For some of Catherine Newman's readers, this is the novel they've been anticipating for years. Newman has won a massive audience for her non-fiction and children's books, including her memoirs Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy – about parenting growing children – after cultivating her successful blog Ben & Birdy. But when her best friend died of cancer, Newman decided to turn her grief into fiction. We All Want Impossible Things is the surprisingly uplifting, poignant and deeply funny result: a novel that Marian Keyes has called "one of her favourite books ever".
While on tour in the UK to celebrate her first novel's release, Newman answered our quick-fire quiz to get to the meat and the matter of what she reads and how she writes, along with what might be the greatest book event backfire yet.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
In this moment, at least, my idol is Miriam Toews for the way she writes sadness with so much heart and humour. All My Puny Sorrows has been a real touchstone for me.
What was the first book you remember loving as a child?
Magic Jim by Diane Redfield Massie. It’s about a naughty flying chipmunk who does terrible things and never pays a price. It was one of my daughter’s favourite books too! We now have matching Magic Jim tattoos. But the author I associate with the dawn of my true love or reading is Joan Aiken.
What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?
Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path
Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions made me feel like I could be a flawed mother and also write about it in a funny way.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
Making sandwiches at a bakery in the financial district of San Francisco in 1990. I made 250 sandwiches a day, nearly cut my hand off in the meat slicer, ate all the cookies we dropped on the floor, found a lifelong friend, and (relatedly) laughed until I cried more or less constantly.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Honestly? It’s probably the very basic “show don’t tell.” But the most actionable is rewarding myself with a sticker on a weird homemade calendar chart every time I write 500 words. Like I’m a child potty training.
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)
I re-read Samantha Irby’s books whenever I want to remember how to be funny.
What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?
Moby Dick. I started it during the pandemic, and I was in love with myself for loving it at first, and then I petered out after, like, 100 pages. (But in truth I don’t really care.)
If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______
A hospice nurse or neuroscientist.
What makes you happiest?
Lying in bed with my entire family, including grown children and massive cats, just relaxing and talking. Also, you know, justice. Health insurance. Abortion rights.
What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?
Foraging for wild mushrooms. Fermenting things. Talking in the voices of my cats.
What is your ideal writing scenario?
I have to write with a little bit of a caffeine buzz, which means first thing in the day at my kitchen table with a big chonky cat in my lap and maybe a light rain or snow falling outside.
What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?
Oh god! I once persuaded an old boyfriend of mine to come to a reading I was giving in the city where he lived. I wanted to impress him with the great throngs of fans! Show him what a dreadful mistake he’d made! Only then it was him and my dad’s drunk cousin Bumbie and one other random person who was just in out of the rain. The three of them.
If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?
I am madly in love with a zillion writers, but that question is an introvert’s nightmare. It would be nobody and I’d make nachos and eat them alone, regretting that I’d passed up such an excellent opportunity.
What’s your biggest fear?
Snakes. But, I mean, actually? You know. My people dying.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
17. What’s the best book you’ve read in the past year?
Reading in the bath: yes or no?
Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?
Ooooh. I love and drink tons of both.
What is the best book you’ve ever read? (Just one!)
Cannot. That’s not the name of a book. I just cannot.
What inspired you to write your new book?
The death of my best friend. [sob]
Author photo at top: Ben Newman