Six Questions: An interview with Mindy McGinnis, author of Heroine

Another day, another author interview! This one is with Mindy McGinnis, author of Heroine, a YA book which deals with a main character who becomes addicted to opioids. Here’s the summary:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month! A captivating and powerful exploration of the opioid crisis—the deadliest drug epidemic in American history—through the eyes of a college-bound softball star. Edgar Award-winning author Mindy McGinnis delivers a visceral and necessary novel about addiction, family, friendship, and hope.

When a car crash sidelines Mickey just before softball season, she has to find a way to hold on to her spot as the catcher for a team expected to make a historic tournament run. Behind the plate is the only place she’s ever felt comfortable, and the painkillers she’s been prescribed can help her get there.

The pills do more than take away pain; they make her feel good.

With a new circle of friends—fellow injured athletes, others with just time to kill—Mickey finds peaceful acceptance, and people with whom words come easily, even if it is just the pills loosening her tongue.

But as the pressure to be Mickey Catalan heightens, her need increases, and it becomes less about pain and more about want, something that could send her spiraling out of control.

Again, I love these interviews and the insight they provide. I wrote Redemption to help people understand mental health challenges from a personal perspective – and it seems like that’s what Heroine does for addiction.

Anyway, here’s the interview.

1) Do you think that personal experience with mental illness or addiction is necessary to write a book which deals with mental health or addiction?

I think a measure of it is useful, of course. And – if we’re being honest – pretty much all of is have that, either in our own experience or through loved ones. Having never been an addict myself (to substances, anyway), I wanted to be sure that I knew what I was talking about when I wrote this book. Research involved reading thousands upon thousands of pages about addiction, but also talking to counselors and addicts. The best compliments I’ve had for HEROINE is when a recovered addict tells me I got it right.

2) It’s clear that society is facing a massive addiction crisis, particularly when it comes to heroin. How much was your book inspired by that ongoing issue?

I got the idea for writing HEROINE after visiting a school district that had been particularly hard hit by the opioid crisis in southern Ohio. That, combined with my own experiences as a school librarian for fourteen years (and an intense love of softball + respect for female athletes) were the two sticks that struck together to create the spark for the story.

3) More often then not, when we’re dealing with books about young adult and sports, it’s written as a male character; yours obviously has a female lead. Why do you think that is?

I was a YA librarian for 14 years in a public school system. I could count on one hand books that featured female athletes, and needed both hands to count off male authors who only wrote about male athletes. As a former high school athlete who was also a reader, I had to wonder – why the disparity? There’s no real reason. So I set out to plug that hole.

4) I noticed that a few of the reviews noted that the book made readers uncomfortable because of the subject matter. Is that level of discomfort a basic requirement when dealing with a topic this heavy?

It depends entirely on the reader. I’ve written books where people get set on fire, or nine year olds are shooting someone to protect their water source. I don’t pull punches and I don’t shy from rough topics. I show teens using drugs – and liking it – in this book. I’m sure it will make some people uncomfortable. That’s reality. It’s not pretty or nice or kind or comfortable.

5) Your book comes with a trigger warning about how has “realistic descriptions” of opioid use, and there has been a good amount of debate over the subject of trigger warnings in recent years. I’d love to hear your thoughts about why you included one and what your thoughts are on the subject generally.

I’ve never used trigger warnings in any of my books, regardless of the fact they all do feature pretty intense content. For this one, I chose to include a trigger warning because of the honest depictions of drug use. It’s not an after school special with people doing drugs and immediately hating themselves or puking. They do drugs and love how it makes them feel. I didn’t want a recovered addict to read a realistic description of the high of heroin, and miss it enough to relapse.

6) If you could do it again – anything you’d do differently with the book?

Too early to say. I can point to things in my older releases that I would do differently because I have some distance and time has passed since I wrote them. HEROINE is still too fresh to have that perspective.

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 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.