Society & Culture
Pamela Skjolsvik is an author, book preservationist and activist. Pamela has been published in several literary journals and her book, Death Becomes Us, is a humorous memoir exploring how her journey talking to people about dying helped her learn to engage more fully with the living.
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Passionistas: Hi. Welcome to the Passionistas Project Podcast. We're Amy and Nancy Harington and today we're talking to Pamela Skjolsvik — a writer, book preservationist and activist. Pamela has been published in several literary journals and her book "Death Becomes Us" is a humorous memoir of her journey talking to people about dying which helped her learn to engage more fully with living. So please welcome to the show Pamela Skjolsvik.
Pamela: Thanks for having me.
Passionistas: Thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate it.
Pamela what are you most passionate about?
Pamela: I have to say that I'm probably most passionate about books because books are integral to both my day job as well as my career aspirations — writing books, working in a library and also doing the book preservation.
Passionistas: Tell us how that relates to your career aspirations and your day job.
Pamela: I have two different jobs. I do book preservation for a man who collects rare books as well as art. And I work in a public library. So my day job involves kind of two different aspects of books. One is very solitary. I'm just dealing with a physical aspect of a book and preserving it, doing repairs on the paper or the spine, making boxes for these books to keep them preserved for future generations. And then at the library I'm working with the public, helping people find things that they're looking for. And that's probably my favorite part because I love talking to people about books or movies doing recommendations.
Passionistas: Talk a little bit about your path to becoming a writer.
Pamela: I really liked writing but it was kind of like a thing that I didn't feel. I could do in my family. Because I was kind of set up to be the responsible child and not do something creative. And I did that. But I love telling stories. And probably when I lived in Colorado about 2004, 2005, I joined the writing group. And I just had a lot of fun telling stories about myself, my family. And then I just tried to get that work out there and see if people were interested in reading it. And I got some early success with my writing so that spurred me to keep going.
Passionistas: What inspired your first book "Death Becomes Us"?
Pamela: I had a midlife crisis and I went to grad school. To become a writer. To have that validation like. To spend two years to study writing. And I didn't know what I was going to write about but we had to come up with the thesis. We had to figure it out. And I was with journalists and very serious types of writers. And I was like oh I really don't know what I wanted. You know I could write about my family or read about myself. And that's what I thought I was going to do. But then I was supposed to call my mentor and we were supposed to discuss my thesis and she didn't call me.
And I had my kids up stairs. They were young at the time and so I called her number. And instead of getting her I got a funeral home. Wrong number. What? So I kept calling and I kept getting it and then she finally called me and turns out that when she was on the phone, she had a landline, that calls would get directed to a funeral home, if she was on the phone. And that morning she was on the phone talking about the death of her favorite author David Foster Wallace. So she was talking about death. And then we started talking about funeral homes and people who worked in funeral homes. And I'm like, this is kind of weird. And she's like well why don't you go find up who works in funeral homes. And that kind of started the journey of discovering death professions.
Passionistas: Tell us a little bit about some of the people you talked to while you were researching the book.
Pamela: The first interview was with, I got sick stop with someone I worked with who said I know an embalmer who goes to the gym with me. Because I lived in a small town at the time and there was only one funeral home and they didn't want to talk to me. And he wouldn't return my phone calls. So this guy lived in New Mexico. I lived in Colorado time and we met and he actually was afraid of death and that's kind of what got him into becoming an embalmer. He had a friend who worked at the funeral home and he said that he drives up you can do pickups of the body and kind of get acquainted with what we do. And then he worked there a while and actually became an embalmer dealing with the bodies.
I didn't get to watch him do his work. And I thought oh that's interesting and. You know. I was done. But then things got a little more immersive and through my... I divorced my hairdresser which was very weird and uncomfortable. My new hairdresser it turns out that her son had died when he was 2 years old. He choked and his dad who was with him at the time felt horrible didn't know what he was supposed to do. And that kind of made him want to become an EMT. So when I went to get my haircut.
