M.Perry: By the time you were nine both of your younger sisters had been diagnosed with terminal illnesses - Kostmann’s syndrome and leukemia - and you began introducing yourself as ‘the well sibling.” How, and when, did you realize that your family was different from others in this respect?
Invisible Sisters, was at Duke University Hospital with both my younger sisters and our parents to undergo some lab work to try and figure out how this anomaly – two sisters with white cell disorders on opposing sides of a spectrum – came to be. (No one’s ever figured it out, as far as I know.) I introduced myself that day as “the well sibling.” This is a real term now, but I don’t know if it was then. I doubt it. I think I’d overheard my father say it about me, or perhaps I thought of it then, but it seemed to define my role pretty efficiently.
Even then, though, I knew that our family was normal for us. My sisters weren’t treated differently; they had slumber parties and pets and schoolwork, and lived very regular lives for the most part. It was normal for me to be that calm around doctors, for us to travel to medical centers and be examined. That experience is a little bit like living in the third person voice.
After Invisible Sisters came out, friends who’d known me even during those times told me they’d never known the extent of our story. That’s a testament, good or bad, that’s a reader’s call, to how normal our lives were.
MP: In writing a memoir you must spend a lot of time revisiting past situations and feelings. Did this ever bring about a different viewpoint on any situations for you while writing Invisible Sisters?
Collin Kelley: Is there anything you didn't put in the memoir that wish you had now?
JH: I’m very satisfied with the scope of the book. I worked closely with my editor at Public Affairs, Morgen Van Vorst, who had great insights about shaping the book, which helped me at the time to figure out what I wanted and needed to put in that I had perhaps skated over in earlier drafts. There’s nothing in Invisible Sisters that I wouldn’t tell someone in conversation. That said, there are pieces of my family’s stories that I have omitted due to personal privacy issues and the fact that those bits weren’t crucial to the story I was telling. Those I won’t tell you in conversation. They’re just for me.
MP: It was so exciting to see you in Vanity Fair magazine. Tell us about it. Fun? Did you get to keep the dress? Anything to dish?
JH: The Vanity Fair shoot was amazing fun, and after eight hours on various lawns of the Swan House I was pretty much in giggles the whole time. I didn’t get to keep the dress, but honestly, what would I do with it? I’m a jeans and t-shirt gal. I knew five of the women before the shoot, and had of course heard of everyone, so it was a delight to meet the others. I am a huge admirer of Natasha Trethewey’s poetry particularly, so meeting her was kind of a fan-girl thrill.
Hmm, what to dish... It took two passes with dish soap to get the ‘product’ out of my hair. It doesn’t stand up like that on its own! And I learned that couture comes in two-digit sizes, not just in size four. And I’m wearing my grandmother’s pearls in that shot, because she would have kvelled. I texted my publicist pretty much every twenty minutes to essentially shriek with joy. The whole day was extremely girly.
JH: I’m still so touched and honored to have met Divine; Harris Glenn Milstead. He was a guest on a talk/variety show where I was a production coordinator, and I spent some time talking with him in the green room. John Waters’s movies had been big with my college friends and me. He was kind, soft-spoken, and just so elegant and gentlemanly. And he was wearing a grey pinstriped three-piece suit and a big diamond earring. I just loved him. And no, I won’t tell you here who the rock star at the after hours club is in the LA chapter of Invisible Sisters, but if you ask me in person, I might. The club was Club Zero, on North Cahuenga though, if that means anything to any 1980s archivist-types.
JP: Hmm, maybe when the three of us meet up at Agave for some nibbly things and a few of Collin's stories. Thank you so much for spending time with us, Jessica.
JH: Of course, happy to spend time with. Soon, IRL.
CK: XO Love and smoochies!
Jessica Handler's nonfiction has appeared in Brevity.com, More Magazine, Southern Arts Journal, and Ars Medica. You can visit Jessica Handler's website, or follow her on Twitter.