“We tell the story we need to tell, and we have no business trying to avoid it.” When Suleika Jaouad was twenty-two years old, she was diagnosed with leukemia and was only given a thirty-five percent chance to live. As she moved through her twenties and from the kingdom of the sick to that of the well, Suleika documented her life in both a personal journal and a column in the New York Times. Now, she shares her journey in Between Two Kingdoms, one of Zibby’s favorite memoirs to date, and challenges readers to live their lives in technicolor even when everything has been upended.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Suleika. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted.

Suleika Jaouad: Thank you, Zibby. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: I literally am overwhelmed by anticipation at being able to talk to you. I inhaled this memoir. I just feel all this love towards you even though I don’t know you. I have so much respect for you as a writer and the way you did this memoir. I am just over the moon about it. Congratulations. Not that you need this from me. I know it’s already been a best seller. I was so moved. You’re so amazing. Putting that out there.

Suleika: The love is mutual. I’ve been a long-time fan. It’s a such a joy to be here with you.

Zibby: For those who don’t know what Between Two Kingdoms is about, would you give the quickie summary of it, please?

Suleika: Between Two Kingdoms is a memoir. It tells the story of my twenties, which were a very eventful decade in my life, as they are for lots of people. It’s really the story of my time in the kingdom of the sick. I was diagnosed with leukemia when I was twenty-two. More than that, it’s about what happened after and about what we do when our lives are upended and we have to figure out how to live again and what that looks like and what the way forward is going to be. This book was chronicling that journey from the kingdom of the sick back towards the kingdom of the well and the in-between place that I found myself in.

Zibby: I know that along the way you had been writing in your journal because you tell us in the book that you have been doing that. The first inkling that this would become a book, for the reader at least, is when you visit a psychic — I can’t remember where, maybe New Mexico or something — who says that you will write a book one day. Obviously, you had been publishing your column in The New York Times and even won an Emmy for the videos that accompanied it. When did you know that you were going to write a book about your experience, or did you kind of know all along?

Suleika: Like a lot of writers, it was always my dream to write a book, to hopefully write many books. When I came out of cancer treatment after nearly four years, I was determined to write about anything other than illness. I had lived enough cancer. I had written about it. I felt like I had told that story in the form that I needed to, which was this New York Times column. I was desperate to move forward with my life and to move forward from this experience. I certainly didn’t want to spend the next couple of years of my life writing about it. I actually had a really pivotal conversation with Cheryl Strayed in which I told her this. I said, “I really want to write something new. I don’t know what that’s going to be, but I know what I don’t want to write about, which is illness.” She said, “The funny thing about that is that when I went to go write Wild, I knew I wanted to write about this hike, but I didn’t want to write about grieving my mother.” Of course, the book is about her hike, but it’s all about grieving her mother. What she left me with was this, which is that we tell the story we need to tell, and we have no business trying to avoid it. That really opened something up for me. I realized that maybe the subject of my book was the subject that was very much on my mind at that time, which was how we move forward when our lives are upended by a trauma. It wasn’t necessarily the book that I expected to write, but it was the one that I needed to write.

Zibby: Wow. Apparently, it’s the one that we all need to read as well because, oh, my gosh, it’s just so good. There was so much in the book about Will. I feel like your feelings for him even by the end were not, and I don’t want to necessarily give anything away, but just not resolved. I felt like you had so much guilt and so much, not overthinking, but where you replay what could’ve been, what could’ve been. Then you reach a place where you’re like, that’s not healthy, I should stop, but yet it still kind of lingers. I can see from Instagram and everything and from the end of your book what your life is like now, but do you still sort of wrestle with that? Do you put blame on yourself? Where do you feel about the whole situation now? Are you two even still in touch? I know that’s not even his real name. I’m just so curious.

