The Alex Witchel Interview

The Alex Witchel Interview

Photo: Fred R. Conrad
Today’s interviewee is the author of the sad, delicious and fascinating memoir All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments, which is a heartbreaking account of the author’s smart and strong mother “disappearing from sight” while honoring her traditions by sharing her comforting recipes. She is also a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and originated the “Feed Me” column for the Times Dining section. She has contributed to New York, Vogue, Elle, and Ladies’ Home Journal, among other publications. The author of three previous books, she lives in New York.

After taking care of your mother and examining what happened to her and your own relationship, what steps (if any) have you taken to leave your family directions for your own old age, in case your own mind does start to fade? (picture me spitting on the ground three times right now).
Picture me spitting right next to you!

Here’s the thing about human beings: none of us really thinks we’re going to lose our minds, we believe that only happens to other people. All those people standing out on the street smoking? Not one of them thinks he or she is going to get cancer. Someone else will.

There’s actually something to be said for this membrane of denial because it allows us to both get to sleep and get out of bed in the morning.

All of which I suppose is a long way of saying no, I have given no one any directions of any sort. If my own mind does fade, I can only hope my family treats me kindly, and when they’re too busy, that they pay someone else to treat me kindly on their behalf.

If a friend of yours realized his or her own parent began to suffer from dementia, is there anything practical or otherwise, you would tell him or her to prepare themselves?
The most important thing I would tell them is that you can’t fix it. That was my biggest mistake, thinking that if I found the best doctor, the best medication, my mother would be cured. Unfortunately, dementia doesn’t care if your doctor went to Harvard. Harvard makes it laugh.

I would also say, you can’t prevent dementia. I know of people, perfect specimens, who exercised daily, ate kale — and still got thrown under the bus. I’m not talking here about forgetting people’s names or where you put your car keys. I’m talking about getting into your car to drive home and you have no idea where home is or how to get there. I’m talking about opening a book and reading a paragraph and by the time you get to the end of it, you can’t remember how it began.

I would also tell a friend that the only thing you can do is try to surround your parent with people who love him or her and treat them with dignity and respect. Never to speak down to them or over them or assume they are idiots who cannot understand you. The thing about the stroke-related dementia my mom has is that for a very long time, she could just appear as herself for a minute or two, and if someone was disrespecting her, she was either furious or deeply upset. When she was enjoying herself, though, it was a gift.

And try to keep your parent involved in outside activities as much as possible, whether classes of a sort or family gatherings, so he or she can see other people and have things to look forward to.

Why did you choose not to include your sister Phoebe’s death in the book?
My sister Phoebe died of metastatic breast cancer on Feb. 17, 2012, after being diagnosed and living at Stage 4 for four years. She was 44 and left a husband and two sons, 8 and 4. I finished writing “All Gone” a month or so before her death. I was so devastated, I wasn’t sure what to do about it, but my editor convinced me to leave the book as it was. I had meant it to be about my mother’s dementia, the two of us coming to terms with it and so it remained. I also like the idea that in the book, Phoebe is always alive. That makes me happy.

This isn’t the first time you’ve written about your mother; how did she react when you’ve written about her before, and how much advance notice did you give her on what you’d publish?
She loved it, actually. I think many people wish to be seen or acknowledged in some way, and in our world today, everyone can do that on Facebook or Twitter, wherever they want. She was of a generation that did not have that option and she trusted that I would treat her fairly. When I published “Girls Only” in 1997, a book based on columns I had written for the Times about Mom, Phoebe and me taking field trips around the city she was beside herself. Proud of me, certainly, but more than a little tickled to be the subject of a book. I read each chapter to her and to Phoebe well in advance of its publication and they were both fine about it.

