Gail Konop Baker has been all of the following: advertising executive, stand-up comic, waitress, high-school teacher and journalist. She has written two novels, Waitress of the Month and Paris Smells Like Rotten Eggs, and has been published in Isthmus, Wisconsin Trails, Talking River Review and other journals. To all of these things, add runner, yoga teacher, mother of three, wife and now memoirist.
Published this month by Da Capo Lifelong Books, Cancer Is a Bitch: Or, I'd Rather Be Having a Midlife Crisis recounts Konop Baker's breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery in the context of her personal and professional life. Blunt, sometimes raw, often moving but also leavened with humor, Cancer Is a Bitch is drawn from her journals and her Bare-breasted Mama columns for the online magazine Literary Mama. It is about confronting cancer but also a coming-of-middle-age story that helps to redefine midlife and its attendant crises.
Gail Konop Baker appears at the Wisconsin Book Festival from 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, at A Room of One's Own Feminist Bookstore, where she will be joined by Jess Riley and Danielle Younge-Ullman for a program titled "The Debutante Ball." In an interview conducted via email in anticipation of her festival appearance, Konop Baker explains her rationale for writing the memoir, traces her aptitudes for frankness and humor to their source, cops to her greatest guilty pleasures and identifies a couple other things that are a bitch.
The Daily Page: How do you define bitch? What qualities would you ascribe to the term? And besides cancer, what else would you cite as a bitch?
Konop Baker: I actually don't think the word bitch is necessarily bad. I don't like if a man calls a woman a bitch. But in the right circumstances it's sometimes necessary. I can be a bitch. But in terms of my title -- which, by the way, I thought would be changed before publication and is a little hard to roll off your tongue especially in social gatherings; I cleared an adult table at a Bar Mitzvah once saying it -- I meant, cancer is too forceful, it backs you into a wall, it sits on top of you, crushing your sternum, it doesn't let you say uncle, it doesn't back down. At least that's how hearing those words felt to me initially.
What else is a bitch? Sub-zero weather is a bitch and so is extreme heat.
How did your concept for Cancer Is a Bitch -- and your sense of its audience -- change between the time you wrote its first sentence and finished the final draft?
I never planned to write a breast cancer memoir. I never planned to get the cancer that would prompt that. But in 2006 after just completing my second novel about a woman who finds a lump in her breast and thinks she might have breast cancer and wonders if she's lived a meaningful life, I went in for my annual mammogram and was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ and a week later had a lumpectomy.
It rocked my world. Stunned and panicked and paralyzed me. And even after I was told it was non-invasive and they got it all out, I couldn't write, couldn't think, couldn't do anything other than google health sites and obsess about recurrence rates and make homemade batches of organic facial creams and scribble my deepest rawest craziest most intimate thoughts in a journal my husband pressed into my hands.
I never planned to show those words to anyone. In fact I wrote them thinking this was a way I didn't have to burden my friends and family with my crazy thoughts. Nobody I was close to had ever had cancer. Not my parents. None of my friends. And while I knew they cared, I guess I felt alone in my deepest thoughts and fears. Eventually I wrote those thoughts into an essay called "CANCER IS A BITCH" and sent it to some trusted writer friends who said it was the most powerful thing I'd ever written.
I kind of felt that was true, but didn't know what it was or what to do with it. But soon after that I read that Literary Mama was looking for columnists and on a whim I pitched it as a column and they took it and the responses from readers were so soulful, I was floored. And most hadn't even had cancer but they either knew someone who had or just responded to the midlife issues that I wrote about. Like what it meant to reach midlife and wonder if this was the life I meant to live, if I was the person I meant to be. Next thing I knew I pitched the idea of writing it into a book to my agent and he sold it.
But what I was writing and thinking about evolved over time. At first I thought I was trying to record my thoughts and feelings as openly and honestly and deeply as possible. But after I started connecting with readers, I discovered the more open I was about all aspects of my life, the more universal my message. People responded to my honesty so I guess it inspired me to share more of me.
The other major change was that a good friend of mine was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer after me and another neighbor with a stage IV brain tumor, both middle-aged. Both mothers of children still at home. So my story evolved into a bigger story. I felt this connection to them (even though I was technically out of the woods), this collective grief. And I wanted to give voice to that. To speak about it in order to try to de-stigmatize it. I do believe that cancer is one of the last standing taboos. You say the word and lot of people wince and physically back off. I wanted to give voice to that.
To what extent did writing Cancer Is a Bitch leave you feeling vulnerable or exposed?
To every extent. In fact the first morning my first column went live on the Literary Mama site, I sat in my kitchen feeling naked, wondering what I had done and why. As I said, I didn't think any of this through much. The column, the book, it all happened so fast. It was just over two and half years ago that I had surgery. So, I guess I do feel exposed and haven't fully processed what that means or will mean when I do readings and actually meet readers. But I guess I exposed myself so others would feel less afraid to be honest with themselves about their feelings and the choices they made or didn't make in their lives. I think or I hope my honesty will help others feel less alone.
