We were very excited to have Will Schwalbe join us at Library Journal’s The Digital Shift: Libraries, Ebooks and Beyond virtual conference. Will chatted with librarians about his moving new memoir The End of Your Life Book Club and his joy of reading. He also gives us a few book recommendations.
The End of Your Life Book Club is the inspiring story of a young man and his dying mother forming a “book club” that brings them closer as her life comes to a close—a testament to the power of love between a child and parent, and the power of reading in our lives. Mary Anne Schwalbe was an educator who worked at Harvard University and The Dalton School in New York, and spent ten years building libraries in Afghanistan. But her story here begins at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where, accompanied by her son, she is waiting for chemotherapy treatments to begin. Will casually asks her what she’s been reading, and the conversation they have grows into tradition: soon they are reading the same books in order to talk about them as Mary Anne is given her treatments. The books they read range from classic to popular, from fantastic to spiritual, and we hear their passion for reading and their love for each other in their dynamic and searching discussions around each one. A profoundly moving book: Will’s love letter to his mother, and theirs to the printed page.
WILL SCHWALBE CHAT
RH Jen: Hi Will! Thanks for coming to the RH Booth today!
Will Schwalbe: Thanks for having me at the RH Booth!
RH Jen: We’re thrilled. Your book is a big favorite of librarians and this department!
Will Schwalbe: It was such a privilege to talk with librarians at the BEA — and I’m incredibly grateful for all the wonderful support from librarians.
Will Schwalbe: The book is a book about the books I read with my mother when she was dying of pancreatic cancer and it’s about the conversations we had.
Will Schwalbe: But it’s really about books — how they tell you what you need to do in life and in the world.
RH Jen: There is a wide variety of books you read together. What was the book you and your mom most agreed upon? The one you most differed on?
Will Schwalbe: In many ways the most important book to both of us, that we read during her last two years, was CROSSING TO SAFETY by Wallace Stegner.
Will Schwalbe: The book we most disagreed about was probably Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey. I loved it but Mom found it a bit silly.
Erica: We were all very inspired by your mother’s work to fund a library in Afghanistan. Can you tell us a little more about her efforts?
Will Schwalbe: Mom had met years before a remarkable woman named Nancy Hatch Dupree who divides her time between Pakistan and Kabul. It was Nancy’s dream and vision to create a national library/research center/cultural center in Kabul on the grounds of Kabul University. Mom founded a US Foundation to fund the library and make sure it would be built.
Will Schwalbe: I’m delighted to say that the building is finished and the library should open in December.
Kelly: Will you be able to attend the opening of the library?
Krista: What inspired you to become a writer?
Will Schwalbe: I think in many ways it was all the books I’d read. I wanted to be a writer when I was in college but then wasn’t sure I had much to say. I loved working for more than twenty years in publishing — but always thought some day I would see if I could write something.
Elizabeth: How did your experience in publishing influence you in writing the book?
Will Schwalbe: It gave me enormous respect for editors! I was really blessed to have an extraordinary editor for this book and, I think, because of my experience in publishing I knew enough to listen to him.
Skip: How did you select the books for your “club”? Have you re-read any of the books since your mother’s passing?
Will Schwalbe: We really read the way normal people do — we didn’t try to read a particular list of books or type of book. We read things that we’d always meant to read; we read books friends gave us; we read books if we’d seen interesting reviews. In a few cases, Mom had a book she wanted us to read, or she wanted to re-read. And, yes, I’ve re-read a lot of them and that is one of the amazing gifts of books. When I re-read a book that Mom loved, it reminds me of her.
Kelly: What a great way to always be able to spend time with someone.
RH Jen: Several times in the book, you talk about eBooks versus their physical counterparts. Do you prefer one to the other? How do you feel format affects the reading experience?
Will Schwalbe: I read a lot of ebooks and enjoy reading ebooks. Ebooks weren’t for Mom — but she didn’t think less of them. They just weren’t for her. I do find that if I’ve loved reading an ebook, I want to have a physical copy, because I love physical books — the feel, the heft, and the way you can revisit them. I write about how physical books present themselves to you — you can actually stumble across them.
Lara: Hi Will – with regard to books telling you what to do in life and in the world: which book or books do you find yourself recommending to others most often?
Will Schwalbe: I always recommend to people A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry. CROSSING TO SAFETY by Wallace Stegner. Mary Oliver’s poetry — and whatever I’m most passionate about right now!
Jen: Good question, Lara! Will, so many people will be forever asking you for book recommendations now!
Lara: My to-read list grew a whole lot longer after reading your book! That was a big part of why I enjoyed reading it so much.
Will Schwalbe: I love giving book recommendations! I think, “What are you reading?” is the best question anyone can ask!
Will Schwalbe: I’m so happy to hear about your To Read List. Mine is HUGE.
RH Jen: So, what are you reading now?
Will Schwalbe: I just finished the Julian Barnes, which I loved — THE SENSE OF AN ENDING. And I just started THE ART OF FIELDING. Amazing.
Jen: I know that a personal family friend of yours recorded the audiobook. Were you able to sit-in on any of the recordings?
Will Schwalbe: I wasn’t able, alas, to sit in on any of the recordings. But he did an amazing job on the audio. His name is Jeff Harding and he’s an icon in the UK (even though he’s American).
Skip: The gift that you me was wanting to do the same thing as you with my mother. Thank you.
Will Schwalbe: That’s the best reaction I could ever hope for, Skip.
RH Jen: It has been great having you here Will! Does anyone have a last question before we go?
RH Jen: We really appreciate you taking them time to chat with us.
RH Jen: Good luck on your book tour and with this wonderful book.
Elizabeth: Really enjoyed your chat! Thanks so much, Will!
Will Schwalbe: Thanks so much to all of you! I’m always around and available if anyone has any questions or just wants to chat!
Brad: Yes, thanks so much & good luck on your future works!
Lara: Thanks, Will! My favorite book to recommend right now is yours!
Will Schwalbe: Thank you!