First time with her she said well you should talk to him. And what ended up happening is I ended up riding around with him and his crew for the summer. And for me that was probably the more difficult... probably the most difficult thing that I did during the research of that book. Because I realized that it's not necessarily death that I was afraid of it was other people's grief. I had a really difficult time being in the presence of someone who was grieving. And he lost his son. That was a pretty major loss. I felt like I had to fix it. You know. I think in American society we feel like we have to make people feel better. We have to fix their grief. And I think what I learned through the course of writing this book is there is no fix. People are going to grieve and it's going to take however long it's going to take and probably the best thing that you can do is to listen or to be present with that person and however they want to be with you at that moment.
Passionistas: The book uses humor in what's considered a pretty serious world. So how did you strike that tone when you were writing the book?
Pamela: Well I think that humor for me is kind of my natural defense mechanism. It's just how I deal with the world. And because it was such a heavy topic I often had to make light of it the humor in the book is pretty much all targeted at me and how ridiculous I am. Most of the time I'm not making fun of other people. It's like oh my gosh I am so inept in so many ways. I think humor comes naturally to me. And with this dark subject I think it needed it. Because nobody is like oh yeah I to read a book about death but if there's some humor in it and some relate ability it was like the spoon full of sugar to make the medicine go down.
Passionistas: Talk a little bit about what you learned personally on the journey writing this book.
Pamela: The first thing I learned was that it's not necessarily death that I'm afraid of. I think that's the easy part. My own death. It's other people's deaths and their grief. Is the more difficult aspect. I've learned that there's no quick fixes. There's no there's no three easy steps you know to get through grief or to help someone get through grief. That being present is very important. Food. You know giving people food is a big thing. And I've learned that I actually really enjoy talking to people about that because I get to have very deep conversations with people. Because I don't think a lot of people are like yeah I'll talk about that with you. It's just a conversation that doesn't happen that often people. And so I've got to have very intimate conversations and I still do.
I get sent articles at least once a week from people like oh I saw this thing about death or you know people feel like they can talk to me about it. It makes me feel good. That they feel like I'm a safe person. I'm not going there.
Passionistas: Has it helped you deal with your own personal loss differently?
Pamela: I don't know if it is necessarily made it easier. Because my dad died in August of last year. I don't know if it made it easier. But I didn't feel like I wanted him to have a good death. And wanted to have hospice involved. I wanted him be comfortable. I didn't feel like we needed to battle anything. I just wanted him to be comfortable and be present with him. My dad was kind of a loner and kind of a guy who, not a real social butterflyn so I figured that when he did pass he would probably be in the middle of the night when no one was around. That would have been the easy aay for him to go. So it was very surprising that he died in my presence. I felt honored that happened. But I don't know if the book made it any easier. Maybe just more awareness of what was going to happen. When it would look like.
Passionistas: While you were writing the book, you also were diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder. So talk about the cognitive behavioral therapy you did and how that helped you as a writer.
Pamela: It was a cognitive behavioral therapy through Southern Methodist University. It was a research study. I guess it was started out of Harvard. And I couldn't get a job when I first moved to Texas I could. I got accepted into this research study and there's probably eight of us when it began. And it was all exposure therapy. So basically they figured out, we had to tell him what we were afraid of, things that made us super uncomfortable. And rated them. And then each week we had to do these things. And they took us out in Dallas and made us do really, really weird stuff.
I mean like it started out to do introduce ourselves in front of each other. Which was really painful for a lot of us flushing an heart racing and you feel like you're going to get attacked and then it just got progressively more intense. I had to go out in a Starbucks and just stand up in a Starbucks and start reading for no reason. Just start reading and in front of the people at Starbucks. And it's basically to show yourself, that it's like a science experiment, that you're not going to die. You're going to do the craziest thing. You think it's just going to kill you if you do it, if you go through with that and then you realize oh that was uncomfortable but I didn't die.
