An Unexpected Memoir and the Chance to Honor a Partner’s Life and Death
TV journalist Michael Ausiello talks about the decision to chronicle a relationship, a diagnosis, and the last year of his partner’s life
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Michael Ausiello, known to rabid television fans as the go-to person for any inside scoop on casting notices, behind-the-scenes tiffs, and shocking spoilers of your favorite shows, didn’t shy away from giving away the third act of his memoir in its title. Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies (Atria Books, 2017) isn’t, as becomes clear, about Ausiello himself, but about his partner of more than thirteen years. Christopher “Kit” Cowan died in 2015 after battling a rare and aggressive form of cancer for close to a year. Just like its subtitle — “A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words” — Ausiello’s moving account of those final months together nakedly tackles the heartbreak of seeing your loved one ravaged by illness with humor and grace. In that, the book stays true to Kit himself. Here was a man, after all, who had not only given his large rectal tumor a name (“The Lurker”) but had turned a two-inch campy retro B-movie monster figurine into its physical manifestation, one he placed on their coffee table facing a 99-cent store ceramic middle-finger statue right before heading to the hospital for his first treatment.
Having followed Ausiello’s columns and scoops for years, I was all eager to sit down with him to discuss his most personal writing to date. Over coffee and a bagel, we talked about how he decided to turn such painful memories into a book, why he didn’t feel the need to shy away from his and Kit’s imperfections (he’s candid about his partner’s indiscretions, his own insecurities, and the way couples’ therapy was a constant in their lives), and why the memoir works as a probing portrait of the perils of contemporary queer intimacy.
Manuel Betancourt: Let’s start at the beginning. Where does the idea to turn that last year with Kit into a book come from?
Michael Ausiello: It was not my idea. I’d been chronicling Kit’s illness, our battle, and our experience through the illness on Facebook. And a couple of months after Kit died an editor from Simon & Schuster, who was an acquaintance of mine and had been following my posts, approached me. He thought there was a book here. He asked me if I’d be up for it and interested. And I really thought about it — I thought about whether I had the strength to dive back into the worst year of my life, unpack it and then go further back into our relationship and relive all of the ups and downs. As hard as I knew it would be, I also knew I had to to do it. I knew this was an incredible opportunity to honor him, to introduce the world to him, to find some meaning in this horrible tragedy. So, he died in February, and I think it was August when I signed the contract and decided I was going to do it.
MB: That’s soon.
MA: It was very soon. After I decided I had to do it I also decided I had to do it quickly. For a couple of reasons. One was a practical one: I wanted to do it while the memories were still fresh in my head. I didn’t want to say, “Oh, I’ll wait until I’m in a better emotional place and then suddenly be like, oh shit I don’t remember half the stuff that happened — like, I remember the big stuff but not the little stuff.” My favorite things in the book are the little things. I knew I had to write this as fast as possible before I forgot. And then there was also a self-preservation aspect to it where I knew that the sooner I finished writing it, the sooner I could get on with my life.
MB: The book shuttles between that last year and then various memories from your time with Kit going back all the way to your first date. What was most challenging to write — the medical drama, or the relationship issues you trace throughout?
MA: The cancer year was by far the hardest part of the book to write. To re-live the highs and lows of that last year was definitely the hardest for me. You know, all the appointments with the doctors, which I had actually on tape and I had to listen back to in order to be as authentic as possible in the re-telling of those moments. Because. in some instances, it’s an actual transcript of those doctors’ appointments. That was really painful. To be back in those moments when you’re not sure how bad the cancer is and you’re filled with hope. And you slowly realize “Holy shit, this is terminal. There’s a really good chance he’s gonna be dead in a year.” Putting myself back in that mindset as my life started to fall apart, as I started to realize that Kit was going to die, to re-live all of that was the hardest part of the book. I actually had a really fun time going back to the beginning of our relationship and some of those early moments. And re-telling some of the stories from our relationship was like falling in love with him again. Just remembering those early days — how fun it was — I was actually surprised at how easy it was to remember so much of the stuff from back then. I was afraid that I wouldn’t remember a lot of it. A lot of it just came back. It was helped by photos. Kit took a lot of photos. That was an amazing research tool; to just go through his photos and say, “Oh yes, I’d forgotten about that.”
MB: When writing these sorts of memoirs, especially dealing with someone you’ve lost, you can often feel authors airbrushing stories and anecdotes to paint people in a better light. But you can’t really say that about Spoiler Alert, can you?
MA: Well, I knew going in that if I was going to tell this story, I needed to tell the unvarnished truth in order for it to have any power or meaning. I needed to show all of our flaws. Show that we were not perfect people. That this was not a perfect relationship. That we fought to stay together for 13 and a half years. I knew that I needed to tell the truth of the story. That said, Kit was a very private person. I am a fairly private person. So after I finished the book and I was reading it, I did feel very protective of him. I didn’t want anyone to judge him. I didn’t want anyone to have a negative opinion of him. So, it did weigh on my mind a little bit: am I giving too much away? But ultimately, I looked at the big picture and looked at the whole story and he’s just a much more interesting person when you know all of the aspects of him. I wanted people to really get to know him as he was. Not this sort of perfect caricature of something.
