For many people, their bucket lists remain abstract, a list of things to do some day in the future. But for Libby, the protagonist of Camille Pagán's novel, Life and Other Near Death Experiences, a terminal cancer diagnosis prompts her to take charge of the little time she has left to reinvent her life.
I'm very curious about the experience of writing from Libby's point of view. What was it like to immerse yourself in point of view of woman with such a grim prognosis?
I wrote this book on the tail end of a very difficult time in my own life. My situation was not the same as Libby's, thank God, but I had recently lost a dear friend to cancer and was dealing with various other situations that had me feeling fried, fed up, and completely unsure about my future. I channeled my struggle into Libby's voice, as well as her reaction to getting the worst news of her life -- twice in a row! So many readers have emailed me and written reviews saying, "I went through something similar and that's exactly how I felt." That has been incredibly humbling and wonderful.
Do you believe in Libbyland -- the magical place with rainbows and kittens where everything is okay? What does it mean for Libby to walk away from previously optimistic nature?
If anything, my personality is far more similar to Libby's twin brother Paul's: I'm prone to anxiety, catastrophizing, and trying to head off disaster at the pass. I've always marveled at people who go through life looking on the bright side, which is probably why I was compelled to write a character like Libby.
What fascinates me is that research shows that personality is, in many (but not all) ways, innate. We can make choices that help us be the best versions of ourselves -- but in the end, we are the people we are. And that's a good thing. I don't think it's right or wrong to be optimistic or pessimistic; what's most important is to be true to yourself and your values. When Libby's life falls apart, she instinctively changes her attitude and approach. Yet her dyed in the wool personality ultimately resurfaces, and helps her make the most of her circumstances.
You come from a non-fiction writing day job; what is like to switch gears and tackle fiction?
I think journalism is the secret to my fiction, and vice versa. Readers regularly describe my books as page-turners, and I think that owes much to my sixteen-year journalism career, which requires me to "write tight" and clearly portray the message of any given story. On the other hand, fiction prompts me to think about the beauty of words and sentences, and thoughtfully consider the best way to tell any given story -- and that, in turn, has immensely improved my non-fiction.
Beyond any of that, it's just so enjoyable to step away from research and statistics for a while and put together a story -- a world, really -- almost entirely out of my imagination.
The novel paints Vieques as a true paradise. Tell us more about it. Why did you pick this island in particular?
My husband J.P. was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and the island is a hugely important place to us both; we try to visit a few times a year. We went to Vieques, which is a small island off Puerto Rico's southeastern coast, when I was pregnant with my daughter. It was an absolutely magical trip that affected me in a way that very few travel or life experiences ever have, and even then (this was almost eight years ago; I had only just started writing fiction) I had a strong suspicion I'd write about it one day. When I began drafting Life, I knew right away that Libby would go to Vieques, and that the trip would change her life for the better.
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