Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Jessica Berger Gross

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Jessica Berger Gross is the editor of the recently released anthology, About What Was Lost: Twenty Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope. She writes Literary Mama’s Passport to Parenting column and her work has also appeared in Salon, Yoga Journal, and Andrea Buchanan’s latest anthology, It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters in an essay about longing for a daughter. In an interview with Jessica Jernigan, Berger Gross talks about her own experience of pregnancy loss and the challenges involved in editing emotionally charged essays.

Jessica Jernigan: What made you decide to put this anthology together?

Jessica Berger Gross: I'd always wanted to be a mother and in the months it took me to get pregnant, I came to put more and more stock in the idea of having a baby. I fantasized about growing my belly big and eating plates of guiltless pasta, and I dreamed of tucking a newborn into a cotton baby sling across my chest. But it didn't happen that way.

After my miscarriage, I was devastated. Although I'd been pregnant for only eight and a half weeks, I felt like I'd lost more than the promise of a baby -- I felt like I'd lost a part of myself. I was overcome with grief, unexpectedly.

And I felt alone in my sadness. My husband tried to understand but couldn't. I had two close friends who'd miscarried, but neither had talked to me much about the experience. Although one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, there is a stigma and silence around pregnancy loss. Pregnancy books don't mention miscarriage much, and neither did my women friends. This, I gathered, was a grief meant to be suffered in silence.

But I couldn't manage it alone. Having always looked to books for comfort and community, I went to the bookstore searching for intimate stories about how other women had dealt with their losses. I didn't find much aside from a few self-help books. Instead I came away with an idea for a book of my own, a collection in which writers would share their honest and intimate stories of miscarriage, healing, and hope.

JJ: Can you say more about how this anthology came to be? After you came up with the idea, how did you pitch it, and to whom?

JBG: My husband and I were having breakfast one Sunday a few months after my miscarriage, and we started talking about the idea. The next morning I emailed my literary agent (who already represented me) and asked him what he thought. He was very encouraging and suggested that I start by writing my own essay. From there, with his help, I put together a book proposal. Ironically, the two people who helped me develop the idea for About What Was Lost were both men -- my agent and my husband.

JJ: What was the process of getting published like for you? Was it easy or frustrating? Were there any surprises?

JBG: The submissions process (when your agent is submitting your work to editors) is exciting and incredibly anxiety producing all at once. For weeks and weeks, I checked my email obsessively and wondered if and when an offer would come in. When I got the call that a division of Penguin wanted to buy the book, I had just moved to Cambridge and was in bed nursing a painful ovarian cyst. My husband, Neil, was away at a conference and I was feeling sorry for myself. That voice mail was the best possible medicine.

The biggest publishing surprise along the way was that one day, more than a year after I sold the book proposal, my original editor and her boss left the company. For a couple of weeks I had no idea of what would happen to my book even though I had already handed in a version of the manuscript. Luckily, Penguin decided to publish About What Was Lost as a Plume original, and I began working with my fantastic editor Danielle Friedman.

JJ: This anthology attracted some rather distinguished contributors, women like Pam Houston and Joyce Maynard. What was it like working with such accomplished authors?

JBG: Working on this book was like enrolling in my own private Masters of Fine Arts program. Editing such amazing writers definitely helped me become a better writer, especially seeing the various ways in which these talented writers took my editorial suggestions and ran with them. Thinking like an editor -- looking for holes in pieces, places where writers could go deeper -- taught me how to bring an editor's sensibility to my own writing.

Joyce Maynard's memoir At Home in The World had a big influence on me, and working with her was one of the highlights of editing the anthology. She, like so many of my contributors, cares deeply about the details of a sentence or a paragraph. Our editorial back and forth was an incredible learning experience.

JJ: Did you have any editing experience before you put together this anthology?

