A Conversation with Jonathan Santlofer, author of The Widower’s Notebook – Penguin Random House

Penguin: From The Year of Magical Thinking to A Widow’s Story and beyond, the world of grief literature often seems to lack a man’s perspective on loss. Why do you think that is?

Jonathan Santlofer: The most obvious answer—and the one I tried to deal with myself in my years of grief and then in this book—is that men are neither trained nor expected to express their feelings. “Take it like a man” and “toughen up” are things I heard from the time I was very young. Perhaps this is less true nowadays (and I hope so), but it was absolutely true when I was growing up.

In writing this book I was constantly questioning myself – Do men actually write these kinds of books? I didn’t read C.S. Lewis’s book until long after I’d written mine. It might have made it easier for me if I had. There are things he writes about that felt exactly on target for me, as a man, others that did not, but it would have, I think, helped me stay confident in writing the book.

I was though able to draw strength from several books by women dealing with loss and grief, and I hope women will draw strength from mine. While it’s true that the culture continues to treat men and women differently in too many ways, and surely in grief, there is a commonality to grieving, and I saw that in the best books by the women I read – Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Gail Caldwell, Megan O’Rourke, Helen MacDonald, Diane Rehm, among them—all strong women coping with loss. The difference perhaps is that women are expected to be emotional (another cultural stereotype), while men are not.

I heard so many stories from widows of how they were often abandoned, particularly by couples, whereas I was suddenly a desirable single man. I found the various situations where it became clear I was being set up with a woman sort of comical because of course it never happened to me before, and I wrote about them. Though I also encountered instances where people, mostly couples, did not seem to want me around. Perhaps, as a newly single man I posed a threat to them or to “coupledom” in general.

P: At the time of Joy’s death, she was hard at work on Food City, her epic history of the history of New York food, which was published in 2016 to great critical acclaim. What was it like to help usher her life’s work into the world?

JS: It was not easy, but I made a vow to myself—and silently to Joy—that I would shepherd her book through to publication. “Food City” was already under contract to WW.Norton & Co, and Joy had finished a full draft, one that was twice as long as the publisher wanted, and so not in a publishable state. The process itself—reading and re-reading and hiring editors to cut and rearrange much of the book—was difficult and often stressful. The worst part was, of course, that Joy was not around to see her book published, the great reviews it received, including a rave in the NYTBook Review, the many awards it won, as well as a James Beard nomination. When I felt sad about all she was missing I had to remind myself that Joy had created a legacy with her book, one that would live on.

p: Writing the book was surely a difficult, but cathartic process. Did you experience any closure when you finished?

JS: I think the concept of “closure” is overused in our society, something we say to make ourselves feel better. One does not get closure. At best, one gets – if you are lucky – the ability to move on, though it takes time to get there.

P: It seems like your daughter, Doria, helped you through this moment as much as you helped her. How did your role as a father suddenly shift when you’d both lost Joy?

JS: There’s no question we were a huge help to each other. Perhaps the most difficult thing for me was feeling that I now had to be both father and mother, basically impossible, and a role at which I was doomed to fail. I think my loss is totally different from my daughter’s loss. It took me a couple of years to actually talk about Joy’s death with my daughter—I was simply incapable of doing so—and I write about that in the book.

p: In addition to writing, drawing and sketching seemed to help you immensely during this time, allowing you to look at photos that would otherwise be too painful to be around. How were you able to separate the images of Joy and Dorie from the memories that they inevitably contained?

JS: I was trained as an artist, which means I am able to look at an image and see it
“formally” that is, its various elements – composition, line, tone, etc. – and not the subject matter. Something I do all the time in museums and galleries. I look at a painting and try to see how an artist created an effect, which is what I did when I looked at the photographs of Joy, Joy and Dorie, and Joy and me. I would study the light and dark and line and figure out how to recreate them in pencil on paper. Perhaps it’s like being a scientist, or a medical examiner, able to look at a body and not see it as a victim, but rather to analyze it’s parts. Naturally there were times when I could not distance myself, but for the most part drawing enabled me to keep going, or one could say, to keep my wife close, in my own way. There were times when I was drawing that a whole slew of memories washed over me, but I could handle them because I was involved in the act of drawing.

P: At one point in the book, you discuss the idea of “getting over” grief at a dinner conversation, noting that men and women are given different expectations with how to deal with loss. What do you think the hoped-for end result of this book is?

JS: I’d like to think that my book is not just for men or just for women, but for everyone. I hope it gives men permission to grieve, and allows women to understand the difficulty men may have in expressing grief. If there’s a “message” I’d like it to be that everyone has the right to grieve as they wish, openly or privately, in a society that puts a time limit on grief. I would be happy if the book does for others what the best books I read on grief did for me: make people feel less alone.