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Zoe Carter

A Conversation with Zoe FitzGerald Carter

1. This is an extremely personal story with intimate details of your relationships and your mother’s death. Was it hard to open yourself up through publishing this book? Do you feel at all vulnerable?

Yes, I do! I was actually a little alarmed when I sold the book. Putting it out there does feel exposing. But my goal when writing it was to be as honest as I could—even when it made me look bad. And whenever I’d talk to people about the book, they would share their own stories and memories and it felt like there was this hunger to have these kinds of discussions. 

I try to focus on the universal aspects of my story. While most people’s parents don’t end their own life, many of us deal with our parents getting older, getting sick and—eventually— dying. By writing about my own experience, “imperfect” as it was, I hoped to provide some perspective and maybe even solace to those facing these difficult end-of-life situations with loved ones. Going through this can feel very isolating.

2. Have your sisters read this book? If so, what did they think? What did your husband think?

It’s kind of funny, no one grows up thinking that someone in their family is going to put them in a book someday and, under the circumstances, both my sisters have been remarkably generous. They have both respected my right to tell my story—and include them in the telling. My husband has also been hugely supportive, not just of the book itself, but of the time and energy it took to write it. 

3. Despite the serious subject matter, your book is surprisingly funny.

One thing about my family, we’re all incredibly blunt and outspoken, but there is humor mixed in. So I could say to my mother, "Stop worrying about pruning the trees in your backyard. You’re going to be dead soon. Relax." And far from offending her, she would delight in that. 

And I'm someone who gravitates towards humor in both my writing and my life. Even during difficult or unhappy times, funny moments happen and I'm a big believer in the healing power of laughter.

4. How has your life changed since your mother’s death? Have you been able to regain more stability in your life?

I am happy to report that the year leading up to my mother’s death was a uniquely stressful time in my life. Things have been much simpler and easier since then. My husband and I are doing well, my two daughters are growing into strong, joyful, independent young women, and I am blessed with a number of close and loving friends. I also find time to sing, go on long bike rides in the Berkeley Hills and spend time on the rugged Northern California beaches with my family. Life is good.

5. How is your relationship with your sisters? How has it changed since your mother’s death?

I am still very close to my middle sister, "Hannah." We are in constant touch by phone and e-mail and spend part of every summer together. Her children are still very close to mine. But there is no longer the same urgency to “process” everything together the way we did during the last months of my mother’s life. My older sister, "Katherine," and I are also friendly. I think, by writing the book, I came to better understand her choices at the end of my mother’s life, and this has brought us closer. 

6. Did you ever finish the murder mystery you were working on at one point in your memoir?

Yes, I did, and I got an agent for it right away—and then it didn’t sell. After being turned down by five or six major publishing houses, the book lingered at a smaller press for over a year and a half before being rejected. But I don’t regret it. I learned a lot about writing in the process and if it had sold I’m pretty sure I never would have written the memoir. I’d still be writing mysteries.

7. Are there any plans to publish either of your mother’s books, The Sky’s the Limit or The Goslings Visit Grandpa Gander and Nana Goose?

No. The children’s book is beautiful but it’s very specific to our family. I think the novel is publishable but I haven’t had the heart to try and get it published – it really doesn’t feel like mine. A friend suggested that it would make an excellent screenplay, so we’ll see.

8. If you had been in your mother’s situation, what would you have done?

Well, it’s impossible to know what you would do until you are there. But I like to think that with love and good drugs I could stick it out until death made its way naturally. That said, I would never rule out some form of “hastened death.” I would only hope that I could make the burden on my family and friends as light as possible. 

9. Before your experience with your mother, did you support a person’s right to choose death on their own terms? How do you feel now? Do you believe that physician assisted suicide should be legal?

I did support the right to “choose” death, but I hadn’t thought that deeply about it before my mother started talking about it. And then, because I loved my mother and didn’t want her to die, I spent months trying to talk her out of it. 

I still believe assisted suicide—especially physician assisted suicide—should be legal but I don’t think we can underestimate the moral and emotional burden involved in participating in someone’s death. 

That said, I’ve often wondered if my mother would have stayed alive longer if physician assisted suicide had been legal in Washington, D.C., in 2001. I think if she’d known she could count on a trusted doctor to come to her house, at a time of her choosing, and help her die in a quick and compassionate way, she might have relaxed a bit more about it, let nature takes it course.

I also know that if my sister and I hadn’t been worrying about the legal risks, we would have been more willing to help her. Having a doctor or hospice nurse there also would have allowed us to focus more on the meaning—instead of the means—of her death. 

10. Your mother passed away about nine years ago. What have you been up to since that time?

I’ve been raising my children, playing music with my band, and—of course—writing. I am currently at work on a novel.

11. What advice would you give to someone who is in a similar situation as yourself, caring for a loved one who wishes to die?

I’m reluctant to give advice. Every situation is unique, so it’s dangerous to generalize. I would only suggest that people TALK ABOUT THINGS IN ADVANCE, listen deeply to what their family members are asking for, and be honest about what they can and can’t do for them. 

12. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Make a serious commitment to your writing—and don’t give up!