The title of Carole Radziwill’s first novel, The Widow’s Guide to Sex & Dating may seem a little off-putting to those who know Radziwill as a three-time Emmy award-winning journalist, who spent more than a decade reporting for ABC News from around the world, including the front lines of Afghanistan.
And if you’ve read her moving New York Times bestselling memoir, What Remains, about her husband, Anthony Radziwill, an ABC News producer of Polish royalty, who died in 1999 when she was just 34 years old, you also may scratch your head.
But 15 years later, Radziwill has moved on in her grief journey to a place where she can see both the pathos and humor in life, and has written a quick-paced, engaging novel about Claire Byrne, an attractive and offbeat 34-year old New Yorker married to Charles Byrne, a renowned sexologist, who is charming and interesting, but unfaithful, believing that love and sex are mutually exclusive.
In a bizarre accident, Charlie is suddenly struck dead on the sidewalk by a falling Giacometti statue and over the course of a year, the grieving Claire goes on a binge of bad choices and dating misadventures before discovering true love for the first time.
In the following interview, Radziwill talks about her new novel and what she’s learned from her own experiences about the unpredictability of life.
Q. When/how did you make the leap into fiction from your memoir What Remains to this darkly comedic novel?
A. I thought about it before I wrote the memoir. I had just started dating, I was still at ABC News, and was thinking about leaving—around the time I came back from Afghanistan. I was telling a bunch of girlfriends silly dating stories and they said, “You should write these down, it would be a funny book.” Yeah, right (I thought), a novel about life after death. I was still in the throes of grieving, not in a funny place of mind. I realized I actually wanted to write my own story. And honestly, I thought I’d write my life story as a novel. I’m a very private person. I hadn’t written about my marriage or famous in-laws. But it became clear, the story was so nuts, it didn’t seem believable. And the threshold for believability in fiction has to be higher than in a memoir. In a memoir readers will take a leap of faith with a writer because (their story) really happened. Whereas, if you write (a memoir) as fiction, it’s too weird to be true. Many years later I went back to writing the novel.
Q. How is Claire based on you and how is she different?
A. Certainly my experience was completely different than Claire’s. I did that on purpose. But I knew she’d be based on my own experience. I knew she wasn’t going to be a messy widow—and get into drugs and alcohol. She was me when I started writing it. She’s much more self aware, pragmatic, and practical than I was. Yet she did get a little of my neurotic tendencies. When you’re writing a novel, you can give your characters the things you wished you said, but didn’t think of until you were in the cab after dinner. You get to write the happy ending that maybe you didn’t get.
Q. How about Charlie? Why a renowned sexologist as Claire’s husband?
A. I didn’t want a comparison between Claire and me, and my husband and the husband in the book. I wanted him to be the complete opposite of Anthony: egomaniacal, narcissistic. I’m not sure where the sexologist came to be—maybe my own kind of interest in all things sexual. Some of Charlie is me, too. Those perverse, weird, analytical aspects of Charlie are actually really me.
Q. Charlie didn’t die in the most ordinary of circumstances. He was struck dead on the sidewalk by a famous sculpture. Why did you choose such a bizarre death?
A. Claire’s husband can’t die from cancer because that’s not funny. I had read A Shocking Accident by Graham Greene that’s set in Italy. A man was killed when a pig fell out of a window. The modern version of that is in New York things fall out of the sky all the time—air conditioners and cranes. I thought I’d turn the pig into an expensive Giacometti statue, and then make it a fake. I thought that was even funnier.
Q. Your background is in serious international reporting, and this novel deals with somber themes, of grief and emotional pain, but is also very funny. Are you naturally funny?
A. In year three, after my husband died, I found my sense of humor. It was more lifesaving then going to therapy, the year I took Wellbutrin. I don’t know if I was always naturally funny. I was a pretty serious kid and young adult with a serious job, doing serious stuff. It was finding the laughter and ridiculousness of life that really saved me. My husband was very funny. I think he left that for me.
Q. Claire learns and grows from her experience. She reinvents herself after hitting a lot of bumps along the way. Was that important to you that your main character didn’t stay stuck in grief, but moved on and found a greater love, had a second chance at life?
A. It was important. It wasn’t like my novel had to have a happy ending. But it was important for me to have her discover who she is and what she wants out of life. She was the moon in her relationships, and in the end, she realizes she wants to be the star, and I wanted her to be the star.
Q. Speaking of stars, you’re starring in Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New York City. How did that happen?
A. I was at a point in my life, when I was (asked to be on the show) and I said, “I don’t know. Sure.” Sometimes you just have to say yes to what the universe puts in front of you, even if it seems counterintuitive, unproductive. I live my life and see where it goes… Life isn’t short, it’s sooo long, and to have a successful life, you have to have a lot of experiences, both good and bad, and the richer your life will be.
The Widow’s Guide to Sex & Dating (St. Martin’s Griffin Press) by Carole Radziwill is $15.99, softcover.
This article is reprinted with permission from The Day.