Today, Bookpleasures.com is honored to have as our guest Susan Abel Lieberman, PH.D. Susan is the author of several books including her most recent one Death, Dying and Dessert: Reflections on 20 Questions About Dying which she is here to discuss with us.
Susan holds a Ph.D in public policy from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s degree in city planning from the U. of California at Berkeley. She did her undergraduate work at Vassar College and the University of California at Berkeley.
She has worn many hats during her lifetime as an executive coach, work she began after retiring in 2006 as Director of Leadership Rice at Rice University. She has managed community relations for the Houston City Controller, advised Fortune 1000 companies on their philanthropic strategies for the Conversation Company in Philadelphia and ran an association of pre-collegiate independent schools in St. Louis.
Susan has authored eight non-fiction books on subjects related to families. They include New Traditions (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), Venus in Blue Jeans (Houghton Mifflin), and The Mother-In-Law Manual (Bright Sky Press) and Getting Old is a Full Time Job, (Y Collaborative.) Death, Dying and Dessert. Reflections on Twenty Questions About Dying was released in May, 2013.
She was a Houston Woman on the Move in 1992 and member of Leadership Texas in 1994. She has served on many non-profit boards including The Houston Area Women’s Center and The Transition Network.
Susan has spoken on leadership, mentorship and topics related to her books across the country. In 2011, she began speaking on end-of-life issues, and her audiences have included Stephen Ministers, M. D. Anderson Hospital staff, Disability 101, the first Hispanic Women’s Health Fair and the Jung Center of Houston.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated? What keeps you going?
I have asked myself why I am called to write books. It is, you know, a crazy occupation-- time-consuming and, for most of us, not so lucrative. And I realized that I write for clarity. The act of crafting a book helps me figure out what I think about a subject. All my books involve interviewing, and I love the chance to get other people to talk with me about something in which I’m interested.
With the exception of collaborating on two books that involved other people’s research, all the books I have written were books I needed to read. My first book, New Traditions, came from crying in the kitchen. We had moved to St. Louis, far from friends and extended family. The Jewish holidays came and I spent hours cooking for my family because I wanted the kids…and us…to have these wonderful Technicolor memories. My sons took one look at gefilte fish and said, “We are not eating that.” I was sure everyone else but me had holidays just right—until I started asking.
What keeps me going is the pleasure of it. I would rather write than garden or sew or hit a ball. I would much rather write than go to the gym. (Yes, I do make myself go.) When the work is going well, and I get lost in the flow, it’s just a joy. It isn’t more virtuous to write books than play golf. I just like to do it more.
How did you decide you were ready to write Death, Dying and Dessert and how much research did you devote to the book?
The richest part of the research has been facilitating a group of women who, for over three years, have gathered regularly to discuss death, dying and aging. Because we meet over dinner, always with good dessert, we started calling the group Death, Dying and Dessert. Our wonderful conversations gave the book its title and its direction.
More formally, I studied for certification as a thanatologist. As part of that training, I interviewed dozens of people from hospital chaplains and transplant surgeons to estate attorneys. And I read stacks of book, twenty of which I spotlight in this book.
Then I started speaking publicly. In those talks, I saw how hard it is for so many of us to talk about dying and how easy it is to procrastinate around end-of-life preparation. I wanted to bring the conversations from our Death, Dying and Dessert dinner table to many more people because it was clear that reflecting, learning, talking, and acting long before we are ill matters. It reduces the anxiety, stress and chaos that too often comes when we fall into a healthcare crisis.
Once I decided to write the book, I started three times. The first two times, nothing happened. The third time, it just came pouring out, and I had a draft in 90 days.
Why do you think some people are reluctant to talk about dying?
We come factory-ready to embrace life and resist death. Dying scares us. Our healthy egos want to control our destiny, and damned if death isn’t beyond our control.
To make it more difficult, we live in a culture that embraces fitness and health and avoids words like “dead.” Notice the language so often used in obituaries. People struggle courageously, battle cancer, fight fearlessly. It is the language of war, and in war there are winners and losers. The language of development with stages and ages and skills might be more gentle. We haven’t done such a good job of making a distinction between sadness and defeat.
I don’t think denial is so bad. What I advocate in this book is that we step out of denial long enough to do the preparation that lays down some synaptic pathways that will be there for us later when we need them and to organize the paperwork that is so helpful. Then we can go right back to denial and whatever we regard as fun.
What was the most difficult part of writing your book? As a follow up, did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
When I write, I want to use a voice that is very accessible, to make it not only easy but pleasurable for people to read. At the same time, I want to offer lots of helpful information that is entirely accurate. That is challenging. Writing a book about dying that people want to read is difficult. It makes you consider every sentence.
