Alix Strauss, THE JOY OF FUNERALS: A Novel in Stories

Alix Strauss, THE JOY OF FUNERALS: A Novel in Stories

Zibby interviews lifestyle journalist and award-winning author Alix Strauss about the 20th Anniversary Edition of THE JOY OF FUNERALS, a powerful collection that is written with raw wit, mordant humor, and a uniquely penetrating voice as it spotlights loss, grief, and loneliness. Alix talks about her unique book party at a funeral home, her decision to reissue her book after two decades, and the changing societal attitudes towards funerals, death, and grief. She also shares insights into the unique structure of her book (it has eight short stories and a novella) and then describes her career transition from acting to writing (it might have something to do with a psychic reading…). In the end, she shares valuable advice for aspiring writers, emphasizing the importance of self-investment.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alix. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Joy of Funerals: A Novel in Stories, the 20th Anniversary Edition.

Alix Strauss: Thank you for having me. This is really very exciting. I’m glad to connect with you.

Zibby: Your book party for this book was just, oh, my gosh, literally one for the books at the Frank Campbell Funeral Home and all of that. The clever touches, the cake, all of it, it was so cool. I walked in, and they were like, “Would you like to get your Instagram photo taken here?” I’m standing in the hallway where I’ve gone so distraught for past events, and then there I was celebrating. It was nice to reclaim the space for joy.

Alix: Thank you. That was a great photo you took. I think it’s really interesting to pair venue with theme. I don’t think we do enough of that just yet. It was a bit of a challenge. To have a book party at a funeral home, they were very welcoming and inviting. I think funeral homes are going to be this new community, almost.

Zibby: They should be. They could. It’s a missed opportunity. First, why reissue? This is not the most common thing to reissue a book. Tell me why.

Alix: Twenty years ago, I think we were really early to market. As a trend journalist, it can work for you, and it can work against you when you’re really early for something. I don’t think the world was ready for a title called The Joy of Funerals. Now here you are twenty years later, and books like I’m Glad My Mother is Dead is a number-one best-seller. We’ve been able to digest these kind of in-your-face titles and to also understand them better. I think we’re also coming off of a pandemic where we’re all very lonely. We’re all grappling with, how do we connect with one another? There’s loss. There’s grief. Twenty years ago, people were not talking about funerals and death and loneliness and grief. Now we are. Some of the generation Xers are getting older, like myself. Our parents are getting older. You can’t not talk about it. Twenty years felt big too. All these things came together, so I thought, why not?

Zibby: Amazing. I want you to talk about what the stories consist of and all of that. Were there any you deleted this time around or anything you added that was new?

Alix: No. You know what was so interesting? I hadn’t really sat down to “read it” read it from start to finish in maybe twenty years. It’s been optioned. I had done some screenplays and other forms of it, but I had never really sat with it. I wanted to be honest about the work and not change too much and keep it in its organic form, but I also wanted to be really respectful to where we’ve come and the changes we have made as a country, as a community. Really, nothing needed to be changed or tweaked other than a few small little things here. Capitalizing Black was really important to me, but it was a very inclusive novel back then and probably even more so now. That was really interesting. It shows, in some sense, how far we’ve come, which is not as far as I would love or would like to see in that we all still hurt and that we all still need to connect, if not even more so.

Zibby: Describe the stories. Describe the original impetus for writing the book back when you wrote it originally, how you came up with stories versus novel, just the whole thing.

Alix: I really love playing with form in fiction. I love puzzles. To me, a collection of shorts with a novella that linked the previous stories together was really interesting. I think I was a little early to market then too because I don’t think we were playing with form and function so much, and divisiveness. Streaming has helped tremendously, the way we tell stories, the way we ingest a story. The way we understand flashbacks and moving forward and having different characters tell stories, it’s all become very acceptable. I think twenty years ago, that was still a little bit hard for people to understand. The more we shout at people, don’t write short stories, or red is not your color, the more people won’t wear red, but the truth really is people love short stories. We’re in this ADD nation now where people love short-attention-span theater.

I love the idea of also meeting people twice because I think you get different versions of people throughout your relationship. The novel is eight short stories. In each short story, you meet a woman who has gone through a tremendous loss. Some are funny. Some are humorous. Some are dark. Some are very grief-stricken. Then you have the novella, which linked the previous stories together. It’s about this funeral-attending junkie who really can’t connect with anyone in her life, and so she goes to funerals for these intensified, very intimate experiences so that she can be part of something bigger than herself. Now you meet all the women you’ve already read about, but you also get a second version of who they really are. Everything you know is sort of changed a little bit. I really love that because I think that’s how we are in real life. I’m always fascinated by, why do people come in and out of our lives for certain reasons? Why do they come in? Where do they go? Why do they stay? Why do they leave?

