Please welcome Keith McWalter to the Author Spotlight this week
Author Name: Keith McWalter
Book Title: When We Were All Still Alive
Book Genre: Literary Fiction
Release Date: May 4, 2021
Big congrats on your debut, Keith! Please tell us a bit about When We Were All Still Alive.
A story of memory, mortality, and the tricks time plays on both, When We Were All Still Alive is a portrait of a marriage, a diagram of grief and recovery, and a love song to ordinary lives.
The last great question of every long marriage — who will die first? — has been answered for Conrad Burrell, successful deal lawyer, remarried husband, regretful father, and imminent retiree who, late in his careful, predictable life, loses his second wife to a violent accident and finds he has a final lesson in love to learn from the women of his past and the one woman he’s certain he can’t live without.
What sparked the idea for this book?
My mother’s sudden death from an E. coli outbreak over a decade ago was a wake-up call to a sense of my own mortality. Being a lifelong compulsive writer, I first dealt with it by writing a memoir, which is still out there, called Befriending Ending, about my mother’s last days and what that taught me about death and dying. But that was very factual, and very philosophical, and didn’t really get at the emotional reality of losing a loved one.
So I started this invented story about a man who loses the person dearest to him, and what that does to him, and how he has to reinvent himself and how it changes his understanding of their past and his future. I suppose it was an attempt to inoculate myself against a kind of loss I hope I never have to experience.
What drew you to the literary fiction genre?
As a young man in my twenties, I was a hopeless romantic, but had next to no idea how romance, much less domesticity, was conducted in the adult world. My clues came from the literary novels of that period — John Updike (the title of my book comes from an old Updike short story), Philip Roth, Evan S. Connell, James Salter, and later Larry Woiwode and Richard Ford — whose common subject was an intense, granular observation of domestic life and the nuances of interpersonal relationships. Poignant, beautifully written, these were the sort of books I aspired to write.
It took most of my adult life to get around to completing a novel, and now what was considered “literary” fiction has evolved into much more exotic, melodramatic, heavily-plotted fare. But I persist in thinking there’s an audience for novels that try to depict ordinary lives and characters in an emotionally realistic way, and for a lyrical style of writing that finds drama in small, everyday incidents. So my book is very much a “retro” novel that will probably appeal most to readers who fondly remember the genre as it once was.
If someone hasn’t read your writing before, why should they want to read WWWASA?
To me it’s all about the writing, so if you appreciate the surprise of an unusual metaphor, descriptive detail and illuminated connections, I think you’ll like the book. The characters and their familial situations are relatable and, more importantly, believable (there are no deep, dark secrets, and no children spontaneously combust). The book is ultimately about mortality and how family and friendships are our only defense against the inevitability of loss, and that’s something I think we’ve all come to appreciate more after the last year.
What advice would you give to your pre-published writer self?
Make time to write. Don’t try to “find” time to write, because you never will. It has to be made, sometimes forcibly. Edit more, revise more. Don’t protect your writing from readers; get more eyes on your manuscript early. Be critical of your pet passages. Don’t get too obsessed with publication per se, just do your most honest work, write for yourself, and worry about an audience later. You’ll find one if you really want and deserve one.
Are you working on a new project?
Two of them, actually. One is a literary science fiction novel (think The Age of Miracles) about the consequences of radically extending the human lifespan. It will be much more of a conventional, plotted genre novel. The other is a novel about two big-shot finance guys from California who get trapped in New York City on the day of 9/11 and have to make their way back across the country by car to get home.
Thank you, Keith! When We Were All Still Alive is available NOW.
For Conrad Burrell—husband, father, and successful attorney in the autumn of his life—the world has come apart. Having long ago lost his first wife, the mother of his grown daughter and a widow herself, to youth and pride, he’s now lost his second to a violent accident,. “You think you’re finished, that you have no more stories in you,” his ex-wife warns, and he fears she’s right. Within hailing distance of the end of his days, after a lifetime of meeting the expectations of others, none are left but Conrad’s own, and he must discover whether love survives death as well as divorce—whether family memory can redeem individual mortality.
What do we do, then, we widows and widowers for whom there’s nothing left but the world’s permission to stop what we’ve done all our lives? In the cities of his youth, in the deserts of New Mexico, but most of all in a small Pennsylvania town, Conrad finds he has one more lesson in love to learn from the women of his past, and the one woman he’s certain he can’t live without.
When We Were All Still Alive is a novel of grief and healing, a portrait of a marriage, and a love song to ordinary lives.