Catherine Newman, a repeat guest on Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books, talks about her poignant new novel We All Want Impossible Things, which is also the December pick for Zibby’s Virtual Book Club! The two discuss grief and heartbreak, universal experiences that are so beautifully explored in this book; the real-life friendship that inspired the story; Catherine’s experiences volunteering in hospice (and falling in love with everyone there!); and the how-to book she read to help her write this novel. Zibby picked this book for her Good Morning America round-up! (She is obsessed with it!!)


Zibby Owens: Welcome back to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” You have my book. You’re so sweet. Catherine, thanks for coming on for We All Want Impossible Things.

Catherine Newman: Thank you for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: As you know, I’ve been over-the-moon excited. This book is so good. I posted all about it. I’m recommending it right and left. It’s so good from page one. You just open it up, I could not stop reading. I stayed up late. I woke up early. I love that feeling so much. Thank you for giving that to me.

Catherine: Thank you. I can’t even tell you — Zibby emailed me. It just made my whole weekend. It was the loveliest thing. Thank you.

Zibby: I couldn’t stop. Now of course, so many other authors are such huge fans of yours too. So many who I’ve had on the podcast are like, I love it too. It’s amazing. Now I’m like, oh, I didn’t know I’d walked into this insider-y circle of author love for your book.

Catherine: I didn’t know either. I’m very glad to find out. We wrote books about loss, you and me.

Zibby: Yes, I know. Thank you for saying that in your email back about — the way you did it, the humor — I think it was the humor. You’re so funny at finding every moment that could have something comical, not slapstick, of course, but just in the darkest of times, finding the littlest bit of light and really brightening it up. That sounds cheesy. Why don’t we go back? Why don’t you tell listeners what We All Want Impossible Things is about?

Catherine: Thank you for that about it being funny, by the way, because of course, I live for that. Also, as Jews, that’s why we’re still here. It is survival mechanism. It’s so deep. I am just thinking now about the time that my husband and I were in couples therapy. The therapist said, really deadpan-like, “I see that humor is an idiom for you of .” We were like, humor is an idiom for us. Okay, what’s this book about? I’ve been calling it a sleazy hospice friendship romance, like that’s a genre. It’s about a woman whose best friend is dying of cancer. Because of some practical considerations, that friend comes to die in hospice near where the narrator is living. It’s split between hospice and the narrator’s semi-grown daughters and the narrator’s sort of fucked-up marriage. Sorry, F-bomb. You can bleep that out.

Zibby: It’s okay.

Catherine: I feel like, one, it really is a book about — I was thinking about talking to you about it and how much this is the thing that speaks to you, I know. I was trying to capture in a book, what it feels like to be blown apart by grief and the way on the one hand, it’s an experience you’re not sure you’ll survive, and on the other hand, the kind of love that opens you up too. Again, not to keep bringing up your book, but your book is so twined grief and expanding, that feeling of opening up to the world because you’ve been blown apart. That’s what the book is about.

Zibby: Wow, that’s such a cool image. This isn’t going to make any sense. In my head, it’s making sense visually. If something is blown apart, you actually have more surface area. Exponentially, you can connect more. You can have so much more out there because instead of staying in, you have all these chances for magnetism and connection and everything.

Catherine: Totally. I love that image. Even as you were saying that, I was thinking that despite the fact that I keep saying it’s about this person being blown apart, when you were saying that, I was also picturing, total cliché, but a geode. You hold your heart together for as long as you can in your life. Then it cracks open. There is a lot there.

Zibby: I think people who have been cracked open feel this compulsion to let people know that this could happen at any minute. I feel like this is the genesis for so much literature. It’s like, wait, you guys, did you know that this could happen to you at any second? I’m going to just tell you how it happened to me. Maybe that will get through. Unless it’s happened, no matter how much you read and how empathetic you can be to somebody else’s plight, I don’t necessarily think it works, but that doesn’t stop everybody else from trying.

