Six Questions: An interview with Brad Barkley, Co-Author of Jars of Glass

Today’s interview is with Brad Barkley, co-author of Jars of Glass. From the summary:

Chloe and Shana want the same thing?for everything to go back to normal, the way it was before their mom went to the hospital. But both sisters know that things can never be the same. While Chloe wants their mom to come home so they can be a family again, Shana never wants to see their mother. And while Shana is trying to escape her problems by hiding under a new persona, Chloe is left trying to be the responsible one. Then things go from bad to worse, and the sisters are forced to band together and redefine what it means to be a family.

I really appreciate that this book takes a different look at what it’s like to have a family member with a mental illness. It also bounces between the two perspectives of the two sisters, which is different than usual.

1) Do you think that personal experience with mental illness is necessary to write a story like this?

I don’t think it’s necessary, no, as long as you are a writer who is willing to do your research and use your imagination. I mean, people write novels about the Civil War or living on Mars without having had any experience of that. But it might be a moot question. You know, one of the tricks that fortune tellers are taught is to say to customers, “You are related to someone in the military,” and you go away thinking, Wow, how did she know that? But the thing is, everyone, pretty much, is related to someone in the military. I think it’s the same thing here; pretty much everyone has had someone in their life with some kind of mental illness, either themselves or someone else. Sadly, mental illness casts a wide net.

2) This book is written from a slightly different perspective than most of the ones I’ve seen with mental illness – it deals with what it’s like to have a family member who struggles. What sort of point were you trying to drive home by creating a world like this?

In my mind, novels are not written to “drive home a point,” but rather to explore the lives of characters. Or to put it another way, not to provide answers but to ask interesting questions. The question here might be, “How does it affect your growing up if your parent is mentally ill?” Or, “How does it affect relationships with the people around you?” And not just in general, but specifically for these two girls. The “point” of any novel, I think, is to let us inside other people and their lives, to create empathy and understanding for other people.

3) What sort of feedback did you get from people who had been through similar situations?

We had letters and emails from teens saying that the book really helped them. But they don’t get too into the specifics of that. They feel a real closeness for the book, but the people who wrote that book are still strangers, so they aren’t going to go into too much detail. But it is gratifying to know that someone in a similar situation has felt like they were understood or that they had a voice because this book spoke for them.

4) The book goes back and forth between the perspective of two sisters; that obviously provides two different perspectives. What made you select these two specific perspectives from the point of view of the two sisters?

I wrote this with my co-author, so I really only had a hand in selecting the perspective of the older sister (the “even” chapters in the book, in Shana’s voice). Again, I think we wanted to explore a relationship between two siblings (both of us have a sibling), who are in many ways very different from each other, yet still love each other. As you write, characters kind of insist upon who they are, and my job is mostly to type and stay out of the way.

5) As you were writing from two perspectives, were there every moments where you thought, “Oh, damn, that’s not something that character X would say, that’s what Y would say”? In other words, was it confusing to write two different emotions, dialogue patterns, personalities, etc?

Well, that is part of the difficulty or fun of writing with a co-author. Of course, I “invented” one sister, and my co-author “invented” the other one, but I would have to constantly write her character into my scenes, and vice-versa. So we came up with one rule: we each have full veto power over our own character. In other words, I could say to Heather, “Nah, Shana would never say that,” or Heather could say to me “Chloe would never do that,” and then we would figure it out. But, over the course of three books, we only had to invoke that rule twice that I recall, so we were pretty intuitive about all the characters in the book and who they were.

6) Anything that you would change about this book, now that it has been years since publication?

It never occurs to me to think of books that way, or even short stories. I’m sure I could read through with a pen in my hand and a few things would make me cringe, and I would start marking this or that change. But a book is a finished work. It is complete in itself, and it’s also kind of a time capsule of where you were in life when you wrote it, and who you were, and all the ways you have moved on. Even if you could change it, why would you want to?

Six Questions: An interview with Laura Silverman, Author of You Asked for Perfect

Today’s interview is with Laura Silverman, who wrote You Asked For Perfect, the story of a super smart, LGBT teenager who is trying to learn to navigate his life in a high pressure world. From the summary:

Senior Ariel Stone is the perfect college applicant: first chair violinist, dedicated volunteer, active synagogue congregant, and expected valedictorian. And he works hard―really hard―to make his success look effortless. A failed calculus quiz is not part of his plan. Not when he’s number one. Not when his peers can smell weakness like a freshman’s body spray.