Suleika: Will was my boyfriend who I’d been dating only for a couple of months when I got sick. He was very much there for me for a lot of my illness. I wanted to write about that relationship because there was no way to write about my illness and what happened after without talking about the people who were crucial to my ability to survive it. He was very much one of those people. I’m also interested in writing about complicated relationships. Of course, we’ve all gone through breakups where we want not just a sense of closure, but hopefully, a sense of mutual reconciliation, some kind of peace summit. Will and I were never able to achieve that together. It was challenging in terms of the writing because in writing, we naturally want a sense of resolution. As I was working on it, it occurred to me that there was also an opportunity there, which was to write about these relationships where maybe we don’t ever feel a sense of closure. I suspect just from talking to my girlfriends that there are a lot of us who have had relationships like that, that end, that you know they ended and that it’s for the best, but that there’s also a kind of ongoing-ness in terms of untangling what it meant and how to achieve that sense of reconciliation even when it’s not possible to achieve it with someone else. You have to kind of find it within yourself. A lot of the book is about healing from illness, but it’s also about the kind of imprints of traumas on our relationships and the way they can fracture them but can also create these moments and opportunities for a kind of depth and a weird beauty that wouldn’t be possible without them.

Zibby: I feel like so much with relationships, especially in your twenties when you’re just starting out, there’s so much about timing. You reference this many times. What if I had met Jon a couple months later? What if I had met Will? What if? Your brain just naturally goes there. You’re like, this might be the perfect person, but… Then you can’t isolate those variables. That’s sort of how you end up marrying one person versus the other. It’s when you meet and where you are right then, but that’s sort of an unsettling feeling. What about soulmates? What about destiny? Really, timing? I don’t know.

Suleika: I think that question of timing and of uncertainty informs so many aspects of being in your twenties even in terms of what internship you take or what job you have fresh out of college. There’s this sense that you’re maybe marching or working towards something, but also this sense that you could’ve chosen many other paths. A lot of the book was wrestling with what it means to swim in that ocean of uncertainty that, of course, we all do, but that feels especially true when you’re in your twenties and you’re very much figuring out who you are and what you want to do and how you want to participate in the world and what kind of partner you want alongside you for all of that. They are the eternal questions for all of us.

Zibby: There must be research. I should just google this when we get off the Zoom. The effect of trauma at different life stages, what happens if you have trauma as a child, in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties? The way you process it changes so much. I feel like there’s some intensity to it particularly in your twenties. I don’t know. This is just my two cents.

Suleika: It’s so true. I think being in your early twenties is its own in-between place. You’re no longer a kid, but you’re not a fully formed adult yet. Although, my twenty-two-year-old self would’ve insisted that I was absolutely an adult and did not need help from anyone and knew exactly what I was doing. It’s this liminal space. I think when you undergo a trauma or you get diagnosed with an illness in your early twenties, it is a really different experience. For me at twenty-two, I was fresh out of college. I had a sense of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have a fully formed career yet. I didn’t have my own family yet. I didn’t have years and years of a relationship to create a kind of baseline to return to. Everything was in a first-draft form. What that meant for me when I emerged from this illness was that I didn’t have a life, necessarily, to return to. At that point, I was twenty-seven. I very quickly realized I couldn’t go back to being the person I had been pre-diagnosis. I certainly wasn’t a cancer patient anymore, but I also didn’t know who I was, which was an unsettling feeling at twenty-seven. More than that, the thing that I arrived at was that as much as I wanted to move on from those difficult years, to compartmentalize those traumatic experiences and stow them in the past and to skip over the hard work of healing and grieving and uncovering who you are, that moving on is a kind of myth. We have to move forward with those experiences and integrate them into our present as we take baby steps toward whatever it is that comes next.

