Darin Strauss [Chang and Eng, More Than It Hurts You] wrote Half A Life about a tragic car accident that occurred when he was 18 years old. A sophomore swerved out in front of his car on her bike. She died. it was not Strauss’s fault. For many years Strauss repressed it and avoided any thoughts or conversations about it. In Half A Life, Strauss examines his feelings related to the girl who died as well as the accident and its aftermath. Strauss writes honestly, exquisitely and provides a thorough examination of this profoundly personal experience. Half A Life is a provocative, intense read.
I interviewed Darin for More Than It Hurts You and I contacted him when I heard he had this memoir out. He’s a talented, erudite writer and a genuinely kind guy. I’ll interview him anytime.
Darin: You said you were writing a memoir?
Amy: I Have ideas but I’m afraid to actually start anything.
Darin: Well, the first draft was pretty bad. The hardest part is getting it on the page. There were a lot of things that were terrible that I cut out.
Amy: After writing several novels, what were the challenges in writing a memoir?
Darin: Every bit of training I’d had was how to make stories more interesting so I kept reminding myself, ‘you have to stay true to the facts and you have to let the story play out the way it played out in real life.’ If this had been a novel, the trial would have been more dramatic. I’m not really a journalist so I was just trying to remember what had happened and be respectful of what happened and not stray from the facts at all.
Amy: Did you go back to do any research for it?
Darin: Yeah. I looked and found that article that was written about me to get the exact quote where the police officer said I wasn’t to blame. that was actually a nice surprise because I didn’t remember him saying it in such a clear cut way that I was not at fault. It was like he was sending a message to my future self. And I went back with my family to see what the street looked like. I talked to my friends to see what they would remember but it was sort of what I remembered and how it affected me.
Amy: Why did you feel the need to finally write about the accident you had at 18?
Darin: I thought it was going to be a secret. I thought I’d never tell anybody and most of my friends do now need to know about it. I think it was the fact that my kids were born and I started to think of how hard it would be to have lost a child. I had a new understanding. My wife got pregnant and I was 36 and the accident happened 18 years before.
Amy: The perfect title. Half A Life.
Darin: Thanks. It happened naturally. I thought, ‘I’m never going to write about it’ and turned 36 and found myself doing it.
Amy: How did you think that writing would affect your thoughts about that day and its aftermath?
Darin: I think I just wanted to see how I thought about it because I had put it out of my mind and I had forgotten a lot of it. I think the fact that I had the thought that she wasn’t committing suicide at all was an idea I had when I started writing it. I had pretty much convinced myself that she was definitely committing suicide. And then that a girl would write in her journal at 16, “Today I’m going to die,” doesn’t necessarily mean she had planned to commit suicide. Although I did just hear this week from a friend of hers, who I had never known but had read the book, and she told me that the girl on the bike had started talking about death a lot. The realization was whether she did or didn’t did not affect my story. She did what she did and I did what I did to avoid her and that’s really I could control.
Amy: You said if you had never had this accident that killed Celine, you would have never have become a writer. Why?
Darin: That’s probably true. I thought I’d go to law school but after the accident I became more introspective and the lawyer thing stopped because their lawyer in the lawsuit was such a scumbag.
Amy: How scary is that? You’re going off to college up to Tufts and you get this summons?
Darin: The last I heard when I went to school was that her parents would always support me. It was a terrible shock. It was scary emotionally. It was a total drag. I thought these people were supporting me and then found out they were suing me for millions of dollars. That’s pretty scary.
Amy: During the funeral, you made a point of writing that when people remember lives or want to remember lives, they want the person to be extraordinary even if that person wasn’t so.
Darin: The local newspaper seemed to think it would only be a worthwhile story if the person who died was somehow the most popular person in school or the prettiest girl in the class which was really weird. It seemed like they had to make it sadder for the general reader.
I just wanted to be honest about everything. The book had to be more nuanced than that article I wanted to preserve her memory from that stupid notion that you had to be Prom Queen for it to be said. I wanted to be honest about the way that she was. Misrepresenting her was not the way I wanted to write the book.
Amy: In writing this memoir, what have you learned about yourself and your relationship to Celine and the accident?
Darin: It’s difficult to deny that things don’t change you and it’s very unhealthy not to realize that you’ve changed. Acknowledging that this had happened to me was important but I wouldn’t let it dictate the rest of my life.
Amy: Although you moved past high school and your hometown, you say that Celine was always with you. Her mother even told you that you know had to live for two people.
Darin: I have twins now. My first novel Chang and Eng was about conjoined twins. So it was really embedded in my brain.
Amy: It’s always been with you so how did you cope with it?
Darin: I don’t like the word closure. It’s silly. You never close the book on anything or every fully get over it. You have to learn to live with it. You realize that these things can happen to you and not let it ruin you. It hurts. Most people who’ve email me have been glad to read this because I don’t think there’s that much out there in terms of books about someone facing something. I don’t think we ever get closure so it’s more realistic to see what you did in the certain moment that it was the best you could do, and try to live with it.
Amy: Isn’t the power of the mind over the body amazing when you repress things and don’t realize the extent to which you are until your body just revolts?
Darin: At 28 I had stomach surgery and started to get gray hair and all these things that don’t usually happen to 27-year-olds so I think it was my body telling my mind ‘you can’t pretend this isn’t happening and avoid any consequence.’ I didn’t put it together with the accident until later. Medication and surgery and I didn’t think of the psychological aspect of it.
Amy: You said: “My accident was the deepest part of my life, and the second-deepest was hiding it.”
Darin: I just didn’t tell people. I have a lot of friends who just found out about it with the book or with the excerpt of the book that aired on NPR on “This American Life.” So it was strange for my close friends. I just really wasn’t ready to talk about it to people. I did keep my friends separate (new friends from his Long Island friends).
Amy: Now that Half A Life is out there, how do you feel?
Darin: I feel that I’m in a much better place than ever about it now that I’ve written the book. It never goes away. It’s been 20 years now and I thought as I wrote the book I was pretty healthy about all this stuff. But when the book was about to come out I thought I should write the parents a letter to let them know. I wanted to warn them that it was coming out. Just the act of googling them and writing the letter was harder than writing the book.
Darin Strauss reads from Half A Life at Brookline Booksmith Monday, October 18 at 7pm
buy at Amazon: Half a Life