Ariel throws himself into studying. His friends will understand if he skips a few plans, and he can sleep when he graduates. But as his grade continues to slide, Ariel realizes he needs help and reluctantly enlists a tutor, his classmate Amir. The two have never gotten along, but Ariel has no other options.

Ariel discovers he may not like calculus, but he does like Amir. Except adding a new relationship to his long list of commitments may just push him past his limit.

1) Do you think that experiencing mental illness is a requirement for any author who deals with this topic?
I don’t think it’s a requirement, but I do think if a writer is ever writing outside of their own personal experience, it should be done with a great amount of both research and empathy.
2) Your book obviously deals with a gay teenager, a group which faces enormous mental health pressures. Can you talk a little about writing a character with mental health challenges from that perspective?
Ariel is a bisexual teen, but his anxiety in the book is related to academic pressure not his sexuality. I wanted to write a book about the extreme academic pressure teens deal with today, as I believe it’s something so many teens experience but is rarely written about.
3) As I type this questions, your book is number one in “Teen & Young Adult Jewish Fiction.” What has your experience been like in terms of the interaction between religion and mental health?
I grew up in a very supportive Jewish community and wanted to reflect that in this novel. Ariel’s Jewish community is a place of comfort and warmth for him. Although services certainly take up more time in his busy schedule, adding additional stress, overall his Jewish community is an incredibly supportive aspect of his life. And his rabbi is actually one of the people who helps him the most throughout the book.
4) Your book addresses many of the societal pressures which teenagers face today. What do you think any of us can do to try to tamp down those pressures?
I think we need to send the message that grades do not define you. There’s so much pressure to excel in school and get into top universities, but while education is important, it should be about the learning experience not about top SAT scores and AP credits.
5) Many of the reviews of You Asked For Perfect note that you seem to perfectly capture what it’s like to be a teenager in a high pressure environment. How did you do that??
I went to one of those high schools! Although my experience wasn’t as intense as my protagonist Ariel, I experienced the exhaustion of taking multiple AP classes, taking extra electives, the pressure to excel, the fear of scoring a low grade. I also did a lot of research for the book. I talked to high achieving students about their experiences and watched documentaries and read books.
6) If you could do it again – anything you’d do differently?
With the book? I wouldn’t change a thing!

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!

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!

Six Questions with Leslie Stella, author of Permanent Record

I gotta say – one of the most fun things about this blog, at least to me, is learning how other authors approach depression, and the unique spins that they give on the issue. Last week’s interview, for example, dealt with cyber-bullying and self-harm. This one’s is with Leslie Stella, author of Permanent Record, who deals with racism, terrorism and a post 9/11 world.

From the description:

Being yourself can be such a bad idea. For sixteen-year-old Badi Hessamizadeh, life is a series of humiliations. After withdrawing from public school under mysterious circumstances, Badi enters Magnificat Academy. To make things “easier,” his dad has even given him a new name: Bud Hess. Grappling with his Iranian-American identity, clinical depression, bullying, and a barely bottled rage, Bud is an outcast who copes by resorting to small revenges and covert acts of defiance, but the pressures of his home life, plummeting grades, and the unrequited affection of his new friend, Nikki, prime him for a more dangerous revolution. Strange letters to the editor begin to appear in Magnificat’s newspaper, hinting that some tragedy will befall the school. Suspicion falls on Bud, and he and Nikki struggle to uncover the real culprit and clear Bud’s name. Permanent Record explodes with dark humor, emotional depth, and a powerful look at the ways the bullied fight back.


Your book not only deals with depression, but it also deals with some very heavy societal issues—racial identity and terrorism. What inspired you to address this subject?

I wanted to explore several themes: 1) bullying, and the fine line between standing up for yourself and taking revenge, 2) the relationship between mental health, outsider status, and bullying, and 3) how a teen targeted for his racial identity might retaliate. Funneling these three concerns into the experience of one protagonist made for a gripping story, one in which readers must wrestle with themselves about whether the protagonist is justified in his actions.

As noted in your book’s description, your main character, an Iranian American, is pressured by his family to hide his identity. This is a common issue faced by many teens. How do you think this impacts someone’s mental health?

Ignoring the interplay between mental health and outsider status is a sure way to court disaster, either for the outsider himself or society. Sublimating one’s identity (whether it’s racial, gender-based, or any other facet that contributes to the makeup of a person) always backfires; you cannot grow as a human being if you deny those very facets that make you whole.

How can authors approach subjects like this with authenticity, even if it isn’t their lived experience?

Speaking for myself, if I wrote about only my own experiences, I would subject my readership to a never-ending glut of books about office work. The purpose of literature is to transport the reader—and that usually means transporting the author as well. It’s called imagination and research. Use them! They are your friends.

