WSJ Writer Uses Reporting Skills to Tell Her Late Mother’s Story in New Book

The week after her mother died of lung cancer, Katherine Rosman was busy reporting on high-profile philanthropists as a culture reporter for The Wall Street Journal. But her job, though normally fulfilling, started to feel meaningless. The more she thought about her work as a reporter, the more she realized that the only person whose story she wanted to tell was her mom’s.

So she set out to learn more about her late mom, Suzy, by taking her normal approach to storytelling: she made phone calls, cultivated sources and asked difficult questions in search of answers.

Rosman took a year off from the Journal and traveled to Arizona, Michigan, Florida, Texas and throughout New York to talk with people who were part of her mom’s life. Her efforts resulted in a book, “If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Reporter’s Notebook,” which was published last month.

“I knew the sorts of stories that my mom had told me over and over again and I wanted to go beyond those,” Rosman said in a phone interview Tuesday night after putting her kids to bed. “Her not being there allowed me to do it. She wasn’t there to control the narrative, so it was my narrative to create with the facts.”

In writing her book, Rosman learned how to more effectively report on the life of someone who has died and to deal with sources who are reluctant to share memories of the dead. The interviews, she said, made her realize that “ordinary” people — in this case her mom — often have the most extraordinary stories.  

Rosman said she felt motivated to write “If You Knew Suzy” after breaking into her late mother’s eBay account and contacting the people from whom her mom had bought Steuben and Venetian glass. When talking to the eBay sellers, she learned that her mom, who normally didn’t talk about death, had confided in them about her fear of dying. eBay had become her mother’s end-of-life obsession — a safe haven where she could open up to people without hurting them, a place where she could buy gifts for her daughters so they would have something to remember her.

“I was desperate to reconnect with my healthy, vivacious, free-spirited, moody, pain-in-the-ass, nurturing, imperfect, perfect mother. I hadn’t considered that in doing so, I might heal myself.” — Excerpt from “If You Knew Suzy.”Rosman wrote a front-page story about her mom’s eBay obsession for The Wall Street Journal and later described the experience in her book. The piece generated an overwhelming response from people who could relate to Rosman’s desire to find ways to reconnect with, and remember, her mom.

“As a journalist,” Rosman said, “that made me feel like I was on to something — that topics surrounding death were something that people were craving the opportunity to think and talk about.”

When she went through her mom’s Rolodex and started calling strangers to uncover more about her mom, she found that most people were willing to be interviewed. Others, such as her mom’s Pilates/spiritual guru, Jerome, were reluctant to be interviewed.

“The key to this book is the same thing that’s the key to any story — not being afraid to pick up the phone and call somebody who really has no interest or reason to get on the phone with you and talk, and not being afraid to have them tell you to buzz off,” Rosman said. “In my mind [Jerome] had an obligation to my mom to talk to me. He was ditching me left and right and as a journalist it made me all the more intent on getting him on the phone.” After trying to contact Jerome for six weeks, Rosman finally landed an interview with him.
 
Other people Rosman interviewed weren’t very complimentary. One of her mother’s former Pilates students, for instance, told Rosman: “I really didn’t like your mom.”

Our tendency, Rosman pointed out, is to want to protect our deceased loved ones by dismissing criticisms, only sharing happy memories, or not sharing them at all.

But Rosman said the woman’s negative remark piqued her curiosity as both a daughter and a journalist. She ended up including the comment in her story, partly to show that her mother wasn’t perfect. 

“I think we tell our family — and our sources tell us as journalists — the stories we want people to know about,” she said. “I waited to write this book until I could let conversations excite me as a journalist rather than upset me as a daughter.”

She also deliberately chose to include input from a man who questioned the entire premise of her book. He told her she was trying to deduce meaning from stories that may not have any underlying significance. Some friends and family asked why she put this criticism in the book, saying it could lead some to question whether the stories she heard along the way really mattered.

“I kind of gave reviewers rope to hang me by,” Rosman said, referring to a fairly negative review of her book that ran in the Los Angeles Times last week. “I wanted this piece to be a legitimate piece of journalism, so I did what I was trained at The Wall Street Journal to do, which was to present both sides of the story.”

She also rediscovered how reporting can help you find meaning in the mundane.

“If you are willing to do enough reporting, you can find wonderful, complex, rich stories about average people,” said Rosman, who is now working full-time again at the Journal. “You don’t have to get assigned someone in the White House or someone who’s a fashion icon. If you dig in, you can create someone famous out of the incredible stories of their life.”

Rosman said telling her mom’s story has helped her connect with motherless daughters, many of whom have told her the book reminded them that they’re not alone. I lost my mom to breast cancer when I was 11, so Rosman’s book resonated with me, particularly the parts about how difficult it is to watch your mother suffer and to know there’s nothing you can do to take away that pain. 

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“If You Knew Suzy” is deeply personal in parts, and the book touches upon universal themes we all face — death, love, hope. It shows how storytelling can lead us through a process of discovery that helps us keep memories alive.

“I did end up writing the book that I wanted to read, and I think it’s giving comfort to people in all sorts of ways,” Rosman said. “It makes me feel good. I’m sure it would please my mom, too.”

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