Charlotte Maya’s memoir, Sushi Tuesdays, came out in February. It’s about her husband’s suicide, and I will admit to being a little daunted by the subject matter when I first heard about it. Nobody likes to think about such devastating loss, but Charlotte’s writing so beautifully captures her voice (in all its compassion, humor, and optimism), that I was drawn in.
I asked her to do an interview for the blog because, as she is quick to point out, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 25-34 and we, as a society, don’t talk about it. Her book is an incredible start to the conversation. I hope you enjoy my interview with Charlotte Maya. I highly recommend you buy the book and follow her on Instagram.
April: When you first started writing about your husband’s suicide you did so on a blog. When did you decide you wanted it to be more than a blog, that you wanted to write a memoir?
Charlotte: Initially, I wanted to write a memoir, but that felt too daunting. A full length memoir is 75,000–100,000 words, and a blog post is more like 1,000 words. So I started a blog. (Not to mention, by then I had remarried, we had blended into a family with four children, two cats, and two dogs.)
At first, I was afraid that the subject of suicide might leave me chattering to myself, but instead I found community. I was encouraged by the fact that readers wanted to know what I had to say about suicide loss, mental health, grief, healing, and hope.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in this country (2nd for the age group 25–34), but as a culture, we don’t talk about it. When I started writing openly about suicide, I found that people were aching to have this conversation, so I knew there would be an audience for the book. I just wasn’t quite sure how to write it.
April: And what was the process you went through? What worked and what didn’t?
Charlotte: After several years of posting blogs every Tuesday, I certainly had the word count, but those didn’t tell a cohesive story. When I printed out the blog posts and put them in the semblance of an order, I had some scenes and exposition but no coherent narrative with a beginning a middle and end.
I hired a book coach who taught me about structure, plot, and character development. She helped me put together an outline for the book, which was about 100 pages single-spaced. It was a robust outline, so I kind of thought the book would write itself. It didn’t.
My first draft took forever to write and about that long to read. I gave up on the idea, but then the story kept dragging me back in, if that makes sense. Suicide is a story demanding to be told because talking about it is what helps. Silence doesn’t. Honesty and transparency reduce the stigma, the shame, and the isolation. Draft two went back to the book coach and was returned to me looking like a Los Angeles traffic map on a summer night with the Dodgers playing at home and a sold out Hollywood Bowl. I gave up again.
The particular challenge of memoir is crafting a story out of my life. In life, everyone is precious to me; everything that happened is important. And yet, they do not all necessarily belong in the story. So, I kept working until, by draft four, I had a manuscript I felt comfortable sharing with a few early readers. With their feedback, I revised the manuscript another time, and draft five is pretty close to the published book.
April: One of the things I really admired about your book was how, despite dealing with a difficult topic, you captured a wonderful sense of optimism. How intentional was this? Were there sections that you had to rewrite to make them more positive?
Charlotte: Great question. I think I’m a pretty optimistic person (with a dark sense of humor). After Sam died, I didn’t want to become embittered. It makes sense that my writing would reflect that desire — not to ignore the devastation — but to hold both the trauma and a sense of forward movement.
By the time I was up to my elbows in writing the manuscript, my life was stable and happy (as much as a brood of kids and a small menagerie allow), so it was more work to dive deeper back into those despairing days.
April: Now that the book is out in the world, you are having a lot of discussions about suicide. What is the most prevalent misconception you’ve encountered about suicide?
I think people need to understand that suicide is a disease. Suicide is an illness, just like diabetes or cancer or heart disease. Every part of our human physiology is designed for self-preservation, so when there is a neurological or chemical or emotional imbalance, that’s not normal or healthy. That’s when we need to seek help. Mental health IS health.
Also, the language we use to talk about suicide makes a difference. We no longer say “committed suicide” because of its criminal connotations. Suicide is not a crime; it’s not a “choice.” It is, however, a complicated death and one that is particularly difficult to heal from. The stigma and shame threaten to reduce our loved one’s lives to their last moments, which is unfair and inaccurate. And when we are open to these conversations, we can honor the whole person.
I draw a great deal of hope from the 988 National Lifeline (call or text 24/7). The fact that we have this Lifeline normalizes mental health struggles and reminds all of us that help is available and that we are not alone.
If you or someone you know is struggling, don’t wait. Reach out:
April: What was the hardest part of the story to write?
Charlotte: It’s always hard to think about how much the children have suffered. I still wish I could spare them. There’s no expiration date on grief. There will always be days when Sam’s suicide crushes us, like graduations and weddings and birthdays.
It was also challenging to write my husband Tim. He is hilarious in real life, and by the time I had written several sentences describing his antics, his throwaway lines, his spot-on imitations, his encyclopedic memory for songs, and his facial expression, he didn’t seem nearly as funny. I took to jotting down notes every time he made me laugh until I felt I could capture him on the page, which is not unlike setting a leprechaun trap.
April: What was the easiest?
Charlotte: Ironically, some of the early scenes after Sam’s suicide. Those initial moments of trauma and early days are indelibly devastating, so it’s not hard to transport myself back into those moments. By the time I was writing the memoir, I had answered so many questions about those moments and written so much about them that (and had so much therapy), I could go back there without being emotionally overwhelmed and just write.
And I always like to end with a lightning round of silly questions, just to get to know you a little better.
April: Coffee or Tea?
Charlotte: YES, please. Dark and caffeinated with a splash of oat milk all morning. Transition to green or white tea after noon. Herbal tea in the evening.
April: Whiskey or Vodka?
April: Hemsworth or Gosling?
Charlotte: Who? Sigh. I need to get out of my books and into a theater, or at least turn on something streaming.
April: “Sneaked” or “snuck”?
April: Wetsuit or bathrobe?
Charlotte: I feel gritty and sunburned just thinking about a wetsuit. Bathrobe.