In Permanent Record, the protagonist’s Persian background was based on a family that my family was close to when I was in high school. My sister dated one of the brothers, and I worked for the parents for several years at a store they owned. I learned so much about Persian culture from them, including the dynamics within the family and what is expected of the children—especially the difference between expectations of the daughters versus the sons.

The book was written in 2013, but, unfortunately, many of its themes seem more relevant than ever. If you had to write the book again now, with Donald Trump as president, what would be the same, and what would be different?

Like so many things, terrorism begins at home. The ritual of school violence in our country is a brand of home-grown terrorism that our society has decided it will tolerate. If I had written Permanent Record today, with Donald Trump as president, I would likely have the covert displays of racism present as overt. People aren’t any different today than they were previously; it’s that they feel free to parade their prejudices and hatred more openly.

In looking at this book, it seems to me that it can apply to two groups: Members of the “majority” community who are looking to get a better understanding of what life is like to those who are minorities, or members of the minority community, like Badi, who are looking for a character to identify with. Did you have one of these audiences in mind more than the other?

 Why must these two great tastes be mutually exclusive? In the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of fiction, the writer’s job is to hold a mirror up to the world so that we can see not only ourselves but everyone else as well.

In a social media friendly world, what’s the role of books—like yours—in terms of addressing mental health and the stigma which surrounds it?

People usually feel alone when they struggle with their mental health, and social media exacerbates this: “Gee, everyone else on Facebook seems so happy; their children pose readily with handmade signs, while I’m taking pictures of squirrels ransacking my birdfeeder.” At the same time, I’m not a fan of people using social media as a substitute for therapy. A book, however, can delve deep into these problems in a way that is personal and intimate and three-dimensional, which is something a tweet or post can never do. I don’t think I’m alone in saying I relate better to complex fictional characters better than I do with most real-live people with whom I have human contact. So in that sense, I hope Badi’s struggles with depression inform readers about the complexities of mental health and the many options for treatment out there.

 

 

 

Six Questions: Interview with Angel Lawson, author of A Piece of Heaven

Morning, everyone! It’s been a while, so here’s an interview with Angel Lawson. Angel is the author of A Piece of Heaven, a YA book which deals with a few issues I haven’t delved into a ton: Online bullying and self-harm.

First, here’s the book description:

No good deed goes unpunished.

I learned that lesson the hard way when I agreed to helping my friend Justin with a favor.

My platonic friend Justin.

A favor that helped him with his reputation but turned mine into the trending topic at my school. In a matter of days I go from quiet, nobody to school slut.

The problem with that? I’m still a virgin.

The whispers, the stares and the constant gossip could bring me down but I’m tired of hiding in the dark, covering up my anxiety and being alone. I decide to take on the bullies and find a few surprising allies along the way; the Allendale Four.

Oliver, Anderson, Jackson and Hayden make up this tight-knit circle of friends and they make it their mission to protect my reputation, my heart and my soul.

For the first time I’m not alone and I’m not afraid, but will the closed-minded town of Allendale accept our relationship?

Please note a Piece of Heaven is a contemporary young adult, Why Choose novel that deals first love, the hardships of high school; including the topics of bullying, social issues and self-harm.

This isn’t the type of book which you would normally associate with mental health – it deals with romance and part of the genre is apparently reverse harem (I have never heard of that one!). But, I’d also argue that it is non-traditional books which can best make the most impact in terms of mental health.

Anyways, here’s Six Questions with Angel Lawson.

It’s rare to find someone who hasn’t had some sort of personal experience with bullying. Was this you, and how did those experiences inform your writing?

As a kid I was honestly more part of the “mean girl” group than outside of it, but that didn’t mean we were in the clear. Basically, we were mean because you had to keep the attention off of yourself, because anyone could be a target. Once I moved on to high school I was able to make new friends and leave that group behind. The interesting result as an adult (with two teenage daughters) is that I can smell a bully a mile a way. They don’t always see it, but I do. The manipulation and jockeying for power (which is all bully is.) My oldest came home from school last week having not done well on a test. Her “friend” who is very smart and does very well academically, pulled out her phone and took a picture of her grade. Just because. It’s a power move–something to make my daughter feel unsettled and to doubt herself, all to hide the other persons’s own self-doubts.

Your book also addresses a topic that is much more taboo than it should be: Self-harm. How did you approach this topic, and how were you able to do so in a “safe” way that avoided triggering those who may be tempted to self-harm?

