Q and A with Joel Drucker, Author of the Memoir Don't Bet on It
1. Tell us a little about your new book.
Don’t Bet on It is a portrait of my 28-year romance with my late wife, Joan Edwards. Our time together was a mix of slumber party, private joke and therapy session – flavored in ways subtle and significant, light and dark, by Joan’s precocious sense of mortality. By age 27, she had lost both her parents and been diagnosed with lupus, a chronic illness. Though she was quite healthy most of our time together, notions of health, well-being and the search for meaning cast our love in a certain light.
2. It took you several years to write this memoir – what were its greatest challenges and rewards?
There was both craftsmanship and the emotional fallout. I would work in the morning and feel good about putting these words together. But then, hours or even days later, I would find myself feeling anxious about random things. Did I run that red light and would I lose my driver’s license? Was I rude to that supermarket cashier? Had I been too pushy with a friend? It’s a good thing I had a psychotherapist and several friends who could frequently talk me down.
Though I’m often quite guarded about gaining input while drafting a piece, in this case I sought help. Elizabeth Kaye – an accomplished writer who’d written many superb pieces for the likes of Esquire and Rolling Stone – is a friend who’s long understood me and the kind of writing I want to do. I paid her twice to review the manuscript. The first time she strongly recommended a significant restructuring, noting that it jumped back and forth across time too much. She was right, so I had to make major changes. Based on her input, I made 5x8 notecards summarizing all 166 scenes of the first draft – and then spread them out on my dining room table, rearranging and editing like a jigsaw puzzle. And then, once that was done, some more revisions. The current version is now nearly half as long as it once was.
But even beyond the anxiety, coming face to face with all I’d had and lost was at times literally painful. At one point, I put the piece aside for six months. Even though in some ways this was a way to continue holding on to Joan, at times even that was too agonizing.
The reward is being able to share this story with others. While I often think of myself as a loner, when I conducted a recent reading event with a lot of attendees, I realized that maybe this kind of piece is also a way of bringing people together – to commune and understand a lot about love.
3. You met your wife Joan when you were in your early 20s – corny question, but I can’t resist asking it: would you say it was it love at first (or second) sight?
Rapid affinity. But not yet love. We met in May, began to work together the next month and spent the summer getting to know each other. By August, we were a couple.
4. Throughout the years Joan was being treated for lupus, you were both, to put it colloquially, put through the wringer in many ways—I kept thinking about the incredible resilience you both showed. Despite the formidable difficulties of her treatment and your growing professional career, which required extensive foreign travel, you remained devoted to each other. Is there something you can share with others who might be going through a similar experience with an illness?
Maybe the fact that lupus was chronic rather than terminal cast things in a different life. It’s not considered a disease where you automatically get worse and worse.
But maybe there was also something afoot with Joan’s sturdy, self-reliant Midwest sensibility. From the start, she told me: Don’t try to fix me. Don’t think you know more than the entire medical community.
So our motto was more: You take care of you. I’ll take care of me. Let’s start there and then see what we can build together. Yes, certainly we took care of another at certain stages. But in large part, we knew we were each first responsible for ourselves.
5. How did caring for Joan change the way you felt about the everyday as opposed to the future? (I feel like many of us often focus on the future rather than on the present).
We brought a certain urgency and engagement to everything we did. To be sure, Joan’s health limited certain possibilities, be it trips to faraway places, or determining if it was a movie or dinner, or even just going out for a walk. But all of that meant absolutely nothing. What mattered was the quality of our interactions, of our ability to take joy and pleasure in something like sharing a bagel in a parking lot. All that engagement helped us see our time together as a fantastic, personal narrative – both the years we were together, but also the years before we met, when, in theory, our lives were leading us towards one another.
6. A number of years ago, you published what I’d call a memoir-biography hybrid about Jimmy Connors, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life: A Personal Biography. (Everyone, buy a copy – it’s excellent). What are you working on now?
In some ways I feel at an exciting new crossroads. I’ve spent years writing feature articles for magazines, and still want to do that.
But I’m also starting to write fiction for the first time. Forty years ago, all three years of my high school life were spent attending an alternative school in Los Angeles that wholesaled ideas from Scientology, est and other New Age notions that were just starting to generate traction. So the combination of LA, the ‘70s and these ideas is quite spicy. I’ve so far written two stories. One is about a girl I knew then who in some ways was like the subject of a ‘70s pop song. The other is about a boy and a wild 48 hours he had involving the quest for romance, the school’s leader, a drug, various girls and a pair of tennis matches.