Interview with Nora Zelevansky - COMPETITIVE GRIEVING

Interview with Nora Zelevansky - COMPETITIVE GRIEVING

In this interview, Nora and I discuss Competitive Grieving, her own experience with competitive grieving, how writing the book was cathartic, the format for the book, how the beauty of writing a novel is being able to create an entirely fictional world, the universal experience of what happens in the aftermath of death, and much more.

In this interview, Nora and I discuss Competitive Grieving, her own experience with competitive grieving, how writing the book was cathartic, the format for the book, how the beauty of writing a novel is being able to create an entirely fictional world, the universal experience of what happens in the aftermath of death, and much more.

Nora's recommended reads are:

  1. Candy House by Jennifer Egan
  2. Heartbreaker by Sarah MacLean
  3. Book Lovers by Emily Henry
  4. The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

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If you enjoyed this episode and want to listen to more episodes, try Amy Mason Doan, Lyn Liao Butler, Saumya Dave, Kathleen West, and Steven Rowley.

Competitive Grieving can be purchased at my Bookshop storefront.       

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[00:11] Cindy: You are listening to the Thoughts From a Page podcast, which is a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network. My name is Cindy Burnett, and I love to talk about books with anyone and everyone. While listening to my podcast, you will hear author interviews, behind the scenes conversations about various aspects of the publishing world, theme discussions with other book lovers and more. For more book recommendations and a complete list of all of my interviews, check out my website, Thoughts From a and follow me on Facebook and Instagram at Thoughts From a Page. I would love to have you join my Patreon group. I offer at least two bonus episodes a month and a monthly advanced read and prepublication author chat for those on Facebook. I host a special Patreon Facebook group where we all chat books, thanks to those that already participate, and I hope you will consider joining us. There is a link in my show notes if you are interested. Today I am chatting with Nora Zelevansky about competitive grieving. Nora is the author of novels Competitive Grieving. Will you won't you want me? And Semi-Charmed Life and coauthor of Rape, Power and Football in the American Heartland. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Town and Country, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair, among others. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two kids and her enormous cat, Waldo. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

[01:33] Cindy: Welcome, Nora. How are you today?

[01:35] Nora: I'm good, thank you. How are you?

[01:37] Cindy: I am good as well. And I'm so glad you're here to talk about competitive grieving.

[01:41] Nora: I am too. I can't wait.

[01:43] Cindy: Well, why don't we start out with you giving a quick synopsis of the book for those that won't have read it yet.

[01:47] Nora: Okay. Competitive Grieving is a dark comedy and unlikely love story about loss and the chaotic aftermath of grief. It follows the main character, Wren, after losing one of her best friends as she kind of tries to navigate his life in his absence with some difficulty. And that's basically the book.

[02:11] Cindy: How did you come up with the subject matter and decide to write about it?

[02:15] Nora: So in 2017, I lost one of my best friends from childhood, and in the aftermath, there was questionable behavior, and I really hadn't experienced that. I had heard people talk previously, of course, about, you know, disputes between family members, over wills and that kind of thing, but I really wasn't aware of the kind of what I came to see as sort of competitive grieving that goes on after losing somebody. And in this case, I was surprised by this sense of sort of clawing to be seen. It felt to me like everybody just wanted to be recognized for what their relationship had been with this person who was now gone, but there was nobody to validate that because he was gone. And so instead of supporting each other, there was a sense of sort of a tug of war, not just over stuff, but also over memory, sort of ownership over who he was. And that experience inspired me to want to write a book about it. The story of competitive grieving is not my friend's story, but the sort of universal experience of what happens in the aftermath of loss was inspired by my actual experience.

[03:41] Cindy: It seems often that when there is a death like that family or friend, that there are people jockeying for position. They want to be front and center. They were, whoever it was, best friend or confidante or whatever it is. And I think you're right, they want to be seen, but they also want to be seen as someone that was very close to the deceased.

[03:59] Nora: Yes, I think that that's a big piece of it. It's like everybody wants their closeness to be quantified in some way. And, you know, I experienced it personally just for myself as well. The person that I lost was a very charismatic person who had lived sort of various different lives during his time. And I felt like he and I were, like, really kindred, very close, and it was surprising to me how many people felt that way. And it took me a long time to get to a place of more sort of empathy for everybody involved. But at some point, someone said to me, everybody just wants to feel seen. And that really resonated with me, because I think that that's true and what drives a lot of the competitive grieving. But it still just seemed like so much fodder for a book because it was, like, absurd and sad and funny and horrible all at once. And again, such a universal experience. I mean, one of the things that's happened since this book came out is that people have reached out to me to share their own stories of competitive grieving. And when that started happening, I realized, oh, this is like a really widespread phenomenon that doesn't get talked about very much.

[05:19] Cindy: I think it is pretty universal. And you referenced how you knew your friend and felt you knew his personality and were very close. But I also think some of that has to do with when you knew them. You have friends from elementary, you have friends from high school. You have friends from college. You have friends from when you're out of college. And so I think people mature. They change different things, impact them, and so it can really I don't know what the right word is. You can really look back and think, okay, I knew him when I've continued to be friends, but our relationship began at such and such time.

[05:51] Nora: Yeah, I mean, I completely agree with that. I think that sometimes at some point in the process, I thought, you're really mourning the person at the point at which they were most important to you. That that's really the person everyone's mourning and I found myself gravitating towards friends who were remembering the same stage of his life as I was because it was the same version of him. And that's something that Wren the main character in Competitive Grieving struggles with a lot because her version of Stewart, her best friend, who she lost, is so different than the version that other people see, especially because he's a notable TV star. And so there's also this public perception of him as well. And so trying to marry all of these different versions of who he is is one of the challenges of grieving him.

[06:45] Cindy: Absolutely. And that really resonated with me. And it made me kind of think back on when different people have passed away and the way people behaved and who I've known and when I knew them. And I think that's really interesting. It's definitely thought provoking. Was it hard to write?

[06:58] Nora: You know what? Like, I only I have only confessed this maybe once before, if I'm honest. I don't have a strong memory of writing this book, I think because a lot happened in my life that year. Like, I lost my friend and I was pregnant and then had a baby, and I lost a family member as well. And it was 2017, so there was a lot of political upheaval. I definitely wrote it in fits and spurts more than I generally do when I'm writing a book. I would not characterize writing this book as difficult. I would say that it was, I think, cathartic. For me, I felt, like, really lucky that I had a concrete place to work through the issues plaguing me in my actual life. And I think the beauty of writing a novel is that you get to choose the settings, choose the characters, put yourself in a world that you don't mind existing in. And so in doing that, it was almost like a little bit of wish fulfillment, like a chance to live out the grieving process differently than I actually got to in real life.

[08:13] Cindy: Took you out of your world and put you into another world.

[08:16] Nora: Exactly. Yes.

[08:18] Cindy: And I can see where it would definitely be cathartic.

[08:21] Nora: I think we all sort of default to different emotions when things are difficult. Some people default to anxiety, some people default to sadness. Some people and I think I maybe default to anger a little bit. So it really did feel like a place to vent my frustration. And then, of course, in the rewriting process, to have some perspective and sort of back up and say, okay, what is the arc for this character and what is the arc for the other characters and how much of what Wren is experiencing is real and how much is just her perception of what she's seeing? And so the chance to sort of dissect it that way was really interesting, too.

[09:05] Cindy: That makes perfect sense. And I was really curious about the format in terms of the way you wrote it. Shorter chapters often, sometimes a letter, sometimes in text messages, sometimes all mixed in. Was that the way you started it or did you mix up the format a little bit as you wrote?

[09:22] Nora: Yeah, I mean, that actually was how I started it. I think I'm always a little bit interested in the idea of mixed media, of pulling from different sources and almost like collaging language. So from the beginning it was these sort of alternating chapters where you were in Wren's life experiencing what was happening in present day, and then you were in more of like her emotional world as she talked to Stuart directly and worked through whatever it was she was trying to experience or trying to figure out. And actually most of it is not. But I did actually take some small pieces of language that existed from like, a letter my friend wrote me, the eulogy I wrote for my friend that, again, it wasn't his story, but made it into the book as sort of a way of honoring him and making it his, in a way a little bit. And I just always really like the idea of taking pieces of things. Again, like there's sort of allusions to songs in the book. As you said, there's texting. So, yeah, I mean, I think also the contemporary world we live in is frenetic and we communicate in so many different ways. I guess this book was a chance to sort of communicate that also.

[10:45] Cindy: I definitely think that's happening more and more in fiction because you're right, I mean, we are all communicating so many different ways compared to how we used to. And I have this monthly series called Behind the Scenes where I interview somebody from the publishing world and one of the interviews, maybe three or four months ago, was an interior book designer, which was fascinating and has probably been my most popular episode in that series. And she talked all about formatting emails and messaging and newspaper articles and letters. And so it made me wonder, as I was reading your book, did you have a say in the way some of those things were formatted or did they present it to you and you were like, oh, this looks good?

[11:20] Nora: Yeah, actually, and that's the thing also, right? If you're trying to write something that's truly contemporary that takes place in our actual time, you almost can't write a story without some of those elements, just with the way we function in our daily life, as far as I remember. That's really interesting, by the way, the interior designer, I'd be really interested in listening to that one, but as far as I recall, they just presented it to me and I was happy with how it looked. But I have a nonfiction book that I cowrote that came out recently and that includes actual text messages as well. And there was a lot of conversation in that context about how to present them, whether you use a different font, whether you put them inside bubbles, whether the bubbles are shaded. How do you handle it when you have a text but you still want to say, she wrote, you know, like tag it. How does that look? So those kinds of issues and it's interesting to try to resolve.

[12:19] Cindy: Absolutely. It was the most fascinating conversation because it wasn't something that, one, I even knew was a job until I was connected up with her. And then two, knew everything that went into it because it's not just the format of Instagram and Facebook and text and emails and letters and whatever else, all the different telegrams, all the different things that could show up, but also how each chapter is presented and the font and how much space there is between each line. I mean, it was just truly fascinating, and I learned so much, and now I really pay so much closer attention when I'm reading books.

[12:49] Nora: Yeah, I think people often don't, outside of the direct sort of publishing universe especially, really don't know how all that works and how much goes into sort of making all of those decisions about the cover as well, and even about a title, which often gets changed. All of that process is arduous, and I like it. I enjoy that back and forth, but it's definitely a process.

[13:17] Cindy: Well, the title was on my list of questions for you because I love it. How did that come about?

[13:22] Nora: Thank you. Every other novel I've written was written with a different title than it was published with. And basically, for whatever reason, sometimes, it's often about marketing. My semi charm life, which was my first book, was originally called The Feffer News Chronicles, and marketing was like, no one is going to be able to spell Feffer News.

[13:45] Cindy: You know, they're never going to find it because they're going to be like, it's something I can't remember.

[13:49] Nora: Yeah. So that's always a process, figuring out the title. In this case, it was the total opposite. I was in the middle of ranting to a friend of mine about what was going on in our actual lives with regard to losing our friend, and I said to him, it's like they're competitive grieving. And then I said, I'm going to write a book called Competitive Grieving. And then I did so from the very beginning. The title really, like, instructed the creation of the book and led that sort of process, which is, again, like, unusual, but it just felt like it so clearly encompassed everything. I wanted to project both literally about what the content of the book was about, but also just tonally, the sense of the sort of sardonic quality it has and sort of the sense of humor in it. So, yeah. Thank you. I'm glad you like it. I felt really strongly about the title, and actually, no one ever asked me to change it.

[14:52] Cindy: What I have found is that titles either stay the same, whatever the author comes up with at the beginning makes it all the way through, or there are like 2000 different conversations about the title and you have to go through 100 different ones to land on something that it's not two or three times. Let's try this. It's either, yes, it's stuck from the beginning or we're going to have to spend forever to land on a title.

[15:14] Nora: That has been my experience as well. Yeah, and when you aren't landing on one, it's really hard. I mean, I used to feel that way as a freelance journalist as well, just for stories, that sometimes the stories title would just come to me right at the beginning and then I knew I was like in good shape, but if it didn't that I was going to struggle to come up with it.

[15:35] Cindy: It's just funny how that works. The title for yours caught my eye because Sherri Puzey and Kelly Hooker did a wonderful Patreon episode where they talked about five or six books that they both recommended. And that's when I first heard about your book was from Sherri because it came out in Hardback May 2021. And so then I thought, well, that sounds really good. And my mom actually passed away in September of 2021. So then I was not up for anything related to grieving for a while and then you and I connected and your paperback was supposed to come out in May of 2022, but came out in August instead with COVID and supply chain issues and all of that. So it was the right time for me to be able to pick it up then because it had been long enough that I was able to focus on that topic again.

[16:18] Nora: Yeah, I mean, well, first of all, I'm so sorry about your mom.

[16:21] Cindy: Thank you.

[16:23] Nora: That's interesting. I almost want to ask you questions because some people have asked me how soon after losing someone myself, is this a good book to read? Because I do think it would be a lot when things were still fresh.

[16:39] Cindy: Yes, it definitely took me a while to be able to read about anything related to death and someone passing away. I just had to kind of pass on those stories for a while. So I would say, I don't know, nine months, ten months, I guess. It's really an emotional thing. And it was interesting when you mentioned anger before because that's really what I felt initially. To my adorably, sweet, wonderful mother, anger is not a great emotion, but it.

[17:04] Nora: Was such a surprise.

[17:05] Cindy: My dad has been ill forever. Everybody thought he would pass before she did. And we had all these plans because she's been caring for him for so long that, you know, eventually she could take a fun trip with, you know, do some stuff that was kind of past the caregiver stuff. And so then she had a stroke and suddenly died. And every single person I called was like, Your dad? I was like, no, my mom and I had to go through the whole story again. It was brutal. And so I just was like, okay, I cannot read about it or talk about it or anything else. Once we kind of got through the service for a while. But I would say it depends. I mean, I'm not angry anymore, but I was for a while.

[17:39] Nora: Yeah. And I think that does sound brutal. I think that the commiseration, the sort of notion of misery loves company is it's a real thing. Not that you want other people to be unhappy, but that the reason why especially well, memoirs, too, but fiction about grief can be cathartic for the reader in certain ways, is because it spotlights the experiences you've had and validates them, you know, brings to light things that you had happened to you that aren't, again, aren't talked about that much.

[18:15] Cindy: Right. Or things like feeling anger. And I would feel so bad. I mean, I would talk to a couple of my very close friends about it, but other than that, I would never mention it. But I was like, I feel terrible that I'm angry at my poor mom, who is, like, the greatest mother ever, truly. I mean, people say that about everybody when they've died, but truly, I had the best mother. She was wonderful. The other thing that happens when someone passes away and you've alluded to that a little bit. You head back out into the world with this horrible cloud on you and this terrible thing that's happened, but everybody else is just living their lives, and it's a little frustrating sometimes, you know, and you get it. But on the other hand, I'm like, how is the world going on? This horrible thing has happened.

[18:50] Nora: Yeah, I think that's why there's this notion that the grieving gets so much more difficult, actually, after sort of the fanfare, after the funeral and all that stuff, when you're left to your own devices and the world expects you to have moved on even though this horrible thing has just happened, and there's this horrible, whole gaping hole in your world. And I think that that's something I feel like it's gotten talked about more in the last years, which is really great, but it's something that I think doesn't get acknowledged enough. Just this idea that grief is a really it's a long process, you know, it's not something that, you know, ends because the ritual is over, you know, and so whatever you can find to help you move through it then is incredibly important. And it's different for everybody, I think.

[19:45] Cindy: And the timetable is different, like you were mentioning, people expect you to be able to move on. But for me, it's been very much two steps forward, one step back, sometimes one step forward, two steps back. It just really depends and I still go to pick up the phone and call her almost daily.

[20:00] Nora: Yeah. And that's like the huge heartbreaker, that sense of I remember, actually. And it sort of happened in the beginning of the book as well, that when I found out that my friend died, my first instinct was to call him and, like, let him know.

[20:17] Cindy: Right, like you've died.

[20:19] Nora: So, I mean, even those impulses are the kinds of things that don't get talked about that much. And it's just good to feel like you're not alone in having those experiences. And so, yeah, I mean, I mentioned that some people have reached out with their own stories, but it's been a different kind of gift with this book than my other books. To have people reach out and be willing to share what's going on in their lives and these losses they've experienced, and to trust me with that. And that's been like a totally unexpected, amazing blessing of this book.

[20:53] Cindy: I love that because I do think you're right that people, they want to be able to tell somebody. And sometimes it's nice to tell somebody that's not involved, that wasn't friends or related to the person who has passed away. And I'm sure reading your book brings a lot of those feelings to the forefront for people. I mean, it certainly did for me.

[21:10] Nora: Yeah, I think that that's true. Talking to try to process it outside the realm of the people who are also immediately affected and who have their own feelings about it is so important.

[21:22] Cindy: And those that are trying to competitively grieve, you don't want to be involved in that kind of conversation with them.

