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.

Six questions: Interview with Francisco X. Stork, author of The Memory of Light

I have to be honest here: This one I came across in the course of doing research for these interviews, and I was so interested in the plot I read it. It was gripping, heavy, painful and beautiful. It’s absolutely worth reading.

From the blurb:

“When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital Mental Disorders ward, she knows one thing: After her suicide attempt, she shouldn’t be alive. But then she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had.

But Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up, sending Vicky back to the life that drove her to suicide, she must try to find her own courage and strength. She may not have them. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experience with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one — about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.”

Here are six questions with Francisco X. Stork, author of The Memory of Light.

1) Your book is heavily inspired by your own experiences with depression. What made you decide to “go public,” so to speak, with that experience?

The decision to connect the story in The Memory of Light to my own experiences was made shortly before the book went into production. It was then that I wrote an author’s note where I mentioned my own life-long struggles with depression and with a suicide attempt when I was in graduate school. I had talked about my depression and bipolar disorder in my blog before, but it was the first time I talked about the suicide attempt. I realized that there was still a lot of shame and guilt associated with that and I thought that I should try to confront that shame and stigma, just like the characters in my book. I also wanted the readers of the book who were suffering from depression or considering suicide, to know that I understood in a very personal way what they were going through and that the hope and light offered by the book was hard-earned and genuine.

2) How much of you can be found in your main character?

One of the reasons I made my main character, Vicky, a young woman is that I thought it was important to create some separation from my own experiences and the main character. If the character had been male, I would have a tendency as I wrote to see myself as the main character. The distance between me and Vicky gave me the ability to filter my own experiences and feelings and transform them into those of a sixteen-year-old young woman and to express these feeling the way she would. Of course, there is a lot of me in Vicky. But the novel is not a memoir and so what mattered was the creation of a unique character that would be real in the heart of the reader.

3) Much of your book seems to deal with the resilience – the ability of the main character to cope. Did your book consciously attempt to teach readers how to build their own resilience? 

For many of us, even with medication, depression is a chronic condition and even when we are “well”, it is always there lurking beneath the surface. So “resilience” or the ability to cope and to live useful and peaceful lives despite of it, is an important goal. This requires that we let go of images of “happiness” that our society gives us and that we create our own realistic version of a life that contains joy and meaning despite depression.

4) How was The Memory of Light therapeutic for you? Or was it? Did you find it dredging up old memories?

I’m not sure “therapeutic” is the right word. The book did not cure my depression or necessarily make me feel better for expressing heretofore hidden truths about myself.  When you seek to write fiction as opposed to memoir, the goal is to create an experience for the reader, something that touches him or her in a real way. The benefits for the writer, when fiction is done well, is the unforeseen discoveries about self and the world that the writing brings about. I understood and saw things about the illness of depression and how to live with it, that I had not understood and seen before. I felt less anger toward my own depression and was able to see the negative moods that come with depression with less condemnation and judgment and with a greater awareness that these negative states were not permanent.

5) What do you think readers can learn from your book about depression and recovery?

My hope is that in the process of reading the book, the reader will become involved with Vicky and the other characters in the book and grow to care for them. If that happens, there will be a good chance that the reader will be able transfer that same care and love to him or herself. The horrible thing about depression is the feeling that we are not good enough, that we are not worthy of all the good that life offers. But when you see a character like Vicky slowly learn to accept the good in her and in others, then it will be easier for us to feel the same about ourselves and about others.

6) The book is now about two years old. Anything you wish you had or had not done with it?

The Memory of Light took me a long time to write and I went through various drafts making sure that the final product would be one that offered hope to a person who was considering whether life was worth living. I’m happy with the book as it is. During the past two years I’ve heard from young people who were touched by the book and found light and hope because of it. That is what I hoped the book would do. The book is no longer mine. It belongs to the reader.

If you enjoy books about young adults and mental health, then I encourage you to check out my upcoming novel, Redemptionwhich will be out on June 5 but is available for pre-order at a discounted price today. Redemption is a young adult/sci-fi thriller about depression, anxiety and saving the world.

Six questions: Interview with Heidi Ayarbe, Author of Compulsion

Hello, everyone! Another day, another author interview. This one is with Heidi Ayarbe, who wrote Compulsion, a multi-layered story of OCD in a young adult. From the blurb:

Today has to be perfect.
Magic.
I look at the clock.
10:14 AM.

Ten fourteen. One plus one is two plus four is six plus ten is sixteen minus one is fifteen minus two is thirteen. OK.

I turn from the clock and walk into the hallway. “Ready.”

Saturday will be the third state soccer champion­ship in a row for Jake Martin. Three. A good number. Prime. With Jake on the field, Carson City High can’t lose because Jake has the magic: a self-created protection generated by his obsession with prime numbers. It’s the magic that has every top soccer university recruiting Jake, the magic that keeps his family safe, and the magic that suppresses his anxiety attacks. But the magic is Jake’s prison, because sustaining it means his compulsions take over nearly every aspect of his life.

Jake’s convinced the magic will be permanent after Saturday, the perfect day, when every prime has converged. Once the game is over, he won’t have to rely on his sister to concoct excuses for his odd rituals. His dad will stop treating him like he is some freak. Maybe he’ll even make a friend other than Luc.

