“It was definitely a surprise to me,” Strong said in a phone interview. “It was certainly not anything I was expecting to do, but it was good to do.”
The book has its origins in a powerful and intimate essay published in April 2020 in New York Magazine, titled, “I Don’t Know How to Tell This Story.” In it, she deals with her indomitably spirited cousin’s cancer diagnosis and death. “I will never know what Owen experiences because he will never let on to the extent of his struggles,” she writes. “I’m not the only one. Doctors looking at his final MRI say later that because of the size and position of his tumor, they didn’t know how he was standing and laughing and talking as long as he was.”
In the book, which begins two months after Owen’s death, Strong, in journal entries spanning a year, delves into her life, including the traumas of her parents’ divorce when she was in grade school, her expulsion from high school after authorities found marijuana in her backpack and a toxic relationship with an abusive boyfriend. She grapples with life while quarantined and life with a new boyfriend who gets the coronavirus soon after they start dating.
Though a world apart from her delightfully escapist meta-musical limited series “Schmigadoon,” the magazine essay and the book are also attempts to release something positive into the world during a fraught time. “I wrote the essay for myself, a healing thing,” she said. “It felt cathartic. My agent encouraged me to keep writing. I didn’t know if it would be a book. More than anything, it was very important for me to publish the essay, because it felt like that’s how I could go on to do SNL and everything else.”
The most heartening response to the book so far, Strong said, came from her Uncle Ed, Owen’s father, who told her, “I’m going to put the book on my nightstand forever.”
“That’s the most important thing,” Strong said. “It’s all good from here.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Your book is out at a time when public discussions about anxiety and mental health are particularly charged; just look at the hostile reactions to Simone Biles's withdrawal from her Olympic events.
A: Once you’re in the public at all, people have free range to say anything about you. I’ve gone through different parts of that for the nine years I’ve been on SNL. What I try to remind myself is, I can’t let people saying bad things or [thinking] nasty thoughts dictate my life. It’s just so unhealthful. The world is already tough enough right now.
Q: Did you see a change in the way fans or strangers greeted you before and after the essay?
A: If there is a conversation, it’s a positive thing. People will immediately say thank you because of this thing they went through; it’s nice. I never wanted this to be, “Listen to my story; isn’t it worse than anything you’ve ever heard?” This is one story.
Q: Was your family on board with you writing the book? Did you discuss it with them?
A: Tons of conversations. They don’t give their opinion anymore on what I should or shouldn’t do, but I think that everybody was on board. I sent everybody everything as I was writing. I didn’t ever want to feel like I was doing someone a disservice. If there was ever a question that they were on board, I don’t know if I could have written it.
Q: While there are lighter moments in the book, your writing is very raw and vulnerable throughout.
A: When I’m having an honest conversation, I don’t fall back on jokes. Humor and comedy are part of my life. I’m never worried they won’t be there. But it’s not a thing I use as a crutch in intimate conversation. This was honestly how I felt in the moment.
Q: I'd be derelict if I didn't ask you about whether you had made a decision about returning to SNL.
A: I still don’t know yet. Hopefully, I’ll know soon. I’m leaning towards going back, I’d really like to. I’m just in a world where anything can happen. Until I know for sure, I don’t want to say one way or another, but I’m in a place where I’d be comfortable either way.
Q: You couldn't ask for a more triumphant swan song than you as Jeanine Pirro singing "My Way" on "Weekend Update" during the season finale. Your backward wine toss that nailed Colin Jost was Michael Jordanesque.
A: That’s the highest compliment on Earth. It sounds so corny, but it does feel like the magic of live performance in front of [the first full studio audience since pandemic restrictions eased]. I don’t have perfect aim, but it was part of the magic of that night, and that room.
Q: You write in the book about the pins and needles sensation in our hands and feet as the blood brings that body part back to life. Does this book represent you coming back to life?
A: I would hope so. It represents my staying alive. It really was like a gift to try and figure out how Owen was so positive. It made me examine positivity and optimism in my own life. That actively brought that into my life and really helped me get through a very hard year that is still going on.
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 Vulture website.
This Will All Be Over Soon
By Cecily Strong
Simon and Schuster. 272 pp. $28
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