There was something so comforting about reading a hospital book about mental illness while I was in the hospital for my own mental illness. During a four-day psych hospitalization, Abby Sher’s latest YA novel All the Ways the World Can End released from Macmillan and acted as both a mirror of my own experience and a window into the outside world.
All the Ways the World Can End is a young adult novel about a girl who’s obsessed with chronicling how the world can end, whose father has cancer.
It’s a personal work, in that Sher herself dealt with the loss of a parent and with some specific obsessive fears. But writing about personal issues through a fictional lens was “liberating.”
“I’ve written a memoir before and that was very helpful but at a certain point I felt like, you know, I was done telling my story,” said Sher. “Giving aspects of myself to the fictional character was really helpful because she could have more of a hopeful ending, I could change her story, and that was really fun for me. It’s been really rewarding because I feel like she has a chance to have conversations or insights or space that I didn’t necessarily get.”
Abby Sher might be a novelist today, but she started her career as an improv actress. Her friends were trying out for a Chicago-based group and they decided to do it all together. The art form is “infectious.”
“You were constantly either writing new material or trying out new material or improvising in front of a live audience,” said Sher. “And it was just sort of intoxicating.”
The whole time she was acting, she was also writing, an art that came to her as easily as breathing.
“Even when I was performing, in between shows, I would hide out in the producers’ office, and just write,” said Sher. “It was just a really helpful outlook for me to get my thoughts in place.”
It wasn’t until she moved to New York from Chicago, though, that she began to write in earnest, and that came about in part because of a family tragedy: the same week she moved, she found out her mother had passed away unexpectedly.
The loss was astounding and hard to bear, and Sher found it increasingly harder to try and perform through the grief.
“I did not have it in me to do anything,” she said. Even putting on makeup was an insurmountable task.
But Sher was still a creative person, so she signed up and took a Mediabistro writing course. It led to the sale of her first essay and, eventually, her memoir, which was picked by Oprah’s Book Club.
“It’s stunning, really stunning,” said Sher, who used to have a document on her computer titled “Oprah and Terry” about her love for the two stars.d. “You have to pretend that you’re cool and not pooping your pants [but]anytime a reader reaches out and says that something resonated is really, really amazing, and I’m so grateful when people reach out.”
Although writing and publishing books and essays are great accomplishments in and of themselves, Sher doesn’t consider them her greatest achievements.
“My kids are top,” she said. “And I’m really excited that I learned how to grow cucumbers and we have a garden where my kids can play. That’s really important to me.”
But she also said she’s proud of herself for learning to be more than one thing and to not be pigeonholed into one identity.
“I think for a long time I felt like I had to be one thing, had to define myself as one thing, and that was as a performer, and if I wasn’t on stage then I had to explain why I wasn’t on stage,” she said. “Writing is performing in a lot of ways, but more on my terms.”
All the Ways the World Can End is available now.