“When you read a good book it changes you and becomes a part of your life,” says author William Schwalbe, “and it doesn’t just end when you close the cover. It lives on in your own life in so many different ways.” This rings especially true when considering William Schwalbe’s most recent bestseller, The End of Your Life Book Club, a poignant memoir about reaching out to his terminally ill mother through books. Sharing and reading books became a natural way for Schwalbe and his mother, Mary Anne, to process her grim prognosis of pancreatic cancer in 2007. At first, books were just something to talk about during Mary Anne’s chemotherapy sessions. Then they went further, purposely choosing books they always wanted to read or ones they had longed to re-read someday. The Schwalbe book club tightened their mother-son bond, and bolstered their spirits through the long days leading to the end of Mary Anne’s life.
“Mom was such a practical woman, with an incredible work ethic,” Schwalbe says during lunch at a café near his home in the West Village. “She would always frame things in terms of ‘what can I do’ instead of ‘what can’t I do,’ even when she was very ill.” Mary Anne worked as an admissions director at Harvard and Radcliffe, and helped found the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children and the UK branch of the International Rescue Committee. During the last two years of her life, she campaigned and fundraised to build a research library and cultural center in Afghanistan. When Mary Anne passed away, Schwalbe wanted his mother’s generous spirit to live on, and the best way he knew how to do that was to put it between book covers. The resulting memoir is not only a tribute to a life well lived, but an authentic missive of love and courage for all families.
When asked what kind of a review his mother would have given his book, Schwalbe looks over the tops of his round, wire-rimmed glasses and with a shy smile answers: “I hope she would be pleased with the results of my story, which is not just about the end of her life, but celebrates how she lived her life. The book highlights so many of the causes she cared about, and I think that might have been enough for her, really.” He then adds with a laugh, “And because she was my mother, she usually loved what I did…She was a wonderful cheerleader and enthusiast, always helping people to connect and to better themselves and their lives.”
Although Schwalbe has only been to Nantucket once as a young teen, he can’t wait to return this June as a featured author at the Nantucket Book Festival. A graduate of Yale, Schwalbe’s first job in the literary world was in publishing, initially serving as editor-in-chief of William Morrow and then Hyperion Publishing. He eventually left book publishing to found Cookstr.com, an online resource that aggregates and organizes cooking recipes.
The End of Your Life Book Club is Schwalbe’s second book, and quickly be- came a New York Times Best Seller that’s won wide praise. “I don’t want people to assume I’m only talking about death just because of the title and the subject. I like to talk about life,” Schwalbe says, when asked what he wants the Nantucket audience to know about him before he steps to the podium in June. “I’d like to get the message across that we should do things now to connect with our loved ones: Write a letter to your spouse, your children, start a book club with your grandchildren.” And perhaps there could be no better opportunity to take William Schwalbe’s advice than at the Nantucket Book Festival where the power of books will be observed and the literary life celebrated