Kate Sweeney, 35, is an award-winning reporter and producer at NPR affiliate WABE and cofounder of a bimonthly celebration of reading and writing called “True Story!” American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning is her first book.
What makes death such a fascinating topic? Death is fascinating because it’s a part of life that we’re all guaranteed to experience, but which most Americans just don’t see that much of — unless you count unrealistic, violent movie depictions — until it’s happening to us. At least, this is where I came to the topic. At first, I was mostly excited about old-timey trivia and new trends. For example, did you know that women’s magazines used to feature craft projects in which the main ingredient was human hair? Did you know that most people believe that embalming is required by law when you’re not cremated? (Not true.)
The deeper I got into this book, the more I realized my deeper motive. I was really doing this because I had never experienced a catastrophic death in my life — and I was terrified that when it happened, I would be unprepared. So I did what any good writer with a reporter’s background does: I gathered stories — from living people and from history — that told me what others had done. I came away with a fascinating tale and a new view of death and memorialization in this country.
What sort of afterlife do you believe in? Wow! I’ll leave the “bright light in a tunnel” matters to theologians. Of course, the whole question of, “How will I be remembered?” swirls at the center of our memorial practices. And people believe in all kinds of “afterlives.” People use memorialization to broadcast their family connections, environmental convictions, a love of music or art, their place in society — whatever they believed in most while they lived. It’s an opportunity to state what you want your life to stand for.
What surprised you most in your research? I began this by thinking that I was looking at how we do memorialization today and tracing that back to the quote-unquote “odd” practices of our Victorian forebears — our great-great grandparents in the 1800s, who had this booming death culture. The Victorians invented things like the cemetery and the deathbed scene. As I went on, though, I realized more and more that maybe the Victorians had a perfectly healthy relationship with death and that we are the broken ones, in a way. Our ancestors witnessed a lot more death than we do, and had entrenched etiquette for what to do when someone dies. Today we’re more at sea. I talked to so many people who had lost a loved one, and ended up feeling not just grief, but a sense of having no idea what to do next, or a sense of not being sure they were doing the “right” thing. I think now that we may have a thing or two to learn from our Victorian forebears.
How different is the process for writing a book than producing a radio piece? I think that making radio is a lot like being presented with a good, challenging puzzle. You are absolutely tied to the sound you capture. You are tied to the clarity of your subject’s voice, and the degree of distracting ambient sound there that day. You’re also limited in your language. In radio, you write short sentences and you use simple language because your listeners are only half-listening at any moment. They’re running an errand or cooking dinner. Radio is a puzzle and a challenge that I will always love; there’s an intimacy to the spoken story.
In writing, you have a bit more freedom — and by this, I don’t mean freedom from the facts. You’re absolutely bound to the truth either way. However, when I write, I find I can move more fluidly between scene and exposition, or through time. I can play with language and form a bit more. I get a wholly different satisfaction from writing something that works well than I do from creating radio that works.
You’re not a native of the South. Are there things that happen here than make you go, “Hmmm …”? Ha! Actually, my mother’s side of the family is from the South: small-town North Carolina. Still, it’s true; I grew up in Pittsburgh. Most (but not all) of the scenes in the book take place in the South because that’s where I was while I was writing. One chapter profiles a third-generation funeral director in a small town not far from where my mother’s people hail. As we spoke, I did find compelling this man’s rather circuitous way of stating things. It’s a form of politeness that’s common to that part of the country — and probably common to the South at large: You don’t just stomp all over people with your opinions. So I had a bit of fun in that chapter with that tendency … but, no, it didn’t strike me as odd. It was more like a habit that I find endearing.
What inspired you to create “True Story!”? Have you been happy with the response? I cofounded “True Story!” in 2009 with Dionne Irving. Dionne stepped aside in 2011, since she was extremely busy finishing her Ph.D. at Georgia State, and I’ve run it myself ever since. I started it because I missed the tight-knit literary community I experienced in my MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. I had been involved in running a reading series there, too, and that was a huge part of that community. What I found in Atlanta with “True Story!” was an immediate outpouring of enthusiasm from the writing community. It’s been extremely meaningful to me, and I continue to feel gratified at the response.
Has the art of storytelling changed in the Internet age? I think the art of storytelling has, in some ways, gotten better with the Internet age. I think of all the podcasts I listen to. I am a ravenous podcast-listening fiend. Some of these come from established sources such as NPR, but there are other, sort of grassroots-start-up organizations making these fantastic podcasts — basically stories that you can stick in your ear and take with you anywhere. In that way, storytelling has only gotten better. And I think that as the Internet continues, it’s only going to become a more powerful force in storytelling of all kinds, including radio.
What makes a great interview? Great listening makes a great interview. Some of my worst mistakes in interviews stem from times I’ve arrived with these long lists of questions, and have sort of ticked them off as I went, rather than engaging in the conversation as it was happening. You miss important opportunities for follow-up that way. My favorite interviewer right now is Jesse Thorn, who hosts the pop culture interview radio show Bullseye. He really listens to his guests, and he asks the most insightful questions ever.
Do you ever envision what your own funeral would look like? You know, I think I imagined my own funeral a lot more when I was an adolescent in bad moods. It makes me really sad to think about it now, because there’s just so much living to do. BUT I have thought about how I want to be memorialized. I’m hesitant to talk about the choices I’ve made personally, because, at the risk of sounding self-important, I don’t want to seem like I’m coming out “in favor of” one form or another. Everyone has his or her own reasons for choosing how to be remembered, and I respect those choices.
Obits have always been some of the best reading in newspapers. What’s the greatest challenge for obit writers nowadays? While I’m hardly an expert analyst on today’s media scene, I did observe a few things writing about obituaries, past and present. The most obvious hurdle seems to be the declining state of print newspapers today. For a few years there, the newspaper obit was experiencing something of a renaissance. Some of the most experienced journalists were writing after-death profiles of the famous and not-so-famous dead. One example right here in town was Kay Powell, who wrote wonderful obits for the AJC until her retirement a few years ago. Kay wrote about people like diner waitresses, airport workers, and the woman at the nursing home who had to have her Jeopardy! every night. These were well-written, unflinching, warts-and-all profiles, and they were amazing. Now that papers can afford to pay fewer experienced journalists, many of them have scrapped their journalistic obit section. (They may still have the paid “death notices,” which is a different beast altogether.) At other papers, the reporters writing obits are also tasked with two-dozen other jobs a day, and so the finished product is not what it could be.
On the other hand, obits online — mostly of the famous dead — are flourishing, and taking on these new, fascinating forms. There’s the New York Times’ “Last Word” series that features beautifully produced filmed interviews with subjects that are intended ONLY to serve as post-death bios. So, the obit isn’t dead. The challenge for the obit writer seems to be keeping up with the times, and using this new medium to continue to create the compelling work that audiences want.
What’s your next book topic? It will be something in which I can immerse myself completely and a topic about which I previously knew little. Of course, every writer wishes this, I think. Whatever it may be, I am so excited at the prospect.
Read more: Kate Sweeney tackles the topic of death with a wicked sense of humor