Ashley Woodfolk talks to us about The Beauty that Remains, her powerful debut novel that explores how three different characters learn to find hope and healing in the wake of devastating loss.
About ‘The Beauty that Remains’ by Ashley Woodfolk
Music brought Autumn, Shay, and Logan together. Death wants to tear them apart.
Autumn always knew exactly who she was — a talented artist and a loyal friend. Shay was defined by two things: her bond with her twin sister, Sasha, and her love of music. And Logan always turned to writing love songs when his love life was a little less than perfect.
But when tragedy strikes each of them, somehow music is no longer enough. Now Logan can’t stop watching vlogs of his dead ex-boyfriend. Shay is a music blogger struggling to keep it together. And Autumn sends messages that she knows can never be answered.
Despite the odds, one band’s music will reunite them and prove that after grief, beauty thrives in the people left behind.
Our interview with Ashley Woodfolk, author of ‘The Beauty that Remains’
What inspired you to write this story?
Like a lot of people, I get really anxious about the people I care about. But when you have anxiety, you can’t convince yourself that we’re you’re worried about isn’t true. So when my then-boyfriend, now-husband moved across the country, I suddenly had this overwhelming fear that something was gonna happen to him and I was going to find out through social media.
So, I started writing a story to try and tell myself that even if that did happen, I would be ok. But also to work through all those feelings. In fact, the first thing that I wrote is still the first line of the book. And from there, I started thinking about all the different stages you go through in grief.
Originally, the three characters were supposed to be three different stages in grief. Autumn was supposed to be depression, Logan was supposed to be anger and denial, and Shay was supposed to be acceptance. That was the original concept but as i kept writing, it morphed into something else — it became more than just those embodiments.
One thing that I really appreciated was the very honest, open look at mental health/mental illness, therapy and recovery. Can you talk about your experience writing that?
Therapy has been incredibly helpful to me personally. And especially as I was writing this book, which is when I was experiencing therapy for the first time. I think that it was instrumental in helping me understand my own thought processes, being more emotionally open and just helping me be ok with not being ok. So I wanted to include elements in the story that I was writing that paid homage to that.
I think that therapy is really important. And I understand it’s a privilege to be able to go, but I really think that it should be treated the same way you treat getting a physical. You know, get at least once a year do a mental-emotional check-in — treat your brain the way you treat your heart.
As a black women, what I’ve seen in the black community is that it’s even more stigmatized. It’s seen as this thing that rich people or white people do. I think there’s a history of people talking to mental health professionals.So I thought it was really important to address on the page — the fact that people don’t think it’s needed but it can absolutely help.
I also wanted to show — I wanted it to be clear in the book — that if you’re not comfortable reaching out to a professional, you can reach out to your friends. A lot of time what happens when you’re in pain is that you isolate yourself. You don’t want to be a burden or you worry that you’ll stress other people out. I think it’s important to stress — and I wanted to show through my writing — that if you’re in pain, it’s only gonna be worse if you don’t talk about. It’s important to always keep in mind what resources you have available to you.
How did you approach writing the three different point of view characters?
Each of the characters had very different emotional landscapes, and they all have parts of me in them.
When I was writing Autumn, I tried to tap into that sadness that I had felt at the thought of losing someone close to me. I also talked to a lot of friends who had lost friends in high school and I read a lot of books about grief. Basically for her, I tried to tap into the sadness. I will say that Autumn came out of me most fully formed. It’s easy for me to be sad and to want to kiss people.
Logan was the most fun to write. I’m not someone who easily expresses anger — I’m more likely to lean on hurt or sadness. So with him, I got to be really pissed off and let it out. It was nice to have this outlet that was pretty angry all the time and I actually had to go and make him less angry — soften him a lot while I was revising.
With Shay — she’s probably the most like me. The panic attacks she had in the book were things that I had dealt with and i knew what they felt like and how overwhelming they can be. i’m also a bit of a people pleaser, which i think shay is. i feel other people’s disappointment very deeply. shay was probably the easiest to write once i figured out what her story was. i did a complete rewrite of shay in the 2nd/3rd revision. she was the easiest to write once i figured out what was happening.
What do you hope people learn from Logan, Shay and Autumn?
With Autumn, I want people to learn not isolate themselves. Because what she did right away was just assume that no one would understand and she didn’t give anyone a chance to. Definitely I think loss is very singular because no two people have the same relationship with people, but at the same time I hope people understand that you shouldn’t isolate yourself. The people around you care about — and not just about what happened but about you.
With Logan, I want people to try and be more honest with themselves. He’s totally in denial — he feels like he doesn’t have a right to feel certain type of way. I think it’s really easy to deny your feelings to protect yourself. In his story, I want people to see that it’s important interrogate your feelings. If you feel a certain way, don’t deny it, but instead think about why you feel that way. Because there’s something to be gained about being more emotionally honest about yourself.
With Shay, I want people to see that you can’t keep everyone happy all the time. That sometimes it’s okay to focus on yourself and think about what you need and then to focus on what you need.
What do you hope people learn from the story?
That it’s okay not to be okay, which is a very hard lesson to learn. People get caught up in weakness, and in the difference between weakness and strength. People have the wrong idea between what is weak and what is strong. In a lot of ways, it’s harder to admit that it’s a problem than it is to pretend that there isn’t one.
Our society often values this facade of strength instead of real vulnerability. So I want people to know that it’s okay to not be “okay” and to be comfortable with that vulnerability.