A Debut Novelist Imagines Life After Her Own Death

August 4, 2022 | 4 books mentioned 9 min read

I was 17 years old when I died.

In the years after my death, I liked to use this line as an ice breaker in conversations, always enjoying the disturbed reactions. Even alone, I found myself compulsively scribbling the same sentence again and again—I was 17 years old when I died. Over the proceeding years, one sentence eventually became two, two became three. Seemingly outside of my own choice, my brain, desperate to process my death, forged the beginning of a story. The story evolved, as most stories do. It wasn’t about me. Not exclusively. It became a story about a woman in the throes of true love with a promising life ahead of her who dies of lymphoma, cryogenically preserves her body, and is resurrected 100 years later in a world where it is illegal to be a resurrected human. Ultimately, it became a story about the repercussions of cheating death—the way I had.

The truth of my death is much more common. I died in a car accident on the way to take my junior year biology final. I don’t remember any of it, the moments before my death or the many minutes I was without a heartbeat. In fact, that period where I wasn’t alive distinctly stands in my mind as a stark nothingness, a vacuum of time where I didn’t exist. I can still feel it, the scar of not existing, as real as I feel the scars on my face that I try to hide behind thick bangs. It was mere chance that my life was returned to me. My unlikely guardian angel was a former EMT with a history of substance abuse who happened to be driving by when she saw my sky blue VW bug crumpled underneath a relatively unscathed Suburban SUV. She leapt to my rescue, scaling the smoking wreckage and heaving my lifeless body through the broken windshield. With her bare palms, she held my severed temporal lobe artery to try and buy time for the ambulance to get there and restart my heart. At least that’s the story as it has been told to me. Stories from others are all I have to rely on to know anything about my own death. I was told that they worked on my body the entire ride to Grady Hospital in Atlanta and were only finally able to resuscitate me as we arrived. I was rushed into surgery. and they repaired my bleeding brain. A few hours later I awoke, having been given a second chance. I had come back to life—or at least a version of me did.

As traumatic as that morning was, I wonder if I wouldn’t be so marked by death if my accident was all I had to deal with. If my own death was all I had been forced to endure, then maybe that sentence never would have wormed its way into my pen and I never would have written the story that became my debut novel The Awoken, which publishes on August 9. But unfortunately, mine wasn’t the only death in the spring of 2005. Two weeks before my own death, my childhood best friend died in a car accident on his way home from work.

Charlie was 17 years old when he died.

We’d been friends since we were seven. He was goofy and charming and kind. We made plans of living together after college in Los Angeles and going to the beach every day. A year before we died, I took him to my high school dance and hated it when my friends flirted with him. We were never romantic, but still I wanted him to myself. He somehow knew, walking away from the gaggle of girls surrounding him to sit with me and put his feet in the cold pool next to mine. We didn’t talk. We didn’t need to. I just rested my head on his shoulder while the world spun, only our future lay ahead of us.

The proximity of our life-ending events is mere coincidence. Sadly, there was no passing EMT with a troubled past looking for redemption. Charlie died and stayed dead while I had the privilege, and shouldered the guilt, of coming back to life. To this day, my death haunts me. Shards of glass remain trapped beneath my skin. Every few years one will push itself close enough to the surface that it’s uncomfortable, and I have to get it removed. When that happens, I’m face-to-face with what could’ve been. I walk through life shadowed by the corpse of myself from a parallel universe who was not as lucky. The universe where I, like Charlie, died and stayed dead. Or better yet, a universe where Charlie and I switch places.

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These dual, soul-altering events led me to that indelible sentence which then led me to write a novel. It wasn’t that simple of course. I wasn’t a novelist. At that point, I was a screenwriter and a documentarian, but I’d always been an avid reader. I grew up on big, fantastical adventures like Dragon Riders of Pern and The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings. After my death, my reading shifted along with the rest of my life. I wore thin my copy of Frankenstein, drawn to stories that questioned the very definition of life. Until then, death had been abstract, something I read about in books, and so after my death, I turned to books to make sense of it.

More than a decade later, I still found myself pulled back to that sentence, back to my original word document, and only then did I admit to myself that this was a novel. I began writing. Although it seems naïve to say now, the truth is that I wasn’t consciously aware that I was writing a story about my death. To anyone reading this, I imagine it seems absurd considering The Awoken is about a woman, eerily like myself, who dies young and then is given a second chance at life. But I wasn’t aware it was also about my death until I read my first completed draft. The nothingness I had experienced was there on the page, anthropomorphized as the ultimate antagonist. My husband always knew, as did my mother, but they never pushed me on it. Meanwhile, my editor at Penguin Random House didn’t even know I was in a car accident until we were in copyedits, more than a year into our relationship. But there it was on the page, plain as day. I still had a lot of work to do around processing my death, and even more clear was the fact that I was terrified of ever dying again.

Since my and Charlie’s deaths, I’ve developed an obsessive interest in life extension science. When I crawled out of my hospital bed at 17, I wanted nothing more than immortality. I convinced myself I was immortal, and I even tried proving so by playing an ultimate frisbee game only two weeks after my death. The doctor had ordered me to strict bed rest. I wasn’t even supposed to go downstairs to the kitchen, but I couldn’t lay there with death surrounding me. Much to my mother’s horror, I ran across a football field with a pseudo-aneurism the size of a golf ball protruding from my temple, ready to explode if strained. My defiance stemmed from something deeper than mere teenage rebellion. It was a primal necessity. I had to be immortal, or else be forced to face my mortality. I never wanted to see that nothingness ever again. This overriding need to stay far away from death for as long as possible is what brought me to learn about cryogenics in the first place. So it was only natural that I used cryogenics as the method by which my protagonist, Alabine Rivers, gets her second chance. In fiction, we, perhaps me most of all, can viscerally consider the nuances, dilemmas, and ramifications of such a world where death isn’t the end.