Zibby: You wrote so beautifully, also, about all the other cancer patients you met along the way and how they became your family. I wonder if I dog-eared that page. I dog-eared so many. I’ll have to find some quotes to read in a second. Part of what you felt sort of fell on your plate afterwards was this responsibility to live all caps because so many people you journeyed with along the way weren’t there. Why you? Then you talked a little about PTSD and the same sense of, if you’ve survived something — it sounded to me like a war. You’ve made it. Three out of ten make it. Why you? What should you do with that knowledge? That’s why you feel in pursuit of some of these goals. In my twenties, I lost my best friend and roommate on 9/11. This is no comparison, but just the sense that I got to live and Stacey didn’t get to live makes me, every day still, and I’m in my mid-forties now, like, okay, what am I doing here? She disappeared into thin air one day, and I didn’t. Where does that leave me? Is this why I work — is that where it all comes from? What do you do when life suddenly becomes something that you’ve been — it’s been given twice or something.

Suleika: Totally. I so understand that feeling. I think when you confront mortality, either yourself or by way of a loved one’s death, there’s this heightened awareness, as Joan Didion writes, that life can change in an ordinary instant. I think with that awareness comes a sense of responsibility to make of your life, something exceptional even if it’s in a small way, to not just be a passive passenger in your life, but to really feel the full weight and privilege of what it means to be alive and to be a human being. I definitely felt that. I also lost my best friend, Melissa, who I’d met in treatment who died the same month that I finished cancer treatment. I had this double sense of guilt, of course, that I was here and she was not and trying to make sense of that, which I still can’t make sense of, I don’t think I will ever make sense of, but also this feeling that I had fought so hard to survive these treatments. When I emerged from that experience, I felt a huge amount of pressure to be grateful to be alive, to be doing all the things that I’d wanted to do and hadn’t been able to do. At the same time, I was also grieving. I was probably more lost than I’ve ever been. That sense of dissonance between what should be and what was and how I felt I should be living my life and the realities of what it meant to carry the wreckage of that sorrow and that loss was really difficult for me to make sense of. We talk about reentry in the context of veterans coming back from war or incarceration, but I don’t think we talk about it as much in the context of grief or of surviving a traumatic experience like illness. You can’t just jump into whatever comes next or start living your life in technicolor, as much as we’d all like to. That was my work for that first year out of my treatment and out of losing Melissa, was actually understanding that as much as I wanted to be living this wonderful, happy, meaningful life, that process of grieving and recovery was going to be a kind of brutal act of self-discovery in that it wasn’t always going to feel fun or pleasant in the way that maybe I wanted it to.

Zibby: I’m so sorry for your loss of Melissa. The greatest part of this is that you totally brought her to life for me and for anybody who reads this book. None of us would’ve necessarily met her. That’s one of the great things about memoir. You just conjured her up. Now, to be honest, I’m like, I want to find pictures of Melissa. Now I have such an image in my head because you painted such a clear picture of her. You brought her to life. It’s real sorcery to be able to do that, really. All of a sudden, she’s dancing in my mind. It’s amazing. You put her there. It’s just the coolest. I know that sounds ridiculous. I think the power of sharing stories in this format is just otherworldly.

Suleika: I think it’s one of the great joys of writing. I got to live in that world with those people for the duration of the time I was writing the book. I got to be jumping over subway turnstiles and getting stopped by the cops with Melissa. I got to be going on these adventures that we went together with. It is a kind of wonderful sorcery.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, and your bringing the ashes at the end. I didn’t even know that about the Taj Mahal. All the stuff in here, I learned so much. Not to mention, the power of doing a project for a hundred days, whatever it is, just even adopting that as a strategy after this book sounds like — I’m like, ooh, what can I do for a hundred days that would change my life and be really interesting? Amazing. Let me just read a quote or two so people who are listening who might not know you can get a sense of what an incredible writer you are. Of course, now I never know what I — oh, this was just one sentence. “For the person facing death, mourning begins in the present tense in a series of private, preemptive goodbyes that take place long before the body’s last breath.” Oh, god, you’re so good. Let me find something else. Sorry, I have so many. What I do is I dog-ear a page and then I hope that I can figure out why I dog-eared it when I go back to it.

