Oliver’s world is just like our own–except that people get “Deathday letters,” 24 hours’ notice before they pass away. And snarky 15-year-old Oliver has just gotten his. Which renders him, in his own words, “living-challenged,” and with some major choices to make about how he’ll spend this day.
This is the premise of Shaun David Hutchinson’s The Deathday Letter, which fascinated me with its unique blend of testosterone-fueled humor and the poignancy of the ticking clock. As soon as I finished reading it I wanted to pelt the author with questions. Which I proceeded to do, because Shaun and I were in Tenners together, and I don’t hesitate to presume on that connection when it means I can bring you all a good interview.
Q: I somehow managed to miss the “Intro,” where you tell the reader up front that Oliver is really going to die. And so I read the book with a sense of suspense about whether Oliver might manage to get out of this somehow. When I looked back and saw the Intro, I wondered why you included it, rather than keeping the reader guessing? Was it that a humorous book sets up such strong expectations for happy endings, that you felt obligated to warn readers against pouring their expectations into that mold?
A: This is an interesting question. That intro was the first thing I wrote. There was an epilogue too, which I lovingly referred to as my “Outro” until we finally decided to cut it, but the intro was, to me, the most important part of the book. A small portion of it was to keep the reader’s expectations grounded. We’ve become so accustomed to happy endings that I didn’t want anyone to feel duped. But my main reason for putting it out there was to let the reader know that despite being a book about one boy’s death, we wouldn’t be focusing on watching him die. It was my way of letting readers know that they should be paying attention to how Ollie spends his last day rather than trying to figure out whether he’s actually going to die or not.
Take any book. Take the Harry Potter series. We know through all seven books that Harry is going to face Voldemort. We also have the expectation that Harry is going to triumph over his enemy. So as we march toward the end, we spend time trying to figure out how Harry is going to survive. The tension comes from wondering how Harry is going to defeat Voldemort. But what if J.K. Rowling had prefaced Book 7 by telling the reader that Harry was going to die. What if she said that Harry would not, in fact, defeat Voldemort. People would have read the book looking, not for how Harry was going to survive, but how he was going to die. The tension would come from the How of Harry’s death and from watching him reach that inevitable end. With Ollie, he knows he’s going to die, the reader knows he’s going to die, so the story isn’t how one boy escapes certain death, but how he meets it.
Q: Do you wish people actually got Deathday letters? If so, how long a notice do you think is optimal–one day, as in the book? Or one week, one year? Or do you think we’re all better off not knowing when?
A: I think 24 hours is a good number. I thought about this a lot, actually. Too long and it would feel so drawn out. There’s a scene at the end of Deathday where Ollie laments having to keep saying goodbye to people. He’s spent. And that’s only after one day. I couldn’t imagine a whole week or a whole year. But I think a day is good because it gives you just enough time for family to come say their goodbyes, even if they live far away. But since we don’t get Deathday letter, I think we should all live as if we only had 24 hours to live. One of my favorite poems is TO THE VIRGINS, TO MAKE MUCH OF TIME by Robert Herrick. The first line, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” encapsulates the carpe diem philosophy that I wanted to bake into Ollie’s journey. Of course, old Herrick wrote the poem to try to convince some impressionable girls to part with their virtue, but the sentiment is solid.
Q: There have been books about kids who know they’re dying, but they tend to take a darker, more tragic bent–for obvious reasons, since the topic is inherently sad! And The Deathday Letter certainly has its poignant moments. But there’s also a lot of humor that gets quite edgy at times. What made you decide to blend earthy humor with impending doom?
A: A couple of people have commented that they wouldn’t have chosen to spend their last day on such immature pursuits, but Ollie is a normal guy. He’s not your typical hero. He doesn’t read Wuthering Heights or spend his days writing poetry. He’s probably not the kind of guy girls fantasize about ending up with. But he’s the kind of guy who sat behind you in math class. The kind of guy you went to prom with because you couldn’t find anyone better but ended up having a good time despite yourself. I wanted to see how someone so average would respond to something like this. Ollie starts out not sure what to do. Despite the ubiquitousness of Deathday letters in Ollie’s world, he hasn’t spent much time thinking about what he’d do if he got one. He doesn’t have a life plan. He’s just been sailing through life, figuring he’d always have time to do stuff. Until he got his letter that is.
As you say, it’s obvious why most books about people who are dying tend to be dark, but that was never going to be Ollie. He met death with the same slacker mentality that he met everything else in his life. The thing that people don’t like to think about is that we’re all dying. Right now, you’re dying, I’m dying, everyone reading your blog is dying. It might not happen for fifty years, it might happen tomorrow. Knowing the when shouldn’t change how you live your life. Every person has the ability to choose how they attack life. Either we can let it get us down or we can laugh at it. With The Deathday Letter, I chose laughter.
Q: Since you wrote this book, how many people have asked you how you would spend your own Deathday? I won’t ask you to fill out the whole day’s schedule, but what’s one thing you would make sure to do?
A: So many! I kind of expected it though. But if I only had one day to live, one thing I would HAVE to do is get into a fist fight. I know it sounds odd, but I’ve never punched anyone in my life, nor been punched. I’m not a particularly violent person, but I’ve always been morbidly curious as to what it would feel like to be in a real fist fight. Then I would eat a lot of pie.
Shaun David Hutchinson is a writer and a self-described “major geek” who can be reached “via tin cans and string,” or on Twitter where he goes by the name @ShaunieDarko.
This interview was cross-posted from the blog of Jennifer R. Hubbard, author of young-adult novels The Secret Year (Viking, 2010) and Try Not to Breathe (Viking, 2012).