Zibby: It’s so funny. We have two books coming out from Zibby Books. This is the intersection of both of those. We have The Obituary Writer. It’s from the male point of view written by a man, but there is a character, who’s one of the main characters, who is like your character, like a woman who loves to go to funerals. Then we have another one called The Goodbye Process, which is a series of darker things, but not in the same way as yours. You’re a mash-up. I have to introduce you to those two authors because you can probably provide some guidance or something.

Alix: I think we should all go on the Zibby tour.

Zibby: You should. You should. We should do an event with the three of you in New York or something when the books come out. That would be fun.

Alix: That would be great. We can all write our own eulogies.

Zibby: Exactly. I also love — I shouldn’t say I love going to funerals, but I’ve been known to go to funerals of people I don’t know that well or I knew at one time. There was a girl I went to preschool with. I just remember idolizing her mom. She was just this glamorous, warm, wonderful woman. I haven’t seen the classmate probably since I was five, but I read about it in The New York Times, your home here of where you write. I was like, I just have to go. I dragged my husband. He’s like, “What? What are we doing here?” I was like, “I can’t explain it, but I just have to be here.” It’s the weirdest thing. Are you like that yourself?

Alix: I will say, unlike Nina, the main character, I have never been to a funeral where I didn’t know the person. I do think there is this sense of connection. There’s almost a sense of childhood and capitalizing or getting reintroduced to these people that — it’s nostalgia. There is this sense of familiarity and home, almost, and yet entire worlds have happened for people. There’s this instant connection. That can’t be recreated by other people who weren’t there from the start. I absolutely understand why you do that and why you, not so much like it, but that you’re drawn to it. I think it’s very normal. I think that’s actually really healthy in one sense, to really want to connect with these early roots that you had. They meant something. You can’t just throw that away. You’re connected to these people.

Zibby: It’s very true. Also, showing up for someone during that time, people remember. It’s one of those things. Maybe you’re not there twenty-four/seven, but you have to just show up when people really need you. I feel like funerals are one of those times.

Alix: It’s also something that’s everyone’s included in. It’s unlike a bar/bat mitzvah or a wedding or even an anniversary party or reunion. This is a reunion of sorts. Of course, the one person who threads you all together is there but not really there anymore. There is this reunion-like quality of seeing people that you knew and haven’t seen for years. Again, I think there’s this comfort there. I think there’s something about paying respects and remembering someone and celebrating a life.

Zibby: You can’t help but notice in The Joy of Funerals — maybe this is a pun on The Joy of Sex or whatever, but there is a lot of physicality and hooking up in the book, which can often come out in times of extreme loss. I remember in Rob Delaney’s book — I don’t know if you read it — A Heart That Works. A Heart That…something. Oh, my gosh, my brain. Anyway, he tells how when they had just lost their son or when he was in the hospital, that he and his wife went and had sex right away. He said he had met with a lot of feedback on that particular thing. How could you do that? He’s like, there’s something linked with life. Tell me about your inclusion of that element to the stories.

Alix: I’m also happy to say I have never had sex in a cemetery. I’m really fascinated by the outrageous and dirty and vulnerable and raw things that people do. I think what’s so wonderful about fiction versus nonfiction, because I write about both, is that as long as I’m a big believer and as long as you can justify it, as long as you can justify the action, as long as you can create a really believable reason why this character would exhibit such strange behavior, I’m all for including it. I’m fascinated by human behavior. I think that when one of these characters has sex in the cemetery, she’s really just looking to reconnect with her deceased husband, to the point of almost putting one man on top of his grave. There’s so much emotion. Sometimes it’s either screaming or — how do you display hurt and love and hate? It’s all rolled up in one. Emotions, they’re complex. We’re very complex people. I’m fascinated by complex people. I think you probably are too, right?

Zibby: I’m fascinated by people, full stop. Complex people, just trying to get to the root of why, trying to understand. Why do they behave this way? Tell me about your childhood. Speaking of which, Alix, tell me about your childhood.

