Atlanta Author Jessica Handler Shaped by Life in the South & Grief

As she prepares for her upcoming Shocking Real Life writing class, Handler talks about where she goes and what she loves about Georgia.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Handler Handler, held by her mother, said her life was altered forever when her activist parents took her to the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. 

Atlanta-based writer Jessica Handler knows a lot about life and how to live it. As a child she had two ill siblings that died way too young, one from a common pediatric cancer, the other from a rare genetic disorder. As she watched them struggle, she turned to writing for solace and began keeping a journal at the age of eight. She eventually focused her experiences and her grief into the award-winning memoir Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs Books 2009). The feedback she received was overwhelmingly positive. It was Atlanta Magazine’s Best Memoir of 2009; the same year the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called it “one of eight great Southern books;” and the Georgia Center for the Book declared it one of the 25 books all Georgians should read.

Handler said she also received a lot of feedback from readers all over the country who had also survived a sibling. The book helped readers navigate and communicate in ways that Handler never expected. So, her next book, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss, is sort of a guidebook to encourage and help other writers tell their stories. It is due to hit stores on December 10, 2013 (St. Martin’s Press); you can pre-order here.

Invisible Sisters is Handler's critically-acclaimed memoir about her childhood and her two critically ill siblings. 

Lucky Atlantans, however, can take a Hollis Gillespie Shocking Real Life class with Handler on Saturday, October 19. “Writing Through Grief: Creating Powerful Prose After Loss or Trauma” is a six-hour workshop designed to help writers bring emotionally difficult material to the page. Handler’s generous teaching approach aids writers as they deal with what can be dreadfully painful material. 

Handler moved to Atlanta at a very young age from Pennsylvania. Her parents were active in the civil rights movement of the '60s and wanted to be closer to the action where they could hopefully affect change. This, of course, shaped Handler not only as person but as an Atlantan. She currently resides in East Atlanta, loves an adult beverage from Leon’s Full Service in Decatur and taking in a show at the Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points. 

Braving the Fire is a how-to book of sorts, written to help other memoirists put their pain on paper. 

Q: Do you have a unique memory of growing up in Georgia?

A: I’ve written about this in Invisible Sisters, and was honored to record a radio essay about it for WABE-FM, but I’ll always say that attending Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral with my dad was a galvanizing experience, and one that’s unique to being a child in Georgia in the sixties with parents active in the civil rights movement. I was eight years old. My father must have made a great emotional effort to bring me and lift me up to the casket to see Dr. King. I will never forget it.

Q: Where do you go in Georgia for inspiration, when you have writer's block?  

A: Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island is one of my favorite places to daydream, to sketch, and to find out what it is that I’m really thinking about and not yet writing. Closer to home, a walk on the BeltLine clears my head.

Photo courtesy Jekyll Island Atlanta author Jessica Handler seeks inspiration along the shores of Driftwood Beach. 

Q: What is your favorite neighborhood in Atlanta and why? 

A: I grew up in Morningside, so it’s a sentimental favorite, but I’m a fan of my own neighborhood — East Atlanta — and the in-town neighborhoods immediately surrounding it, like Kirkwood, Candler Park, Inman Park and Grant Park. I love the walkability, the diversity, the parks and the opportunity to shop sustainably. Now that it’s fall, we’re getting into another festival season, which is Atlanta at its best.

Q: What is your favorite building

A: I only get one? I’m so intrigued by the overall cultural renaissance at the Goat Farm Arts Center, which was a factory that made cotton gins in the nineteenth century. Can I add some Neel Reid houses to my list? As a kid, I loved the blue and white tiles with the A.H. Frost illustrations of Joel Chandler Harris stories that surrounded the fireplace in the children’s room at the now-demolished downtown library.

Photo courtesy The Atlanta Botanical Gardens Located in the heart of Midtown, it is easy to see why this is a favorite spot of local author Jessica Handler. 

Q: Name three must-sees for someone visiting Atlanta.

A: In no particular order:

Scott’s Antique Market is a great place to spend a weekend afternoon browsing among the fabulous and the strange. Good for curing writers’ block, too.

Your Dekalb Farmers Market. (And the adjective "your" cracks me up. It’s comfy and coercive at the same time.) Go with a recipe or two in hand, and then spend a day cooking something new.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden. Always a favorite for show-and-tell when I have out-of-town visitors, and for myself, too.

Q: Has a meal ever inspired you? 

A: I had an amazing sandwich with Brie and sliced fresh peaches at Souper Jenny a few weeks ago. I like lunch a lot, and I got really excited about that sandwich.

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