From Novel to SXSW: The Process of The Grief of Others

Still from ‘The Grief of Others’ © Vanishing Angle

Editor's Note: Leah Hager Cohen is the author of Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and chosen by the American Library Association as one of the best books of 1994; and the novels Heat Lightning and The Grief of Others. The movie adaptation of the latter, directed by Patrick Wang, premiered in Austin at South by Southwest in March. We asked the author, who lives outside of Boston with her husband and two children, what five things surprised her most about the adaptation process. Here's what she said.

1. How little ownership I felt over the story, how easy and pleasurable it was to let it go, to see my book interpreted by other artists in a whole other medium.

2. How invested the other artists became. Man! This blew me away. Not only Patrick Wang, the filmmaker, but the entire cast and crew seemed exquisitely, radically committed to the project. A favorite example: When I visited the set one of the designers pulled me aside and showed me the prop book of funeral customs. In the novel, this is a stolen library book. The film never touches upon the fact that it's been stolen. But to remain true to the spirit of the original, the designer had snuck this book out of a library under his sweater. (He planned to return it when the shoot wrapped.)

3. How the film defamiliarized material I thought I knew well, and handed it back to me in ways that made me see it afresh.

4. How bizarre the film festival world can be. At one point, during South by Southwest (where the film premiered), I found myself sitting beside Patrick in a crowded and very noisy bar in the middle of the afternoon being interviewed on camera by a journalist from CraveTV. We literally had to shout over the tipsy revelers in the background as we responded to questions about grief, empathy, and art.

5. How generous, how teeming with unexpected felicities, the world can be. I'm not even thinking so much of all the strangers who showed an interest in supporting The Grief of Others. I'm thinking of those who turned out in droves for all sorts of other people's screenings, talks, panels, discussions - people from all over the world came to SXSW, motivated by a belief in the importance of art and human interaction. Two of the nicest encounters I had were with a white-ponytailed sound mixer from Dallas who has a passion for the B 3 Hammond organ, and an Israeli-born bereavement counselor who lives in Toronto and showed me pictures of her brand-new baby granddaughter. The limitless curiosity of people, the un-cynical, un-ironic drive to connect: these are real. These continue.