How To Be Dead featured on Cover to Cover with Rodger Nichols
“Schmidt writes all of this good absurdist fun with unflagging energy, a surprising amount of life wisdom smuggled in among the satire, and, most of all, a consistently sharp, comedic ear—this is a very amusing novel. … Readers will be rooting for Frances, flaws and all, from the first page. An unexpectedly touching, laugh-out-loud afterlife adventure.”
“Rich in ideas, How to be Dead explores reincarnation and how history shapes our lives. … A fiery fictional take on life and death sure to engage anyone who wants to rediscover that “life is a gift.”
-- Booklife/Publishers Weekly
“This was one of the most compelling novels I’ve read in a long time—truly an exciting and life-affirming read!”
— Danny Miller, Journalist, www.CINEPHILED.COM
“This book has it all---romance, history, sci-fi and dogs! It’s a cornucopia of literary fun.”
--Barbara Rosenblat, Actress, Orange is the New Black, Netflix
When a popular Longevity Guru steps in front of a New York City cab, she’s catapulted into the afterlife at the tender age of 65 where she discovers not heaven or hell, but The University of the Afterlife and a second chance for true love--but only if she can learn how to be dead – and convince a jury of her past lives that she is worthy of getting another chance to live.
What happens when our lives are suddenly cut short? Where do we go when we die? Is there really an afterlife? What do we have to do to get reincarnated? Do our lives mean anything?
A witty, fast-paced, debut novel, filled with dark humor offers a biting exploration of love, mortality, and life. It provides a unique twist on all of the questions raised above. How To Be Dead – A Love Story is a wonderful, introspective but marvelously funny journey that helps each of us to examine how to live the rest of our lives. A bit philosophical and psychological, Laurel’s dialogue-driven novel entertains readers while helping them take a look at their own lives.
You may wonder what a former principal, teacher, and expert author on brain functions who studied art at Oxford would be doing writing a thought-provoking but entertaining story like this. Well, after a long and successful career, she recently retired and decided to study up on longevity, to answer this question: What is the key to living a long, healthy life? She ended up basing her book’s main character, a longevity expert, on that experience. She began to really examine her life and wondered what she still needs to correct, and explore,in order to make her life a complete and fulfilling one.
“My mom lived into her 90s, so I know there could be longevity in my DNA,” shares Laurel. “I want to make the most of every precious second that I continue to inhabit this Earth.”
Laurel is available in an interview to discuss:
* How we confront our lives upon hitting retirement.
* Why it is never too late in life to make changes, try new things, and live differently.
* Why she chose to tell a story through the eyes of a longevity coach who dies accidentally at too young of an age.
* How being a school principal, art museum board member, brain development expert prepared her to write this book.
* How she wrote her book in isolation during the pandemic.
* What the unusual title means — and why she calls her book a love story.
“What do we do when we find our lives are running out of time, as we get older, and we reflect back and see areas of our life that we can still change or improve?” Laurel asks. “What do younger people do, when their whole life is ahead of them, but they are uncertain of the path to follow? Sometimes, it seems like we live many lives in one lifetime. You think that life is so challenging and complicated? Death is even more confusing.”
To live well, you may just have to learn How To Be Dead.
Q & A
How To Be Dead
It was a slow-motion epiphany. I watched my mom sail past her ninetieth birthday with no sign of stopping, and I realized I had no idea how she did it. All I knew how to do was work. So, I started researching longevity, trying to discover how to stay alive. I learned a lot, started writing a blog and then one day the whole project was hijacked by this wonderful character, Frances Beacon, who showed up in the middle of a leisurely afternoon with my darling. She’s a longevity guru, determined to live to 100 and show others how to do it. Art imitating life? But she’s smacked by a cab and the whole project became a novel about the afterlife. It was quite a surprise.
Frances Beacon, longevity guru and best-selling author of Sex, Drugs and Social Security, is at the peak of her second career when a New York City cab catapults her into the afterlife at the tender age of 65. Shocked, confused, and royally pissed, all she wants is to go home. Instead, she’s enrolled in the University of the Afterlife, where this over-achiever turns into a dropout. Frances spars with bureaucrats, misogynists, and a mysterious Court that can condemn her to frigusrepono — permanent cold storage. But her fiercest opponent is her own heart, the thing she must explore and embrace to win her freedom. In this compassionate, comedic saga of self-discovery, Frances learns that the only way to live again is to learn how to be dead.
Honestly, it landed in my head like a meteor —title, main character, the killer taxi—all in a split second. I knew enough to recognize that it was a gift, so I grabbed a pen and paper, and scrawled the idea before it could escape like so many other fugitive thoughts that visit my head. When I sat down at my computer, the first sentence popped out and I was hooked. I knew it was going to be an adventure. Then the other characters started showing up, and it was a full-time job to keep up with them. Exciting. Exhausting. And I’ll be forever grateful that they chose me to tell their stories.