Maybe the most important thing I learned with this book is that fear is unhealthy. It keeps us from authenticity, honesty and reality. Too many stories brought home how easy it is for us to delude ourselves – and how that invites trouble. Oh, and I learned how many people want to be deluded and imagine they are not going to die.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating all of your books?
Does it sound hopelessly arrogant to answer honestly that what surprised me most was that I’m really good at this? I write books that help people. I may not sell thousands because if I’m good at writing and speaking, I’m not so swift at marketing, but those who do find and read the books so often take the trouble to tell me it was helpful. I love that.
The other thing that writing over time has taught me is that being a “good writer” is only part of the job. First, I have to get my thinking clear. Pretty words are no cover for muddled thinking. And I have had to learn that editing is as important as writing. I do not think I have become a much better writer over the years, but I have become a much tougher editor, and that makes for better work.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
One of the most delicious compliments I have ever gotten came recently from a friend who gave Death, Dying & Dessert to her mother. Her mother called to tell her, “This is crazy that I’m loving reading a book about dying.”
Since many of my readers are local or are people who show up where I’m speaking, I do hear from them. And they often say, “Me too…I have been struggling with that issue.” And when they tell me the book helped them clarify their own thinking, I feel terrific.
Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
This is a difficult and interesting question. My first reader has to be me. I have to write the book I want to read, a book that I consider excellent and worthy. I have a distinctive voice and it seems always to be there.
That said, of course I owe something to readers. If someone is spending $15 or $20 buy my book, they deserve to feel they have received good value. They should feel engaged, informed, expanded. That’s my job. Otherwise, I can just keep a journal and write for myself.
What are you upcoming projects?
My children are kidding me about that. It seems I write about the developmental stage I am in. New Traditions was about building family life. The KIDFUN Activity Book was about young children. The High School Handbook is obviously about the teen years. Then I wrote The Mother-In-Law Manual, another book I needed to read. Next came Getting Old Is A Full Time Job, a book about retirement,. This last book, of course, is about death, dying and aging since it is the developmental stage that’s up now.
My sons want to know if I’m doing after-life next. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how I would interview for that. I have no experience in that domain. I thought maybe I should call it quits as a book writer,, but I suspect it won’t happen. What comes next, however, is a mystery at the moment. The subject will find me. The question that really interests me right now is how we can figure out when there is something we are sure is right that, in fact, is wrong.
How can readers find out more about you and your endeavors?
Oh my, endeavors seems like such an important word. Mostly, I think I am trying to grow still larger for myself and, when I can, to help others do the same—just because it makes me happy and feels worthwhile.
If people are curious about me, I’ve written a brief history of the life and times of Susan Lieberman on my WEBSITE All my books are listed there too.
As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
That’s a very kind question. But by now, what I really want is to ask you questions. I want to know more about you, to know how you reacted to Death, Dying & Dessert and how others react and why you do this work? I am not shy; it is flattering to be asked about myself, but, at 70, it’s less interesting to talk about me than about people or things I don’t yet know.
If someone reads my books, which are all non-fiction, they will know me. They hear my voice, how I think and what I value. Do many people really care whether I prefer red or black, vodka or lemonade, chocolate or cheesecake, writing early or staying up late?
I understand that we can be curious about the people we read or see in the media. I get curious, too, but what is most important is the work and what it means to us. The context that helped to shape it may be interesting, but the work should stand on its own and work in the readers’ context.
In reply to your question, I would have to say that a good part of my law practice was devoted to most of the topics you discuss in your book, which incidentally, I discussed with thousands of my former clients over the span of thirty-five years. I know the difficulties heirs encounter when their loved ones pass away without a will or if they become incapacitated without a durable power of attorney. I also am very aware of many of the issues you discuss in your book.
I review books is a good question. I guess I came full circle. When I
first started practicing law many moons ago, I didn't have any
clients. I thought to myself, why don't I write about Quebec Civil
Law for the Financial Post (which is now known as the National Post).
I never wrote an article in my life but due to my law training, I
knew it couldn't be that difficult. I wrote a letter to the Editor of
the Financial Post and you know the saying, “being at the right
place at the right time,” the editor, to my surprise, called me
and said that he would be interested as the newspaper was about to
publish articles about the Quebec Civil Law system. He even agreed to
pay me for the articles! I did write several articles and then my
practice began to take off which meant either I was to practice law
or become a journalist. I decided on the former.
When I retired, someone suggested that I review books. Again, I never reviewed a book in my life, but I knew how to read, research and write. Initially I wrote reviews for other sites and eventually in 2002 I set up bookpleasures.com.
Good luck with all of your future endeavors