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An Interview with Anne Pinkerton, author of Were You Close?

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Anne Pinkerton is an essayist, memoirist, and poet. Her work often circles around grief and loss, as well as coping with these painful realities in our lives. Her writing has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Ars Medica, Modern Loss, “Beautiful Things” at River Teeth Journal, Sunlight Press, The Keepthings, and the anthologies The Pandemic Midlife Crisis: Gen X Women on the Brink and Nothing Divine Dies: A Poetry Anthology About Nature, among other publications. Anne holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University and lives in western Massachusetts.

You can buy Were You Close? here.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

When I was 35, my beloved and heroic older brother David died suddenly while hiking in Colorado—he made a misstep and fell 200 feet from the top of a 14,000-foot peak. Added to the predictable shock and heartbreak, I found the experience to be as isolating as any I’ve experienced. I hadn’t realized that society at large doesn’t think losing a sibling, especially as an adult, is a big deal.

Though the people in my life were supportive, everyone’s patience for others’ grief is limited. I figured, surely, there were books—as an avid lifelong reader and writer, that was the obvious place to turn for consolation and company—but there weren’t.

The shelves of my local bookstores were laden with stories about the death of parents, spouses, and children, but there were none about sibling loss. Clerks scratched their heads. I had to search online to find exactly two books that addressed the experience of losing a brother or sister: The Empty Room by Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn and Surviving the Death of a Sibling by T. J. Wray. The dearth of material on the subject told me as much about it as what the pages in these two books did, but I was grateful to have found anything.

So, in part, I was compelled to write my book to help fill what I consider a substantial void in the literature of loss. I was also driven by my brother’s life—one that was inspired by adventure and compassion. He was a successful doctor and an accomplished athlete who had traveled the globe to participate in competitions of so many kinds: mountain biking, ultramarathons, cyclocross, adventure racing. He loved to be outdoors in wild places, trekking and orienteering, being with teammates and doing it solo. I wanted to tell the whole world how amazing he was.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

For more than 20 years, I’ve paid the bills working in marketing communication, largely for non-profits, as I’m a mission-driven kind of person. In the last decade, I’ve held roles in higher education, which provides endless opportunities to tell fascinating and varied kinds of stories. I also enjoy the multitude of channels and formats—social media to print, video to email—for disseminating compelling content. Though I’d love to have more time for my personal writing, I’m grateful to be a storyteller for my day job.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

When I first lost my brother, I wasn’t aware of how much our culture avoids talking about grief, or how badly we bungle it. The kinds of things people said and asked ranged from thoughtful to asinine. To be fair, most of my friends and colleagues hadn’t met David, so, surely well-meaning, they asked questions like: “Was he married?” and “Did he have kids?” Worse was, “How’s your mom?” as if the answer to that question wasn’t abundantly obvious—she was shattered, as most any mother would be.

Because I was asked these questions over and over, my internal dialogue got snappier: “Are you more worried about an unknown wife, kids, or our mom than the person you know standing right here?” Other than my closest friends, no one asked how I was holding up or offered to listen when I just wanted to talk about my brother.

The most personal query I received was, “Were you close?” which made me feel less invisible, but provoked larger, less certain answers, and further complicated my sense of entitlement to my grief. We lived far away from each other, had a 12-year age difference, and didn’t talk that much. All of it made me feel unjustified for my ongoing sadness. As if I had something to prove.

While the manuscript was in progress, I wrote a chapter called “Were You Close?” and an MFA professor said to me, “That would make a great book title.” Defining that was super helpful, as the issue of closeness became the thread running through the entire narrative. And now I know, everyone who ever lost someone has been asked this odd question.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

Because I’m a graphic designer, too, I was extremely nervous about seeing the cover. Though my wonderful publisher had gathered my input about imagery and colors and such, I knew they would make the final decision, and I didn’t want to be heavy handed with them. I made a dear friend open the PDF of the cover on my computer because I knew he’d be entirely honest with me. When he finally uncrossed his arms after looking at it for a few seconds and said, “It’s really good,” I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I’m so grateful to say that LOVE my book’s cover in every way, especially because my brother’s face is smiling on it.

Opening your first box of books really is as emotional as everyone says it is. Here you’ve been working on something you care about immensely, often for years, likely with stress or maybe even tears, and here it is, after months or years of anticipation—edited, bound, and packaged. It’s incredible.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

I love this question because my book is jam-packed with music—ranging from Foo Fighters to Silver Jews to Staind to Sarah McLachlan (a weird melange of some of my brother’s favorites and songs that comforted me after his death)—and it DOES have a soundtrack on Spotify! Interested listeners can check it out here.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

Though 80 percent of Americans have at least one sibling, most of us end up sensing we are alone in our anguish or that we are mourning improperly—for too long, too emotionally. That real consideration should be given to others higher up on the “hierarchy of grief.”

The inquiries about marriage and kids and parents in response to my brother’s death were likely the kind of things said in order to say something, but they still only addressed those parties known to be maximally affected. I’ve never felt as alienated as I did when people inquired this way, over and over, as if I were representing my family and not an actual part of it.

When a brother or sister dies, we lose a critical piece of our past as well as a sense of our future—we expect they will grow old with us, outliving our parents. It’s not an incidental grief, regardless of how close we were.

These days, there are a handful more books addressing sibling loss, but their numbers are still far lower than those of other familial losses. I hope we can—as humans—expand our acceptance of grief to include this widely experienced, yet largely unaddressed, occurrence.

A little veneration makes us feel we aren’t broken people—we are just so sad—and being unacknowledged only drags out our pain.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

Right after my book came out, I received a note from a very kind stranger. She had lost her brother—her only sibling—when she was 23 and he was 26, and was writing me at age 65 after finishing Were You Close? Not only had she been plagued by the question, she told me, “I feel a little less alone. Even 42 years later.”

I knew then I had achieved exactly what I set out to. Even if I only reached her—one person—with some consolation that had been lacking, my book was a success.

Naturally, it’s been incredibly moving to hear from many other readers since then that my story was helpful in some way. But I’ll never forget that first message.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

In addition to ongoing work on essays and poetry focused on a wide range of topics, I’m in the middle of a second memoir—this time, about my experience being in a marriage deeply affected by my then-husband’s bipolar disorder, which brought into our lives great love, musical genius, and lots of extreme difficulty.

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