Me: Did you always know that you would write a book someday?
You: I’ve been a storyteller since I was a child, making up tales to entertain family and friends. By eighth grade, teachers had begun telling me I had a gift and should flesh out my ideas, think bigger. So short stories in high school lead to novellas in college and eventually to my first full-length novel… which took ten years before I typed its final period. Honestly, that first book (which was not Dying to Stay, by the way) probably wouldn’t have crossed the finish line at all if my teenage daughter hadn’t found it when she was in high school and hounded me to get my creative assets in gear. Told me: “If you die before you finish this, Mom, you will go straight to hell.” Wow. That’s what I call motivation.
Me: What inspired you to write this book?
Denise: My husband Jim died very early in our marriage from a tragic fall from the roof of our house two days before Christmas 1983, leaving me to raise our two babies without him. Rage against God made me give up on religion. Grief turned me into a walking zombie. I was sure I would never be happy again. (I was starting to get help from an unexpected ghostly source… but I wasn’t ready to admit that. Yet.) At the time, writing was my only escape from an all-too painful reality. Part of me knew even then I had to write our love story—and try to explain the unbelievable things that were happening following Jim’s death, but the tears were too fresh. So I wrote fantasy novels instead: tales about psychics with supernatural powers. Fantastic fiction. Nothing too real. Stories I could get lost in.
In retrospect, they were practice.
One morning, last year, my late husband Jim whispered in my ear that it was finally time. Forty years was more than enough distance. Especially, his sneaky voice nagged, if I let him write it. Yeah, Jim talks to me. Not a voice that should send me scrambling to find a psychologist’s couch. But a kind of Jim Thought: an idea that doesn’t seem to be coming from me at all. And this one was good. Brilliant, actually. Letting someone who’s passed on serve as the narrator of his own novel? How could I say no to that? Great thinking, honey!
Me: How did the cover of your book come to be? Is it exactly like you envisioned?
Denise: Initially I imagined something ethereal and a bit Christmasy for Dying to Stay. Then, one night the power went out and I had to drag out the candles. As I touched a flame to the first wick a new cover formed in my head: a flickering flame that refused to go out. Wasn’t that what Jim’s story was really all about? My daughter, now an adult, is a photographer, so I enlisted her help. She took a variety of shots—with me and my granddaughters taking turns hyperventilating as we blew out candle after candle, trying to capture the exact flicker I’d imagined in my head. Daughter Dearest came up with the rest of the cover layout, including the wisp of ghostly smoke that trails across the front, spine and back cover. For a while, we toyed with twisting the smoke into a heart, but eventually conceded that was too busy. Simple was best, and simple is where we landed. I’m thrilled with the outcome, especially since the design was a family affair.
Me: Do you intend to keep writing?
Denise: I currently have five novels in various stages of development, but public interest in Dying to Stay has remained high since the book’s launch last Christmas. I’d been in marketing for over twenty years, so I made a conscious decision to direct all my efforts to keeping Jim’s book top of mind. For now. Those other characters in those other books? They poke at me frequently. In time, they will push me back to the keyboard. Besides. Daughter Dearest would probably throw the Damnation Curse at me again. And at my age, I can’t risk eternal hellfire.
Me: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Denise: Lists. I have dozens of them. Lists of plot ideas. Lists of possible settings. Lists of character traits: favorite songs, favorite foods, does he snore, does she have two left feet? I can spend hours making lists of possible details that never end up in the story… but which inspire me in small subliminal ways. The best moments for me are when a forgotten list delivers a surprise I wasn’t expecting. Like a piece of dialogue or a clothing description I hadn’t planned to add, but which I’d noted on an old list months before.
Me: How many books have you written? Which is your favorite if more than one? If only 1 book then do you plan on writing more?
