In Let's Take The Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, Gail Caldwell remembers the late writer Caroline Knapp, author of Drinking: A Love Story.
Your best friend Caroline Knapp died in 2002 at the age of 42. At what point did you achieve the distance to be able to write about her?
There's a trick to the narrative. You say that the narrative is yours: I wrote this and can keep this forever. But it's also transformative. Putting it into prose crystallizes it, but it also does something to muck the intensity of your own private loss. For years I thought I could not write about losing Caroline. Then came the five-year anniversary; we had a family gathering for her. A lot of people seemed okay, and I was sitting on my back porch and I thought, I am really not okay. And I went inside and wrote my editor—my wonderful editor, Kate Medina. I wrote her a long where-are-we-going letter, and when I talked to her on the phone that night, I remember one word she used: "prism." That is, this book is the prism through which all other light shines—and she understood this.
Your memoir also speaks about your alcoholism for the first time—your "ménage à trois" with whiskey. Was this also the original intention of the book?
I swore I would never write about that either. Caroline was my compass—--I heard her saying as I was writing, you have to do this! It's totally dishonest not to write about my drinking, and when you get to a certain age, you say, oh, come on. Plus, this is a great story. The story always trumps the ego. Writing about my alcoholism was less disconcerting than the intimate sorrows of the book, which were far more wrenching to articulate.
Your dogs play a big role in this memoir!
They were like our children—Lucille and Clementine. Having a dog utterly transformed Caroline's life; she had written about that in a previous memoir. Having a dog opened her up in a way about love and trust that she didn't think she could feel. She was a shy loner. We were on parallel paths. Because we connected at this particular joyous time, we connected over our dogs like new mothers in the park.
You write that "missing someone is the simple part." What do you mean?
I remember in the early stages of grief, before Caroline died, I had had the naïve expectation that grief was simply missing someone times five. But in fact, if your being is intertwined with this other person, grief is like a tree being cleft down the middle—it's so psychically and emotionally violent. A psychic violence and disruption. Pure missing is far easier: it's about loving, a desire for what isn't there, a deep longing uncomplicated by rage or fear. But you don't get there for a while; I think it's one of the last places grief goes.