I was shocked and saddened this weekend when I clicked on an email telling me that Erica Kennedy had died. How I wished I could unclick it-the email, and the news. Today is no better: my head feels clouded, like I'm thinking through mud. My gut feels heavy, as though I ate a bowling ball for breakfast.
The thing is, I didn't even know her that well. When I was working on Undecided, her second novel, Feminista, had just been published. I honestly don't remember if I found out about her book after following her on Twitter or if someone (or Amazon) had recommended the book to me, leading me to find her on Twitter. Regardless, so many of the themes in her book lined up so closely (I mean, eerily so) with the issues the real-live women I was profiling in Undecided were grappling with that I had to talk to her. And she was immediately receptive. We began chatting -- or, you know, tweeting; soon enough, she sent me a direct message with her email address. I was stunned and flattered by how generous she was with her time, how open she was with me about what she was going through -- and had gone through -- in her own life, and impressed by her sharp, decidedly un-sugar-coated take on society, pop culture and life as a woman. (You can read an edited version of our interview here.)
We talked about the pressure to have it all (and what the hell that ridiculous message is supposed to mean, anyway) and its shadowy sister, grass-is-greener syndrome. Kennedy was honest -- and enjoyably blunt -- about how ambivalent she felt about her own success (as an New York Times bestselling author of a level that's unimaginable to many of us but that meant little to her); how sometimes she was envious of friends she'd gone to school with who'd gotten married and/or had kids very young, to hell with career... even though Kennedy herself did not particularly want children. She said the happiest time in her life was when she was finishing up Feminista, living in a small rental in Miami, far away from her more-permanent digs in New York. She'd write in the mornings, then ride her bike to the beach for a swim. A relatively mellow existence for the woman who'd taken on the big city -- and won. The woman who'd talked Puff Daddy (back when he was called that) into ditching the hip-hop gear in favor of sleek suits.
She was just so honest, so forthcoming and so real. She spoke and wrote so many of our truths -- though I don't know to what extent she realized it. I asked her about Feminista's main character, Sydney, about how she sabotages herself, pushes people away, has so many moments of hot-messedness... and how it is that, despite all that, she's totally relatable. How did she manage to write such a character? And Kennedy said, while she knew she wanted to write a woman who was angry -- one who could really embody all the anger women feel over the mismatch between the great expectations we're raised to believe are our due and the pressure we feel to be amazing and have it all and what's actually possible -- she never expected the feedback she'd received. Never expected so many people would tell her how much they related to Sydney.
That's particularly wrenching to think of now.
Kennedy disclosed some darker things, too. Things she asked I keep off of the blog (although-that generosity again -- she said I was welcome to include any of it in the book, as it felt more removed; while much of her story is in the book, I opted to keep many of the very personal details out), and which I intend to keep to myself here, too. Many have speculated about how she died. I immediately wondered. Just typing those words makes my heart break a little more. Again, I didn't know her well, but I feel that I knew her.
We emailed back and forth for a while. I riffed on things she wrote. At one point, I hadn't heard from her in months, and then I got an email with a link to a story and a short line: Hey! What do you think about this? Might be something for your book. (I wrote about it on the blog; you can read that one here.)
Apparently, she was like that with countless people. A connector. A spark. A deep thinker and a deep feeler. Which can be rough for anyone and rougher still for some.
I'm so sorry that I'll never know her better -- and so thankful that I knew her at all. As Roger Ebert tweeted upon learning the news: The world is a lesser place.
Indeed it is. Rest in peace, Erica.
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