Author Wendelin Van Draanen knew she wanted her 14th Sammy Keyes mystery to take place at a cemetery. On the other hand, she knew that in order to write about cemeteries, she would have to visit some — and she’s spent most of her life avoiding graveyards.
“I’ve had people that I loved die,” Van Draanen said. “So me going to a cemetery is a heart-wrenching thing.”
Despite her aversion, she bucked up and contacted Michael Marsalek, who manages the Arroyo Grande District Cemetery, for a golf cart tour. Among those buried at the cemetery are “Clam Digger” Billy Yates, Civil War hero Otis Smith and William Ryan, who, according to his tombstone, “sailed around the horn in 1849.”
“He talked about the merits of graveyards,” said Van Draanen, who lives in Pismo Beach. “He just felt it was an historic place. So he gave me a different perspective of graveyards and how cool they are.”
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That explains why Van Draanen’s latest book, “Sammy Keyes and the Night of Skulls,” includes a dedication to Marsalek — “for helping me feel peace among the tombstones.”
Van Draanen will sign copies of her novel, targeted at readers ages 9 to 12, from 1 to 2 p.m. today at Barnes & Noble in San Luis Obispo.
“Night of Skulls” is the second Sammy Keyes book to take place on Halloween. (“Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man,” her second book in the series, also took place on Ghouls Day.) This time, about a year later in the storyline, protagonist Sammy and friends take a shortcut to a haunted house that happens to cut through a cemetery.
During their shortcut, the friends encounter a spooky character who inadvertently loses what they initially think is a bag of candy, but which turns out to be two human skulls. After the spooky character reclaims his skulls in a threatening second encounter, Sammy tries to piece together what happened while also trying to connect the skulls to recent missing persons cases.
Through her sleuthing, Sammy must also ponder death and the taboos associated with cemeteries and funeral parlors.
Walking through the graveyard, Sammy tells her friends, “I hate thinking about death, I hate thinking about ... all of it! And, as if being gone forever isn’t bad enough, I have to decide if I want to get eaten by maggots or turned into ash.”
Sammy’s aversion to death is confounded by uncertainty about the afterlife.
“I think that at Sammy’s age, there’s a growing awareness of your mortality,” said Van Draanen, a former teacher. “Whereas I think prior to your teen years, you don’t think about death as much. And one of the reasons I address it here is that this is where you realize that death is death, and then you’re gone. You want to know more, but, of course, nobody can know.”
As she explores the notion of death and what happens to our bodies after we die (a trip to the Marshall-Spoo Sunset Funeral Chapel in Grover Beach helped Van Draanen explain that part), Sammy learns about a religious rite that entails decorating the skulls of lost loved ones. It’s then that she realizes that cemeteries don’t necessarily have to be sad or scary places.
“I had read this article about how people in LaPaz celebrated the Day of Skulls,” Van Draanen said. “And that was fascinating to me, especially in contrast to the way we deal with death in America.”
In a way, Sammy’s quest parallels Van Draanen’s own reluctant desire to find out more about death.
“I think even people with really solid religious foundations have a fear of death,” she said. “I think it’s a natural thing. And because I have had people in my life who have died, and I know it’s a real thing, and I know they’re gone forever, it breeds a healthy fear of it.”
In the end, Sammy realizes that while you can’t do anything about the inevitability of death, the dead can be celebrated instead of feared.
Even after her research, Van Draanen hasn’t decided how she wants her own funeral to play out. And the guitar-playing lead singer of Risky Whippet — her family rock ’n’ roll band — hasn’t even decided on what music she wants played during her services. (“Something loud and rocking,” is all she’s decided thus far.) But she does want her final resting place to be a happy one, not a gloomy one, which might encourage her survivors to stop by more often.
“It’d be nice if there was a place they could come and hang out and have a picnic,” she said.