Roger Rosenblatt: Life After the Death of A Daughter

The writer talks about finding solace, being a listener, how to tell the stories inside you, and more.

By: William O'Sullivan

The day Roger Rosenblatt’s daughter, Amy Solomon, died suddenly at age 38, he and his wife drove down from their home on Long Island to Bethesda, where Amy, a pediatrician, lived. The next day, Rosenblatt’s granddaughter asked, “How long are you staying?” His reply: “Forever.”

Since that day in December 2007, Rosenblatt and his wife, Ginny, have kept true to his word. While he still commutes to New York’s Stony Brook University to teach creative writing, Rosenblatt spends most of his time living with his son-in-law, hand surgeon Harrison Solomon, and grandchildren Jessie, ten, Sammy, seven, and James, four. Rosenblatt’s wife remains in Bethesda full-time. “Ginny and I never really consulted each other,” he says. “It just seemed like what choice would you want to make for these children, with their doctor father who was going to be away most of the day and couldn’t do it alone?” Rosenblatt’s memoir about life after his daughter’s death, Making Toast, came out last year. He recently published Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing.

Rosenblatt, 70, was for 23 years an essayist on what’s now the PBS NewsHour. He has been a columnist for Time and the Washington Post, editor of U.S. News, literary editor of the New Republic, and director of education for the National Endowment for the Humanities—his first job in Washington after receiving his PhD in literature at Harvard. He’s the author of six plays and more than a dozen books, including Children of War, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Prize, and two novels. His Time essays won two George Polk Awards; his PBS work won a Peabody Award and an Emmy. He and his wife, a former teacher, have two sons, Carl and John.

On a quiet morning at home in Bethesda while his grandchildren were at school, Rosenblatt talked about what he’s learned.

How is being a grandparent different now?
It’s not terribly different. It’s somewhat different in that there are times when I have to be the disciplinarian, and Ginny does, too. I do homework with my grandkids, which I wouldn’t have done before, as I did with my own kids—I get worse at it. I chauffeur them from event to event and lesson to lesson, but otherwise it’s really a presence. Before, I was the grandparent hanging around the house. Now I am the house. And so is Ginny—even more so.

In your book about writing, you talk about your mother’s father, who read stories to you. One time he said he was tired and asked you to tell him a story. You say his eyes “got wider and wider, and he looked at me as if mine was the only voice in the world.” How did that inform your relationship with your grandkids?
It was to my mother’s parents that I felt closest, and to him in particular because he was such a gentle man. When he said, “Tell me a story,” I knew it was a device on his part. He was perfectly capable of telling me a story, but something in him wanted to show me what art could do. I do the same with the grandkids.

Anytime you tell a child, “You can be an artist,” you are saying, “Your life is worth something.”

Do the kids ever tell you stories about their mother?
There have been heart-wrenching moments with James, where he remembers being rocked to sleep by Amy. He could not have been a year old. There’s a theory that children learn language by telling stories already in them. I saw it proved in James: Before he had language, that thing occurred, and now he tells the story of it.

The boys are much more open about remembering things about Amy. I consult their psychotherapist about grief, and she said that a girl will keep it in and just occasionally say something. Once in a while, Jessie will say something, but it’s not part of her dealing with Amy’s death the way it is for James and Sammy. They will talk about it. They will say, “I remember Mommy did this and that.”

In Making Toast, you admit to not being religious. You write: “My anger at God remains unabated.” Where do you find spiritual solace?
I don’t know that I am ever on a hunt for it. People seem to me to be divine and interesting enough.

I’m just not interested in the trappings of religion. Believing in something more powerful than you—that’s fine with me. My fury at God is that my original belief in him was based on the childish idea that if you make a deal with him, he’ll keep to it. Of course, you’re the only one making the deal. But I thought if I led a life that tried to do as much good as possible and as little harm, he’d reciprocate.

The people I love and respect who deeply believe in God and their religions—who seem to fall equally among Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims—all say, “Yes, I suffer. But the important thing is that God believes in me and God loves me.” I say if you really want to be a God, you’ve got to do better than that.

Do your grandkids ask about God?
Yes—James and Jessie less than Sammy. Sammy’s got a scientist’s view of God: “Where does this all start?” He came down one morning and said, “Why are we alive?” I said, “Can you keep these questions a little easier?” But in a household that doesn’t go to temple, doesn’t go to church, it’s hard for them to generate much continuous interest in God.

If you feel your life has enough of the spiritual in it, I really don’t see any harm in living without religion, and I see some hypocrisy in foisting it on kids.

