By Kathy Des Jardins Cioffi
Colleen Oakley’s debut novel, “Before I Go,” concerns a young woman who, when faced with an aggressive recurrence of breast cancer, decides to find a new wife for her husband before she dies.
After looking for the perfect match in parks, coffee shops and online dating sites, the book’s heroine is eventually forced to decide what’s more important in the brief time she has left: her husband’s happiness or her own?
Oakley, who lives in Smyrna with her husband and four young children, including 18-month-old twins, was formerly the senior editor of Marie Claire and editor-in-chief of Women’s Health & Fitness. She has written for The New York Times, Ladies’ Home Journal, Marie Claire, Women’s Health, Redbook, Parade and Martha Stewart Weddings.
About six years ago, she had the “very difficult assignment” to interview a young woman who was dying of metastasized breast cancer.
“It was tough for obvious reasons,” Oakley said, “but also because we were both around the same age (late 20s), and we were both newlyweds at the time. I instantly connected with her, and though we only spoke for about 20 minutes, I just couldn’t shake the interview for days after.
“I lay awake in bed next to my snoring husband and wondered not just what I would do in her shoes, but what my husband would do. We were so young, and I knew he would obviously remarry at some point, and I wondered what his new wife would be like – and then, what I would want her to be like. And that’s when I had the spark of the idea – what if you could choose your replacement, the person who would marry your spouse after you were gone?”
“Before I Go,” released in 2015, was a People Best New Book Pick, an Us Weekly “Must” Pick, a Publisher’s Lunch Buzz Book, a Library Journal Big Fiction Debut, and an Indie Next List Pick.
Oakley’s second book, “Close Enough to Touch,” will be published in February 2017. ■
When Julia McDermott was growing up in Tucker, she fancied becoming a writer. It would prove a patient, and prophetic childhood dream.
Several decades later – after studying a year in France, working in banking and software development in Dallas, marrying her college sweetheart, beginning a family and crisscrossing the country four times before settling back in the Atlanta area – that old urge to write remained.
In 2006, with 20-year-old twins and a pair of teens, McDermott finally began her first novel. “Make That Deux,” a romance set in France, was published in October 2012. In the four years since, the Brookhaven resident has released a psychological suspense, “Underwater,” and, in April, another suspense, “Daddy’s Girl.”
But it’s the story of her one work of creative nonfiction that reveals McDermott’s experience to be something far more than yet another writer, eventually finding success in traditional and independent publishing.
That book, the award-winning “All the Above: My son’s battle with brain cancer,” came out in 2015, though the harrowing events it details began five years earlier, before McDermott had published a single title.
Recently, just back from a mystery and suspense writers’ conference in New Orleans, she reflected on her youngest son’s diagnosis, treatment and the book that chronicled it all.
Take us back to the events of 2010, several years after you had started writing.
My son Jack was diagnosed with a brain tumor on his 19th birthday, May 8, 2010, over two years before my first novel was published. I had finished it and was working on a sequel (which I later abandoned.)
Jack was a freshman at UGA that spring. The week before his diagnosis, he began having vision problems during final exams. He made it through the week, but on his first day home, he woke up with crossed eyes and double vision. He had an eye exam and was advised that something in his brain was wreaking havoc and damaging his optic nerves. The eye doctor sent Jack straight to Northside Hospital for an MRI, and it revealed he had a brain tumor. That night, Jack had surgery to place a shunt to save his sight, which he was within hours of losing.
Jack’s eyes returned to normal, but the tumor remained, and as he recovered we began figuring out what to do. We sent copies of Jack’s MRI to doctors in Atlanta and around the country, and spoke to neurosurgeons at Emory, Duke and Johns Hopkins. All said Jack needed what we had hoped to avoid: invasive brain surgery.
That surgery wasn’t the end of Jack’s journey, and I was his caregiver. I turned into a mama bear, doing all I could to help him, protect him and be his advocate. He leaned on me for emotional support, and he drove the flow of information about his illness to family and friends.
What did you learn that nothing could have prepared you for prior to this journey?
Cancer forced Jack to stare death in the face. Through his ordeal, I learned to live in the present instead of the future, and that the whole world can change in a day.
What would you say to anyone reeling from a cancer diagnosis?
I would say don’t ask “Why?” Don’t waste any of your energy or strength on that question. Instead, use it all to fight the disease. I would also echo what Jack has said: “Just try (not all at once, just step by step) to have hope. Resiliency is a wonderful thing. Sometimes something great happens when all feels lost.”
How is Jack now?
Jack is five-and-a-half years cancer-free. He sees a neurosurgeon and has an MRI once a year now. He graduated from UGA in December 2013, received his master’s degree in May 2016 and starts working at an accounting firm in New York City in October. Everyone in our family admires his incredible strength, courage and spirit.
When – and why – did you decide to write about this experience?
I began writing “All the Above” in April 2013 while I was at the beach on spring break with my daughter. I felt compelled to share Jack’s story of triumph from my point of view to help those touched by cancer.
Did Jack mind being the subject of such a personal book?
No. He read much of it ahead of publication and was proud of me for writing it.
Was this book easier to write than works of fiction?
It was more challenging. My emotions when Jack was ill came rushing back to the surface, and I felt almost as if we were going through that time all over again. But it was therapeutic for me to write, and to reveal my feelings when I was afraid I could lose him.
Explain the title.
During treatment, Jack and I often sang along to his playlist of hip hop tunes. One was “All the Above” by Maino, and some of the lyrics related exactly to what Jack was going through. And there were two more reasons: One, Jack is 6-foot-4. Two, during his journey, he kept getting bad news before he ever got any good. So it felt like “all the above” kept on hitting him.
The book was a memoir/autobiography finalist in the 2016 Georgia Author of the Year awards. Has the recognition led to invitations to speak?
Yes. The Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation reached out to me, and I also spoke at a retreat for cancer patients and survivors. My message is one of hope and of letting go of fear. When Jack was ill, we kept saying we wouldn’t take “No” for an answer, meaning we always believed that, yes, Jack would live.
In what ways has Jack’s ordeal shaped your approach to writing and life in general?
I’ve reevaluated the way I look at life. Each day truly is a gift, and there are no guarantees. I’m thankful for all my blessings and worry less than I used to. In my writing, I’ve become more proactive, disciplined and passionate. And I decided to stop waiting for things to happen but to make them happen instead.
Where can readers find “All the Above” as well as your other books?
Order them from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at any bookstore. Autographed copies can be ordered on my website, juliamcdermottbooks.com. I am doing a book signing at Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur Oct. 15 from 2-4 p.m. I’ll also be the moderator-panelist on the nonfiction panel, “Tell it like it is,” at the Milton Literary Festival Nov. 11-12. ■