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Death and Religion and Books, Oh, My!

When I asked Amber Kizer to post about the origins of her forthcoming YA urban paranormal book, Meridian, I had no idea just how eloquently she'd be able to express where this exciting book came from. Read the powerful story behind the story below, but first, get to know Amber!

From her website:
Amber Kizer is not one of those authors who wrote complete books at the age of three and always knew she wanted to be a writer. She merely enjoyed reading until a health challenge, beginning in college, forced her to start living outside the box. After one writing workshop, she fell in love with telling stories; a million pages of prose later she still loves it. Her characters tend to be opinionated, outspoken, and stubborn—she has no idea where that comes from.

Amber's the author of the Gert Garibaldi's Rants and Raves series, which began with One Butt Cheek At A Time:

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Gert's adventures will continue SOON with From Butt to Booty!

Don't you love how the journal gets more graffiti?

We here at the 'booth LOVE Gert, but Amber's rolling through today to talk about that more creepy, so thrilling, upcoming Meridian, so let's get to it. From here on out, we're getting Amber's words on the inspiration for this unique story.

The American culture’s puritanical roots and religious zeal combined with our constant fear of the ticking clock means I’m honestly not sure there is anything creepier than death. Maybe it’s not the dying so much as the “how” death finds us, but we spend so much time running from it, denying it, avoiding it that it’s still one of the most taboo subjects we have. Why else would Halloween, a holiday to honor the dead in our families, be turned into who can scream loudest?

Walk into a room at a cocktail party and announce you’re reading a book on how we die and there will be silence. Followed by whispers wondering if you’re suicidal or heaven forbid homicidal. Try it. I dare you. Mention the actual physiological processes every human body does at some point and see the gag reflex at work.

Death is one of the few things we all have in common, yet how we view it, and deal with it, varies greatly. For me, the second creepiest thing in our culture is the use of religion—any religion to justify, rationalize, subvert, exclude, and pardon the pun, lord over other people. So when a girl began to take shape in my head and she was completely immersed in death—inescapably tangled in the process of dying, I couldn’t resist seeing where she led. And when another character began to speak only in Biblical verse (he since speaks normally too)—the irony of his vileness, with the façade of purity was just too seductive.

The story of MERIDIAN combines these two creep-fests—death and the abuse of religion. If you can imagine the fine line—the itsy almost invisible line between life and death—make it any color—I see a red line--now zoom in on it, enlarge and enlarge and keep going until that little line is wider than a football field and taller than the Space Needle. That’s where Meridian’s story unfolds—on that line.

But how I found that place? That’s a very personal story in itself. I have this sense of death as falling. Like one of those dreams where it’s dark and you can’t stop. You’re falling and falling and falling and you know you’re going to hit something, it’s going to hurt. I don’t like that image. I don’t think it’s accurate. But that’s what I wonder in the darkness late at night.

My grandfather was diagnosed with colon cancer right before I found an agent in 2005. In the weeks following that, my first books sold at auction and three days later PawPaw was told the cancer had moved to his brain and there was nothing else to do but keep him comfortable until his death in spring 2006. He knew I’d sold, but never saw a book.

Fast forward to fall of 2007, to when I arrived home from my first book’s release and a national tour, had a huge party. A few days later my grandmother was in the hospital, ill, dying, and wouldn’t see my second book ever. The one dedicated to her. In fact, she died so close to the release she held it, but didn’t see it on the shelves of any store or library.

My grandfather was a minister and humorist. My grandmother a stalwart environmental and civil rights activist. Both went about changing the world and the people around them in different ways. And why am I telling you this? Because people always ask where do the ideas come from. MERIDIAN was born somewhere in the midst of my grandfather’s long slow decline and my grandmother’s more immediate plunge into the unknown.

I’m an information person. We’d buried multiple pets and stray animals over the years. My heartbreak was always real, the tears always hot and thick, but facing my first family member’s death was not something I could do in a vacuum. So I bought out the bookstore section on death and dying. The usual. The unusual. The physiological processes of death like HOW WE DIE and the stories of death experiences in DYING WELL, and FINAL GIFTS. Books about hospice work. About grief. And a stack of others that blurred together.