Do you have advice for anyone going through a loss?
Not really. After Making Toast, I must have received a thousand letters from people, and I feel kind of helpless. I generally believe in getting on with it. Not because I think that I or Harris or Ginny is anything special in this—it’s just what choice do you have? You either lie down or walk. And since we’re vertical creatures, walk.

I cannot imagine what it would have meant for Ginny and me to have gone home after Amy’s death and just looked at each other. We would’ve felt totally useless.

So coming down here and staying was part of your healing process.
Oh, it was 80 to 90 percent of it. And writing Making Toast was part of it. In fact, when I was writing the book, I had Amy alive. She was alive in my memory and alive for my uses as a writer. And so that was a way of resurrection, I suppose, or sustenance.

I have written another book, which is coming out next year—a small meditation on grief. Whereas I stayed out of Making Toast—except in having the controlling voice of it—this one is much more about personal anguish, and I am sure it too was prompted by the desire to keep Amy alive.

This isn’t your first time living here. How has Washington changed?
I’m almost touched by the way that it has not changed among the personnel. Jim and Kate Lehrer constitute practically our whole social life. I know them from the previous times I was here and from working for Jim at the NewsHour for 23 years. They bring us to events and have parties themselves. The same people are at these parties who were at them in the ’70s. They’ve maintained their affection for one another and their support of one another in difficult times.

It seems to me that Washington has become an extremely comfortable place for writers—in many ways better than New York because it’s a much more civilized city.

Your new book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart, is an account of a graduate creative-writing class you taught, structured around recreated dialogue. What prompted it?
I was on a panel at the Museum of the City of New York to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I hadn’t ever read the book till that morning.

Really?
Really. All my friends said it was the bible of this or that, so I thought I would read it and not look like a horse’s ass on the panel, all of whom not only had read it but really did revere it.

I didn’t think that much of it. So without being impolite to the publisher, who was there, I said that while this book is extremely good for solid, adequate writing, it is not good for inspired writing. That probably wasn’t its intention, but if you want to be a real writer, that has nothing to do with this book. It will save you if you’re making a mistake, but it’s not going to take you in the other direction.

So the publisher asked, “Would you write the next Elements of Style based on what you said?” And I said, “I really don’t do that kind of book.” And in any case, I have my own publisher. Then I started to think, well, maybe this would be fun to do. And I thought, I’ve really got to keep working. It’s the physics body-in-motion theory—that since Amy died, I don’t feel like getting myself into situations where I’m gloomy. I asked my editor at Ecco, and he said, “Yeah, why not?”

I thought this would be an interesting way to do it—follow a class, put some bones and skin into the discussion of the subject.

In Washington and elsewhere, there are people who have stories to tell. They may keep a journal and not know what to do with all that raw material, or they may have bits of things and not know the next step. What advice do you have about how to get their stories out?
With graduate students, I don’t need to encourage them to be writers, because they come there as writers, so I start more with nuts and bolts than with inspiration. But if it’s a matter of just unearthing who they are—as it sometimes is—I often go indirectly.

I was teaching a novella class, and I have a football from the 1940s, the kind we played with when I was a kid—real pigskin. I came to class, put it on the table, and said, “Why don’t you write what you see in this?” A couple of students who had not written very well before just went with it, because I didn’t give them a chance to be apologetic or scared.

Or I play jazz for them—something that does not allow them the normal modesty or caution that will clog their writing. Then when they write about it, they’re knocked over. I say to them, “This is who you are. This is the place you must start. From this point on, you will shock yourself as to what you can do.” That kind of thing almost always works.

Your writing book ends with a letter you sent to your students. In it you say, “For writing to be great . . . it must be useful to the world.” Can you talk about that?
By “useful” I don’t really mean practically useful, although I’m sure there are practical applications.

There are only four reasons for writing that I can think of. I didn’t put this in the book, but I’ve thought about it since.

First, writing makes suffering endurable, and it does this by making it beautiful. Marsha Norman writes ’Night, Mother, about suicide. That play is unrelenting in its sadness, and it ends in a suicide. Someone might say, “Why do this?” The answer is because art made it endurable, made it beautiful.

Second, writing makes evil intelligible. If we ever think evil is beyond our capability, we’re kidding ourselves. Look at Iago—Othello’s sort of a stiff, but Iago’s the one we really remember. If you know that evil is intelligible, that anyone is capable of it, then you can make moral use of that.

Third, writing makes justice desirable. I can’t imagine anything more important to you, me, or any people we know and like than justice or injustice. Every time there’s an injustice, your fists clench. The Winslow Boy fights England, and when that barrister’s motto, “Let right be done,” is said, tears well up and it’s just wonderful.

Finally, writing makes love possible. All these things—suffering, injustice, and evil—one can still love above these things, love the animals we are and wish them well. That to me is the sublime use of writing.

