Zoe Fishman: My Grief Is Woven Into Every Sentence

Author interview

Zoe Fishman was working on a novel about loss when two tragedies struck. Her father died. And then her husband, Ronen, passed away as well, leaving Fishman to care for their two small boys.

That novel, Invisible as Air (paid link), is about a family dealing with grief. It’s a topic the author learned how to handle first-hand. Fishman talks about the experience, and writing through grief, in the interview below.

Fishman's other books include Balancing Acts, Inheriting Edith, and Saving Ruth. She's also the executive director of The Decatur Writers Studio and teaches in the Emory Continuing Education program.

Thank you, Zoe Fishman, for agreeing to be interviewed. And thank you, dear reader, for supporting Bidwell Hollow.


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Interview with Zoe Fishman

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I grew up in Mobile, Ala. with my brother who is 15 months older than me and my parents, who both hailed from New York. My father was a political science professor at the University of South Alabama, and my mother worked there as well as an academic adviser in the Adult Degree Division. We were Jewish, and there wasn't a whole lot of us in Mobile, as you can imagine.

I desperately wanted to be blonde and Baptist, but that wasn’t going to happen and so I used my sense of humor to socially assimilate. That worked out pretty well for me, but I always felt like an outsider, and I know that has a lot to do with why writing became so important to me. I was always an avid reader and began journaling in a Ramona Quimby Diary when I was eight.

I finished high school and went on to Boston University, where I majored in English. Then on to New York for 13 years, where I worked in book publishing and eventually, landed my first book contract.

In 2011, my husband and I moved to Atlanta. He had just finished his Ph.D. program in clinical psychology, I had a book contract and was pregnant with our first son. My husband grew up in Atlanta and had family there, and my parents were still in Mobile. It was time.

Now I live in Decatur with our two sons. I write and I teach in the Emory Continuing Education Program as well as at the Decatur Writers Studio, where I am also the Executive Director. I like horsing around with my kids and reading when I can.

Were you writing creatively while working in publishing?

I definitely was not! I always knew that I wanted to write, that was why I got into book publishing in the first place. That said, I was an unmotivated twenty-something making lots of bad choices for a long time. 

One spring, a friend and I decided to enter our names into the New York Marathon Lottery just for kicks, and much to my initial dismay, I was accepted. Training for that marathon completely reconnected me with my focus, however, and ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. 

Is it true that guest writing two Bratz mystery books ignited your writing career?

Yes, it’s true! Two Bratz mystery novellas. In the same way, I woke up every morning to run however many miles I was slated to run according to my training schedule, I woke up early to write before my day job began. It was just as gratifying as I supposed it would be.

What’s the story behind how you got your first book contract?

I met Jeanette Perez, an editor at Harper Perennial which is an imprint at HarperCollins, in 2006 at The Willamette Writers Conference in Portland when I was working as an agent, and we hit it off immediately.

One night over drinks, I told her about my dream of writing and the progress I was making. Almost a year later, the Perennial editorial team agreed that they’d like a novel on their list about women in a yoga class. Jeanette mentioned me as a possible writer to Carrie Kania, who was the publisher of Perennial at the time.

I knew Carrie from my very first job in 1998 as an assistant to Michael Morrison who was the publisher of Random House Audio then but went onto become the publisher of HarperCollins as you mentioned. We were all still friendly. Carrie and Michael are both excellent people and I was very lucky to land such a terrific boss and person in Michael out of the gate. and Carrie agreed to give me a shot. 

All I had were three words: “The Yoga Class.” I created the setting; the characters; the story arc and presented a proposal. Much to my delight and disbelief, it was accepted and thus, Balancing Acts was born with a lot of wonderful guidance and support from Jeanette.

Your new novel, Invisible as Air, is about a wife and mother dealing with the grief of losing a child. From where did the inspiration come for this story?

I had friends and family endure the heartbreak of stillbirth, and as a mother and a writer, I wanted to explore that pain. They were kind and gracious enough to speak candidly and at length with me about their experiences so that I could get a proper handle on Sylvie’s grief.

You suffered two losses, your husband and father while writing Invisible as Air, correct? How do you think those experiences impacted your writing of this book?

That is unfortunately true. My grief impacted Invisible As Air (paid link) in every way imaginable. The words I chose; the sentiments I expressed; my development of both the primary and secondary characters – my grief is woven into every sentence of the novel.

In a lot of ways, Invisible As Air saved me. Stepping out of my own pain, not to mention the endless stream of tasks involved with dismantling a life and single parenting, was and is a creative blessing.

Do you have any guidance for other writers currently experiencing grief?

Well, everyone’s path through grief is different. But I would say that if writing brings you joy and a sense of individual purpose, do it as often as you possibly can. Write letters to the ones you’ve lost.

I did that a lot in the beginning, and it felt like I was talking to them. It also let me expel some of my innermost fears and anxiety, things I couldn’t express to friends or family really, and that felt good.

Who are some of your favorite writers, both past and present?

Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, Jhumpa Lahiri, Brit Bennett, Kevin Wilson, Jeffrey Eugenides, Karen Russell, Ta-Nehisi Coates. I could go on!

Have you read any good books lately?

Oh my goodness, Kevin Wilson’s latest, Nothing to See Here, is just wonderful.

Anything else you’d like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about you or your work?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve worked hard and I’m proud of my novels but especially Invisible As Air (paid link), not only because of the obstacles I pushed through to bring it to life but also because it handles two subjects our society is usually hesitant to talk about: addiction, to opioids in Syvlie’s case, and grief in what I hope is a very honest and vulnerable way.

You can learn more about Zoe Fishman by visiting her website. And you can follow her on Twitter @ZoeFishman76.

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