My grandfather took care of my grandmother. She was frail, unsteady, fiercely independent with a mind that no longer followed logical linear paths. She lost track of time. Focused on things that were unimportant like reading all the junk mail while forgetting that PawPaw’s diabetes and chemo meant frequent, timely meals. So we all took turns being there between August and April. And in between I read, I armed myself with information and statistics and stories to put the experiences in context. Draw a map for myself and any of the family who wanted to know. I was careful to not shove my knowledge at family who wanted to remain sleepy on the details. But I saw patterns; check marks, behaviors that were comforting because they are, or can be, universal if you know what to look for.

When PawPaw was finally admitted to the inpatient hospice unit at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis my mom jumped back on a plane (she’d arrived home from a week there two days before). I stayed here. Partly because she needed to be at his bedside and what I could do to support her was make sure things at home were chugging along. And partly because travel, especially air travel, is really hard on my legs. If I’d gone, I would have needed caretaking too—in addition to my grandparents. So I stayed and kept reading. Listened on the phone. Held onto Chewy and Boo and cried. And cleaned and to be honest I ate. I could have gone. I spoke to him on the phone. And I don’t regret not being there, because I think my role of death encyclopedia was useful. He’d pick at the covers, throw them off, pull them back on. That puzzled mom until I mentioned it’s common. There’s a relief in knowing behavior is normal or common. Some people believe the dying hallucinate. I don’t. I think it’s a thin veil between the living and dead and dying can take off the blindfold.

I wasn’t there and the details of the experience of his dying aren’t mine to share, but he saw something and/or someone, something beautiful and good.

My grandmother managed okay for almost 18 months after his death. I spoke with her sometimes more than once a day. I sent her photographs, enlargements because her eyes were failing, of the animals, my quilts and cakes, and my flowers and sometimes of the scenery she loved out here. Mail was this huge thing for her. There are letters in the book that really sprang from this obsession my grandmother had. And I tried to feed her soul as best I could to stave off the lonely for her as often as possible.

She didn’t burn down the apartment building which we were terrified might happen. She found a rhythm of sorts. It wasn’t quite right and she was not terribly pleased. Her body wore out—she used every inch of that body. At one point in MERIDIAN, Meridian is sitting vigil and looking at the hands of character in the book (if I’m too specific I could be accused of spoiling). That description, those feelings I drew from sitting vigil beside my grandmother.

She got an infection in her leg. We think she had several small strokes. It went into pneumonia and she was tired. So she asked to be moved to the same hospice facility as PawPaw. She had some of the same nurses. Hospice nurses are the unsung heroes of dying.

This was days after I arrived home from touring and because of my leg condition walking was barely possible. My physical pain was nearly unbearable. I needed the medications and the recovery time, so I chose not to go by myself and instead wait for the weekend to travel with my mom. These are the toughest choices—we all face our versions of them.

We had a wonderful loopy conversation with YiaYia on the Wednesday night. She mentioned her 8 siblings and her parents. For weeks, and months, afterward I kept telling myself that was enough. She was perky and conversational up until we touched down Saturday night in Indianapolis. We’d checked in at the layovers and she was still talking to my uncles and visitors. We called as we touched down and she asked “how long until they get here?” She didn’t open her eyes again. I’ve since come to accept that I really wanted her to open her eyes. It was difficult at best to sit by her and watch each breath. But it was worse because she never looked at me. I saw her body again, but I can’t say I feel like I saw her. She held on tight while we gathered that weekend. Her body didn’t give out until Monday morning and we were with her. I held her hand and aside from the flutter of her heartbeat along her neck and cheek, she didn’t react. If she saw anything she was looking with other eyes.

There are three things that seeded this story. One is the idea of “going to the light”—and the question of what is the light? What if that was a person? What did PawPaw see? And does the soul see something our human eyeballs can’t? What if people who talk to spirits and souls are not the same as those who are doorways to the next-whatever? I didn’t want to write about a girl who saw dead people—not in the dramatic primetime way that’s so popular now. I love the shows like Ghost Whisperer and Medium, John Edward and Sylvia Browne. I’m intrigued by their abilities (real or fiction), but that wasn’t the story developing deep inside me.

