Will Schwalbe is a genuinely good guy who has spent much of his life championing the authors we love as editor-in-chief at Hyperion. When I was struggling to write about David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter in 2007 following the author’s untimely demise, Schwalbe stepped in to provide an affectionate tribute to the book. When Schwalbe quietly left his position the following year, no one knew he was taking time for a very good reason.
Those reasons unfold in The End of Your Life Book Club, the touching account of the life of letters Schwalbe shared with his inspiring mother, Mary Anne, who passed away in 2009. Recently, the author spoke with Kirkus about this very personal, yet universal story.
Check out today's list to see what titles made it into The End of Your Life Book Club.
Tell us about the meaning of your title, The End of Your Life Book Club.
It actually never occurred to me to call the book anything else. It’s always been The End of Your Life Book Club. That’s because every time I went with Mom to her chemo appointments, I was reminded of something fairly obvious but something it’s easy to forget—that we are all in end of our life book clubs, that no one knows which book or conversation will be the last. Whenever I remind myself that I’m in the end of my life book club, I remember to try to make each book and each conversation really count, especially conversations with people I love. At one point, a friend suggested to me that I call the book “The Rest of Your Life Book Club,” but that didn’t have the urgency that I wanted. That made it sound like all of us have all the time in the world—and we don’t. All we know is that we have now.
This book delivers a very personal insight into an extraordinary, yet universal experience. What made you want to share the story of you and your mother, Mary Ann, with readers?
What I really wanted to do was share with people the role that books played in our lives, and the way to do that was to tell our story. I think many people who don’t read think that reading is a kind of escape—that it’s the opposite of doing something. You even hear people say things like, “Why don’t you put down that book and do something?” But reading is doing something, and it’s one of the most important things in the world. I wanted to show how books can teach, entertain, help you talk about difficult things, change the way you see the world around you, show you what you need to do in the world, comfort and inspire. And I wanted to show how books could bring people closer to each other, at a very difficult time—even two people who were already very close.
Often we read books because they were given to us, by a friend or relative. Mom was thrifty, so if you gave her a book, she would read it. Many of the books we read, like Big Machine by Victor LaValle, were ones we’d seen reviewed or mentioned in print or in the media; some were books one of us had always meant to read; and some were literally books we knocked off a display in a bookshop. Often, one book we loved made us think of another or led to another. And sometimes we revisited old favorites.
Your mother was a woman of extraordinary accomplishments, particularly her educational and humanitarian work. How do you believe she would like to be remembered?
I think she would have liked to know that her work as an educator and as a refugee advocate will be remembered, especially her work on behalf of women and children refugees. I think she would have wanted to be remembered for listening and helping others be heard. And I’m certain she would have liked to know that she will be remembered as a grandmother—she adored her five grandchildren.
Why do you think we find books so comforting in difficult times?
Books demand of us that we pay attention and that we think and that we feel, but they don’t demand that we say anything. When you read a book, you listen with your eyes. In difficult times, there are decisions to make, and there are regrets about decisions past and about mistakes and missed opportunities. When you are fully engaged in a book, you don’t need to make decisions other than to pay attention. And I think that’s a comfort. Books also gave us a way to talk about very difficult and painful things when we couldn’t bring ourselves to face them head on. At those times, we could talk about characters when we were really talking about ourselves.
I also think books are great equalizers. As I wrote, when Mom and I were reading, we weren't a sick person and a well person, but a mother and son sharing a journey and learning new things. And that was a huge comfort, too.