We’re thrilled to be featuring an interview with Heidi Heilig about her YA time-travel novel, The Girl From Everywhere, which features a prominent character with bipolar disorder: Captain Slate, the main character’s father. Heidi and S. Jae-Jones sat down to talk about the book’s portrayal of bipolar disorder, writing mental illness, and writing with a mental illness. It’s a wonderful discussion, and we hope you enjoy!
S. Jae-Jones: While I was reading The Girl from Everywhere, I appreciated that while bipolar disorder was part of the story, it was not about bipolar disorder. Do you, as someone who is intimately acquainted with the disorder, feel obligated to write mental illness into the narrative, or was Slate’s mental illness an organic part of the writing process?
Heidi Heilig: I’ve never felt an obligation or a responsibility to include mental illness in my writing, possibly because I avoid responsibility and obligation wherever I can. But being bipolar, the disorder has shaped my life so fully that Slate’s entire personality came very easily to the page. Of all the characters I’ve written so far, he is the one who most closely resembles me. At the time I decided to write the book, I was actually dealing with a diagnosis of infertility and endometriosis and I thought I’d never have a child. (And I’d gone off my medications while attempting to get pregnant.) My diagnosis, along with the return of a lot of my worst symptoms, prompted me to fully imagine the kind of parent I feared I might have been—and that I feared I’d never have a chance to become. So even though it wasn’t carefully planned and plotted, including mental illness was unavoidable.
JJ: Same; I don’t usually address bipolar disorder directly in my writing, although elements of both mania and depression do show up in my characters. I’ve also noticed that Captain Slate is never explicitly named as having bipolar disorder, although he does display some hallmarks: reckless behavior, irritability, depression, etc. The closest I read in the text was the mention of a “manic” gleam in his eye. Out of curiosity, was this a conscious choice? If so, why?
Heidi: So as much as I sling it around in my Twitter bio, I really don’t like the word “bipolar.” Unfortunately, I picked up that Gen-X counter-culture bad attitude towards psychiatric treatment and using medication (and I know I’m not the only one). I’ve struggled for a while with what it means to be a “good” or “bad” crazy person. The good ones get diagnosed and take their meds. The bad ones go on shooting sprees if they’re boys or have Too Much Sex (that is, any sex) if they’re girls. (I don’t know of any bipolar tropes for non-binary folks but I’m sure they exist and are insulting.)
The thing is, my own story is that of the “bad” crazy person. So Slate is “bad” too—he was never diagnosed (and he was a runaway and a drug user from his teen years in the 80s, so diagnosis would probably have been less likely for him anyway.) Yet, I tried to write him with the respect and dignity normally afforded only to some of the “good” crazies, because I wanted that for all of us.
JJ: Dismantling our own internal prejudices and biases with regards to mental illness can be difficult. I was incredibly lucky; when I was diagnosed, both my parents were supportive and empathetic. I also try to live “out” as a bipolar person, partially to “prove” to people that you can have mental illness and be “normal.” (Whatever “normal” is.) But I understand when people shy away from the label. Is it important to you to have this “ambiguity,” for the lack of a better word, so that others may read into your characters what they need?
Heidi: I admire that so much about the way you live—I try to do the same, at least on Twitter. Clear, unambiguous representation in the text is the gold standard for many people (with good reason!). But I personally love looking for hidden meaning and secret implications—whether for mental illness, queerness, non-traditional relationships, anything. I hope a bipolar reader can recognize themselves in the text, especially if they haven’t been diagnosed (or if they don’t like to think about their diagnosis). Leaving the diagnosis more ambiguous also takes the focus off his disorder—I didn’t want the story to be about his mental illness. I wanted a mentally ill character to have a story where his illness affected his behavior and decisions, but his actual central struggle was something else entirely.
JJ: I think too that there can be value in ambiguity, especially if a character’s explicit on-page diagnosis and experience doesn’t match your own. You and I have talked about Alexander Hamilton and recognizing elements of mania in his behavior (as portrayed in the musical), even though “bipolar disorder” was not a diagnosis known to people of his time. Because of this, I think there must be a breadth as well as depth of representation, from the ambiguous to the explicit, to properly portray the diverse range of mental illness.
It also helps us avoid the “model” representation trap. Slate is not exactly a “role model” in terms of representation: He’s an addict and a poor parent, yet he is quixotic, romantic, and driven. I was struck most by the lack of judgment of his addiction. Too often we find unkind portrayals of addicts, in both fiction and society, and while Slate’s addiction was a part of his character, it was not a destructive force that wreaked havoc upon Nix and the crew. I sometimes bristle when I see bipolar characters with addiction (which is often comorbid with bipolar disorder), partially because of the negative connotations addiction carries today. Was this a conscious decision to try and dismantle the stigma against addicts?
Heidi: Absolutely, yes. I despise the trope of the addict who will sell or scam anything and anyone for a fix—it’s unkind and, in my experience, untrue. In our country, addiction is often seen as a moral failure, but studies show that the causes of addiction have much more to do with social forces (like poverty) or mental illnesses (like PTSD or bipolar) than they do with willpower. For me, addiction and substance abuse was always more about trying to self-medicate, and occasionally to self-destruct. In writing Slate’s character, I wanted to show a side of the story I haven’t often seen: that of an addict who is complicated—maybe even unlikeable–but not evil.
JJ: I really appreciated that you wrote both the “good” and the “bad” together in Slate, which goes a long way in humanizing those with mental illness. I don’t believe all characters with mental illness need to be a paragon of virtue; in fact, I loathe the “inspirational” story. However, Slate is not the protagonist of the narrative; Nix is. Is there a reason Slate, around whom the story does NOT revolve, was the one with bipolar disorder? Will we see things from his perspective in future books?
Heidi: So, despite having bipolar disorder—and knowing I have it, and talking so much about having it—there are totally times when I forget that I have it! It’s nice, in a way. Then again, sometimes I’ve been feeling “normal” for a while and then I wonder idly “Why did I spend the last three hours shopping for shoes I don’t even need?” and then I have a big “oh yeaaahhhhh” moment. But because of this, my disorder sometimes seems less like a part of me and more an unpredictable, driving outside force that controls me whenever it feels like it. That feeling is reflected in the fact that Slate, while not being the main character, is the captain of the ship and in charge of Nix’s very existence. But beyond metaphor, I think I needed that distance, at least for this particular story. Slate is so close to who I am that it was scary, at times, to admit his worst qualities. That said, I have written a short story set in Slate’s youth where he is the main character. And if all goes well with the writing, my next fantasy series will feature a main character who is bipolar herself, although again, that will not be the thrust of the plot.
JJ: I can’t wait to read WHATEVER you write next. I AM SO EXCITE, MY FRIEND.