Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, which is published today, is one of the Amazon Book Review editors’ favorite books this month. Nina was 38 years old and living with her husband and their two little boys in Greensboro, North Carolina when doctors discovered a small spot of cancer in her breast. What at first seemed easily treatable turned out not to be, and she found herself in what Montaigne – the writer she turns to for wisdom - called “suspicious country”: a place where death might be just around the corner.
Nina’s cancer proved terminal, but she lived to complete her poignant, life-loving, and often funny memoir with the help of her editor, Marysue Rucci, vice president and editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster. John Duberstein, Nina’s husband, says of Marysue that she “not only took on the project of a dying woman, with all its inherent risks (noncompletion, for one), but made Nina feel as vital as any author – sick or well – could in the writing of a manuscript. She too forged a relationship with Nina that transcended their professional roles.” We asked Marysue to tell us more about working with Nina on this remarkable book.
Amazon Book Review: Marysue, how did you come to publish The Bright Hour?
On September 23rd, 2016, Nina published an essay in the New York Times’s Modern Love column, titled “When a Couch is More than a Couch.” Less than two weeks later, Nina’s agent Brettne Bloom sent me a proposal called “15 Signs Death is Near,” which was an expansion of the Modern Love piece. I read the proposal at my desk and wrote an email to Brettne: “Please let me publish this book.” The pages were brilliant – laugh-out-loud funny, intelligent, and deeply moving. Nina’s experience as a mother and wife, grappling with a terminal diagnosis while living (and loving) every day, felt incredibly noble, but she also made it incredibly identifiable. And she wasn’t at all maudlin. That afternoon I spoke with Nina by phone - about what the book would look like, about her poetry, about her family and her dreams for the publication. It was an instant connection. I made an offer that afternoon, and the next morning Brettne called to tell me Nina accepted.
Nina Riggs and John Duberstein
What attracted you to the Nina’s writing?
Nina was a published poet, and I was immediately struck by the precision and elegance of her language. She was also unafraid to reveal the messy beauty of living – to be raw and vulnerable and human on the page. So at once there was this elevated prose with echoing metaphors and intellectualism – Montaigne is a special muse in this book – and simultaneously a deep relatability and immediacy. It’s a gorgeous combination.
What was the process of editing The Bright Hour like?
Nina wrote the book between late September 2016 and January 2017. What she produced in that time is truly astonishing. After all, she was terminally ill and still mothering two young sons and holding together a life she loved in Greensboro. She sent the book in to me and her agent in pieces - it’s broken into four parts. With each submission of material, the structure and language were just there. The book flowed out of her, like she was in a fever dream. She would email us sections, and I would edit on the page and scan and return the pages to her. There were small notes - mainly I filled the margins with stars of approval. The only section that took real editorial back-and-forth was the final section, and we all understood why that was the case.
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Did Nina have a chance to complete work on the manuscript before she died?
Yes, she did. She turned the final manuscript in on January 31, 2017. She got to hold the book galleys and even made some final notes while in hospice. She passed away on February 26, 2017.
What is the lasting impression you have of Nina as a writer and a person?
Nina was magic. I have this photo of her and her husband on the couch they finally purchased after the Modern Love piece, and she is aglow. That’s how I think of her: ablaze with talent and joy and grace and humor.
How is Nina’s family doing now?
Nina chose an amazing life partner in John Duberstein. John is exactly as Nina depicts him on the page – incredibly smart and warm and hilarious. When I met him and their sons, I marveled that Nina had absolutely nailed them. They’re great kids, and John says they’re doing well. They have a terrific support network, including Nina’s father Pete (also in the book). It makes me think of what Nina wrote in her prologue to the book, “And there it is: The beautiful, vibrant, living world goes on.”
Thank you so much, Marysue.
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