After L. Lee Butler’s rave review of Cindy Rodriguez’s debut novel When Reason Breaks—about two very different girls who are both dealing with depression—we were excited to invite them both back to the website this week to discuss the book further.
L. Lee Butler: I’m also an educator, and sometimes it feels like there isn’t any time to breathe, much less complete a huge project like writing a novel. How did you find the time to not only write this book, but also be a team member for We Need Diverse Books?
Cindy Rodriguez: I’m also one of the founders of Latin@s in Kid Lit, a single mom, and at least once a year, I teach a college composition course. So, yeah, I’m exhausted lots of the time. Seriously, though, I’m a person who is used to being busy, so having multiple things going on has become the norm for me. At the same time, it is difficult to manage and always feel like you’re doing your best. When needed, I’ve adjusted my schedule. I didn’t teach the college class this past semester to give myself a break, and last spring I worked a shorter day at my school. Even when adjusted, my schedule is still busy.
Because of this, I can’t write every day. I’ve tried, but it doesn’t work for me. I think about the story all the time, “see” the scenes in my head, and jot things down in notebooks. This way, when I have a few hours, or a snow day, or my daughter spends the weekend at her grandparents, I am prepared to write. I’ve spent entire weekends in pajamas, my hair in a ponytail, writing on my laptop in my bed. It’s not a pretty sight, but this is how I get it done. I can’t create full manuscripts as quickly as other people, but it gets done eventually.
Lee: The book is clearly rooted in the work and biography of Emily Dickinson. When did you first encounter Dickinson’s poetry, and how did it become so important to you?
Cindy: I first got the idea for this novel in 2007, when I was taking a graduate course on Emily Dickinson. Before this class, I knew a few of her poems and what most people knew about her—that she was a recluse whose poetry wasn’t entirely discovered until after she died. During the class, I fell in love with her life and work. As a person, she was fascinating on many levels. She was smart and talented in both writing and art. She was also a rebel, who gave up going to church at a time when that was not acceptable. She questioned and challenged religion often through her work and wrote from various points of view. Her writing is so varied it’s hard to pin her down, really, which proves her complexity. By all accounts, she was also depressed, and she didn’t write to be published. So, when I read her work, I feel like I’m really experiencing another person’s innermost brilliance, torment, anger, and joy.
Lee: One of the things I appreciated most about When Reason Breaks was the raw, visceral nature of the attempted suicide scene and its aftermath for all involved. What went in to the process of writing that aspect of the story?
Cindy: I wanted the attempted suicide and its aftermath to be realistic. I’ve read lots of novels in which the depression is situational, directly related to grief or an outside trigger, so the depression naturally goes away at some point if the trigger is removed, or that external problem is resolved, or if the person works through the grief cycle. I’ve also read books in which the depressed person has already taken his or her life, and the story is really about the aftermath. Some books also contain characters who have survived an attempted suicide, so again, the focus in on what happens after. I wanted to follow a person through the depression, the attempted suicide, and after.
Without giving too much away, I’ll say for one character, while external problems exist, these things do not cause the depression, nor is it linked to grief. The depression is the problem and there is no real reason why. She simply has this disease, which is true for many people.
During the attempted suicide and after, I hoped to capture the range of emotions experienced by everyone, including confusion, anger, sadness, relief, and ultimately hope. I didn’t want to portray it with everyone being immediately happy and hopeful because oftentimes the immediate aftermath is much more complicated than that. You can’t just snap out of depression, so I thought it would be unrealistic for my character to wake up grateful to be alive and live happily ever after. I made the character resist treatment at first because I think that happens quite often. Many people don’t seek help, don’t want to take medication, or don’t follow through on their doctor’s advice.
When I was first depressed, I pushed through it for about a year before seeking help, and I had a job that offered full health insurance! I resisted treatment and then accepted it when I was ready and couldn’t live that way anymore. Both of the main characters have to get to this point themselves. As a result, the ending is hopeful, but, clearly, everyone still has a lot of work to do.
Lee: There are a lot of details of teen experience that you hit right on the head in this novel, especially when it comes to the role of social media in teen lives. How did being an educator help you write about the teen experience? Did you let your students read your drafts?
Cindy: Being an educator has been an invaluable experience in lots of ways and has definitely helped with writing. I’m able to observe the teen experience firsthand, and while some overarching things never change, of course, some things do. What they wear, how they talk, what they talk about, seeing them at their worst, catching them do something wonderful when no one is looking—these have all become details embodied by my characters.
The biggest thing that has changed since I was in high school is the role of social media in teens’ lives. Back in my day (use old lady voice here), I passed notes to friends in the hall and had a small window to call my crush on the one house phone that was anchored in the kitchen, and if I was lucky, had a really long cord so at least I could talk out of ear-shot of my mom. We had private moments, and while there has always been gossip, it got around a lot slower. Now, everything is instant and public. A teen today would really have to work at having privacy, which is difficult to do when everyone is connecting online.
As an educator, I see a lot of the angst created by social media, and it often goes on throughout the school day, leaving teens distracted or distraught. Including social media issues in When Reason Breaks felt natural. For a teen like Emily Delgado, who feels pressure from home to always do the right thing, a posted picture or a secret relationship revealed has significant consequences. As a teen today, she loses the ability to have private moments.
I did let some of my students read early chapters, but not entire drafts. I work with reluctant readers, so it was great to see their noses an inch from the page while reading. If they were interested, I knew it was a decent chapter. And, of course, they all wanted their names in the novel!