Five Questions and Answers with Ray Robertson about How to Die: A Book About Being Alive

Q: You write in the introduction to How to Die: A Book About Being Alive that it’s not a sequel to a previous non-fiction collection of yours, Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, but, rather, “a continuation of the conversation begun in Why Not?’s final chapter: Death.” Can you elaborate?

A: Aside from death being a subject that’s obviously inexhaustible—most enduring works of literature are saturated with it—I wanted, as noted, to revisit the topic for a couple of other reasons. I’m 53 years old, and an odd thing happens once one reaches the mid-century mark: people start to die. Not just any people, either, but people you know well and sometimes even love: colleagues, friends, family. It was impossible for me not to think about it now in greater detail and depth.

Additionally, I believe that our culture doesn’t take death seriously enough. There are simply too many ways we’ve created to aid us in circumventing the subject. Whether it’s via religion or philosophy or societal distractions, we tend to avoid this enormous elephant in the room. And to our detriment. Because without taking death seriously, we can’t take life seriously either.

Q: These “creations”—religion, philosophy, society—come in for a far bit of undisguised censure in How to Die: A Book About Being Alive. Are you concerned at all about potentially alienating or upsetting readers?

A: I’ve never set out to purposefully agitate or to be controversial, but I do believe that North American writers as a whole tend to write to be liked and to actively court consensus. But if a writer doesn’t occasionally make someone angry, they’re probably not doing their job. And if it’s true that we’re disposed to like people who like us, writers don’t—or shouldn’t—like readers who agree with everything they write. A book—particularly a book such as this one—is a conversation, first between the author and him or herself, then between the writer and the reader. And when people converse, sometimes they disagree. And sometimes it’s out of such disagreements that we come to a better, clearer understanding of what we actually do believe.

Q: In Part Two of How to Die: A Book About Being Alive you employ the psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler- Ross’s well-known “five stages of grief” (i. Denial and Isolation; ii. Anger; iii. Bargaining; iv. Depression; v. Acceptance ) in a fairly unorthodox manner.

A: Kubler-Ross applied her “five stages of grief” to the individual’s psychological journey toward personal extinction. I believe that her theory can just as easily and profitably be applied to human beings as a species. Different skin colours and different languages; different geographies and different customs; different sexual orientations and different political inclinations: nevertheless, we are all born, we all suffer, we all die, with only the suffering part varying from one individual to the next (those from country X, from war or starvation; those from country Y, from ennui or too much fried fatty food). The ways we’ve come up with to distract ourselves may have changed over the last 2,500 years or so, but our essential human condition hasn’t.

Q: You graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in philosophy, yet you’re not only a novelist, but How to Die: A Book About Being Alive eschews, for the most part, the work of philosophers
for that of other novelists, poets, essayists, and thinkers who are not generally accepted by academia as “real philosophers” (Pascal, Nietzsche, Simone Weil, Montaigne, et cetera).

A: In the academic community in general, a “real” philosopher is someone like Hegel, who, like the majority of his professorial brethren, wrote for other professors in a language seemingly created to deter comprehension about subjects as far removed from the everyday philosophical questions and concerns of most human beings as the ugly, ungainly style they employ is from lucid, illuminating prose.

On the other hand, literature, I believe, is still humankind’s best record of who it is, and the most compelling evocations of death in literature approximate Mallarme’s Symbolist poetic dictum: “Paint, not the object, but the effect it produces.” It’s because impression, metaphor, and inference (and their employment in literature) are superior to purely conceptual thinking in disclosing some of death’s mystery that philosophers tend to obfuscate more often than illuminate.

Q: What do you hope readers will gain by reading How to Die: A Book About Being Alive?

A: A good read. And maybe to know their own lives a little bit better, because if they have, they’ll also have become a little more mindful of their own mortality as well.

How to Die: A Book About Being Alive will be published in Canada in January, 2020, and in the United States in May, 2020.