Writers on Writing, Volume 8: Zoe FitzGerald Carter
Zoe FitzGerald Carter is the author of the memoir Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Loss, and Letting Go (Simon & Schuster). The book chronicles her mother’s decision to end her life after living with Parkinson’s disease for many years, and the struggle Zoe and her two sisters had coming to terms with that choice. Paula Span of the New York Times said, "I could quote from this book all day." People magazine wrote that “Imperfect Endings coaxes beauty from the bleak.”
A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, Zoe has written for numerous publications including the New York Times, Salon, Newsweek, and Vogue. Zoe is currently at work on a nonfiction book about race, Facebook, and unexpected kinship. She also performs with local string band Sugartown.
In January she begins teaching her second memoir class at Left Margin LIT, titled Writing Your Memoir: The Art and Craft of Storytelling.
Imperfect Endings is your first memoir. How would you describe your experience publishing a memoir?
It was fantastic! I was a journalist in my twenties and thirties and then wrote a murder mystery when my kids were young. Although I got an agent, it didn’t sell and I felt totally discouraged. When I finished Imperfect Endings, my expectations for getting it published were low. But then, in one whirlwind week, I found a new agent (Flip Brophy at Sterling Lord Literistic) and a publisher (Simon & Schuster). S&S was a wonderful place to publish. My editor was smart and supportive and their PR team did a great job promoting the book (the book was excerpted in O Magazine and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick).
Getting published changed my life in some pretty exciting ways. Suddenly I was part of this lively national conversation about end-of-life decisions, I was invited to join the San Francisco Writers Grotto and became part of a wonderful, creative community of writers in the Bay Area. I also began teaching and discovered that I loved it. Teaching has taken me from Hawaii to Vermont to various writing programs around the Bay Area, including Left Margin LIT, and remains a huge source of joy and inspiration in my life.
Why did you decide to write Imperfect Endings?
I’d starting working on a novel about the experience of growing up with two older sisters who detested each other and who fought over my soul from the moment I was born. I was planning to have these three female characters face a crisis in their adult lives that would stir up all the old alliances and animosities between them. My mother had recently taken her own life—she suffered from Parkinson’s for many years—and I realized that this was my crisis. After writing 50-60 pages, my agent at the time suggested I turn it into a memoir. As soon as I made the transition (and took out all the fictional bits), the tone and structure and voice of the book fell into place. Despite my best intentions to write fiction, it turns out I was a memoir writer. I’ve continued to write personal essays and am at work on a book that has strong elements of memoir.
In your memoir, you focus on your experiences with your family. What does Imperfect Endings reveal about familial love?
That it is deep, complex, and imperfect. There is no such thing as a perfect family—nor are there perfect parents or a perfect childhood. If there were, we’d have fewer writers! And death does not always come in a perfect package. That Hollywood scenario where everyone gathers peaceably around the dying person’s deathbed while the sun sets doesn’t always happen and that’s okay. There is no “right way” to deal with a family member who is dying, you can only do your best as it’s happening, and be open to unexpected moments of levity and grace.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’ve been working on a book about race and family and what it means to be descended from slave owners. It’s centers around my friendship with an African-American man from Lake Charles, Louisiana, Angus FitzGerald Carter, and our search for a common ancestor. My agent is currently shopping it to publishers.
I’ve also become serious about songwriting the last couple of years. My first CD of original songs, Waiting for the Earthquake, came out in July of 2018. Perhaps not surprisingly, my songs tend to be autobiographical, although I have the added pleasure of going out into the world and singing them! (You can check them out at Sugartownmusic.net.)
What do you hope readers take away from your writing?
I hope that readers will find in my work the same elements and techniques that I teach in my classes. I’m a big believer in having memoirs read like fiction with scenes, setting, character, and dialogue rather than endless “telling.” This is the key to turning life into literature in my opinion. Having a bigger thematic idea or purpose is also essential.
And finally, honesty. Especially in a first draft, it is important to cut to the bone, to resist holding back. When you sell your book, you can always soften the edges, especially if you’re afraid someone is going to sue you, but there is a huge power in expressing your unique, lived truth on the page.