Six Questions: Interview with Paula Stokes, author of Girl Against The Universe

Good morning, everyone! Another Six Questions entry for you, and I think this one is particularly interesting. The book is questions is Girl Against The Universe, and the author is Paula Stokes.
From the summary:
From the author of The Art of Lainey and Liars, Inc. comes a fresh, contemporary story about a girl coping with PTSD and the boy who wants to help her move on from the past.  Perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen or Jenny Han.

Sixteen-year-old Maguire knows the universe is against her. No matter how many charms she buys off the internet or good luck rituals she performs each morning, horrible things happen when she’s around. Like that time the roller coaster jumped off its tracks. Or the time her brother, father, and uncle were all killed in a car crash–and Maguire walked away with barely a scratch. Despite what her therapist tells her, Maguire thinks it’s best to hide out in her room, far away from anyone she might accidentally hurt. But then she meets Jordy, an aspiring tennis star who wants to help her break her unlucky streak. Maguire knows that the best thing she can do for him is to stay away, but it turns out staying away may be harder than she thought.

1) Being a psychiatric registered nurse must be the perfect background to write a book like this! Can you talk a bit about how that experience informed your writing?
 
I wasn’t a psych nurse when I wrote this book back in 2014, but I was an RN with a BA in Psychology. I enjoyed incorporating some of the psychological theories that have really resonated with me–like selective attention, self-fulfilling prophecies, systematic desensitization, attribution errors, etc.–into the story. In fact, researching for and writing this novel is part of what made me realize I wanted to go back to nursing but pursue a mental health focus. Having a general background in both psychology and nursing helped me know the right questions to ask, and I reached out to a psychologist and to a couple of friends in therapy for advice on some of the scenes.
 
 
2) What kind of feedback did you get from people who have had similar experiences to your main character, or who have PTSD/anxiety disorders?
 
One of the things I did prior to publication was give the manuscript to three people who had talked openly online about having anxiety and/or PTSD to get their feedback. One of them I did not know at all, but she was a well-known blogger in the YA community who I was following on Twitter and I just saw an opening and went for it. It was scary waiting for their thoughts, but all three of them were really positive and thought the book balanced the reality of mental illness with a hopeful outlook for people who are struggling. They felt I did a good job capturing the somatic symptoms and thought processes of someone with anxiety and PTSD. I have a moderate amount of social anxiety myself, and this book was partially inspired by my own illogical thoughts about how I was responsible for a string of bad events that happened on a solo vacation I took, so I definitely modeled Maguire after myself in places. Obviously my own experiences aren’t going to be the same as other people’s, so the portrayal of anxiety and PTSD didn’t work for everyone, but mental illnesses are not monoliths so that’s to be expected. I’m sorry to anyone who I let down because they didn’t see their struggles represented in this story.
After publication, the reviews were mostly positive and several people sent me messages about how the book spoke to them on a personal level, how it made them want to be more brave or to reach out and ask for help. One big YA blogger reviewed the book and said she wished she’d had it when her mother died, because then maybe she would have gotten the help she needed. It’s incredibly rewarding to send a book off into the world and see it have such a positive impact.
 
 
3) One of the concepts I address in my book is that recovery isn’t an end state, it’s a journey – your writing seemed to mirror that concept. What advice to you give for young adults – heck, anyone, really – who are living that reality and frustrated by it?
 
This is hard for me to answer because everything has always been a journey for me. I grew up in a low-income Midwestern household where my parents were always struggling both personally and professionally. At no point ever would I have described my childhood as stable. Ever since I moved out, my life has been a series of trying on careers and relationships and places to live in a quest for a stability that I still haven’t achieved. I’m over 40 now and it still feels normal to me to be a total work-in-progress, so it’s kind of the same with mental health. The idea that you can just make the right choices and put in X amount of effort and then everything will be fine is a fallacy. I don’t think life works like that for most people. Everyone has stressors and if one of your stressors happens to be mental illness then you’ve got to learn how to minimize how disruptive it will be to your life and accept that you may never be totally *cured* but you can still have a full and rewarding existence. In the book, the therapist, Daniel, says that mental health is fluid and that’s true for everyone. Even people who have never met the diagnostic criteria for a mental illness still have their good days and bad days. So I guess my advice would be that everyone needs to stop trying to be perfect and just be open to who we are and make who we are work for us as much as we can. And therapy! I went to therapy last year because my anxiety was starting to negatively impact my personal and professional life and even just six sessions helped me so much.
 
 
4) Did you design your book to be read by the general public or specifically those that can relate to your main characters struggles? I imagine both, and if that’s the case, how did you straddle that line?
 
The straight answer is that my editor would not have approved the book for publication if she didn’t think it would appeal to a general audience, but I had no idea how the book would be received by people who hadn’t struggled with mental illness or couldn’t relate to Maguire’s magical thinking. I don’t ever think about the “business side of things” when I’m drafting. The story needs to be told the way it needs to be told and if I had the Sales/Marketing team in the back of my brain muttering “But will rich readers from Northeastern cities want to read this? Will librarians in Mississippi buy this for schools?” I would never be able to finish a book.
Once I got done with the initial draft, one of my first beta-readers said she thought the book would really resonate with kids who blamed themselves for their parents’ divorces, which was something I hadn’t even considered. Basically I hoped that even if readers couldn’t relate to Maguire feeling like the Universe was against her, that they’d be able to relate to what it’s like to struggle against negative thoughts that hold us back from being the people we want to be. And if they couldn’t do that, well, the book is still a cute romance with some funny moments and a poignant story about finding your place in a blended family.
In the revision process, I focused on making the abridged therapy sessions thought-provoking for everyone and giving the therapist a personality so those chapters didn’t just feel like me as the author telling readers what to think. I also pulled back on some of Maguire’s obsessive thoughts in places where I felt like being in her head might be getting exhausting or overwhelming for readers who had never struggled with anxiety or PTSD. It’s definitely a tricky balance to represent something like anxiety realistically but also doing so in a way that makes people want to keep reading. I think my best suggestion for writers is to spend time getting to know your characters and understanding them as fully fleshed-out people. Readers will be more likely to root for characters who feel real to them, and they’ll also be more willing to struggle alongside them, even when they can’t relate to what the character is going through.
 
