Q&A: Catherine Newman on her novel ‘We All Want Impossible Things’

“You don’t get your heart broken and give up. Nobody does. You allow yourself to be loved even in your darkest times.”

Catherine Newman

When Catherine Newman opened the box containing copies of her novel, “We All Want Impossible Things,” for the first time, she half expected her best friend of 44 years to appear. 

It was a moment, Newman recalled, of her own grief surfacing even as she celebrates the release of her book, which tells the story of two women, friends for more than four decades, as one of them is in hospice, dying from ovarian cancer. Told with both piercing poignancy and humor, the novel follows the days after Edi is moved to a hospice in Massachusetts, near Ash’s home. 


The book, which was published Nov. 8, is based on Newman’s own friendship and experience with her friend, Ali, who died of ovarian cancer in 2015. 

The Amherst-based author, whose previous titles include the memoirs “Catastrophic Happiness” and “Waiting for Birdy,” is no stranger to writing about her own life. But she told that while her newest book — her first work of adult fiction — is largely rooted in her own experience, fiction gave her the ability to communicate the complexities of grief in a way that felt more accurate. 

With her deep personal connection to the story contained in her novel, its release, in some ways, is bittersweet. A reminder of her own friend — and her absence. 

“There’s something, I think, about this moment that reenacts some of that loss and that’s just kind of inevitable,” she said. “That’s how grief is. Things just trigger it.”

Below, Newman shares more with about her novel, her approach to balancing her real-life experiences with fiction, her use of humor in the story, and what she hopes readers will take away from the book. 


This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You’ve written about your own personal experience caring for your friend, Ali, when she was dying in hospice. When did you decide to write this book? Why did you choose fiction, versus memoir, for telling this story? 

Catherine Newman: I remember having brunch with my friend’s husband a year after she died. I think her young kids were there too — this is how inappropriate this story is — and I said, “I want to write a book about Ali dying, but it needs to be fiction because I want the main character to be sleeping with everybody.”

The thing that’s true is that while my friend was dying, I had this thing that I always called my falling in love disorder — that Ash in the book has, too. Where it’s like you’re blown apart by grief, and if you’re lucky enough to move through the world with these lovely people who are trying to help you, I just fell in love with everybody. I was in love with everybody in the hospice. I was in love with my friends. I was in love with my family. I was madly in love with my friend who was dying. 

And I couldn’t imagine trying to write that as memoir and communicate it accurately. So that’s why I didn’t write a memoir. 

There are several things that you’ve written about experiencing yourself with your friend in hospice — Dr. Soprano, the habit of sprucing up the flowers, the baby across the hall — that also show up in the novel. How much of your own experience is in this book and how much did it shape the story or character development?

The characters are really, really true to life. Every single character, I would say, is true to life. So massively. That part is really just very lifted out of life. 


The character Belle, my daughter Birdy who that character is based on, was living at home because of the pandemic while I was writing. And I basically just lifted stuff in real time that she was saying. I was like transcribing her conversations; she’s an incredible conversationalist and she’s so funny. And I was like, “Oh my God, thank God you’re here or I would not have anything for Belle to say.”

I have written a lot of memoir, and I wasn’t sure that I would know how to write fiction. I mostly wrote it like memoir and then had to keep reminding myself that I could make s**t up, you know. 

In what ways is the story of Ash and Edi different from your experience with Ali? What did fiction allow you to do? 

Fiction allowed me to do the thing that Edi’s husband makes fun of Ash for doing, which is centering herself in the story. 

My friend died far away from me. I went a lot, but it’s not like she moved to where I lived. So fiction allowed me the convenience of that as a plot device. It made it more straightforward that Edi comes to her, but also, it’s total wish fulfillment. I mean, things unfolded as they needed to, but there was something about moving her here with me, after the fact, that was very narcissistically gratifying to me. 

What was writing this like for you personally? I don’t know if ‘help’ is the right word, but was it a factor in your own grieving process? 