Who are some of your favorite fictional mother/daughter duos?
I’m embarrassed to say that none come to mind except “Anywhere But Here” by Mona Simpson which I thought was terrific. I’ve actually been fixated recently on “Little Women,” which I haven’t read in at least 30 years. I never did understand why Beth died. What was wrong with her, exactly? And why couldn’t Marmee, the best mother in the world, figure it out? And was Meg really a sellout to get married while Jo forged her “scribbling” career or was she actually happier than Jo who worked like a dog and ended up with an old German? And even though Amy was spoiled and silly, isn’t that better than being dead? And who wants to eat blancmange, anyway? If you weren’t sick already, wouldn’t it make you sick?

How frequently do you read your reviews? Does criticism hurt more or less when it’s about fiction versus nonfiction?
I tend to read the ones I know about. And it all hurts equally.

Which tends to be more difficult for you to write, fiction or nonfiction? Which is more pleasurable?
I would have to say that non-fiction is more satisfying. I guess it comes from 22 years as a newspaper reporter, but I’m a sucker for real life. Fiction is definitely more difficult for me. Having written two novels, I found it to be something like baking: deliberate and measured and calculated to come out just so, or maybe that’s how I understood the job, or misunderstood it. Non-fiction is much more messy and nuanced; trying to figure out human behavior is like reading a great book that never ends. There’s always something you didn’t count on. I think it’s why people will always read newspapers, even on a machine.

You’ve discussed important meals in your book and other writing, but what about ‘unimportant’ meals? What do you tend to make when you don’t have time, don’t want to leave the house to get groceries, don’t want to think?
I love pizza more than almost anything. The key to frozen pizza leftovers is to defrost them in the microwave, then put them in the toaster oven at a high temperature to crisp and brown it. Yum!

I eat scrambled eggs probably three times a week, which is too much, but I love them and
that’s what Crestor’s for. Phoebe loved them with ketchup, so I’ve found myself doing that a lot more than I used to. I like it, too.

And let’s never forget tunafish. Solid white packed in water, drained, mixed with dried dill, celery salt, ReaLemon juice and Hellman’s Mayonnaise. That on Saltines is just about a perfect dining experience.

The recipes in your book are old-timey and old-world, which makes me think of when I made my mom’s meatloaf recently and had to go out and buy MSG for the recipe, which, of course, made it taste great. Are there any other ingredients of yore that have fallen out of favor that you think should be resurrected?
The one recipe that my editor would not let me include in the book was for spinach kugel, which is a noodle pudding threaded with frozen spinach. This was a favorite in my family during the 1970’s and it has three ingredients that I suppose I can’t defend: stick margarine, Lipton onion soup mix and non-dairy creamer (it was meant to be served in kosher homes as a side dish to roast chicken). Each one of those things qualifies as a chemical nightmare and I can’t make a case for any of them. But I promise that if you ate this kugel, you would fall in love.

In your meals with celebrities for the Times, with which interviewees would you most like to have a follow-up coffee?
There have been many, but I guess my favorite was June Havoc, the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee, who was known from the musical and movie version “Gypsy” as Baby June. She was a terrific actress, director and writer (her memoir “Early Havoc” is a show business classic) and she lived on a farm in Stamford, Ct. We were friends for 18 years before she died. She was in her 90’s then, though no one really knew how old she was because when she was in vaudeville – she started at 3 — her mother lied about her age since she was too young to work the grueling hours she did. (Ten year-olds would claim to be teenagers in order to work five shows a day. But the managers would often make the kids open their mouths and if they didn’t see their 12-year molars, they’d throw them out!) Havoc was a wonderful character and it was a privilege to know her.

You’re in a family of writers: how often is the family trade discussed at group get-togethers, and in what form does it frequently take (IE complaining about writer’s block or negative feedback, workshopping ideas, praising SNL sketches, et?)
It is almost never discussed at group get-togethers because those are for fun, not work. Work conversations usually happen one-on-one by phone, when necessary. Praise, on the other hand, is free-flowing. We all read each other, when the person wants to be read. It’s a great support system, though sometimes the one thing you want is privacy, and we all respect that, too.

How does it feel to be the 338th person interviewed for
It feels terrific! Thank you for having me.