You talk in the book about how inspiring the writer Lewis Thomas was to you. Who else has inspired you?
There was my teacher at Harvard, John Kelleher, a professor of Irish literature and history. He stammered. The movie The King’s Speech brought him back—that was Kelleher. He could sing like an angel, but when he talked, his tongue would get caught in his mouth. He drove away students because they said, “This is just not worth it,” but I thought, “I’m going to stick this out because this guy is smarter than 99 percent of the people I have met.”

I knew nothing about Irish literature and certainly hadn’t planned to do a thesis on Irish literature. If Kelleher had taught Polish, I would have gone there. If he had taught gym, I would have gone there. He was the guy worth following, and I never regretted it. It was just a gift to me and to all the students who had the patience to hang onto him.

Among my own contemporaries, the novelist Edgar Doctorow and Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic. Alice McDermott, who lives here in Bethesda—I think she’s wonderful. Another is Cynthia Ozick, whom I know less well but somehow intuit that there’s a great soul roiling around there that’d be worth attaching oneself to. Frank McCourt was a dear friend who taught at Stony Brook. We used to get drunk together, sing together. He had all the things of the guy in the bar that you loved, but beyond that was an endless generosity toward his students and people in general.

Jim Lehrer is another—both Jim and his wife, Kate, to whom the writing book is dedicated. Ginny and I profited a great deal from their bottomless kindnesses when Amy died. We knew them long before, and it wasn’t a surprise, but it was still amazing to see everything they did. They became lessons in how to behave to your friends. I hope I can do the same thing, if the opportunity arises, to somebody I love who needs me.

What books have you liked lately?
I read a lot of poetry. It’s partly because I can steal from it with impunity. Prose writers can easily steal from a poet and nobody even knows, because what you’re really stealing, sometimes, is just the rhythm of a line or a single word that you never thought of using before.

I’ve read the collected poems of C.K. Williams recently—an extremely good poet who is not generally talked of. I read W.S. Merwin again, the collected poems. And Linda Pastan, who lives in this area. I used a poem of hers called “Anomaly” in the book coming out next year, because my daughter died of an anomalous right coronary artery. Pastan writes of someone with a heart condition that was anomalous, and she says, “No one has a heart like yours”—which is a perfect line I was happy to quote.

Do you have writing pet peeves?
One of them is the insistence of unpracticed writers—writing teachers do this sometimes, too—of always making sure there’s a different word for “saying.” So, you “say” one thing and you “aver” another and “declare” another within a single paragraph. I show them Hemingway’s short stories, where he repeats the same word over and over. I say, “Why do you think a writer like Hemingway would repeat these words?” And they finally get it that the power is in what is said, not in the verb.

Then there’s the overloading of a line. Writing is so much like music that if you can write one beautiful line, you are smart. Even if you can write four in a row, you’re overdoing it. Spread the riches. The reader does not want to have marzipan on the page—it’s just too sweet.

Writers, even the best of them, want to show off. And you can get sick of any showoff very quickly.

What have you learned about teaching?
Oh, I had a lot to learn. I started to teach at Harvard when I was 22. I was two years older than the people I was teaching. I don’t know what the hell I was doing there. I should go around apologizing to all those people.

I think I’ve become a good teacher in the last 10 years, maybe 15. By that I mean that the teaching was the accumulation of a lot of experience added to a basic unselfishness—that when you’re in that classroom, you are theirs. Any teacher who is strutting his stuff is wasting everybody’s time. And I think I strutted my stuff up till 10, 15 years ago.

I don’t know what happened—I just realized I’m supposed to be all theirs. I can only give them themselves. In order to give them themselves, I have to give up on myself. Once you realize that, it turns out to be a gift for you, because it takes away that manic selfishness that all writers basically are born with.

What do you mean you give them themselves?
If something is in them that they need to unearth, you have to give up on yourself. You have to say, “I am only in the excavation business for you.” That’s what I’ve learned about teaching: Experience helps and knowledge helps, but nothing helps as much as selflessness.

What have you learned about life?
That it can blindside you. Everybody else learns this at an earlier age. I mentioned it in Making Toast. I was cursed with a charmed life, and very little bad happened—or at least very little bad happened that I didn’t bring upon myself. When Amy died, it was like, “Are you kidding? This is going to happen in life?”

Since then, through the responses to Making Toast, through the responses of friends who had lost children, whom we didn’t even know had lost children, I began to understand what life meant—that life is to be endured. It’s not going from celebration to celebration or from satisfaction to satisfaction. It is basically an endurance test. Once you understand that for yourself, you begin to understand it for others.

This interview first appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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