I think so. I think it was both. I think I kind of re-grieved her while I was writing. I read a lot of diary entries of my own, and I read every letter she’d ever sent me. I looked at all our photo albums. And that was both incredibly painful, but also I think there’s something about grief, you know, it goes on longer than anybody in your life wants it to. Everybody who has ever grieved has had this experience where everybody is kind of ready for you to get on with it. And so you kind of do. 


I felt really lucky to have this excuse to wallow in my loss in this way. Where I’m like, “I have to, for my work.” Who gets to do that and claim that it’s for work? I got to sit, surrounded by loss and all my objects and memories and just be in it. And that, in a way, was just an incredible gift. 

It’s very much about grief, but there are a couple of lines in the book that just kind of knocked me over … [in the] moment where Ash is realizing all the love in the world that she has and wondering what happens to that love when the people you love are no longer there. Can you talk about that element of this book? Where it’s about loss, but at its core, it’s also just really about love and the lifecycle of love and relationships?

Yeah. I guess that is just the way that it is. It’s like all of the things … When I was selling the book, my agent and I met with a bunch of different editors who were interested in it. And one editor said to me, “The thing that I don’t believe is that Ash is behaving so badly and everybody’s so loving towards her.” And I was like, “you’re not the right person to buy this book.” But also, that’s what the book is. This person who is completely shattered and all everyone around her is doing is helping her put herself back together. 

That experience is very true to my experience and is the most beautiful thing in the whole world … I feel like what I was trying to capture in the book is just this way that life is all of these things at once and that you don’t get your heart broken and give up. Nobody does. You allow yourself to be loved even in your darkest times. 

The book deals with tremendous heartbreak and grief and loss, yet humor is present on almost every page. How did you approach having those emotions being tied together, and why was it important to have humor present in that way?

I feel like, it’s like #Jews. I mean, I feel like that is so the way through trauma for an entire culture, is just laughing. So a lot of that is truly lifted from life. 


My friend was making me laugh until the very end. We laughed so much in hospice we made ourselves cry. It was ridiculous. Horrifying to some of the people there, but I think that’s just life for me. The kids make fun of me, and it makes me feel like I’m whole. Nobody’s mean, but there’s something about being teased lovingly that is so grounding for me, and I feel like that’s true for Ash in the book. That she just feels really seen by her people all the time and everybody is just cracking each other up. And then I guess also just the narrative itself is funny and that’s because Ash is crazy … Hospice is fundamentally absurd. And I will say, even now as a volunteer, we laugh so much in hospice. The nurses will come into the kitchen and we will just be crying laughing about something. And it just is the way life is. 

There is that kind of fundamental absurdity running through something tragic … It’s partly that it’s so bodily. 

I was trying to write about the way that, it’s death, and it’s this massive philosophical problem and a theological problem, an abstraction, this unknown thing, and it has this spiritual quality. And then the truth of it is also that there is a body doing this body thing. And it’s really messy. And sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s gross and dismaying and painful. 


Anybody who has been with somebody through a long death knows this, I know. But it’s so shocking in a way that you’re not in this pristine world of loss and ideas. You’re actually doing this really hands on, bodily caretaking.

What do you hope readers will take away from the story you’ve written? 

You want solace for everybody. People who are grieving or have grieved big losses. There’s something cathartic, I think, about reading about other losses. Miriam Toews has this book, “All My Puny Sorrows,” which I mention in the acknowledgements. But when my friend was dying, I read that book four times cover-to-cover and it was such a solace to me. It’s an incredibly, incredibly sad and funny book. So I think I hope for something like that. 

People have been writing to me already and saying that the book made me laugh and cry … and it makes me so happy. Those are the things I would want. So I guess that. And just kindness — that it’s possible to go through something terrible and feel really well-loved. And that that’s great; you don’t have to refuse comfort. 

And the secret extra thing, of course, is I want everybody to be like, “Oh my God, her friend was so great.” Because that is really true. I have this secret desire to have spread around the renowned excellence of my dead friend. But that is a secondary goal.


Read an excerpt from “We All Want Impossible Things.”


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