Although the action takes place in the afterlife, Frances, the main character, encounters many forms of love--from base to sublime--in her search for a reunion with her soulmate: canine love (a lovely hound), doomed love (hot sex in a phone booth with a bad-boy ex-lover), parental love (reunion with her cherished father). But her biggest challenge is. summoning the courage to love another person completely despite the inevitable pain of separation and loss. Without that, her heart will always be dead. In the end, she realizes that love is the most fundamental attribute of being human. Her hard-won epiphany is, "I love, therefore I am." Only then is she reunited with her true love, Mac, "the best thing that ever happened to her."
Many women of a certain age will relate to Frances, who’s been called an irascible female protagonist as she confronts the entrenched bureaucracy and small-minded sexism she thought she’d left behind on Earth. And since it’s not in her nature to yield to the status quo, she soon becomes a one-woman rebellion, all the while hiding a broken heart. But the story has broader appeal because it depicts the difficulties all of us have in accepting our own flaws and adjusting to new circumstances, including death. So, it could be thought of as a thinking person’s comedy about the afterlife. One reviewer called it “a fiery fictional take on life and death sure to engage anyone who wants to rediscover that life is a gift.”
Initially there was the learning curve about the craft because my other books were all non-fiction. So, I studied storytelling, structure, all the basics. Then there was the jumble of ideas that would flood my head and I’d spend weeks trying to see where they fit into the puzzle. But the biggest challenge was having the courage to tell the truth. Even though How To Be Dead is fiction, it’s largely drawn from my own life experiences—family crackups, misguided love affairs, deep friendships, inconsolable loss, grief, fear of not being good enough, the miracle of finding a great love. It’s amazingly rich material if you’re brave enough to face it and if you can see the keyboard through the tears.
I’m a lifelong educator, art lover, and writer. I taught for decades in Los Angeles, every level from kindergarten through college. I was a principal and district director. During that time, I wrote four non-fiction books on art, learning, and brain development. But I also had the great fortune to have a parallel career combining my two loves—art and learning. I’ve worked with the major museums in Los Angeles and New York, including the Met, MoMA, and the Guggenheim, training docents and teachers to lead dynamic open-ended conversations that encourage museum visitors and students to express their own ideas and feelings about art, rather than simply listening passively to an expert. I’m also on the Board of the Library here in Santa Monica.
I’m a bit like a Bowerbird, always on the lookout for unique things—an intriguing painting, a clever phrase on the radio, an unusual face on the bus. I’m an observer, hanging back and watching how people act, trying to figure out what makes them tick. And I’m a perpetual learner. So, I had a whole apartment in my head filled with this collection of gems, stored over a lifetime and somehow, I was able to bring them all together in How To Be Dead, like a mosaic. I recalled snatches of conversation from 30 years ago that fit perfectly in my characters’ mouths. I told stories that I’d buried decades ago and it felt good to bring them out into the light.
I was surprised at first because it’s my debut novel, and the title, How To Be Dead, was a bit of a gamble since death is a subject that people often try to avoid. But I think the pandemic had something to do with its warm reception. Once Covid hit, you couldn’t escape the idea of mortality. Loved ones were being snatched from the face of the earth, so I think people were forced to think about the meaning of life and found themselves wondering about the afterlife, perhaps seeking some comfort. Along comes a book that Kirkus Reviewscalled “an unexpectedly touching, laugh-out-loud afterlife adventure.” Once they were inside the book, readers found a feisty, funny guide that made it safe to explore the afterlife.
They say all writing is autobiography and I can’t deny that the main character, Frances, is my doppelganger in many ways--except the safety is off the trigger. She’s uninhibited, loves to drink, has a mouth on her. She trying to do her best but is failing pretty spectacularly. I got to act up through her, but also look at my own flaws from a safe distance. And then when all her past lives started to show up, I had my hands full. I was finishing the book during the lockdown and it was a great relief to be able to escape reality and dive into the afterlife for five or six hours a day, wondering what would happen next. It was an adventure.
When I retired, my mom was 91 and still pretty lively. I looked at her and thought How the hell did she do that? So, I started researching how to stay alive. But one day it hit me--what if I don’t make it to 91? I was making assumptions that could be completely wrong. Much smarter to focus on getting the most from every day. Who can I love better? What about that talent I abandoned when I was young? Can I reconnect with a lost friend? What’s my heart’s desire? My passion? You can live a lot in a short time, or live very little in a long time. It’s a choice. We need to invest ourselves in every day. If not now, when?
The characters in my book certainly struggled with this notion—some wanting to live a long time while others questioned the point of going on, despairing about the state of humanity, and feeling that they’d had enough. Frances felt cheated by her early death and that of her father. So for her, life was too short at any age. I’m inclined to feel that way if you’re still able to do the things that you love. Read, garden, play with your grandchildren, listen to your favorite music, hold someone you love. I think the yogi in the novel said it best. “Life is a gift. The appropriate response is gratitude.”
