PW: Will the Circle Be Unbroken? is about death and mortality. Because of that, was it harder to do than your other oral histories?
ST: No, it was easier. It was just about the quickest book I've ever done. Some friends of mine thought the book would be too grim, too depressing, they thought it would turn people off. On the contrary, it turns them on! People are interested in this, it's something many of us think about every day. But in the final analysis, the book is really about that long prelude to death, namely, life. And there's no better subject than that.
PW: Your wife died two years ago, after 60 years of marriage. How did that affect your work on the book?
ST: I actually began the book before my wife died. I had the idea of it in my head already. But there's no doubt that her death added urgency to it. Urgency is too mild a word, actually. It made the book more important to me than I ever imagined. And of course, it's still with me. Grief does not diminish with time.
PW: Was working on the book cathartic for you?
ST: You bet. Like I said in the introduction, it was a palliative beyond prescription. It helped enormously.
PW: What surprised you most about the people you interviewed?
ST: It was that they wanted to talk about death. Many of us are raised not to discuss certain things—politics, you know, and religion. And certainly death. But in reality, the opposite is the case. Once people got going, they couldn't stop talking about it. Death is a shared human experience, it's one of the few things that we all confront. And so we want to talk about it.
PW: Are you religious?
ST: No, not really. I'm an agnostic, which basically is a cowardly atheist. The agnostics of the world, we like to cover all our bases.
PW: Do you worry about death?
ST: Not really. There it is, you know? I can't do anything about it. As Hamlet says, it's the place from which no traveler returns. But I have ways of dealing with it in sort of a roundabout way... for solace, I keep fresh daisies on the windowsill. They were my wife's favorite flower, and I keep them on the windowsill next to the urn with her ashes in it. And occasionally I'll say something her way, "What do you think about that, huh?" Things like that. And, of course, now I'm working on another book.
PW: What's it about?
ST: Hope! It's called Hope Dies Last, and its about how people preserve their hope even when it seems almost impossible to do so. I may not finish the damn thing, I am 89, after all, but it keeps me going. When you come down to it, it's the work that keeps me going.
PW: What do you think is the ultimate message of this book?
ST: Live! Live as fully as you can and don't worry about death and what happens to you then. You don't know about heaven and hell, nobody does. But there's certainly hell on earth, and perhaps a touch of heaven, too. So try to live well here while you can, and don't worry about what, if anything, comes after.