Catherine: I know. It’s like, until you’ve gotten your heart broken, you don’t understand country music. Then the first time you listen to country radio after your heart’s been broken, you’re like, oh, I understand all of these songs. I think what you’re getting at, too, is that there’s nothing that feels more singular than getting your heart broken, either from grief or from loss of a relationship. It is also the thing that most connects you to every other person on the planet. Everybody ends up grieving. There’s not a person who will escape that. I do think there’s something about that feeling. This is based loosely on a real story, which is that my best friend died in hospice eight years ago.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Catherine: Thank you. I remember having this experience of being on the train coming home. I’d been with her. I was coming home for a while and thinking on the train, every one of these people is going to grieve somebody, already being in that grief moment and realizing that it was one of the most — besides death itself, or birth, it’s one of the most universal human experiences. When you’re in it, it is so singular. I totally agree that the compulsion to try to explain it is huge.

Zibby: Also, I think it would almost be too hard to go about your everyday life if everybody was having anticipatory grief, essentially. If everybody was like, oh, my gosh, everyone in this household is going to die, I don’t think anybody would be able to put their clothes on and run out and do twenty-seven errands. I think as a protective, we all have to run around —

Catherine: — Yeah, but then there are times where you don’t. In your book too, because there’s this grief on grief on grief because of the way there’s a number of years where you experience an almost unfathomable amount of loss, you don’t compartmentalize. You are living in loss. You are aware of loss all around you. It is so crushing. It gives everything that crazy, precious glow. In your book, it’s the kids. You fell in love with Kyle. Everything is kind of glossed with the knowledge that’s twined with it, that you could lose all of it. You feel that. It’s so precious. I agree. You have to compartmentalize. Sometimes you’re like, no. Part of why I fictionalized this — I know you didn’t.

Zibby: I tried it that way too.

Catherine: I know you did. I’d be curious to read that. I was so struck by the courage of not fictionalizing because it’s so laid bare. I also felt that I was very vulnerable writing a fictional book. For me, the fiction of it allowed me to cheat a little in the ways that I was trying to express something. The main character, she has the thing she calls a falling-in-love disorder. That is a thing that I suffer from really quite acutely. I have a massive falling-in-love disorder. I do volunteer in hospice. I do fall in love with every single person there, madly in love. I don’t even mean platonically. I’m romantically in love with everybody in hospice. I feel like for that to come out on the page — some of that is very loud in the novel, I want to say, that she’s so slutty. That’s a way of describing something for me that’s very real.

Zibby: I know she had a lot of experiences and partners, but I wouldn’t have labeled her as slutty. There’s such a judgement there. I know you’re probably kidding. The first time, I was like, oh, yeah? That’s where we’re going here? Really? The gym coach? Or whatever it was. All right. Okay. Did not see that one coming. Every one, I was like, huh. Great. It’s part of what makes this very sad topic fun. You’re pairing the most joyful things and the most pleasure you can get with the most heartache you can get. It’s that juxtaposition, like you were saying, with every little thing. You also had something really interesting about the difference between the act of dying and the acting of losing. I wonder if I could find it quickly because it was such a good — let me just see. I thought I had turned it over. No, this is something about Halloween. This is just an example of how funny you are. This is how you describe yourself. Not yourself. The main character of the book, Edi and Ash. This is Edi. “Forty-five-year-old me fresh off the school bus with my under-eye bags and plantar fasciitis and boobs hanging down my torso like beige knee socks with no legs in them.” That’s so great. Oh, my god. I know that was right from the beginning. By the way, do they call it a theyfriend? Is that what they call a nonbinary boyfriend or girlfriend? Is it a theyfriend, or did you make that up?

Catherine: Some people do call a nonbinary boyfriend or girlfriend a theyfriend, but I think that’s slightly comedic. In fact, some people in my life have mixed feelings about me having used that expression. I’m not sure. I know lots of nonbinary boyfriends and girlfriends, but I’m not sure that’s a great thing .

