Between the Lines: The Memoir and the Memoirist

| December 31, 2013 | 0 Comments
Suzanna Neal with author Tom Larson.

Suzanna Neal with author Tom Larson.

“I always wanted to write a memoir but had to wait until life gave me the right experience. A failed fiction writer and poet, I was hooked once I read James Baldwin and Joan Didion.” Three heart attacks in five years served as “the right experience” for Tom Larson, who announces the publication this month of his third book of nonfiction, “The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease.”

Tom Larson may indeed be considered San Diego’s “go-to” person where memoir is concerned. His 2007 guide to reading and writing personal narrative, “The Memoir and the Memoirist,” is an excellent resource on the topic and has a prominent place on my bookshelf. Larson also teaches and facilitates memoir writing and writing about illness locally and at workshops and retreats around the country. He serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Nonfiction at Ashland University in Ohio.

His second book, in 2010, was “The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’.” Larson’s Bachelor’s degree is in music, but he says that “the draw to writing was much stronger,” and when he was in his 30s he went back to school for an MA in English & American Lit. This book combines music and writing, which, he points out, are complementary and not in opposition to one another. On top of all this, he has been a feature writer for the San Diego “Reader” for fourteen years, the author of 48 cover stories.

After his third heart attack, Larson knew that “I have to write about it.” “The Sanctuary of Illness” draws on his family history and the seeming inevitability of what he faced: his father died of heart disease at 61, his older brother at 42. His research was extensive, and he cites factual data about heart disease, such as this: “By age 65, one in ten Americans have had a heart attack. If a man has had one, the odds are one in five that he’ll have another in six years; for a woman it’s one in three.” Further, “the older you get, the more your chances of a second heart attack rise: from one in 52, ages 45-54, to one in five, ages 85-94.”

Reading Larson’s story, I’ve learned about the functioning of the heart and its beats—all 2,555,000,000 of them over a 70-year lifespan—and what happens during a heart attack; about angioplasty and stents and other modern medical miracles.

But this is a personal memoir, not a medical handbook. Along with his illness, woven throughout the book, is the story of an intimate relationship as it grapples with challenges, dips and soars, flails and fights and comes out all the stronger. Larson intersperses the recollections of his partner, Suzanna Neal, who accompanied him on his journey and who served as his reader and editor throughout the writing of the book. Their struggles are related in depth and honesty and serve as a learning and growing experience for both of them. As Larson points out, his memoir “reminds us that heart disease seldom affects just one heart.”

Join Larson and friends at the San Diego launch of The Sanctuary of Illness, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., Sunday, January 26 at the Swedenborgian Hall, 4144 Campus Avenue in Hillcrest. It will include a multimedia presentation and book signing.

Tags: , , ,

Category: Other

About the Author ()