But what if the magic doesn’t stay?

What if the numbers never leave?

Acclaimed author Heidi Ayarbe has created an honest and riveting portrait of a teen struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder in this breathtaking and courageous novel.

1) Is your book based on personal experiences, and how did your life experiences inform your description of OCD?
I do not have OCD, though I do deal with anxiety. A friend of mine has severe anxiety and OCD. I spent a lot of time with her, sharing scenes, asking how she’d react in certain situations. Naturally, every person with anxiety doesn’t react the same. Having her as a sounding board and sensitivity reader made all the difference in this novel. The climactic scene, in which Jake physically can’t go help his sister, mirrors a similar situation in her life in which she couldn’t help her daughter. That is how crippling it is. And so often I’ve seen OCD and anxiety represented as a punchline for someone’s character in a story or TV show when it’s anything but funny. And so so hard to understand.
 
2) Your book deals with the mental and physical aspects of OCD. How difficult was it to describe what these felt like?
I think anybody who has experienced a panic attack can appreciate how out-of-body and uncontrolled you feel during that moment. It’s terrifying. And, yes, I really think it’s hard to describe that moment when everything feels electric and fuzzy at the same time. And the pre-moment, when you know it’s going to happen. It’s like a tidal wave taking over your body, and you just have to brace yourself for it. During those scenes, I just tried to express how I felt during a panic attack. I haven’t had many, but they leave an imprint on you.
 
3) How did you balance the need to make this book broadly appealing to an audience at large and a desire to make it speak specifically to those who have been affected by OCD?
Honestly, I only thought about Jake’s story and being true to him. Certainly, as an author, our job is to connect with readers. That said, I think telling our truth, and finding the truth in our characters, is primordial, or it can come off as contrived. So, honestly, I was only thinking about Jake’s story. It really was important to me. And by being honest and vulnerable, I hope that it appealed to readers.
 
4) In the book, you describe a character driving to the moment when the “magic” will stay and everything will be alright in Jake’s life – were you intentionally trying to use this concept to make the book more relatable to all readers? That’s how I read this aspect, but I could be wrong.
Anxiety disorders (specific phobias, social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, and OCD among others) don’t make sense in a “rational world.” So I tried to create a reasoning that Jake could hold onto to make sense of the disorder himself. If we think about anxiety disorders, and approaching them from an outside-looking-in, Jake, too, was trying to make sense of his own disorder. He used sports and “magic” to do so. So I used this idea more for Jake. How would he justify what was happening to him? Again, it’s his story.
 
5) Why prime numbers?
When I was researching OCD, so many different forms exist. Though the jury is out on whether anxiety disorders are hereditary or social, or, most likely, a combination of both, no two people deal with anxiety the same way. So they can be unrecognizable to each other. Like Jake’s mom suffers from scrupulosity. He definitely doesn’t see himself mirrored in her, at all. They don’t connect, though they both suffer. Most characters I’ve seen portrayed with OCD focus on germs, cleanliness, having everything perfectly organized etc. I guess it’s easier to address something like that visually. As novelists, though, we get to use the mind!  I was thinking about athletes and an athlete mentality. A friend of mine’s son used to count words. All of his sentences had to have an odd number of words. So I started to consider numbers, prime, and how Jake could relate them to sports. This seemed more natural to me. And I know some readers found it frustrating, even difficult, dealing with the constant adding, subtracting, searching through numbers in Jake’s mind. Imagine living that, though.
 
6) Can you talk a little about the impact this book had on readers? Did you hear from anyone who said that your writing helped them get help or recognize OCD in themselves/others?
This is one of those questions I’d love to say, “I simply don’t have time to address the endless e-mails that flood my inbox.” I get more of a desert drizzle of mails from readers (which means not many). That said, Compulsion was on Taysha’s list and received a lot of good reviews, even starred. Perhaps, by focusing so much on Jake I didn’t connect to readers as I’d hoped? I’m not sure. It’s a weird job. I love Jake. I love his story. And I tried my hardest to be honest. I think, as authors, that’s what we owe our readers (all five of them!) teehee!!
If you enjoy books about young adults and mental health, then I encourage you to check out my upcoming novel, Redemptionwhich will be out on June 5 but is available for pre-order at a discounted price today. Redemption is a young adult/sci-fi thriller about depression, anxiety and saving the world.

