Tag Archives: Kate Sweeney

Awful Interview: Kate Sweeney

4 Nov

Atlanta, that wonderful time of year is descending upon us again. No – not the holidays! (Though I’ve been jonesing for a turkey leg ever since exiting this year’s Ren Fest.) The Letters Festival! I mean, holy smokes, we’ve got three days of Independent Literature about to descend upon our fair city. I’m swooning. You swooning? You should be.

So we’ve got a bevy of fun stuff to help get you riled up. First up to bat? A second round of Awful Interview with Atlanta’s own Kate Sweeney, author of American Afterlifeand all-around gem. We’re not sure why she was up for letting us awfully interview her… again. But boy were we glad to do so! Kate will be helping kick-off the festivities this Thursday evening at BURNAWAY’s beautiful office space, alongside Aaron Burch, Esther Lee, and Jason McCall. You can snag your tickets for all that literary goodness here. In the meantime, let’s get to this interview, shall we?

Vouched: So, Kate – it’s been almost 9 months since the release of American Afterlife. How many bizarre, unsolicited stories about death have you heard whilst promoting the book? What was the weirdest?

Oh, my. I’ve heard so many GREAT stories from people about their experiences with funerals and ways they chose to remember their loved ones. One of my favorites is the family who filled their pant-legs with the ashes of their family patriarch,  and then took a casual group walk through the football field of his college alma mater, allowing the ashes to spill out onto the field as they did so, like in “The Great Escape.”

Vouched: Record scratch – wait, what? I mean, i figured you would have weird stories, but that’s pretty out there. Do you have really epic notions for your own funeral now? (I would worry that that’s a morbid question, but I mean, you wrote a book about death rituals, so it feels like fair game.)

Actually, I do have more notions regarding my own funeral than I did when I began all this. I’ve even sat down and made a plan–something I never would have done as a regular, unleaded 30-something who had never heard stories from so many people who’d experienced epic memorials, horrible memorials, as well as exhausting memorials due to a total lack of pre-planning. It’s actually a great gift to those you leave behind to let them know what on earth you want before the time comes–and, almost more importantly, where key documents are. Because you don’t want to leave your significant other/sons/daughters/parents the burden of dealing with all this crazy minutia on TOP of mourning, too. And the hard fact is this: There is a lot of minutia and rigamarole involved. And we don’t know when we’re going to go.  Sure, it feels weird to have these conversations and make these plans, and it feels doubly weird in a society in which even thinking about death is considered to be weird–but it makes a huge difference to everyone we love.

Vouched: Wow, you’ve become quite the advocate! Would you be willing to share a bit of your plan, or is it a surprise? I have a perpetually late friend who wants to have his coffin arrive at the funeral parlor 15 minutes late when he dies (honestly, it would be out-of-character if it didn’t) … is that something that can happen?

That IS something someone could make happen, for sure. I love it! Folks have told me stories about doing traditional funerals with the hearses and the cemeteries and vaults, about opting for direct cremation with no service, choosing green burial, about writing funny or even bitter obituaries for their loved ones, having their loved ones’ ashes made into plant mulch, LPs and artificial coral reefs. (Not to mention our forebears from the 1800s, who made jewelry out of human hair and invented memorial photography! Now they were a party people.) Seriously, though: For every one of these types of memorialization, someone had a story about how scarring and awful her experience was, and someone else had a story about how this was absolutely the right decision, and how it was healing or cathartic in some way.

So, you know, I went into this experience with some prejudices–the kind we all have–about what’s right and what’s weird when it comes to memorialization. But having heard these personal stories, those prejudices have been stripped away.  And not to paint myself as some Grand Authority to whom everyone’s paying attention in terms of her opinions on memorialization, but it’s because I’ve learned this that I’ve actually decided not to speak publicly about what I’ve chosen, personally. I just don’t want to come across as having any sort of bias, because what’s right for me may not be for you, and I get that.

Vouched: Totally fair. Okay, so – I have to ask – is Six Feet Under your all-time favorite television show by default now?

Had there been no Six Feet Under, there would have been no American Afterlife. That is the literal truth.

Vouched: WHOA! I’ve stumbled across interview gold! Would you elaborate on that, plz?

Sure! I was obsessed with that show. It was the first show I ever binge-watched and which moved me to have imaginary conversations with the characters while, say, walking my dog or driving to the store. So naturally, I read everything I could get my hands on about it. One story I came across was an article about a green burial cemetery in California, written by Tad Friend in the New Yorker. The cemetery had served as a setting for something that took place on the show, I believe. Almost as a footnote, the story mentioned that the nation’s very first green burial cemetery–which began the trend of ecologically-friendly burial spaces in the US–was in South Carolina. I was really intrigued, and it looked like no one had written a major feature article about the place, so that’s what I did. Oxford American published the story in its Spring 2008 issue, and things snowballed from there. Suddenly everywhere I looked, there were fascinating stories about how we Americans remember our dead, from third-generation funeral directors, to roadside memorials, to all the stuff we’re doing with ashes, to our Victorian forebears who made jewelry from human hair. I had to write about them.

Vouched: Six Feet Under really is one of those shows where you miss the main characters after it’s over. At least that’s how it was for me. Say, if you could pick one character from Six Feet Under to attend your reading at the Letters Festival, which would it be? And why? What would you say?

Oooh, good one. Well, clearly, it’s the father. It might be kind of unnerving, but I’d love to see his ghostly presence standing in the back, laughing and shaking his head at some of the  stories from the book. I think that in the end, I’d simply shake his hand–if you can do that. Can you shake a ghost’s hand?

