A Novel Tackles Laughter and Loss

Written with humor and warmth, Nora Zelevanksy’s latest novel, Competitive Grieving (Blackstone Publishing, 2021), is a beautiful look at friendship, grief and self-discovery. It’s the story of Wren who, having just lost her childhood best friend, is set with the impossible task of sorting through the chaos. Here Zelevansky (whose writing has also appeared everywhere from the New York Times to Vanity Fair) talks to Lilith about writing through motherhood, delayed coming-of-age stories and the power of laughter to help us through even our darkest times.

What was your inspiration for this book?

I was processing my own experience of grief at the time, having just lost one of my oldest, most kindred friends and also my uncle. There had been a slew of celebrity deaths not long before—that first sparked this idea of how grieving can become a competition. People kept writing about how much these celebrities meant in their lives. There was this question of whose right it was to grieve, especially publicly.

In the aftermath of my friend’s death, I started to see a tug-of-war among people desperate to prove their closeness to him. It was a way to confirm the importance of a relationship that could only be validated by the very person who was gone. That definitely inspired the story.

It seems appropriate—necessary even—that a book about grief would come out during a time that the world is facing loss on such a massive scale. 

I had no sense of what was coming pandemic-wise when I began to write Competitive Grieving, but I’m grateful for the timing of the book’s release. We’re all struggling through a kind of collective mourning right now. I hope the book can spark an open conversation about grief and offer a kind of commiseration and hope.

Your book is both funny and poignant. How did you find that balance?

I think the intersection of tragedy and comedy is so core to life. Tears are how we mourn; laughter is how we survive. In my household growing up—in a way that feels deeply Jewish to me—ironic humor was always a part of how we approached difficulty. If you can laugh at something, if you can find the absurdity in it, then maybe you can breathe and get through it. That’s how I approach grieving personally, so that’s how I approached telling a story about loss, too. 

Jewish grieving rituals are anchored in community—ten people are required for the minyan, shiva is a social experience. These traditions are supposed to comfort the mourner. But the public display of grief has the opposite effect on Wren.

People really do grieve differently. I wanted to demonstrate that through Wren. She feels like she’s grieving “wrong,” but there is no right way. We all find our methods for coping. I think those rituals are so important for catharsis and honoring someone’s life, but I found that my own true moments of sadness and mourning were very private and interior. That really surprised me since I’m by nature a very social person.

The book feels like a coming-of-age novel even though the main character is in her mid-thirties. Is Stewart’s death a catalyst for Wren rediscovering herself?

Yes, I absolutely think so. For reasons I have not yet reconciled, I tend to write delayed coming-of-age stories. I’m interested in this idea that we all have to reinvent, and reevaluate, ourselves again and again in life. I do think Stewart’s loss propels Wren towards a bigger, more expansive life. She’s fine before he dies, but, as he continually reminded her in life, fine shouldn’t be enough.

Your debut novel came out in 2012. How has your writing evolved since then?

Back in the day, I felt like I needed the perfect setup in order to write—perfect time of day, perfect desk, perfect snacks! After becoming a mother, that all changed. I’ll write any time I can get a window. That adjustment can be both frustrating and freeing. I have less hang-ups, but I am tired

I think the writing itself has gotten tighter and stronger as well. And my subjects have changed with me. My first book, Semi-Charmed Life, was deeply connected to my upbringing within an Upper West Side, Jewish, art-world family. My second book was about sorting through the rubble of our twenties. Now, I’m a bit older, so I’m interested in how we adapt to life’s curveballs.

You also have an active career in journalism In which space do you feel most authentically yourself?

It depends on the day! I was a journalist first and personal essay was my first creative writing love. When I wrote my first novel, it was an experiment to see how fiction would feel—I fell in love with it! What I appreciate about each form is what makes them so different—in fiction, I get to write freely, without constraints; in non-fiction, I experience the writing process as a kind of puzzle with a finite number of parts. It’s satisfying when it all clicks into place.