I think human beings are fascinated with the afterlife because we just can’t imagine ourselves not existing. So faced with the inescapable reality of death, we make up stories to say it isn’t so. The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids as massive, enduring testimonials to a powerful belief in the afterlife. And it’s just so human to want more—to want to keep on living, whether it’s a blissful existence or just more of the same. I think the idea of reincarnation has huge appeal because we get another chance—to be famous or brilliant, happy or loved, a better father or mother. In my novel, the main character has another chance at true love, but only if she can master the afterlife by learning how to be dead.
Absolutely. That’s the wonder of the human brain and the human heart. We’re capable of growing new brain cells—neurogenesis. And we can grow a new, bigger heart, make room for love, give up old baggage and see the beauty in the world around us. Each of us is born with so many talents, such curiosity. But we have to reconnect with that youthful person who’s still inside, and just needs a little encouragement. Whether it’s dance, art, sports or that old guitar stashed in your closet---there are so many ways to liberate what might be the best in you. With a bit of courage, you can tell yourself a new story about who you are and what you want your life to mean.
James Baldwin said, “Live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.”Frances Beacon said, “Love all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” At this time in your life when every day is precious, don’t hold back. Liberate yourself from the gaze and judgement of others. Be willfully and persistently passionate, even dare to be spectacular. Above all, love yourself, and know that you’re worthy of love. One more thing. Never underestimate the life-saving potential of an excellent espresso.
What Select 5-Star Amazon Reviewers Are Saying
The feisty central character in Laurel Schmidt’s How to be Dead: A Love Story, is Frances Beacon (puns intended). She is a guiding light for boomer women, urging them to live mindful, lustful and free. As author of Sex, Drugs and Social Security, she has attracted legions of followers. Ironically, her own life has been anything but mindful, lustful and free. Frances has a lot to learn.
And learn a lot is what she must do, after a yellow NY taxi catapults her into the afterlife.
Schmidt’s black humor, surreal sensibilities and broad erudition lead Frances through lands as strange as Alice’s Wonderland or Dorothy’s Oz, as absurd as Don Quixote’s quest and as mythic as Dante’s passage through the Inferno.
Schmidt’s writing is agile and original, a delight in itself. Frances is funny, flawed and
recognizable, a hero for our times. The denizens of her afterlife seem flat at first, but one after another pops into 3-D. Big ideas and high stakes here, but a bracing absence of anything didactic or solemn.
Just finished HOW TO BE DEAD. Oh my! Funny, touching, self-aware, assertive, non-apologetic, confessional. You are splendid, Laurel Schmidt!
You make our emotional warps hilarious and touching and endearing. We laugh at ourselves and embrace ourselves within a single phrase.
My husband, Timothy Haerens, who was a member of your graduating class at St. Genevieve High School, discovered through your other classmates that you had written a book, which was described as insightful and entertaining among other endorsements. He ordered it; I opened it and immediately wanted to know Frances Beacon, as in follow her around and be amazed by her genius. I never lost interest in feisty, brilliant, passionate, funny, aware, multi-layered, beautiful Frances Beacon and UAL!
Thank you, Laurel. HOW TO BE DEAD is the perfect Christmas present for all the book lovers in my posse.
Couldn't put the book down. Got it and finished it a day later.
“How To Be Dead by Laurel Schmidt is a fascinating depiction of the afterlife. It is an eye-opening and heartrending story that depicts the difficulties some of us have in accepting new circumstances, including death. Well-written, the story has a complex protagonist, an intriguing plot, and a thought-provoking storyline. Dramatic and intense, the story arc builds to a surprising and satisfying conclusion.”
-- READERS FAVORITE
I love how this book reads like watching a great film--you're at the edge of your seat wondering what happens next.
Laurel Schmidt crafts her novel with all the ingredients that make it worth the read: a powerful leading lady with a whip-smart voice, historical characters who come to life in the most comical and delightful way, and a plot mostly set in the afterlife worthy of our attention. But at the heart of it, this book is a love story that made me feel all the feelings. Truly the best gift to myself.
Anyone who picks this book up will ultimately experience the joy and gusto I imagine the author had writing it.
My wife, Jane, purchased "How to Be Dead: A Love Story" for us, which I started reading as soon as we received it. I am already finding myself enmeshed in the observations and thoughts of characters, as one by one they are skillfully introduced. I feel I am in the actual setting, which is brought to life in crystal clarity by the careful choice of words and phrasing. In spite of this attention to detail, the context sweeps me as the reader along quickly. I feel I'm moving at a New York pace and intensity. Now I need to find a nook somewhere to settle down and immerse myself in the flow. This story looks it will be really absorbing. Jim Everett.