When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? This is the title of the wonderful midlife memoir by Jennifer Grant, who is a friend and veteran writer. I wanted to introduce you to this book - and to Jennifer - which is why I'm posting an interview with her. As I wrote in my endorsement, "I didn't know how much I needed this book until I read it!" The book releases today and is available here as well as local bookstores.
Why write a book about middle age?
The short answer is that, in my early 40s, I found myself reading midlife memoirs, journaling, and talking to friends about what it felt like to enter midlife. The good, the bad, the ugly…and the mortifying. Writing this book helped me sort out my thoughts. Flannery O’Connor famously said that she was a writer: “because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Yes, that’s true for me.
A longer answer is that all of my books have, on some level, been attempts at untangling questions that kept me awake at night or that I’d turn over in my mind all day. Questions about whatever I was living through (adopting a child, raising kids, questioning my faith, and so on) at a particular moment.
This one began to take shape around my fortieth birthday when I was flooded with the typical kind of “turning forty” issues—like suddenly needing reading glasses, feeling somehow stunned that my kids were teenagers and were on the verge of leaving home, and becoming aware of my mortality in a new way.
The book stems from my conviction that entering midlife can be tricky, but that we can make peace with middle age and experience it as a rich, purposeful time.
Is this “midlife memoir” primarily focused on physical issues middle-aged people face—like achy joints or wrinkles or women’s experiences of menopause?
I touch on some of these things, including how hormones wax and wane in midlife or the surprise of seeing how our faces change as we get older—but, as I was writing it, the book kept pulling me in the direction of issues around identity and relationship more than the physical effects of aging.
What does your “nest” look like now? Empty yet?
I took the leaf out of the kitchen table a few months ago. It’s odd. The house is quieter, and most of the time it’s four of us, instead of six. My two sons are in college—in their first and third years. My two daughters are in high school—also in their first and third years. I just got home from taking my older daughter on college visits. One by one, off they go. My husband and I will be “empty nesters” in three and a half years.
Would you say your nonfiction work follows your life chronologically, or how does this book fit with the other books you’ve published?
My first book told the story of how my husband and I went from living as young marrieds in New York City to moving to the suburbs of Chicago, having three kids in rather short order, and deciding to adopt a toddler from Guatemala. My second book is about creating a healthy, creative family culture and about parenting tweens. My third is a book of essays I co-edited with my friend Cathleen Falsani. We asked 40-some writers to reflect on what verse or passage in Scripture shaped (or upended) their faith. In my essay in that one, I time-traveled back to my own childhood and wrote about the verses that have troubled me the most in my life. My next book, a 365 daybook of short reflections for women, is like a memoir told in very, very brief chapters about parenting teens, nurturing a long marriage, and about faith (and doubt.)
So, yes, to answer the question, this new book follows chronologically, as I write about my kids leaving home and the decade of my forties.
Did you ever find yourself surprised by anything you wrote while working on this new book?
I was surprised by how often ideas or passages from the book of Ecclesiastes invited themselves into the narrative. When I was doing final edits, after overhauling the book many times (taking it from a book of 40 essays to 20, rethinking, reworking it), I had to smile at how often I found a reference to Ecclesiastes. It makes sense to me why it kept raising its hand and asking to be included. My book turned out to be about letting go of expectations and not “white-knuckling” my way through life, but being present with (and appreciating) what my real life holds. Ecclesiastes is full of complicated wisdom that relates to that kind of mindfulness.
Is there anything you cut from the book before it went to press? What was it, and why?
I’ve never rewritten a book so many times. I cut a lot, mostly because I found finding the right tone a challenge. While I wanted to acknowledge, and poke fun at, some of the “indignities” of middle age, I was also writing about real loss.
In the book’s foreword, Jeanne Murray Walker writes that middle age is where “the ridiculous and the sublime mix.” She writes, “The ridiculous and the sublime have equal weight in this book because, in midlife, they rub up against one another with such friction.”
I like that.
One chapter I cut was very short and called “A Perfect Midlife Mixtape.” I made a playlist of songs that beautifully (or hilariously) speak to midlife. Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” is, of course on it. Also: “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds, “Failure” by Martin Sexton, and “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. (Oh and there’s some Ella Fitzgerald, Gillian Welch, Johnny Cash, Billy Joel, and Emmylou Harris.) I cut the mixtape chapter at the advice of my (brilliant) editor who felt like it wasn’t quite right, in terms of tone, to include it. But I still love listening to it!
What do you want your readers to get from this book?
The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God.” (Ecclesiastes 5:19, New Living Translation) That sounds so simple, but of course it’s a long and challenging process to get to that point—but I think we can make excellent progress toward it in midlife. I hope readers of When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? are left feeling hopeful and energized after finishing the book.
I write a lot about memory and how we are constantly editing our memories, attempting to make a cohesive story out of all that we’ve lived through. I hope my readers will look at their own life stories and feel aware of how resilient they are and grateful for all the good in their lives. I’d love it if the book also served as a permission slip for readers to let the unfinished parts or random pieces of the puzzle that is their lives just be. We can’t make sense of all we’ve gone through. We can’t get closure on everything. We can’t understand so many mysteries of how life plays out.
From writer and veteran columnist Jennifer Grant comes an unflinching and spirited look at the transitions of midlife. When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? plumbs the physical, spiritual, and emotional changes unique to the middle years: from the emptying nest to the sagging effects of aging. Grant acknowledges the complexities and loss inherent in midlife and tells stories of sustaining disappointment, taking hard blows to the ego, undergoing a crisis of faith, and grieving the deaths not only of illusions but of loved ones. Yet she illuminates the confidence and grace that this season of life can also bring. Magnetic, good-humored, and full of hope in the sustaining power of the Spirit, this is a must-read for anyone facing the flux and flow of middle age.
Jennifer Grant is a writer, editor, and speaker. A former health and family columnist for the Chicago Tribune, she is the author of four previous books, including the adoption memoir Love You More and the 365-daybook Wholehearted Living. Grant is a part of Hope Through Healing Hands' Faith-based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, four children (when her sons are on break from college), and two loving and quirky rescue dogs.
Find her online at jennifergrant.com or on Twitter @jennifercgrant.
When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? is available from Herald Press. For further information, review copies, or interviews contact Bob Todd at firstname.lastname@example.org