Grief and Laughter Mingle in ‘Tragedy Plus Time’

Posted August 26, 2018 5:04 p.m. EDT

In his new memoir, “Tragedy Plus Time,” actor and comedian Adam Cayton-Holland writes about his younger sister, Lydia, and her sensitivity when she was young. When one Goldfish cracker fell on the floor, he says, she’d have to throw out another with it, so that it wouldn’t be alone on its journey into the great beyond. “It was Lydia in a nutshell: champion of the overlooked and minuscule; thoughtful, crazy and kind.”

Adam, Lydia and their older sister, Anna, were close growing up in Denver. As Lydia grew older, she struggled with depression and eventually took her own life. In this book, Cayton-Holland writes about his childhood, his family bonds and the devastation he had to overcome after Lydia’s suicide.

The co-creator of the comedy series “Those Who Can’t,” about a group of less-than-inspiring high school teachers, Cayton-Holland talks below about humor running in the family, and how the book unexpectedly led him to forgiveness and more.

Q: When did you first get the idea to write this book?

A: When all this went down with my sister, I was devastated. After I picked myself up, after a month or two, I didn’t want to do comedy. I didn’t feel funny, and I certainly didn’t want to talk about this stuff. But it was sort of pushing to get out in one way or another. I’m this insufferable, creative type who has to process things through my art, so I felt a totally self-imposed pressure to talk about it, whether that be onstage or, as it turned out, in writing. Every time I got on stage and told jokes and wasn’t talking about it, I felt dishonest.

A few months after her death, I wrote a piece about all of it, and it blew up on my website. That essay was the first slight release of the pressure valve to let out a little air. It begot other essays. I went on podcasts and talked about it. My literary agent is a big comedy fan, so he got wind of me through podcasts. He called me out of the blue and said: “You should write a book. There’s more here.” It was like music to my ears, because I thought, “I have so much more here.”

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

A: I wrote it very selfishly, to heal myself and process. But in writing it, I was surprised by how much joy I was able to conjure just thinking about the good old days with my family. I always thought humor was my thing. I’m the comic in the family. It was fun to realize how much my family is caught up in all of that, and how funny each of them is as individuals. I asked my mom how she met my dad. She said she talked to him on the phone. “I thought with a voice like that, he sounded tall, dark and handsome,” she said. “Turns out he was a 5-8 Jew from Brentwood.” And I thought, that’s going in the book verbatim. Thanks, Mom.

I definitely felt closest with Lydia, humorwise. But even though she’s gone, my other family members are here and really fun as well.

Q: In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

A: As I alluded to earlier, what I set out to write was a catharsis or a purge, just putting my thoughts on the page. What I didn’t realize was that it would become this path to forgiveness, of Lydia and of myself.

I write in the book about how empathetic Lydia was; how she was always helping animals and taking in stray dogs. And when I thought more about it — the journey of the book helped me to get to this conclusion — to make anyone in our family sad would devastate her. She couldn’t stand anyone being upset or saddened, and if she was the cause of that, it was misery for her. So the fact that she knowingly did this thing that would so devastate our family and inflict that much pain on us; knowing how much she would hate that, yet she still chose to do it, made me forgive her. I didn’t intend to come to that place, but I ended up there writing the book. Q: Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

A: A musician named Conor Oberst. He has a record label that he helped start, Saddle Creek, out of Omaha. When you’re a young kid growing up in “flyover states,” you romanticize New York and Los Angeles, and you think, “Someday I’ll get there and I’ll do my thing.” I remember being 19 and reading in Rolling Stone about this artist, and they called him the Bob Dylan of the Plains. And I thought, “Wow, this guy’s my age and he’s in Omaha, Nebraska?” It was the first time I realized that art of value and substance and note can come from anywhere; and in fact, it might be even better if it’s from the place you’re from as well, rather than pretending to fit in somewhere else. I thought to myself: ‘You should write about Denver, you should live in Denver, you should be where you’re from.’ I’ve followed that my entire career.

Q: Persuade someone to read “Tragedy Plus Time” in 50 words or less.

A: If you’re expecting a guide to navigating life after grief, this isn’t it. It’s an honest look at mental illness, depression, death and the beautiful relationships between families and siblings — one that lets you know that there is no guide to grief, and that it’s still OK to laugh.

Publication Notes:

“Tragedy Plus Time: A Tragi-Comic Memoir”

By Adam Cayton-Holland

236 pages. Touchstone. $26.