Six questions: An interview with Mia Siegert, author of Jerkbait

So, as my book is coming out on June 5, I want to kick off a new part of this blog. Countless authors have addressed the topic of mental health in young adult books before, and I wanted to get their perspective on the topic. To that end, I started reaching out to some of these authors.
The first to respond – thanks so much! – was Mia Siegert, who wrote Jerkbait. Here’s the blurb, and the interview:
Even though they’re identical, Tristan isn’t close to his twin Robbie at all—until Robbie tries to kill himself. Forced to share a room to prevent Robbie from hurting himself, the brothers begin to feel the weight of each other’s lives on the ice, and off. Tristan starts seeing his twin not as a hockey star whose shadow Tristan can’t escape, but a struggling gay teen terrified about coming out in the professional sports world. Robbie’s future in the NHL is plagued by anxiety and the mounting pressure from their dad, coach, and scouts, while Tristan desperately fights to create his own future, not as a hockey player but a musical theatre performer. As their season progresses and friends turn out to be enemies, Robbie finds solace in an online stranger known only as “Jimmy2416.” Between keeping Robbie’s secret and saving him from taking his life, Tristan is given the final call: sacrifice his dream for a brother he barely knows, or pursue his own path. How far is Robbie willing to go—and more importantly, how far is Tristan willing to go to help him?
1) Can you talk about your own experiences with mental health and how it impacted the book? This is the question that I always ask because it certainly impacted mine.
I’ve been open for many years about my struggles with depression, PTSD, and anxiety. I think by default, a lot transferred into JERKBAIT, especially as I used to be a teen athlete (show jumping) and my Olympic dreams were shattered with a career-ending injury. A lot of people unknowingly and often unintentionally glamorize mental illness–recently, a best seller made a statement about how people should date “broken” people because they were beautiful, and I threw up in my mouth a little. That sort of mentality prevents a person who’s struggling from getting better because they end up internalizing that thought–am I only beautiful if I’m broken? It’s not helpful.
A huge part of writing JERKBAIT was to be as authentic as possible and show that no, mental illness is not something to romanticize. It’s hell. It’s something that I think I’ll always personally struggle with although I’m not ashamed of it. I actively promote discussion of mental illness to fight the stigma.
 
2) Your book obviously deals with sexual orientation and sports. How much instruction did you get from the experience of real life athletes like Michael Sam and Jason Collins?
When I was competing, I was in a very gay-friendly sport (emphasis on that as the other letters connected in the LGBTQ+ community were not particularly welcome, and I did experience a lot of this). In JERKBAIT’s process and completion, I partnered with You Can Play–a nonprofit to support the treatment and rights of LGBTQ+ athletes. For all 31 teams in the NHL, there is at least one spokesperson for YCP. Being in the community, I’ve faced a lot of hostility over the years so it was an unfortunate reality.
 
3) Whether intentional or not, Jerkbait seems to address the perpetual nature vs. nurture debate of the impact of genetics and depression. Did you mean to do that?
Yes, very intentional. I also really wanted to discuss toxic masculinity, especially in sports. One could easily say that the toxic environment Robbie and Tristan experience on a daily basis from their parents to their coach to their peers would affect depression and anxiety–that’s absolutely correct. But also, without question, genetics play a role. Even if there was less pressure on the Betterby twins, I think they would still have depression–they would be able to manage it better. Without giving away spoilers, the end of JERKBAIT goes into this a bit.
 
4) I ask this question because it seems to clearly come across in this book: The notion that societal pressure to succeed is (literally) killing today’s teens. How much of an impact do you think society is having on today’s youth and the recent spike in depression, and what can teens do to mitigate that pain?
Without question, the high pressure is contributing to youth (and also young adults). There are pressures that exist currently that weren’t an issue before, such as not being able to survive (literally) because of the GOP removing resources. Three weeks ago, a person on FB I thought I was friends with mocked the idea of a “Cry Closet”–literally a small room in a library that was developed so that people, if overwhelmed, could go somewhere for a few minutes, recollect, and then go on with their day successfully. Their suggestion for solving the problem of these “wimps” was “school shootings.” I’m not joking. When I said it was a terrible joke, they replied saying dead kids were preferable to wimpy kids (aka anyone who’s looking for help). The people speaking and agreeing with it were all in their 60s and up.
The problem isn’t with youth today. The problem is that older generations are preventing people from getting help, literally. For example, if you make too much for medicaid but don’t make a “minimum wage,” you are ineligible for tax credits for healthcare. Teens and even younger kids see their parents struggle to make ends meet and survive and find a way for their kids to have a better life–it feels overwhelming and impossible. Even as an adult, I struggle with this daily.
 
5) What’s your advice to teens who have experiences like Robbie? How can they cope when their personal and family lives are as bleak as his get?
If possible, go to a nonprofit (or school counselor) for help. Nonprofits like Jewish Family Services might have a waitlist, but there are trained professionals who can work with budgets (sometimes seeing people for free) to help. There’s a stigma against getting help, and most don’t know about these resources. There are also other organizations like The Trevor Project that are absolutely superb.
Also, I want teens to know that if they seek counseling, it is confidential. Please talk to someone if at all possible. And also, less time on social media. It can be tied to so much drama. I’m a writer so I’m bias but I strongly encourage spending time each week (if not 15 mins/day) reading for pleasure. A book is a great way to escape and refresh.
 
6) Just as importantly: What’s your advice for teens like Tristian, whose families are collapsing around them and who have less-than-stellar family support when they need it most?

About the same sort of feedback I’d give for Robbie, honestly. Mental illness is something that affects many people. It doesn’t discriminate. Counselors will focus on different things for each person’s needs.

If young adult books that deal with depression, anxiety and mental health are your thing, than I encourage you to check out my YA/Sci Fi book, Redemption, coming out on June 5.