Alix: I’m an only child. I’m the only only child as far back as you can trace. Both my parents have a sibling. They could’ve had more than one child. I’m not even sure I’m theirs. Honestly, I think it was an order child, and I just arrived. We weren’t included in these big events. If we were, my parents really went. They did not create — this was one of their biggest flaws. My parents have many. They really did not set up a foundation for me. I think you’re so connected to so little when you’re born. Your family is your first introduction. I wrote a piece for The Times about why I loved funerals. It really did stem from this idea of, a funeral was a reunion. For me, when I went, I had not met so many different — there were all these people I was related to. I was like, oh, my god, this is great. Here’s my Aunt Sue. Here’s my cousin Peter. This is my cousin Greg. This is my Uncle Leonard. I had never met them. There is something about understanding where you belong and being part of something bigger than yourself, and so they didn’t seem as sad to me.

Of course, we were fortunate. Somebody had had a good life and a long life. It wasn’t like the pandemic or September 11th or having young friends that die of cancer. These were not as sad occasions, per se. We really did feel, when I was young, that you were celebrating someone’s life. I think that was that first introduction. I learned to really enjoy them, so to speak. Then as you get older, it changes, but it becomes just as important, as you were saying, about showing up and being there and saying the — it’s one more moment that you can account for. It’s one more moment that you were there for. It’s one more moment to feel connected to something, which is really what the main character wants. I love the fact that she hasn’t killed anybody. She’s not wanted by the law. She’s a good person. She just really hurts. I think that’s a little bit different than some of the characters that we see on television or that other authors are working on. She hasn’t really done something wrong as much as she’s just trying to find her place. She’s having a really hard time doing that.

Zibby: Interesting. Alix, tell me how you became a reporter for The New York Times. How did your whole writing career evolve? Where did it start? How did it end up here?

Alix: Crazy story. I hope we have time. I was an actor. I know, what a shocker because I’m so shy. I was doing commercials when I was twelve. I was okay at that. I thought, in my early twenties when Naked Angels was really present here in New York, which was very similar to films in Sundance — what Sundance was for films is what Naked Angels was for theater where you felt if you wrote the play, you could put it on. I thought, this is smart. If I write the play, I can be in it. There weren’t a lot of great plays. God bless Wendy Wasserstein. She was so extraordinary, but Uncommon Women had been done over and over again. I thought, I’m really interested in women in their twenties who all went to college together and this new area, this new step in life, almost. How do we move from college students to almost — before there was a Girls. This was in the nineties. A psychic — I’m not one of those woo-woo people, but my first year of college, a psychic came to our dorm. She looked me in the eye. We had all asked a question. Will we be successful in our careers? Or something. She said, “What career is that?” I thought, if you’re that talented, shouldn’t you know what my career is? I said, “Acting.” Before I even finished the word, she’s like, “No, but in ’93, you’ll write a play.” I thought, you are insane. I no more am going to write a play than I’m going to collect shells off a beach and sell them, which would’ve been also a nice side gig. Here we were years later, and I actually did write a play in ’93. It wasn’t until the play was finished, I thought, that is the craziest information ever. Then I went back to try to find her. Nobody had even heard of her. It was like a fever dream. That’s how it all started. Then it started with articles and working on a novel. In that sense, it was a real progressive career switch. I really never looked back in terms of for the acting.

Zibby: Do you miss acting?

Alix: No, not as much as I thought. My guess is, too, you might feel similar. You get to have this amazing show. You’re on tour. You’ve got your book coming out. The tours are almost like your own show. I feel like I’m in the whore book tour, I like to call it.

Zibby: Oh, my god, you’re so funny.

Alix: Where can I go? Where can I speak? Have a new store opening? I’ll read there. A sandwich sale? I’ll read. I think it is showing up in a different kind of way and performing. I actually don’t miss it at all. I feel like I’m still doing it, just differently.

Zibby: That’s so interesting. I’ve thought of it as having to be a marketer, but not exactly as a performer. I see completely what you’re saying.

Alix: The way you have created this literary empire, so to speak, in all these nooks is extraordinary. In some sense, yes, because I think you and I really understand PR and marketing, but you are absolutely a performer. Watching you in all these different areas and shapeshifting and being able to step into those positions, a hundred percent, even when you’re tired, even when the kids are not or whatever it is, or you broke a foot. Somebody broke a foot. You still have to show up. That’s performing.

Zibby: That’s interesting. That’s true. You have to put the — okay, shove the tears aside and go ahead. The show must go on. I guess you’re right. That’s funny. I had not thought about life that way. Thank you for that.

Alix: I think people like us take it to extremes. I finished an article once. I was in the hospital having surgery, and I finished. The article was due. It’s the news. You can’t just phone that in. Right before, then post-surgery, I was doing interviews, which is a good way to make sure the anesthesia hasn’t affected you.

