Beetlejuice meets The Good Place in Suicide Souls, Penni Jones’ darkly comic and wildly imaginative new novel about a special afterlife where people who have taken their own lives must watch their loved ones grieve in order to earn a second chance at life. If the premise sounds grim, it’s not! Suicide Souls takes on suicide and grief with genuine sensitivity and a whole lot of humor, creating a story that will make you smile even as it breaks your heart.
This roller coaster ride of a novel focuses on Naomi and Luke, two suicide victims who become unlikely friends as they navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth of the afterlife to reach the ultimate goal—a new, “vapid” body. If they fail, they will be carried off to Oblivion by a terrifying entity known as The Shadow. The stakes are high, and Suicide Souls is packed with plot twists that will keep you turning the pages as the characters race to avoid disappearing for good.
I was thrilled to speak with Penni Jones about her inspiration for Suicide Souls, whether she believes in ghosts, and so much more in this mind-bending and moving novel.
Emily: Suicide Souls is a genre bending mix of speculative fiction, thriller, and satire that made me laugh, cry, and think hard about the nature of reality. I’ve never read anything quite like it. What inspired you to write this wildly original story?
Penni: Thank you so much!
I lost an old boyfriend, Jeff, to suicide about 13 years ago. The grieving process for suicide is so chaotic, it’s not really a process. For a few years after he died, I dreamed of him often and it always felt like he was there. Then a few weird things happened that made me feel like he was with me. Once, a slap on the forehead woke me up and I could smell cigarette smoke. He was a smoker.
Like Beetlejuice and The Good Place, Suicide Souls got me to laugh about one of the things I’m most afraid of—death. It really walks that fine line between laughter and tears. Can you talk about your use of dark humor in this novel?
I’ve always gravitated toward gallows humor, I guess to deal with anxiety. The things we’re most afraid of lose some of their power over us when we can joke about them.
I sometimes avoid books and movies about suicide because I find them too upsetting, but Suicide Souls handles this subject with wisdom, humor, and sensitivity. Can you talk about the challenges of tackling this difficult topic in fiction?
Yes! My main goal was to avoid glamorizing suicide. I would hate for anyone to read my work and decide that suicide is a great idea.
I wanted to drive home how devastating suicide is for the people left behind. When someone is suicidal, they can’t see how many people care about them. The isolation feels so real. I want to remind readers that even when they feel alone, there are people invested in them who care what happens to them.
From producing scents to manipulating the TV, I love the way ghosts get the attention of the living in this novel. It made me wonder if a spirit was reaching out to me when I recently smelled flowers before I fell asleep. It turned out just to be my glass of orange vanilla seltzer, but I have to know: Are these things you made up—or the result of actual ghost research?
A little of both. As I mentioned earlier, I swear I could smell my ex-boyfriend in my house once. I also went through a brief Sylvia Browne-obsession right after that, and she maintained that spirits had ways of making contact. She often spoke about the deceased reaching out in dreams, and I certainly had a lot of dreams that felt like real contact with Jeff.
As a follow up, I have to ask: Have you ever seen or felt the presence of a ghost? Details please!
There used to be a landlord in Little Rock who would send you to look at apartments with a list of addresses and a ring of keys. I walked up to an apartment alone and my hand started shaking as I raised the key to the lock. I unlocked the door with some difficulty and walked two paces in. The apartment was empty, but there was a heavy presence that made me feel sick to my stomach. I turned and walked out. I told the friend I was staying with about it immediately after. He asked where the apartment was. I told him, and he said, “that was Tracy’s apartment.”
I had recently moved back to Little Rock, and a guy my friend and I knew named Tracy had died in a car accident a few weeks before I moved back. My first thought was, “Tracy doesn’t know he’s dead.”
I called my mom afterward, and she said my grandmother experienced similar things. I tried to get more information, but my mom didn’t offer much. Maybe because of her own religious beliefs.
That was twenty years ago, and I’ve never felt anything quite like that again. Honestly, I hope I never do.
This is hard time to be publishing a novel. How has the pandemic impacted your publication journey?
The book was slated for publication last summer. There are always delays, but the COVID delays took it to the next level.
Naomi is one of my favorite characters, and though she’s a ghost, from the moment you see her trapped for eternity in the revealing red dress she died in, you can feel her physicality really strongly. Can you talk about Naomi’s love hate relationship with her own body and beauty?
Yes! Thank you for asking. Naomi recognizes that her attractiveness is a tool. Through death, she realizes that she relies too much on her body when she really doesn’t need to. She is a smart, capable woman and maybe hasn’t given herself enough credit for her intelligence.
I rely on this part of Naomi a lot, because it’s a part of a woman’s journey. Throughout our youth and twenties, a lot of women rely on their looks and physical attributes to make their way through life. As we age, we have to learn to trust that we are more than our looks. It’s a different journey for everyone with many factors at play, including how our own mothers regarded their looks and ours. But if we live long enough, we have to adapt. And in Naomi’s case, she had to learn even though she didn’t live long enough.
What are you reading now?
I’m just starting Tricky by Josh Stallings. He’s a fantastic mystery/thriller writer. His books are grungy and visceral in a way that really sticks with you.
What’s next for you?
I have a few manuscripts started. Hopefully, I’ll finish writing one of those this year. Or maybe I’ll start a new one. It hasn’t been easy to focus this last year.
Where can we buy your book?
Penni Jones is a writer, movie buff, concert t-shirt enthusiast, reluctant multitasker, and blogger extraordinaire of Scapegoats and Sacred Cows.
She is an Arkansas native who currently resides in Michigan and spends all winter complaining. Suicide Souls is her third novel. She has around five other manuscripts in various stages of completion because her muse has ADD and won’t allow her to work on one thing at a time.
She is a member of the Editorial Freelancer’s Association, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and a founding member of Michigan Sisters in Crime.