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Tuesday February 16, 2016

When a tragedy occurs, the natural response for most individuals is to try to make sense of the event, attempting to understand how or why it happened. Such is the case with 12-year-old Suzy Swanson, in the New York Times bestseller The Thing About Jellyfish.

Upon hearing the news that her best friend, Franny, drowned on vacation, Suzy is desperate to learn the reason why — especially since, as Suzy stresses, Franny was an exceptional swimmer. (Suzy's mother, overwhelmed by her daughter's questions, simply reasons, "Sometimes things just happen.")

During a class trip to the New England Aquarium in Boston, Suzy believes she's discovered the culprit behind Franny's death: the Irukandji jellyfish — deadly, transparent and potentially dwelling in the waters where Franny swam. After researching online, Suzy devices a plan to fly to Australia to meet jellyfish expert Jamie Seymour, whom she believes can confirm her hypothesis and, thus, give Suzy the answers — and perhaps closure — she seeks. But when this venture goes differently than Suzy plans, she learns the importance of focusing not on how one died, but how one lived.

The Thing About Jellyfish is the debut novel of Ali Benjamin, who also co-wrote the acclaimed novel Positive: A Memoir with Paige Rawl. Among its many honors, Jellyfish received glowing reviews from critics, appeared in several of last year's top ten lists, and was a 2015 National Book Award finalist.

Hence, Mountain Valley Hospice is thrilled to present the following interview with Benjamin. The celebrated writer explains to MVH's Josh Armstrong how she brought Suzy's story to life and what lessons can be absorbed from the narrative.

Josh Armstrong: Even though you've co-written other books, The Thing About Jellyfish is your first solo effort. What inspired you not only to write it, but to write it as your debut novel?

Ali Benjamin: It's interesting, because it was a project no one was waiting for. Usually when you're co-writing something, there's a plan for it, and somebody's sort of counting on you. This book maybe came a little bit more organically. There actually was not a straight line to this story, it came from a couple of places.

I don't even want to say I'd been working on a novel. I had an idea, and a couple of scrawled pages for a novel about a girl and her older brother. I've had a lot of thoughts through the years, like, "Oh, hey, this could be something."

I had gone to the New England Aquarium in Boston with my kids one day. They have a good jellyfish exhibit there. So, I had gone and looked at the jellyfish. I'd been to the beach, and I'd been in the water and seen jellyfish, and usually, when that happens, you move away from them. I'd never really taken any time and looked at them.

The book began with me being curious about jellyfish, because I thought they were so beautiful and so alien. The way they moved was so interesting. It was sort of fascinating to me that we occupy the same general space. We're on the same planet together, yet we are so different. They're so alien. I just wanted to know more. I went looking for books about jellyfish. At the time, there really weren't any books about jellyfish. I found a lot of articles online, and newspaper articles and magazine articles. I began to realize they're really at the center of a lot of stuff that's happening with our planet. It's all in the book, that you can trace the evolution of life on earth, almost right back to jellyfish. They were there before everything that we recognize. I just felt like they were so fascinating, and I couldn't understand why there weren't books about them. That's really where the writing about jellyfish began. I was like, "Well, somebody needs to turn this into something."

So, I had two stories. The novel that was in my head about the girl, it just wasn't really taking off — there was no plot. I had some characters, but that was it. I had a relationship, but that was it. She was dealing a little bit with grief, and she was dealing with beginning to understand that the world isn't always a fair place, or an easy place. Then I was writing about jellyfish, and everything that's happening to the planet, and it was sort of jellyfish telling us who we are as humans. These two stories were marching in parallel, side by side, for a while. Then one day I kind of had this epiphany that I could stitch them together, and that's when the writing really took off.

I think it was a process that took a while to get there. I think maybe it worked because it was allowed to simmer in the unconscious for a while.

JA: This may be a difficult question to answer, but from the first draft to the final one, how long do you think it took you to write Jellyfish?

AB: Oh, boy. It is such a hard question to answer. Because nobody was waiting for the book, I would go months without working on it, but I always came back to it. I think a lot of writers have projects that they do a little bit on, and then they walk away. Some projects you come back to, and some you don't. This was one that I just kept coming back to.

