I thought I’d give you a little insight into my thoughts while writing The Counting-Downers and put it into context.
The majority of my writings start with a question. I’m incredibly introspective and inquisitive. I’m fascinated by people and life, and my natural curiosity about those things leads me to ask Big Questions that often have no answer. I was that annoying kid who always asked, “But why?”
The idea for the book came out of one of the most troubling and life-changing experiences I’ve had so far. Unfortunately, I’m no stranger to death and grief. But until last year, I’d never had anyone die in front of me.
I was at a work dinner when an elderly member of the team choked on his food at the table. Despite our best efforts to administer the basic first aid we could remember (a lesson for another day), the ambulance took a long time to arrive and he slowly died right before my eyes on the restaurant floor. It’s a sight I’ll never forget and wouldn’t wish on anyone. The only consolation was that he was in his eighties and ‘had a good run.’
But at twenty-two, that night changed everything for me. It brought the clichés and catchphrases about life being short and living each day like it was your last to reality. Like everyone else, I’d made myself a million empty promises to ‘seize the day’ whenever something bad happened, but never really followed through.
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, I just kept thinking about that night. How we all went from joking and talking in happiness to despairing in tragedy within the literal blink of an eye. None of us saw it coming. I thought about the wife he left at home that night to go out to dinner, who said goodbye not realising it would be the last time she saw him alive.
And it got me thinking. What would it be like if we could see the ‘numbers’ of how much time the people around us had left? How would that change things? The words we said? The way we behaved? The people we were? If we knew the exact second we’d have to say goodbye to someone we loved, how would we spend that time with them?
A million more questions sprung from that one question about being able to see when our time would run out. I quickly realised that knowing your own number would complicate things too much. If you knew your own, and especially if it wasn’t a long time, you would live in fear. You would give up and see everything as pointless. You wouldn’t take risks or chances. You wouldn’t dream or try to achieve anything. It would do more harm than good. I didn’t want that for my characters.
But I also didn’t want to write characters who ignored the reality that they were dying. And it is a reality for all of us. Compared to many other global cultures, we in the West often try to avoid, ignore, or pretty up death with euphemisms. As Matilda asks, how many of us say “If I die…” instead of when? Too many, is the answer.
I wanted to encourage people to think seriously about their death and the death of all those they loved. It doesn’t make you morbid or depressing, it makes you smart.
Death doesn’t have to be scary. It can even be something beautiful if it encourages you to live whilst you’re alive. And that’s what I’ve tried to show in the book. I wanted to put death within the context of life. I set out to write a book about grief and dying, and ended up writing one about life and living.
I want all my books to be ones where there is meaning on every single page. Not everything is going to speak to you. Not every event or character will resonate with you and your life experiences. But if just one word, one sentence, one chapter speaks to your soul, and makes you think or feel something, I’ve done my job.