Awful Interview: Kate Sweeney

30 Oct

I learned a lot about my good friend Kate Sweeney whilst awfully interviewing her. Unfortunately   for Kate, she also learned a lot about me.  Here are some things I already knew about Kate: 1. She is splendid. 2. You can sometimes hear her voice on Atlanta’s local NPR affiliate WABE. 3. She is the host of Atlanta’s True Story Reading Series. 4. She’s a damn fine writer. 5. She will be reading with the likes of Michael Nye, Amber Sparks, Caroline Murphy, and Jamie Iredell at the Goat Farm on November 9th.

Kate, you seem like the kind of lady who would have sat at the ‘Cool Kids’ table at lunch in high-school. What was that like? Did you have a totally rad lunchbox?

Nah. My friend had a lunch box with X-Men characters on it before there was an X-Men movie, when it was just…a cartoon, I think? No, wait. A comic. I actually knew that. Sheesh. Anyway,  I think my secret strength has always been the people I know and love because they take me by the hand and lead me into this great wide world, the one with the X-Men and the “Gam Gam Style” dance–the latter of which I just found out about two days ago. We introverts need the extraverts of this world. Otherwise, I know I’d do nothing but wander around thinking about the creepier segments of Free to Be…You and Me, Victorian death customs and the latest episode of The Wire.  (The Wire ended in 2008. But for me, it only just ended a month ago. See?)

I totally understand. Who are your top five extroverts?

Lord. Okay. Completely off the top of my head: Sharon Jones, for sure. Boots Riley from the Coup. My friend Amanda, who’s always introducing people who needed to meet to one another and throwing creative get-togethers–like potlucks where every guest gets a different 1950s cookbook and then has to prepare something from that cookbook. I love her sense of creativity and joie d’vivre. My grandmother was similar. She was a force–all Paris perfume and loud laughter. She had an address book three inches thick. When she was a teenager, she cut her hair short and her father about killed her. Meanwhile, she was sneaking off to NYC to see Count Basie play. That’s four; I’ll leave the fifth open because really, there are too many. Do you consider yourself to be an introvert or an extravert?

My good friends would probably punch or pinch me if I confessed to being anything but extravert. Family moved around often when I was young, so it was a necessity to be able to talk to strangers with relative ease. Honestly, sometimes I’m amazed that I was never kidnapped. Did you ever read the book about the girl on the side of the milk carton? I think it was called “The Face on the Milk Carton.”

Nope. You’ll have to tell me about that one.
That reminds me of book fairs that would come to my elementary school. Did you have those? They’d set up tables in the gym; so I swear, the smell of gym sweat mixed with that of paper and glue still evokes this singular thrill deep in my hindbrain. At that time, these girl-with-a-terminal-illness books were really popular. There was Six Months to Live, Too Young to Die, and I swear, one that was called I Don’t Wanna Die.  God, did we ten-year-olds eat that stuff UP. Passed ‘em around. Rumors of new terminal-illness books flashed through girls in homeroom like wildfire. A year or two later, it was VC Andrews. As we aged and grew more mature,  we were ready to move on: from cancer to incest.

I recall those books clearly, they were the precursor to WebMD. Lurlene McDaniel? I think that was one of the authors. My mom had to take them away from me- I started to become convinced every time a headache came on it was a brain tumor. Did that happen to you?

Wow, no! I was never hypochondriacal, although I got really sick in the sixth grade. It turned out it was mono and I had to stay home from school for weeks. This was fine; as that other wise kid-book of yesteryear said, Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You. True enough for me. While sick, I read two entire cardboard boxes of Archie comics collected by my older sister’s friend over the course of her lifetime. I mean, feverish dozens upon dozens upon dozens. I didn’t even enjoy them by the end. That Veronica.

Have you ever gotten over the brain tumor fear? I don’t even want to think about it. It’s possible I could become a hypochondriac still. It’ s never too late for that kind of thing.

I was over it… then WebMD happened. It took me about a year to ban myself from WebMD- for self-preservation’s sake. I think I’m over it again.
Man, what was Veronica’s DEAL anyway? ugh.

Veronica was mean.  There I was, safely away from the mean gang of girls who’d ruined that school year, and I was reading these little tales about another such girl who keeps getting her way. She was this sort of archetype of the lady who doesn’t like other ladies–which has  always made my internal sensors scream, “Run!”  You know, the one who says, “I don’t have female friends. Other women don’t like me.” First of all, ruling out more than half of humanity–No good. But hating on other women for no reason; that just ain’t the place to be.  We need to avoid flinging one another into the mud when we can–not because we have some a priori thing in common as women, but because, well, that whole history of oppression: that means something, and it’s not over.  Sigh. Why do you hate yourself, Veronica? Of course, milquetoast Betty wasn’t much better.  At any rate, I’ll bet you a lady didn’t write those Archies.

Okay, but what about The Face on the Milk Carton? You cannot just leave your audience hanging.

 I think we should have a two person book club. Our first book should be The Face on the Milk Carton. Then you can experience it, and I can face my childhood fears. What do you think?

Kate: I’m down. I’m not even gonna go online to see what The Face is about. (That translates, in this day and age, as “I am game and open to mystery.”)  I’ll just take you at your word and read it. Our second book will be The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger.

Deal! I hope, for the cat’s sake, that the gymsuit was washed prior to consumption, but I guess I’ll have to just read and see. Want to do an ad-lib? Give me: 2 adjectives, 2 verbs, and one feeling.

Egregious. Eclectic. Ran Ran Ecstatic.
Oh, and Vouched? I have a final favorite extrovert. It’s you.

Holy cow! I am so honored! Also, I am blushing!
Here are the results of our mad-lib exercise, Kate:

I am so _ecstatic_ for the Vouched & New South Reading on November 9th. So excited, infact,  that I _ran_ for _eclectic_. Michael Nye, Amber Sparks, Caroline Murphy, and Jamie Iredell are all _egregious_. I want to _run_ against them all.