Suleika: I do the same thing.

Zibby: Let’s see, one more second. I liked this, too, a lot. I mean, I liked all of it. “In Will’s absence, I began spending more time with the cancer crew. Without my ever having to ask for anything or explain, they understood I was in a low-down place. Erika made sweatshirts with the words “Team Susu” printed across the front in varsity lettering, and Kristen accompanied me to urgent care or to my chemo appointments so I wouldn’t have to be alone. Max was always showing up at my apartment with ninety-nine-cent slices of pizza and expertly rolled joints, and Melissa rallied the troops organizing game nights, dance parties, and the occasional outing. A hiccup of genetics had brought us together, all of us bound by rogue, malignant cells and a heightened sense of our mortality, but at some point, we’d become more than circumstantial friends. We were family.” Aw, it all makes me want to cry, this whole thing. Okay, one last paragraph. “Grief is a ghost that visits without warning. It comes in the night and rips you from sleep. It fills your chest with shards of glass. It interrupts you mid-laugh when you’re at a party, chastising you that just for a moment, you’ve forgotten. It haunts you until it becomes a part of you, shadowing you breath for breath.” Oh, my god, you’re so good.

Suleika: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s all so moving. Once you finished your journey across the country and writing this book — maybe go back to writing the book. What happened after the journey across the country? Did you sit down and write it all at once? What happened next?

Suleika: I left home on this fifteen-thousand-mile solo road trip that I say with a laugh because now that I’m a slightly more seasoned driver, I think back on that and see what madness it was. I returned from that trip and went up to Vermont. My family has a tiny, little cabin in the woods that has no cell reception. I spent the next six months there working on this book. By working on it, I felt, like a lot of first-time authors, very daunted by the task of trying to synthesize all these experiences and all these memories and to find some kind of structure to contain them. I began with twenty scenes. I just wrote these twenty scenes almost stream of consciousness without necessarily worrying about why certain memories or certain details were appearing. Then I tried to figure out the connective tissue between them. That was what I did. I had a post-it note above my desk with these words that someone had shared with me that said, “If you want to write a good book, write what you don’t want others to know about you. If you want to write a great book, write what you don’t want to know about yourself.”

Zibby: Ooh, that’s so good.

Suleika: I really wanted to write a different kind of illness memoir or recovery memoir and wanted to challenge myself to excavate the truth behind the truth. We all have these stories that we tell either to ourselves or to others about how certain things went. I wanted to dig below the surface of that. This book is the culmination of many drafts of many attempts to excavate the truth behind the truth behind the truth. It took me about three and a half years all in all. I really feel like I grew up in the process of writing this book not just as an individual, but as a writer.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my gosh. Are you still writing? Do you still chronicle all of your stuff personally in your journal? I know you write professionally. What’s your current life like?

Suleika: I do write in my journal. That’s the first thing I do every morning. It’s the first thing I’ve done for years and years and years. I’ve been working on a next book idea, which has been fun. I’m still trying to carve out the space to properly focus on it. I work in seasons. I have a season of researching or daydreaming about a book and then a season of drafting it and then editing it and then putting it out into the world. I’m still in the mode of trying to usher Between Two Kingdoms out into the world, but I’m itching to get started on my next big project.

Zibby: That’s so amazing. What did you not put in? What did you not put in the book? What got cut out? What did you decide you couldn’t put in or something like that?