5) What’s your advice to authors who want to write credibly about a subject like PTSD or mental illness, but they don’t have the life experience to necessarily do so?
 
My advice for anyone who wants to write outside their own perspective or experiences is first to reflect really hard about *why* they want to write that particular story. I support the #ownvoices movement, but I also think authors should be able to write any story they need to tell. (And if you’re not sure how I can reconcile those two things, it’s simple–I think publishers need to publish the best stories without imposing any kind of cap or quota based on characters’ cultures, races, disabilities, orientations, etc. If you publish thrillers and you receive five thriller manuscripts with gay, disabled, Chinese protagonists and they are all awesome then publish them all–it’s not like those groups haven’t been underpublished in the past.)
But when it comes to writing outside your experience, I think authors need to have a specific reason for doing so, beyond “oh well I saw this article about a person with X disorder and I realized there aren’t many books about X disorder so it seemed like a cool thing to do.” Mental illnesses aren’t “cool things” to be exploited for profit any more than races or cultures are, so my recommendation would be that unless the writer has a strong personal motivation to tell the story, e.g. “Someone I love has panic disorder and I wrote this book both as a tribute to her and a way to better understand her so I can support her when she’s struggling” that they should steer clear.
In order to write convincingly from outside your experiences, especially when representing a marginalized group, you need to be willing to commit at least an hour of research time for every hour of writing time (which is a lot easier to do if you have a strong personal motivation for telling a story). You need to be brave enough to approach multiple members of the group you’re representing to read your manuscript and you need to be open to hearing their honest feedback. You need to be willing to take responsibility and apologize when you mess up. You need to accept the fact that no matter how hard you try, your portrayal won’t work for everyone (see above, not a monolith), and that your good intentions may be interpreted negatively. You may offend some people who might then decide to be very vocal about what they didn’t like about your work. Writing can be terrifying, huh? Good thing we all make millions of dollars. Oh wait… 😉
6) When it comes to mental health, anything you wish authors would do more? Less?
 
Here’s a short list 🙂
 
1. Stop portraying therapists as either lecherous dudes who sexually harass main characters or new-age hippie ladies who mean well but are hilariously bumbling at their jobs and completely hopeless at helping their clients. These portrayals are ubiquitous in movies and books and the overall result is to make people less likely to seek therapy. Therapy isn’t right for everyone, but it’s a powerful tool that can help a lot of people and we need to be encouraging people to seek help, not avoid it.
2. Stop portraying psychiatric medication as some sort of evil force that takes away people’s emotions or turns them into zombies. I work at a psychiatric hospital where 90% of the patients are on some sort of antidepressant, antipsychotic, or mood stabilizer and not a single one of them has turned into a zombie. MEDICINE SAVES LIVES. Also, it’s not 1970 anymore. There are tons of different psychiatric medications and if you try one and don’t like how it makes you feel, you can just tell your provider about the side effects and they can often eliminate them by adjusting the dose, dosing schedule, or medication regimen. Sometimes it is literally as simple as taking your dose at night before you go to sleep instead of in the morning. Like therapy, medication isn’t right for everyone, but no doctor is going to force you to take it unless you are in an inpatient facility under a court-mandated hold and an active danger to yourself or others. So if it *might* help, why wouldn’t you want to give it a try? Again, as writers we should think long and hard before we actively discourage people from pursuing treatment that could change their lives (and the lives of those around them) for the better.
3. Be realistic when combining mental illness and romance in the same book. “Love cured my depression” might make for a great Disney movie, but it’s not at all realistic and perpetuating the “love conquers all” myth can do a lot of harm to people who are actively struggling. Long-term unconditional love, like that of a parent or sibling or best friend can definitely help–people with strong support networks are more likely to reach out for assistance–but in books (and YA in particular) there was a tendency in the past to have a struggling character meet a new romantic prospect and find healing through “new love.” I don’t know about you, but to me new relationships are extremely stressful–there’s this element of crushing uncertainty about who likes who more and whether the other person will leave me if they find someone better or if I confide in them or share too much. They tend to exacerbate, not cure someone’s mental illness. I made a point when writing Girl Against the Universe to have Maguire push Jordy away at first because she knows she can’t handle a relationship, and then later in the book there are examples of where their fledgling romance complicates things for both of them as opposed to being some sort of magical salve.
4. Remember that mental illness is a long-term thing for most people. Authors don’t need to “fix” everything by the end of the book. Even if you want a happily ever after for your main character, keep in mind that plenty of people with mental illness are living rewarding and joyful lives. Having your character make the decision to seek help or having them improve somewhat with therapy but acknowledge they’re still going to struggle is a realistic way to portray mental illness in a novel. You don’t need to come up with some kind of miracle cure by the epilogue.

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