My guest this week is Victoria Noe, whose experience working with AIDS patients in the 1980s prepared her to write a series of “Friend Grief” books on dealing with loss when somebody close to you dies.
What Victoria worked on was a way of making sense of her own grief for a friend. And she found that she’s not alone in needing a way to cope, or at least seeing how other people cope with grief. She came up with her series of books on ways people grieve for friends.
Victoria also has advice for other authors who tackle such serious subjects.
Every week I interview a member of ALLi to talk about their writing and what inspires them, and why they are inspiring to other authors.
A few highlights from our interview:
On Sudden Inspiration
About five months after my concussion, we were on vacation in Michigan and I woke up one morning—had a really weird dream—and the book popped into my head and knew exactly what it was going to be like, and that’s when I started working on it.
On the Need for Self-Care Among Writers
I don’t think writers think in terms of self-care. There have been times when, in doing the research for all my books, I had to step back, I had to literally step back, put it away, stop interviewing people, stop researching, because I could feel myself sinking.
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Listen to My Interview with ‘Friend Grief’ Author Victoria Noe
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About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last six years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcript
Howard Lovy: I’m Howard Lovy, and you’re listening to Inspirational Indie Authors. Every week I feature a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors to find out what inspires them and how they are an inspiration to other authors. My guest this week is Victoria Noe whose experience working with AIDS patients in the 1980s prepared her to read a series of books on how to handle grief when a close friend dies.
Victoria Noe: I’m Victoria Noe. I live in Chicago. I’ve lived here for a long time. I grew up in St. Louis and I trained in the theater. I have a master’s in theatre from the University of Iowa, and I moved to Chicago to work in the theatre community. Writing is actually my fourth career. I started off as a stage manager and director then I sort of wound up by default doing fundraising and that fundraising took me out of the theater community and actually into the AIDS community at the height of the epidemic in the late 80s and early 90s.
Howard Lovy: Victoria can trace her love of the theater to an incident in her childhood when fireworks went off. Literally.
Victoria Noe: This is going to sound really weird. When I was growing up in St. Louis, we used to go to the Municipal Opera in Forest Park, which is an outdoor professional summer musical theater. And I remember once when I was little, we were walking, my parents and my sister and I were leaving, and the curtain call was still going on. I don’t remember what the musical was and fireworks went off. And I thought, “I want to be part of that.” And I thought that every play had fireworks during the curtain call, which, of course, turned out to not be true, but I just always enjoyed it and musical theatre is one of the great loves of my life.
Howard Lovy: So she worked in the theater in the 80s at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and she started losing close friends.
Victoria Noe: Well, I had sort of stopped directing and stage managing and gotten into the fundraising part of theatre community and, you know, the arts were heavily decimated by the AIDS epidemic and my friends were getting sick and my friends were dying and I had AIDS organization surprise approached me and say “Will you help us raise money?” And I did that until 1994 and I burned out, quite frankly, I burned out. My daughter had just been born and I just stepped back from it.
Howard Lovy: So Victoria spent the next decade and a half selling books to libraries. She enjoyed it until a traffic accident abruptly ended her sales career.
Victoria Noe: It was 10 years ago, St. Patrick’s Day and I got rear ended at a red light and it was very minor, I mean, the car only had a cracked tail light, you know, very minor, but I had a concussion. I still deal with the after effects today. It changed my life, because I could no longer work full time in sales. I didn’t know what I was going to be able to do and that’s what actually when I started writing.
Well, that was 2009 and three years earlier, a friend of mine was in remission from ovarian cancer and I told her I had this idea for a book about people grieving the death of a friend and she said, “Oh, you should write it.” And I said, “I’ve never written a book before.”
