Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Rachel Lauth’s nonfiction piece, Chemo-Brain
John: One of the things I really like about this piece is how much complexity you’ve managed to capture. There is the stress of a long illness, the exasperation of a family that has been forced to spend too much time together, habitual, difficult family dynamics, tenderness and love all wrapped up together. Did you set out to get all of this into this relatively short piece, or did you just set out to reproduce a memorable scene?
Rachel: Thank you so much! I have to admit that at first I had no idea what I wanted to get out of this story. I just couldn’t get this memory out of my head and thought it was a great, self-contained representation of what it was like to watch my Dad go through cancer treatment. I wanted this memory to be as accurate as possible, so after mapping out the plot, I tried to build up the tension and anxiety of this night, and then honestly the rest just kind of happened.
I also think some of the complexity of this piece was perhaps my subconscious response to other typical cancer narratives. When my Dad first started going through treatment, I had trouble finding narratives that related to my experience. Many stories just focus on one element of illness: the tragic side, the hopeful side, the stressful side. I was aching to find a work that addressed not just the stress and the anxiety of illness, but also the sheer chaos, the humor, and the oddities that come along with taking care of a loved one diagnosed with cancer. I wanted a snapshot of what a typical day living with my Dad during Chemo looked like, even if it would only mean something to myself and my family.
There is a strange humor throughout this—the underlying knowledge that the thing is absurd in its entirety, even as the participants deal with cancer and death. Do you think this is an avoidance of hard truths, or a new way to express them?
My family and I would often say to each other during the time my Dad was sick that we had to laugh at our situation, it was the only way to survive. I think this saying really embodies the spirit of the essay. In some ways, this philosophy is absolutely an avoidance of hard truths—humor usually makes tragedy a bit easier to swallow—but I think it also acknowledges one of the more significant truths about illness, specifically my Dad’s illness. Cancer is all encompassing and exhausting, yes but it’s also absurd. I couldn’t represent my Dad’s cancer treatment without addressing the humor, it didn’t feel as authentic to me without it. And to be perfectly honest, I also think it makes for a more interesting story.
I love the Sisyphean echoes in the air conditioner on the stairs. Camus says that we must imagine Sisyphus happy, even in his apparently pointless existence. Do you have any insights here based on your own experience?
Oh, this is an interesting one. In some ways, you can consider cancer treatments to be Sisyphean in nature, especially for my Dad. He had stage IV breast cancer, which is currently incurable, and I can imagine that for him, taking the same pills every morning and driving to the hospital for Chemo every Friday sometimes felt as monotonous as pushing a boulder up a hill—as he knew in the end it wouldn’t cure his illness. But do I agree with Camus that Sisyphus is happy? I guess so, in a way that’s kind of similar to the “find the humor to survive” philosophy I mentioned earlier. I think any kind task, whether it being carrying an air conditioner up the stairs, going to Chemo, pushing a boulder up a hill, is worth doing, no matter how monotonous it may be. It has whatever meaning we as people assign to it. We decide Sisyphus’ story teaches us about labor and happiness, and we decide that stories about installing air conditioners and battling cancer teach us something about love and family.
Do you write nonfiction exclusively? If so, why, if not why?
I have definitely started writing nonfiction more. I love writing short fiction and even poetry, but I think (at the moment) I get the most out of nonfiction. I feel very grounded in the confines of the “truth,” if that makes any sense. Some of my favorite writing (to read and to create) is writing that takes some kind of small action, conversation, or moment and throws it under the microscope and explores every possible angle. I think nonfiction is a great space to do that.
What are you reading now?
I just picked up Tumble Home by Amy Hempel and really like it so far. Next up will probably be Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Who are your favorite authors?
In the past year or so I’ve really been enjoying short nonfiction and experimental fiction, especially by Roxane Gay, Lydia Davis, Maggie Nelson, and Claudia Rankine. Toni Morrison, Alison Bechdel, William Faulkner and Markus Zusak will always be among my favorites.