Suleika: It’s such a good question. I had about a sixty-page chapter in part two of the book that took place on the road trip. I, at the time, was sharing drafts with my friend, the author Melissa Febos. I shared it with her. I said, “I’m really worried that this could be hurtful to someone I care about.” She said, “Okay, well, you have to share it with them, but not right now. Keep writing.” I kept writing and writing and writing. I got to the end of the book. My manuscript was due. I called my friend Melissa. She said, “Did you share those sixty pages?” I said, “I can’t. I don’t think I can do it. I don’t think I can.” She said, “All right, cut it.” I deleted the sixty pages. I sent the book off to my editor. Nobody ever noticed, which was a great shock to me but also a great lesson in that sometimes you need to write through something in order to get to the next part. There’s always the version of the book you write for yourself and the version of the book you share with others. Those two can be very, very different. Often, especially with memoir, the question of how we write about others and how we do so in a way that feels fair and loving and doesn’t unwittingly hurt someone’s feelings is the thing that prevents a lot of people from writing in the first person at all. Realizing that I could write and remove that worry and then make decisions later was really liberating for me. There’s a lot that’s not in the book that I had to write for myself in order to get to the pieces that needed to be in the book, which I realize is very vague and an unfair, maybe, cliffhanger.

Zibby: No, I love how you described it. Those intermediate steps, just because it doesn’t make its way in doesn’t mean it’s not required. I feel like so often, writers say that it’s a waste of time, the stuff that doesn’t get in the book or they throw away, but it’s not because you couldn’t possibly progress without it. How is that a waste?

Suleika: I will say this. I have a document on my laptop called Chop File where I put all the pieces of the scraps of drafts that end up on the cutting floor. Things always end up working their way into a next project even if it’s not necessarily the sentences themselves, but maybe one unanswered question that leads me to write an essay or to write a reported piece. I really believe that none of it is wasted. I live by that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to write because it would be too depressing to think about the months and months spent on drafts that have never seen the light of day.

Zibby: Towards the end of the book, you have a visit with a man who was on death row who had written you at the beginning of the book. You can tell in your story how moved you were by that whole experience. Then on Instagram — what’s happened in between? Now you were passionately trying to help another man who was on death row. Has this become a thing for you? Tell me, how did we get here? What happened with that storyline of your life?

Suleika: One of the first letters I ever received in response to my column was from a man on death row who went by the nickname of Little GQ. His name is Quintin Jones. He wrote me this beautiful handwritten letter reflecting on the unexpected parallels between our lives of isolation and facing mortality, me in my hospital room bubble and him on death row in Texas. He and about twenty-something other people ended up forming my itinerary on the road. I didn’t just want to go on a three-month road trip by myself. I really wanted to seek out people who had had their own big reckonings, who had had to navigate their own aftermaths. He was one of them and probably the most memorable stop on my trip. I had never been to death row. I was very nervous going there. He upended every assumption and preconception that I had about individuals who are sentenced to death. We formed a friendship, a friendship that lasted long after the road trip. When I learned right before my book was published that he’d had an execution date set, I decided to use my book tour as an opportunity to amplify his story as much as possible. I became involved in leading a grassroots effort to get him clemency.

The guy you saw on Instagram is Little GQ from the book. In a heartbreaking turn of events, he was executed on May 19th. I got to go down to Texas. It was one of my first post-pandemic trips out of the house, to see him on death row and to visit with him face to face and to interview him on camera. It was his first time ever being interviewed, his first time being on camera. In our last conversation, he said to me, “I feel at peace because I got to tell my story on my own terms in my own words.” His last words said, “I want everyone to pick up the pebble and throw it into the next lake and to let it ripple out and to keep doing the good work.” It was surreal to think about how a single letter led me on this road trip and led to us being in each other’s lives in this way, especially in these last couple of months of working day and night with a team of pro bono lawyers on his case. To me, that’s the magic of stories and the way they allow us to connect and to see each other in ways that we never could otherwise.

Zibby: Now I’m even more upset knowing that that’s the same guy. I thought because his name was different — oh, my gosh. Do you know the author Brittany K. Barnett? Have you read her book, A Knock at Midnight?

Suleika: I haven’t. Should I add this on my TBR stack?

Zibby: First of all, you have to read it. Can I connect you on email or something?

Suleika: Please.

