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Bruce Feiler talks about 'Council of Dads' and cancer

When Bruce Feiler got a diagnosis of cancer in his leg, he was terrified he might not be there for the important moments in his twin toddlers' lives. So the bestselling author of "Walking the Bible" decided to form a "Council of Dads" - six men, each from a different stage of his life, each with a different strength to offer - to stand in and be his voice for Eden and Tybee should the worst come to pass. That's the premise of Feiler's new book, "The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me" (William Morrow, $22.99). Ben Edwards, Feiler's childhood friend from Savannah, Ga., for instance, is responsible for helping the girls keep their inner child. David Black, Feiler's book agent, should encourage the girls to pursue their dreams. Ben Sherwood is supposed to make sure the girls ask questions and challenge assumptions.

Your book includes letters that you e-mailed to friends and family during your illness to let them know how you were doing. Why did you include them in the book?

Originally I started the letters for practical purposes. It was just too demanding to talk on the phone every night and tell the same story over and over again. We'd go off to a day of medical procedures and doctors' appointments and come home and everybody wants to call. We decided I would write the letters and we elected my brother Minister of Information. I would write the letter and he would send it out. Our original list was probably 150. It grew to probably 400. Almost everybody passed it on to other people. This is what became very powerful about it. That's what gave me the courage to write this book.

Why did you need courage?

For me, the only way to write this story was to write the truth about how painful and scary it was. And there are things that I did - whether it was bad parenting, or breaking down into tears, or things I felt - that are not always flattering. To tell that story and to get it down for my girls was the most important thing for me. The idea that writing about my specific journey could help inspire others, that was the leap I needed to make, and that's what the response from others helped me do. Because I normally would have thought it's not really relevant to anybody else. It turns out, it's deeply relevant in ways I had no idea to expect.

How so?

Here's the number one thing I heard in response to those letters: "It's so unusual to hear a man talking like this." Men were interested because I was writing about myself and about fathers. But women are spectacularly interested because it's this peek into the hidden world of male love and male intimacy. I thought that forming a Council of Dads was about parenting. But it really turns out to be about friendship. We did it for the girls, but really, we're the ones who have benefited.

How did you and your wife, Linda, benefit?

First of all, just the act of sitting down with your closest friends and telling them what they mean to you completely changes the relationship. In a world where people network, in a world of Facebook, we have now identified our inner circle. And these men have become that. Whatever we're going through, they're the first ones we call. We've invited them to be this new kind of creature. For the girls, it's also very, very different. These are no longer just Daddy's friends. These are special people for them. The best way I can describe it is as a team of godparents. There's a lot of zombie godparents walking around out there. They just don't know what they're expected to do. By giving each of these men a specific role to play in the girls' lives, they have a specific task.

Do you have to be sick to form a council of dads?

I've seen a divorced woman create a council of dads because she's estranged from the father of her son and thinks her son should have male role models. I've seen grown women who lost a father young retroactively creating a council. Military dads create a council of dads. They also think about dying. You don't have to be a man, you don't have to be dying. This is my point. We did it for the girls, and we're the ones who benefit. Do it for yourselves.

How are you doing healthwise?

Fine for now. I'm cancer- free. But I get scanned every three months.

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