For Canadian author Ray Robertson, death isn’t something to fret about: it’s something to face head-on.
On Feb. 13, Robertson will be at Kingston bookstore Novel Idea for the launch of his new book, How to Die: A Book About Being Alive.
The idea for the book came about after Robertson finished a previous book in 2011. That book, called Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, was a collection of essays about Robertson’s experiences with mental health, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and his general musings on life and death. The last chapter was an essay called “Death.” This essay, Robertson felt, only scratched the surface of the conversation he wanted to have.
“I thought it was a good way to end the book because I thought through reading my whole life and thinking about it and living, death can be a spur to living. It can actually be a complement to us, and the only use death has for us is it can help us lead better lives.”
Continuing this conversation in his newest book, How to Die: A Book About Being Alive, Robertson candidly writes about death through a new lens. He feels that facing death can help us “lead better lives” in the long run.
“If we embrace it now, I think we’ve got a better chance of living a more vigorous, fulfilled life.”
For all of life’s heartbreaking moments, there comes a time, argues Robertson, when a person is able to laugh at their situation rather than cry.
He references the work of poet and novelist Stevie Smith, saying that even in her letters where she expresses a cynical perspective on life, she’s able to find humour in her situation. Reading how Smith handled certain challenging situations has helped Robertson face some of his own. This, he says, is the power of the writing.
“I think there’s something really special about the written word even though we seem to be losing touch with it. […] That’s why it’s fun to do stuff going back to Novel Idea,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get 25 people out on a cold February night and feel a little less alone in the world.”
This is what life and death are all about for Robertson. He said he believes that death can be a powerful tool to bring people together and connect on a more personal level. He told a story about his wife in his interview with The Journal and how she helps to remind him how to appreciate every moment of every day.
“We have a friend who died who was younger than us. My wife will say, ‘So-and-so doesn’t get to walk out in the sun this morning or have a good cup of coffee.’ So what that means is that you better appreciate the sun and that cup of coffee and not complain about how there wasn’t enough milk in the fridge or how it’s supposed to rain later.”
He continued, “I think the only obligation we have to death is how it can serve the living and how we can use it so that the people that we love, their deaths aren’t in vain.”
Robertson says that every day allows us the opportunity to be happy, but as North Americans, we tend to think we have to earn our own happiness.
He believes that’s just not true.
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