Catherine Newman writes parenting memoirs, blogs, middle grade novels, essays, and an etiquette column for Real Simple magazine, and her first adult novel, We All Want Impossible Things will be published by Harper this November. The poignant and personal story of the decades-long friendship of Edith and Ashley takes place in a hospice ward, where Edi is dying of ovarian cancer. Sound sad? Heartbreaking? It is. But it’s also heartwarming and life affirming—and yes, hilarious.
They’re surrounded by family, friends, caregivers (the hunky hospice physician they dub “Dr. Soprano,” whose member Ashley compares to a very large zucchini), and fellow patients, like Ruth in the room next door who plays the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack on repeat and asks Ashley if she’s just come off the school bus. “I did, Ruth! I came right to you,” Ashley says in the book. “Forty-five-year-old me, fresh off the school bus with my undereye bags and plantar fasciitis and boobs hanging down my torso like beige knee socks with no legs in them. There’s nothing like hospice to remind you that decrepitude is totally relative.”
When Edi forgets something, her response typically is “Fuuuuuk. This suuuuuuks.” And Ashley, Newman writes, “pictures her mind like a bar, her thoughts and memories nursing their last round. It’s closing time, and you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. I untangle her tubes and wires, hang them on a pole behind her, and climb into her bed. A few little tears drip out of her eyes, which are closed again. ‘It does,’ I say, laying my head on her pillow. I touch a tear with my fingertip, touch my fingertip to my lips. ‘It totally sucks.’ ”
Newman explains that her best friend for her entire life died of ovarian cancer seven years ago. “I was so completely changed,” she says. “Not only by the loss but the experience of her dying. I began volunteering in hospice. My children called it my ‘weird hobby.’ The novel always had a place in my brain, and then the pandemic hit and I sat down and wrote it. A novel seemed the best way to tell the story. I needed the cloak of fiction; it gave me room, distance.”
Though Newman says the novel “poured out of her,” she adds, “I hate that crap when writers talk about channeling and the mysterious process. I write for a living. I write for money. Give me $100 and I’ll write 14 lines about tampons. But this story really did pour out.”
Newman is gregarious and delightful to talk to, and I’m a total fan when she tells me about her personal “sticker chart.” She joined a friend’s sticker-of-the-month club and gave herself a sticker for every 500 words she wrote. “So absurd,” she adds, “but I’m a simple person and need a very simple reward.”
Writing the book, she says, changed her feelings. “It was incredibly sad to work on, but when someone dies over a long illness, you remember the end, and writing the novel I was able to immerse myself in our relationship, the times we had together. Being in that space was wonderful. I was so lucky to have this friendship; it was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.”
Jennifer Gates, Newman’s agent and a partner at Aevitas Creative Management, has known Newman “forever.” Their relationship began when Newman reached out about her 2005 book Waiting for Birdy, a memoir of anticipating a second child and raising a toddler.
In February 2021, Newman sent Gates an email saying she was halfway through a novel; when the first draft arrived in March, Gates recalls, she was “blown away.” We All Want Impossible Things was sent out in May 2021 to strong interest, and she began scheduling meetings with publishers. The plan was to go to auction, until Harper executive editor Sara Nelson offered a preempt. “When you fall in love with a book, a number of people to send it to springs to mind,” Gates says. “And Sara was at the top of my list.”
Nelson remembers receiving the manuscript and not looking at it immediately. “I got a nudge from Jennifer who said she thought I would really like it,” she says. “I picked it up on a Friday and I was hooked. I wrote back over the weekend—which I try not to do usually, but I did—telling Jennifer I wanted it.”
Nelson says that the blurb from KJ Dell’Antonia sums up her sentiments about We All Want Impossible Things: “The funniest, most joyful book about dying—and living—that I have ever read.” She adds that the book had enormous in-house support—“Everyone was crazy about it”—and Newman accepted a substantial offer for North American rights in mid-June. Doubleday will publish it in the U.K. in December, and to date, rights have been sold in Germany and France.
Gates says that Newman’s decision to write a novel was a natural progression. “Catherine is a beautiful writer. I knew if she wrote a novel it would be terrific. The book is about loss, but also about family and friendship and love in all its dysfunction.”
Newman, of the personal sticker chart, is more pragmatic. “The book is so sad,” she tells me, “I’m expecting people won’t say awful things, but keep it to themselves. I get so much hate mail from my column and parenting books that this one makes me think I’ll be protected.”
Tell me who the mean people are, Catherine. I’ll get them.