Interview: Author Colleen Oakley of Before I Go

The journalist-turned-novelist discusses her craft

This month, journalist Colleen Oakley publishes her debut novel, Before I Go, a poignant look at issues of death, life, coping, and letting go. I spoke with her about craft and making the transition from true life to fiction.

Photograph by C Noel
Photograph by C Noel

On writing through tears
Writing this book was an extremely emotional experience. There were many times that I came out of my office/guest room/tiny desk in the corner with red-rimmed eyes and alarmed my husband that something terrible had happened. “The book!” I would say, through tears. “It’s just the book!” In retrospect, I think that may have alarmed him even more—that I was that emotionally invested in people who do not actually exist.

On dark humor
Emotional situations make me terribly uncomfortable, so I’m usually that girl in the corner who’s constantly cracking jokes—at times, very inappropriately—to lighten the mood.

On motherhood
I spend a lot of time convincing myself that I’m an okay mom even though I don’t craft my own sock puppets or create candy buffets for my kids’ birthday parties that look like something out of Martha Stewart Weddings.

On fiction vs. fact
I’ve been writing fiction since I could hold a pencil—or crayon, as it were. My mom still has stories I wrote from preschool onward. But I have a very practical side and knew that if I wanted to support myself, I’d need to have a “real” job, which is why I got my degree in journalism and went into magazines for my career.

On research
I interviewed an amazing Atlanta radiologist, Dr. Chad Levitt, who walked me through very detailed diagnoses, treatments, and possible outcomes for my protagonist. I could not have written the book without his expertise.

On her fantasy cast in a movie version
In my wildest dreams, I envision Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Daisy and Jack. They have amazing on-screen chemistry and such heart-clutching vulnerability in their acting. And I get to meet the actors, right?

On her childhood reading habits
The usual suspects: Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, Baby-Sitters Club, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Lois Duncan. In high school, I went through an Ed McBain phase, which I think impressed my parents because they were such adult novels, but I secretly only read them for the sex scenes.

On the first book she ever loved
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. That title! How could you not love that book based on the title alone? Also, I was a total rule-follower as a young kid—I remedied that in high school—and I was in slack-jawed awe of Claudia’s rebellious independence.

On her current literary heroes
I love my fellow Atlantans—Emily Giffin, Lynn Cullen, Joshilyn Jackson, Karin Slaughter, Karen White. There’s so much writing talent in this city! Also on the short list: Lionel Shriver, Curtis Sittenfeld, Ann Patchett, Stephen King, JoJo Moyes, Ian McEwan, Hillary Jordan, Wally Lamb, Steve Martin, Michael Crichton, Khaled Hosseini, Audrey Niffenegger—I could go on for days. I love everything from historical fiction to crime to drama to dystopian fantasies.

On a perfect day
Right now, a perfect day is any day that doesn’t start and end with vomiting. Twin pregnancy is not the easiest thing I’ve ever done.

On her next project
I’m currently writing a novel about a woman who is a medical marvel: She’s allergic to other people. It’s going to be really amazing—or really terrible. Depends on the day you’re asking.

Read more: Learn more about Before I Go in this article from our January issue