And then I had to I had to go to an Ann Taylor store and I had to pick out clothes that did not fit me and put them on. And then come out into the store and ask people what they out of my outfit. Because I hate trying on clothes. That was one of my things that I didn't like to do. And I lived through that. And then I think the last thing I ended up having to do was approach a table full of men in a bar. And say hey I'm a writer and I'm doing a reading tomorrow night. Would you mind if I read three pages to you all as a practice? And I was like I can't believe I'm doing this. But they're like OK. And I did. And then they're like oh where are you on Facebook.
So, everything that I thought was just going to be horrible actually turned out to be not so bad. So, I guess what that taught me is to not be afraid to tr weird things. And to view a lot of what life throws at you as sort of an experiment. You know like. Look at myself as a test subject. OK I'm going to Starbucks. And I'm going to talk to a stranger. I'm going to be in the lineof the grocery store and talk to people. Because before I was like. Oh please don't talk to me I don't want, you know, I can't do it. But now it's like whatever.
Passionistas: Do you feel like doing that study helped me with the job at the library since the job at the library is all about talking to people?
Pamela: Yes. I mean I've done for my anxiety I've tried Klonopin and drugs to see if it'll help in the end they just make me want to sleep. So to say the cognitive behavioral therapy was the one thing that really helped me. And now I don't really get freaked out in social situations. I am not, you know, I'm not going to go to a party. You know I just know that that's part of my personality. It didn't make me a social butterfly but if I do find myself in a social situation I don't feel like I'm going to be attacked.
Passionistas: Is there some tool that you learned that you apply if you're in that kind of situation and you are starting to feel stressed out?
Pamela: For me it's looking at myself as the subject and talking to myself and saying you're okay. You can get through this. I mean before was that whole fight or flight thing would kick in and I'm like oh god I gotta get out of here. But now I'm like you're okay. You're in line at the Kroger. Yes they are a little close to you in the back with their heart. But you're going to be okay. And you're only going to be here for another 15 minutes.
Passionistas: What was the chronology with the Dallas Fort Worth Writers Club? Was that before or after the therapy ended. So did it help you with that, too.?
Pamela: That was part of the therapy. Week two or three they said you have to join a social group and you have to go meet people socially. So I'm like OK. I'll find a the writers group. So I joined the DFW writers group. And that is a read and critique group. So you go and you read your pages a bunch of people critique it and then you die a little inside. And then you go of. So the first time I did that I did want to... I wanted to die. But, I forced myself to keep coming back and then it just got easier and easier each week to do it. That's helped me immensely. Yeah I have an MFA in Creative Nonfiction but the actual going to a writers group and listening to all different types of genres and different levels of writers and giving instant feedback has been extremely helpful in my writing journey.
Passionistas: Do you think there's something specific that you've taken away from it?
Pamela: Well if you want to be a writer you have to write. You have to treat it as a business and show up and. It's kind of like you give back to what they give you. They're critiquing your work. You critique her work. Unfortunately I have been so busy with my two different jobs that I have not been able to attend the writers group probably in the past year but I do intend to get back to them probably this summer because I miss it.
Passionistas: And do you find time to write given that schedule?
Pamela: Well I did finish another book which is out on submission right now. And I started writing a second book in relation to that novel. But I am definitely not writing as much as I'd like to.
Passionistas: Can you tell us anything about the book you wrote thats out in submission?
Pamela: It is called "Forever 51." And it's.. I think I just have a habit of writing things that are kind of what the publishing world doesn't necessarily want at the time. It's about a vampire. It's about a menopausal vampire, eternally menopausal vampire on a quest to become mortal again. So basically she has to go out find the people that she has turned into vampires during her 100 years of life. So it's like a road trip. Then she's got a meth addicted sidekick. So it's a fun book but it explores death and also what it means to live in the form of a very cranky vampire.
Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington and you're listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Pamela Skjolsvik. Find out more about Pamela and her book "Death Becomes Us" at PamelaSkjolsvik.com. And now here's more of our interview with Pamela.
Passionistas: Talk to us a little bit about the book preservation job that you do.
