The bestselling writer Isabel Gillies is vacationing in Maine with her parents, her second husband, and her two children from her first husband and her step-daughter. And her ex-husband. With his current wife. And their new baby. You get the picture. Her unorthodox way of making family out of life’s lemons turned into her second memoir, A Year and Six Seconds. By turns hilarious and sad, it chronicles the story of her moving in with her parents at age 35, accompanied by her two young children, and figuring out her new life while letting go of the old one. Gillies talks frankly with The Daily Beast:
I was stunned at what I thought was your really generous attitude toward your ex-husband and the woman he had an affair with—now his wife. Could you talk about how you were able to forgive them?
I didn’t write this book to be about revenge or make him or her into a devil, because I believe in strongly there’s no such thing as good guy/bad guy. And because I have children with him, I have a very strong interest in investigating why he’s not bad. Maybe he didn’t handle a particular part of his life very well, but I was married to him so clearly there are parts of him I dig. Plus, his wife puts sweaters on my kids. I really like her.
In your book, you have a scene with your former mother-in-law where you ask her what is wrong with her son and you accuse her of not knowing what you’re going through. Then she shares that her husband had once left her. Was that cathartic for you?
I’m glad you brought up that chapter. A lot of the time people think that this sort of thing happens only to them. And it actually happens to a bunch of people. Even in your own family. And when [the former mother-in-law] generously welcomed both me and my children into her house, I wanted to blame her for her son’s leaving me. And what she said to me was to be strong. She got through her own similar situation, and [knowing this] had this effect of “Buck up, live your life, move on.”
There were some scenes in my book that I read aloud to my ex-husband and said, “Let me know if you have a problem.” At one point he said, “You end chapters really well.” And I’m thinking, “I just wrote about your mother.”
If you hadn’t met your second husband and fallen in love again, would the book’s tone have been different?
It’s hard for me to speculate, because I’m still so in love. You can’t be mad at your ex and happy about new love at the same time. It’s greedy. So, I fell in love, and I gave myself over to it. I’m sure people are like, “Well, if you were still single, I am sure you wouldn’t be so forgiving.” But, before I met Peter, my ex and I were on a road to figuring out how we were going to raise our children and be around each other.
You have a lot of humor in your book. Was that intentional?
My first book, Happens Every Day, is a much sadder book, because it’s about my ex-husband’s actual leaving me. There was this scene we were all at this brunch place, we were definitely going to get a divorce, our two kids were sick, and it was just a bummer scene. But then I ordered these pancakes that had Gruyère and asparagus in them and took a bite and said, “Holy shit, these are delicious.” I couldn’t stay in my misery. The pancakes were too good. Life is funny at the same time being totally harsh.
You have the knack for tragic comedy. Or comic tragedy.
I’ve always been the person at the table who is like, “I have this weird rash. Anybody else have this?” I remember once after my baby was born, I was at another person’s baby shower, and I said, “When I first had my son, I had this crazy feeling that something terrible was going to happen.” And people looked at me and were like, “How can you say that?”
What about writing about your parents? Was it hard?
I can’t believe I’m on this path writing about people that are in my family. It must be hard for them. But I have a very good relationship with everyone I write about, so there’s nothing in the book that I wouldn’t say and discuss with them in person. There were some scenes in my book that I read aloud to my ex-husband and said, “Okay, I’m just going to read these to you, and let me know if you have a problem." At one point he said, “You end chapters really well.” And I’m thinking, “I just wrote about your mother.”
So what made you want to write about your life in the first place?
I didn’t think anything I wrote was going to get published. I’m a dyslexic kid who had tutors through college. But I had a very strong impulse to write. I dropped off my kids from 10 to 2, went to the library, and just wrote. This is my second career—I’m 41—and I’m a terrible speller.
You choose to include your miscarriage at the end of your book. Did you have misgivings about it, and how it might ruin your happy ending?
That’s sort of the point. Including the miscarriage was sort of my way of saying I didn’t want to wrap up this experience and the previous book with a Tiffany blue ribbon and my new husband. Bad stuff happens, and that’s life.