She said, “That’s okay. Just do it.” And about six months after that conversation, she died and that was in late 2006 and I tried a couple of times, I had no idea what I was doing. I was used to writing grant proposals and marketing plans I was not used to writing, you know, a book. That’s different and about five months after my concussion, we were on vacation in Michigan and I woke up one morning. I had a really weird dream. I woke up one morning, and the book popped into my head and I knew exactly what it was going to be like and that’s when I started working on it.
Howard Lovy: What Victoria worked on was a way of making sense of her own grief for a friend and she found that she’s not alone in needing a way to cope or at least seeing how other people cope with grief. She came up with a series of books on the ways people grieve for friends.
Victoria Noe: So there’s one that’s about losing friends to AIDS. There’s also one about losing friends in the military, about losing friends on 9/11, losing friends you work with. The first and the last books in this series are a little different because the first one addresses the anger you feel not just that your friend has died, but that the people around you may not respect the depth of your grief. And the final book, which was a total surprise to me, I could have never predicted is just about men grieving their friends, because I went into this thinking men would be the toughest interviews because, you know, men don’t talk about their feelings. And the men’s interviews turned out to be the longest, the most involved, and the deepest interviews I did/
Howard Lovy: Victoria says “Don’t call them self help books.” She’s not a therapist, and she doesn’t really give advice. She tells the stories of how other people grieve for friends, and through these stories, readers who are grieving may feel less alone.
Victoria Noe: Grief changes everybody. One of my oldest and dearest friends died a month ago today and we met in college in 1973. And, you know, we’d had a lot of ups and downs. He was a funny, complicated guy who you could hate and love in the same conversation. We were very close and my husband and his partner knew that and supported that. But his death came as a real shock to me. Next week, I go out to California for his memorial service and even though, you know, I’ve written all these books it doesn’t make the grief I experience myself any easier.
Howard Lovy: Victoria’s most recent book is about death, but it’s also about life. It takes a look back at the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and pays tribute not only to the victims, but to many of the women who stood by them through the ordeal.
Victoria Noe: It has a title that I did not intend to give it but the women I interviewed liked it. It’s called Fag Hags, Divas and Moms, The Legacy of Women and the AIDS Community. And my story is in there. There are dozens of women in the book, 100 or so, throughout the epidemic, around the world who had an impact in the course of the AIDS epidemic, and have never been recognized for their contributions. A few days after I go to this memorial service I’m doing a book signing in San Francisco and there will be women who were in the book present at that book signing and that’s happened here in Chicago and in New York as well. It’s been a fascinating experience because when I finished the friend grief books I thought, “I have nothing more to say. I’m done. I’m going to do something else now. And apparently I did have something else to say.”
Howard Lovy: Victoria writes about grief, both her own and the grief of others, and that can take its toll on the emotions. Her advice if you’re writing about grief, “Make sure you take care of yourself and seek the support of others.”
Victoria Noe: I don’t think writers think in terms of self care. There have been times when, in doing the research for all of my books, I had to step back. I had to literally step back, put it away, stop interviewing people, stop researching because I could feel myself sinking. I always came back, but I needed a break.
I found that actually to be the hardest with the 9/11 book. It was really easy to sink into that and harder to get out of it but I did and I talked to other writers about this. I think memoir writers are much more at ease talking about the need for self care, the need for support, I think, than other kinds of writers. But I will say that that particular kind of experience has changed the way I talk to people who want to write a book.
Because, you know, people come up to you and say, “Oh, I always wanted to write a book, I’ve got this idea, blah, blah, blah.” And I’m always supportive and I used to say, “Oh, just write it. Just sit down, write, find some time. Don’t edit, you know, just write.” And now I say, “What is it you want to write about?”
And I try to get a sense of what the issues are and if there are issues like grief or abuse or some kind of trauma, I tell them to make sure that they have a support group around them while they do this. It can be other writers. It could be family members, it can be friends. Because when you start digging into this, all kinds of stuff is going to pop up that you did not expect and it’s important to have those people around you who can look at you and say “You need to take a break. Or do you want to talk about it? Or what can I do to help?”