Nina Riggs — a poet, mother and teacher — completed her memoir, “The Bright Hour,” just months before she died, at age 39, of metastic breast cancer. The book is a poignant and remarkably witty account of the last two years of her life, as she struggled with illness while raising two boys and, as she put it, coped with just “normal human drama.”
From hospice in Greensboro, N.C., Riggs, with the help of her husband, responded to questions by email about her book and her life. It would be the only interview she’d give about the book. Nina Riggs died two days later.
Why did you decide to write the book?
The book came out of a blog I was writing, Suspicious Country. After a while, I felt like [the blog] was turning into a more coherent overall project. It coalesced around more than my own treatment, taking in more about my mom’s cancer, her death, the role of the mother-daughter relationship in these transitions, and the ongoing presence of death in our daily lives — really over a period of many years. I started to think about putting together a manuscript. And that’s when I really plunged into reading, first Montaigne, then Emerson, and other writers whose projects included this meditation of death-in-life, or death as inextricable from life. I took Montaigne’s exhortations to embrace the intrinsic nature of death very seriously. I became really dedicated, not just in terms of the writing, but as my “project” in life, or what remained of it, to learn to cherish what remained to me, not just in spite of my potentially shortened life span (I actually didn’t know what my long-term prognosis was for a long time), but including that potential for a more brief than expected existence. Soon I was writing the manuscript instead of updating the blog. I had about 50-60 pages of material by the time I placed the piece with the New York Times’s Modern Love column. That was in June of 2016. I turned in the completed manuscript in late December. It was an intense process. I worked on it like it was my regular job whenever I could — when I wasn’t in the throes of cancer-related treatment or other issues. [The cancer] just held itself at bay while I worked on the book for some reason. And though my mind was not always clear during that time, somehow when I was writing I was completely focused. It rarely if ever felt forced. In fact, I had a hard time not working on the manuscript, and occasionally had to be reminded to take breaks, pace myself a little.
What have been the most valuable guides through your experience?
I’ve been fortunate to have studied literature and writing with so many amazing teachers, and to have had wonderful friends from all areas of my life who have helped me through this experience. In terms of the book, my two obvious guides were the 16th century French philosopher Michele de Montaigne, whose strikingly modern essays on how to live have been an enormous influence, and of course, Emerson. Both of them are magicians in terms of making extraordinarily complex, important, and frequently discussed ideas both fresh and accessible. They’re both thinkers of actual life, the real natural world.
But in terms of my life, which has little to do on an everyday level with famous thinkers, my mom, who was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago and died in August 2015, was a hugely important guide for me my entire life, and her strong presence in the book is no accident. I was shaped by her in my approach to so many things, and very deliberately. She wanted me to meet the world with an attitude of making it better, resolving conflicts, improving our emotional understanding of each other, particularly for my family and those closest to me, and she would fight like hell, even — or rather particularly — with me, my brother, my father, our family in general—to make sure we stayed that course.
How did you come up with the title? What’s “the bright hour”?
It’s taken from a Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation that’s the epigraph for the book. I found it in a book about Emerson called Emerson in Concord, but it’s from one of RWE’s journal entries. Emerson is my great, great, great grandfather on my father’s side. His legacy hangs long over our family, and I grew up right near his old stomping grounds north of Boston. I was literally and figuratively raised in his shadow and, since I really wanted to be a writer from a young age, I guess I was bound to have to contend with his legacy. But I didn’t always have any sense of that. In fact, I came to an understanding of his writing only later in my life. For many years I didn’t even engage with Emerson directly. His portraits were around, and the family had first editions of Emerson’s work. He was present. But if anything, I sought my identity elsewhere as a writer for many years, not in the familiar New England tradition where I was raised. I went to college and graduate school in North Carolina and found many amazing, inspiring voices there, for example.
But I found a ready source in Emerson’s writings on nature, art, and transcendence when I did ultimately being to immerse myself in his writings. And it was his journals — RWE was a voracious journal keeper — even more than his published works that really provided my most direct inspiration. I found that, although I very little resemble RWE, I was already drawn to some of the things he’d been really passionate about: finding beauty and magic (he might say “transcendence” and I’m okay with that, too, but I’ve always conceived of it more as “magic” for some reason) in the natural world, and in our smaller, everyday worlds were hugely important for me. And so when I found the Great Seer of my family had already dealt, beautifully, almost ecstatically, with these issues, it was a real source of inspiration.
In the passage the epigraph come from, Emerson is describing the phenomenon of experiencing nature through reading literature versus experiencing nature — and writing about nature — firsthand. The quotation is about the experience of apprehending the morning. It’s such a commonplace in some ways, particularly for artists and writers. But he says no matter how many times morning (or evening) have been described by Shakespeare, Homer, or Milton, our experience of morning is alien if only felt through someone else’s verse. There is no replacing the direct experience, which for him is something like ecstasy. I think that’s amazing and beautiful, the way we can experience the extraordinary again and again, find it anew in something that happens literally every day.
What would you say to people who might be afraid to read your book?
Refer them to Montaigne? So much about what I have learned about not fearing death, I learned from him.
But I’d also say there’s nothing scary in the book at all. It’s mostly just normal human drama, negotiating life with your kids, your parents, your partner, your friends, your job, your home, your pets, etc. It’s life. It just happens that in this particular version I’m describing two years in which both my mother and I are dying of cancer. In fact, cancer is incidental to the book in a lot of ways. It’s really about the beauty of all those things I was just describing. And every single life is lived in the shadow of our mortality, which means all those things we cherish are not just part of life, they’re ultimately part of our death, and I think a real gift that this experience gave me was forcing me to appreciate my life/death, not just my life. I had to embrace the experience of having cancer, because that experience was part and parcel to my experience of my husband, my kids, my dearest friends. So I would say I really hope the book I wrote will make you feel much more joy than anything else.
What do you hope people will take from it?
I hope people will relate to it, and see themselves and their families in it. I hope they’ll feel comforted by it, too, maybe feel a closeness to the experiences described in the book, a familiarity even. Sort of the opposite of fear, really. I so admire what writers like Atul Gawande and Paul Kalanithi have done to uncloak aspects of our mortality and make the experience of living with death in the room every day one that everyone can relate to. That’s a real point I hope I make in the book: it doesn’t have to be scary, at least not for the most part. And even the scary parts are deeply intertwined with all the bits of life we cherish most: our partners, children, passions, work, friends, music. So many wonderful, beautiful, amazing things that are going on right there under death’s nose all the time.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Nora Krug is an editor and writer in Book World.
By Nina Riggs
Simon & Schuster. 310 pp. $25