And what about the science behind energy changing form but never being destroyed? Where does that energy go?

My attempt at answering these questions—of bringing these characters and intangibles to story is the basis of MERIDIAN.

So Fenestras (Meridian and Auntie) are the light souls, any soul because if souls are just our energy than everything and everyone has a soul, follow to a good and lighted place. There are many names for it—Heaven, Nirvana, Enlightenment.

Which led me to the questions of balance? If there is light there has to be dark. Aternocti were my answer. The dark nights who take souls beyond to the deepest void. Again, pick your name for that place—hell works for me.

I’ve always found reincarnation intriguing. I’m not sure I believe in it or disbelieve it, but I can’t discount it out of hand. But what of the souls who are neither collected by the Fenestra or the Aternocti? They circle again.

And religion, I love religion—all of them have rules and scripts and dogma that has been created in historical significance. Many are more alike than different. But I do not confuse religion with faith. I think you can have one or the other or both, but you can be religious without being faithful and full of faith without practicing a religion. I know this will make me unpopular with some, but I’m okay with that—it’s quite possible you won’t like my work anyway if your ideas of religion are concrete and immovable and unquestionable.

And why write these for a young adult book? Because teens are exploring, they are more open to questioning and thinking and believing than adults. I think the older we get the more calcified and intact our parameters for what is real and what isn’t. And I’m a young adult writer. Why deal with death in a book for teens? Why not? Some of the best teen books are books about death. Because as teens we want to pack the whole gamut into every moment and experience so much—we lose that too as adults. We get caught up in the have tos and shoulds and the Joneses. I’m sorry are my biases showing? ☺

So yes, MERIDIAN has her creepy themes and questions. Re-reading this post, I think perhaps I’ve made the book sound deep and melancholy. Trust me, you don’t need to know any of this to read and enjoy the story. This is the behind the scenes—the stuff not added in full color to the production numbers. The things I think about as I create, and revise, and rewrite and edit and finally step back and hold it out.

But really, any story about death ultimately has to be about life. About love. The leading man, Tens, and Meridian fall deeply for each other. Auntie and Meridian share the love of generations. Auntie and her Charles shared an unconditional bond that stretches between plains. Meridian’s family, her parents, and her little brother the love of protection and security. And finally Harriet and Meridian who share a love that break the bounds of species. All aspects of life and death. I think it is our love and our connections that make death the scariest part of life. It certainly it what makes death the most painful.
So be careful if you bump into a girl and she looks like a girl you’re still alive. But if it looks like the sun is reflecting off her and blinding in its brightness you’re dying, but don’t worry it’s a beautiful place. I’m sure of it.

The first chapter of Meridian is available to read on Goodreads under writing on Amber Kizer’s profile page. The gorgeous cover and more info can be seen on Amberkizer.com. Amber can be contacted by emailing Amber@AmberKizer.com


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 30th, 2008 10:33 am (UTC)
TadMack says: :)
Wow, this is really beautiful. And contrary to Amber thinking it would make the book sound too deep and melancholy, I think it reminds us of the layers and layers and layers that go on behind the scenes of a well-written book, things you need never know, but which color and inform the text as well. And what better audience for this than teens, who are still looking and not satisfied with the answers they've been given? I think this one has crossover potential as well, for those adults who are still thinking. Sounds awesome.
Oct. 30th, 2008 02:21 pm (UTC)
Re: TadMack says: :)
Absolutely agreed, on all fronts. I think I did my most pondering over death and religion as a teen.

Can't wait 'til MERIDIAN is OUT!
Oct. 30th, 2008 01:35 pm (UTC)
Wow, I really want to read this book now. The back story is so meaningful. Also, I love the distinction between religion and faith; some people just don't understand how I can have the latter without being Christian or Jewish or what have you.
Oct. 30th, 2008 02:22 pm (UTC)
Important stuff, for sure. Glad you're looking forward to MERIDIAN!
Oct. 30th, 2008 07:04 pm (UTC)
What a gift this post is - thank you! I can't wait to read the book!!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )