This was the summer of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. Everywhere I went, people were talking about this book. “It’s about death, and the funeral industry, but it’s kind of a memoir, but it has a lot of good information in it…” Okay, you had me at “death,” but the hype was sound. In her first book, mortician Caitlin Doughty blends memoir, straight nonfiction, and a dollop of shock (a big dollop) and transcends it all in a morally persuasive call for greater dignity and rationality in how we treat the dead. How did she do it?
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Smoke Gets In Your Eyes?
Caitlin: I never thought of myself as a writer. Big reader yes, but not a writer. But when I started working at the crematory seven years ago, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, the people I was meeting, the dead bodies I was coming across. “People need to hear about this!” I thought. I guess the way I rationalized writing a memoir in my 20s was that it wasn’t so much my life I was sharing, as it was the story of what was happening at the crematory and behind the scenes in the funeral industry.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Caitlin: It started as a private blog, with all of 11 readers. This allowed me to have a very honest record from the time period. Some of those stories ended up in the book virtually unchanged.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Caitlin: Oh geez, so poorly. Many notebooks, many Google docs, many notes in margins of research material. I have no good answer for this. This is the least inspirational answer ever.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Caitlin: Much of the first half of my day is meetings, emails, and all the bureaucratic steps for opening a funeral home. With a dash of social media thrown in. I really have to make time to research in the evening, when people need less from me. Writing happens best when I’m able to devote myself to it fully, so I usually try to go somewhere I can shut out the world.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Caitlin: I’m lucky that I live in Los Angeles, so really any book I could ever want is available in the public library system. They’re even delivered right to my local branch! I consider another great resource to be the people I work with. The death academics, the crematory operators, the embalmers who are experts in their areas. It allows me to say, “Hey, I need to know about exactly how long this kind of decomposition would take,” and someone will have an answer.
Bonus question: Will you continue writing books, either memoir or in other genres?
Caitlin: A few months ago I would have said no. But then my brain filled up its coffers with new ideas and experiences. I hate how the brain does that.