Here is what is not in the book: Last fall, when “You’re Leaving When?” was being edited, Gurwitch accompanied her child to get a coronavirus test. A nagging cough compelled her to get an X-ray, which revealed Stage 4 lung cancer. She shared this diagnosis last November in a New York Times op-ed.
Gurwitch, an actress and award-winning, best-selling author, is doing fine, she proclaims. She recently launched a podcast, “Tiny Victories,” to share positive true-life stories of connectedness, like a woman whose neighbors rallied to help her retrieve her runaway chickens. She also took up the ukulele. “I will never get good at it, and I find that incredibly freeing,” she says.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Your book reminded me of that joke about how to make God laugh (make a plan). You write that you imagine your future is going to be hot-air balloon tours and Zumba classes, or like something out of a Nancy Myers rom-com.
A: Both of my parents died the week my kid went off to college. My mother died the day of my father’s memorial. And then my husband and I decided to split. Really, the last straw was the humiliation of being fired from my cardio tennis class. I got banned for life from a public tennis court, okay? I understand it might have been unsettling that I was weeping throughout the class. But it seemed like a low blow and a real sign that something was wrong. I was losing connection with all the things that my identity had been bound up in and that was ultimately what became the theme of this book: How do you adapt?
This idea of identity-shifting has hit everyone during the pandemic, because so many things have been taken away from all of us: our routines, our employment, our titles. Earlier in my career, when I’d been in a higher-earning capacity, there was something to be said for throwing money at a problem. Well, that wasn’t a choice at this moment, so I had to get more inventive, which was another one of the organizing principles of this collection.
Q: One way you got inventive was taking in tenants, including, most memorably, a young homeless couple.
A: We were matched together by Safe Place for Youth, a nonprofit. People in my life will often say to me, “This is off the record,” [to make sure I don’t write about them] but these were innocent bystanders. They never expected to be experiencing homelessness. They really wanted to be part of this storytelling, but I felt protective of them. Their trusting me with their story was a huge responsibility.
It wasn’t a story I sought out to write, but the experience changed the way I saw people who were falling in and out of homelessness. It so transformed the way I saw my own sense of privilege and how I felt about what was happening in our country, and I just wanted to write about it.
Q: On screen and in books, vulnerability can be endearing, but there is a stigma attached to economic vulnerability. Is it difficult to share this particular aspect of your life?
A: I’m still wondering if this was a good idea [laughs]. I have a deep commitment to this because of the financial vicissitudes of my childhood and seeing how much it pained my mother to feel marginalized. It’s so easy to make judgments. When I look at Facebook, everyone’s life looks better than mine. If I can speak to this economic fragility, I will have done some good. That’s worth any personal squeamishness.
Q: Your book begins, “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” But it got worse. Last November, you revealed your Stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis in a New York Times op-ed. Did you have trepidations?
A: I had a lot of trepidation. A friend told me that once you tell people, there is no taking that back. The compelling reasons for me to write about it were twofold. One is that before I had this diagnosis, which was completely out of the blue, I didn’t know that, of the cancers, lung cancer is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, and research is severely underfunded. I thought that maybe somebody would read my piece in the New York Times, and if they had a nagging cough, they might check it out. If you catch it at Stage 1, there is a completely different trajectory of health in front of you. I particularly wanted people to pay attention because it was during covid, and people were avoiding going to the doctor. That was part of the reason I didn’t. I thought, “This is a stupid little cough, what am I going to go to the doctor for?”
Q: How are you?
A: I’m doing really well. I am so lucky with these gene-targeted medications. Because of this new science that is less than five years old, I get to have a really pretty normal life. The side effects are minimal. The thing is this drug stops working at a certain point, and I will have to go to more draconian things like chemo and radiation.
Q: How have your writer’s tools helped you to process?
A: I’m interested in stories where the specific lends itself to something universal. If it’s not, then it’s just a funny anecdote. The way I test a story to see if it has value is I change the “I” to “she.” It’s a way of processing things that happen. That is actually how I was able to publish the op-ed in the New York Times. The only way I could not cry 24 hours a day was to think about this as a crazy story. It doesn’t make it easier, but it has a shape to it and I can get enough detachment to see the humor and that keeps me going.
Q: Do you get offended if people suggest that your cancer diagnosis should be the topic of your next book?
A: I bet it will, too. It’s irresistible. Except I love Christopher Hitchens’ book, “Mortality,” and I have to feel I can add something beyond that because he really knocked it out of the park.
Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, VanityFair.com and New York Magazine’s website, Vulture.
You’re Leaving When?
Adventures in Downward Mobility
By Annabelle Gurwitch
Counterpoint. 224 pp. $26