We’re thrilled to round out our author-to-author interview today as Colleen Oakley shares a bit about her debut novel, BEFORE I GO. And many thanks to Kristin Harmel for the thoughtful, fascinating questions. If you missed part one of this interview you can read it here.
Kristin: Wow. Just wow. I can’t believe this incredible novel is actually your debut! I know you have quite a journalism track record – former editor-in-chief of Women’s Health & Fitness, senior editor at Marie Claire, lots of freelancing, etc. – but fiction is a different beast. Yet you seemed to hit every note, and your storytelling rhythm was just perfect. How did you manage to craft such a wonderful novel right out of the gate, and what made you decide to tackle the heavy subject of terminal cancer?
Colleen: Um… excuse me while I finish blushing! It’s terrifying to have anyone read your novel, but especially someone who is an accomplished author like yourself, so I’m thrilled that you liked it. Let’s see… to answer your question — I didn’t craft a wonderful novel right out of the gate! I crafted a mediocre novel that never sold. I cried, and drank a lot of tequila, and THEN I wrote this novel. It was hard at the time, getting those rejections for my first novel, but now I’m so glad it happened this way. That first novel was practice —practice that I desperately needed before tackling this novel, and yes, the heavy subject of terminal cancer.
Kristin: It makes absolute sense to me that someone whose body is betraying her the way Daisy’s is would want to have control over some aspect of her final months. I found it really interesting that the main thing she seizes on is the idea of finding her husband, Jack, a new wife, which makes for quite a bittersweet story. What made you decide to make this the focus of her energy?
Colleen: About six years ago, I interviewed a young woman who was dying of terminal cancer. We were about the same age (late 20s at the time) and we were both newlyweds, so I instantly connected with her, and couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after we chatted on the phone. I wondered what I would do in her position, but interestingly — and perhaps exactly because I was a newlywed — my thoughts kept coming back to my husband Fred and what he would do if I died. Would he remarry? What would she be like? What would I want her to be like? The idea snowballed from there — what if a young woman who was dying decided to pick who her husband remarried; someone who would love him and be there for him after she was gone? It intrigued me from the get-go, but I also knew it was kind of an outlandish prospect. And because of that, I knew I needed to create a character and background where that conclusion would not only be plausible, but utterly believable. Enter Daisy! She’s kind of a control freak in her own right — a list-maker, caretaker and cross-every-T kind of person. So when she gets her tragic diagnosis — something she can’t control — it makes sense that she would get hyper-focused on one thing she thinks she may be able to have some control over — and that’s choosing who would be there for her husband after she’s gone.
Kristin: I’ve discovered over the years that without intending to, I often tackle issues or questions in my own life each time I write a novel. Did BEFORE I GO help you to tackle any internal questions? Or did it change your perspective on life in any way? In other words, what did your main character’s beautiful journey teach you?
Colleen: This is such a great question, because yes!, when I realized writing this novel was kind of a catharsis for me, I was shocked. I went into this book thinking I’d write an unorthodox— and somewhat funny— love story about a dying woman trying to find her husband a new wife. But when I was done, I realized that it was really about a dying woman coming to terms with her mortality — and that I had been working through my own fear of death. To resort to a cliché: Life is short. And you have to really make the most of each moment, especially with the ones you love, because none of us really know how much time we have left. Daisy doesn’t come to that conclusion until it’s almost too late. But writing her story really drove that point home for me. I’m not all Pollyanna now — I still get impatient with my kids for taking 10 minutes to tie their shoes, or annoyed with my husband for not putting the clothes in the dryer like I asked — but I think I also relish tiny moments more: a snuggle with my son during reading time, my daughter’s infectious giggle, waking up next to my husband every morning. Perspective. That’s what writing this novel gave me— and I’m grateful for it.
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“An impressive feat…an immensely entertaining, moving and believable read” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), this debut novel in the bestselling tradition of P.S. I Love You revolves around a young woman with breast cancer who undertakes a mission to find a new wife for her husband before she passes away.
Twenty-seven-year-old Daisy already beat breast cancer three years ago. How can this be happening to her again?
On the eve of what was supposed to be a triumphant “Cancerversary” with her husband Jack to celebrate three years of being cancer-free, Daisy suffers a devastating blow: her doctor tells her that the cancer is back, but this time it’s an aggressive stage four diagnosis. She may have as few as four months left to live. Death is a frightening prospect—but not because she’s afraid for herself. She’s terrified of what will happen to her brilliant but otherwise charmingly helpless husband when she’s no longer there to take care of him. It’s this fear that keeps her up at night, until she stumbles on the solution: she has to find him another wife.
With a singular determination, Daisy scouts local parks and coffee shops and online dating sites looking for Jack’s perfect match. But the further she gets on her quest, the more she questions the sanity of her plan. As the thought of her husband with another woman becomes all too real, Daisy’s forced to decide what’s more important in the short amount of time she has left: her husband’s happiness—or her own?