JBG: No, none. I was a huge fan, though, of literary anthologies out around the time of my miscarriage, like Cathi Hanauer's The Bitch in The House and Nell Casey's anthology on depression, Unholy Ghost. I loved how these collections offered me entry into lots of different writers' worlds and provided insight into dealing with issues in my own life.

I approached the editing process by relying on my instincts as a reader and a writer. An unexpected gift of working on About What Was Lost was that I ended up becoming good friends with several of the contributors. I learned a lot from all of them.

JJ: I'm assuming that you got more submissions than you could include. Given the nature of the collection, was it hard to reject essays?

JBG: That was the hardest thing. I was used to having my work judged by editors, not the other way around. Finding a compassionate way to turn down the essays that didn't work was heart-wrenching. I spent many hours composing those emails.

JJ: A lot of people find writing therapeutic, but writing that works as therapy doesn't always work aesthetically. How did you strike the right balance between making the work you included as strong as it could be and respecting the feelings of your authors?

JBG: I knew that for this anthology to work, each essay would have to be thoughtful, provocative, moving, and beautifully written -- not therapy writing but literature. But, given the topic of the essays, I did need to tread delicately during the editing process. It helped that, during the period when I was collecting and editing essays, I was still grieving and dealing with my own miscarriage.

JJ: Did putting together this collection change how you felt or thought about your own miscarriage? Did you read anything that really surprised you?

JBG: I realized I wasn't alone. Miscarriage is a surprisingly common experience for women, and for many the loss is life-altering. I was amazed and inspired though by how resilient women are in mourning, healing, and moving on. In coming to know the stories of my contributors, I realized I could move on, too. My husband and I are now in the process of adopting a baby girl from India. We couldn't be more excited.

JJ: Based on your own experience, and the experiences of the authors who contributed to this anthology, what do you think is the best thing a woman who has had a miscarriage can do for herself? What should her friends and family do for her?

JBG: Acknowledge that miscarriage is a real loss. Allow yourself to grieve, and realize that this does nothing to take away your pro-choice credentials, or your personal strength as a woman. Take care of yourself. Know that the initial stages of grieving may take months, not weeks, but that while your miscarriage will become a part of your personal history, you will come to terms with the loss. You might want to find a therapist or support group, or get together informally with women friends who've been through a miscarriage. And let yourself be looked after by your partner, friends, family, and coworkers. This is the time to accept help and support and comfort wherever you can find it.

For family and friends: offer the sort of help you might for anyone grieving. Avoid phrases like "it wasn't meant to be" or "this is nature's way" -- women mourning a pregnancy loss want to have their feelings validated, not dismissed with well-meaning platitudes. Drop off dinner, write a letter or card expressing your sympathy and sadness, give a gift certificate for a massage or offer a foot rub, lend your baby-sitting services if there are other children at home. Listen. And keep listening, and checking in with your loved one, down the line.

JJ: What has the response to the book been like? What are reviewers saying? Have you heard from any readers?

JBG: The response has been wonderful. I've received many notes from women who've read the book and have been moved by the essays -- by their emotional truth and the quality of the writing. Some have wanted to share their stories with me. The early reviews have been lovely, too. And it was especially exciting for me to send the book out for blurbs and get such overwhelmingly positive responses from some of my favorite writers like Dani Shapiro, Rebecca Walker, Catherine Newman, and Hope Edelman.

JJ: What are you working on now?

JBG: As readers of Passport to Parenting know, my husband and I are in the process of adopting a baby girl from India. I hope to chronicle our first year as a family together in a memoir. I'm interested in exploring the process of bonding and becoming a family of choice. But we'll see what happens. First, we have to meet and bring home our daughter!

Jessica Jernigan lives in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, with her husband and their daughter. She is a frequent contributor to Bitch and she blogs at Jessica Lee Jernigan: Cultural Criticism and Beauty Tips and Pepita: My Pregnancy, and Then Some. Her essay, “Unplanned,” appears in About What Was Lost: Twenty Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope.

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