[21:26] Nora: No. I mean, it's such an ugly thing in certain ways, even though maybe it just comes from a really natural human impulse. But the thing of wanting to take ownership over someone's story, to not, like, leave space for everybody to have their own memories, it's a really difficult thing to try to navigate. And also because, as you said, you know somebody from a certain period in their life, most likely when they were most important to you, there's infinite versions of people, and that's really also hard to accept.

[22:03] Cindy: It is a little bit. And sometimes it's surprising because you're like, oh, gosh, I would have never thought they would have done such and such, or been interested in such and such. So yes, it can kind of throw you off guard as well.

[22:12] Nora: Yes. And in the book, there's a way in which Wren feels like other people's grieving is literally getting in the way of hers, where when she sees people sort of emoting without any reservation, that it makes her clam up in a certain way. So just having the space to have that experience, too, is so important.

[22:37] Cindy: So that makes me think then, too, depending on the person, it might be more helpful to read the book closer in time. I guess it just really depends on the person and where their journey is going.

[22:46] Nora: Yeah, I think that's probably true. But it's good to know at which point it was helpful for you. So now I have sort of an answer.

[22:57] Cindy: Well, before we wrap up, I would love to hear what you've read recently that you really liked.

[23:03] Nora: Right now I'm reading two books that I really like, and I have a rule, like, I never read two books at the same time. I don't know how this happened, but it did, and it's happening. So I'm currently reading Candy House, Jennifer Egan's new book. And then I'm also reading Heartbreaker, which I have a dear friend, Sarah MacLean, who's a romance novelist, and this is her new book. I really like will read almost any genre of book. I have sort of a wide range of tastes and interests in reading. So the books I like, really run the gamut, but what else have I oh, well, I did some good summer reading, like sort of fun stuff, and I read Book Lovers, Emily Henry's new book. And I read The Last Thing He Told Me, which is that Laura Dave thriller. That came out, I think, last year. I would totally recommend both of those, especially if somebody wants something escapist and kind of like fun and light and.

[23:56] Cindy: Fast, which is so nice for right now.

[23:59] Nora: Yeah, I mean, I personally I mean, one of the sorry, not to go off on a tangent, but one of the things about competitive grieving that I was sort of proud of in the creation of it is that it tackles some really serious issues, but it's supposed to be at least funny.

[24:19] Cindy: It is.

[24:20] Nora: Good. I'm glad. And it has a romance, so there's sort of like an escapist lightness to it and hopefully sort of a light at the end of the tunnel then I just really love books that address real, authentic issues in our universe since there's a lot of really serious things going on in the world right now. But that also give us a sense or a chance for escape, because I think we all need that right now.

[24:44] Cindy: And not when you're done with the book thinking, oh, my gosh, that was so heavy, and I just can't even get out from under the cloud. But instead, there has been some humor, but you're tackling serious issues that we're all probably grappling with.

[24:56] Nora: Exactly. There's been humor and a chance to laugh, a cathartic chance to cry, and satisfaction at the end.

[25:04] Cindy: I agree completely. That's my favorite type of read.

[25:07] Nora: Yeah, me too.

[25:08] Cindy: Well, Nora, thank you so much for coming on the Thoughts from a Page podcast. I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with you and reading Competitive Grieving.

[25:15] Nora: Thank you so much for having me. This is really great.

[25:19] Cindy: Thank you so much for tuning in today. I really appreciate you taking the time to listen to my podcast. I want to quickly share about this wonderful company I am now partnering with. I am always looking for entities that promote and highlight books and recently came across Bookclubs, a company who provides all sorts of resources for established and new book clubs as well as individual readers. My own personal book club recently signed up on Bookclubs, and the group has been impressed with all of the great tools the site and app provide. Bookclub's website is linked in my Show Notes, and I hope you will check them out soon. Also, if you like my show, I would be so grateful if you would tell everyone you know about it and rate it on whichever platform you listen on. It truly makes a huge difference and really helps the show grow. The book discussed in this episode can be purchased at my bookshop storefront and that link is also in the Show Notes. I hope you will check out some other Thoughts from a Page episodes and have a great day.

Nora ZelevanskyProfile Photo

Nora Zelevansky


Nora Zelevansky is the author of novels Competitive Grieving, Will You Won't You Want Me? and Semi-Charmed Life, and co-author of Roll Red Roll: Rape, Power, and Football in the American Heartland. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, ELLE, Town & Country, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair, among others. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two kids and enormous cat, Waldo.