Growing up is weird. When you’re little, you assume your parents are omnipotent and omniscient. As you mature and endure adolescence, you convince yourself of the opposite. Adulthood can mark, in some ways, the process of discovering that your parents are fallible human beings with flaws that don’t mean you should love them any less. Andrew Meredithwrites about this transition in his memoir (and debut) The Removers, where he makes peace with his father by working with him as a “remover”—someone who removes corpses form homes. Here, Meredith chats with Bookish about his weirdest on-the-job stories, and his steady and very serious relationship with the band Pavement.
Bookish: You describe a lot of uncomfortable situations as a remover in your book. What’s the craziest thing that happened to you on the job?
Andrew Meredith: A lot of crazy things happened. One day I opened a casket at the crematory to find my favorite bartender. I didn’t know he’d died and wouldn’t have suspected he was sick; he’d been serving us drinks the week before. Another time I went with a co-worker to pick up an old woman who had died at home. We arrived to find her laid out on the kitchen floor, her head in a crown of blood on the linoleum. Usually when we went to a house it was to pick up someone who’d been sick in bed for a long time. Occasionally someone had fallen in the bathroom or died in a recliner, but this woman’s case had such a strange vibe about it. Her adult children were there to let us in and they would barely look at us. They weren’t crying. They seemed generally in a hurry. When we got back out to the hearse the other guy said, “Well that didn’t seem like all the other slip-and-falls, did it?” And I said, “Nope.” And that was pretty much it.
Bookish: What made you decide to write this memoir?
AM: There were a few things going on. I had wanted to write something called “The Removers” ever since my first days in the funeral business in 1998. At first it was a screenplay about a young guy in the Philadelphia funeral business, then it was a novel. I couldn’t stick with it, didn’t have the combination of skill and encouragement and belief and community that going for an MFA [eventually] gave me. Once I had those two years of reading and writing in graduate school under my belt, the real turning point came when I won a seven-month fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. When I got there in October of 2010, that’s when I started the memoir in earnest. I thought if I spent seven months at the end of the world in winter and didn’t come away with a draft of a book, then I was doing something wrong. And so, of course, I totally came away without a draft of a book. I only had about 40 pages when I left P’town, but I had enough of an idea of where the thing was headed that I was okay. It took me another two and a half years to finish it.
The bigger picture is that I wrote the book because I had to. Nothing else good was going to come out of me before this came out. I had the sense that writing the memoir would maybe move me past some huge, fundamental sticking points in my life, namely my relationship with my dad and my memories of our house in my adolescence.
Bookish: You blame your father early in the book for sending your family into a downward spiral, but you make peace with him later on. Can you describe how this transition took place? What about working as a remover made you see your father in a different light?
AM: Part of the warming was just my getting older, going through my own failures, maturing, realizing I wasn’t entitled to a pain-free life. The more I screwed up relationships with women and the more I felt like a failure in my job, the more I related to him. I think those early days when we first started doing removals together helped remind me of my father’s beauty as a person, so that was a very welcome gift from the otherwise grim work.
As a small example, he would always take the heavier end of the body, even though most other removers rightly let me take it because they often had forty years on me and I was a big kid. (I wasn’t strong, but I was tall and broad.) I don’t think my dad had much ego invested in being stronger than I was; I got the sense he wanted to take the responsibility, take the weight, protect me a little.
Bookish: Was it tough to write about your family members’ flaws?
AM: Writing this book was without question the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. I never consciously wrapped my head around writing about my family. Once I started, I dove in and didn’t let myself think about consequences. It would have been an impossible task otherwise.
Bookish: How has your family reacted to the publication of this book?
AM: My parents and my sister have been very supportive. We’ll wait and see how things go when it reaches a wider audience. Fingers crossed.
Bookish: Did you find writing this memoir to be cathartic, or mostly just difficult?
AM: Writing the book has changed me to the foundation. My whole life I have been a quitter. I lose interest quickly in a new endeavor and I move on. But I finished this book, and I finished it because I found myself armed with a tenacity that I cannot explain. I’d never really had that before, an inner monologue that kept saying, “Come on. Another day. Move it forward. Almost there.” And that voice never went away with this book, so that from the beginning, I knew I had to finish and that I would finish, all logical approaches to life—like paying one’s creditors—be damned.
Bookish: The indie rock band Pavement, and in particular, Stephen Malkmus, seem to bear a lot of importance to your 22-year-old self. Could you talk about why you chose to include the band in the book and what their importance was to you?
AM: Following Pavement is maybe the only other big endeavor, besides writing this book, that I never quit. I very proudly call myself a Pavement completist, and from the beginning to the end of their reign I was completely besotted. Their songs offered me so much joy and humanity, and those years of being so thickly in their thrall coincided with my first days in the funeral business. To put it simply, Pavement songs pumped me full of life like nothing else could in a time when I was confronted, in many forms, with death.
Regarding including the band in the book: I couldn’t write about those years and not include Pavement. They—and I say “they” because each member represented something distinct and profound—were so important to me that, without fail, my first question when I met someone new was, “Do you like Pavement?” They were all I wanted to talk about, and, of course, all I wanted to judge people by. If you liked them, then you were granted instant access to the fantastical kingdom that was my friendship in 1997. If you said you didn’t like them or hadn’t heard of them, then you were in for a highly didactic few minutes.