsylvania. “We’re driving into a tunnel that goes through a mountain,” she says right before her voice breaks up and the line goes dead. Throughout the next hour, our calls are dropped with comic regularity. But, as with her award-winning essays – or, put another way, with the life she recounts in those essays – something that might have seemed an ill-conceived plan rife with foibles is in fact fun, funny, touching and illuminating.
Winik’s newest collection, Highs in the Low Fifties: How I Stumbled Through the Joys of Single Living, finds her hightailing it out of the Pennsylvania exurbs and a shattered marriage with her young daughter in tow. They’re headed to Baltimore, where Winik had already been teaching writing; she meets her new BFF real-estate agent, buys a townhouse and cannonballs into her next adventure before her place is even finished being renovated. After widowhood, divorce, three children and a whole life before that bouncing around like a debauched ping-pong ball through New Jersey, New York, New Orleans, Austin and aforementioned exurbs, Winik decides her next move is going to be to date like a normal person.
The results are hilarious, sometimes painful tales, artfully told. There is Humberto, the Salvadoran construction worker with whom she can barely communicate, except seemingly in the language of love/lust. There is the Dreamboat/Doucher; Uncle Norm and the Brainiac. There is Craigslist and Match.com; there are blind dates and bars. Oh, and there is Hepatitis C, which puts Winik in the hospital and almost kills her, but also causes her to meet the Brainiac.
Is there anything’s happened since the book was published that’s notable?
I’m a little less single than I used to be. I’ve determined that the sure cure for singleness is to decide that you really like it and then write a book proclaiming that.
Have you read many self-help dating books?
Being a 50-year-old woman at the time that this whole thing started, I didn’t really feel that I needed any help. For almost 30 years, it seemed like, well one thing ends, and then you just turn around and the next thing happens. I didn’t think it was going to be as much trouble as it turned out to be, I’ll tell you that!
Do you think that these guys really knew what they were getting into?
Some yes, some no. I mean, even Humberto, who was I guess illiterate, saw that I had a shelf of books [that I wrote].
They knew you were a writer.
In my experience most people are semi-looking forward to being written about if they are not exploited in some way. It’s so important to me to conduct my career in a way that I don’t damage my relationships or damage other people. I often say that people believe that the biggest issue in memoir is whether you got your fact-checking done, but I actually think that’s pretty secondary, considering that you’re taking hold of the narrative of other people’s lives and that you’re doing what you will with it. I think that’s the most important thing ethically, and it’s my main concern.
Memoir has existed for a long time, but obviously it’s become more prevalent, huge, in the past couple of decades.
Right in between Telling and First Comes Love is when The Liars’ Club came out. That was the noticeable beginning of the real shift in the position of this kind of writing in the culture. I remember reading The Liars’ Club right before First Comes Love came out, and noting how they were alike but they were also very different, particularly because The Liars’ Club is set in childhood. And childhood has a sort of built-in universality and built-in blamelessness [laughs]. My story seems to lack both universality and blamelessness, so I was a little nervous.
One thing that has always struck me about your essays is your very matter-of-fact take on drugs.
Most people who have done as many drugs as I have are either dead or in recovery. I understand the dark side all too well. But I have an affection for abandon and decadence that … it’s not popular to feel that way unless you have changed and reject all that.
You also don’t seem to have a lot of physical fear.
I’m resilient, right? The most serious thing that happens in the book is when I get so sick with Hep C. And it was my goal to make that chapter as enjoyable and as light a read as the rest of the book.
I have twin goals. First of all, I set an incredibly low bar, so that people can feel that whatever they did, at least they did better than I did. And then just to show that humor is so powerful, even in the most unbelievably dark situations. It’s also the power of storytelling, and the power of expression, the power of language. I think they’re redemptive. There’s no shame in saying that writing a memoir is an act of healing for yourself and other people.
It seems like you’re driven by love to a great extent. You write that you aren’t willing to live without passion, but you also note that you were a love-a-holic in the fifth grade. Do you feel like you’re still like that?
I feel like I grew up a lot since I was in the fifth grade [laughs]. The important thing about Highs in the Low Fifties is that it is saying that I have the resources and the self-esteem to be independent and not just as some kind of stoney, feel-good, “oh, I love being single!” sentiment. It’s sort of a little tiny miracle that the girl that I used to be wrote this book because I really am okay. As far as love, since I’m kind of in new love right now, it’s obviously the best drug there is. In that sense, I feel love-a-holic forever, but I’m over that incredible dependency and hollowness and fear and desperation.
Cindy Widner is a writer, editor, and social-media manager. Her work can be found in The Austin Chronicle, Bitch magazine, and other publications.