[This blog first published on Huffington Post, March 14, 2017.]
It’s rare that I start off an author interview with “I f***ing love your book!” But with Meredith Maran, author of The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention, I felt that I could—and should—say it exactly that way. That’s because when you finish Maran’s book, you feel like you know this woman—and that you should just say what’s on your mind because, well, she would.
I read Maran’s starting-over-again story on a day when I was feeling every bit of my nearly 54 years, particularly in my work life. I had convinced myself I was irrelevant and that the 20- and 30-somethings I was working with thought so, too.
What a gift to sit down with Maran’s book and feel like someone out there understood—not just about the highs and lows of aging, but about same-sex marriage, divorce, starting over—alone—in a strange place, and losing parents.
Here’s the book’s back-story: Maran has a lovely life, a fulfilling freelance career and a happy marriage with the woman of her dreams. But then her freelance business dries up and her marriage blows up. At age 60, she moves from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles to take a full-time job.
Though she’s lost nearly everything, her humor and pluckiness remain. Maran uses those qualities and so much more to create a new-and-improved self—and life—and to deliver a book that’s equal parts hilarious, heartbreaking and heartwarming.
The New Old Me (Blue Rider Press, $27), which The Oprah Magazine recently included on a list of “10 Titles to Pick Up Now,” launches today. Maran talked with me a few days before its release from her home in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.
You posted on Facebook the other day that you were freaking out a bit, even though this is your 14th book. What was at the heart of your freak-out?
The heart of it is that it’s so fucking hard to publish books these days. I just want to keep writing books, and my ability to write the next one depends on the sales of the last one. I don’t get fussy about reviews. I don’t get fussy about snark or any of that stuff. That’s all just occupational hazards. But, I do want to move some product so I can go on doing what I do.
Tell me a little bit about the birthing process of this book.
I had the idea the day I was leaving my old life and driving to LA. Whenever something really, really terrible happens to me, the resilient part of me always imagines it as material. Like somebody’s gotta get something out of this. This cannot be happening just because it’s happening. And so I first thought of it then.
When I got to LA, I was so lonely. Sometimes I find that taking pictures makes me less lonely. So I started driving around taking pictures through my car windshield cause I was just so blown away by the scale of the glam, and the scale of the glitz. I started posting them on Facebook and people were loving them and commenting on my page being like a travelogue. People were saying that they were seeing a side of LA they’d never seen before, and so then the idea sort of started forming that it could be both a memoir of my difficult time and, I hoped, my eventual redemption—or at least improved state of mind.
I also saw the book as a sort of love letter to LA. After a few months here, I realized that the city resonates with me so much because LA and I are so similar. The city is like a rowdy teenager becoming a grown-up. It’s having a reinvention of its own. When I started writing the book, I used the pictures on my Facebook feed as my notes.
Did it surprise you that you reached for the camera versus the pen?
Writing does not make me feel less lonely. And I was really going for less lonely. So no. I never thought about writing anything down. I was dealing with so much paperwork, with the divorce and selling the house and finding a place to live and all those things, that the thought of putting anything in front of me that required words was horrible.
So how did you know you had something?
I don’t know yet if I have something. That’s why I’m freaking out. I’m not saying it’s not a good book. I think it’s pretty good. But I’ve published a few books and I’ve learned that whatever I think of them while I’m writing them, when I’m finished writing them, when they’re published, is never my final feeling about them. I’ve read a few bits from The New Old Me and, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read. But I also know that it’ll be five years, if I live that long, before I know what I think about the book.
If you were to distill the reason for writing this book, what is it?
The question that prompted the book was, ‘Where have all the bra-burners gone?’ My friends and I changed the world fifty years ago, so how are we changing the meaning of aging now? I’ve never really stopped identifying as a sixties person. I do care a lot about shoes, I will admit that, but I came of age at that time and it shaped me. I ran away from home to a Taos commune as a teenager, so I was kind of raised by wolves, and the wolves were the revolution.
I trace a lot of what’s happening today—the ‘Pussy Grabs Back’ movement, and the fact that Boomers are living longer and living as if there’s no tomorrow—to the sixties notion of ‘building a new society from the ashes of the old.’ For example, it’s inconceivable that I would retire, or that I would stop wanting to have sex, or that I’d follow any of the rules that applied to aging in my mother’s generation.
That question, ‘Where have all the bra-burners gone?’ ties to a lot of other social issues and an orientation to the world. I wanted to write an homage to those of us sixties activists who have gotten better shoes, but are still fighting the good fight. Thanks to Agent Orange (Trump), we’re in the streets again.
I love how you write about your former wife without really writing about her. How did you keep the lens so tightly on you? How did you resist the urge to say, ‘Well, she did this….’?
In brief: five years of Al-Anon before I wrote the book. The slogan of Al-Anon is ‘Keep the focus on yourself.’ I’m not like a black-belt Al-Anon person. I’m a little baby Al-Anon. But I’ve been going to meetings for five years now, hearing people talking about their divorce or their medical problems or the huge crises in their lives, and the vista is always from their point of view. They don’t share in Al-Anon about what an asshole their soon-to-be ex-husband is….
I was determined not to write about my wife. It turned out to be a really helpful exercise to keep the focus on myself and my experiences. I kept reminding myself that for anything critical I had to say about her, she’d have at least one critical thing to say about me.
Also, as a reader, if I pick up a memoir and in the first paragraph it reeks of self-pity or blame or victimhood, I close the book. There’s more than enough of that in the White House already.
You have such a great sense of humor. How has humor helped you?
Oh, God, you really wouldn’t want to know me without my sense of humor. It saves me from me on an hourly basis. Humor is the Geiger counter that tells me who to love. My best friends are the ones who make me pee in my pants laughing. My favorite (Facebook) posts about Trump are always the funny ones. At first it felt sacrilegious to laugh about Trump, because he’s so not fucking funny. But I believe that the jokes people are crafting from these horrifically unfunny things are saving us all—like the signs and the slogans of the women’s march. We’re marching because we’re terrified and furious. And then we look up at each other’s signs and bust up laughing. That’s the tragi-comic mix that makes life bearable.
What is your hope for this book?
I hope the book will move not only women in my age group, but also younger women and, hell, people in general to think about what’s important and what kind of world they want to live in and what their part in creating that world is going to be. I find it useful—and sometimes excruciating—to compare my ‘mission’ in life to how I’m living it.
It’s a beautiful book. Thank you so much for writing it. Is there anything else you want to share?
I want to share courage. Becoming old while feeling young is a lot like living through this bizarre moment in American history. Both experiences are shocking and horrifying and overwhelming, and both are ours to deal with, like it or not. Both take courage and, as previously mentioned, a good belly-laugh daily or more often, as prescribed.