We went through a family crisis last year with my youngest. The combination of some issues at school, her general anxiety and bad side effects of medication triggered an awful reaction. We spent months on high alert and getting back in step. Before that I wrote more action-oriented, paranormal or fantasy themed novels. That personal event pushed me into exploring this topic more. It was helpful for me to have somewhere to just lay it all out there, while still telling a fictional story. I tried very hard to be authentic and not sensational.

Mental heath seems to be a theme of yours – in this book and others. How are you able to write about this subject with authenticity?

I have a degree in social work and experience with Juvenile Delinquents (who all have some kind of mental health component) Then first hand experience with therapists, group treatment etc…

What sort of research do you do?

Not much other than what I have been involved in personally.

Your book deals specifically with cyber bullying. Can you talk a little about the impacts which you have seen cyberbullying have on mental health?

I have two teenaged girls. They were not allowed on social media until the 8th grade. I felt like the majority of bad decisions come from being too young to understand long term consequences. So while my older daughter’s friends were all being called into the office for bullying accusations she wasn’t involved. My younger is still not allowed to have Snapchat although i did encourage Instagram to keep in touch with family and friends because she changed schools. The fake accounts are rampant for middle schoolers in particular. The photos and questions and videos basically begging (or literally begging) for attention are out of control. These kids post too much and then don’t get the feedback they want and it’s painful. Frankly, they’re almost ASKING to be bullied which is even worse. They can’t see how it affects their self-esteem and their future and how people view them. It’s complicated. Tricky. The best bet is to stay clear–ALTHOUGH removing yourself entirely can be social suicide as well.

From a mental health perspective, what do you hope your readers get out of the book?

That just because you go through something like this doesn’t mean your life is over. Help is out there and you can have bad moments in a life that don’t have to define you. It’s also a romance and I want people to know that even with flaws you can find love. I really hate the movie 13 Reason’s Why. It offers no hope. It’s sensationalized. The adults are idiots. The kids are relentless. The best moment was when I bumped that book out of the #1 spot for over a month.

Six questions: Interview with John Corey Whaley, author of Highly Illogical Behavior

So this is an interesting one, mainly because the book deals with a topic I’ve barely tackled: Agorophobia. Today’s book is Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley. From the blurb:

Sixteen-year-old Solomon has agoraphobia. He hasn’t left his house in 3 years. Ambitious Lisa is desperate to get into a top-tier psychology program. And so when Lisa learns about Solomon, she decides to befriend him, cure him, and then write about it for her college application. To earn Solomon’s trust, she introduces him to her boyfriend Clark, and starts to reveal her own secrets. But what started as an experiment leads to a real friendship, with all three growing close. But when the truth comes out, what erupts could destroy them all. Funny and heartwarming, Highly Illogical Behavior is a fascinating exploration of what makes us tick, and how the connections between us may be the most important things of all.

1) Did this book come from your own personal experiences with mental illness, or that of someone close to you?

I’d say it was a combination of both, but Solomon’s anxiety is definitely an exploration of my own.

 2) Were you trying to write a story about mental illness, or were you using the agoraphobia to make a broader point? I suspect the answer lies in the middle, and if that’s the case, what made you use agoraphobia specifically? 

While I did set out to tackle mental illness as a subject, I also wanted to make sure the story was really a character study more than anything else—and a way to help readers empathize with someone like Solomon.

3) Your book is clearly remarkably effective at taking shots at the stigma which surrounds mental illness. How did you write a character that was so multi-layered, and in the words of at least one reviewer, so much more than his mental illness?

That’s a tough question to answer! I guess I’d say that I focused really hard on making sure Solomon-and the other characters-all left more of a lasting impression on the reader through their personalities and not their problems.

4) The cover design – with the different colored lines and someone walking in what looks to be a box – is one of the more noticeable covers I have seen. What inspired that?

I can’t take any credit for the cover, but I will say I LOVE IT. It’s simply the chaotic lines of color leading Solomon outside to the crazy world, where his friends are waiting.

5) Members of minority communities tend to suffer even greater from mental illness – can you talk at all about how your book attempted to address the subject of mental illness among the LGBT population, and why you chose to go that route?

As a queer American, and one with mental illness, I’ve seen up close the effects of mental illness on my community. It was important to me portray a young gay man with mental illness who wasn’t defined by EITHER thing solely.

6) As noted in the blurb, one of your main characters tries to “fix” another’s mental illness. What’s your advice to those who think this is a viable strategy?

Anyone who wants to help someone with mental illness deserves a chance to be heard, sure, but it’s very important that those without mental illness understand that you can’t “fix”  a person. Mental illness is wired into a person, so much care, research, and care must be taken when helping someone deal with their illness.

