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Timothy Noah: My Life After Marjorie


I've been touring the country lately promoting a new book. Nothing unusual about that, but I happen not to be the author of the book I'm promoting. Its author is my wife, Marjorie Williams, who died this past January of liver cancer.


That's Timothy Noah, a writer at the online magazine Slate and contributor to DAY TO DAY.

NOAH: The book, titled "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," is a collection of her writings, most of them previously published in places like The Washington Post and Vanity Fair; a couple of them previously unpublished.

In my introduction to the book I state that editing it--which I did in the months after Marjorie died--was an act of mourning. This is particularly obvious in the book's final section, which consists of essays Marjorie wrote about her illness and her thoughts about impending death. As you might imagine, I am still very much consumed by, sometimes paralyzed by, grief.

But I don't want readers of "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" to feel they're paying tribute to a writer who died too young. I want readers to experience the pleasure of reading a writer who is witty, playful, trenchant, wise and very much alive. Even if you didn't know her, Marjorie was and is wonderful company. I want the reading public to make her acquaintance.

The catch is that in order to do this, I have to be Marjorie, to impersonate her after a fashion, as I represent the book in media interviews and public appearances. The task, though necessary, is wildly presumptuous. In a couple of weeks, I'm supposed to talk about the book before a group of Washington women who regularly meet to discuss the conflict between family and work, a subject the book addresses at some length. I don't know precisely what Marjorie would say about my claiming expertise on this subject, but I imagine it would include the word `buster' and make reference to the addictive properties of the Internet as experienced by the American white-collar male.

In some ways, not being the author of the book I'm touting is quite liberating. There is no obstacle to my saying, as I often do at bookstore appearances, that "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" is a wonderful book. That isn't a boast because I didn't write it. At the same time, it isn't necessary that I defend every opinion expressed in the book because the opinions aren't mine.

At bookstore readings, people ask me what Marjorie thought about this or that and I tell them. I am, as her widower, the world's leading authority on what she believed and felt, but I try to remind myself as often as possible that even my expert opinion is of limited value. In his book "A Grief Observed," CS. Lewis laments that the wife he mourns is really only his idea of his wife, unchecked by the little daily corrections and surprises of her actuality. He writes, and I quote, "Slowly, quietly, like snowflakes, like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night, little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone," unquote.

And so it is for me. My idea of Marjorie isn't Marjorie. Marjorie poured an enormous amount of herself into her writing, making "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" a welcome corrective to my accumulating misconceptions. It comforts me to experience her vibrancy firsthand and to see readers experience it, too. But of course, Marjorie wasn't and isn't a book. It's just as close as she and I can manage.

(Soundbite of "Love Goes On")

Ms. MARY-CHAPIN CARPENTER: (Singing) Dreams inspire and souls ignite, but it's darkest just before first light.

CHADWICK: Timothy Noah is a staff writer at the online magazine Slate.

One of the many people who knew and loved his late wife, Marjorie, is the singer-songwriter Mary-Chapin Carpenter, who wrote this song, "Love Goes On," as a tribute.

(Soundbite of "Love Goes On")

Ms. CARPENTER: (Singing) And love goes on. Love goes on.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from I'm Alex Chadwick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Timothy Noah