Richard and Judy Interview: Cathy Rentzenbrink on The Last Act of Love

Richard and Judy Interview: Cathy Rentzenbrink on The Last Act of Love

This beautiful memoir moved us to tears. How difficult was it to write?

That’s very kind of you to say. It was extremely hard and in all the time of writing and editing it, I don’t think there was a single session of work where I didn’t cry. I’d sit in cafes near my flat wailing as I typed. But I think I needed to do all that crying. For years I’d been trying to ignore the huge sadness I was carrying around and I’ve come to believe it is bad for you to lock things away inside – they don’t go away but sort of leak out dangerously. What was extremely helpful was getting an agent and then an editor. They are both extraordinarily kind and wise people as well as being brilliant at their jobs, and I felt protected, and I’d even say loved, as they helped me get the story out of myself and on to the page.

In your acknowledgements you say that bookselling saved your life. Why?

I felt I’d completely screwed up my life. My marriage had ended, I hadn’t worked for a few years and there wasn’t anything I knew how to do. I felt useless and pointless. Looking back, I think I was probably depressed and unable to see any good in myself. I’d done some temping a few years before and had always been rubbish at it because I had no skills and would get in a muddle over switchboards and things. I loathed the thought of having to do that again and I didn’t really want to work as a barmaid.

Then I realized that the only thing I felt any good at was reading books. I’d always read faster and more than anyone else I knew. I thought that might be quite useful in a bookshop. Then there was a great joy in realizing that I was good at talking to strangers about books. It was a huge shock in some ways. I’d been travelling around the world with my husband leading rather a high-status life, and suddenly I’d gone from being the sort of person who buys duty-free cosmetics they don’t really need with an AMEX Gold Card to being the sort of person who has to serve customers and put up with them being rude. But I was building myself up from scratch, I now think. I needed to go back to the beginning a bit and work out how to live.

I made good friends in my first bookselling job and I’ve always found kindness to be a very cheering thing. I felt like I had found my tribe. I always feel a bit of an eccentric around other people and have spent various bits of my life trying to hide the fact that I’m clever and strange; but all book people are clever and strange, so I fitted in.

Have your and your parents’ tragic experience led you to believe that we should not artificially prolong life?

Yes, absolutely, and even more so since finishing the book and getting lots of letters from people sharing their terrible stories. I think it’s a great problem of our age. Our technical ability to prolong life has outstripped our legal, ethical, philosophical and emotional ability to deal with the consequences. Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh wrote a brilliant book called Do No Harm where he talks about the fact that it is really rather easy to save a life with emergency surgery – you just drill some holes and let out some blood – but that the question of when life is meaningful goes far beyond whether there is a beating heart. He talks about the collateral damage to the families left coping with a living death. I now feel I can off er myself as a case study of what happens when you make a seventeen-year-old girl watch the long deterioration of her much-loved brother’s body, and then have to sign an affidavit agreeing that he should be starved to death. How can that be allowed to happen in a civilized society? Sometimes I do think it’s amazing that I’m here at all.

Has writing about Matty helped to alleviate your sadness?

Yes, very much, though I’m a work in progress. I think the writing itself was therapeutic in the sense that I was facing up to my darkest and saddest thoughts rather than trying to avoid them. It has also been extremely heartening to talk to other people, and it does seem miraculous to me that in dealing with my own pain, I’ve managed to craft something that is useful to others. I really love talking to readers who come to events – it’s a new way of talking to strangers about books.

I’ve come to see that feeling useful is a really good antidote to sadness. If you can find a way to function and be a help to others then your situation almost always improves. Now that I’m not putting all my energy into suppressing my thoughts, I have more of it for other things, which is wonderful. I try to make time for my sadness and grief rather than see them as a weakness, and because I’m giving them that time and space, they’re less likely to try to sabotage my whole self.