I would say from that first jellyfish visit, where my curiosity was sparked — which was not actually when I started writing on it, but when the seed was there — to until I had a draft that was in the hands of publishers, maybe three years? But, again, there would be months when I wasn't working on it. I was really only working on it fairly steadily in the couple of months before we sent it off to publishers. I actually think that's good, because I think, with anything creative, it's good to let it simmer and stew, because the unconscious can do things that the conscious brain can't, seeing connections and that.

JA: Oh, yeah, I know exactly what you mean — well, not exactly, because I haven't written a best-selling novel. But how did you pitch this book to publishers? I imagine it was tough because of the subject matter: a twelve-year-old loses her best friend. Was it difficult?

AB: I was lucky in that, when I worked on Positive — Paige Rawl's memoir about being born HIV-positive in Indiana — we found a great agent for that project, just a terrific agent who took it to publishers. That was a book that you could see its commercial potential fairly quickly.

I think that helped a lot, because then I had this relationship with a great agent who said to me, "What else do you have?" As soon as Positive sold, she said, "What else can you give to me?" I said, "I've got this thing..." At that point, I didn't even know if I was writing for kids or for adults. She was like, "Just show me some pages." She was very encouraging, and then she took it to publishers. I worked, I finished a full draft. I knew who the audience was. Then she took it out to publishers.

I think it is hard to get the attention of publishers. I don't know, that definitely helped. But I was surprised by the response, because it is kind of a strange book about a strange kid who's obsessed with these alien creatures. A kid does some weird things, and it's a sad, heavy topic. For whatever reason, it sort of feels like it just happened to be that the world was ready for that particular mix: the kind of strange, creepy, sad, with a dash of hope mixed in. I don't know.

I was actually quite surprised. That's been one of the best things about it. The book is sort of weird, and she [the protagonist, Suzy] is sort of weird. When you're writing something that's sort of weird, you have this feeling like, "This will never resonate with anybody." When it does, it's really a wonderful thing, because you find that you're connected to people in ways you didn't realize. It's like, "Oh, maybe it's not that weird after all."

JA: You say "weird," but I thought there was a lot of humor in Jellyfish, and the characters are very three-dimensional. The book doesn't try to paint Suzy as the perfect friend, or Franny as a saint. I wondered if Suzy was based on anyone you know?

AB: No, not completely. I have kids, so I felt like I was able to see the characters from my adult perspective. None of the characters are perfect angels, and none of them are villains. They've all got their side of the story, and sometimes it's really hard for them to see the other person's side of the story. It was really important that, in the book, nobody is the sole villain. If you look at the breakup of their friendship, you can see it from both sides. It's told through Suzy's voice, but I don't think anybody who reads it thinks Franny is a terrible person. Maybe she made some decisions that were hurtful at points along the way, but so did Suzy. I think that spending so much time with kids, and caring about their relationships, I was able to write the way kids interact.

So, no, Suzy is not based on any one person specifically. I can sort of name, well, this part of Suzy came from this person or that person. My older daughter is very social but also really fearless and really determined. She would not hesitate to get on a plane for Australia if she felt like that was the next step in whatever she was doing. My younger daughter is much more introverted and thoughtful, a little bit more literal about things, and very, very curious. I think that there are elements of both of them in there. There are also elements of me, when I was a kid.

In the end, the characters kind of become themselves. I feel like when it works well – and it doesn't always work well – writing a character is a little bit like seeing a figure in the fog, and as you get closer, more and more details emerge.

JA: The other thing that helps connect Suzy with the reader is Suzy's question of why. She wants to know why Franny died. Whenever something bad happens, this is what a lot of people do – they wonder why it happened. I think it's really interesting that, despite the possibilities the book suggests – some of which are really possible – we never do learn the real reason why Franny died, or what caused the death. Was this important to you, to keep it a mystery?

AB: Oh, yeah. I feel like everybody asks why – we adults do that, when something bad happens, especially when it happens to somebody that we love. It's completely not fair, and it feels like it comes out of the blue. I feel like even the most experienced adults I know still go through this process of asking why, and wanting it to be fair, even though there's no fairness and, in the end, all you can do is move forward. You can know that intellectually, but...

I know I've felt like that, when somebody gets sick who doesn't deserve to be sick, and if you look at it on paper, they're not somebody who should get sick. I think most of us ask the question of why, and go through that whole experience of, "But it's not fair. It shouldn't be." I think kids amplify that, particularly that age. It's one of the things I love about that age. Kids that age are really learning that the world isn't fair. They still believe so deeply in fairness. It's almost like they amplify what all of us experience when there's a loss or when there's grief. In the end, I think sometimes things do just happen, and it stinks, and it doesn't matter when it stinks.

