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Monday, January 31, 2011

cover me

A couple of weeks ago I finished Sonya Huber’s compelling new memoir, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, which was released in October from University of Nebraska Press, and I can’t think of a more timely book.

If you’ve ever had stress over healthcare and coverage, you will relate to this story. But perhaps it’s an even more important book for those of you (are there any of you out there?) who haven’t experienced stress over healthcare coverage. Step into Sonya’s shoes and understand how the lack healthcare coverage affected one woman’s health and life.

There were parts of Cover Me that almost started me off on my own anxiety attacks (something with which Huber struggles in the book), other parts that had me nodding my head, and still others that brought tears to my eyes. Huber leads us through her struggles deftly, and by the end of the book I had never been more convinced of the need for healthcare reform in this country.

I’m pleased to have Sonya here at Mother Words today, so without further ado, welcome, Sonya!

KH: I’m very interested in how authors turn shorter pieces into memoirs, and I know that many of your chapters appeared in literary journals as stand-alone essays. Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing this book? Did you always know you were writing a book?

SH: This is a great question, because it was a major challenge! I always knew I was writing a book, but I really wanted the opportunity to try to publish stand-alone essays. My first book, Opa Nobody, is so interwoven and complicated that it was impossible to publish pieces of it. And I didn’t have many journal publications as a result. So for Cover Me, I wanted to try to get pieces of the book out there and test them before the book was published.

KH: What was the most challenging part of writing Cover Me?

SH: The biggest challenge was dealing with the connected essay framework I created for myself. I wrote the pieces knowing that they were forming a connected narrative, but then the goal of publishing them separately made them into very individualized little beasts with their own distinct personalities. Each became a little universe with a distinct voice, and then the process of shaping them back into a book was quite difficult. Agents who I queried said that they loved the idea, but a collection of essays wouldn’t sell, and the book in its draft form was “sort of” connected—neither completely essays nor completely memoir. So I had to do some major surgery to reconnect them.

A second trouble spot was the voice. I’ve been so angry for so long about the state of healthcare access in this country that the first years of writing were, to put it politely, pure spew. And I didn’t want to assault the reader with that—I wanted to bring something to the reader. This ended up being a problem of voice. I had to work to make the material approachable and funny, to connect it to a situation that makes me angry while at the same time allowing for breaks and distance. This book, because it’s still new, is unfortunately still suggesting to me other ways I could have done this. But I have to let that go because it’s published.

KH: Was there anything—either in terms of what emerged or in the process of writing this memoir—that surprised you?

SH: I just did a reading last week where I first read something from Opa Nobody and then something from Cover Me, and I was really shocked at how different the voices are. That made me happy because it’s something I tell my students, and it’s actually been born out in practice: that the voice fits the subject matter and leads to the approach for the book. And the voice carries the book (like ‘Til Tuesday sang a long time ago).

I think the other thing that continues to surprise me is the reaction to the politics of the book. Some see it as confrontational and wildly political, and some see it as not political enough. I think that points to the larger fact that personal stories on this specific issue are so necessary, and that one book can’t meet all those needs. I was writing specifically to use a personal story to offer a bridge between Red-Blue, Right-Left and all those other over-simplified divides. I just wanted to show that this is not a ‘boring’ issue—it’s something we can all talk about. We each have the story of the health insurance debacle in our bodies. So the continued strong reactions are a delight and great food for thought.

KH: All memoirists must confront the issue of privacy and decide how they will write about family and friends. You seem to be extremely careful about protecting the privacy of the people who appear in Cover Me. Can you talk a little bit about that?

SH: You rock, Kate. I’m so happy you noticed this! I’m sort of a stickler for this, and that does have its downsides. My goal is to only include someone if they are essential to the story and/or if I am mentioning something so innocuous that it wouldn’t matter to anyone. If someone appears as a character, I usually check with that person before publication, give them the complete text that mentions them, and then ask for their comments. I’m very much influenced by field practices in anthropology and ethnography with this practice. I usually make the changes that people ask for, and I have found this process to be very rewarding. It’s a cheese-grater, for sure, because it’s hard to engage in conversations about old relationships. Boy have I gotten some good feedback about my own past mistakes. It’s like therapy bootcamp! But what other job requires you to do that? It’s a great learning opportunity. And it’s also made for renewed friendships and stronger bonds with family. There are a few places where, for specific private reasons, I couldn’t ask for approval due to the nature of the relationship and/or lack of a relationship, but those are rare. I obsessed over those points, too, and I cut and cut so that, in my opinion, only the necessary pieces of information were revealed. In some cases, a lot of the story is missing because of that. But I’m okay with that. That’s a compromise I make with my books for the sake of ethics and relationships. I’m not of the “write and damn the people” school. I think you have to write it all, but then as you’re nearing publication, you might be surprised at how difficult and then how fulfilling it is to share writing and be open to a conversation about your point of view. All of my work is better because I have asked the people portrayed for their help.

