Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter, theater critic and University of Colorado writing instructor. She has published a critically praised novel with food at its heart, “Stocker’s Kitchen,” along with short stories and essays, and has won several journalism awards. Her memoir, “Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals,” won the Colorado Book Award and was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Wittman also received a True West Award as Person of the Year, given for Denver arts coverage.

SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

Juliet Wittman: I was treated for breast cancer many years ago and the year of treatment — surgery, chemo, radiation — changed everything at the most elemental level, including my sense of who I was. The thing that struck me most was the relationships that formed among patients. 

Support groups were often raucous, filled with laughter, explosions of grief and anger, quiet moments of insight. We shared things with strangers that we’d never shared with anyone before. We threw around lewd jokes about bodily functions and bitched about our caretakers whom we knew in our hearts were our saviors. 

We were all living in a kind of liminal space where there was only a quivering, transparent membrane between life and death. We needed each other so much. Where else could you say, “Dammit, I hate healthy people” without being judged?  

Outside in the world there were sugar-pink ribbons, sentimental descriptions of cancer in films and fiction, obituaries that described brave battles, books explaining you could heal yourself by becoming more fulfilled and creative, meditating, learning to love and eating carrots. 


Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

It drove me nuts. I resolved to write a comic novel in which a group of patients embarked on a wild caper because, hell, what did they have to lose? There was a problem, though. I’m not a comic writer. I can be satiric, ironic, caustic, but I don’t seem to have a funny bone anywhere. The result is “Again and Again,” which explores death, celebrates life, and may have an occasional mildly humorous passage. 

SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

Wittman: Twenty-three-year-old Chloe, a cancer patient, has received a Portacath, a device placed under the skin to allow her nurse to administer chemotherapy without repeated injections. Scared, angry, lonely and bewildered, she goes out with a friend to get drunk.

SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write? And once you did begin to write, did the work take you in any unexpected directions?

Wittman: Being a journalist is very helpful when you’re gathering information for fiction. I talked to dozens of cancer patients. Also to nurses and doctors. My surgeon let me watch a mastectomy and the oncologist allowed me to accompany him on some of his rounds. 

There were political and social issues I explored as well, particularly our cruelly broken health care system. 

Yes, there were many unexpected developments during the writing process. You can’t create a feverish soul like Chloe without having her surprise you. 

SunLit: Are there lessons you take away from each experience of writing a book? And if so, what did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?


He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands, 
Ringed with the azure world he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls. 

The Eagle,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

This poem provided a metaphor for novel writing that I’ve found useful, especially when you start floundering partway through. At first you’re standing on a cliff like Tennyson’s eagle and all the patterns are clear to you: the waves rearing, cresting, and falling, the ripples running toward shore. You know the shape and intention of your book and think you understand the characters. But then you’re not on the cliff any more but in the sea, thrashing and sputtering, blinded by foam, seaweed and heaving water.  

Ultimately there’s peace. The draft is finished and ordered and at this point it feels as if you’d known all along where you were going. 

SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?

Wittman: I wrote and rewrote “Again and Again” several times over three or so years to find the plot. I knew the women were going to have risky, boundary-breaking adventures,  because once the Angel of Death has brushed you with his wing, why shouldn’t you take risks you normally wouldn’t? 

“Again and Again”

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But for a long time I just couldn’t figure out what the adventures were. Until four-year-old Colin appeared, snatching his nurse’s stethoscope away and laughing like a little fiend.  

SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this book, what would that be? 

Wittman: Well, it’s about people, how they respond to threat, how they cope, how they cooperate, comfort or confound each other. I think at the core “Again and Again” explores the baffling complexities of life and death. As the patients and their nurse struggle to understand what it means to die, they are also vibrantly alive. 

There are daffodils here and babies; there’s profound love; there’s a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, drinking hot chocolate and raising a derisive third finger to “those who wanted I and my children shouldn’t survive.” 

SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?

Wittman: The state of our schools breaks my heart. Not only the current fascist attacks on books and what teachers are allowed to speak about, but also the metric- test- and money-obsessed way in which this country thinks about education. 

I never encountered a five-paragraph essay until I came here from England as a teenager. Or a true and false or multiple choice test. Our tests at home required essays and analysis. And our teachers chose what they wanted to teach, utilizing their own literacy, knowledge and passion. 

SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

Wittman: First, I have to deal with the Critic, the one who sits on my shoulder whenever I begin writing and tells me my ideas are dumb, my prose ugly, and my work so bad it pollutes the universe.

Then the writing part. If I’m stuck I use exercises and free writing, to get fresh ideas. Ursula LeGuin’s “Steering the Craft” is one of my favorite prompt books.

When I actually start, I write very fast: I think of Jackson Pollock hurling paint at a canvas. The result is a lot of repetition and rigmarole, but then I let the exercise rest for a day or two. When I come back, I find there’s almost always something of value to think about or expand on, as well as lots of stuff that needs to be excised.

Finally, the draft complete, I activate the OCD trigger and edit, word by word and sentence by sentence. Do I want an “and” there? Try it. Nope; take it out. Put it back. I can spend a long time dancing with this “and.” And then — Is the right word furious? Isn’t the character just quietly seething?

My most important rule: Don’t abide by rules. They’re meant to be broken.   

SunLit: Tell us about your next project.

Wittman: I’ve ventured to be more autobiographical in the current novel than in previous work. Veronica, an old woman, is grading student papers, thinking periodically about what her work and her life have added up to. Has she been, even in a small way, a force for good in the world? Will the regret she feels for previous mistakes excuse them? 

She is also dealing with the memory of a schoolmate with whom she was once close. Mary is now a highly-respected neurological scientist, publishing books on the nature of evil and interviewed regularly on the BBC. But in her teens, Veronica knows, Mary committed a cruel and terrible act. 

Quick hits: 10 more quirky questions

SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things? 

Wittman: I procrastinate like crazy, but once my fingers are on the keyboard I tend to be happy.

SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of? 

Wittman: When I was seven or eight I wrote a poem that impressed my mother, though within my brain the Critic was already at work. And rightly so. The poem was preachy, sentimental and Victorian. It began, “Never waste. Never waste. But give the little birds a taste.” At least it scans.  

SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?

Wittman: Working in journalism, I was comfortable enough with my writing. But I didn’t think I had the right to move on to actual fiction. According to the great and famous — Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow — it was useless trying to write well if you didn’t have a penis. 

SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why? 

Wittman: Samuel Beckett, W.H. Auden, Margaret Atwood. They’re all brilliant, worldly wise, and ironic, yet they all make music on the page and surprise with moments of transcendence. 

SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?

Wittman: “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us,” Franz Kafka. 

Come to think of it, can Kafka come to our gathering? And Shakespeare?

SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you? 

Wittman: That I’m mad about politics, plays and theater, poetry, food writing, and language, and for fiction by immigrants and British writers.

SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write? 

Wittman: Silence.

SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer? 

Wittman: In my 40s I took a workshop with Alix Kates Shulman and she wrote on the first story I submitted: “Do, do, do go on with your writing.” 

SunLit: As an author, what do you most fear? 

Wittman: Any kind of illness or event that causes lost words.

SunLit: Also as an author, what brings you the greatest satisfaction? 

Wittman: Surely you know: Praise and understanding for the work.

The Colorado Sun

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