MB: That truly comes through, especially since not only do we get to see Kit’s less flattering side, but also we get to see that —
MA: That I am just as fucked up as he is, basically. I struggled in my life with shame, secrets, self-esteem issues — all of this stuff. I have my own demons and there was something very liberating about not giving a shit when I was writing this book. Like, “You know what? Fuck it! I’m not hiding anything any more.” I am who I am. I’m not perfect. And there was something freeing about just putting it all out there and not caring what people might think.
MB: Do you think that’ll change once the book comes out?
MA: Maybe. I don’t think what’ll change. What’s already been a little weird is when I see friends of mine who maybe didn’t know — who learned a lot about me while reading the book. You feel a little vulnerable being with them when suddenly they know so much private stuff about you. Not just friends, co-workers, too. That’s a little weird. But also it feels good to let go of some of that shame, you know?
MB: The book is very much a gay story. There are obviously Big Themes here, but it struck me that at its heart, it tells a very specific gay male 21st century storyline about what queer intimacy can look like.
MA: Part of what you’re asking about is, I think, the sex stuff, which I didn’t really sidestep. I do feel like while this story is universal and relatable, there are aspects of the gay relationship that are unique. I didn’t want to sidestep those; I didn’t want to sidestep the unique struggles that gay couples face — that we faced. It was important to me to include what it’s like to be in a gay relationship. Actually, in the original draft, it was much more intimate. I’d included a lot more intimate details and I pulled back just a little bit. Not because I was ashamed or anything like that. It was more thinking that some things were personal between the two of us, and I wanted to keep something that…
MB: That was yours.
MA: I didn’t want to give everything away. Some of the struggles we faced — just about monogamy and infidelity, sexual compatibility; all of that stuff felt important to include. But I did keep some details to myself.
I didn’t want to sidestep the unique struggles that gay couples face — that we faced.
MB: Changing gears a bit, I wanted to also touch on the book’s wild tonal shifts. Given its subject matter (and title alone!) you might think this is a rather dark and dour book, but it also has passages and scenes that are laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s a fine line to balance. Did you have any books, or even TV shows, in mind in terms of what you wanted to accomplish in terms of tone?
MA: Well, I have to confess I’m not a big reader. So I can’t spout off a list of authors that inspired me. Honestly, I just pulled from our relationship and the tonal shifts in our relationship. Because that’s exactly what it was like for us. Sometimes it would swing wildly from completely silly, stupid, funny stuff to dark, hopeless, depressing. It really wasn’t like modeled after a television show that I loved or a movie. It’s just honestly who I am. That’s who Kit was. That’s who we were. That was just what the story was. Sorry I don’t have a more interesting answer than that one!
MB: No problem. One of the reasons I wanted to ask about the tonal shifts is because I was also curious to hear what parts of the book did you most enjoy writing? There’s a sense of joy in so many of them.
MA: I loved the story about Kit toilet-training Mister Scooch. I had so much fun writing that section. I just took a weekend and literally was just having so much fun exploring that relationship between our cat and Kit, through the lens of this toilet-training experience. It amused and tickled me. I don’t always enjoy the process of writing — I mostly don’t enjoy it. I like being finished with writing and feeling that sense of accomplishment. But the actual work itself, I don’t find particularly fun. But I found that sequence really fun. I also enjoyed writing the part where I first met his mom in the hospital in the flashback. That was really fun and enjoyable reliving some of those early memories. I’m also really proud of the final chapter (which I don’t want to spoil!) but I’m really proud and happy with how that came out.
MB: As you talk about it, it’s clear that this was quite an emotional undertaking. This’ll sound a tad trite but, what did you learn about yourself while working on this book? And was that different, do you think, than what you learned while going through that final year with Kit?
MA: I learned that I’m capable of a lot more than I gave myself credit for. Just writing this book was a huge fucking undertaking. I was plagued by insecurity throughout: can I do this? Is it gonna be good enough? Am I gonna do justice to him? Am I gonna do justice to our relationship? And the fact that I did it, that I overcame those insecurities and, really, I feel like I proved something to myself. That I’m stronger than I give myself credit for and that when I decide I’m gonna do something, I’m gonna fucking do it. I spent a lot of my life telling myself, “No you can’t do that! You’re not good enough! You’re not talented enough! You’re not smart enough! You’re not strong enough!” To look back and really look at what I’ve been through, with the deaths of my parents and then growing up gay and my weight issues and then Kit getting sick and Kit dying. Then writing a book about the whole thing — it’s just, I’m still standing! I’m still here! I have my idiosyncrasies, and I have my issues but I’m still here. I sometimes maybe don’t give myself enough credit for that.
I also realized writing the book that I never took our relationship for granted. I always knew that this was something special. I always knew he was special. I always knew that it was worth fighting for. So it’s not like I look back and say, Were there are aspects of the relationship that I wish I’d been more present for? Sure. But I always knew he was special. I knew he was worth fighting for. I was reminded of that quite a bit while writing the book. That I did fight for the relationship. That I did stick it out — and there were many times when I could’ve thrown in the towel and said, no more. But he was worth it. I’m glad I did.
I always knew he was special. I knew he was worth fighting for.
MB: And he did, too.
MA: We both did. We both fought hard. 13 years of couples’ counseling! I highly recommend that, by the way. One of the takeaways people should take from the book is: “Don’t wait to go to couples’ counseling when you’re in crisis.” It’s a great maintenance tool. Don’t wait until there is a problem. Or, even if there is a problem, don’t stop going when it passes. Keep checking in with each other. You take your car in for a tune-up; take your relationship in for a tune-up.
MB: I might have to take you up on that.