The inimitable Courtney Summers sat down with L. Lee Butler to discuss researching and writing mental illness, disability in her zombie novel, This Is Not a Test, and the lack of diversity in apocalyptic narratives. We’re so excited to include this interview as part of our SFF event!
L. Lee Butler: Can you talk about your research process, for This Is Not A Test and your other works, when it comes to depicting depression/suicide/mental illness?
Courtney Summers: Most all of my novels have explored depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so I’ve been researching them for a fairly long time now. When I write any book about a sensitive topic—depression, suicide, bullying, physical and emotional trauma—I do so aware that I’m contributing to a larger conversation, that started without me, so I want to make sure I’m treating that conversation with respect and not undermining it. I extensively research on the Internet, read, read, read (books, articles, personal accounts, interviews etc), watch (documentaries, lectures, interviews, etc), as well as talking to people who have personally experienced the things I’ve written about. I also research harmful tropes/cliches/stereotypes so I can make sure I’m avoiding them. From there, it’s a matter of taking everything I’ve learned and figuring out how that will manifest in and be filtered through a particular character’s actions, reactions and general perspective.
Lee: What made you want to include explorations of depression and suicide in a zombie novel? Or was it the other way around, framing a novel around mental illness and including zombies?
Courtney: In many apocalyptic narratives (whether or not they involves zombies) it’s often a given that the main character wants to survive. Their faith might waver, they usually find themselves tested, but that push to keep going remains or even becomes stronger. But when I was thinking about how I would handle the zombie apocalypse—and I made myself get as honest with that line of thinking as possible—I realized once everyone and everything I loved got taken away from me, I’d have a hard time convincing myself to carry on. And then I started asking myself, what if you were depressed before the apocalypse started? What if you had experienced trauma before the end of the world? What if it was already the end of your world? How would you handle that and how would the zombie apocalypse be filtered through that perspective?
Lee: Something I find interesting in both books and discussions of various apocalypses is how frequently it is assumed that people with disabilities just would not survive, that disability is a luxury that is unsustainable after the collapse of civilization. How do you see This Is Not A Test in tension with that discourse?
Courtney: Anyone who immediately assumes people with disabilities would not survive an apocalyptic scenario is someone whose survivability I would question, because that’s an extremely narrow point of view. Survival is primarily about adaptability and the ability to adapt—physically, mentally and emotionally—is not exclusive to anyone. I hope This Is Not a Test helps challenge anyone’s preconceived notions about what it takes to survive.
Lee: How do you think the boom in post-apocalyptic narratives, both zombie and not, reflects on our cultural attitudes about disability and survivability in general?
Courtney: The boom in post-apocalyptic narratives has also highlighted the dearth in diverse apocalyptic narratives, as you said. And, as you said, apocalypse novels often privilege able-bodied survivors. The consequence of this is a lack of representation and that reflects really poorly on us. As a writer, it’s my job to reflect the world around me as accurately as possible, whether or not I’m writing about the end of that world. We need to see disability and neurodiversity represented within these narratives.
Lee: Why did you decide to return to the world of This Is Not A Test for your novella Please Remain Calm?
Courtney: It was never my plan to write a sequel when I originally finished This is Not a Test—but over time, my interest in continuing grew and the ending was open enough to allow for more. I thought it would be really interesting to tell the next segment of the story from Rhys’s perspective and to show what Sloane’s survival looked like to him, as well as some of the ways he doesn’t understand her because he hasn’t gone through what she’s gone through. I wanted to show that Sloane, despite some of the personal revelations she made in This is Not a Test, is still very much in the early stages of coping with her depression and trauma. She feels that she wants to cope with it—but figuring out how is going to be a process, especially given the circumstances.