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Colorado author looks at cancer through a tragicomic lens in new novel

 Juliet Whitman speaking at the Boulder Bookstore about her new novel Again and Again on May 2, 2023.
Paula Wenger
Juliet Whitman speaking at the Boulder Bookstore about her new novel Again and Again on May 2, 2023.

Cancer is a diagnosis no one wants to be on the receiving end of, however, sharing the experience with others going through the same life and death fight can make the journey a bit easier.

Colorado author Juliet Wittman draws on her own experiences with cancer for her new novel Again & Again.

Wittman had previously written about her own cancer diagnosis in her memoir Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals which won the Colorado Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. 

She spoke with Shannon Young about tackling the topic again in fiction form in Again and Again.

Shannon Young: This isn't the first book you've written about cancer, your memoir Breast Cancer Journal. Why write a fiction this time?

Juliet Wittman: It's a completely different thing I think. I'm not sure why I wrote the memoir because it was a long time ago, but everything was very fresh and specific, then.

This is a whole different thing. It's a set of different people who aren't me.

I think part of the reason I wanted to write this novel was, I was extremely irritated by sort of the way you remember Barbara Ehrenreich, and how much she hated the pink ribbons? Me too.

And the whole thing about if you're virtuous and creative and a loving person, you'll get better.

And obviously if you get worse, you are the obverse.

That's very cruel actually. I mean, if you get better, you can thank yourself, but if you get worse, it's your own fault.

So I wanted, when I was in what I called cancer land, there were a lot of surprises, and one of the things was, when we got together, when the patients got together, for support groups, and particularly when there wasn't a nurse or social worker guiding us and sort of wanting us to be optimistic, we went crazy.

I mean, we joked, we laughed, we made fun of our caretakers, we whined about losing our hair.

It was very, very alive and sometimes very joyful and sometimes extremely ferocious.

And I was sort of fascinated by that world, and I created some characters that were inhabiting it as well as their nurse who's one of the protagonists.

Shannon Young: The book is very Boulder-centric, I mean, there's of course the landmarks and the eccentricities that are also kind of very Boulderite. How much of the characters are based on real life?

Juliet Wittman: Yes, I think my doctor back then, who I loved and still do, although he's retired, let me go on some of his rounds with him.

My surgeon actually let me watch a mastectomy and so they're in my mind, but my doctor is not them.

I also had a wonderful nurse and one of the protagonists is a nurse, but I made her up.

I don't know what my nurse's home life was like, and I don't think she was married to a Jewish lawyer from New York, but in the novel she is.

So nobody's actually the real person.

You know, when you make a character in a novel, they start out a certain way, you've got an idea.

Like I had this idea that one of the central characters was Chloe, she's very young, much too young to have a terminal diagnosis.

Very angry, very frightened, very beautiful, very manipulative, very narcissistic, but also capable of other things.

I don't know her, and she starts off, you know, she's sort of a seed, but as you work, and it takes a couple of years to write a novel, at least takes me that, she surprises you.

She takes over, she's got her own ideas about who she is.

So everybody just comes out of my head.

Shannon Young: Well, what are your words of wisdom or just some perspectives that your own experience with cancer have given you that you think are important to share?

Juliet Wittman: You know it's so hard.

I got on a Facebook group, which was for cancer patients and supporters, and I realized that by comparison with what so many people went through, even though I had a hard year with chemo and all that, what people go through it's deeply upsetting and there's no way you can sort of be loving and creative and just dance your way through it.

I think it's such a cliché, but what you have to do and, and I think it's in the book because I think a lot of people worry this is going to be a very depressing book and I don't think it is, but I think one thing is you live very vigorously, very strongly when you're threatened, and you really do look up at the tree limbs against the sky and think, 'I never noticed how beautiful they are.'

And I think that's moment to moment.

Just loving and enjoying, 'oh look, I'm sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee. Or gosh, when I turn the tap on, the water comes out.'

I mean, I have a good life.

I think if you can do that, because if you go the other way, the disease kills you before it does.

This story from KGNUwas shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KSJD.