Q: Your father owns a funeral home, and in our previous interview, you said, "I used my behind-the-scenes access to sort of pull back the curtain on what happens when we die. It was important to me to show, in a very safe and respectful way, what happens to us when we die (physically, at least)." How did you create your characters Evie and Oren?
A: All my main characters have an element of me in them but Evie is probably less like me than characters from my other books.
The main reason for that is that I needed her to be the opposite of Oren, at least in one important way; while Oren is selectively mute after the accident that took his parents’ lives, Evie needed to be chatty. Really, really chatty.
I very consciously made Evie an extrovert which is well outside of my own experience. Her need to speak and try to help Oren through prodding and pushing him to talk (because that’s what she thinks he needs) informed much of her character and where she gets things very wrong.
Oren is more like me. I’ve never suffered such a trauma (thankfully!) but his need to process his grief in his own way and the urge to retreat into himself is more my own experience as an introvert.
Grief is a very personal thing and there is no wrong way to grieve. I wanted to make that clear through Oren and Evie and their interactions. I wanted it to be very clear that it’s not about what you think the grieving person needs but what they actually need, which can be very different. That informed how I created my characters.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: In my head and in my computer files, Sorry for Your Loss will always be known as “the funeral home book” – I don’t capitalize it because it was never a consideration as a title but how I think of it.
Its first title was Tree of Life for several reasons – as an homage to the people who were killed at the tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue, but also because there are tree of life references throughout. Oren’s name means tree and the kids make the paper quilled tree craft.
But, as often happens, not everyone loves the title the author chooses and we went back to the drawing board to try to find a new one. I was stumped (see what I did there?). I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, as it were.
The good news is that it was a team effort. Olivia, the marketing coordinator at Orca, my publishing house, came up with Sorry for Your Loss and we all knew it was perfect. It says everything and tells people what the book is about.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book describes it as "both a celebration of life and a peaceful acknowledgement of the harsh realities of death." What do you think of that assessment?
A: They absolutely get what I was going for. Mission accomplished! Kirkus is not known for having the kindest reviews so I was amazed, honored, and relieved at their review. Also, taking this opportunity to brag a little – they did give the book a star, so I have to think they meant their kind words.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: What readers, and especially kids, take from a story is never predictable nor can you even shape those outcomes or you’re risking making your work didactic.
Every kid is different and comes to a book with their own background, needs, and perspectives, but I do hope that each kid gets what they need from the book. Be it simply an entertaining read, a look inside a funeral home, or just a book about friendships.
Whatever they take from it, as long as they enjoyed the time they spent with it, I’m happy.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Thank you for asking! My next book is called The Book of Elsie, again from Orca Book Publishers.
This is a book about a girl named Elsie, who can’t wait for her synagogue’s Purim party where she’ll get to dress up like the fierce and smart Queen Esther. Until she hears the terrible news that the party will have to be canceled and her beloved synagogue might even have to close.
Also fierce and smart, Elsie comes up with a plan to save both the party and her shul.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Sorry for Your Loss is such a personal book for me and as I said last time we chatted, I wanted to pull back the curtain on what happens when we die.
Of course, I couldn’t put everything in a book but there’s so much about funerals and rituals that I find absolutely fascinating. There’s a page on my website that I hope curious readers will check out.
I know I mentioned it last time, but it’s a living doc and I’ve added more resources, pictures, and a discussion/activity guide. http://www.joannelevy.com/sorry-for-your-loss-research/
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Joanne Levy.