Talking with David Talbot

The author of Between Heaven and Hell discusses his stroke, his recovery, and what it means to restart his life.

Author David Talbot
David Talbot says he had to "make a decision to live a new life as a new person."

While everyone who suffers a stroke has a unique experience with the illness, it’s fair to say that one thing they all share is being blindsided by it. David Talbot is no different. In November 2017, a stroke upended his high-energy, fast-paced life: Talbot is the founder of Salon magazine and the bestselling author of Brothers, The Devil’s Chessboard, and Season of the Witch.

What began as a passionate account of his illness in a Facebook post evolved into a gripping narrative. Between Heaven and Hell is a very honest and personal tale of Talbot’s struggles and healing—both physical and emotional—in the year following his stroke. Forced to slow down, Talbot continues to reckon with death, recovery, and the meaning of life.

Alta caught up with Talbot to talk about his new book. (Alta and Book Passage will host a free conversation with Talbot on January 28, 2020 at 7 p.m. in Corte Madera. RSVP here.)

Tell us about the writing of Heaven and Hell. How did you get started on it?
I’ve never written a memoir before. I thought it was narcissistic unless you were a major statesman or a king or a rock star. And when I came home from the hospital—I had been there five weeks—I could barely write. But it all came pouring out of me on social media.

Your book contains a vivid description of your stroke (see excerpt). What did you learn from the experience?
The first thing you have to decide is do you want to live or die? Because I could have given up at that point. But I decided, “Hey, I’m being reborn, in a way.” The old David is dead. I had to say goodbye to him. If you try to hold on to your old life, you’re fucked, because you’re only going to be disappointed and sad, because that part of you is gone. That part of your life is gone. You have to make a decision to live a new life as a new person, a fundamentally new person. And that’s what I did.

A lot of my alpha male shit that I had before, a lot of my self-absorption, a lot of my selfishness had to immediately go. And I had to become sort of a more transcendent person. I wasn’t religious before, but it made me think in terms that I never really thought about, about appreciating every minute of life from then on and appreciating more of the people around me. I gave up desire in a Zen sort of way, and I became more humble and more grateful that I was alive.

You seem to have made a complete recovery. What about your artistic life?
Well, I use a cane when I go around. It’s kind of a fashion statement now. [Laughs.] I’m like Tom Wolfe. And I have some vision impairment.

But this has made me more introspective as a writer. It’s made me more patient. As an editor, when someone came and told me a story, I wanted to weed things out quickly. This is valuable, this isn’t, let’s move on. You have to be sort of cruel as an editor, and very opinionated. Now I tend to listen more. If someone recommends a piece of music or a book or a film or something, I’ll take chances more than I used to.

Also, I don’t feel as armored as I used to be. Just walking the streets in San Francisco is scary, because the streets are faster; there are more cars everywhere. I feel vulnerable in a way I wasn’t before. I like being slower and more thoughtful. I like being a little protected from the hurly-burly of life. Because the truth is, at my age [68], I should be more introspective. Even if I hadn’t had a stroke, I should be slower and more thoughtful. We’ve all got one foot in the grave.

What else did you go through? Is there something that’s not in your book?
My dog Brando was one of my best caretakers. He was a truly empathic beast. He jumped up on the bed after I came home from the hospital. I couldn’t go upstairs to my own room. I was in my son’s bedroom, and he jumped up on the bed, and he put his paws around my shoulders. He looked directly into my eyes with these big brown eyes he had. And it was as if to say, “Are you really home? I can’t believe it.”

He slept on my bed for the next six weeks while I was recovering. I had to relearn how to walk. He would walk with me, to make sure I wouldn’t fall.

But Brando died the day after Christmas. I stared into his eyes at the vet’s as he was being put down. He was only 10 years old. He should have lived longer. He had a terrible infection. They couldn’t stop it. It was sepsis, and he was dying. We had to put him out of his misery.

They gave him a shot, and I got down on my knees, and I stared into his big eyes, like he’d stared into mine when I came home. And I said goodbye to him. That was a very painful thing. It’s as if his body was inhabited by an old soul. He was trying to tell me, “You know, I was a human in another life.”

I wanted him to see my eyes and hear my voice as he died. That was a huge loss. It’s not in the book. [Brando passed after the book had gone to press.]

What’s next?
What I love is writing a column. I liked doing my column at the Chronicle. You and I are from the era when columnists made a newspaper. Like Jimmy Breslin, Herb Caen, or Mike Royko. They were the voice of the city. I think every city needs that. I’ve been talking to a publisher about doing it in a way that makes sense for the digital age. That’s what I’d like to do.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL: THE STORY OF MY STROKE

  • By David Talbot
  • Chronicle Books, 176 pages, $22.95
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