Zibby: Okay, I’ll leave that out. I’m just going to read a couple lines that I really liked. You said, “But sometimes I worried that marriage was just a series of these small deflations, our dreams floating around invisibly near the ceiling like escaped gas.” What a depiction of marriage. Sad. By the way, I am writing a book now called Blank about a woman writing a novel that is blank for the concept of it all. You literally wrote that in your book. The person was joking about it. I didn’t steal it. It’s already seventy pages in.

Catherine: No worries.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I can’t find this line. Oh, here it is. Here’s something good anyway, if it’s not exactly — I’m sorry. This is a disorganized process. I have a few more. You say, “She smiles. ‘I know,’ she says. ‘This is so hard. I was just in the kitchen singing Tradition and stress-eating mini muffins.’ I hug her and tell her how amazing Ruth is –” Ruth is one of the neighboring rooms in the hospice “– and we wish each other luck. I pull the door closed on my way out. Everywhere behind closed doors, people are dying, and people are grieving them. It’s the most basic fact about human life, tied with birth, I guess, but it’s so startling too. Everyone dies, and yet it’s unendurable. There is so much love inside of us. How do we become worthy of it? And then where does it go? A worldwide crescendo of grief sustained day after day, and only one tiny note of it is mine.” I loved that.

Catherine: Props for us to just be two people writing about Fiddler on the Roof.

Zibby: That’s true too. I know. I was like, this is amazing.

Catherine: We’re like, yeah, we can survive anything.

Zibby: When you have the moment where they’re singing “Do You Love Me?”, the song, to each other, I had tears in my eyes. I thought you had — maybe this is not you, but I’m almost positive it was — where you defined the difference between, there’s the act of dying, and then there’s the act of loss. You’re so in it with the dying and the medicine and the prep for that. Then all of a sudden, loss comes on its heels. You’re not even really ready for that because you’re just in it with the dying part of it.

Catherine: I know the line you mean. It’s about digging a hole. You’re working so hard to dig the hole, and then there’s the hole. That, for me — I don’t know if this is familiar to you. Your losses happened in so many different, traumatic ways. Seeing somebody through to the end, it reminded me so much of giving birth. You’re so focused on the birth. You’re like, this and that and Pitocin. Then at the end of it, they hand you a baby. You’re like, oh, shit, I have to take care of a baby. You’re so wrapped up in the birth. With my friend’s death, it was very like that. Grief was already in the room with us, for sure. We cried so much. We were so in it. Also, there was so much caretaking. It was adjusting meds. She wanted different drinks. She needed to be moved and fed. I feel that we were so focused on that that when she died, the absolute crescendo tidal wave of loss shocked us. We had been distracted, maybe, by death. It distracted us from loss. I know you know, the way it is amplified by other losses, the way you experience loss refracted. For you, part of why I think the loss of your friend Stacey, which I think of, in some ways, as the center of the book, losing Stacey in 9/11 like you did — I feel like then the rest of the book, there are so many more losses, and every loss is like, oh, and Stacey’s still not here to support you. There’s this fundamental missingness of the people whose losses you accrue. I don’t know. You can edit that out.

Zibby: You’re totally turning the tables here. I feel terrible. You’re talking all about my book. I’m here to talk about your book.

Catherine: Oh, my god, I know that feeling. We wrote loss books about losing friends. It’s such a deep connection to me.

Zibby: Yes. I’m joking. I mean, sort of. I wish I had had as much fun as your character, though, in the process.

Catherine: I think you ended up having fun.

Zibby: Yes, that’s true. That’s true. Okay, fine. That’s true. Wait, so you debated doing this as a memoir and decided against it. The main character thinks about writing a book. They’re like, wait, are you taking notes on this? Are you going to use this? Did that happen too? How much of this happened, didn’t happen? I know that’s an annoying question.

Catherine: A lot of it happened. A lot of it didn’t happen the way it’s depicted in the book. My friend did not die in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I live. She died in Coney Island in New York. That part is just wish fulfillment. That is just me, like my own main character, wanting to be fully planted at the center of this life and experience. That was a primary fiction that enabled the book to be the way it is. A memoir wouldn’t have been that. A memoir feels more like it’s not really your story to tell in this case just because this is a person with kids and a husband and siblings. I didn’t feel like I could really tell the whole story that way. Instead, I fictionalized it in a really strange way.

