Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Q&A with Karen DeBonis




Karen DeBonis is the author of the new memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived.


Q: Why did you decide to write Growth?


A: My short answer is cliche—friends told me I should write a book, so I did.


My long answer will take less time to tell than the almost 25 years it took me to finish my book:


In the year or two following my 11-year-old son Matthew's diagnosis with a brain tumor, I told my friends some of the backstory they hadn’t known. They were as aghast as me at what had happened.


When I thought about their “write a book” suggestions, I agreed that my family’s medical mystery would be engaging for a reader. It was the type of memoir Id pick from a bookshelf. Matthew’s slow deterioration, his odd and unexplainable symptoms, the two years he went undiagnosed and additional year of diagnostic dartboard by myriad specialists—that drama made for a great story.


What I didn’t share with friends was how my inability to assert myself due to a lifetime of people-pleasing contributed to the three-year delay in Matthews diagnosis. I believed that was the bigger and more important story. I committed to telling that difficult truth so other people who also struggle to speak up would realize the danger of their ways and hopefully find a path toward change.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Years ago, my working title was Shades of Gray MATTer, a multi-part play on words. “Gray matter,” of course, is a part of the brain. “Shades of gray” suggests nuance, that there are no black and white conclusions of blame or responsibility, no good guys or bad guys. All of the adults in my story had some culpability in Matthew’s delayed diagnosis. Human behavior is full of nuance and that fact matters when we consider if or how we judge people. And, of course, MATT is for Matthew.


I dropped that clever title after the blockbuster book Fifty Shades of Gray caught fire in 2011. I feared a reader might confuse our books and get an embarrassing (and/or titillating) surprise.

More recently, I asked the writing community on Twitter for feedback on titles, a process I highly recommend. Growth was a crowd favorite. It’s not only a synonym for “tumor,” but represents the personal growth inherent in my story.


My social media friends also liked my subtitle A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived. Editors and agents felt it was cliche, an overused formula. Many memoirs, in fact, use some version of  “a mother, her child,” but mine resonated so much with others, I decided to keep it. I chose to include “survive” in the subtitle so readers who avoid memoirs involving a child’s death (as some Twitter friends indicated) would know my book was “safe.”


Also, I recognize that my memoir is more commercial than literary, meaning it’s an easy, fast-paced read using straightforward language in a conventional structure. A reader doesn’t have to work hard to follow the narrative. I believe my title will appeal to a broad audience and I accept that a literary audience might find it passé. In retrospect, I wish I’d come up with a more clever subtitle, but I still think it works.


Q: What do your family members think of the book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: Matthew loved the idea from the beginning and has been supportive all along. As the launch date gets closer, he and I talk about feeling nervous, but also wanting this chapter of our lives (excuse the pun) behind us.


My husband Michael is a private person; this has been a hard process for him, knowing his role in the story will be shared. But he helps to edit my writing, hands out my business cards to everyone he knows, and spent three hours recently creating blurb quote cards on Canva for me. I could not have reached my goal without his emotional support and unpaid labor.


My younger son Steve is also very private and is happy being a minor character in the book. A few years ago, when I first shared the manuscript with him, he told me, “I’m proud of you, Mom.” He was just beginning to thaw from his prolonged ornery-teenage phase, and I almost melted.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Marketing my book. In my spare time, marketing my book. Even when I sleep, I dream about marketing my book.


I will probably be a one-book author. The process of bringing this book to publishing fruition, although exciting and fulfilling, has taken a toll on me physically and emotionally. I will need time to heal. After that, I’m eager to explore what I want to be when I grow up. By the way, I’m 64.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I consider Growth a story about surviving motherhood. I don't market it that way because people think of survival as a life and death scenario. But motherhood was harder than I ever expected and I was less prepared than I could have imagined. Like writing this book, motherhood took a toll on me.


I'm happy to have adult children who live on their own and enjoy spending time with their parents. I’m blessed to have reached this stage of parenting “cruising,” when the hard day-to-day demands are done. Not every parent is so lucky.


I believe motherhood is one of life’s greatest teachers. I am glad to have learned her lessons, and honored to share the Growth she has given me. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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