Pamela: The job in book preservation kind of fell into my lap. I was looking for a job when we moved to Texas and they need someone to catalog the collection was probably like 15000 books. So I did that and then they brought in a man from California who makes extremely beautiful boxes for these super expensive rare books. And he just showed me a few techniques to do paper repairs on dust jackets and how to do custom fit Mylar. And so I started doing that and I enjoyed it. And then I took a few classes to learn how to make boxes. And then I went out and I spent a couple of weeks with him one summer to learn how he makes the boxes. And so probably for the past couple of years I've made boxes. And I really enjoy it. I like working with my hands and it allows me to be creative. And I don't care what Marie Kondo says. I think books are awesome. I like to have lots of books. You know they don't bring me joy like jumping in a hoppy house maybe brings me joy like that's joyful. Reading a book like "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. That book did not make me joyful but I loved that part because it made me feel something. So with this collection you know it's preserving these works for future generations and making sure that they don't deteriorate any further.
I really enjoy it and I'm glad that I got to do it. It's kind of a dying art because it is so expensive to get into it. You need a lot of equipment and they don't necessarily have as many programs that teach paper preservation or conservation in the US. So. I feel pretty lucky to have been able to deal with it done thus far.
Passionistas: You've also become activist in the last few years. So tell us about some of the causes that are important to you.
Pamela: My activism started with the death penalty. In the book "Death Becomes Us." I interviewed Christian Oliver who was on Texas' Death Row. And I went to meet him the day before he was executed and talked to him. About it not about why he was there but basically how he felt about knowing the exact day and time of his death. Because that's something that nobody knows. And just from that conversation it really got me interested in learning more about the death penalt. In Texas they execute a lot of people still. I've done a few marches. I befriended Christian's girlfriend who is still incarcerated at the Mountveiw unit in Gainesville which is the Women's Death Row uni in Texas. It makes me sad for these people. Because I just can't imagine what life would be like. And I think that you know there's evil out there and people do bad things. But I think all of us are capable of doing something horrible just takes the right circumstance. And then you find yourself in a six by nine foot cell. And then no one who will advocate for you on the outside. So in my small way I have tried to help Sonya get glasses. Or help her getting her medication. Or communicating with her daughter which is probably the biggest thing.
And then after 2016, I have become more involved in the Texas Democratic Women's Club which grew from like 30 people before 2016. Now I think we have more than 700 members. Tarrant County, where I live, is Red. But, Beto, ya'll heard of Beto? He turned Tarrrant County Blue. He actually beat Ted Cruz in Tarrant Couty. Ted Cruz ultimately won the Senate seat back. But, you know I'm working to help turn Texas Blue.
Passionistas: Looking back at your journey so far has there been one decision that you consider the most courageous thing you've done?
Pamela: I think embarking on the grad school and deciding to write about death. Because I was seriously afraid of doing it. I felt intimidated. I felt like a fraud I felt like. Why did they let me into this school? I had one published piece. It was pretty good but I really wanted to impress my teacher... I'm going to write this and I don't know what I'm doing but I'm just going to leap and hope that a net is going to appear here somewhere. And it did. I can't say that "Death Becomes Us" is like the greatest book ever written but I got so much out of doing. I've got a story. That's another thing I'm passionate about is story. I'd love to tell stories. And hear stories. And. I met a lot of amazing people. And I grew a lot. I grew up I think through writing that book.
Passionistas: And what's been the most rewarding part of what you've done so far?
Passionistas: I really love it when someone reaches out to me and says I read your book and it really made a difference to me. Eric has a friend. Who read the book and he's a volunteer firefighter. And then he loaned it to his mother who's in her 80's and she sent me a letter like a fan... It's like my only fan letter. And she's like just loved your book and I feel like we're friends. And I just wanted to let you know how much it meant to me and I was like. Oh and that meant a lot to me. Anybody who's an artist whether you write songs or read books or paint pictures you want to feel like what you created has helped someone or changed how they thought or impacted them in some ways. So, that's rewarding to me.
Passionistas: You mentioned earlier that you were supposed to be the one in your family that took the straight path and wasn't the creative one. But what lessons did you learn growing up from your mother about women's roles in society?