Zibby: No, it’s amazing. Did the scene where she hugs her son happen? Was that based on real life? I don’t want to give anything away.

Catherine: Spoiler alert.

Zibby: I’m trying not to spoil it.

Catherine: I feel that the narrative arc of this book is fairly clear from the .

Zibby: I kept wishing the whole time I was reading.

Catherine: Same. Oh, my god, same. I know. I come back to the book, and I’m like, maybe.

Zibby: I know. The one time where you’re like, and now, actually, everything was fine, and I was like, really? Then you’re like, no, that’s what it would be in a romantic comedy. I was like, I was really hoping for that.

Catherine: I do feel like the conventions of film and fiction have given us these weird — not that one shouldn’t have hope. It’s good to be hopeful, but they’ve given us a weird sense that something could, in a really romantic way, flip on its head and turn out okay. I’m not a massive optimist in general. I’m a cheerful pessimist, is probably how I would describe myself. There was this feeling of, well, who knows? In the hospice where I am now — I’ll just put this out there for your listeners. I always call it graduates, but there are people who come to hospice, they are dying, and then they are released from hospice. I don’t want everyone to hang their hats on this. The premise of hospice is that you have made peace with the fact that you’re dying. Life is very mysterious. Things do not always go as you imagine they will, is all I can say. It’s really quite remarkable, just human life, not as predictable as we think.

Zibby: Wow. How do you maintain your sense of equilibrium when you’re caregiving so much? Even you working in hospice or volunteering or whatever, how do you do it without getting so attached and repeatedly upset?

Catherine: I do get attached and really upset. My kids make fun of me because I’ll get an email, and I’ll cry a little. They’ll be like, “Did someone in hospice die? Mom, this is the premise.” Everybody’s very attached. It’s a beautiful place. When somebody dies, everybody who’s connected to the place gets an email about it. This happens, you can imagine, almost, literally, daily. Everybody will be like, oh, my god, what a lovely person. Everybody will share a memory, almost every day. It is incredibly moving. Hospice is magic. If there’s a subtext of the novel, it’s, hospice is magic. It is magic. Not all of it. I know people have had not-great experiences with hospice care. The place where I work, which is a house, and people do come there to spend their last days, the care of the nursing staff, of the CNAs, it is really not like anywhere else I’ve ever been. It’s just really beautiful. Yes, I feel very sad, but I’m only there two hours a week. I wouldn’t want to overblow it. I come in. I make dinner. I talk to people. I leave. It’s not a massive undertaking.

Zibby: Yeah, but still, it’s wonderful you do that.

Catherine: I fall in love with everyone. I ask a bunch of people to marry me.

Zibby: I think we need some “Hospice is magic” tote bags produced or something in conjunction with this book.

Catherine: Hospice is magic. I know. It’s so true.

Zibby: Tell me about the cover. I know it’s because of all the thirst and all of that and everything, but tell me a little bit about the process.

Catherine: You know what it’s like. I will tell you. The cover shows a can. It’s got a bendy straw in it and a daisy that’s dropping some petals. When they said they were going to send me covers, I was like, oh, my god, is it going to be a hand holding a hand? How do you illustrate this? That’s what I thought. I couldn’t even imagine a good cover. If they had said, what’s your dream cover? I would’ve been like, I have no idea. An anatomical heart in eight pieces. I don’t know. They sent me this. It was completely perfect. It was absolutely perfect. It’s a little weird. It’s a little sad. It’s very subtle and wonderful. I was thrilled. I have gotten some covers — my first book, I was like, anything but a stork. They were like, what about this? It was a stork. I was like, all right, I guess. You don’t want to be a pain. This was so perfect. I was just beside myself. I had to write the artist and be like, you just nailed it.

Zibby: It’s great. It’s really beautiful. It’s very cool. The whole thing, it was an experience. I literally sat there with this book on my chest. I couldn’t even go to bed. I was just like, oh, my gosh.

