Heather Summerhayes Cariou – Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister’s Memoir

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister’s Memoir is a literary memoir. It offers an unsparing eyewitness account of the pain, hope and valor of a family in crisis as it falls apart and pulls itself together again and again, only to emerge stronger and more loving.

I was six when my four-year old sister Pam was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis and given only months to live. I promised to die with my sister, but instead she taught me how to live. In “Sixtyfive Roses,” the reader travels with us we journey through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, each of us struggles for autonomy, yet helps the other learn where to find joy and meaning in a world of pain and uncertainty.

This is not just a story about a disease. “Sixtyfive Roses” is about fighting for your life and never giving up. It’s about loving fearlessly and the choices we make in the name of love. It’s about the kind of faith, fortitude and forgiveness we tell ourselves we don’t possess, but which is present in all of us. Ultimately, “Sixtyfive Roses” illuminates what we must all come to understand about the nature of life and death.

Tell us something about yourself.

I was born, raised and educated in Ontario, Canada. As a child I trained at the National Ballet School of Canada, then as a teen I became an award-winning young actress in my community, active in several amateur theatre groups and high school drama clubs. I graduated college with a High Honors diploma in Media Arts, and began a professional acting career lasting twenty years on stages across Canada and off-Broadway.

I’m a founding member of the Galaxy Writers Workshop in New Jersey, and for the last twenty years sat as a Director on the Board of the International Women’s Writing Guild. As a writer learning my craft I participated in the Humber College Mentor Program, the Aspen Writer’s Conference, the Mid-Atlantic Creative Non-fiction Writer’s Conference, and attended many the I.W.W.G. writing conferences.

I’ve held jobs in sales, fashion, catering, and business management. I grew up the eldest of four children, and I’m growing older as the grandmother of two. I’m married to Emmy-nominated, Tony Award winning stage and screen actor Len Cariou, who has a new series this fall on CBS called “Blue Bloods.” I’m known among friends and family as the go-to person for anything that needs fixing, whether it’s an appliance or a life. Phrases that my friends and associates have used to describe me include “damn the torpedos” and “shoot from the hips.” I can throw a formal dinner party for twelve at the drop of a hat, and have cooked Thanksgiving dinner for the entire cast of a Broadway show on the road in a hotel room. I love to read, walk, cook and hang with my friends.

What inspired you to write this book?

As my sister lay dying, she told me I wasn’t meant to be an actress. She said I was meant to write, and to teach. She made me promise to “tell the story of what we lived through together.” I promised.

How did you choose the title?

“Sixtyfive Roses” is how Pam pronounced the name of her disease, “Cystic Fibrosis,” when she was a little girl. In fact, many small children with CF do this.

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

I spent about 3 months perfecting my query letter, then I sent it out with three chapters to two Canadian literary agents, two Canadian small presses, and two American agents. Within 3 months I received requests for the full manuscript from both of the American agents, one Canadian agent, and one small press. I was then offered representation by the Canadian agent and one of the American agents. After meeting with each of the two agents, I went with Anne McDermid of McDermid and Associates in Toronto. She’s been fantastic. We did get a good number of rejections, but the letters were great – almost like reviews. Most praised the writing right down to the last paragraph, where they declined because they couldn’t see how to market it – it didn’t have a so-called platform. This is a very real problem in the publishing world now; it’s all about marketing in a celebrity driven culture, trying to guarantee the bottom line for the big corporations that own most publishing houses.

I took a chance and wrote to Celine Dion, who has a connection to the CF Foundation, and she consented to write a foreword for the book. After a little over a year, the book was taken by McArthur and Company Canada, a great independent house. Kim McArthur makes personal decisions about which books she’s going to carry. Books with a strong literary value but not a large platform are often best published by smaller, independent houses. Kim ultimately also brought the book into the U.S. market through the National Book Network.

I had to trust a lot in my agent, and then in God’s grace through the whole process. Anne and I never stopped believing that this book had an audience, and that it was just a matter of finding that one person in a publishing house who believed it too. I was willling to take as long as it took, and we made a LOT of submissions.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

I started writing poems when I was about 10, and then it just kept coming out of me. I thought everybody wrote. It never occurred to me I had a gift. I just write compulsively, always have. I became an actress because there seemed to be a path open to it; I did not think there was a path for me to be a writer. I started to write seriously after my sister’s death, and found serious encouragement and glorious mentorship through the International Women’s Writing Guild.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I often take a walk down the Hudson River, near where I live, before I write in the morning. I sound a chime, light a candle, and put on some New Age “writing music.”

I write on the computer or sometimes big yellow pads. I print out at the end of each day, then correct the next morning on the hard copy, and feed the changes back into the computer. Then I go on from there into new work.

How do you come up with the names for your characters?

I’m working on an autobiographical novel right now. I’ve chosen names pretty close to the names of the people on whom I am basing the characters. For example, one of the real people is Donna, and in the manuscript her working name is Enda. I don’t know why, but I’d like the names to have similar sounds to the names of the people on whom they are based. That could all change, of course, with an editor!

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?

I could write an entire essay on that. Maybe I should! I learned that craft is all in the rewriting, and that if you’re going to be a writer, you’d better love to rewrite. I learned that you can teach yourself craft. I learned that I can set a goal and acheive it. (It took me 20 years from start to finish.) I learned that I love writing more than anything, that sharing your story can change lives, and that it’s a worthy use of your time and a healing art, even if you never publish.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

Probably not a darn thing.

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

I’m working on a novel about betrayal and secrets in a family. How what we don’t know about the people who raise us affects us nonetheless.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

Prepare yourself for the long haul. Trust your story. Constantly hone your craft. Be responsible for the feedback you go after from friends or writing groups – in other words, tell people what you are working on right now (dialogue, sense work, clarity etc.) and tell them to confine their feedback to that need. Also, feedback should come in the form of questions that you will write down and not attempt to answer on the spot, or ask them to tell you what images worked.

I once heard Anne Lamott say that whatever is wrong with your life won’t be changed by publication. It might, in fact, get worse. Listen to Anne. Don’t expect that because you are published, people who hate you will change their minds about you. Best to learn to love yourself before you get published, and learn to be satisfied with your own self-approbation, rather than seeking approval from outside sources.

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

I think one of my readers put it best when she wrote on Amazon: it’s for anyone on their own hero’s or heroine’s journey. Someone who loves a book that makes them laugh and cry, that inspires, and leaves them changed in some aspect of their own lives. Someone who loves a book that is “beautifully written” and appreciates the kind of “brutal honesty” I’m told my book has.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

“Sixtyfive Roses” was a Globe and Mail 100 Best Books of 2006, a Target Stores Recommended Read for 2008, and a winner at the Nashville Book Festival in 2009. Eva Longoria has optioned film rights as producer, and it is currently in development as a film for Hallmark Hall of Fame.