Newly released Buoyant: What Held Us Up When Our Bodies Let Us Down, is a success — judging by orders we've received from 27 states and several countries. In it, Dotty Holcomb writes of friendship between two women that evolved during kayak trips as each endured difficult personal trials. We asked Dotty about the challenges of writing this book and what it means to see it in readers' hands.
Q: This book has been a long time in the making. How did you keep faith with it over all those years?
A: I made a promise to Janet to write her story. As the book evolved from her story to ours, I felt the importance of illuminating the person behind the outward persona, whether Janet’s warmth and humor behind her facial disfigurement, or my fatigue and feelings of unworthiness behind my athletic-looking exterior. But mainly, I wanted to do it for Janet.
Q: You’re written about everyday joy, but tragedy is forever looming. What sustained you writing the most difficult chapters?
A: Love. Life is a journey, with lots of roadblocks and detours along the way. We all know where we are headed in the end. Love for Janet, who died over a decade before I finished the book, kept me going. She didn’t want to fade away. But it was also a great writing challenge. When I made Janet and myself each a character in the book, with our own chapters, I began to think like a fiction writer, developing those characters, plus plot and scene. Using our real-life scenarios, I hoped to tell our truths in the most engaging way I could.
Q: Writers sometimes imagine talking to people as they compose. Who were your imagined readers as you wrote this book?
A: You may laugh, but I thought about the people like me who read “Drama in Real Life” in Reader’s Digest magazine. I enjoyed learning about how people dealt with adversity, to hopefully gain some insights for the day I would face challenges. I also thought about those who are uncomfortable seeing people with differences, like Janet’s scarred face, and to show them, remind them, we are all just people, ourselves, underneath.
Q: Place is a character in your book, particularly Chesapeake Bay, where you’ve lived for a quarter century and Buoyant was conceived, gestated, and born. What is the role nature plays in your life and in your book?
A: The natural world is both my balm and my inspiration. The rhythms of migration, the assurance that when one species leaves, another will arrive, year after year, offers promise and momentum, always something to look forward to. Birds are my fuel; they fill me up when my energy runs low. I also hope that by combining these rhythms of nature with the unpredictability of chronic disease, that Buoyant will not only connect readers with the outdoors, but also allow them safe passage through the chaos that cancer and hidden illnesses bring to our lives.
Q: Now you are leaving Chesapeake Country, returning with your husband to your native lands, the Northeast. What will you leave behind?
A: The tundra swans. I will miss seeing them every winter, along with the other waterfowl that seek these warmer waters when the north ices over. And of course, friends. They will pull me back—the best reason to return and visit.
Q: What does having this book out mean to you?
A: It means everything. It’s been a long haul, three major rewrites, hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of editing. To have it emerge as not just Janet’s story, but mine as well was surprising, yet added an important depth to the book which I think will connect with a wide range of readers. And fulfilling my promise to Janet is huge. When I went to her grave and told her the book was being published, a fish crow flew into a nearby tree and called. I knew she knew.
Q: What do you hope your book will mean to your readers?
A: We deal with challenges, both physical and emotional, either visible or invisible. Friends and family members do as well. Buoyant offers a universal story of friendship, connection, and grief, with a particular resonance for those with chronic illness and cancer. I hope the book speaks to those struggling with their own limitations, as well as those who face the dilemma of how to respond when a friend receives a dire diagnosis. I hope, like the birds for me, Buoyant offers readers balm and inspiration.
DHD photo credit — Jonathan Doherty: Madagascar, 2016.
Visit Dotty at DottyHolcombDoherty.com.