Fear of death is a part of life, I’ve been told. It’s what makes us human. But to be honest, after my research, I now share an equally powerful fear of humanity attaining immortality. Since the dawn of man, we’ve fantasized about escaping death—from Herodotus’s Fountain of Youth all the way to today’s billionaires of Silicon Valley pouring their wealth into life extension research. Unlike the ancient Greeks, Elon Musk actually has a chance of cheating, or at least delaying, death. Never before has humanity, through science, been so close. The emerging field of cryogenics is at the heart of this. Imagine a pause button. A person with organ failure able to wait until the perfect transplant comes available. A cancer patient able to wait until a cure is developed. A victim of a car accident able to be frozen at the scene to prevent bleeding out, regardless of luck.

cover Deathcover DeathYou don’t have to imagine it, people have been preserving themselves for decades, awaiting the day science figures out how to resuscitate a human. We already know how to bring rats back from preservation. Humans won’t be long off. In Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, and even more so in his follow up book Homo Deus, Harai details humanity’s past, present, and future attempts to defeat death. While my heart races at the idea, Harai clinically and academically considers what would happen to our world in such a future where death is no longer inevitable. He writes that civilization has kept going on the singular knowledge that everyone, despite race, wealth, or privilege, will face death. What happens if that great equalizer is taken away? Some believe the wealthy will live forever while the marginalized remain unable to shed their mortality. Or, maybe it would be the reverse. Those brought back from the dead might be seen as a blight against mankind. Our new tool of resurrection seen as a direct attack on God. Afterall, in a world without death, God is no longer necessary. This is the world I forged in my novel.

The ethics of life extension are complex, and now I question my need for immortality. Don’t get me wrong, I still am terrified of the nothingness, but I was surprised to find the alternative similarly terrifying. Would I, like my character Alabine, actually choose to preserve my body? It was psychologically hard enough for me to come back from the dead once, would I really want to do it again? Would you? This is the question we should all be asking ourselves. We’re on the precipice of species altering developments. Even this very day, any of you can call up Alcor, the preeminent cryo preservation company in the US, and pay real money to cryogenically preserve your body. You die with an agreement for Alcor to resurrect you when it’s possible, most likely into a world that is so foreign, so different to what you know today, without the loved ones you know today, that one must question if it’s even worth it. That is my biggest hesitation in calling Alcor myself, along with the clear financial constraints. My before-death self is a different person than who I am now. I have her memories and her body (at least most of it), but there’s something in my core that has changed. An intangible quality that separates me from her. I recognize her, but am different. I don’t have her hope. I don’t have her carefree outlook on life. I don’t even have many of her friends left as I systematically separated myself from them in the months that followed, believing that they just would never understand. The metamorphosis from her to me was hard. The idea of doing that again and again without end is crippling. What if the next time I didn’t recognize the girl they woke up at all? What if the time after that, I no longer even wanted to?

Perhaps fortunately, that world remains merely the fodder for fiction. For now. There are many hurdles to jump before we can claim we’ve defeated death. It could be argued that inventing the technology to resurrect a human might be the easiest part. Convincing the world to embrace such an immortal existence would likely prove a greater challenge. As we’ve seen acutely in recent years, science can be vilified, and not everyone trusts it. Although we learned to clone mammals a quarter of a century ago, we have yet to see a cloned person born (independently verified, that is). Change is hard, and humans are pack-minded creatures; we ostracize those who are different. Imagine the divide between those who have been dead and those who haven’t. Like Dr. Frankenstein, we would have to redefine what life is, and decide if those who have touched death should be seen as the same as those who haven’t.

It was my own death that made me see the value and fragility of life, a perspective I find separates me, even now in my thirties, from my peers. I wonder how fundamentally our civilization would change if we all met the nothingness and gained that perspective. Then again, would life retain meaning once humans have done away with death? Would I carry the same preciousness of my life re-given if I didn’t have the comparison of Charlie’s life taken? Regardless of if I would actually choose to preserve my body, I certainly am prepared to fight for a future world where second chances are doled out to anyone who asks, and not just the billionaires. What a kinder and more loving world this would be if second chances weren’t “hard to come by,” left up to chance or privilege, but instead available to everyone.

In my early twenties, my Facebook messenger randomly dinged with a message. It was from my guardian angel EMT. We had never spoken before, despite my multiple attempts to contact her and thank her for saving my life. Her message showed up in the “other” inbox for people you’re not friends with, so it was only by chance that I even saw she’d sent it. She told me that in the years since she held my bleeding body, she’d been silently watching me on social media go to college, make friends, lose friends, direct films, and write stories. She told me that watching me live in turn saved her life. She got sober. She got her second chance too.

I write this essay weeks before The Awoken is due to be released into the world. I am excited and scared—feelings I assume I share with most debut authors, but I have an added unsettling layer. The day The Awoken publishes becomes yet another start of a new chapter in my life. Like the day my first film came out. The day I got married. Or the day I had my son. These are all chapters that Charlie will never get to have. I try to push these dark thoughts out of my head, as terrifying as the nothingness itself. I try to focus on the fact that I am working hard to do something with my privilege of life. Even if I never choose to cryogenically preserve my body, perhaps in writing this novel, I’ve already preserved a piece of myself to live forever—my words and thoughts inscribed for generations to come. Meanwhile, I’ll keep reading new articles about the developments in cryogenics, continually wondering what if.

LA based award-winning writer and Emmy-nominated documentarian. An Atlanta native and alum of NYU, Katelyn co-founded 1/27 PICTURES, a documentary production company. Her work often tackles systemic inequities and combats uninformed bias as she strives to tell stories that upend the status quo. The Awoken is her debut novel.