Figuring Sh!t Out with Amy Biancolli

figuring shit out amy biancolli

Amy Biancolli is a self-described mom, ink-stained wretch, and survivor of suicides.

We would describe her as a gifted and thoughtful writer with an ability to find the joy, truth, and humor in living -- even in the aftermath of great personal tragedy.

Three years ago, Biancolli's husband, well-known Capital Region writer Chris Ringwald, took his own life. It was not Biancolli's first experience with suicide. Years earlier her sister, Lucy, killed herself, and her father survived his own suicide attempt.

Biancolli -- a former film critic for the Houston Chronicle and the current arts writer for the Times Union -- has turned that experience into a new memoir. Figuring Sh!t Out (and her blog of the same name) take a look at her first year without Chris, and the, well, stuff she had to figure out -- from who she is now without her husband of 20 years, to how to help her children, to how to work the lawn mower, to whether she should bother to shave her legs anymore. Tales of "crisis ziti", memos to George Clooney, surviving a monkey attack only to be bitten by a dog in Ecuador, and whether to search for a "Mr. Manly Pants" alternately prompt laughter and tears -- and sometimes do both at once.

Biancolli spent a few minutes with us this week, to share some thoughts on the bizarre ways humor and grief can overlap, why she decided to share such a deep personal tragedy, and the experience of being carried by her Albany community.

Congratulations on the book. It seems strange to say that. Is that OK?

It's a paradox to be celebrating this book or expressing gratitude over a book that details the aftermath of this horrific loss. I mean, there would not be a book had Chris not committed suicide.

So it's a good that has come out of a horror. And if I tried to make sense of it, I think it would break my head. But that's the mystery. That's the mystery of anything in life, that good things come out of bad. And I think that is the best we can hope for following any tragedy. Little goods can come out of bad things.

I'm excited about it. I'm grateful. It feels like a good thing that has happened to me. It doesn't make the loss of Chris any less than what it was. And that's one of the paradoxes -- one of the mysteries of being alive -- that joy can come in the aftermath of tragedy and we can trace it back and say this would not have happened had that awful thing not happened first.

There is so much humor in the book. You don't expect to laugh so much reading a book about grief and widowhood and suicide. How are you able to bring so much humor to it?

I don't know. How does life bring humor into grief? I think that's life. I think there is humor in the most bizarre places. And probably that is a universal experience of grief.

I haven't experienced grief in every family, in every culture, and every situation, but the ones I've been part of have always veered into the surreal. And I think that's the wildness of this world we live in -- that's it's both light and dark simultaneously. That has always been my experience.

I mean, weird things just started happening to me from the beginning. Like talking with the guy from Social Security on the phone (laughs) and having him ask, "Have you remarried?" And thinking, "Can you count from the date I just gave you -- four days ago?" Poor guy was just doing his job, but...

I mean, weird things just started happening to me from the beginning. Like talking with the guy from Social Security on the phone (laughs) and having him ask, "Have you remarried?" And thinking, "Can you count from the date I just gave you -- four days ago?" Poor guy was just doing his job, but... (laughs)

I feel like I was blessed by being surrounded by people who could laugh with me. So many family and friends were there and able to just see the strangeness with me and laugh with me. Because when it's happening to you it's easy to laugh at those things, but when it's happening to someone you love, or just someone you know, you think "Should I laugh? Is it allowed? Is it ok? Is it hurtful for me to laugh?"

And for some reason I've been blessed to have friends and family people who felt free enough with me to laugh. I mean there's enough tears. There's been plenty of snot coming out of my nose so why not laugh if you can?

Why did you turn this experience into a book?

Well, I didn't plan on it.

After Chris died it wasn't long before people started asking me, "Amy, are you keeping a journal? Or do you plan on writing about it?" And I had no intention, because living through it was just too hard. It was exhausting. It was taxing in every way it possibly could be.

But this is the official origin story because it is true: It really wasn't my idea. I had been relying on close friends with a similarly dark sense of humor to laugh with me and one of these friends was really the most reliable laugher of my close circle. I had been regaling him with these stories and one day, having regaled him with one such story and he was in stitches and I jokingly said, "Ha, ha, Bob, I should write a book and call it Adventures in Widowhood." And he said, "Yes! Yes, you have to! You have to."

And I was joking but he decided that I wasn't joking. He is a writer himself -- Bob Whitaker, who used to write for the Times Union. And then he just badgered me until I was really writing.

Once I started doing it it felt necessary. It felt like a compulsion. Even though I wrote it, it seems like I was an agent for something. In the middle of this I had a phoner with Sue Grafton and she told me that she writes novels listening to her characters -- like the novels tell her what she is going to write. It almost exists before she writes it. I didn't tell her what I was writing, but that really struck me.

It wasn't easy to write it, but I think easy isn't always the most healing thing. It was necessary. It felt like a compulsion and it was healing, but I was digging up fresh grief.

A lot of people know you and knew Chris. Does that make it harder to share all this?

It doesn't make it harder or easier, it's Smallbanier. If you live here long enough you feel as though you know everybody anyway. So now just more people know more about me and it's fine. It's fine.

The fact that Chris died such a public death meant from the beginning that my kids and I couldn't run away. Everybody knew and if they didn't know someone was about to tell them very soon. It was on the news because he was a pretty prominent writer around here. And plus, he was the kind of guy that everybody knew. He was interested, interesting, genial, jovial, smart, and engaged -- everybody knew him. He was part of the life around here so when he died this very public death the kids and I had a conversation ... we can't pretend he died any other way.

I love Albany. I can't imagine being anywhere but Albany when it happened, because community is what got us through. The network of friends and the network of people beyond close friends. We felt carried.