KH: Sonya, you are a single mother and a full-time professor. How do you balance writing, your career, and your family?

Well, one sad answer is that I got sick! I have rheumatoid arthritis, which may have been coming anyway, but it’s been aggravated by the stress of various post-divorce legal issues and the juggling. But on the huge upside, I’ve gone from being a single mom to living in a fantastic household with my fiancĂ© Cliff and my son. Cliff is such a huge support. He came into my life and the life of my son, and we made a family, which is lucky indeed.

The other struggle I’ve had is that, in years past, I would have also added “activist” to that list in your question. But right now I’m up against my limits of health and energy. I’ve had to pull back from important local issues. I don’t socialize as much as I would like. I write an hour a day, then I teach and work for the rest of the day, and then comes everything else. To be honest, it doesn’t feel balanced! It feels like, if there were more social supports for families, things would be a lot easier. So I’m still very committed to doing what I can to support organizations like MomsRising and Healthcare Now! and many other good groups. The issue of balance in a working mom’s life makes the issue into an individual math equation, and that’s where we’ve gone wrong. This is a social problem, not an individual issue, and we’re putting it on the backs of people who are exhausted and are raising the next generation. That’s wasteful, cruel, and unfair, which is why we need things like equal pay for equal work and universal healthcare.

KH: This book is such a beautiful indictment of our healthcare system. What kinds of reactions have you received from readers/the press?

SH: I’ve been really psyched about the reviews; moms in general seem most touched by the book, which is excellent. It’s been so satisfying to be part of the discussion about a book that connects with readers’ current experiences. Opa Nobody was about the Nazis during World War II and socialism in Europe, so it didn’t have that personal connection for hardly any of my readers. I’ve had a few negative comments about my personal choices: yes, I did have sex before I got married, and I did a few very mildly crazy things in my twenties. Interestingly, readers appear shocked by these very common experiences only if the readers happen to disagree with the issue of healthcare reform. I also had one reviewer complain about the number of jobs I held and quit. I think if you’ve been working since you were sixteen, as I have, that’s a no-brainer—especially if you’re a writer. I made the conscious personal research choice to mention ALL of the jobs I had ever held, along with whether or not they came with benefits. Most people, in my experience, don’t have that stuff on their resume so they sort of erase it from their consciousness. I was open about a social class and money issue that’s kind of taboo. The issue of social class—and people’s lack of awareness about how social class affects one’s choices and options—can affect the reading and a person’s worldview. I’m hoping to write a big fat book about that someday.

I had my first truly shocking comment left on Amazon.com earlier this week. A man commented, among other things, that he wished I would have died from an ailment I mentioned in the book. He appeared to be against healthcare reform and also against women who write books, so his politics were pretty different from mine. But the comment about wishing I was dead—that gave me a day of really deep reflection and a bit of sickness. My Facebook posse rallied immediately and complained to Amazon, and the comment got taken down. I guess that made me sad because I really had grandiose illusions that a funny, self-deprecating, personal story about healthcare would allow readers to step away from the political battle to examine how the issue might affect one woman’s life. But I’m always too idealistic. That’s okay—that’s a permanent personality issue that’s not going away, apparently.

KH: That comment is outrageous, Sonya. I’m so sorry that happened.

My last question for you is about what you’re working on now.

SH: I like to work on several projects at once, so I’m getting a bunch of new ones started. Right now I’m working on individual essays, and also working on a series of connected short essays about what life is like for family members of addicts and/or alcoholics. I think I might also be doing a separate but related project on the intersection of Buddhism and the topic of those “witnesses to addiction.” And I also have this strange desire to work on an essay or book that connects the reading of Moby-Dick with living as a single mom. Too many things to pursue, but that’s how I like it.

KH: Thanks for taking the time to join me at Mother Words, Sonya!

Readers, go get a copy of Cover Me!

4 comments:

Andrea said...

Sounds like a really interesting--and heartbreaking--and important book! Thanks, Kate, for always featuring such wonderful books and great interviews!

K said...

Plan on picking this book up! As the wife of a physician, I feel it is part of my job (along with Mom, wife,writer...) to read up on all the perspectives - and this one sounds heartbreaking and well-written. Thank you for the interview.
Karen
thatswhyyouloveme.blogspot.com

Melinda said...

Thanks for the dialog. Interesting intersection for me, who in my day job, manages implementation of the new reform law for one of the good-guy health plans in the Northwest where we try to extend affordable health coverage to those who need it, and my writer's life connecting essays about mothering into a potentially interesting book.

I will check out Cover Me to examine the many facets of both!

householdwords said...

Wow, great interview! Sounds like a really fascinating book. Also -- what a great title this book has! So evocative and apt. Anyway, thanks for sharing this.