March 2004

Suzy Becker

I need a focus group like I need a hole in my head
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The author of the bestsellers All I Need To Know I Learned from My Cat and My Dog's the World's Best Dog, Suzy Becker was proceeding with her career as a writer-illustrator when she was diagnosed in 1999 with a tumor that would require brain surgery. In a new illustrated memoir, I Had Brain Surgery, What's Your Excuse? Becker gives a poignant and funny account of her journey to recovery. Known for her starkly original perspective, Becker shares the story behind the book in the "interview" that follows.

Behind the Book: This new book is such a departure from your previous work did you ever consider calling it All I Need to Know I Learned from My CAT-scan? [We laugh.] Seriously, what inspired you to write it?

Me: I think it was the fourth or fifth day after the operation. I was laid up at home, recuperating from a bunionectomy, not officially back to work and the idea came to me. Kind of one of those eureka moments. I picked up the phone, called my editor. And I remember her reaction exactly: Bunion surgery?! No one's going to want to read a book about bunion surgery! I didn't agree, I still don't. I think people will read about anything if it's good or interesting or funny enough, but . . . a week later, there was a videotape in my mailbox. She had focus-grouped my book idea. The people in the focus group all wanted to read about brain surgery.

BTB: You got the idea from a focus group?

Me: Not really. But none of this is real—I'm making the whole interview up, as in there is no Behind the Book behind Behind the Book.

BTB: I'll go along. What inspired you to write the book, really?

Me: Not the obvious answer. . . . I never felt inspired to write this book, like I did with the cat or dog book; I felt compelled. At the time (May 1999), I was planning to write and illustrate an altogether different memoir, a book about my decision whether or not to have a baby. I had applied for a fellowship at Harvard to work on it in the fall. Three days after I found out I got the fellowship, I had the grand mal seizure that led to the diagnosis of the mass on my left parietal lobe and then the brain surgery. If everything had gone according to plan, I think I still would have written the other book. Maybe included a chapter on the brain surgery. But, the surgery, an awake craniotomy, which carried some risk to my upper-right-side mobility (my drawing hand) ended up unexpectedly messing up my language abilities: speech, reading and writing. No one knew how long the problems would last. Twenty-four hours stretched into 18 months. I went to Harvard in the fall anyway (two months after my surgery), commuting in to Boston for speech therapy, basically keeping to myself, and my notebook. I made notes about everything.

My handwriting and sentence formation were frighteningly crude right after the surgery (the actual notes are in the book), but by the fall, my notebook had become a source of comfort, a confidante. Forget about speech problems just saying the words "brain surgery" sucks the air out of a room. I talked to the notebook.

Eventually, I had to start working on a book. A colloquium (a word I was never able to say until after I left Harvard) presentation is the only requirement of the fellowship year. Mine was scheduled for March. The baby decision book was out of the question I was on birth-defect causing anti-seizure medication up through November. When I finally sat down to write, I was forced to write what I knew, and there was really only one topic I knew anything about.

BTB: You mentioned that people don't really want to talk about the subject. Were you worried that they wouldn't want to read about it?

Me: Sure. And I worried that there wasn't a book in it. Every day of the fellowship year, I wondered whether I would have thought any of it was funny if things had turned out worse. There was a Fellow across the hall whose sister had died of brain cancer the summer I had my surgery. Writing the book it took me three years was my recovery. I am grateful to Harvard and to Peter Workman for publishing it.

BTB: What about the baby decision book?

Me: What about the bunion surgery book?

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