January 30, 2018
“More like a Greek tragedy”: A Q&A with Tom Malmquist, author of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive
by Melville House
Today is a very big day around Melville House HQ: it’s the long-awaited publication day for Tom Malmquist’s In Every Moment We Are Still Alive, a novel, drawn from life, that’s already blazed a trail across Europe with its power, tenderness, precision and all-around emotional wallop.
The quick version (and prepare yourself, we’re going deep): a few years ago, while pregnant with their daughter, Tom’s partner Karin was revealed to be suffering from aggressive leukemia. Shortly after the birth of their daughter Livia, Karin died, plunging Tom simultaneously into untold depths of grief and the uncharted waters of first-time parenting. To make things even more complicated, his father was at the same time fighting a losing battle against cancer.
It’s a lot, and the book Tom drew from it is like nothing else — achingly poignant, transfixingly lucid, and bracingly honest. Today, to celebrate its release, we present this brief Q&A, in which we check in with him to ask how he’s doing and pose a few questions that arise in reading the book. You can—and should—also read a brief excerpt right over here.
The events of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive really took place, but it’s described as a novel. Why not a memoir?
I’m not sure I trust memoirs, especially memoirs about grief. Any story one tells is a fiction, inevitably, because each us is constrained by our own limited perspective. All books, even the “truest” ones, are fictional in some way. I knew I could come closer to my own truth by writing in fiction.
The most important thing for me is to touch the reader. Sometimes I’ve zoomed in on small details that jump out. Other times I’ve had to turn down the volume, because what happened is too much. I’ve added scenes, I’ve removed scenes. It’s all ultimately about working with what happened, fashioning the truth into something that lets me tell you what it was to lose my wife and my father at the very same time I was becoming a father myself. I’d say the book is more like a Greek tragedy than a memoir.
How did you decide to write this book?
The day after Karin’s death, I tried to write some poetry, in my room at the hospital. I couldn’t — it was as though the poetry heightened the chaos I was feeling inside. It just made me feel worse.
But a few weeks after Karin’s passing, I wrote the eulogy for her funeral, and described everything that had gone on at the hospital. I wanted to tell our friends and family, the people that had loved her, what happened. I wrote it in prose, and I found that it gave structure to my sorrow, enabled me to describe what happened. I felt a bit better. Gradually, writing became my lifeline.
Probably a lot of new parents are wondering — how did you find the time to write?
When Livia was awake, I was taking care of her, of course. But when she was asleep, I’d have a choice: either curl up into a ball and start crying, or sit at my desk and write. I chose to write. I took satisfaction in creating something meaningful out of the meaninglessness of what had happened. At times, there was even joy in it.
There’s so much detail in the book. Where did that come from?
I didn’t just want to write a book about grief — I wanted to create a piece of art, a book that was good in its own right. The details are one of the aesthetic choices I made in the course of writing. The actual details of what was happening became important to me, psychologically, when I was at the hospital, and when I first got home; they were linchpins, holding me together. When I transcribed them into the book, they became linchpins of the narrative, too. They became emblematic of life, its vividness and diversity. If death is complete emptiness, I have come to see this richness of detail as its opposite.
The first part is so intense — very little punctuation, a lot of intensity. Why did you decide on that?
It’s just an attempt to describe things as they really were. The situation was intense, naturally intense, chaotic. I wanted to create the feeling of a strong torrent, a deluge.
How are you and Livia doing today? What do you tell her about her mother?
Livia and I have a great relationship! She’s five now. I drop her off at daycare, then pick her up. She saves my life afresh every day.
As for her mother — I decided early on to meet Livia at her own level. No lies. When she asks where mommy is, I answer that mommy’s dead. I don’t want to be a father who avoids that subject or goes silent when the talk gets difficult. I won’t let what happened to Karin become a taboo subject. And it hasn’t — we talk about her a lot. Sometimes we cry, but mostly we laugh.