Six Questions: Interview with Amelinda Berube, author of The Dark Beneath the Ice

As you likely know from reading this blog, I’m an author and wrote Redemption, a sci-fi, young adult, mental health book. I remain fascinated by the connection between literature and mental health, with a special emphasis on books which appeal to young adults.

To that end, I’ve got a slew of Six Question interviews coming. I’m going to start with a haunting, atmospheric book: The Dark Beneath The Ice, by Amelinda Berube. If you want an e-book, it’s only $2.99 until the end of April!

From the summary:

Black Swan meets Paranormal Activity in this compelling ghost story about a former dancer whose grip on reality slips when she begins to think a dark entity is stalking her.

Something is wrong with Marianne.

It’s not just that her parents have finally split up. Or that life hasn’t been the same since she quit dancing. Or even that her mother has checked herself into the hospital.

She’s losing time. Doing things she would never do. And objects around her seem to break whenever she comes close. Something is after her. And the only one who seems to believe her is the daughter of a local psychic.

But their first attempt at an exorcism calls down the full force of the thing’s rage. It demands Marianne give back what she stole. Whatever is haunting her, it wants everything she has—everything it’s convinced she stole. Marianne must uncover the truth that lies beneath it all before the nightmare can take what it thinks it’s owed, leaving Marianne trapped in the darkness of the other side.

And here are six questions for Amelinda!

1) Do you think personal experience with mental illness – either yourself or someone close to you – is required to write an authentic book on the subject, even fiction?

I’d say personal experience isn’t necessarily required, but your job is a lot harder and riskier without it, and you have to approach it with the appropriate care, simply because you don’t know what you don’t know.

I drew on a lot of my own anxieties in writing The Dark Beneath the Ice, especially after going on medication, which made some of the spirals I’d been stuck in really obvious in retrospect. But when it came to hallucinations or being unable to distinguish between nightmare and reality – or the treatment of those symptoms, for that matter – I was in deeper water than I’d ever navigated myself, and I worried that I might unwittingly fall into inaccurate and damaging clichés. Input from mental health professionals and a sensitivity reader was really crucial.

2) Your book obviously mixes the supernatural with mental illness. Was it a challenge to blend the two?

On one hand, the two of them do seem like a natural fit. Mental illness was historically mistaken for supernatural influence, after all, especially when it comes to possession, which was central to The Dark Beneath the Ice. And faced with supernatural events, I think a lot of us in modern North America would probably reach for a psychological explanation – especially if you’re already prone to doubting yourself.

But there are also potential pitfalls in mixing the two together, as summed up neatly in an excellent article I was lucky enough to come across. Basically, the danger is in taking one side or the other: either it’s the mental illness that’s real, so the supernatural is all in your character’s head, or it’s the supernatural that’s real, so your character was never really mentally ill. It ends up being dismissive of mental illness either way.

So my objective, in putting mental illness and the supernatural together, was to walk the line between them without toppling over on either side. Done properly, fantasy and real-world elements can reinforce each other (think Pan’s Labyrinth, where the fantasy lends the war story an urgent, terrifyingly emotional edge and the war story grounds the fantasy in reality). That’s the effect I was hoping to achieve here.

3) Many of the reviews of your book referred to the haunting atmosphere. When you’re writing, can you talk a little about how atmosphere effects the overall story when it comes to mental illness?

Atmosphere is a huge part of what makes a spooky book, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s all about how the book makes you feel. As a reader, you ought to be feeling a creeping dread of what’s to come well before anything scary actually happens. Atmosphere is what accomplishes that.

In this story, I think that creepy feeling – the weight of fear and doubt and dread – was also really appropriate to the headspace our heroine was in, and her headspace is ultimately what the book is all about. If I got the atmosphere right, if I got the feeling of my character’s thoughts right, maybe it might give a reader some insight into, empathy for, or company in the experience of mental illness, whether that’s exhausting hamster-wheel thought spirals or frightening dissociative experiences.

4) One of the things I’ve noticed is that there aren’t a ton of books which combine mental illness and supernatural elements – why do you think that is?

That’s an interesting observation, especially because the combination seems alive and well on screen (Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House, for example). Maybe there’s more awareness of mental illness and therefore more hesitation to mix it with the supernatural, for fear of trivializing it? Or maybe the obvious outcomes of the combination (it’s “really” mental illness or it’s “really” supernatural) feel too clichéd or “done” by this point?

5) When writing this books mental illness elements, were you thinking of how the book would be perceived by those with mental illness? Did that specific factor play a role in your writing?

Yes, absolutely; that’s something I worried a lot about. The importance of representation and the effect of bad representation is, fortunately, a huge discussion in young adult fiction right now. It was also obvious, looking back on my own peer group as a teenager, that a lot of my audience would be dealing with mental health crises of their own. So I was very conscious of the need to approach the topic with care and respect, to examine the messages I was sending, and to seek lots of feedback.

I’ve come across a few reviews from readers who said that the book’s depiction of mental illness really spoke to them, and that means the world to me. I worked so hard to make sure the book wouldn’t hurt people that it never really occurred to me to consider it might actually connect with some of them. Letting yourself be seen in a piece of writing is pretty terrifying, but as it turns out, it’s incredibly rewarding too.

6) If you could do it again, anything you’d do differently in this story?

This book went through so many revisions that by the time I was going through the final galleys, I had a surprising, deep-down certainty that I’d turned the idea into the very best book I could. So, weirdly enough, I think I’m satisfied with it? I’m always willing to consider criticism, but I feel like the book did what I wanted to, and I learned a lot from writing it – both in general and about myself. I can’t ask for much more than that!

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