Pamela: When I was younger I mean my mother had never worked. In her life. My parents divorced in 1974. And she had five kids. And so she basically had to start her life from scratch when my dad left. With all these kids that were a little crazy. My mom turned a receptionist position at a car dealership into becoming the top sales woman for that dealership a couple of years later. I mean they had to change, like 1975 or 76. They had to change it from top sales MAN to top sales PERSON.
So I grew up thinking you know that women are pretty kick ass. I felt growing that that women could achieve. You know if you can dream it, you can achieve it. Because I saw that with my own mother. Yeah she struggled but she did achieve things even in a time when those types of things weren't being achieved by a lot of women.
Passionistas: And what are you teaching your daughter about women's roles?
Pamela: When I'm teaching or do not go into debt for your education because that is the mistake that I made. But to pursue her dream. She's an artist and although I like the say don't pursue a creative job. There's just you won't be able to pay the bills. I think you have to have something that fulfills you in your job. And that makes you excited to keep you going. Yeah you need a day job but you also need to have a passion. Her passion is art. And it's exciting to watch her grow as an artist.
Passionistas: Do you have a favorite book of all time and a favorite book that you read recently?
Pamela: Probably my favorite book of all time is "Catcher In The Rye." That's like a book that made a huge impact on me as a teenager and I don't know why. But I love that book. I love J.D. Salinger's voice. I love the character of Holden Caulfield and his observations about the world. Recently, I'll just name a couple. I like "Little Fires Everywhere." That was a really good one and I just read an American Marriage." And I like that. Did they make me feel joyful? No, but they left an impression on me. And I loved that about a book when it's like I will find someone else others is really good.
Passionistas: What advice would you give to a young woman that wants to be a writer?
Pamela: Probably join a writers group so that you can be around other writers which will help you to not be afraid to get your work out there. Not necessarily to like a publishing house but to start sharing your work and giving feedback because I think that's really important. And also just to sit down every day and write and not be afraid to write horribly. It's just putting in the time and eventually you may not have a novel in one day but you'll have you know you sit down you write for an hour every day you'll eventually get there. So, making the habit of writing. And meeting other people who are of the same kind of journey you to share your work.
Passionistas :What's your secret to rewarding life?
Pamela: Taking things, this is going to get real 12 steps here, but I think it has a lot to do with being in the present. Taking things one day at a time. Just dealing with what you have on your plate for today. Setting goals. And yeah I want to write a book. So each day I have to take a step towards that goal. So it's going for what I want. But taking it day by day. Instead of well I can't write a bestselling novel by tomorrow so I'm not even going to attemp it. Now I look at things more realistically and how can I achieve this by just doing it? Little pieces. Bit by bit.
Passionistas: Do you have a mantra that you live by?
Pamela: Not necessarily mantra, but my favorite quote is Henry Ford's "Whether do you think you can or think you can't. You're right. So, it's true. So it's better to fill your mind and do positive affirmations. Yes you can do that. And thinking it. I mean I'm a total believer in the mind. Whatever you think you can do, you can do. If you believe in yourself. I gave birth to a almost ten pound baby without drugs through hypnosis. I believe the mind can work miracles.
Passionistas: What's your definition of success?
Pamela: I can tell you what it's not. I mean I used to think that Oh once I get published my life would all work out. I think just having work, life, family balance. Just being satisfied with what I have being grateful. I think attitude of gratitude is really important for me. And feeling successful. Because yeah I'd love to be a bestselling author and that meant I might feel successful for a day. But that isn't going to sustain me forever. So for me success is the little things and being grateful for just this day that I have right now — food, I have my family, I have my adorable dog who loves me. I have a job that I get to go to. That spin. I used to say oh I've got to go to work now. I'm like I get to go to work. Success. It's not the big things. It's the little things.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to The Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with author Pamela Skjolsvik. Find out more about her book "Death Becomes Us" at PamelaSkjolsvik.com. And be sure to subscribe to The Passionistas Project Podcast so you don't miss any of our upcoming inspiring guests.
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