“Grief is a universal truth.” Author Zoe Fishman on writing your way through loss

The Fun Widow’s Book Tour lives at the intersection of art and grief

“Grief is a universal truth.” Author Zoe Fishman on writing your way through loss
Zoe Fishman

Photograph by Karen Shacham

When tragedy turned her world upside down, award-winning author Zoe Fishman did what authors do: she wrote it all down. Fishman was busy raising two small sons with her husband Ronen Shacham when he died unexpectedly in 2017, transforming her overnight into a widow and a single mom. She and her sons survived the grueling, heart-expanding years that followed with the help of family and a close circle of friends. Through it all, Fishman, author of six books and the 2020 Georgia Author of the Year, kept writing—even when she had to move her office to the (unheated) garage during pandemic lockdowns while her sons remote-schooled inside. Her latest novel, The Fun Widow’s Book Tour, out now from William Morrow, is the fruit of that labor; an intimate, memoir-like exploration of loss and widowhood, and an elegy to the community that surrounded her grieving family when they needed it most. (It’s also very funny.)

For Fishman, writing the novel was the ultimate catharsis: a way to remember her late husband, honor the journey she traveled in the wake of his death, and acknowledge that widowhood, while never welcome, is one of humanity’s deep and complicated stories. Recently, Atlanta caught up with Fishman to talk about her writing and her new book.

“Grief is a universal truth.” Author Zoe Fishman on writing your way through lossThe Fun Widow’s Book Tour lives at the intersection of art and grief. Can you share about writing grief onto the page?

Writing has always been my most personal outlet. I started journaling in third grade, and that always became the place where I was able to comfort myself, where I could express myself much more eloquently than in person. So when Ronen died, I started writing him letters, about what was happening with the dudes, and what was happening with me, and how much I missed him.

I think anyone who’s grieving knows that as time unfolds, your grief changes. But at least for me, a lot of my memories started to fade, too. Writing this book helped me reconnect with some of the memories of that specific relationship. I started writing [the manuscript] probably three years out, and I realized I had forgotten what it felt like to be somebody’s wife. So writing him back to life in this way reminded me that yes, that actually happened: yes, he chose me, we chose each other, and this is what that relationship felt like. Ultimately it was the best thing that I could do for myself and my grief.

Your protagonist, Mia Macher, is both you and not you. How did she come about as a character?

It’s funny because I asked my publisher and editor, “Can I write a memoir?” And they said, “No, because no one knows who you are.” I said, “Okay, that’s fair.” I was pissed, but they were very realistic with me, because, you know, publishing is a business. So The Fun Widow’s Book Tour started out as, “You’re telling me I can’t write a memoir? Okay, I’ll write a novel!” (Laughs.)

But it ended up being the greatest experience, with the kinds of benefits that I couldn’t have foreseen. Mia’s struggle in the book is, Why does anybody care about anything that I have to say? Who am I? And that’s really how I feel on most days. I think any humble person does. But to have readers say that they do care about what you have to say—that’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.

Even though this is a new subject for you, do you see connections between The Fun Widow’s Book Tour and your other novels?

Oh, yes. I always write about friendship. Different forms of friendship, and the way we create our own family through the friendships that we forge, and the way that those friendships help us in turn understand our blood family, or give our own family more grace. My friendships have meant the world to me. I didn’t meet my husband until I was 30, so I had a lot of time to really create deep connections with women. So all of my books, in some way, are a kind of a tribute to friendship.

You were Georgia Author of the Year and you’ve also been a working writer in Atlanta for a long time. Is Atlanta a good place to be a writer?

Atlanta has certainly supported me! It’s really a city of art in all its forms, and it’s the most diverse city I’ve lived in. But I didn’t know many other authors here until about seven years ago, when I started teaching at the Decatur Writer’s Studio, where I later became the director. I met all these local authors, [doing] all different types of writing.

I’ve always been really moved by the lack of pretentiousness here: I was in New York for 13 years and the writers that I knew there all seemed to inhabit this other universe. They got paid six figures; they owned brownstones. I was terribly jealous, obviously, but also I just didn’t feel at home amongst them. But the community here is so open about the struggle of being an artist; I’m just enchanted and moved by that and I feel comfortable here amongst them.

Decatur Writer’s Studio was dissolved right before the pandemic because we just weren’t making enough money, but we’ve reborn it as InTown Writers Atlanta. I’m teaching a Novel 101 class right now.

Your book is a testament to the power of writing to help move through grief. What’s your advice to others on where to begin?

Writing to the person you’ve lost is a great way to start. Something about talking about a mundane Wednesday is very comforting. I think crying is so important when you’re in the early stage of grief, too, and writing always brought that out for me. Because you’ve quieted all the noise in your mind, other than that person’s voice that you’re missing.

I also would suggest, if they have the time and the money and the space, to take some sort of class where they’re amongst other writers, because inevitably grief is a universal truth, and by talking to other people, by workshopping your work—it’s kind of like therapy at a much lower price tag. No disrespect to psychologists!