JA: I have to say, when I first read Suzy's hypothesis that a jellyfish caused Franny's death, I thought, "Well, that couldn't have been possible." Then, after reading her – or, really, your reasons for that hypothesis – I thought, "My gosh, maybe it was a jellyfish!" You put a tremendous amount of research into this book.

AB: Jellyfish are rising, and they're rising in huge numbers, and there are a ton of stings. I think it's possible. I also always knew, the whole time I was writing it, that we would never know.

JA: Do you know? Do you know how Franny died?

AB: That is a really good question. Nobody has ever asked me that.

JA: You're not going to tell me, are you? [laughs]

AB: I don't think I know. I think I'm on the same side of this as everybody else, just wondering why things like this happen to people.

JA: What was the hardest part about writing this book?

AB: You have to do a million drafts, and there were times when I just didn't want to. I didn't want to look at it again. I didn't want to feel like there was still more work to be done on it. When you're really deep in something, like anything else, you can't quite see it straight. Trying to make judgements about what I should do, and the way something should read, whether something was too much or not enough, whether this was all piecing together the way that I hoped – a lot of that was just guesswork, because I couldn't quite see it straight.

I would say, in a weird way, the hardest thing about writing the book is starting the next book – really putting that one down and moving forward and immersing myself in something else. That's something I've actually had a lot of trouble with since The Thing About Jellyfish came out. It doesn't matter that I wrote this one book and that it worked, it doesn't make me feel any less intimidated by a blank piece of paper.

JA: Well, you certainly knocked it out of the park with this book, so I expect you will do the same with your next one, as well.

There's a certain part in Jellyfish that I want to talk about: Suzy is really passionate about her report on jellyfish. She works really hard on it. Then she delivers it to her class, and her classmates, most of them, are pretty apathetic toward it. Was that ever your hesitation, too – that after all of this hard work, the book would be kind of ignored, or not really received by the public?

AB: No, but that's interesting. I never thought about that. For me, it was much more about the experience that probably most of us have when we care about something, or something big is happening in the world. In this book, there are a lot of references to climate change and the way the planet is changing, and the idea that big things could be happening that we could do something about. To have people just not care is such a dis-empowering experience. I think that there are a lot of people who care about causes, and who care about justice, and it can be infuriating and disheartening to see those who don't.

If you just look at online comments for anybody who writes about anything meaningful, there are just all these stupid comments afterward. I know we should never read the online comment sections of any article about any topic ever, but it can be so disheartening to see how many people are not caring, but actively shutting down and insulting people who do care. I don't know what it is. If it’s a defense mechanism, I don't know.

For me, that moment in the book was much more about that, about kids in particular, but anybody who cares enough to speak up and/or fight for something that is meaningful, only to be met with apathy or derision. I think everybody I know who has really cared about something has experienced that at some point.

Actually, really, that was a great thing about writing a book that nobody was waiting for – you don't have to think about the people on the other side, and what's going to happen with the book. You get to write it for yourself.

JA: Where I've worked at hospice – including Grief Support at one time – I couldn't help but notice a certain incredible portrayal of grief during Franny's funeral: Suzy is furious; she looks over, sees Franny's friends are crying. And she assumes that, because she's not crying but Franny's other friends are, this means she wasn't as close to Franny as they were. Where did these details come from? Did any of your own experiences with grief shape details like these?

AB: Yes, a lot of experiences with grief – and just the idea that people don't necessarily grieve the same way. I do feel like, a lot of times, grief is mixed with anger – anger at the person for going, anger at the universe for taking that person. To me, that's what was happening, when she was standing there, when she was not crying. I felt like she was really angry and didn't even know she was angry. That's not a sign of a lack of grief, it's just a form of grief.

I think, for girls in particular, anger's not always something that's permitted. There's this idea that this is how you grieve, and these are the steps, this is what it looks like, and this is how you do it right, and it's supposed to unfold like this. But grief is so messy. It has these ragged edges. Somebody said that recently, about the book. I don't remember who wrote it. Somebody, specifically about this book, talked about the "ragged edge of grief." I thought that was such a perfect term, because grief is really messy and really frayed.