I love Albany. I can't imagine being anywhere but Albany when it happened, because community is what got us through. The network of friends and the network of people beyond close friends. We felt carried. And I remember thinking that if this happened in a place where we didn't know as many people or the community didn't come around us like circling the wagons it was really wonderful. In the midst of all that pain it was beautiful to feel so carried, taken care of. Not just by closest friends, by the community. I mean people just coming by dropping off food, signing up to feed us for the next few months. That was a big part of that year. It continues to be a big part of our lives. I'll always feel grateful.

This is not your first experience with suicide. It's hard to ask this question but... how do you manage? How do you handle that?

I want people to ask that. I think we need to talk about it.

I'm in an unusual position because my life has been so affected by suicide. I've written about Chris, I wrote about my sister and also my father's attempt and it's strange because I didn't set out to when I became a writer to become a writer who specializes in suicide. The arts reporting I knew from early on -- I wanted to be an arts reporter. The suicide part of my beat -- that was not intentional -- not planned.

But, not to make light of it, I really feel that I have the equipment and the willingness to address these things openly. I have the ability to write. I have a platform -- however modest that platform has been -- to address these things.

And it doesn't traumatize me to talk about it. It does the opposite. Some people are reluctant to talk about it for whatever reasons they feel they can't ... societal expectations, or family pressures or just the stigma. But having been affected so often and so deeply by this I've reached a place where I really don't mind talking about it and because I've reached a place where I don't mind , where I feel free enough to do it I feel like I should. Because I'm a writer and because this has happened to me.

People have to start talking about it. I mean not that nobody talks about it but I think the conversation needs to progress and we need to talk about mental illness, what loss really feels like, what it means to lose somebody to suicide. It's just such a convoluted painful mystery why people kill themselves, and if we are ever going to make any progress in easing the pain that leads people to kill themselves and also easing the pain of the people left behind then we need to talk about it.

People have to start talking about it. I mean not that nobody talks about it but I think the conversation needs to progress and we need to talk about mental illness, what loss really feels like, what it means to lose somebody to suicide. It's just such a convoluted painful mystery why people kill themselves, and if we are ever going to make any progress in easing the pain that leads people to kill themselves and also easing the pain of the people left behind then we need to talk about it.

So what the hell -- if all this happened to me some good has to come out of it. It's weird because however many copies the book sells, it's already been healing and it feels like whatever happens next with it and however many people read it, it's gravy. If it helps a few people, then I'm happy. I mean, it helped me, but if it helps anybody else ... if it makes them feel a little less alone, if it gives them insight into someone who is in a lot of pain, then it served some purpose.

It could disappear. I may never know about anybody it helps, but... it felt necessary. Once I heeded Bob, it felt like I needed to do it. And I'm a writer, so what else am I going to do?

I mean taking pain and turning it into art is the history of art. Artists take tragedy and adversity and turn it into poetry and books and movies and paintings. And it's a way to make sense of things that can't be made sense of other ways.

I do feel strongly that talking and writing about it -- for me, especially, writing about it -- was helpful in the same way it was helpful to write about my parents and sister after they died. Because it's a way of wrapping your arms around life events so enormous that you can't really comprehend them. This makes sense this way -- I'll put this life event here. This makes sense this way -- I'll put this life event here. And they won't ever really make sense.

Why tragedy happens -- there is no real answer to that. Why do people get hit with this stuff? But in the context of my life what kind of person did that make me? What did I learn from this? What am I going to bring moving forward? All of that ... the narrative that we build out of our own lives, I think that's really really healing.

Why tragedy happens -- there is no real answer to that. Why do people get hit with this stuff? But in the context of my life what kind of person did that make me? What did I learn from this? What am I going to bring moving forward? All of that ... the narrative that we build out of our own lives, I think that's really really healing. And in and of itself, for that reason alone, I'm glad I wrote the book -- for selfish reasons. It helped me comprehend, clarify, put things in context.

What's next? Will you keep blogging on FSO?

The blog has taken on a life of its own. I started it because I was strongly urged by my agent and the editor who at that point was interested. I've joked about a sequel, but only joked. Actually, honestly, joking.

I would be happy if nothing eventful enough for another memoir ever happens to me. Eventful is fine in a happy way, certainly -- and already it's been eventful. But I would like to stick to mundane joyful events for the rest of my life. Noooo more tragedy. I want to have a boring life. (laughs)

Well, in the book you call yourself a shit magnet and you've certainly had more than your share.

Everybody gets their share. But I really do consider myself blessed. I mean, I think everybody's got pain. I really do. Everybody has a turn at dealing with trauma and tragedy. We just all have different types that we deal with.

But I have found another wonderful Manly Pants. I met him long after I wrote the book. It's sort of a spoiler, but everybody is asking.

This interview has been edited and condensed.
_____

There's a book signing for Figuring Sh!t Out October 29 at 6 pm the Times Union building in Colonie. The event is free (the book is $15.95), but registration is required.

Biancolli will be at UAlbany November 11 as part of the NYS Writers Institute visiting writers series, as part of an event with novelist Angela Pneuman. They'll be reading from, and talking about, their work at the University Art Museum at 7:30 pm.

She will also be honored at the first Albany Public Library Literary Legends event November 15, along with William Kennedy and Paul Grondahl. The event is from 7-9:30 pm at the Pine Hills Branch. Tickets are $75 for the library fundraiser, and include food from Café Capriccio, New World Bistro, Taste, and Saati's.

photo: Danny Richardson

Comments

This is a great read! Beautiful humor emerged from most painful tragedy.

Inspiring (story and reporting). I can relate.

This is so good. Amy's voice just makes everything a bit better.

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