What accounts for your tendency to be so frank?
Ha! I was a very frank child in my family growing up and that didn't win me many brownie points. But I didn't know how to be any other way. I think there were some less frank years after I married and had kids and tried to be a "good" wife and mother. Although during that time I poured some of that frankness into my fiction. Still, I didn't tap back into it until after I started writing the column and found that the more open I was, the more people responded. I guess I thought, what the hell do I have to lose? When would be the time to start being the person I meant to be? Why was I holding back? Why not now?
How difficult was it for you to revisit the events of the narrative while composing Cancer Is a Bitch? And to what extent was it therapeutic?
It wasn't therapeutic writing it. It was very painful, especially after my friend with colon cancer died. I was only halfway through the book and I didn't know if I could write the rest. But I did. Telling myself that I was giving voice to those who felt silenced and isolated and didn't know how to deal with people wincing and backing away from them. So I didn't write it as therapy. I wrote it because I felt I was witness to something big. That it had completely altered my perspective sort of like when you travel to a foreign land. Life had raised the stakes and I felt I was called to record it.
What thoughts and emotions went through your heart and mind during the first moments after hearing your diagnosis?
It was a lie! Not me! And then complete and utter dread. Followed by self-pity, fear, anger, self-pity… Am I leaving anything out? Oh yes, almost immediately, I thought, why didn't I do all those things I forgot to do.
You reference specific songs by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller, Bonnie Raitt, Don McLean and James Brown at various points throughout the book. What other songs would you add to fill out the book's complete soundtrack? And which version of "Crimson and Clover" were you referring to -- Tommy James, Joan Jett, Kelly Clarkson, Cher, Dolly Parton or a more obscure release? Also, what is your all-time personal theme song?
I made a Cancer Is a Bitch playlist from iTunes. 14 songs:
- "Love Shack" by The B-52s
- "Mother's Little Helper" by The Rolling Stones
- "Late for the Sky" by Jackson Browne
- "I am the Walrus" by The Beatles
- "Is That All There Is?" by Peggy Lee
- "Fool on the Hill" by The Beatles
- "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells
- "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin
- "Macarena" by Los del Rio
- "American Pie" by Don McLean
- "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Bonnie Raitt
- "I Feel Good" by James Brown
- "Beast of Burden" by The Rolling Stones
Theme song? I'm looking at my top 25 Most Played songs. Maybe I should I just list them: "Strong Enough," "Let's Get It On," "Love's Divine" (my kids will be so embarrassed by this one), "Late for the Sky," "Angel from Montgomery," "Wasted Time," "Hotel California," "Amie," "Desperado," "I Write the Book"… can you guess when I went to college?
What did you edit out of Cancer Is a Bitch that you most regret not including?
I threw just about everything in there and the stuff I took out was only to protect the privacy of my friends and family. Really it's mostly all in there!
In writing Cancer Is a Bitch, what did you discover about yourself that you had not noticed while living through the events you recount?
That I was stronger and more determined than I knew. Also that I managed to find humor even in the darkest, scariest moments. Not sure where that came from. Also the compassion I felt for others, those caring for me, my friends and family. I was so grateful for their love and really almost surprised. I knew I had great friends and kids and husband but I didn't know the depth of their feelings for me. When my best friend said she'd shave her head in solidarity with me (although luckily neither of us had to), when my husband said he wished he could have taken the hit for me… I'm sort of tearing up over this one…
And that I really love living.
At one point in the book, you write, "I ache for what I've done and can't undo." Which three things you've done that you can't undo do you most regret?
I think I was referring to burdening my children with my health problems. Never did I imagine doing that at this stage in life. It still makes me ache when I think about what my son has seen and worried about in the past few years. Or that my daughters will likely always worry about their breasts. I wish I could take that all away.
Although just the other day when I was in Border's with my son and he stood next to my stack of books on the front table, he turned to me and said, "Wow, Mom. You really turned this thing around. Didn't you?"
You also note your appreciation of irony in Cancer Is a Bitch. What would you identify as the most ironic aspect of writing this memoir?
Funny… I originally wrote these crazy raw intimate thoughts and fears into that journal so I didn't have to burden my friends and family with them and now you can buy them! Or hear me read them at Border's on October 11 and the Wisconsin Book Festival on October 16.
What were the most useful books and online resources you relied on that you would recommend to other people with breast cancer, and why would you recommend each?
Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book is the bible. There is also the Mayo Clinic Guide to Women's Cancers. Other than those two as main resources, I read a lot of alternative health books about nutrition. To name a few: The Cancer Recovery Eating Plan, Eat to Beat Cancer, and Spontaneous Healing. I get regular updates on the internet from AICR that's very focused on nutrition and prevention. I also recently discovered the site mycrazysexylife that was started by Kris Carr who wrote Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips, another terrific book!
