Aspen Times Q&A: Adam Cayton-Holland discusses his memoir ‘Tragedy Plus Time’
Colorado comedy fans have watched with pride in recent years, as Adam Cayton-Holland’s star has risen on the national stage. We’ve gotten to know the Denver born-and-bred comic through his stand-up routines, through his TruTV sitcom “Those Who Can’t,” and through a social media presence that’s established him as the most famous – and maybe most vocal – Colorado Rockies fan.
Most of did not know that this period of breakout success coincided with personal tragedy. His younger sister, Lydia, died of suicide in 2013 after battling depression. Adam found her body in her Denver apartment.
In his revelatory new memoir, “Tragedy Plus Time,” the comedian and former Westword staff writer opens up about his sister’s death while also celebrating her life. It will be published Aug. 21 by Simon and Schuster’s Touchstone Books.
Her death coincided with one of his big breaks as a comic, a showcase set at the Montreal Just for Laughs that opened the doors to show business beyond Denver. The book unsparingly depicts his personal pain and the incongruity of his professional gains of recent years, including the launch of his comedy troupe The Grawlix’s “Those Who Can’t,” which he credits with saving his own life.
The book also runs through Cayton-Holland’s own mental health struggles, from debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder that took hold in childhood through substance abuse in young adulthood. It’s heavy stuff, delivered with a dose of comedy.
Cayton-Holland first wrote about Lydia’s death in a 2013 blog post on his website.
“Tragedy Plus Time” is an invaluable memoir that, with endearing humor and unsparing honesty, chronicles the emotional upheavals of loving someone suffering from depression. It doesn’t offer any easy answers, but it’s a story we all need to hear.
Cayton-Holland, 38, still lives in Denver and has made recent stand-up stops in the Roaring Fork Valley at the Temporary at Willits and Marble Distillery in Carbondale. He’ll discuss and sign the new book at Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver on Aug. 21. Last week, he discussed the book with Aspen Times arts editor Andrew Travers. These are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Andrew Travers: You have a section in the book about writing that first piece about Lydia’s death on your website in 2013, about how cathartic it was to do that and how much it meant to people who read it and shared it on social media. How does publishing the book compare to that? How does it feel?
Adam Cayton-Holland: That first one was a little bit more urgent. It was necessary for me just to put one foot in front of the other. This feels good and similarly cathartic, but not as urgent because I’ve worked through it more and talked about it more. I think this will be the widest release of all these thoughts. So it feels good, just not as urgently necessary for my mental well-being.
AT: Was the process of writing the book therapeutic? Where there answers and revelations that came out of the process?
AC-H: It was very therapeutic. I’ve also gone through a lot of therapy, as I discuss in the book and this was way more therapeutic than any of that. I wrote this book and cried and cried and talked with my father about it and reached new conclusions and was able to move from one to the other and realize there are no conclusions, but there are necessary revelations. It helped a ton.
AT: There’s a powerful moment late in the book when you’re writing about your regrets and your advice for people with loved-ones suffering from depression. You directly address the reader and talk about showing up and being supportive of people. “Whatever you’re doing right now, it’s not enough,” you write. “Do more. Ask more questions. Drive them to more shrinks. Spend more nights watching them sob.” Is there a particular message or piece of advice you want readers to take away from the book?
AC-H: I love that people might get some advice about it. But when I sold the book I told the publisher, “This is not going to be clean if you’re expecting some expert landing where I’m like, ‘And now this is how I’m better!’” They were like, “No, I don’t want that book.” Really it was selfish. I needed to heal and think and process. So I did that, but now that it’s out there and I’m looking at it as a whole piece of work, I’m hoping people get an appreciation for Lydia. A lot of what I wrote was a tribute to Lydia. Obviously there is a lot of sadness and grief in this book, but I tried very hard to show how great she was and not dwell on the bad. She was 28 when she passed away. The last two years of her life, looking back, you can see that switches flipped in her head severely. But for 26 years it was great. She was this wonderful, charming, weird, funny person – hyper-intelligent and just a joy. So I wanted the reader to get a sense of how great my little sister was.
AT: That’s clear. The story about her getting mugged in Ecuador, and charming her mugger into letting her keep her bag and some personal items, shows an extraordinary human being.
AC-H: I really feel that way. Anyone who loses someone romanticizes that person. But Lydia was unique. She was a true individual.
AT: As a reader, what are some of your favorite memoirs? Were there books you looked to as a model for “Tragedy Plus Time”?
AC-H: I remember taking [Dave Eggers’] “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” off the shelf and David Sedaris’ “Me Talk Pretty One Day” off the shelf. Those sat on my desk while I was writing the book. So maybe osmotic ally they influenced it.
AT: And there are jokes in the book. I laughed out loud at your description of your middle school as a “neo-fascist lacrosse factory” for “the progeny of emotionally distant businessmen and their manic-depressive trophy wives.” How is writing humor for the page different from writing for the stage or for television?
AC-H: It’s just structurally different. I was a writer before I was a comic, so for me this is the easiest way of communicating: the written word. It’s like a return to the form that I love. But certainly stand-up influences it – you get better punchlines, shorter, more precise. Writing a TV show is a whole different beast unto itself. But you know when you’re faking it and doing it for real.
AT: Do you think you’ll start to talk about Lydia’s death, or about depression and mental health, in your stand-up act?
AC-H: It’s starting to bleed in a little bit. In my stand-up performances I’ve started to include almost a PSA about mental health toward the end. There are a few jokes in there, but it’s not like the rest of my stand-up. It’s more like, “Now I’d like to say something, if that’s cool.” I wish it was more seamlessly interwoven. But I’m learning to forgive myself and just work through it however clumsily I need to.
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