Author Interview: Suzanne Bea Slover Leahy
I had the pleasure of working with author Suzanne Bea Slover Leahy on her debut book, Life on the Edge: Reflections on Death, Loss, and Letting Go from a Hospice Chaplain, on our publishing platform Story Sanctum. The book, which launched in November 2022, is a surprising read, as practical as it is inspiring. As a Hospice Chaplain, Suzanne writes candidly about death, sharing stories from numerous people she has helped transition out of this life. I caught up with Suzanne to ask her some questions about the book, death, the writing process, and her hopes for what the book will accomplish in the world.
Why did you want to write this book? What was your motivation?
I've wanted to write this book for years! I love my job and have learned so much about caring for others at the end of their lives. There is a lot of fear around death and I wanted to help others move past that to prepare for a more positive understanding.
What's the feedback you've been getting from people who have read it?
I've had a lot of positive feedback from people who have read the book. Most readers have been surprised by the humor included and the fact that there is a lot of practical information in the stories of my patients.
As a Hospice Chaplain, you've been around death a lot. You include a bunch of stories in the book of people you have gotten to know very intimately. Some of the stories are tragic, some humorous. How do you handle being around so much grief?
I guess I don't feel my experiences with my patients as "grief." As I see it, the only reason I ever meet one of my patients is because they are dying and they have asked me to come alongside them and help them die the way they want to, in circumstances they choose. My focus is on learning what they need and want for a peaceful death, then putting that in place. When a patient dies, I have a sense of satisfaction in the fact that it played out the way the patient wanted it to. Of course, every death holds a degree of sadness and I sometimes need space to recover, but my focus is on the patient.
What is your favorite story or stories in the book? Why?
It's hard to say which story is my favorite! As I was writing, I often felt like I was back in the moment being described and talking with the patients/ caregivers being described. I suppose each story was my favorite-- my favorite for the specific topic being described. I will always love the story about the golden retriever stealing a patient's dentures. It was funny, but also presented an ethical decision-- the owner of those dentures could no longer eat solid food, so should the dentures be replaced or not? I will always love the stories involving children because of their innocence, their matter of fact responses. I will always love the stories of faith in the face of death-- they encourage me and strengthen my own faith. And so it goes...
One thing I really appreciated about the book was the level of detail you included about the dying process. You not only share inspirational lessons you learned from your clients, you share practical things you learned like the importance of writing a will, end of life decisions, what a crematorium is like. Why did you think it was important to include those kinds of practical details in the book?
Most people do not want to know much (if anything) about the end of life, but it is so important to know about certain things before they're actually in the situation. I wanted to be able to give practical information within the context of an actual situation with real patients and caregivers. Reading a textbook teaches. but can be dry sometimes. I wanted to "teach" without being dry! I wanted to be able to present information in a way that was easier to swallow because of the people and personalities actually involved. For example, on a regular day I would not choose to visit a crematorium, but because of a family member I did just that and came away with a lot of information I continue to use today.
When I'm writing nonfiction about the past, it can feel like time travel. It can be surreal revisiting times, places in your life with the knowledge and perspective you have now. What was it like to return to those moments, and relive them through your writing?
As I mentioned above, I felt exactly that-- like I was sitting with my patients and reliviing it all again. That was an unexpected joy which made me want to share their stories even more!
Life on the Edge is your first book. What was the most challenging thing about writing it? What was the easiest? What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about writing their first book?
Although this book is just now in print, it has been in my spirit for decades! For decades I have wanted to share the joy, depth, sadness, wonder and so many other feelings about facing the end of life, but I just wasn't able to make it happen. About a year ago I began thinking about this book again, but with new drive, new motivation. I have to say, it was an easy process! These stories have been in my head and heart for so long that it felt very freeing to pour them out onto paper. Because the content of the book is so dear to my heart, it felt easy to present it to others. Probably the only difficult part was deciding which stories to include and which to leave out! If anyone is considering writing a book, I would say pay attention to your own inner- workings. When the time is right, you'll know!
Now that you've released the book into the world, what are your hopes for the book? What does success look like for you?
My hopes for this book have always been to help others wrestle through some of the fear that comes with the topic of death. Although we will all die and somewhere in this world death comes to someone every minute, no one wants to talk about it. Since most people do not have the opportunity to be with dying people everyday, I want to share my experiences in a way that is informative, but accessible. I want readers to be able to see some beauty, some humor, some depth well beyond any fear or negativity. I already feel the book has been a success by the first reviews from people who were surprised by it's message.
This question is self-serving. I enjoyed working with you on this book project and I learned a lot about you and what hospice chaplains go through over the course of their career. What was it like for you to work with Casselberry Creative Design? Would you recommend us to other writers who want to publish a book?
Working on this book with Casselberry Creative Design was wonderful! Since this is my first book, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing! I had great supervision, answers to all my "rookie" questions and a lot of encouragement as I went through the process. I felt my work was valued and my stories needed to be shared. I would (and have) absolutely refer other writers to Casselberry Creative Design.
Last question. Do you have any other book ideas or projects in the works?
Yes! I'm talking now with a woman diagnosed with ALS at 59 years of age. She wants to write about her life, which has had many, many interesting twists and turns. I'm eager to get it all on paper!!