In Lucy Honig’s short story “No Friends, All Strangers,” the narrator gives shampoos and sweeps the floor at a swanky hair salon where she’s treated poorly if she’s noticed at all: “They don’t know me from Adam, they don’t tip me, most of them probably could never tell you what I look like.”
She notices everything, though, including other passengers on her trips home, when she occasionally rides alongside a woman who “turns the subway car into a state of grace.”
“Every so often she’s just there, making me feel in my bones that nothing bad could ever happen on this train,” the salon worker thinks. “There’s something deep and knowing about her, and she’s sad and happy at the same time, like she has seen the world from top to bottom, she’s been face to face with the worst there is and still came back looking like a million bucks.”
Ms. Honig, who also had taught academic writing at the Boston University School of Public Health, died of cancer Sept. 18 in the Elizabeth Evarts de Rham hospice home in Cambridge. She was 69 and had lived in Jamaica Plain.
“I’m still amazed and shocked and thrilled,” she told the newspaper BU Bridge in 1999. “The prize was the result of a fortunate convergence of the right stories at the right time.”
Those short stories, and her subsequent 2009 novel “Waiting for Rescue,” also were the fruits of a lifetime of careful observation and rigorously shaping what she saw into stories that gave voice to characters who struggle in a variety of ways.
“She was a writer first and foremost and that informed everything she did,” said Susan Rosenberg of Albuquerque, Ms. Honig’s sister and only immediate relative. “She was always looking at everything. There is a lot of Lucy’s life in her written work.”
Sherri Hallgren wrote in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review that in “The Truly Needy,” Ms. Honig “naturally inhabits her characters. She knows how delicately close to the surface people’s buried hurts are: The shyness of a refugee haunted by atrocities, the anxiety of an alcoholic desperately trying to disguise his addiction, the confusion of a teenage girl half in love with her teacher, an aging film director’s insecurities around a young starlet.”
“Waiting for Rescue” was a post-9/11 novel set in Boston and drew from Ms. Honig’s experience teaching at Boston University. “In prose alternately lyrical and pragmatic, Lucy Honig evokes above all the chaotic sense of vertigo that comes from suddenly feeling a shrinking Earth spin uncontrollably under our feet,” critic Amanda Heller wrote in the Globe in 2009.
An associate professor of public health, Ms. Honig had joined the BU School of Public Health faculty in 1995 to teach academic writing for the Department of International Health.
“In 2000 Lucy won an SPH Excellence in Teaching award,” Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the School of Public Health, wrote in announcing her death. “As her reputation spread, she taught writing workshops to professors and research staff at Harvard Medical School, researchers in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, policy analysts in Estonia, and World Health Organization researchers in Geneva. Our current schoolwide writing program and focus on communicating public health is partially a legacy of Lucy.”
Ms. Honig “hated the medical prose we were adopting in public health — jargon, passive. She wanted to push the students to stop the hedging,” said Taryn Vian, a clinical professor and associate chair of the department of global health. “She wanted students to take a stand, present evidence, and strip out the bloat.”
In doing so, Vian said, “she was helping students not just with the nuts and bolts of writing, but with finding out who they were. They were becoming professionals.”
She added that Ms. Honig was also a valued colleague. “I really liked bringing problems to her because she could synthesize all my worries and put it all into a funny, critical comment,” Vian said. “I would look at her amazed and say, ‘That’s exactly what I feel.’ ”
Lucy Honig was born in Albany, N.Y., and grew up a short drive south of the state capital in Nassau and Castleton-on-Hudson, two small New York villages. Her father, Max Honig, and his brothers were part of a Jewish farming community. He died when Lucy was 15.
Her mother, the former Jeanette Polenberg, worked for the IRS in Albany. Ms. Honig’s mother remarried and lived her final years a 10-minute walk from Lucy’s Jamaica Plain residence. Jeanette Barg died in 2007.
Ms. Honig “had a wonderful sense of humor,” her sister said. “It was very subtle in some ways and very striking in other ways. Her sense of humor was very intelligent and often very unexpected.”
The family operated a food stand, and Ms. Honig once wrote that “we would wait on customers and sit for hours even if there weren’t any, just in case there might be.”
She skipped her junior year in high school to graduate early, and went to Syracuse University, from which she received a bachelor’s degree in American studies. Ms. Honig subsequently graduated from Hunter College at the City University of New York with a master’s in education.
While in college, she also studied at the University of Poitiers in France. After Syracuse, she returned to France to teach in Amiens and Paris. Over the years, she also had lived and worked in Maine, taught English as a second language in New York City, and directed the Commission on Human Rights in Kingston, N.Y.
After leaving Boston University, Ms. Honig worked remotely for Unitaid, a hosted partnership of the World Health Organization that finds new ways to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
“All the parts of Lucy’s life that I know seem to have unfolded from each other,” Richard Frumess, an artist with whom Ms. Honig formerly was in a relationship for 11 years, said at her memorial service in November. “Her stories and her involvement were of the same fabric.”
Steve Bloom, a cousin of Ms. Honig’s, said at the service that “the best way to celebrate Lucy’s life is through her own words, and fortunately, she has left us so many finely crafted and richly imagined stories.”
Not long before she died, Ms. Honig gave a friend who would draft her obituary a sheet of paper that listed words she did not want to appear: “fight, war, battle, survivor/survive, win/lose, brave/bravery, courage/courageous, passed/passed away.”
To the end she kept writing fiction, and friends are preparing another collection of stories for publication, her sister said.
“I hope her stories will keep her alive, as well as our memories,” Frumess said in his eulogy, in which he quoted from “Singing the Immunotherapy Blues,” Ms. Honig’s final story:
“I did not so much yearn for longer life as I yearned for the old me. To be back in my own old skin. But there was no bridge back and never would be.”
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