(No) Escape ZoneTwo Authors Bring Us to Terms with Our Mortality

Layoverland by Gabby Noone, left, and How To Survive Death and Other Inconveniences by Sue William Silverman (Photo credit: Razorbill and University of Nebraska Press)

We may not realize it, but we’ve all been preparing for death our entire lives—something that’s been made very clear during this global pandemic that has killed more than 55,000 people in the United States. Suddenly, it seems that death has accelerated—taking the young and the old, the poor and the poorer, and every person it can get its hands on. Death is not some far-off possibility, as we’ve often made ourselves believe; it’s an inevitability that’s coming for our friends, our neighbors, and us. Thankfully, Gabby Noone and Sue William Silverman have written books—one is fiction and one is nonfiction, respectively—that will help us better understand death and come to terms with it.

Noone’s Layoverland (2020) is a young adult novel with an usual premise: Beatrice Fox, a teenager with a whole lot of snark and attitude, dies in a car accident. When she’s sent to purgatory, where she’s required to help a set number of people get to heaven before she’s granted entrance, Fox realizes that death is just the beginning of her journey to tapping into her humanity. Silverman’s How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences (2020) is wholly different: It’s a memoir about her encroaching fear of death, which has manifested as hypochondria, stockpiling resources for a plague (which has surely come in handy), and an intense focus on beating death at all costs.

While these books take a different approach to both exploring and explaining death, they also have a lot in common: the importance of legacy, facing down uncontrollable anxiety, and using humor to combat fear. In these times, it seems counterintuitive to read books about death during a pandemic, but Layoverland and How to Survive Death approach such a grim reality in entertaining ways that offer care and comfort to those who are afraid. We had a wide-ranging conversation—right at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic—about making space for grief, writing entertainingly about death, and building a life worth leaving behind.

You both chose to write books that focus on living and dying. How did you develop the idea for Layoverland and How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences?

Gabby Noone: I’d been trying to write a young adult novel, and then I found myself with this character voice I was channeling. I [was imagining being] a teenager around 2016 or 2017 and thinking about the state of the world at the time. Beyond normal levels of teenage angst, how frustrated and angry would I be with the world? [That question] informed the voice. And then I thought, What situation would annoy this character the most? I guess she dies. Sick lit is an established genre where teens who are sick fall in love. I thought Layoverland would be a funny twist on the [sick lit] genre; it’s a romantic comedy that takes place after the characters have already died. I like that the afterlife is open to interpretation, so I thought I could have a lot of fun with [writing a story set there]. I have a dark sense of humor, so it just all came together.

Sue William Silverman: Writers write their obsessions—I certainly do—especially in memoir and creative nonfiction. How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences is my fourth memoir, and each of my books thematically tackles an obsession; in this case, my fear of death and dying is one of my strongest [obsessions]. I finally had the courage to plunge into this fear in order to better understand it. The book also explores the origin of that fear. Memoir is about self-discovery and self-exploration, and if I’m going to die, I want to know who I am before it happens.

Layoverland offers a really interesting perspective on the afterlife itself, which has drawn some comparisons to The Good Place and other recent pop culture portrayals of what happens after death. What did you draw on as you created your own vision of the afterlife?

GN: When I first started writing, I was nervous because there’s a lot of afterlife pop culture. So I avoided perusing any afterlife-focused media, because I didn’t want it to influence my world-building or contaminate me with good ideas that weren’t mine. But once I [began revising] the book, I watched a few afterlife movies to give me some ideas for refining Layoverland’s world. I watched Defending Your Life, a really good movie that in some ways is a gender-swapped version of Layoverland. [In the movie], Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) dies and goes to purgatory, and he has a bad attitude until he falls in love with Julia (Meryl Streep), who’s this angelic presence. Purgatory is pretty nice in that movie: You can eat endless amounts of gourmet food and do all sorts of activities. I also watched Heaven Can Wait, which is a movie where the protagonist dies and is physically taken on an airplane to heaven.

The romantic aspect of the book was the part I was most nervous to write because it’s difficult to develop a believable relationship. When I wrote the first draft, the romance just wasn’t clicking for me, so I watched movies. I watched some sick lit-inspired romances such as A Walk to Remember and Me Before You, which both end with one of the couple dying. I kept notes [about] the parts that made me cry and thought: How can I inspire [these feelings] in my readers? I hope that it was effective.

