Six Questions: An interview with Spencer Hyde, Author of Waiting for Fritz

Today’s interview is with Spencer Hyde, author of Waiting for Fritzwhich deals with much heavier topics than I usually cover in these interviews:

Addies loves nothing more than curling up on the couch with her dog, Duck, and watching The Great British Baking Show with her mom. It’s one of the few things that can help her relax when her OCD kicks into overdrive. She counts everything. All the time. She can’t stop. Rituals and rhythms. It’s exhausting.

When Fitz was diagnosed with schizophrenia, he named the voices in his head after famous country singers. The adolescent psychiatric ward at Seattle Regional Hospital isn’t exactly the ideal place to meet your soul mate, but when Addie meets Fitz, they immediately connect over their shared love of words, appreciate each other’s quick wit, and wish they could both make more sense of their lives.

Fitz is haunted by the voices in his head and often doesn’t know what is real. But he feels if he can convince Addie to help him escape the psych ward and get to San Juan Island, everything will be okay. If not, he risks falling into a downward spiral that may keep him in the hospital indefinitely.

Waiting for Fitz is a story about life and love, forgiveness and courage, and learning what is truly worth waiting for.

1) Do you think that personal experience with mental illness is necessary to write an authentic book on the subject?
I don’t think so. On this one, I’ll refer you to two great writers. Stella Duff said, “We can write who we are not and do it well if we write with passion, strength–and care. We’re bound to get it wrong sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If we want our writing to reflect the truth, then our characters and their experiences must be as diverse as the world in which we live.” And Hari Kunzru said, “Attempting to think one’s way into other subjectivities, other experiences, is an act of ethical urgency.” I, of course, agree with both of these statements. Writing fiction is about imagining a world and trying to find your way into it through characters that teach you empathy along the way. If I choose characters like me, how will I learn? I hope others write books about characters with OCD, even if they’ve never experienced it. That way, we can build bridges to better understanding and community.
2) The cover of your book is gorgeous! What inspired it?
Thank you! I’ll make sure the graphic designer gets word. She did an amazing job. The cover was inspired by the talk of birds in the novel, and the auditory hallucinations of one of the main characters: Fitz.
3) Most YA books which deal with mental illness focus on topics like addiction, depression or anxiety. You went much “heavier” in terms of dealing with OCD and schizophrenia. Were you concerned that the topic would be too stigmatized or heavy for people to want to read it?
I had a real fear of depicting schizophrenia for the same reasons stated above. I wrote from a place of curiosity and sensitivity, attempting to understand a disorder that is not a far cry from severe OCD in terms of mental fatigue, incessant voices (or compulsions), and subservience to that wet machine in the black box of our skull–and we heed those demands almost without question. It’s fascinating, really, how much power one thought can have. I have heard that for some it was accurate, for others it is far from accurate, and I appreciate their frustrations. That is why I opened the novel with an author’s note about the idiosyncratic nature of mental illness. I’m sure I got things wrong, but I did so from a place of humility and curiosity. Fitz taught me a lot, and I’m a better writer and person because I got to know him. As for the OCD, well, it does get a bit exhausting. I’ve heard numerous people relay how exhausting the main character, Addie, can be. And that was the goal–because mental illness IS exhausting. It is unrelenting. Feeling even a modicum of that kind of overtaxed brain will help broaden the conversation about what mental health actually means, and how we can and should approach the topic with more charity.
4) Your book also touches on more than just the mental illness experienced by people, but the impact it has on their families. What sort of lesson, if any, were you trying to impart on those who do suffer from mental illness and know that their families suffer with them?
It’s important to remember the caretakers in our lives–those who give up so much to help, even when it seems no amount of added support will do any good. It was not to shame those with mental illness, but to show that it’s okay to be vulnerable with those closest to you. In fact, it’s necessary. Gratitude is an offering that should be extended whenever you can escape the world of your own mind. It helps to come up for air and remind those around you that, even though you feel you’re sinking, you still see them at the boat with a lifering and you appreciate their support. That’s one reason I love teaching Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat” to my students. I won’t offer a synopsis here for purposes of space, but at one point the main character feels that he has gone through a terrifying situation all alone, narrowly surviving a shark attack, only to find out the next morning that one of his boat-mates was awake the entire time. That next morning, he says some variation of, “I wish I’d known you were awake.” Would it change the fact that a shark circled the boat and almost killed them all? No. But it would make that one person feel better knowing, at the very least, he wasn’t alone. And that’s what I want people to remember, whether they suffer from mental illness or not. You don’t have to go through this alone. Get help. Reach out. You are loved. You are needed. We are in that boat with you, and we are awake.
5) What sort of feedback did you get from people who had endured similar experiences to your main characters?
I think I answered part of this earlier, but the feedback has been very positive overall. I’ve had a few upset that my depiction of mental illness didn’t match up with their experience, but I knew that would happen. How could it not? Mental illness is such an individual thing that it’s impossible to get right. I just hope it came close. I’m speaking of OCD here as well. I have personal experience with OCD, but I’m sure for some it doesn’t ring true. And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to. This is an imaginative art, and at the end of the day some things won’t connect. But I sure hope people know I wrote from a place of humility and charity, hoping to create a story that is uplifting in the face of the odds.
6) Anything you would change about the final product?
So much! I think the quote is attributed to da Vinci, but it’s true no matter who said it: A work is never finished, only abandoned. I think my characters might smile too much at times. At other times, I’d like to have Fitz go through more of his emotions on the page, drawn out, and detailed. However, I push back on that because of the tone of the book. I had to do the same thing with Addie–I took out a lot of the researched material on the illnesses because the scenes felt overburdened. I wanted this book to be accessible, but not just to those with mental illness. I allowed Addie to wander pretty deep into her obsessions, but I felt I couldn’t do that with all the characters in this one novel. That’s the good news though, right? There’s more to come!

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