Archive for March, 2014

Writing = Rewriting

March 26th, 2014 by Terra | No Comments | Filed in Writing and Reading

This week I spoke to several sixth grade classes at Renfroe Middle School, and the main lesson I hoped they walked away with was that writing is really rewriting. It’s a thing I’ve been thinking about a lot this month –as I work on the edits to my upcoming middle grade novel with Katherine Tegen books, Drive Me Crazy– and it’s the only thought I can leave you with this week. Even the first three sentences have already been retooled a couple of times (words taken out or replaced, turns of phrase adjusted) while creating this entry. I feel like if you can’t get cool with this idea–if you think “rewriting” means “checking for commas and misspellings”–then you really can’t get cool with the process of writing at all. Fortunately, being able and willing to revise is also one of the neatest things about writing. It makes it is an ever-growing, organic thing that evolves and strengthens and improves each time you sit down to it.

These I copied from Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog. They ring awfully true for me:


Discussing the AMERICAN AFTERLIFE with Kate Sweeney

March 19th, 2014 by Terra | No Comments | Filed in Talking with Other Authors

Living in Atlanta has a lot of perks, but one of the biggest ones is getting to rub elbows with some incredible writers from all kinds of genres. Kate Sweeney is one such author whom I’ve admired and been pals with for a long time, and it’s thrilling to share with you her new book, American Afterlife. This is a fascinating nonfiction work that explores post-death practices in America, and makes for a thought-provoking read in more ways than one. In celebration of American Afterlife’s recent release, I asked Kate a few questions that her book spurned in me, and was not surprised by the smart, sharp answers she gave.

Kate has several appearances this month,
and the one I’m most looking forward to is at  Little Shop of Stories on Saturday March 29th at 7 PM.


TEM:  There’s so much impressive research in American Afterlife! What were the hardest parts of all this, and the most interesting or fun for you?

KS: One thing that’s a lot of fun is to have conversations with people now about very-little-known funereal facts. I mean, there are just so many, and it’s a lot of fun to realize you’ve become this expert on something you never imagined you’d one day know so much about—especially when it’s a topic like death and memorialization, which we just don’t bring up much in polite conversation. No dinner party conversation is safe from me!

I think the hardest part of putting the book together was the neurotic fear, near the end, of not getting something right. It just really drove me. When University of Georgia Press agreed to take the book, I went on an obsessive fact-checking mission that lasted for months, double-checking the smallest of historical details, stats, and facts about people’s lives. I would lie awake at night worrying about this detail or that. It’s very nice to have that particular concern behind me now; I’m fairly confident that everything is correct now. It had better be!

TEM: Most of my readers are young people, and as I read through American Afterlife I wondered what their responses might be to this. Any thoughts on what a teenager can gain from this book?

KS:  Wow. This is a great question. I have a fifteen-year-old niece to whom I just gave a copy of the book, and she went right off to a sofa and began reading it. (I do realize that this gesture might have been intended as a compliment to her aunt’s vanity. Someone who’s not me will have to check back with her!)

But seriously, I think that there’s a lot to be said for opening up taboo topics like this one. My point of view as a narrator in this book is that of a person who’s never experienced profound loss—and while that’s certainly not true of all teenagers, I think that a lot of people my age and younger are in this boat. I didn’t know what loss was like or what to expect, and so I talked with people who’d gone through it and people like funeral directors and memorial tattoo artists who helped others through it. While these stories didn’t totally prepare me for how to deal with loss because nothing can totally prepare anyone, they did serve as guideposts of a sort in terms of what to expect, and that’s the sort of literary dialogue I imagine a teenage version of myself would really have appreciated.

TEM:  In Chapter Four, “The Last Great Obit Writers’ Conference,” you say the greatest thing about obituaries telling a full story that a mass of facts about a person can’t: “A writer decides what to focus on and where to cut. Where the story begins, where it picks up momentum.” To that end, what do you feel the story of American Afterlife is telling us?

KS:  I think the book is definitely telling the story of a life event that will happen to us all, but which has become taboo simply because it’s not the everyday, commonplace experience it once was. Before the turn of the 20th century, death and dying happened at home. Then, in a matter ofdecades, it moved out of the house, into places like hospitals and funeral homes. Now, people who experience loss find themselves a bit alienated from the rest of us in a way that wasn’t always the case. I saw this again and again in the folks whose stories I followed and wrote.

There’s no one capital-l Lesson that I want people to take away from the book, but in talking with readers, I have seen it open up dialogues about a topic that we’re just not encouraged to talk about much, and that’s really heartening.

TEM:  Of course reading American Afterlife made me think about my own death. (And thanks to Chapter Seven, “With the Fishes,” I may consider one of those coral reef balls!) How did working on this book affect your thoughts about your own?

KS:  Writing this book has caused me to think hard about life. You know, there are two sides to this subject: There’s the very dark fear of death itself, but then there’s the shining brightness of realizing that you have this life, and it may sound cheesy, but that’s a scarily, ridiculously beautiful thing. The book’s largely not about death, anyway; it’s about memorialization, that question of: How do you want to be remembered? And that’s very big and very powerful. So yes, writing it has caused me to think a lot about how I want to live, and what’s important and what matters. And, as I imagine many of us would say, those questions are all still very much works in progress.

TEM:   The arc you follow from super-grieving during the Victorian era, to sweeping death under the carpet in our current age is so fascinating. Do you think that the pendulum may eventually swing the other way? Or at least balance out? Is it, perhaps, with green burials and the like, already happening?

KS:  I don’t know if the pendulum could swing completely back to the big death culture that pervaded the 1800s. You have to remember that at that time, people saw a whole heck of a lot more death than we do now. You’d have twelve children and nine of them would die—and then there was the Civil War, which brought a ton of death itself, and just the rise of a popular culture that was really obsessed with big, romantic questions of the life-death divide. I mean, maybe if we experienced some great catastrophic loss—some rampant sci-fi illness or other cataclysm, like, as a society, we might come close to that again—and that’s certainly not impossible.

But-! Before I wandered down that dark road, the answer is also: maybe. Because there is a rise in interest in end-of-life issues and in actually talking about death. I think we’re seeing this rise with the aging baby-boomer generation. This is the generation that made sweeping social changes happen on all sorts of levels, and who re-invented major rites of passage like weddings and giving birth. Now they’re interested in shaping that last great rite as best as they can. They’re interested in things like palliative care, hospice and designing the memorial service that truly captures the things that mattered to them—like maybe their love of the environment or music or whatever it may be.

TEM:  The title of this book is American Afterlife, though a majority of it focuses on the Southeast, which made me wonder about practices in New England, the Midwest, California and etc. Is there perhaps another book, or two, in you that keeps going across the continent?

KS:  Great question. While a number of the book’s scenes do take place in the southeast, the customs and history discussed are definitely not southern-centric. (Is that a word? It is now!) Instead, they apply, largely, to us all. I tried not to get too terribly microscopic in my focus—so, yeah, there could be a whole other volume concentrating completely on regional customs like the New Orleans funeral or on the descanso, the traditional southwestern roadside memorial.

TEM:  As a fiction writer, I’m astounded by your ability to capture the personalities and presences of real-live people. What’s the trick, as a writer, to succeeding in that?

KS:  Wow. Thank you. I think it’s just a matter of listening well. I hope I do that, at any rate. I don’t know how much this might contribute, but I also tape my interviews and adventures. I’m a stickler about getting what people say absolutely right, and never learned shorthand, although I also take copious notes. So, I can always go to the tape and to the notes after the fact, and I also never wait long after the experience to write about it. Maybe part of it is also growing up as a youngest (by a longshot) child: I feel like I spent my entire childhood watching the grown-ups from under tables and up staircases. Harriet the Spy was my hero. There’s some part of me that always prefers being in the next room at parties, where I can just listen in.

TEM:   You are also a radio producer who has conducted an impressive amount of interviews with incredible people. How does that occupation help with a book like American Afterlife?

KS:  You know, as I touch on above, I think it’s a matter of learning how to watch and really listen to your interview subjects. It’s incredibly difficult to do well, and it’s something I’ll be learning for a long time.

TEM:  Any last gross/interesting/creepy/moving detail that didn’t make it in American Afterlife, and you want to toss in here?

KS:  Let’s see…Patent for a burial vault that contains a missile to strike and kill any would-be grave-robbers? Check. Jewelry made from human hair? Check. Chaplain who finds conducting weddings to be dullsville but who acts like a giddy child when she gets to conduct a funeral? Check.

Nope, I think we’re good. Thanks!

I Got *My* Certificate . . .

March 14th, 2014 by Terra | No Comments | Filed in Uncategorized


I still don’t have my dress for the awards ceremony, and we won’t know until then (May 1st) if CRIMINAL actually WINS the Edgar Award, but this was still pretty neat mail to get . . .