Zibby: That is her whole mission, is helping people get off death row. She’s amazing. She had the Amazon Book of the Year last year. It’s called A Knock at Midnight. Or you could just listen to my podcast with her.

Suleika: I will.

Zibby: Anyway, you two should connect because you have a similar big heart and mission. You should definitely connect. Then another question just to tie up because now I have all these — I wanted a longer epilogue. In the beginning, you decided to freeze your eggs. What has happened? Anything on that front since? Have you thought about that? Is that just a chapter that’s done? Have you given it any thought?

Suleika: I learned via a google search the night before I was going to be admitted to the hospital to start chemo that the side effects of my treatment were going to make me infertile. At the time, I was twenty-two. The most thought I’d ever given to being a mother was how not to become one before I was ready. I really hadn’t given much thought to it, but I understood in that moment that preserving that choice for my future self felt hugely important, especially at a time when everything was so uncertain. I’d been given about a thirty-five percent chance of survival. I wanted to invest in that thirty-five percent chance and the possibility of existing in that future, so I froze these eggs. I called them my totsicles for years. I still have them. I still don’t know if I’ll use them. I’ve learned that there are many ways to make a family. Making a family is its own kind of creative act. I may use my totsicles. I may not. I’m interested in becoming a foster parent. All of that is to be determined. I do feel like in watching my mom become my caregiver when I was sick and watching her when I left for this road trip — for a lot of mothers, when your daughter has just survived leukemia and has just gotten a driver’s license, the idea of them setting off alone on a fifteen-thousand-mile road trip is enough to make you want to tell them they absolutely should not go. To her credit, she said not only that she wanted me to go, but that it was exactly the kind of worry that a mother of a twenty-seven-year-old should have and that it was a privilege to have normal mom worries and to not be up at night because of biopsy results, but to be up at night because your daughter’s on a road trip. All of this to say that I think my understanding of mothering and the many forms it can take has been so deepened by these last years of my life. I’m excited to figure out what that means for me.

Zibby: Sorry to put you on the spot like that. It’s probably completely unfair of me to ask you that question. I’m sorry.

Suleika: No.

Zibby: Is this going to be a movie? I’m sure there’s news about it, but I haven’t researched enough because I was so busy reading the book.

Suleika: It is going to be. It hasn’t been announced yet, but I will keep you posted. I’m really excited about seeing what comes of it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m so excited. I feel like this is just going to help so many people continually along the way in all different forms. It’s really amazing. I hate to even end this interview. I could talk to you all day. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Suleika: Good question. What advice would I have for aspiring authors? My advice is to do the work. I remember when I got sick, feeling like I couldn’t become a writer since I wasn’t well enough to go to an MFA program or to intern at a magazine or whatever it is that we think are those prerequisites to getting your foot in the door. My career really started because I began writing, first, a blog. Then eventually, it turned into a column, but I began writing for myself from my hospital bed about the subject that I could write about, which at the time was this illness. To not feel like you need to check certain boxes in order to get started, to not feel like you need an idyllic workspace or the perfect setup in order to finally get to your manuscript, but to write about what you can when you can and to start now.

Zibby: Wow. Are you happy? How do you feel in general on a scale of one to ten?

Suleika: I feel so happy. It’s been a surreal decade. I never dared dream any of the dreams that have come to fruition in the last year. I feel very grateful and very happy and very happy to be here talking with you. I could also talk to you for another ten hours.

Zibby: I should stop and let you go. Suleika, it’s been such a pleasure. Your book was A+, one of the best I’ve ever read. I absolutely loved it. I hope I get to meet you. I would be honored to meet you in the future if that ever comes to pass. I just can’t wait to keep reading what you write and following along as your life continues. I hope you keep us in the loop as you go through all your next stages.

Suleika: Thank you, Zibby. Yes, we will make that in-person hang happen. I would love that so much. Thank you to everyone listening. This has been such a joy and a delight.

Zibby: Have a great day. Thanks again.

Suleika: Bye. Thank you.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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