I thought for a while that I was obsessed with death. Every story I wrote began with or was influenced by the death of someone my protagonist knew and loved. I’ve never been particularly afraid of dying—I’m certainly not looking forward to it, and the thought of not existing anymore is difficult to wrap my head around, but I don’t fear it.
My best friend took a writing course at an artist retreat. The instructor for that course, coincidentally, was Bruce Coville. We were both tickled by the strangeness of it. She’d signed up for the retreat long before I even knew Bruce had read Five Stages, and it was an odd bit of serendipity that he should be teaching her course.
Rachel and I have known each other since high school. Not only has she been my first reader for more than two decades, but she’s been my biggest cheerleader. During the retreat, she had a private fifteen minute session with Bruce, and she used her time to ask him questions that I’d never have had the courage to ask about Five Stages. I’ll never be able to express what an amazing friend she is. She had an opportunity most writers would have killed for, and she used it to help me. That’s who she is, and I couldn’t ask for a better friend.
One of the things Bruce Coville told her was that successful writers find their theme— one thing that matters to them, that drives them—and they write about it over and over. Variations on the same theme haunt everything they write. At first, I thought facing death was the theme that drove me. Ollie in Deathday had 24 hours to come to terms with dying, Drew in Five Stages believes he is literally being stalked by Death, Pip in the story Better I have in the Grim anthology faces death if she can’t prove her own humanity, and I’ve got two books in various stages—one in which the fate of the entire world is at stake, and another in which death is merely the beginning of the character’s problems.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s not death I’m fascinated by—exploring the themes surrounding death don’t drive me—it’s outsiders. Every story I write is concerned with someone standing on the outside looking in. Ollie knows that his friends are going to live out their lives and that he is not, Drew lives in an artificial world of his own making, Pip is a robot. In fml, my only published book not to feature death prominently, Simon has wasted his high school years longing to be on the inside, and spends the entire night trying to figure out how to fit in.
My characters are lost, they’re broken, they’re unsure of their place in the universe, and my stories are about them figuring out where they belong.
Sometimes, they figure it out. Ollie doesn’t have much choice. You learn out on page one that he’s going to die, and it’s a promise I was hellbent on keeping. But Simon is only just beginning to figure it out by the end of fml, and at the end of Better, Pip simply decides to do things her own way. That’s because, even at 36, I still don’t have it all figured out. Most days, I wake up happy and totally content with my life, but sometimes I’m still that awkward boy in school looking for a place to belong, wondering when I’ll have all the answers, even though I know that no one ever has all the answers. It’s the search for them that matters, not the thing we find at the end. In an early draft of Deathday, Ollie and Shane do figure out from where the deathday letters originate. I ultimately decided to cut those pages because why we die isn’t important, only who we are while we’re alive.
It turns out, I’m not obsessed with death at all, I’m obsessed with living. And if I’ve learned anything after 36 years, it’s that we’re all on the outside. The inside is just an illusion.