“Tig Monahan tried to imagine what it would be like to lose her mind.”
So begins Ann Garvin’s latest novel, “I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around,” a characteristically tragicomic effort from the UW-Whitewater health professor.
Tig, short for Tiger Lily, first appeared in Garvin’s novel “The Dog Year.” In this latest book, she finds herself unemployed, a caregiver to a parent with Alzheimer’s, freshly dumped by her boyfriend and caring for her sister’s newborn. To help her sort out her life, the psychotherapist Tig becomes a radio relationship expert with her own call-in show. Comedy, and tragedy, ensue.
Garvin spoke to the State Journal about her fascination with health psychology and how it feels to be sandwiched between generations that require different kinds of attention.
Q: Your main character, Tig, is a psychotherapist. Is that a deep-seated desire of yours?
A: I got my master’s in exercise physiology and my Ph.D. in exercise psychology, so I’ve always been fascinated by psychology. Writing just feels like a natural offshoot, because you’re really just exploring people’s minds, thoughts and motivations. There’s an awful lot of advice-giving in my books, and I think it comes off better coming from a therapist’s mouth than from someone just walking around at the grocery store.
Q: Your protagonists are often women in health care. Are they autobiographical?
A: I think that everybody I meet gets blenderized in my brain and then comes out attached to another person in different combinations. Bits of people are pulled in from all over the place.
I worked as a nurse for 15 years. The amount of people that you meet in health care is so extensive. Yes, I’m sure it’s somehow autobiographical, just based on my experiences working with people. I’m really fascinated with what motivates people.
Q: Where did the idea for this book originate?
A: I’ve had difficult relationships in the past, ones in which I’ve wanted a little leverage. I fantasized about having a hotline to someone who could decide if the other person in the relationship was acting fairly and then hold them to that. It would be awesome to have a therapist who would act as a God-like presence on the radio, a voice coming from above, who says, “That is super unfair.” So often in life, things are unfair and people are always asking “Why me? I’m a good person.” And there’s really no answer to that. What happens if someone tries to function like that, in a black and white way? There’s nothing but gray areas in our lives.
I wrote it before my mom was really ripped from Alzheimer’s. As the revision took shape, the Alzheimer’s piece came more to the surface.
I thought it really did justice to the idea of “I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around ” — this idea of a woman who’s gripped with a bunch of relationships that she’s really struggling with.
Q: The sandwich generation is a big theme. Is that a phenomenon you’re experiencing?
A: Yeah, my mom and dad are 84 and have been together 64 years, and he’s her primary caregiver. And I have two kids, so I’m running between the kid thing and the parent thing and understanding that more and more.
Q: Tig is short for Tiger Lily, and she has a sister named Wendy. Why the Peter Pan theme?
A: I think Tig, even though she’s a counselor, is being faced with this idea of growing up. So is her boyfriend.
It’s funny because I’m 54, and even now I wonder, “Am I an adult now?” I’m still being faced with things that require me to redefine myself and who I thought I would be as an adult.
I really like the idea that we all have a little Peter Pan in us. We all have to figure out how we continue to grow up as we age, and it’s always surprising. I think the universe gives us the very thing we’re most likely trying to avoid. We get a snoot-full of it; we can’t avoid it. I think that’s what Peter Pan is all about.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: I’m marketing this as a book for anyone who just feels like life can be entirely unfair. This book is a way to validate that experience. I don’t want people to think this is a tear-jerking story about Alzheimer’s.
It’s a very Ann Garvin book. There are lots of hard issues, but in a way that makes you laugh at yourself so that you don’t feel entirely desperate after you’ve read it.
I want people to feel hopeful and rejuvenated that other people have these same experiences. It’s OK to be freakin’ miserable because there are some funny things related to misery. I absolutely believe that comedy and misery are married. You can’t separate the two.