Building on Dead Dreams

Rejected novelist ventures into the funeral business.

Mary Patrick Kavanaugh got into the faux-funeral business after her first novel, Family Plots: Love, Death & Tax Evasion, got turned down by a string of publishers. A born pragmatist, Kavanaugh tried to take it in stride, but eventually fell into despair. The novel was her life’s work, after all. She started it in 2001, upon enrolling in the University of San Francisco’s MFA program for creative writing. Seven years, two mortgage refinances, and many writing retreats later, Family Plots was ready to go to press. But no one would take it. By July 2008, she had fifteen letters of rejection and one publisher giving her the brush-off.

Failure is hard, especially when you’ve come so close to success. And Kavanaugh had two ways to proceed. One was complacence: She could accept that the publishing world is not a meritocracy and spend the rest of her life groveling about it. The other was strategic: She could build a platform using her past disappointments as the foundation. Kavanaugh called it “turning life’s crap into compost.”

Last December, she threw a funeral for her rejected novel. Of course, there was no corpse to bury, so Kavanaugh filled the casket with ensigns of her dead dream: typed manuscripts, “dream vision boards,” copies of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. She invited guests to contribute their own dead dreams as well, which they did, in droves. “I was floored by the enthusiasm and remnants of personal and professional lives that ended up getting tossed,” Kavanaugh wrote, e-mailing from Buenos Aires, where she spent the last couple of weeks checking out cemeteries. “Everything from a fully rendered original comic book to Hillary Clinton paraphernalia, love letters, scrub brushes, angry and funny letters to exes, torn photos, real money, a grammar book, and a resignation letter for a job held for years.”

Years in marketing taught Kavanaugh how to be aggressive and on-the-ball, but only recently did she try parlaying those skills into an alternative business venture. She wound up selling 91 books at last year’s funeral, but more importantly she turned the idea of failure into a cult of personality. In the past year, Kavanaugh became better known as a regurgitator of dead dreams and purveyor of hope. The new role suits her. “When I chucked dreams for my novel into the casket last year, it also released a lot of pressure to succeed in any mainstream way,” she wrote.

She’ll throw another funeral on New Year’s Eve. Once again, participants will cast off their grudges and look toward a cleaner future. The Reverend Up (aka James Jeffley) and Fairy of Forgiveness (aka Felicia Jeffley) will deliver sermons on the theme, followed by rapper Vivacious V. The producers will also lead a sing-along featuring pop tunes rewritten for the occasion. It happens Thursday, December 31, at Chapel of the Chimes (4499 Piedmont Ave., Oakland). 3-5 p.m., $35-$95. Proceeds benefit the George Mark Children’s House, Jingletown Arts & Business Community, and youth programs at the East Bay Church of Religious Science.

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