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Books Thu Dec 20 2012

Liner Notes on a Friendship: Chicago Author Resolves Grief with an "Overly Honest" Memoir

In 2005 Bree Housley lost her childhood best friend, Shelly, to complications from preeclampsia, a potentially life-threatening disorder that occurs during pregnancy. Four years later, Housley and her sister started a blog, Fifty2 Resolutions, to chronicle their attempt to live life more like Shelly, a woman, Housley writes, with a "crazy, spontaneous crush on life."

WHYLTSbook cover.JPGThe resolutions, which include things like "woo a stranger" and "be a tourist at home", became the inspiration for Housley's memoir We Hope You Like This Song: An Overly Honest Story About Friendship, Death, and Mix Tapes, published by Seal Press earlier this year. While the blog was a sort of first-step toward healing, the book gave Housley a forum to dig deeper, to explore the meaning behind the resolutions and how they captured Shelly's spirit. (Watch the book trailer, buy the book.)

Opening with an old note written by Shelly explaining the songs compiled on a mix CD for Housley, the book is unavoidably sad. But Housley is careful to point out that its irreverence and emotional honesty make it a far cry from Beaches. WHYLTS is written in a conversational, often hilarious tone with loads of '80s and '90s pop culture references: "Shelly's 'deathiversary' is Friday of next week, January 16. So if we're going to do this, we gotta quit do-si-do-ing around the idea. We've gotta grab it by the arms and swing it around like we're Johnny fucking Castle."

In 2009 Housley got married. Hailey, Shelly's daughter, was her flower girl. Housley, who lives in West Town and works as a copywriter, was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.

Thumbnail image for PROLOGUEourfirstpic.jpg  Thumbnail image for gradphoto.jpg

How would you characterize your relationship with Shelly?
100% opposites attract. She made me a better person by building my confidence. I made her a better person by bringing out her "inner geek." We had each other's back no matter what.

Tell me about the title. Why We Hope You Like this Song? In what ways is it "overly honest"?
Shelly and I had a lot of history with music. We first bonded after a fourth grade chorus concert where we had butchered Gershwin's Greatest Hits. Our parents were gabbing their faces off after the show and eventually, the popular blond with the heart of gold (Shelly) grabbed the hand of the strange brunette with the heart of tin foil (me), and we skipped off to the drinking fountain singing a song we made up on the spot, "We're going to get a drink, a drink, a drink. We're going to get a drink and we hope you like this song."

Sixteen years later, when I got the phone call that informed me she only had 48 hours to live if a liver transplant didn't prove successful, I calmed myself by singing, "You're going to be okay, okay, okay. You're going to be okay and I hope you like this song."

I consider the book "overly honest" because I barf it all out there for the world to see. I believe intelligent people call it "cathartic." I don't sugarcoat the guilt, the pain, or insanity that occurred during the years after Shelly's death. It was important to me that other young people who have gone through this sort of loss feel "normal" because I sure as hell didn't.

How is this story not like Beaches?
I love Beaches as much as the next girl, but my story is a bit more brash and inappropriate. Plus, Shelly and I definitely don't fight over any guys named John.

In WHYLTS, Shelly's death isn't the climax of the book. I explain that she's dead on page four. Instead, it's about finding happiness again by trying to honor her memory and live a little more like her after she's been taken away.

How did the Fifty2 Resolutions blog turn into a book?
The blog gave me a happy ending to the story of my friendship with Shelly. Prior to the blog, the story ended so sadly and abruptly. After spending a year living more like Shelly, I learned more about who she was and who I am. I opened up in ways I never had about her life and her death. It was like going to therapy, only not as expensive and scary.

Can you describe the process of writing the book? In what ways was it therapeutic?
I wrote in complete isolation. My friends and family knew I was writing it, but had no idea how I was spending my hours. It was therapeutic because I went through all of Shelly's old journals and our pictures and it brought me back to that time in my life. Things I had blocked out or just simply forgotten came tumbling back. Shelly was suddenly part of my daily life again. I faced things I hadn't had the balls to face, and shared memories I'd buried along with Shelly in 2005.

What person or thing, if any, did you find most helpful or inspirational while writing?
Music. Music. Music. When I got stuck, Patsy Cline entered the room. When I needed to dig deeper into my emotions, Iron & Wine showed up. When I needed to drown out all the noise, but still needed noise, Explosions in the Sky obliged. I could not have written this book without music.

During your year of doing all the "crazy things Shelly would have done", which were some of your favorite/most memorable?
The first week, we had to make five new friends and take a picture with them. That was hands down my favorite resolution. Shelly would literally walk out the door and talk to whomever/whatever happened to be standing there. My sister and I aren't really comfortable around people we don't know, so striking up a conversation with a complete stranger and then asking them to pose in a picture was pretty eye opening. It made me realize how pretty much any day has the potential to be memorable.

Karaoke was also...memorable. But mostly because my sister and I both aggressively embarrassed ourselves.

How has your life changed since finishing the book?
I actually miss being in Shelly-land every day. However, the messages of gratitude I've received mean everything to me. I've gotten emails from people who knew Shelly and are so completely grateful that I've told her story, people who have experienced preeclampsia in one way or another, and people who knew nothing about either one but felt compelled to tell me how they related to my story. I'm never not excited to check my email every morning. Dork city.

Describe the publishing process-- were your originally going to self-publish? Did it take you long to find an agent/publisher?
Truth be told, I have the book Getting Your Book Published for Dummies on my shelf. I knew I wasn't detailed enough to self-publish so I wanted to go the traditional route. I wrote a rough draft of the entire book in six months and then shopped around my book proposal for three months before getting an agent. Once I had an agent, we fine-tuned my proposal for five long months and then sent it to publishing houses. I got signed with my dream editor, Brooke Warner at Seal Press, shortly after.

Any future writing plans?
I'm an advertising copywriter by day, but I hope to be talking about book number two in the not-so-distant future.

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