Elaine, the protagonist of Cincinnati-based young-adult author Sara Bennett Wealer’s latest release Grave Things Like Love, is known to her small town as “funeral girl.” The nickname isn’t a stretch — she lives above a funeral home that has been in her family since the 1800s. It’s assumed that she’ll one day take over her dad’s role as mortician, but Elaine isn’t so sure.
Grave Things Like Love is a sweet but spooky coming-of-age novel with a paranormal twist, and the Oct. 11 release date means you can add it to your reading list just in time for Halloween. Along with ghostly encounters, Elaine navigates numerous hallmarks of teenage life: evolving friendships, a love triangle, looming college applications, family expectations, mental health and learning to set boundaries.
Grave Things Like Love marks Wealer’s fourth novel, but the idea for its funereal setting goes back to the beginning of her career as a transportation reporter working outside of Pittsburgh. By happenstance, Wealer explains, her reporting led her to a funeral home.
“I can see it very clearly in my head. It was a big yellow Victorian house on a corner in a small town outside of Pittsburgh near the river,” Wealer tells CityBeat. “I was fascinated because the family ran it, and they lived upstairs. They had this whole funeral home business down below.”
Wealer interviewed the owners for a feature about the ins and outs of running — and living in — a funeral home. Before she was able to write the article, Wealer changed jobs, but the premise stayed with her. Wealer moved with her husband to Cincinnati, where she briefly worked for the Cincinnati Enquirer, and has remained in the Queen City ever since.
The idea of what it might be like to be a teenager living in a funeral home – a place that people may be curious about or even afraid of – especially interested Wealer.
“I always kept that in my head and wanted to write a book about it,” Wealer says. “And it was fun to bring in all those things that I learned from hanging around with that really lovely family. They gave me a lot of rich ideas and an insight into what it’s like to live in a place like that.”
Wealer found that the funeral backdrop offered plenty of fun and unique scenarios. For example, she references a scene near the beginning of the novel in which Elaine reluctantly drives her family’s Victorian horse-drawn hearse for the town’s parade dressed like, as the book explains, an “old-timey Morticia Addams” from The Addams Family.
Other research included watching YouTube videos of morticians discussing their field of work and going into granular detail about the funeral business, embalming process, preparing bodies, and more. Wealer says she also gave the first draft to a friend who grew up across the street from her family’s funeral business.
“She read the first draft and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we had a hearse like that, too!’ Things like that were gratifying to see that I was on the right track,” Wealer says.
From the get-go, the opening parade scene lays the groundwork for multiple conflicts explored throughout Grave Things Like Love. Elaine’s parents often sideline what she wants - hanging out with friends, exploring different career paths – for the business’ needs. Her sister, Astrid, is growing up and seemingly apart from Elaine.
Readers also meet Xander, a strong-willed new kid with dreams of being a paranormal investigator. Naturally, Xander, who shares his ghostly findings online, has his mind set on investigating Elaine’s home. As their relationship deepens, he convinces no-nonsense Elaine to go ghost hunting. Despite being wary of the supernatural, she just may find herself and uncover family history in the process. Also in the mix is longtime bestie Miles, who isn’t a fan of Xander but loves watching the fictional TV show Dragonfly with Elaine every week.
Wealer’s first draft of Grave Things Like Love didn’t include a paranormal piece. Her editors encouraged her to thread in fun elements to make the book more engaging. Wealer’s last novel, Now & When, also included a touch of the supernatural via a time-travel plot.
“I love the idea of adding these little touches of weirdness,” Wealer says. “There’s something going on, but it’s not really explained. You have to work with and deal with it. In Grave Things Like Love, it’s a ghost.”
Wealer’s editors also noticed in early drafts that Elaine had anxiety and encouraged Wealer to lean into that detail. Elaine became Wealer’s first character written explicitly to have anxiety. Even so, mental health doesn’t define Elaine’s story arc or personality; anxiety is simply something she has.
Wealer drew upon personal experience while writing a character with anxiety, though she notes that mental health and coping strategies aren’t one-size-fits-all.
The anxiety she depicted felt less limited to her personal experience and more universal due to seeing her children grow up and begin managing their own mental health.
“I can see other people I care about who are needing to manage it, too,” Wealer says. “I think that’s why in this book, it became part of the story organically in a way that it might not have earlier.”
Even so, Wealer says Elaine is the most “her” character she’s written. In addition to their anxiety and being protective older sisters, they share another trait: both needed to embrace the fun of Halloween. The reader sees Elaine attempt to make peace with a holiday she dislikes. After all, talk of her home being haunted ramps up to an all-time high during spooky season. But this year, she’s determined to step outside her comfort zone.
“She is a bit overly serious about it,” Wealer says of Elaine’s reaction to Halloween. “It was fun writing that part because it was a message to myself to lighten up a bit. [Elaine] goes out for Halloween and has fun. And so I think it’s going to be great to have the book come out around that time.” It’s fitting that Grave Things Like Love, a book about a teenage girl who lives in a possibly-haunted funeral home, includes a Halloween scene complete with trick-or-treating and an impromptu party.
While the book includes a love triangle between daredevil Xander and Elaine’s affable childhood best friend Miles, Wealer included multiple types of relationships. Readers see Elaine grapple with her parents’ expectations, tension with her little sister Astrid, and changing friendship dynamics.
“To me, friendships are maybe even a little more important,” Wealer says. “I’ve tried to portray strong friendships with my main characters. I’ve had some books where I’ve portrayed tense relationships, rivalries, because I think that’s important, too. And sometimes they can fall apart when you’re that age.”
Wealer says she wants readers to have fun with her book while taking away the message that it’s normal to still be figuring your life out as a teenager. Even if your family has expectations that may not align with yours, or you feel tugged in different directions, it’s okay to not know what the future holds.
“I won’t spoil the end, but Elaine finds a compromise for something she can do for now that she likes,” Wealer says. “The things you can find for now can often be the stepping stones to the things that you really want to do forever.”
Sara Bennett Wealer will discuss Grave Things Like Love at 7 p.m. Oct. 11, at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 2692 Madison Rd., Norwood. Info: josephbeth.com.