Monday, November 20, 2023

Q&A with Alix Strauss





Alix Strauss is the author of the novel The Joy of Funerals, now available in a new 20th anniversary edition. Her other books include Death Becomes Them. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and other publications, and she lives in Manhattan.


Q: What inspired you to write The Joy of Funerals, and what led to this new edition of the book?


A: In 1998, I wrote an essay for the “Lives” section for The New York Times Magazine that talked about why I loved funerals – which is because I’m not just only an only child, I’m the only only child in my family, on both sides, as everyone has always had more than one child except my parents who could have had several and chose just to have me.


We were not a close family, and I wasn’t invited to any family events -- except for a funeral, which happened rarely. And so they became my reunions. Everyone’s invited because everyone deserves a chance to say goodbye. And at these funerals is where I met family members for the first time.


It was defining and created a sense – be it a temporary one – of belonging.


At the same time, I had written a few short stories and realized that in each of them someone had died or they revolved around a death. And these very interesting women were left to deal with their loss, longing and grief.


I combined those shorts with the idea from the essay for the Times—what if I had a character that went to other people’s funerals. What if that character somehow connected all of these stories together.


I’m always interested in how our lives are interwoven and why certain people come in and out of our lives. And I was fascinated by the idea of this woman being so desperate for connection that the only way she can achieve it is through going to other strangers’ funerals. 


In 2003, when the original version was released by St. Martin’s Press, though we received great press, and many reviews compared the novel to Six Feet Under meets Sex and the City, I'm not sure the world was really ready to talk about funerals, loss, grief, and our deep need for connection the way we are now. I didn’t want to miss that moment again. 


Q: In the book’s author’s note, you write, “In revisiting this work...I was struck by how our need for true connections has only intensified.” Can you say more about that? 


A: Twenty years ago, I really felt no one was talking about our need for human connection, how important it is to have, the different ways in which we try to connect with each other and how hard, alienating, and lonely that can be.


And here we are 20 years later, and we've survived a pandemic that alienated us even further, and social media has done the same in a very sneaky way because we all feel we're connecting and we feel we know so many intimate details about someone, but they're not real connections.


We’ve been fooled into thinking texting is a true substitution for human connection, which it’s not.


I think these two very large happenings have propelled us even further into feeling lonely and disconnected. That’s part of the loneliness epidemic we’re all feeling right now. There’s also a slew of the different books, films, and TV that that are focusing on these very topics right now as well.


And I think people realize they are not so happy. And how do we fix this. We have all experienced a huge amount of loss and it’s time to talk about it.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you? 


A: A friend said the title in passing, and it was such a brilliant idea that there was no other possible title that would have worked as well. I loved the double entendre. I love that it makes people take a step back to think: “How can you say that?” “Why would you say that?”


It catches people off guard. It's such an unnatural thing to say and think, but in reality, there can be a joy to funerals. Even through loss, there is still the celebrating of someone's life.


There’s this camaraderie at a funeral that brings people together, especially when they don't have anything in common except the person we are mourning for. We become part of something bigger than ourselves, and form a connective, shared experience under very intensified situations.


And that can be very appealing to people. It is for the main character, Nina. There is an absolute joy she feels being able to go to strangers’ funerals. It’s a sense of belonging for her. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I hope they feel understood, or seen, more connected and less lonely. 


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: I'm working on a doozy of a true crime podcast, a variety of articles for The New York Times, and I’ve recently completed a new novel which is making the rounds. 


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: I'm really very funny and entertaining even though this Q&A may seem otherwise! (Insert humor here.)  


I’m a die-hard New Yorker, and when I’m not writing about funerals, I cover the other side of the intensified, emotional spectrum for the Times --weddings. I also write about pop culture, trends, gender, relationships and celebrities.


I’ve also never been to a funeral where I didn’t know the person who had passed away. (No funeral crashing here.)


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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