Zibby: What is your personal life like when you’re not writing and on deadline and whatever? Give us a day in the life, so to speak, as you asked me.

Alix: When you’re a freelancer, at least on my clock, every day is different. I really think I was that coffee-culture nation before there was one. I remember my father saying to me at one point, “Everyone has a nine-to-five job.” I remember looking at him and saying, “You actually are so wrong. You have no idea what’s coming.” I’ve never had a nine-to-five job. I work twenty-four/seven, but I’ve never had a nine-to-five job. Personal life, that’s a hard one because I think there’s so many ways that work bleeds into a personal life. I think the pandemic really shifted personal lives. I was here for the pandemic and wrote a tremendous amount. That has changed my rhythm, at least. I’m still a night owl. I sometimes do my best work at night, but the idea of going out to an event or a party at ten PM is no longer attractive. I don’t know if it’s because I got older. I’m a city kid. I grew up on the Upper East Side. I was having dinner parties at twenty. I was not that person who needed to be at Nell’s or the Limelight or Studio 54 or anything. I like the quiet, a more quiet, intimate exchange. I think relationships are so important. It’s hard to hold onto them these days, especially with so much noise.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s so true. Do you like to read short stories? Do you like to read across genres? Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your most recent, most enjoyable books or anything in the reading sphere?

Alix: This is a great question. When I am working on fiction, I can read really great memoir because I think really great memoir should read a rhythm like fiction and should, of course, be honest and true. There is this beautiful rhythm of memoir. I’ll read other fiction. When I’m working on nonfiction, it’s a nonfiction experience as well. My real introduction to fiction and realizing you could actually read a book for enjoyment were the Bret Easton Ellis and the Jay McInerney and Carrie Fisher and Dani Shapiro. Those were some of my grounding stones, almost. Barbra Streisand’s ginormous memoir, nine hundred and some-odd pages. Of course, she wrote nine hundred and some-odd pages. It’s on my nightstand. Actually, one of yours is on. It’s End of the Hour.

Zibby: Oh, good. Yes.

Alix: I thought it was a fascinating concept. That’s a really interesting concept where you have a trauma specialist who ends up having all this trauma and having to go into all the places she’s been sending other people, other patients, was so fascinating to me. There was a very similar book a number of years ago about a therapist whose life unravels. She goes into this horrific depression. She ends up in a facility for a short amount of time. It’s very similar. I wish I could say I was reading something that was a great fiction. Bret Easton Ellis just came out with something called The Shards.

Zibby: I saw that.

Alix: There’s something wonderful about audiobooks. It’s almost like somebody talking to you who doesn’t breathe heavy in your ear at night. There’s no snoring from another person, which is great. I don’t have to kick anybody out of bed. It shuts off in thirty minutes. It’s a perfect man.

Zibby: That’s hilarious. Totally hilarious. Advice for aspiring authors?

Alix: You are your own best investment. I think if you’re going to work this hard for something, you might as well do it for yourself. I think that there is something you can do every day to further advance your career. Some of it is just making a phone call. Some of it is reaching out to a new agent or an editor or even a friend that you admire their work and asking for a suggestion or a connection. The good news is there’s always something you can do for your career, and the bad news is there’s always something you can do for your career. It can be very overwhelming. If you really make a list of all of your accomplishments this year, if everybody can do that who feels they haven’t accomplished something, I think seeing that visually is really important. We’re so busy creating something that I don’t think we really are taking in what we already have created or what we’ve accomplished. Everybody has a side hustle. The guy who painted my apartment recently, he’s got a podcast. My editor is on book tour with her own book. My agent has a bourbon company. It’s so interesting that we’re all working so hard that we’re missing how much we really do accomplish. I think it’s important to visually see it.

Zibby: I love that. Oh, my gosh, the bourbon company, it’s hilarious.

Alix: Brandi Bowles, she’s a phenomenal agent. She’s got Boss Molly, a great bourbon company that she started with two other ladies. It’s really good bourbon.

Zibby: Wow. Alix, thank you. The Joy of Funerals. I’ll be in touch. We’ll do an event. I’m very excited about that. Maybe I can send you the stories or something for — anyway, thank you. This was so much fun.

Alix: This was great. Thank you so much for having me on the show. I love the wall behind you. I love all of your stuff. I love what you’ve created. I love that you live up the block.

Zibby: I know, right? We should’ve done this in person.

Alix: plan for coffee.

Zibby: Exactly. Bye, Alix. Take care. Thank you.

THE JOY OF FUNERALS: A Novel in Stories by Alix Strauss

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens