She’s met with coroners and embalmers, ridden along with EMTs and interviewed a man the day before his execution.
And she’s done all of these things in the name of writing.
Skjolsvik’s interviews with people who work in “death professions” began as an MFA thesis, but soon transformed into “Death Becomes Us,” a memoir about coming to terms with her own mortality.
“I was approaching 40 with no experience with death, which is something that terrified me,” she said. “I also have social anxiety, and during my therapy one of the things I learned was to do the things that scare you — not run from them.”
Skjolsvik faced her fear head on by interviewing people who saw death on a daily basis, but she realized she needed to talk to someone who was facing imminent death.
“I wanted to interview someone who knew the exact day they were going to die, which left me with two choices: someone who was going to commit suicide or someone who was going to be executed. I couldn’t make a Craigslist post to look for suicidal people, so I looked at the list of Texas prisoners scheduled to be executed, picked the least scary one and contacted him.”
At first, the inmate refused to speak with her, but a few weeks later, as the day of his execution approached, he changed his mind.
In addition to the prisoner, Skjolsvik also interviewed the warden who’d overseen 89 executions and the chaplain who would be in the room when the man died.
“The experience made death less scary to me. It’s no longer a foreign concept. It happens every day, and writing this memoir has brought that home,” she said.
Writing about such a heavy topic in terms of her life and beliefs hasn’t been easy though. Sometimes she has to step away from her book — she says the distance is necessary to be able to look at herself as a character.
Skjolsvik has been working on her memoir for four years and had been submitting book proposals with no luck. She was considering self-publishing “Death Becomes Us,” but that all changed just this month when she signed with David Patterson of Foundry Literary. She says the experience taught her the importance of not giving up.
In addition to encouraging writers to stick with it and believe in their work, she also urges them to do the things that scare them and step out of their own lives once in a while.
“Get outside. Go places. The most important thing for any writer is just to show up because, if you do, something is going to happen. The most amazing things happen in real life. You just have to be there to witness it. Yes, write every day, but also live. You have to experience life to have stuff to draw upon.”
Laura J. Moss is a YA writer and MNN.com editor whose stories are regularly published on CNN, The Huffington Post and Yahoo. She’s a bitter muggle and an aspiring cat lady who tweets at @LauraJMoss and blogs at LauraJMoss.com.