Menlo Park resident Liz Becker is deathly afraid of dying. Ever since she lost her little sister Maggie nearly 35 years ago, death has been a subject she's side-stepped around, skipping funeral services to avoid bouts of anxiety and panic.
But when the Great Recession hits and Liz and her friend and business partner Gabbi Rossi find themselves without clients for their event-planning business, the two go from planning lavish birthday parties and weddings to managing funerals and end-of-life services. The move forces Liz, the protagonist of Atherton resident Kimberly Young's debut fiction novel, "In the Event of Death," to confront her fear, but it doesn't come without hesitation. After telling Gabbi, "We don't do funerals," Gabbi quips, "If you really think about it, Liz, arranging a memorial service is just like planning a wedding … only the bride is dead."
The humorous exchange is part of Young's strategy to balance a serious topic with pockets of levity. As the recession unfolds, Liz, a married mother of two twin boys in high school, has to navigate tension with her husband as he faces unemployment due to the economic slowdown and the trials of raising teenagers.
"I addressed a lot of things I knew as a mother parenting teenagers," Young said. "I think women in their 40s are really stressed, especially working moms. They're working, dealing with teens, they might have older parents who are dealing with health issues. So I was interested in having the protagonist be in her mid-40s and dealing with a lot of that chaos."
The book is set in the Silicon Valley suburbs; Liz's parents live near the Caltrain station in Menlo Park, and she and Gabbi frequent Cafe Borrone and buy wine for events at Beltramo's Wines & Spirits.
Young, an Atherton native with a background in tech advertising, received her MFA from Stanford University, where she was a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellow. She talked with The Six Fifty in advance of the book's publication on Feb. 14 and her appearance at Books Inc. Palo Alto on Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. about how overcoming a health scare inspired her to write a book and why she chose to include characters who don't work in tech.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Julia Brown: How did your fellowship at Stanford influence your decision to write this book?
Kimberly Young: I went back to Stanford when my kids were in middle school and I was feeling a little uninspired. I decided to go to Stanford night classes and take fiction-writing classes. More years rolled by and they started the Stanford novel writing program and it was entirely online. I applied to that and got in and it entirely changed my life. It was very fun to come to this later in life and check this thing off my bucket list.
The thing that got me to write this book is breast cancer. I got it, (and) it took me by surprise. When I finished radiation treatments I felt wildly alive; I just kicked cancer to the curb and it's time for me to do exactly what I want. Writing a novel had been in the back of my mind for years and I just went for it. As strange as it sounds, I felt grateful for the cancer because it helped me reprioritize my life. It was very early stage; when I got through it, it was illuminating.
After my mother died, it struck me as, here we were experiencing a tidal wave of grief and then having to deal with practical matters of death: where to inter the ashes, what to include in the obit, how to do a memorial that would honor her. I thought to myself, "People need help in these circumstances." I thought about going into the business of helping people through this difficult time and thought, "No, it's too morbid, I'll just write a novel about it." One of my teachers at Stanford said, "Kim, against all odds you've written a fun book about death."
Julia Brown: Your book broaches some heavy topics, like death and the Great Recession, with pockets of levity (like the aforementioned exchange between Gabbi and Liz). What was your approach to bringing humor into the book?
Kimberly Young: Anybody who's planned a memorial knows that it's just like planning a wedding, except the bride is dead: You're calling the caterer, the florist, a valet to park cars. It's a lot of the same stuff. I use these elements of humor to get the reader through the dark passages. Teenagers are funny and marriages are funny. A financial crisis is not funny, but when Liz talks about her husband being a couch potato when he's unemployed it's kind of funny. The characters that were the most fun to write about are Gabbi; she's a single mom who needs to make a buck and she's happy to monetize death, she's not afraid of it, and Liz's brother Ned. Liz is kind of a martyr and her brother is Peter Pan, and the thing that drives Liz crazy is she thinks her mother likes Peter Pan better. I had a lot of fun with that relationship.
Julia Brown: Why did you choose to set the book in the Silicon Valley suburbs, and how did you pick which spots to name drop in the book?
Kimberly Young: I wrote this book for my pals. Every Tuesday morning I walk with five to 10 friends. We've been walking for years and sharing our stories about parenting and marriage and the sandwich generation, so I wrote this book for all the friends of mine who have been in this little hood for many decades.
There are a lot of Easter eggs in the novel. Beltramo's (Wines & Spirits in Menlo Park) has closed, and a few stores no longer exist; even the Tesla showroom no longer exists. It was just fun to set it in a place I knew so well, but in a time of financial crisis. I'm also interested in telling the story of families who aren't in tech and aren't investors in tech. A lot of people outside Silicon Valley think everyone drives a fancy car and lives in a big house, but a lot of families struggle to live here.
Julia Brown: None of the book's major characters work in tech, which feels somewhat rare for a book set in Silicon Valley. What was the rationale behind that decision?
Kimberly Young: One publisher had asked me to include more of the Silicon Valley awe factor, more of the glitz of the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg's, and I guess I sort of felt like there's been a lot of literature both fiction and nonfiction about those stories, and I wanted to tell the stories of everyday people in this neck of the woods.
Julia Brown: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Kimberly Young: I hope they find it to be a satisfying story. I hope people resonate with that journey of overcoming one's fears. Death takes everyone by surprise and yet we're all going to die. It's healthier to be open to the fact that we're mortal and plan accordingly. More than a story about death, it's a story about confronting one's fears and it also asks the question, "What are you willing to do to keep a roof over the family you love?"
If you've had a dream for many years, you're never too old to go for it and to make it happen. There's all this bucket list stuff people are doing and it doesn't have to be travel; it can be whatever it is inside you there's a hunger you can still feed all these years later.