On "Mortality" - An interview with Christopher Hitchens' widow Carol Blue
Christopher Hitchens passed away in December 2011, having been stricken with severe chest pains a year and a half earlier, the first signs of esophageal cancer. Up until a day before he died, Hitchens wrote the words that would compose his last book Mortality, a clear-eyed and poignant exploration of his final days; a book with the ability to move readers to laughter and tears, often on the same page. Mortality was a September selection for Best Books of the Month, and in his review Neal Thompson called it "Funny, smart, irreverent, and surprisingly moving," declaring that "this lucid, unflinching end-of-life journey through 'Tumorville' is brave and powerful stuff."
Amazon was able to talk to Hitchens' widow Carol Blue, who was as thoughtful and candid in her answers as her husband is in the pages of Mortality.
Amazon: Mortality shows us a different side of Christopher Hitchens. How was he different in private from the public persona that so many of us saw?
There was a gentle side of Christopher that wasn’t necessarily on display in his public appearances. If you were to watch every YouTube video of Christopher speaking and debating, it wouldn’t convey what he was like in private. When he got sick all of his greatest traits were amplified; he was tender, funny, sweet, generous, and always extraordinarily resolute.
Amazon: Your husband fell ill just as he began his book tour for his memoir Hitch-22. How did life change for you and him after his diagnosis with esophageal cancer?
Well, as he says in Mortality, “I had real plans for my next decade.” And he was only 61 so he should have had at least another quarter-century. There were many subjects he wanted to tackle, many places he wanted to visit, and many more books he planned to write, such as one on the Ten Commandments and another on Proust.
He was constantly jetting off to exotic spots, lecturing at universities, reporting from war zones. Then, suddenly, he was earthbound. That was a huge adjustment. That he could no longer travel was one his great sadnesses, but he continued to travel in his head. In the opening days of the Arab Spring, he desperately wanted to jump on a plane and be there: still, he wrote presciently about the upwelling of democratic yearnings in Tahrir Square from Washington, DC. He continued to write his columns, his dispatches, his essays about everything: Mormons, Dickens, Chesterton, Orwell.
Having fallen ill, he filed from home and became a correspondent reporting from the foreign land of his own illness.
Amazon: Why did your husband choose to chronicle his illness so publicly?
He didn’t choose to – he ultimately agreed to. As I write in the Afterword to Mortality, when he signed up with Vanity Fair, he promised his editor Graydon Carter that he would write about any subject he was assigned to him except sports. Still, he was reluctant to make himself his own subject. He wanted to maintain a private sphere, and there were so many other subjects he would have rather explored, but ultimately he found a way to get interested in the “story “of his illness. Christopher filed dispatches from outposts where few had ever gone, like North Korea, but now he was writing from the front-lines of Maladyland. While being stricken with cancer is a common experience, his journey to this particular outpost and his explication of it seems to me unique because he was able to bring to bear on it his Hitchens-esque reportage.
Amazon: What did he hope to convey to readers from this book?
He found much of contemporary literature on the subject woefully lacking, overly sentimental and not tremendously helpful, in some cases even explicitly unhelpful and misleading. Of course there were exceptions. I was pleased that in her review for NPR’s website, Heller McAlpin said Mortality “…earns a proud spot on the end-of-life shelf, along with Julian Barnes' Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Joan Wickersham's The Suicide Index, Saul Bellow's Ravelstein, and Philip Roth's Everyman and Exit Ghost, to name just a few.”
Christopher wrote about his experience with the same intellectual curiosity and rigor that motivated all of his work. As he said in his preface, written after he knew he was ill, to the paperback edition of his memoir Hitch-22: “I wasn’t born to do any of the things I set down here, but I was born to die.”
Amazon: There is a stark realism about his illness throughout Mortality, but his writing is imbued with an intermittent sense of optimism. Did you and he feel he might beat it?
We knew the odds weren’t great, but yes, Christopher was hoping to be among the small number who could be cured. As he says in Mortality: “What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”
I wish that he could have written a different book with a different ending, and I wish that he was the one answering these questions for you. And though it wouldn’t have been titled Immortality, Christopher would at least have been on the scene to explain his odyssey himself.(Photos: #1 - Hitchens and Blue during the Romanian Revolution in 1989, #2 - Hitchens in the Middle East in the early 1990s, #3 - Photo Credit: Brooks Kraft/Corbis)