Interview with Dyan Sheldon, Author of Hello, I Must Be Going

My parents moved to Long Island when I was six so that I could have all the benefits of fresh air and a beach and a lake that froze over for ice skating in the winter. I think I’d have been happier if they’d left me in Brooklyn. I spent five years in the beginner’s swimming class (finally passed out of pity), I never learned to skate and my most intimate experience was sledging into a tree (the first time in my life I saw my stars, like in a cartoon). On the other hand, if I’d stayed in Brooklyn, I would have missed being taught in high school by Mr Streb, Mr Tripp and Mr Sutcliffe – three men to whom I owe a lot. I moved around a lot once I left home. I lived in upstate New York, Maine, Mississippi, New Jersey, the Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn (again!), Manhattan and, eventually, I ended up in London, England. The first place I lived was in a squat in Paddington. We had a loo in the garden and a bath tub with feet in what was once the wash house (it still had a giant copper kettle). I felt like I’d been beamed back in time. It was pretty brilliant really, except that back then, it was always hard to get a pumpkin for Halloween. Being a writer is like being a spy (but without the guns and stuff like that). You look like just a regular person, staggering onto the bus with your shopping, but you’re not. You’re always watching and listening. You take notes. You take stories or lines people told you and you use them shamelessly. You never think, Wow, I wish I’d said that. You think, I’ll be saying that soon. Things you didn’t know about Dyan Sheldon: Among my passions are pumpkins, lizards, chilli peppers and Volkswagen Beetles. I was mugged on a beach in Peru. I’m always thinking of getting a dog, especially an English Bull Terrier or a Jack Russell. Halloween is my favourite “holiday”. In high school, I won a good citizenship award from the Daughters of the American Revolution. I haven’t done my shopping in a supermarket in over five years. My car is a “historic vehicle”, which means the doors fly open when you go round a bend and things fall off on the motorway! I went out in a small boat to see the whales when I was in Canada. I cried when they came up next to us. One of my all-time favourite TV programmes is Columbo. My motorcycle is named Arlo, after Arlo Guthrie who wrote “The Motorcycle Song”.

First of all, can you tell us three random things about you?

1. I grew up in the United States but now live in London.
2. I collect chillies (not real ones), lizards (not real ones), and the original VW Beetle (not real ones, although for a very long time it was the only car I’d ever owned).
3. I’m a long-time vegetarian with vegan tendencies.

What can you tell us about your book HELLO, I MUST BE GOING?

The title (originally a song sung by Groucho Marx and later the title of his autobiography) refers to the fact that one of the central characters is dead but doesn’t quite leave, even if she knows she should.

Although the novel begins with a funeral, it’s not really about death. Sorrel, the girl who dies, is very present – indeed, her friends can’t seem to get rid of her now that she’s dead – but the story isn’t about her. It’s about them, her three closest friends, and the effect her death – and her haunting of each of them in turn – has on them. This is not a novel of heartbreak and angst. There is a certain amount of heartbreak and angst, of course – Sorrel is alive one day and not alive the next – but its main concern is life.

You said „Death is the end of the story for the person who dies, but not for the survivors.“ How did you get inspiration for HIMBG? And why death?

I’m not sure I’d call it inspiration. When I started the novel what I had in my head was an image of the funeral. It was the funeral of a teenager. Friends and family were gathered round the gravesite. People were crying and taking selfies. I was actually meant to be writing a completely different novel but I couldn’t get that image out of my mind (rather like Sorrel, it wouldn’t go away). I had no idea who the dead girl was (I knew it was a girl in the coffin), or how she had died, or who her best friends were. I just had that image.

Why death? Not everybody will be successful in life, or wealthy, or healthy, or have a lot of friends, or have their wedding televised, or see the sun rise over the Grand Canyon, but everybody will die. That’s the only guarantee. And no matter your age or how far away your own death seems, you’re still certain to be acquainted with it.

What do you hope readers will take away from HELLO, I MUST BE GOING?

I reckon one of the things I hope readers will get from the novel is that one should live while one can. Most importantly, live your life, not someone else’s. This may sound corny, but life is a gift. Don’t leave it at the back of the cupboard. Make the most of it.

Do you have any other writing projects that are in the works?

I am working on a new novel at the moment – something a bit different – but it’s giving me a very hard time so less said at this point the better. I will say, however, that, so far, nobody dies.

What trends do you want to see more of in the YA genre? Particularly in YA contemporary fiction?

I’m partial to both realism and humour. I don’t think that a book being funny means it isn’t serious and not dealing with important issues, feelings and situations. Though I think that quite a few people do think that. One of the few good pieces of advice I’ve ever been given was this: All that is necessary is that you keep your sense of humour. Especially in times when there doesn’t seem to be that much to laugh about.

What YA books should our readers be devouring?

M.T. Anderson would be a good start. He’s funny, subversive and always original. I just read his latest LANDSCAPE WITH INVISIBLE HAND, set in the future after the Earth is colonized by a more advanced species. It has a lot to say about us and about our world.

Read more about Hello, I Must Be Going

Hello, I Must Be Going – Dyan Sheldon


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