Today I’m posting a Q & A with Rachael Hanel, author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down. (Find her on Tumblr.) Rachael’s memoir is published by the University of Minnesota Press. I’ll post three of the questions/answers today and three tomorrow.
Rachael’s memoir confronts her relationship with death and exposes the difficulty people have with grief, not just the raw, throbbing ache of loss, but knowing how to grieve. A gravedigger’s daughter, Rachael is surrounded by stories of death and witness to grieving. But her childhood doesn’t prepare her to cope with her own losses. You’ll be swept into midwestern, small-town life when you open the pages.
So here we go …
Much of your memoir focuses on your early childhood. I’ve read it, and I see parallels between middle-grade books and your writing about your childhood. You’re just beginning to see the sadness in the world, and that the world is so much bigger than your family. There’s an evolution of awareness. Did your writing change as you aged yourself in the book?
I love this question! I’m so bad at seeing parallels between nonfiction and fiction, or especially between nonfiction and middle-grade books. But you’re so right. I think any story, fiction or nonfiction, that features a young child finds its heart and soul when exploring how the world starts to open and reveal itself to the child.
I don’t think my writing itself changed as I aged in the book. When I sat down to write the memoir, it was always about chronicling this slow awareness of the world around me. The youngest I am in the book is around four or five, and it pretty much is wrapping up as I graduate from high school. I think how I write about myself at those different ages is much the same—what changes are the things that I become aware of.
Were you ever scared of being in cemeteries? C’mon. What kid wouldn’t be?
LOL, no! When you grow up in cemeteries, and working in cemeteries is the only thing you can remember your parents doing, it really is just a normal thing. But there were a couple of cemeteries that kind of gave me the creeps. They were both small, rural, Catholic cemeteries. There was something about the isolation, the stillness, the religious iconography that created a certain darkness. I always made sure I kept my parents in sight! It probably didn’t help that I read a lot of ghost stories as a kid and was fascinated with the unexplained. But in general, most of our cemeteries felt quite safe and I enjoyed being there.
You weave in these fascinating stories about death and grieving, but these parts of the book aren’t about you. They’re stories you learn mostly from your mom. Why’d you decide to use those in your memoir?
These are the stories I grew up with. As I say in the memoir, Mom didn’t read to me bedtime stories. Instead, she told me stories about the people around us, people who suffered tragedies and losses.
As humans, we are drawn to story, and it bonds us together. I felt like Mom’s instinct to tell stories was quite natural, as was my instinct to want to hear them. Why do we want to hear stories? They are instructive to us. We can learn something from them. I learned something about death and grief from the stories that Mom told me. It was a crucial component of growing up and these stories are a crucial part of my own story.
Check back tomorrow for the rest of the Q & A. Until then, you can order the book on Amazon or on the university press website.