Last year, writer and journalist s.e. smith reviewed Wild Awake, a contemporary YA novel by Hilary T. Smith featuring a protagonist with bipolar disorder. We invited the both of them to the blog to discuss books, mental illness, and everything in between.
To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed copy of Wild Awake! Details at the end of the post.
s.e. smith: What are some of your favourite literary works (for any age) depicting mental illness? What about them speaks to you?
Hilary T. Smith: I love everything by the New Zealand author Janet Frame. Her books aren’t “about” mental illness; however, they immerse the reader in the minds of characters who experience the world very differently than the norm (or perhaps less differently than you’d think, the difference being that Frame wasn’t afraid to set down a messy, strange, and sometimes disturbing internal reality for her characters, where other authors feel the need to tidy it up and make it coherent). Her descriptions of social anxiety in Towards Another Summer are scarily accurate, taking readers deep into the experience without labeling it or making it an issue. Everyone should read her books!
On the more well-known side of things, I was moved by Allie Brosh’s depiction of suicidal depression in her collection Hyperbole and a Half — raw and funny and heartbreaking and completely relatable. I have no doubt that book saved a lot of lives.
s.e.: What’s it like being an out mentally ill author? Do you feel like you’ve experienced discrimination or other barriers as a result of your frankness about your mental health status, or just the opposite?
Hilary: I’m really not aware of any differences. My life is pretty quiet…it’s not like I’m making public appearances all the time where that status/identity gets discussed or called into play. In fact, my status as an author (let alone “author with mental illness”) has so little impact on my daily life that it feels a little disorienting to hear myself referred to that way — I certainly don’t think of myself in those terms.
s.e.: Identity politics, and the decision to label or not label, gets complex. I totally know what you mean when you say it feels disorientating to be called an ‘author with mental illness,’ but do you think labels have a function? Where and when?
Hilary: There is quite a debate about the label thing, isn’t there? We live in an age of labels and categories, and this is reflected in our fiction — just look at our obsession with the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter, the Factions in Divergent, and all the associated personality quizzes and “which-blank-are-you” tests online. We want to belong to something, to say “I am this!,” to make some coherence out of this noisy reality. And there is obviously value in that (people building communities around a certain identity, finding support, pushing for change…) and also some problems (because once you are in that community, there may be a certain pressure, whether intentional or accidental, to conform to a model of that identity that isn’t quite true for you). Personally, I am growing more and more uncomfortable with any kind of us-versus-them duality, especially when it comes to something like mental illness – because our society as a whole is deeply disturbed, and to single out some people as “mentally ill” implies that the problem is contained in a small population, when in fact it’s embedded in our way of life.
s.e.: In the larger conversation about #WeNeedDiverseBooks, a complementary hashtag was started: #WeNeedDiverseAuthors. How do you think the publishing industry can work on the shortage of diversity on spines, not just between the covers?
Hilary: My answer to this question would entail a complete dismantling of our economic system. *grins*.
This is a multifaceted problem. On one hand, you have the publishing industry, which includes well-meaning but underpaid and overworked editors who are under tremendous pressure to acquire profitable books (at the expense of diversity and other good qualities) and do not have much latitude for taking necessary risks. On the other side, you have a population of writers, some of whom have much more of the time, resources, connections and skills needed to get a toehold in the publishing world than others. The publishing world (if we’re talking about the big houses, as opposed to small presses) is very corporate, and it can be hard to navigate unless you are comfortable working within those parameters and speaking that language.
In my ideal world, everything would be human-scale…smaller publishers, slower pace, no auto-responders or form rejections. While we’re at it, how about less pollution, fewer cars, more trees, less noise…you see where I’m going with this!
s.e.: Tell me EVERYTHING (well, okay, something) about [your next book]A Sense of the Infinite! That’s not a question, but whatever.
Hilary: It was hard to get Kiri’s voice out of my head after writing Wild Awake, and I had to find subtle ways of forcing my brain to change gears (past tense instead of present, East Coast setting instead of West, expanded timeline instead of compressed one, short chapters instead of long ones, etc. etc.) The result is a book that is as different from Wild Awake as it could be, yet it’s still a very “Hilary” book…same animal, different dance, if that makes any sense. I’m terrible at plot summaries (“hero goes on a journey! stranger comes to town!”) so I’ll leave it at that…
s.e.: What has the response to Wild Awake been like?
