The Stages of Grief

National Book Award winner Robin Benway talks about A Year to the Day.

a year to the day, robin benway
Carly Gaebe

Robin Benway thought her 2017 novel, Far from the Tree, was going to be, she says, “the end of my career.” Instead, it won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Five years later, Benway is back with a new young adult novel, A Year to the Day. In it, a teenager named Leo grieves the death of her sister Nina, killed by a drunk driver in a car accident that Leo as well as Nina’s boyfriend, East, survived. Leo doesn’t recall the accident, but East does, although he won’t tell Leo what he remembers. The narrative unfolds in reverse chronological order, beginning a year after Nina’s death and working its way back to the tragedy. The result is a complex, moving, and occasionally funny story of loss and love and connection.

You wrote this novel at the height of the pandemic. Was there ever a point when it felt like too much to write about grief?
I went to stay with family out of state for a long time during the pandemic, and I started writing it because there really wasn’t anything else to do. But I first got the idea a few years ago. I knew I wanted to write about two sisters, one of whom either dies or goes missing. I knew I wanted to tell it backwards. I spoke with Megan Miranda, whose book All the Missing Girls was constructed that way, and she told me to keep it as simple as possible, because you’re already asking so much of your audience. So I thought, “Why don’t I just focus on the first year of grief?” That first year is so fraught. Every single event makes you feel as if you’re experiencing the loss all over again: Mother’s Day, Christmas, a Wednesday.

I would sit in my mom’s guest room and write, and then I would come out and hear the latest news about a surge. At one point, I did say to a friend, “I’m writing this book about grief and loss. Does anyone even want to read about that?” And she was like, “There might be a lot of people who need to read something like that.”

Did it make you feel more connected to California while you were away, to write something set here?
At the start of the pandemic, I was pretty isolated for six months here. So when I went to see my family, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything in California because I hadn’t been doing anything. I would see people from eight feet away, but it wasn’t like life. It felt like we were all in stasis. Nor did I feel differently about how I was writing about California—almost all my books have taken place in California because it’s where I grew up, it’s what I know, it’s in my bones.

Did you have particular places in mind as you set things, like the fire roads where East and his friends skateboard?
I never specifically identify a location because I always want people to picture it in their own heads. If you live in North Carolina, I want you to picture your town. But it all makes perfect sense to me—the fire roads that East and his friends are skateboarding down, that’s in Laguna Beach. I know kids go up there, and I know that they have filmed each other skating. It just helps set the scene; I could see it so easily. I watch everything I write like a movie in my head, and then I write it down.

What does telling the story backwards offer that a more chronological treatment wouldn’t have?
When I first started, I just wanted to try playing with structure. And then I thought, “Why am I doing this?” There has to be a point for the reader. Which is how it came to be that Leo doesn’t remember the accident and East does. As we move backwards, we find out what happened that night and why East doesn’t want to tell Leo. It gives readers a moment, a bit of knowledge, that Leo will never have.

It also let me explore grief. We talk about the five stages of grief, but everyone experiences that in different ways. Telling it backwards let me play with the way grief unfolds, which is very erratic, and how different people react.

Can you talk about finding humor in such a serious topic?
If you only have grief, you lose the joy of loving somebody. There has to be balance. And this is specifically set in America. Americans have a very interesting approach to dealing with grief, which is that we don’t. We have this idea that you’ve got to get through this pain and fix it…so there’s not a lot of space to say, “It’s been six months, and I’m still sad.” In wrestling with that, there are always moments of humor.

I really wanted a scene where Leo and East are talking about Nina and Leo goes, “But sometimes she was a real asshole.” It’s very easy to sanctify someone after they die, and I wanted them to be like, “She was the worst driver.”

You won a National Book Award for your previous novel. Did that put pressure on you in regard to this book?
You get the award for the book that you’ve written. It doesn’t help you write the next book. But it did give me a moment to recalibrate. I had books come out in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017, so to be able to take a little breath…what happened was so wonderful. But it’s probably never going to happen again. I feel lucky that I get to keep writing books. Winning gave me the ability to keep my career moving forward.

When I was thinking about this book, I did say to myself, “Well, I’m just going to swing for the fences and try to write this book backwards.” I felt like I had a little bit of goodwill because people liked the last one.•



Maret Orliss is an assistant op-ed editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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