While Layoverland is more a traditional young adult novel, How to Survive Death has a more unusual structure. How did you decide how to structure it and what was your process for determining how the chapters are arranged and ordered

SWS: One of the early chapters depicts me as a teenage narrator driving a gold Plymouth almost every day on Route 17 in New Jersey, which is a very industry-blighted highway. But when I was a teenager, it really intrigued me. Part of the structure came from that: The book was written like a road trip through my life and collecting memories of my life. Of course, once memories are written, they can live forever; that’s one way of surviving death. So the structure formed around how best to convey these memories. The book is also divided into three parts named after the three fates, and  there are also six short sections sprinkled throughout, written as if it’s through the voice [of those three fates]. This was to show how death stalks me and why I kept trying to flee [these fates].

Part one shows the roots and causes of my fear of death. Part two shows that I’m a hypochondriac who’s afraid of dying. And part three is coming to terms with all of these different fears. There was no way I could do that chronologically because it’s much more important in memoir to write thematically so the book has a thematic structure. That’s how I got the different memories sprinkled throughout my entire life. I had to organize them all by theme rather than by chronology. My research process was very quirky: I researched early burial methods because the idea of cremation or my body going into a casket underground totally horrified me. I decided I wanted to be mummified, so I researched mummification. I realize [I’m not going to be mummified], but researching the process made me feel better. I also researched the singer Adam Lambert because he reminds me of my hippie days, when I was full of freedom and life stretched endlessly before me. So I researched Lambert, which of course included attending some of his concerts. All of that gave me the illusion that I could live forever.

And then, being a hypochondriac, I researched a lot of different diseases that always worry me. If I have a headache, then I immediately think it’s a brain tumor, so I needed to research the actual symptoms of having a brain tumor. But most of my research as a memoirist is really to research my heart. It’s more of an emotional kind of research. There’s a lot of imagination in that; the book opens with what death might or might not be, so I include my imagination as part of that.

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GN: In both of our books, we talk about liminal spaces, like hospital waiting rooms, motels, airports, highways. These spaces commonly make people reflect on their own mortality. Why do you think that is?

SWS: I had this section about waiting rooms in my book, which is all about different forms of waiting rooms. And then I thought about how now, with this pandemic, we’re all sort of sitting in our houses, which are waiting rooms. Liminal space is the idea of moving from one part of being to another. What is that exploration like as we transition from being one form into being another and how does that impact our emotional growth? Memoir is all about the emotional growth of the narrator. Who I am at the end of the book is different from who I am at the beginning. It’s all about going through these different liminal phases as I move from one stage to the next. I write about being sexually assaulted and then having a miscarriage. How do I transition from these really traumatic incidents to then seeing more emotional or spiritual forms of death? It’s all a series of these different liminal spaces as the narrator journeys along.

GN: You write about going to an estate sale, which I’ve been thinking about too. When you’re without the physical objects that define you, you start to reflect on [the question]: Who am I? That’s why sometimes when you’re on an airplane, in a motel, or stuck under fluorescent lights in a hospital waiting room, it really makes you reflect on [who you are] without all the things that make you comfortable. I was interested in the idea that when you die, you can’t bring anything with you.

SWS: [Your possessions hold] a lot of power; they hold your memories. When I see my mother’s gloves, they convey so many memories. In Layoverland, all your protagonist has from her real life are the clothes on her back [when she dies]. I was so worried about her not having her things and then her clothes are taken away from her. She has to wear this orange uniform.

GN: Exactly. Beatrice is experiencing a real frustration [because she doesn’t have her possessions with her]. I was also channeling my teenage self. What would’ve been the most annoying thing to happen to me as a teenager? I’d die on laundry day, so I’m not even wearing something that I feel my best in. Those little things feel petty, but at the same time, those are the things teenagers define themselves by. Being worried about your possessions seems superficial, but it’s not because our surroundings, the way we dress, and the way our houses look are such a big part of our identities. It’s really upsetting when it’s all suddenly gone, which is what happens to Bea. I felt bad for her.

It was really striking to me that Beatrice is a teenager who dies in a car crash and gets stuck in purgatory. Do we underestimate what children and teenagers are able to understand about death and mortality?

GN: Yeah, for sure. A lot of what’s written off as teen angst is valid anxiety, fear, and frustration. Even though I wrote a narrator who is very humorous and a little bit snarky about death, I wanted to get to the core of that dismissiveness. She’s scared. She’s afraid of being vulnerable because then she’d be opening herself up to getting hurt. Teenagers are probably already thinking about death and [being afraid to die], so it’s good to be open about it. The more we’re encouraged to talk to one another about death, the less scary and anxiety-inducing it is.

SWS: I agree with that. As I was writing, I came to understand that seeing my grandfather in an open casket was one of the origins of my fear of death. I fainted or passed out [at the funeral]. I didn’t understand what death meant. I didn’t know what was happening. Nobody talked about death, particularly back then. That’s still true now, but back then death just wasn’t mentioned at all. I had no idea where [my grandfather] was or what had happened. I knew he’d been born in Russia, so I thought maybe he’d emigrated back to Russia. I just did not understand what was going on, and I was so traumatized by that.

If somebody had talked to me about my grandfather dying, I would have handled it much better. But when nothing is ever said, then your imagination just goes all over the place. I was a preteen [when he died], and I really wish that somebody, particularly my parents, would have told me what happens when you die and where my grandfather had gone. Preteens can understand a lot more [about death] than we give them credit for.

William Jackson Harper as Chidi, left, Kristen Bell as Eleanor, Manny Jacinto as Jason, Jameela Jamil as Tahani, D'Arcy Carden as Janet, and Ted Danson as Michael in The Good Place (Photo credit: Colleen Hayes/NBC Universal)

GN: Sue, were your parents religious at all when you were a kid, and did that influence your obsession with death at all?

SWS: They weren’t. We’re obviously Jewish, but we weren’t religious. It’s just cultural. [My grandfather’s] service was in a synagogue, but I don’t remember any part of the funeral.

GN: I ask that question because my parents were born-again Christians, so I had a very extreme perception of heaven and hell at a young age. We talked about death a lot at church, so in the opposite sense, I almost felt like I knew too much. I definitely think my upbringing shaped my sense of humor. But even as an adult, I find myself grappling with trying to figure out what I believe because I realize so much stuff [around religion and death] was normalized for me when I was younger.

SWS: You got too much information—maybe not at the right time—and I didn’t get any. Somewhere in the middle seems like the right amount. [That’s the reason] we need books like Layoverland for teens and preteens so that they can have a more realistic, albeit quirky and funny, way to talk about death. I was not brought up to believe in an afterlife, and I’ve never believed in it. But I do believe in a legacy, which is one of the reasons I write. Through writing—putting my memories down on paper—my life will continue on, albeit in a different form. Of course, a legacy can be any number of things, such as having children, doing good work, making an impact on the world, and giving your life a purpose and meaning. In many ways, my book is about living your life before you die. That is [about leaving] some sort of legacy.

GN: Thinking about legacy is also something that needs to be more normalized. Because when people, especially powerful people, forget about their future impact on the world, we end up in a state like the one we’re in now, where greedy people are only looking out for themselves and forgetting the long-term impact [of their decisions].

SWS: Absolutely. I won’t name the unnamable person who’s running our country right now, but his legacy isn’t going to be good, and he doesn’t care. In many ways, I think that both of our books are about empathy. Bea is initially rough around the edges and hiding her vulnerability, but by the end of the book she’s really found her vulnerability. There’s a scene where I start worrying about a woman in a grocery store checkout line who’s buying a pregnancy test. I had gotten pregnant from a rape, and I could tell she was very distraught. She didn’t want to be pregnant. Being able to feel her pain and her fear, being able to worry about how she became pregnant helped me access my own empathy toward myself. It was a way to forgive myself.

GN: When you’re able to forgive yourself, you become more open to others. I have another question for you: You tell a story about writing an essay about the plague while everyone else was doing really well in home economics. From a young age, you were aware of things like plagues that a lot of people don’t spend any time thinking about. How are you coping in the midst of coronavirus, as someone who has sort of an obsession with death? 

SWS: I did a whole research project on the Black Death. The irony is that, given my hypochondria and my fear of death, I’ve been totally prepared for this pandemic! I’ve been prepared for it my whole life. I had been wearing those N95 face masks on planes for a good 15 years. I don’t have a whole stockpile of them. If I did, I’d take them over to the hospital. But I do have a few masks on hand, and I have thieves oil and all these different unguents. I’ve been stockpiling. I have been waiting for a pandemic my whole life.

GN: I didn’t realize until you wrote about it that [a certain] brand of cough drops uses a blend of essential oils based on what people used to survive the Black Death.

SWS: Right. The ingredients in thieves oil are somewhat different from what they used during the Black Death, but now we’re in our own form of Black Death. I take those cough drops all the time, particularly when I travel. I am terrified of this pandemic. I’m sitting in my house day after day, and I’m still washing my hands, even if I don’t go outside, I’m washing my hands. I’m still very much a hypochondriac, but I knew a pandemic was coming. It was just a matter of time.

Thinking about legacy is also something that needs to be more normalized.

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You both bring a lot of humor to these books about a serious topic. How did you balance the gravity death requires with the need to bring levity to it?

SWS: There’s supposed to be an element of humor or absurdity in the book. That was there from the first draft. We can’t literally survive death, so the title of the book is meant to clue the reader that this is going to be an ironic read. Ironically, starting from a place of humor allowed me to develop the more serious aspects of the book. If I had begun in a place of real gloom and doom, there’s no place else to go. I would not have been able to go any deeper. And frankly, nobody would even want to read a book [about death that’s] all gloom and doom. Humor, especially gallows humor, afforded me the opportunity to explore serious issues.

GN: I feel similarly. Pairing humor and death is like pairing sweet and salty foods. Humor brings out the seriousness and the sadness of things. When I’m reading or watching something that’s making me laugh and then something unexpectedly makes me choke up, I find that to be much more effective than watching the saddest movie.

SWS: I agree. They balance each other in a really interesting way; if something is really funny, it can also be really sad. Or if something’s really sad, it can also be funny.

GN: Totally. Death is obviously devastating, and losing people we love is devastating. But there’s also a part of me that feels like death and the afterlife can be funny just because it’s something that literally everyone experiences, and no one can escape. But that doesn’t stop people from trying to figure out how to escape death. It’s just kind of absurd.

Forgiveness is a big through line in both of your books. Sue, you spend a lot of time processing moments you could have or should have forgiven yourself for, while Beatrice dies while she’s fighting with her sister. How important was it for both of you to approach the idea of forgiveness in your work?

GN: That’s a hard question. Sometimes forgiveness is seen as a really neat and tidy process, but the circumstances in our everyday lives don’t always let it work out that way. In some ways it can feel really hard to have actual forgiveness in this day and age. A lot of people make mistakes, but we’re not very good about changing our behavior. And on the other hand, we live in a “cancel culture” world—I hate that term—where we don’t give people room to be forgiven. It goes both ways. I just wanted to explore that forgiveness can be a messy process. It takes Bea a lot of self-reflection, including seeing other people self-reflect and opening up, to forgive herself for how things went in her life.

SWS: That makes a lot of sense. I didn’t see or understand the forgiveness aspect of my memoir until my fourth or fifth draft. I didn’t even know that forgiveness was going to be in the mix. Sexual assault was one of the origins of my fear of death, and I did really blame myself for being alone on a beach that night. I was so angry at myself in many ways. And that assault was also a form of death because I felt as if I’d lost my body. I felt like the man who’d raped me had, in some ways, stolen my body. And then I blamed myself for the rape resulting in a miscarriage. It’s not as if I wanted to have the baby, but the miscarriage made me feel like my body had killed this life-form. I was a ways into the book before the theme [of forgiveness] came to the forefront, but writing this book helped me see that neither the rape nor the miscarriage were my fault. It was through the writing process that I was able to forgive myself.

Mortality is difficult to face, especially in the United States where prolonged grief isn’t encouraged or supported. Based on the research you’ve done and the writing of these books, what is there for us to learn about mortality, about grieving, and about what comes after death (if anything)?

SWS: Grieving is such an essential part of living. In some ways, my book is really about how to survive life, which in short is, don’t live in denial. Embrace everything that happens to you, whether it’s painful or happy. Too many people refuse to deal with sad or painful things, but by ignoring those things, they’re really missing their life. How many times have we heard, “Just get over it. Move on from that?” When you do that, you’re missing your life and not exploring the fullness of it. It’s so important to give yourself the time you need to grieve different losses.

I write about the death of a beloved therapist. I write about the death of my beloved Quizzle, my magical cat. Their deaths were terrible, traumatic moments for me, but I couldn’t just ignore it. I really had to feel the pain of [losing them], but people are so afraid of feeling pain. Nobody likes pain, but it’s part of life. And if you don’t experience pain and let yourself grieve it, then it just sits inside of you. [The pain] doesn’t go away.

GN: We don’t spend a lot of time giving into grief because grief isn’t productive. You can’t mine anything from it. People barely get to leave their jobs to grieve. As a society, we’re so used to thinking about grief as this tidy thing. Wrap it up. But similarly to forgiveness, grief can go on. You grieve someone you lose for the rest of your life.

SWS: Both of our books are really about memory. Everyone who’s stuck in Layoverland has to confront their scariest memory in order to move on to heaven. My book is about confronting scary memories as well, not necessarily to get to heaven but to get on with my life. My memory machine is in my mind, but Bea has a real memory machine. I was awestruck by that. I absolutely loved it. We’re writing about the very same thing. It takes a different form, but it’s the exact same thing: confronting your memories, confronting grief, and confronting forgiveness. Did you see that as well?

GN: Yeah, totally. In Layoverland, once you get to purgatory, you have to wait through this tedious lottery system. Once you get called, you get connected to a machine [that] you can screen your memories onto. I was inspired by how we try to compartmentalize grief and trauma. I was making fun of that because [grief] is obviously not as tidy as hooking yourself up to a machine and working through it. That’s what happens to the characters in the book: They’re not just confronting their lives in that sterilized setting. It’s happening to them all the time.

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by Evette Dionne
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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.