Do you like book giveaways? How about TWO book giveaways?

Hey, folks! Yesterday featured one of the more in-depth interview’s I’ve ever done, with Paula Stokes, who wrote Girl Against The Universe. I sincerely hope that, if you liked what she had to say, you became more interested in her book.

Is that the case? Well, then GOOD NEWS for you! Paula and I are jointly running a contest, where she’s giving away a copy of Girl Against The Universe and I am giving away a copy of my new book, Redemption.

Interested? I hope so! If you are, check out the giveaway here.

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.

Six questions: Kristy Acevedo, author of Consider

So, on the heels of my book coming out yesterday, here’s another author interview for you, and this one was kind of fun. This book is called Consider, by Kristy Acevedo. It’s part of the portals series, which does something that I wish more authors did: It discusses mental illness/anxiety attacks from a science fiction perspective. Interested? Read on for more!

1) Ah ha! Your book is one of the rarer ones that gets out of a typical YA-genre while still addressing mental illness. What made you deal with anxiety disorders in such a way?

One of my overall goals when writing CONSIDER and CONTRIBUTE was to create a realistic teenager with an anxiety disorder who has to deal with a sci-fi phenomenon. I wanted her honest struggle and the complex relationships in her life to give the story a gradual depth that would hit at gut level. Alexandra is strong, vulnerable, compassionate, and flawed, and becomes heroic. To do this, I decided to write in first-person, present tense, which was a struggle to maintain for the entire series. It was worth it to give Alexandra’s character the focus she deserved.
 
2) Minus the hologram part, is your book based on personal experiences with anxiety that you have shared? How did those experiences inform your writing? If not, how did you learn how to write about anxiety in such a credible way?
All the anxiety in the book is based on experience, not research. While I don’t have an anxiety disorder, I have several close family members with mental health issues, mild to severe, and over the years I’ve been their advocate during panic attacks, hospital visits, etc. With permission, I’ve combined several experiences to inform Alexandra’s unique character. I wanted to write a character struggling in a realistic way, who also shows tremendous courage and strength and becomes the hero of the series, because that’s how I see those people in my life, even if they don’t always see themselves that way.
 
3) What kind of feedback have you received from people with anxiety disorders about your book?
I’ve gotten many emails about how much they connected with Alexandra’s anxiety, and how, even though the series gets sinister and tragic, they felt a sense of hope witnessing her grow as a hero. They thanked me for portraying her character with no sugar coating and no sudden cures. Some readers said they had to take breaks while reading since her anxiety was so accurate, it triggered theirs. I apologized for that, and they reassured me that meant it was so good.
 
4) This is completely random, but you are a teacher. Do your kids ask you about your writing often? How do you bring it up as you teach?
 
On the first day of school, I introduce myself and my journey to becoming a professional writer. Then I tell students I will never bring up my books again during class unless they ask me a specific question. I tell them I am first and foremost their teacher, not their author, and that I don’t want to be that obnoxious person always talking about my work. Usually, they nod and laugh and respect that I’m here for them.
 
They tend to only bring up my books during writing assignments. Some of them are intimidated at having an author as their high school English teacher, worried that I’m going to “grade them harder.” I reassure them that I’ve been teaching for almost twenty years, and I know how teenagers write. I also model drafting with them, writing crappy opening paragraphs and asking the class to edit me, and that usually empowers them to see that even published authors struggle to write. Or when I’m reminding them how important brainstorming or outlining is, someone will ask, “Do you do that for your books?” So I will explain what works for me and show them samples.
 
And sometimes, a student will come after school dying to talk to me after reading my books, and that’s incredible to witness in real time.
5) What is your advice to authors who want to write in a more inclusive way about a whole slew of topics/characters – be it ethnic diversity, LGBTQ, physical disabilities, mental illness – but don’t actually have the personal experience to discuss the issue?
 
Support marginalized writers and amplify their voices. That should always come first.
I know writers want their stories to reflect the world around them, but they need to ask themselves if they can bring diverse characters to the page authentically and without harm to those communities. You shouldn’t be writing diverse characters if you spend most of your time in a non-diverse community. So my advice would be to diversify your life before diversifying the page.
6) Portals. Why portals????
Why NOT portals? Hahaha! I was binge-watching Doctor Who when I got the idea for the Holo series. Since Doctor Who is all about traveling through time, it was inevitable to end up with some sort of portal element.
If you enjoyed books that discuss science fiction and mental health, I hope you check out Redemption, my YA/Science Fiction novel about depression, anxiety and the end of the world.