Abby Sher is an author and performer whose work encompasses the dark and harrowing. She has written tenderly about mental illness and family tragedy, but also has a flair for the wildly comedic which she showcased writing and performing with the renowned Second City theater in Chicago.
In her latest novel “All the Ways the World Can End” these two sides of her imagination coalesce beautifully as she presents the heartening and witty tale of Lenny, a teenage girl whose father is actively dying of cancer.
In 2009 Sher authored “Amen Amen Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things),” a nonfiction book about how the death of her parents and aunt spurred her obsessive compulsive disorder.
In “All the Ways the World Can End,” she revisits and fictionalizes this real-life material for a young adult audience — though non-young adult readers will be moved by it just the same.
The novel explores how Lenny copes with her dad’s impending demise, the eccentricities of her Jewish family, and her best friend Julian’s running off to contemporary dance school. Lenny manages all these losses partly through obsessive compulsive behaviors and self-harm; partly by extensively researching a wide array of cataclysmic global events — truly, all the ways the world can end — and partly by throwing herself at her father’s handsome oncologist, Dr. Ganesh. The story is both devastating and laugh-out-loud funny.
The themes of your novel — loss, anxiety, obsession — are similar to those in your beautiful memoir “Amen Amen Amen.” Can you tell us a bit about the differences in writing fiction for young adult readers versus nonfiction for adults? Are there things you held back or articulated differently for younger readers?
‘I’m a 40-something-year old trapped in a 16-year-old psyche’
Writing fiction is much more fun for me, because I can make up a different ending and my hero gets to be a lot cooler than I ever was. I mean, Lenny has chutzpah — she speaks out and rebels against her mom — things I was terrified of doing even as a teen. Also, she has a better sense of fashion.
I don’t think I intentionally developed this heroine with OCD, but I’m pretty sure all of my heroines have to be a little mentally unstable, because I am! In terms of making these issues more accessible for younger readers, I don’t think I articulated anything differently, per se. In a lot of ways, I have more fun and find more adjectives when I write or speak as a teenager. Probably because I’m a 40-something-year old trapped in a 16-year-old psyche.
Lenny’s anxiety is both particular to her situation (her dying father, her best friend’s leaving) and broad (the demise of civilization). Are there any ways in which you see this anxiety as a Jewish phenomenon?
Ha! Definitely. Nature versus nurture versus am-I-dying-or-is-it-just-gas? My best friend [also Jewish] likes to remind me that we never complain of a hangnail. It’s always either everything is great or we have this weird ache and it must be cancer of the entire skeletal system. I’m not saying Jews are the only ones who know how to worry, but I do think we excel on catastrophizing. I’m not sure if that’s genetic or because we as a people have been through such devastation, but it is comforting to realize I’m not alone in my neuroses.
This is a story about dying, cancer and self-harm, among other tragedies and traumas, and yet it is superbly funny. Your characters are witty and engage in lively repartee, and your protagonist has a sassy point of view. Can you talk a bit about humor as a coping mechanism? Is it ultimately effective?
I sure hope so. I mean, I truly believe laughter is the greatest gift we can give each other. I performed with The Second City and toured all over the country trying to make people laugh and it was a phenomenal experience. I remember doing a show in Oklahoma City just a short time after the horrific bombing. The air felt so fragile and we couldn’t be scared about putting the tragedy out there, because that would just keep the sadness all bottled up inside that theater.
And then I had the gift and challenge of writing the first show for Second City after 9/11. Which was beyond amazing. It was called “Holy War, Batman!” and it really is the show I feel most proud of to this day. We went right in there and had this whole plotline about a Muslim cab driver getting mistreated and accused, and I got to play the little girl on her way to a teen pageant who asks him where he’s actually from. Every night that we performed, I cried.
The best was when a whole group of 9/11 firefighters from New York City came to Chicago to see our show, and I still get shivers thinking about them in the audience and the standing ovation they gave us.
All your characters are so vividly drawn, they are quirky and memorable. Dr. Ganesh has his own brand of fist bumps, Julian choreographs turkey baster-based school assemblies, and Lenny’s workaholic mom is infatuated with walnuts as an antidote to cancer. Who inspired your cast?
‘Sad but true — I asked my rabbi to go to prom’
All of these people are real — or maybe amalgamations of people I know. The best friend character of Julian is alive and well and thriving and I hope to get a copy of this book into his hands, but honestly I loved him so fiercely as a teen and I don’t know how or if we’d even find a connection now. He was the first boy to ever find me mildly fascinating or somewhat talented, and I guess I’m scared if we met up today he’d be disappointed. Did I mention I’m stuck in a 16-year-old psyche?
The mom character is kind of a mash up between me and my mom. When my dad died, I was 11 and my mom didn’t bury herself in work or swear she could fix everything with a bag of sprouts, but I kind of imagine that’s what I’d do if faced with tragedy.
Dr. Ganesh is also a combination of a few doctors who were very helpful to my family and also my rabbi growing up. Sad but true — I asked my rabbi to go to prom with me. Because he was the one man I trusted and he showed so much compassion for my family. Blessedly, he said no.