A Messy, Human Love Story: In Conversation with Monica Wesolowska
I recently got the opportunity to speak with Monica Wesolowska about her debut Holding Silvan; A Brief Life, a memoir recounting the birth, short life, and death of her first son. Taking us through each moment, Monica’s book reveals every intimate detail about her experience. In this interview I got a chance to ask Monica about her writing process, when she knew it was time to write about Silvan, and the challenges of revisiting that experience to write her book.
AA: You only wrote fiction prior to writing this memoir. Did you find it difficult to switch genres? How did you know when it was time to write this story?
MW: It was such a relief to write nonfiction. I’ve always been trying to make sense of life, even with fiction, and it felt great to have the skills to shape my own life story. I knew because I couldn’t stop. That was eight years after Silvan died. Suddenly, I could see the shape of the story. I could see it from the outside, so I knew how to give it to others.
AA: When you were initially going through the loss of your son, and even early on after his death, did you think that you would be writing about him one day?
MW: I did have those thoughts and they made me very uncomfortable. They felt writerly instead of motherly. Given a choice between a healthy life for Silvan and life as a writer, I would have chosen Silvan. But I couldn’t make that choice. And I do feel blessed, in his absence, to be able to write about him.
AA: You mention in the book that you began writing Holding Silvan by looking back through the journals you kept during that time. Was it difficult to go back through your writings and read about everything that happened? Did it open old wounds?
MW: For years, I’d never been able to read more than a few pages of that journal. But when I was finally ready, I read with a different kind of eye. For the first time, I could really see the love in it. That was a real gift that my younger self left for me, that record. So it wasn’t the journal itself that opened wounds. But it is true that I had to go back into the memory and relive it. Reliving the love was wonderful, but going back in and reexamining our choice was hard, really, really hard. I had to go through all our doubts again before coming back out on the other side.
AA: Were some parts of the book harder to write than others?
MW: You might think that the hardest parts to write were the most emotional parts but really for me the hardest was weaving in the analytical portions about medicine and death in our country. One of my early readers said that I could make a powerful story even more powerful that way. I’d never done that kind of research or writing. I didn’t know if I could do it. It was terribly hard at first but when I finally found a way to weave that information in, I was thrilled. I think it did make it a stronger book.
AA: You show so many sides of yourself and others in this book; not always flattering, as is usual with grief and loss. Because of this, was it sometimes difficult to be as honest as you were while you were writing?
MW: You make me laugh. I love it when people say there are unflattering things about me in the book. In the first draft, I was more focused on the ways in which other people failed me. But there was no way that I wanted to make myself look better than others. I’m not interested in books where people hide their flaws. I’m interested in how we go ahead and live full lives despite the flaws. So I had to go back and really think about the ways in which I had misbehaved during that time. That was uncomfortable but the book was so honest about the whole experience that I had to make sure I included those episodes too. Things like trying to throw my mother-in-law out of the house late at night. That was a bad move on my part and I had to include it.
AA: How does your family feel about Holding Silvan? Has any of the process of writing and publishing it been hard for them?
MW: I think that writing it was good for my marriage in that my husband and I got to relive the experience together. But publishing is hard. My husband feels somewhat deprived because I’m now the public face of the story, and my kids seem a little jealous that I’ve written so much about their brother, and some of my extended family finds the story too painful to revisit. On the other hand, I was super delighted that my sister-in-law came to me after reading it and said, “I’m so glad this book is joyful. I felt so much joy when Silvan was alive and I thought maybe that was weird but now I know that you felt joy too.”
AA: You are incredibly honest and open about death. Have you had any negative responses to the story, such as people believing that you’ve made your loss too public?
MW: I haven’t had any negative responses about the book as a book at all. I feel very relieved about that. The most negative response I’ve gotten is from people who haven’t read it yet. Either they think they disagree with our choice or they think the book will be too sad. But when people do actually read it (and thank you, thank you to all of you out there who are persuading people to read it—believe me, I need you), they’re glad. Because ultimately the book makes people glad to be human, glad to be alive. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.
AA: Do you feel that writing about this experience has changed you?
MW: Yes, it’s amazing how writing can do that. Before writing the story, I felt tremendous pressure to tell the story for myself. Now that I’ve told it, I think my grief has shifted. I don’t feel that same need to make sure that other people know what I’ve been through. Instead, I feel as though my story is out there not for my sake but for the sake of others. I think writing it has made me more compassionate.
AA: What do you hope your readers get from Holding Silvan?
MW: I hope readers get whatever they need. Really, I’ve had amazing responses. One woman said that reading Silvan as an older person has helped her to approach her own death. Another woman said it changed her mind about how to approach such medical choices for herself and others. And then I’ve had responses to other aspects of the book entirely. People have said that this is enabling them to talk about death with their own children. Or that’s it made them rethink how they parent in general. It’s very cool to me how many aspects of the book people respond to.
AA: If you could choose one thing for your readers to remember about their reading experience, what would that be?
MW: That this is a love story, a messy, human love story.
Allie Angelo has been writing for over ten years. Her work has been published in the Scholastic Young Writer’s and Artist’s Anthology and she is the main writer and editor for Bare Essentials Magazine. She has one book of poetry published under her maiden name Allie Ullom, titled A Tribute to Constant Thinking. She also runs two popular blogs, one of which will be turned into a book within the next year. She lives in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, with her boyfriend, working as a writer and freelance voice actor.