There is an incidental episode in the book during which you pick up copies of Isthmus, The Onion, Wisconsin Woman, Maximum Ink and Sustainable Times. How do each of these publications reflect your personal interests? And what other magazines and newspapers do you read?
Isthmus is by far my favorite! Not only is it a great paper but it helps me mark my week. When I see a new one at the coffee shop I know it's Thursday! I especially like the cultural news about books, music, art, dance. And I swear by the restaurant reviews. Also, I always glance at the personals because some of those are pretty funny!
The Onion just makes me laugh out loud.
The other three…. hmmm…. I don't really read them regularly. But I like Wisconsin women and believe in living sustainably.
I read the New York Times, the Wisconsin State Journal, The New Yorker, Harper's, Poets and Writers, Utne Reader, Esquire, Health, Prevention, Yoga Journal and when I'm traveling I always read the gossip rags! Sometimes I just really need to know what's going on with Angelina and Jen…
Another incidental point in the book raises the notion of the clarity that came with your diagnosis, in terms that suggest it is almost a gift. What other gifts did your experience bring, and how have you applied them to your daily life?
I guess it woke me up even though I didn't know I wasn't awake. Like I may have already said, it changed my perspective so dramatically it was as if I'd traveled to a foreign land. That's how I saw my life. Like a foreigner. All the every day stuff looked brand new, exotic, brighter, which I think is why I was compelled to write from my life after years of writing fiction. But it also gave me a sense of urgency. I'd always been a hesitator and an over-thinker. Instead of why, I started thinking why not? Since my diagnosis I have written and sold this book, run two half marathons, gone to yoga boot camp (for half my yoga teaching training certification), launched my two daughters to college and traveled to Italy.
It also opened me up to myself and to the world and not to sound all new-agey but once I opened myself up to the world, the world opened up to me.
To what or whom do you ascribe your sense of humor?
I'm not sure. I guess I came from a very boisterous, opinionated verbally aggressive family where talk was like an Olympic sport. You had to be sharp and fast just to get through the dinner conversation. But I think I didn't always feel up to par and learned to use humor to get by. The funny thing is that often the things that people think are funniest that I say or write, I don't realize are funny. It's more me being honest.
Oh and I also was a stand-up comic. Once. I totally bombed. But still. I guess I've always enjoyed making people laugh.
When, where and how do you prefer to write?
I have a little house (sort of a mini version of my house) in my backyard. It's tiny and filled only with things that either have a lot of meaning for me or are writing related. No Internet or phone line (although I bring my cell in case there's an emergency). No extraneous notes about kids ortho appointments or picking up the dry cleaning. I wrote the entire memoir in that mini-house and in fact wrote about it and my writing ritual in my book. But that was before we got two puppies late last fall and I started writing in the real house again and then the promotion from the book started kicking in. But I plan to get back out to the mini-house and my ritual after the initial rush of the book launch dies down.
The theme of this year's Wisconsin Book Festival is "Changing Places." What does that mean to you?
I inadvertently changed places when I was diagnosed from a place of complacency to one of urgency and although I wouldn't wish a diagnosis on anyone, I do feel it taught me how to live. I guess that's another irony. Facing my mortality taught me how to live.
If you could change the place where you live -- your home, Shorewood Hills, Madison, Wisconsin, the U.S. or earth -- how would you change it?
Haha! I think I'll stay on the earth. But I do have fantasies of living in Europe. I guess Paris would be my top choice even though I barely speak French. And New York City. I always think that's where I'm really meant to live. Until this past summer when I was in New York for almost a week for a writer's conference and to visit my oldest daughter and it was hot and running was awful, cars trying to run over us and people and exhaust everywhere!! And it was expensive and I thought, maybe living in Madison is just right for me.
What if you could change places with someone? With whom would you change places?
Right now, I'm pretty content. It feels like this is pretty close to having it all. Family, friends, finally launching my career. I might say a younger writer since it took me so long to launch but no, I think I'll say I am exactly where I want to be.
What was the last book you read that you are recommending to friends and neighbors, and why are you recommending it?
I know I'm a little late to the ballgame on this one but I only recently read The Secret History by Donna Tartt and loved it. I'm recommending it because it is brilliant writing. Maybe she's the younger writer I was thinking about changing places with… when she was younger. I'm in the middle of the new David Sedaris and I always recommend him because he strikes that perfect balance between humor and poignancy. I saw him at the Overture Center last year or the year before and he's like a rock star writer. I adore him! I aspire to be the female him.
Which other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival do you most look forward to seeing?
Oh my God I just realized David Sedaris will be back at the Overture Center this year but I'm in NYC that night reading at the KGB Bar. Damn. But I also love Ann Beattie, Mary Gordon, Jess Riley, Danielle Younge-Ullman, Bob McChesney (he's going to be there?), Tom Perrotta, Marilynne Robinson. What a great line-up!
What is your greatest guilty pleasure?
Coffee, chocolate, little bit of red wine. And maybe surfing the internet obsessively. Reading that I sound pretty tame, don't I?