Catherine: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s not just the loss. I know we’re talking a lot about loss in this episode. It is obviously about this period of time when she is losing her friend. It’s about that. It’s about what it’s like to go through something and also to do it as someone who’s delicately balancing a marriage and two grown-ish kids, which is even more complicated, or maybe not, just all the things in life and this on top. I love how you did it. It’s almost like the whole calendar. The month of February and then the quote, it’s just so packaged up. Then it ended up being March 2nd. It’s an experience. It’s for anyone who needs to get through anything and wants to laugh at whatever’s in their way. I don’t know what you did that was so perfect that kept the thing moving. I was trying to deconstruct it and say, what is it that’s working so well? What is she doing? I feel like it’s a lot of different factors. Is there something you tried to do to make it work well, craft-wise or anything?

Catherine: That’s an interesting question. I’ve never written a novel before, and so I read a book that was how to write a novel. I can’t remember what it was called. KJ recommended it to me, KJ Dell’Antonia. It’s called Put on Your Pants or Take Off Your Pants. Do you know the book I mean?

Zibby: No, I tend to leave books that say Take Off Your Pants on the shelf.

Catherine: People know it because it’s a particular approach to writing. I can’t remember if it’s putting on or taking off your pants, but where you plot it out. I read this how-to book. It’s like writing a novel for dummies. It’s like, here’s how you write a novel. Here’s how you structure it. I knew a lot about the book, honestly. I had been turning this novel over in my head for seven years. I knew everything about the characters. I understood the premise of the narrative arc. Somebody’s dying. I didn’t know how I would structure — you know that way when you’re writing where you’re like, somebody’s putting on a band-aid, will it take one sentence or four chapters? How much does it expand and fill this space? I had no idea. I had only written nonfiction. Nonfiction, they give you a basket. It’s got honey and bread and a brisket. You’re on TV. They’re like, make dinner out of this. You’re like, okay, I could do that. Then fiction, it’s so bottomless. Anything could happen. An alien could’ve come and abducted Edi before she died. Anything was possible. That gave me so much vertigo that I had to structure it. I had to make an outline so that I would sort of follow some basic principle. I realize this is not actually what you’re asking me.

Zibby: No, that helps, though. That’s good.

Catherine: I wrote it really fast because I wanted to inhabit it so fully that I wouldn’t lose my sense of it. I didn’t want it to be like, wait, what was I thinking about? Oh, that. I just wanted to be in it, which was its own indulgent thing because then, of course, I was with my friend for this intense period of time, which was a mixed bag.

Zibby: Do you have anything else coming? Now I want to go back and read — you have another memoir you wrote a while ago. Was that also funny? And another novel.

Catherine: I have only a novel for kids. The other novel’s a novel for kids. Your kids might like it. It’s about kids spending the night in Ikea. It has some loss in it. You’ll see there’s some familiar characters, actually. I wrote some books about parenting that I think would speak to you in the regular parenting way. I also feel like you probably —

Zibby: — That one, I had, How to be Normal. That one, we talked about. Didn’t we?

Catherine: I mean books for . I’m writing another novel. We’ll see how it goes. I know you know. You’re writing a novel. You’ve written a novel that you didn’t publish, right?

Zibby: I’ve written several novels. Let’s not go there. I am writing a novel now. Basically, you had the same idea in your book. I’m working on it. I’ll have to show it to you.

Catherine: I want to see it.

Zibby: I can’t wait for your next novel. I am so excited. I really hope people just go grabbing this off the shelves because it’s unique. The voice is so great, and the story and the universality but also the specificity of it. That sounded ridiculous.

Catherine: No, thank you. If I were going to sum up my goal, it would be that. It would be that.

Zibby: There you go. Thank you so much, Catherine. Good luck. I’m so excited for you.

Catherine: I’m so grateful.

Zibby: Thank you for the close read of my book too. That was really nice.

Catherine: Thanks. It was such a pleasure.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.

Catherine: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.


WE ALL WANT IMPOSSIBLE THINGS: A Novel by Catherine Newman

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