Hilary: Unless someone e-mails me directly, I don’t track response to my books. The e-mails have been heartwarming. Other than that, I can’t say!
s.e.: I know that many authors prefer not to follow responses to their books — is this a tactic you used to help manage your mental health, allow you to focus on writing, or just avoid pointless one-star Goodreads reviews from people who got mad because their copies were delivered late and never actually read the book?
Hilary: When I was blogging a lot, I used to feel a lot of anxiety about comments — I was afraid to check them, and I don’t know why. It got to the point where I was feeling bad about myself all the time, for no good reason — I just had this general sense of doom, like some cosmic axe was about to fall, like all these imaginary people were very, very disappointed in me. It wasn’t productive. It wasn’t doing anybody any good. By the time Wild Awake came out, I realized that most of what I was doing on the internet was making me unhappy. So I stopped.
I don’t spend much time on the internet anymore. I practice music. I work in the garden. I’m not saying I’ll never do more internet writing, or participate in that community, but I needed to prove to myself that I didn’t OWE it to anybody to tweet, or blog, or track reviews, or feel that anxiety. And yes: less response-tracking = less anxiety = more creativity. So there’s that.
s.e.: As an author, and a person with mental illness, and a person writing mentally ill characters, what’s your advice for noncrazies looking to authentically depict the experience of mental illness in teens and young adults?
Hilary: There’s no such thing as a non-crazy, there are just people who have yet to experience their crazy. So if you want to write a character with a mental illness, but you do not consider yourself to have experienced anything on a spectrum with depression, mania, paranoia, obsession, anxiety etc, one idea would be to live another decade or two before you attempt it. I’m not saying you need to have a mental illness yourself in order to write good fiction involving mental illness, but it helps to find some kind of seed in your own experience. For example, ask yourself “What does it feel like when I’m anxious?” Then imagine that feeling expanded ten times. Starting with your own experience, no matter how mild that experience may be, is going to yield better results than assuming that you have nothing in common with your mentally ill character.
s.e.: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Sarah McCarry’s Working Project – it’s a fascinating series of interviews with mentally ill writers (and authors) speaking frankly about their mental illnesses. I’ve also noticed more and more YA authors, like Lauren DeStefano, speaking up about how mental illness affects their lives (she speaks quite frankly about the disruptions anxiety causes for her, for example). Do think we’re starting to see a renaissance of openness, and perhaps a shift in the way people talk about mental illness as a result?
Hilary: I do think the internet has made it easier for people to write about mental illness and other “personal” topics – you’re not shouting into a void, and there is often a flood of support and validation that you might not “hear” if you’re publishing on paper or speaking in a school gym. I think everyone feels a little safer when they reveal things on the internet, both writers and readers/commenters…because it’s not you revealing things, it’s your avatar, your e-personality, which may be very close to your everyday self, or it might be a braver version. And of course, it’s easier for your writing to find its intended audience.
Of course, the real test will be to see if all this openness and sharing results in different lives for people who are currently homeless or otherwise suffering due to their mental illness…it’s one thing to do a lot of talking and commenting, and another thing to change the way we operate as a society.
s.e.: Could you tell me a little about your working environment/habits? Because somehow I imagine you buried in a cabin in the woods like me and I really like this visual image. Cats in the office or no cats? Cake or pie? Coffee or tea?
Hilary: Haha! Right now, I am living across the river from some very nice woods, which are currently packed with thimbleberries. I have a nice big desk I got off Craigslist—it is cluttered with bird skulls and bottles of fountain pen ink and postcards from Morocco and the “Author! Author!” button from my first book event. No cats. The house was built in 1905 as a millworkers shack, and it has an attic full of squirrels, eaves full of birds, and no appliances. I love it!
Thanks so much, s.e. and Hilary!
Hilary has generously donated a signed copy of Wild Awake be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is limited to US addresses.
The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!
I can’t remember ever reading a book that showed someone who was bipolar from their own perspective. I’m intrigued.
Great interview! I really loved this book when I read it and recognized a lot of myself as a teen in it, especially when I consider how many years I was exhibiting the symptoms and acting out my bipolar II but not treating it or dealing with it, really. I’m trying to get the students at the school where I work to check it out, both because it’s just generally a good read and because I’m curious how recognizable bipolar is to readers who do not have the disease, or if it just looks like an intense emotional experience – which is really what bipolar feels like a lot of the time.