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.