Braving the Fire: An Interview with Jessica Handler

Unknown(A version of this interview appeared in the January 2014 issue of The Practicing Writer.)


By Erika Dreifus

Jessica Handler and I were like those proverbial ships passing in the night of different graduating cohorts within the same low-residency MFA program. But over time, we’ve built a friendship based on some shared interests and appreciation for each other’s work. When I discovered that she (or more precisely, her agent ) had sold the proposal for what was published in December 2013 as BRAVING THE FIRE: A GUIDE TO WRITING ABOUT GRIEF, I knew that I’d want to read the book and “talk” about it with all of you.

Jessica is indeed the author of BRAVING THE FIRE: A GUIDE TO WRITING ABOUT GRIEF (St. Martins Press, December 2013). Her first book, INVISIBLE SISTERS: A MEMOIR (Public Affairs, 2009), was named one of the “Twenty-Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR and in TIN HOUSE, DRUNKEN BOAT, BREVITY, NEWSWEEK, THE WASHINGTON POST, and MORE MAGAZINE. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writer’s Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize.

Please welcome Jessica Handler!


JESSICA HANDLER (JH): After INVISIBLE SISTERS was published in 2009, I discovered very quickly how many people were wrestling with writing about their own grief, trauma, and loss. I received letters and emails from readers, and talked with folks after I read from the book, and I was so moved by hearing from strangers that they, too, were “the only one left.” I teach creative writing and memoir, and kept bumping up against the need for more tools to help writers distinguish between the raw emotion of a journal and the craft elements of writing for others. This book, I hope, will be one of those tools.

ED: The book is structured around Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But you’ve added a *sixth* stage that concludes the book. Please tell us about it.

JH: The Kübler-Ross model and many other studies can help us understand that grief isn’t a one-dimensional, contained thing. We all grieve differently, but I think it’s fair to say that no matter what we’ve lost or how long ago that loss took place, if we have the urge to write about it, we also have the urge to understand how we’re changed and how our changed self lives in the world. This is what I called “Renewal.” Kubler-Ross’s book came out in 1969, which is just after my sister Susie died, and early in my sister Sarah’s life. For my family, the very existence of a study about facing death was reassuring.

ED: BRAVING THE FIRE is clearly aimed toward memoirists, and most of the published examples you cite are grounded in personal, lived experiences of loss or trauma. Any tips for those who might want to write about grief in other genres?

JH: My go-to on this subject tends toward nonfiction because it’s what I teach, and because, growing up, I sought true stories about life experiences that reflected my own. Poetry and fiction have always been huge parts of my reading and writing life, and I turned to several remarkable poets in BRAVING THE FIRE, although for the purposes of the text, we talked about their nonfiction. Honesty, detail, and clarity in emotion and diction are applicable to good writing about grief, trauma, and loss regardless of genre, though, don’t you think?

ED: The book includes a plethora of writing exercises. Could you please share one that you’ve found to be particularly useful, either in your own writing practice or in the classes and workshops you’ve taught?

JH: The exercise that asks the reader to write about a time when he or she didn’t tell the truth about their grief and to use that as an incident in a scene is particularly powerful for me, because telling the truth about what happened and the ways in which my loved ones changed isn’t how my family, and probably many families, handled death and trauma when I was growing up.

ED: This interview will be published at the start of the new year 2014. What is your hope for this book as it continues to make its way into the world?

JH: That BRAVING THE FIRE becomes a helpful resource for writers undertaking what I know first-hand is a very tough and very rewarding narrative.

ED: I hope so, too! Thank you so much, Jessica.

*My thanks to St. Martin’s Press for an advance e-galley of Jessica’s book. Please learn more about Jessica and her work by visiting