August 2010

Gail Caldwell

Sit, stay, heal
Interview by
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Somehow it seems fitting that a conversation with Gail Caldwell would be punctuated by the jubilant barks of a dog—fitting because her exquisite new memoir, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is a celebration of friendship, both canine and human.

Critic and author Caldwell wrote the book as a moving tribute to her best friend, writer Caroline Knapp, who died of lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 42.

From her Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, Caldwell explains that the source of said barking is her fluffy Samoyed, Tula, whom she lovingly describes as “a devil in a white suit.” Apparently, Tula protests when Gail is on the phone and at present is loudly voicing her disapproval and demanding a game of fetch. “She has me very well trained,” Caldwell (halfway) jokes.

Knapp would probably have appreciated this interruption because it was while walking their dogs that she and Caldwell forged their enduring, life-altering friendship. Though their time together was cut short by Knapp’s death, that was not, as Caldwell tells us in Let’s Take the Long Way Home, the end of their story. She opens her book with this poignant pronouncement, “It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.”

When they met in the early ’90s, Knapp and Caldwell, both single and living in Cambridge, instantly bonded over their shared love of books, dogs and being outdoors. Caldwell was a book critic for the Boston Globe—her work there earned her a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2001—while Knapp was the author of the acclaimed 1996 memoir Drinking: A Love Story [read our review of Knapp's Appetites].

As their friendship grew, they learned that, despite different upbringings and a nine-year age difference, they had much in common, including their past struggles with alcohol. Caldwell writes eloquently about alcoholism and sobriety but doesn’t linger on the subject. When she does offer insights, they are profound and spot-on, but, she says, “Once you’ve been sober 25 years, the story distills itself. . . . It was a baseline, but I didn’t need to tell that whole story.”

Instead, in Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Caldwell concentrates on the intimacies and intricacies of their extraordinary friendship. “About halfway through our friendship, I think I realized that it was, in fact, unique,” she says.

In the book, Caldwell writes, “Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived.” This is not to say, however, that the relationship was without its share of conflict. Both women were deeply private and self-reliant—and both were writers. Rather than ignore problems, they faced them head on. “We loved to dissect and explain and process and wonder. Because we acknowledged the rivalry between us, Caroline and I went toward each other instead of away from each other.”

She says that welcoming their competitive spirit, a “great energy,” allowed them to challenge themselves physically and creatively. Caldwell, for instance, helped Knapp become a stronger swimmer, while Knapp introduced Caldwell to the Zen-like pleasures of rowing on the Charles River.

They learned other things, too, like how to be vulnerable and how to trust in and lean on someone you love—not easy things for such fiercely independent women. 

Caldwell especially appreciated Knapp’s unflinching honesty. “I’m worried you’re sick of me,” Caldwell says she once confided in Knapp, who responded matter-of-factly, “I’m not, but what if I were? Big deal.” She says, “I remember feeling like I could exhale; it was a wonderfully liberating moment.”

She also admired Knapp’s quiet intensity. “We could always match each other in terms of intensity,” she says. “She could outdo me in terms of just staying power, and I didn’t know many people who could. And I don’t just mean on the river, I mean on the phone. That was one of the things we recognized in each other from the beginning.”

She elaborates on this connection in the book. “For both of us, in different ways, the volume of the world had been turned up a notch,” Caldwell writes. “Even on that first afternoon we spent together—a four-hour walk through late-summer woods—I remember being moved by Caroline: It was a different response from simple affection or camaraderie.”

Readers will also find themselves moved by Caroline, and will almost certainly be moved to tears when she is diagnosed with lung cancer that has spread to her liver and brain. The description of her illness and death is spare but wrenching.

Caldwell, however, also laughingly recalls times when they acted more like insecure teenage girls than self-assured grown women, playfully exclaiming, “I think you’re prettier than me!” or “I like your arms better than mine.” She pauses at the memory of her friend’s strong, rower’s physique. “She had these beautiful arms,” she muses, and you sense that she can still see her with searing clarity in her mind’s eye, suntanned and laughing by the river.

When writing about the life and death of a close friend, it would be easy to lapse into sentimentality, but Caldwell avoids this pitfall, instead offering a meditation on grief that is tender but never mawkish. “I always remember her being skeptical about any story that did not tell how difficult human relationships are,” Caldwell says. “Grief itself gives you the great capacity to make everything perfect in the friendship . . . and I could hear Caroline saying, ‘You’ve got to talk about the struggles . . . you’ve got to talk about how hard this was.’ I owe that honesty in many ways to her.”

About the process of writing the Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Caldwell reflects, “I was very scared when I started to work on this. There was a point where I thought that I would never write about Caroline and me. And then there became a point after that when I thought I couldn’t not write about it. I really went from one extreme to the other.”

As she grappled with this dilemma, she says, “Caroline was really my compass.” For a time, Caldwell would walk in the evening with Clementine (her beloved, aged Samoyed, a major player in the book), look up at the sky and ask Caroline, “Can I do this?” The answer she received time and again proved as insistent as two-year-old Tula, who throughout this interview continues to nudge Gail with her snout in a dogged plea to play ball.

Caldwell explains that she felt compelled to share this story in part because, “One of the most important things to me is knowing that there are people out there for whom Caroline’s book [Drinking] meant a great deal . . . and now I get to give people the Caroline that I knew.”

Caldwell, who says her book is “a tribute to memory,” adds, “There were passages I wrote with tears streaming down my face . . . but there was something else about it that was restorative. There was some way it captured the love and intensity between us, encapsulated it, which I guess is what writing does.” Especially writing as luminous as this.  

Get the Book

Let’s Take the Long Way Home

Let’s Take the Long Way Home

By Gail Caldwell
Random House
ISBN 9781400067381

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