Interview with Carla Malden, author of ‘AfterImage’

Carla Malden grew up in Los Angeles, California. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from U.C.L.A. with a Bachelor of Arts in English and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society for her academic achievement. She worked extensively in the film business, both in production and development.

With her husband, filmmaker Laurence Starkman, she wrote twelve feature screenplays; they also served as rewrite guns-for-hire. The team of Malden & Starkman wrote and produced the short romantic comedy Whit & Charm, which screened at eight major film festivals, including The Hamptons, and won several awards. They also wrote and created a series of Cine Golden Eagle Award-winning Art History films produced in association with The Detroit Institute of Art and The National Gallery.

Along with her father, Academy Award-winning actor Karl Malden, Carla co-authored his critically acclaimed memoir, When Do I Start?, published by Simon & Schuster.

AfterImage:  A Brokenhearted Memoir of a Charmed Life delivers a fiercely personal account of her battling the before and surviving the after of losing her husband to cancer. It offers an alert for an entire generation:  this is not your mother’s widowhood.

Carla Malden lives in Brentwood, California where she is currently completing her first novel as well as a children’s book illustrated by her daughter, Cami Starkman.

Visit her website at www.carlamalden.com.

Q: Thank you for this interview, Carla. Can you tell us what your latest book, AFTERIMAGE: A BROKENHEARTED MEMOIR OF A CHARMED LIFE, is all about?

AFTERIMAGE is a personal account of a last year and a first year: the last year of my husband’s life — our life together, and the first year of my life without him — the rest of my life.  It’s about my transition to widowhood, a widowhood too soon.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your book?

Sadly, I lived it.  I think I wrote it to try to make sense of what had happened, to try to come to grips with my new reality which felt utterly surreal.  It was a particularly bizarre reality because I woke up one morning and I was a young widow. I believed I was part of the “forever young” generation; how could I be a widow when I didn’t even feel like a grown-up?  I needed to put the experience into words to make it real.  Ultimately, I needed to write a love letter to my husband.  At its core, that’s what AFTERIMAGE is.

Q: What kind of research did you do before and during the writing of your book?

All the research was done during the previous year when I was trying to conquer cancer and save my husband’s life.

Q: If a reader can come away from reading your book with one valuable message, what would that be?

I intend no single message and hope that everyone will come away with something personal to him or her.  But if I had to choose one theme it would be : carpe diem.  Seize the day.  Bring your best, most loving self to the people you love rather than saving good behavior for random strangers.  All we have is this moment.

Q: Can you give us a short excerpt?

Around this time, early in the chemo, people began to tell me how well I was doing, how strong I was.  They commented that I was doing so many things right.  It made me crazy.  And, now all this time later, it still does.  The disconnect between how I seemed — how I appeared, how I behaved, how I functioned — and how I felt began to widen in that post-surgery / early chemo time.  At the very beginning, the onslaught of the diagnosis and my instinct for immediate action left no room for behaving like anything but the raw nerve I was.   But as the weeks passed, I found that the appearance of normalcy was worth something.  Fake it till you make it, they say.  I clung to the corollary:  If you fake it convincingly enough, you will definitely make it.

One friend said she couldn’t believe my hair was clean.

Washing my hair is the easy part, I wanted to scream.  Just like putting on mascara and all the rest.  But look at my eyes:  I’m not here.

You start to go a little nuts when the way people perceive you doesn’t match your insides.  You feel like a fraud.  You question the way in which you have related to people all your life.  How did you become so expert at deception, at feeling one way and behaving another?  Surely you don’t just wake up one morning when your husband has cancer and find yourself so skilled at pretending.

One day another friend said that I was sounding much better, that she was glad that I had managed to detach.  I couldn’t even process that comment.  I could not have been less detached.  She might as well have said, “It’s so great that you have trampolined right out of your life.”

In all fairness, no one could say anything right.

Another friend asked, “Trying to stay optimistic?”  I wanted to slit his throat.  What I wanted to hear was, “Everything’s going to be perfectly fine.”  An effort to “stay optimistic” implied we were fighting a battle that could actually be lost.  I had no tolerance for hearing that.  While I struggled every single moment to maintain a fingerhold on optimism, I wanted everyone else around us to believe it was a sure thing.  Having to try to stay optimistic  — it was that word “try” that bristled –  meant what was wrong was so big that maybe optimism was misguided.

Despite friends’ well-meaning comments, despite my over-analysis of what were intended as encouraging words, despite my exhaustion, some time around week six, something strange happened.  Were I a believer, I might have presumed I found myself in the grace of God.  My obsessive thoughts about the future subsided.

A friend I’ve known since childhood who had undergone successful cancer treatment a few years earlier suggested a trick.

“Ask yourself,” she said, “what’s so bad about today?”

Often, she promised, the answer would be, “Nothing.”  And lo and behold, as Laurence recovered from the surgery and acclimated to the chemo routine, there came a string of days that turned out to be manageable, even better than manageable.  During those weeks, I discovered contentment, even pleasure, in the smallness of our life.  Newsy phone chats with Cami, visiting with the oldest of friends, meals at home.  It was not the life we were used to living.  But it had a simpleness to it, a confinement, that was curiously comforting, as though we were swaddling ourselves in what was really important and letting the excess fall away.

Q: In your own experience, is it hard to get a nonfiction book published today?  How did you do it?

I showed my manuscript to a small circle of friends who responded so strongly that I began to think the book might have a place in the world at large.  In fact, one friend shared it with her book club and after that, the book took on a life of its own.  It began being used by book clubs up and down the coast of California.  Then my agent partnered with another agent; I knew she was perfect for this book when she said, “This is not a cancer book.  This is a love story.”  I knew she had the right approach for selling it and she succeeded.

Q: What’s a typical day like for you?

I don’t really have a typical day.  I volunteer running a Creative Writing workshop at a rehab center one morning a week.  I see a lot of movies, go to a lot of theater and get together with friends.  I spend as much time as possible with my daughter who’s in graduate school.  In terms of my “work” day:  if I put in three hours a day, I’m happy.  When I’m really absorbed, that’s no issue.  I often work at night, too.

Q: What’s next for you?

I’m just completing my first novel.  And I’ve also just finished an illustrated children’s book with drawings by my daughter, Cami Starkman.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Carla.  We wish you much success!

Thank you very much.

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