Denise: I have written four novels and one illustrated novella. One of the novels, Fellowship of Psys, is the manuscript my daughter found and harassed me into finishing oh those many years ago, so it holds a special place in my heart. But, in my opinion, Dying to Stay is my best work and is the novel I was meant to write. Since it has brought my husband back to life for his family and friends—and has provided peace and comfort to readers suffering from their own loss and grief—it is my favorite, hands down.
Me: Was there any interesting tidbits you edited out of this book?
Denise: If I edit something out, it’s because it just doesn’t fit, so I quickly forget about it and move on. There was one episode I do recall because it related to my husband’s penchant for holding on to old clothes long after they had passed their fashion expiration date. I used to wait until he wasn’t around to throw out any old jeans that had worn tissue paper-thin in the seat. He would always find them and yank them back out of the trash, saying: “Hey, these are my lawn mowing pants.” I always shuddered to think what the neighbors saw when he bent over to pull up a chunk of crabgrass. It was a cute bit and would have told readers a lot about my husband’s personality. But, as I kept reminding myself, Jim was the narrator and wouldn’t appreciate the humor. So, red ink slash mark. Peekaboo pants story, gone. Hmmm. I guess I’ve let the cat out of the bag in this interview, so to speak, so… oops. Sorry, babe.
Me: Dying to Stay was ranked a #1 New Release on Amazon. That’s quite a feat for a self-published author. How did you pull it off?
Denise: I am asked that a lot, and I can answer it in four letters: L.U.C.K. Unfortunately, I don’t have any brilliant tips for how to grab your share of that. But there is something I believe did make a difference. Two somethings. I would have to say that if you want Lady Luck to swing her attention your way, you need the right story, written for the right audience. You have to create a work filled with heart, passion and care. And you have to know who you are writing it for.
My husband Jim’s death was and still is the most traumatic event I have ever lived through. Grief is all encompassing, and sneaks back time and again for years to smack you in the face. I weathered mine about the same as most people do, with tears, denial, anger, and depression. The whole bereavement cocktail.
Back then, I thought I was all alone. I wasn’t of course. Everyone eventually loses someone they love. I wasn’t thinking that, though, when I started writing Dying to Stay. It became apparent though soon after I began offering sample chapters to family and friends to get their input. I didn’t want anyone to have hard feelings about what I was doing. Turned out, they not only approved, they were eager for more. They began sharing my sample chapters with their friends, who passed them on to their friends. While I was writing, anticipation was building—as were demands for me to finish. Not only family and friends, but total strangers were eager to buy it.
Despite my marketing background—which should have pointed me in this direction all along—I accidentally was penning the right story for the right audience. And L.U.C.K. kicked in. Three days after I launched Dying to Stay on Amazon, and announced its debut on Facebook, my son sent me a screen shot. It was the Amazon product page for my book. At the top was a pretty little orange flag: “#1 New Release in Grief & Bereavement.”
My book, a self-published book of creative nonfiction—with a ghost as the narrator, no less—was a #1 New Release. The next day, a new orange flag: #1 New Release in Love & Loss. The day after, an additional listing at the bottom of the link: #5 New Release in Love & Romance. Dying to Stay had crossed over into the fiction category, up against big-name authors like Nora Roberts, Carolyn Brown and Nicholas Sparks. By the weekend, Amazon was listing Dying to Stay #74 on the overall bestsellers list for Romance.
I hadn’t consciously set out to write a book for people struggling with grief, but that’s who it spoke to. And that has made all the difference.
A graduate of The University of Toledo, Denise Meyer is a former ad agency creative director, newspaper marketing assistant, regional magazine editor, college communications instructor, and high school teacher. During her career, she received over fifty advertising awards for creativity, including six “Addys”. Now retired, she is the author of five novels and the blog, “The Competent Writer”, on Goodreads. Meyer moved to Minnesota from Ohio in 2016 to be closer to her daughter’s family. A mother to two adult children, she is also “Faraway Grandma” or “Gram Cracker” to five very special “kiddos”.