Judy Sheehan was at McNally Jackson Books to present her novel I Woke up Dead at the Mall, a young adult novel about a dead teenager waking up in the afterlife located in the Mall of America.
Protagonist Sarah has awoken in the mall to find that she has died. Her death coach explains that Sarah, like the other dead of the mall, must finish her business on earth if she is to continue on, or she is doomed to wander the corridors of the mall.
Sheehan explains she found inspiration on the subway. She was reading a Kate Atkinson novel that included a teenager’s funeral. When Sheehan looked around the subway and saw teenage girls texting on their phones, she came up with the idea of how would a dead teenager see their own funerals. Would the dead want to check out how many “likes” their funeral received? Her first concept was a school for dead girls. Eventually she situated the afterlife in the Mall of America.
The first mall Sheehan envisioned was one specifically for dead people. She credits her agent with the idea of placing the story in the Mall of America. She had never been to Minnesota before writing the novel.
Airfare from New York City to Minnesota is very cheap in the middle of winter, Sheehan jokes. She was in Minnesota for several days researching the mall — and she never needed to put her coat on while she was there because so many of the buildings are connected, meaning she never had to go outside. She says of Minnesota: “Just good fun, a little fattening.”
“Free will is everything in the book,” she explains. And then also adds that the other main takeaway is that we are, as people, the stories that we tell ourselves. If we lie to ourselves, we become that lie.
Once she had the idea to write about a dead girl and the afterlife, she avoided other similar books. She felt afraid she would take aspects of those books with her when she was writing. However, she does consider John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars to have provided a pivotal moment in writing her own novel. John Green doesn’t talk down to his readers, and she realized that was an important quality for young adult novels.
In writing the book, Sheehan did have an ending she was driving towards. That became one of the challenges for her since she knew she had a climatic moment that she absolutely needed to achieve. Getting to that point also proved difficult because of the rules she set out for her world, like the dead not haunting the living.
One element of writing the book that she describes as fun was figuring out how to kill all her characters. Since the characters in the book are dead, she had to find different ways for them to die. For each of them, their deaths are only part of their stories. They each offer backstory leading up to their deaths, often beginning with their early childhoods.
“When I start a new book like this, I’m very good at procrastinating,” she says. The book took a little more than two and a half years to write for the first moment on the subway to the finished manuscript .
“When I have a really good writing day, I’m better at everything,” she says.