[Editor's note: The "ragged edge" quote came from the Did You Ever Stop To Think blog.]

I remember, in college, somebody died right after I graduated. It was sudden, and it was terrible. I had this experience where I was standing in the back of a packed chapel. There was a woman, a friend of mine, who was crying, and she reached out and put her hand on my shoulder, and I was just like, "Don't touch me. Just don't touch me." She wasn't doing anything wrong. But I don't think it's supposed to be a tidy process.

I don't know if that answers your question. For the book, I wanted Suzy to be able to experience all of the emotions, not just what "should be."

JA: Jellyfish talks a lot about long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad. Have you spoken with her?

AB: She had a book come out last year. There's a big book conference in New York. It's in the spring, every year, and it's massive. It's the BookExpo America at the Jacob Javits Center. Somebody told me she was there. I was right in the middle of getting to work, but I rushed cause I wanted to hand her a copy of the book. So, I found her. She had been doing a signing, and then she wasn't there at her signing anymore, but I had people find her.

She was great; she's a pretty remarkable woman. I don't know if she read the book. I handed her a copy and explained that she was in it. She said, "Thank you," and we talked a little bit about the book — we also talked a little bit about her swim, but we talked much more about books and her book and books she's thinking about writing. We went on, and I haven't heard from her since.

I did hear from Jamie Seymour, the researcher Suzy was trying to get to help her. The publisher sends out advanced reading copies, so I sent Jamie one of them with a note that said, "Well, here's something you didn't expect today!" I got a really wonderful note back from him. He's so charming. That was really fun.

JA: There's one more person who's interested in your book, and that's Reese Witherspoon. Her production company optioned the book for a film. Can you share the latest on that project?

AB: I think, right now, they're in discussions with studios. If anybody could get this book made into a film, I think Reese Witherspoon could. I love Reese and her partners at Pacific Standard, because they're really committed to telling stories of women and girls who don't fit into neat roles, women who are complex and flawed.

The next step is to get a studio willing to bankroll it. I know they're working on that, and I think if anybody can do it, Reese and her partners can do it. We'll see. A lot of books get to this stage and don't go forward. It'll be a challenge for somebody, because movies starring kid characters is a challenge in and of itself, and here, you've got a kid character who has to express a lot, but nothing can come out of their mouth — that's not an easy fit for the screen.

I've talked to Reese about it. She's delightful. She is really as lovely as she seems, and she's really smart. It will be interesting to see what happens. There's no deal in place, at the moment. It could happen soon, it could happen not soon, and it could happen not at all. To me, all those possibilities exist equally.

If it happens, I'd love to talk to other authors who've seen something that lived in their head move to the screen. This story was in my imagination for so long, it'd be really interesting to see what somebody else does with it. I don't know if that would be amazing or hard.

JA: What is the main theme, lesson, or idea that you want people to take from The Thing About Jellyfish?

AB: Can I say two things?

JA: Sure!

AB: Well, maybe I can sum them up into one thing. Let me see how I do summing them up...

Whoever you are, and whatever your process is for dealing with this imperfect world, is not only okay, it's actually what's meant to be. You have to trust yourself. I feel like Suzy is a character who is awesome. Who she is will be perfect in the long term, it just makes some things messier in the short term, because she's not a neat fit in the world. But I think it's okay to not be a neat fit in the world, because the world is really imperfect. The people who aren't neat fits are often the ones who can bring it a little closer to perfect. I would say that's true for adults and for kids. I feel like kids spend so much of their energy trying to be like what they imagine other people are like, and I just wish we all spent more time being ourselves.

I feel like that was my experience with this book. I'm fascinated by jellyfish, and they're kind of weird. I'm writing this character, and she's kind of weird. I'm feeling like the book is never going to resonate with anybody, and then it turns out it does. If I hadn't just done exactly what felt right to me, I wouldn't have had this great experience, bringing a book to the world and finding out that it does connect, not with everybody, but with more people than I would have thought.

I just feel like we spend an awful lot of our energy trying to do the right thing according to our idea of what the world wants, which isn't necessarily the best path for us. The best path is to know who we are and go deeply in that direction.

 The Thing About Jellyfish is available to purchase at Amazon.com.

Special thanks again to Ali Benjamin for this interview, and to Amanda Turner, her "organizer-in-chief," for arranging it.

Tags: Grief Support