I met Sue when our mutual publisher, New American Library (NAL), gave a bunch of us with books coming out around the same time one another’s names. The goal was for us “cross promote” the novels of the other authors. Sue was the first name on my list and though she lived in London, she was often in Brooklyn to visit her married daughter. We met for the first time in a local Park Slope cafe and I liked her instantly. She was warm, funny, smart and so easy to talk to. We parsed writing, our agents, our editors, publishing in general, our kids in particular, aging parents and oh, our kids—again. By the time our lattes were history, I felt like I’d found a new friend.
Per NAL’s suggestion, Sue and I did help each other out with publicizing our respective novels. But the friendship that developed, aided by her regular visits to Brooklyn, our frequent emails, and a trip to London my husband and I made during which Sue and her husband Jonathan welcomed us so graciously, was entirely our own.
Sue had worked as a reporter for the BBC before leaving broadcasting to write her first novel. Hers was a spry, comic voice and there were half a million copies of her 14 comedic novels in print. With titles like Neurotica, Apocalypstick, and Breakfast at Stephanie’s, she was quickly branded as a lightweight, chick-lit author. But she strenuously objected to the easy categorization, and her writing was unusually sharp and precise for the genre. Her jokes and situations were often very funny, her dialogue believable, and her allusions would range freely; a Margolis novel would typically include references to leftwing politics, literature and psychotherapy. She told me that her novels did much better in the United States than in the UK; she felt that her particular brand of Jewish humor was lost on the Brits and had better reception on the other side of the Atlantic. The English, she told me, still clung to a residual anti-Semitism that was hard to shake off—or change. But after 14 novels, she was ready for a change and started work on a novel set in Berlin around and after Kristallnacht in 1938. She was excited about it. Since I, too, was working on a period novel, we talked a lot about the different demands of historical fiction.
Then one day last year, I received a group email from Jonathan. Sue, who had never been a smoker, had been diagnosed with a serious and fatal lung cancer. She began an aggressive and experimental form of treatment that kept her alive for less than a year—she died, at the age of 62, on November 1, 2017. In the email informing her friends of her death, Jonathan included some of her last writings. Reading them, I could hear her voice so clearly and although she had only been gone for a day or so, I already missed her so keenly.
On Christmas Day 2016, I cook lunch for a dozen people. I spend the days before schlepping geese, spuds and bags full of seasonal goodies up two flights of stairs to our new flat – without feeling particularly breathless. I’ve had a bit of a cough since the summer, but only after meals and two GPs at the surgery where we used to live put it down to my acid reflux getting worse. I spend a few minutes after Christmas lunch hacking up phlegm in the loo. Bloody reflux.
Early in the New Year I make an appointment at our new surgery. This time, I am sent for a chest X-ray. I’m barely out of the hospital when I get a call from my GP. They’ve found something on the x-ray. It could be nasty … doctor code for cancer. My dad died of lung cancer. But he was a smoker. I’m not.