Every book is a different adventure, but often, like in life, books are not just one kind of adventure. Fangirlish had a chance to chat with Sara Bennett Wealer about her new YA contemporary novel – with a supernatural twist – Grave Things Like Love will be available next week, and the conversation was heavily skewed towards how the book is yes, a YA adult romance with a paranormal twist, but it’s also a deeply compelling tale about family, friendship and how and what it means for people to set their own boundaries, their own priorities.
Our first question was about the book’s protagonist – who suffers from anxiety – something we rarely see reflected in entertainment the way it is in this book. Bennett Wealer told us that Elaine’s story was a reflection of her own struggles with anxiety, but that she didn’t actually realize he was writing a character with anxiety at first. Instead, it just felt like a normal part of who the character was to make little mentions of a relaxation app or anxiety in general. Then, her editors “said in their feedback that they liked seeing a character who has anxiety but is managing it,” and that her anxiety isn’t “the thing that’s propelling their story arc,” just a fact of life Elaine has learned to live with.
This, in particular, is something Bennett Wealer would like to see the genre tackle more. “It’s so prevalent,” she told us, telling us most young people are having to find ways to manage their mental health, and “if you are able to say, I’m struggling right now, or something doesn’t feel right,” or if you have someone in your life who can check in on you, that’s actually really helpful, and it would be great for our entertainment, in general, to normalize these conversations and the checking in with oneself.
And though there is a place for stories about managing your anxiety, for Bennett Wealer, the idea was for Elaine to feel …well, normal, while at the same time sending the message that checking in with yourself, asking for help, and finding coping mechanisms are regular things we can and should all do.
Ironically, anxiety might be the most normal thing about Elaine, especially considering Grave Things Like Love does have a supernatural twist to it – something that wasn’t really present in Bennett Wealer’s first draft. But in looking to push Elaine and herself out of her comfort zone, Bennett Wealer came up with “the idea of having a guy come in. He’s a ghost hunter and kind of wants to get into her world, and then they kind of do find something,” which leads Elaine to have to confront “some of the areas with her family where she’s not really set boundaries.”
How do you figure out what those boundaries should be? And once you do, how do you push back when you never did? Especially for Elaine, the oldest daughter, who is conditioned to feel like she owes her family something. That’s part of Elaine’s journey in Grave Things Like Love, and it’s one that feels very, very familiar – except for the funeral home setting.
The idea for that goes back to Bennett Wealer’s first job – as a transportation reporter. At one point, she had to cover a funeral, and she vividly remembers a big, yellow, Victorian house on a corner of this small town. “I don’t know how I ended up talking to the funeral director, but they lived upstairs and they ran the whole business downstairs.” She didn’t even write that story, but the idea stuck, especially the notion that she could have been in any home, “but down below me, there’s a funeral home,” with all that comes with that, especially as a teenager.
“Like, this is your home. This is your house. Down below, there are dead bodies,” but “this is the business that your family runs. It’s the thing that pays for your shoes, your car, and your phone. That just seems so interesting.”
But for Bennett Wealer, as much as something like a funeral home is a business, it’s also “a really important service that is being provided to the community,” something that comes through in Grave Things Like Love. “You’re meeting people at a time when they need support and compassion.” And though the book isn’t about that, it is. Because that’s part of Elaine, too, and the best characters, like people, are made up of many – often even conflicting – feelings.
And with Grave Things Like Love throwing all of that, a journey of self-discovery, a romance, and some interesting family dynamics our way, there’s certainly something there for everyone to enjoy – and maybe even learn from.
Grave Things Like Love will be available starting Tuesday, October 11th.