I am a firm believer that Sundays are for laying around the house and catching up on a good book. So when I heard that journalist Colleen Oakley had published her first novel, I gleefully anticipated the arrival of Sunday. Oakley, who has written for Marie Claire, The New York Times and Women’s Health among others, took on the book world, and as expected, she was received with open arms. Her debut novel is titled Before I Go, and follows a young woman, Daisy, who is diagnosed with a terminal disease, and in her remaining months of life, tries to find a new wife for her husband before she’s gone. Turns out Oakley is not only a wonderful writer but she also has a wicked humor; here’s the scoop on the process of her debut novel Before I Go.
M&V: Did you want to be a writer when you we’re a child?
OAKLEY: I did! I read voraciously as a kid and I remember telling my mom that I wanted to be a children’s book author (which makes sense, because that was the genre I was into at the time), but to be fair, I also wanted to be a farmer, live on a Care Bear cloud and marry Bo from The Dukes of Hazzard. It was a little unclear which dreams I was going to make good on.
M&V: You’ve tons of articles and essays published; what inspired you to write a novel?
OAKLEY: I always wanted to, but I think what inspired me to finally do it (or at least start attempting to do it) was Jodi Picoult. I had the incredible opportunity to interview her when I was working at Marie Claire. Her novel Nineteen Minutes was coming out and while we did talk about that, I think I mostly gushed about how big a fan I was and how I always wanted to be a novelist (very professional interviewing techniques, I know). She was so kind and encouraging and told me she couldn’t wait to read my book one day, and that turned out to be the motivation I needed to sit down and start writing a book. Because Jodi Picoult was obviously waiting for it.
M&V: What was your inspiration behind your main characters Daisy and her husband?
OAKLEY: About six years I got the very difficult assignment to interview a young woman who was dying of metastasized breast cancer. It was tough for obvious reasons, but also because we were both around the same age (late 20s) and we were both newlyweds at the time. I instantly connected with her, and though we only spoke for about 20 minutes, I just couldn’t shake the interview for days after. I lied awake in bed next to my snoring husband and wondered not just what I would do in her shoes, but what my husband would do. We were so young, and I knew he would obviously remarry at some point, and I wondered what his new wife would be like — and then, what I would want her to be like. And that’s when I had the spark of the idea — what if you could choose your replacement, the person who would marry your spouse after you were gone?
M&V: What did you learn throughout this whole process?
OAKLEY: So many things! Mostly that writing fiction is hard, but it’s also the best job in the world. I get paid to literally make stuff up. So it’s kind of like being Rush Limbaugh, but I don’t yell and sweat as much.
M&V: Do you find yourself attached to your characters when writing them?
OAKLEY: Definitely. There were a few days when I would come out my office with tears streaming down my face and my husband would think something terrible happened. “It’s just the book!” I would say. I think that may have alarmed him more that I was that emotionally invested in people that didn’t actually exist.
M&V: Did you know the ending of this book before you started writing it or did it develop as you wrote it?
OAKLEY: Yep— I knew the beginning and the end. It was all the middle bits that were the trickiest to work out.
M&V: Favorite artist, musician and author?
These are always so hard! I hate picking just one. Artist: My kids. I have their entire collection on my walls. Musician: Ray LaMontagne. Author: Impossible to narrow it down, but one of my favorites is Meg Wolitzer.
M&V: If you could only live in one place for the rest of your life, where would it be?
OAKLEY: This is so boring, but I would have to say Atlanta, where I currently live. I have a tight network of friends and family who I love spending time with, and — more importantly — who will babysit my children for free. Also, I’m 30 minutes from Hartsfield, an international airport, so I could still travel the world and get my change of scenery fix whenever I want.
M&V: And is this your one and only novel?
OAKLEY: I hope not! I’m working on my next one now. But I’m also pregnant with twins, so it’s kind of a race to see if I’ll be able finish before they get here. (Spoiler alert: Probably not.)