Thank you David and good luck with the sale of your book. I wish you many readers.
The Rocky Journey to My Novel
By David Kalish
The journey that led to my first novel began in 2000, shortly after I remarried. I was a reporter for The Associated Press about to be posted to Mexico City to cover international business news. It was a dream job: I’d long wanted to report from an exotic locale. Though I’d been diagnosed with thyroid cancer six years earlier, the disease was not then causing trouble and I felt at the top of my game. All set to go, I’d already sublet my apartment in Brooklyn, changed my health insurance from domestic to international, sold my car, and arranged to have international shippers truck my worldly possessions from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Mexico City.
But just three weeks before my wife and I were scheduled to board a plane for another life, a routine CT scan revealed that my cancer, until then confined to my neck, had metastasized to my lungs. The news blew away my hopes and dreams. I was forced to stay stateside to focus on my health and undergo intense chemotherapy.
But there was a bright side to this tragedy. First of all, thirteen years later, I got a novel out of it – a dark comedy, no less, that was published this spring. Entitled The Opposite of Everything, it fictionalizes my odyssey through divorce and cancer diagnosis, to treatment and hope. It dramatizes the fact the cancer forced me to reverse everything I’d worked for – completely unwinding my plans to relocate my career and life to Mexico. I was forced to do the opposite of everything, more or less. How the book grew from such disquiet in my life, through more than a decade of gestation, is in itself a story that bears repeating.
The stage was first set in 1994. During a routine checkup my family doctor felt a lump in my neck. It turned out to be an incurable form of thyroid cancer. During back-to-back neck operations my surgeon removed the errant gland and dozens of infected lymph nodes, not to mention a sliver of trachea. My voice became hoarse as a result -- permanently so.
Though I survived the surgeries, my marriage did not: my first wife grew increasingly estranged from me, our relationship cracking under the pressure of a seriously ill husband. The marriage ended in a police showdown after I locked her out of the apartment.
In 1999, doctors re-operated on my neck to remove recurrent tumor that had wrapped itself around my one remaining laryngeal vocal nerve, threatening my ability to speak. The procedure was delicate and difficult, requiring a specialist to “chip away” the tumor from my infected nerve. After surgery I couldn’t talk and wouldn’t know for several weeks whether I ever would again. It wasn’t hard for me to picture the eight-inch gash across my lower neck as a grimace: reflecting not just the pain rippling through me but my uncertainty about the future -- whether I would ever speak again. Or even live.
During that hospital stay, I had a lot of quiet time on my hands, and a laptop computer on the night table. Between visiting hours, and into the wee hours when the throbbing of neck pain kept me from sleeping, I wrote a scene recalling my stay in the intensive care unit, a few days earlier. I remembered how I lay there fresh from the operation gasping for breath. A nurse administered me morphine for pain, but I had even more trouble breathing. Turned out she gave me too much -- my lungs, after eight hours of anesthesia, collapsed from being inactive for so long. A medical team rushed in; I overheard the surgeon mention he might need to bore a hole in my trachea. I felt a slow panic build inside, the notion of a tracheotomy sinking like a lead ball in my stomach. At the last minute, however, the surgeon ordered in tanks of helium, which is lighter than oxygen and easier to respire. Mixed with oxygen, the helium slowly got me back to breathing normally.
I’d come within a hair’s breadth of getting a tracheotomy. And as my odyssey through cancer progressed, last-minute turn-arounds occurred with seeming regularity.
Two weeks after my operation, for instance, I opened my mouth and – surprise! -- heard myself speak. The next year, despite lingering gloom over my failed first marriage, I dated a Colombian woman who lived in New Jersey – a doctor, no less -- and I remarried. And after my cancer spread to my lungs in 2000, forcing me to stay in the United States and undergo chemotherapy, my daughter was born. I still regard this as a near-miracle. My new wife and I were on a deadline: the oncologist warned us that the chemo could hurt my sex cells, making it difficult if not impossible for us to have kids. So we got down to business, and nearly immediately we were successful.
At that point, to steal from the synopsis from my novel, my symptoms from chemo converged with my wife’s from pregnancy. We each turned queasy. I lost hair; she grew hair in new places. Something grew inside each of us. Ultimately the birth of our daughter reaffirmed my faith in a more benign growth – the one to be nurtured with love and caring.
Writing about my troubled past was as unpredictable as the journey itself. My first attempts to get it down on paper felt stiff and distant. I could hardly read back what I’d written. Turns out the format — first-person memoir – didn’t work for me. I was hesitant to express my emotions in a story I starred in. Eventually, after years of revisions, I decided not to be a slave to the facts. I made up characters, letting the story play out through their conflicts. Over years my book turned into a comedy that plays pain for comedy and drama.
And so I mine my past for material, and continue to this day. Currently working on a second novel, I exaggerate, stretch things for humor. I look to situations where comedy reveals painful truths about dying, broken hearts, and busted dreams. I free myself from the shackles of facts. As long as I am able, even if it’s the last breath I take, I’ll write my way out of this pickle I’m in.