s.e. smith interviews Hilary T. Smith about WILD AWAKE

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.

Welcome, s.e. and Hilary! Take it away …

Cover for WILD AWAKEs.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 T. SmithHilary: 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!

Recommended Reading List

Throughout the past month, we’ve discussed a lot of the ways YA/MG lit can get disabilities wrong. It’s important to catalog and analyze all the many different tropes, to bring up specific examples of inaccurate and offensive portrayals, and to educate writers about the truth of living with various disabilities.

However, we also want to celebrate those books and authors that get it right. We asked our contributors to tell us which kidlit books they’ve read that handle disability well. So here’s the “recommended reading” list our contributors came up with!

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (John Green) – Blindness

“Some will disagree with me on this, but I was pleased with the portrayal of Isaac. His experience is different from mine in that he goes blind as a teen, but I thought his reactions and frustrations were very real (even if his video games were not). Isaac isn’t as independent as I would like blind characters to be, but he’s still transitioning and he’s learning at a realistic pace. Also, he is a fully fledged character outside of his disability – he isn’t defined by being blind, even if he might worry that he is. So despite some reservations, I’d recommend this.”

CRAZY (Amy Reed) – Bipolar

“I had some issues with the book but virtually none were due to Amy’s treatment of bipolar disorder. She nails it (as a person with bipolar herself–openly–this isn’t too surprising). It’s complex and ugly and life-swallowing. The letter format shows it from both her perspective and her love interest’s. Really good.”

WILD AWAKE (Hilary T. Smith) – Unspecified, but likely Bipolar

“As Kiri Byrd slowly descends into a manic episode, we have an opportunity to see mental health conditions depicted from the point of view of someone who has them, rather than friends and family, and Smith also brilliantly captures the bright, sharp edges of mania. I’d note that Smith also has a mental health condition (she’s written about it, I don’t know if she’s specified what it is).”

COLIN FISCHER (Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz) – Autism

Colin Fischer is a murder mystery that only Colin and the school bully can solve, but Colin has problems of his own when it comes to reading people’s emotions effectively and navigating the world. Colin Fischer explores some of the experiences of autism authentically (ymmv when it comes to autism depictions and authenticity, of course), and again, features a disabled character as primary narrator instead of object. Zack (full disclosure–Zack is a friend and colleague) is on the autism spectrum disorder, as are his children, and he’s discussed this openly.”

MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD (Francisco X. Stork) – Autism

Marcelo in the Real World explores coming of age for a Latino teen who serves as the primary narrator in a novel about being forced into a series of social and ethical situations that make him extremely comfortable. One of the things I love about this novel is that his struggles with ethics and community are more closely linked to coming of age and maturing as a human than they are with his disability–while Marcelo sometimes struggles to read people in complex situations because he is autistic, this isn’t a story All About Autism.”

KNOWING JOSEPH (Judith Mammay) – Autism, ADHD

“Judith was my crit partner at one time, so I’ve had the honor of reading all her books which center on autism and AD/HD. I think her portrayals are very realistic, both for the person who has the disorders as well as the family members who deal with them and their valid feelings on the matter. This book is written simply, so it has broad appeal – from independent reader to classroom read for teachers to help fellow students gain compassion and understanding.”

THE BOYFRIEND LIST (E. Lockhart) – Anxiety, Panic attacks

“So much to love here: Ruby’s frustration with a lack of diagnosis and her ambivalent feelings about being put on meds, her family’s reaction to her panic attacks, and how they affect her life (they’re the catalyst for why she goes to therapy and starts thinking about the boys in her life) without defining it. They reappear throughout the series. No magic cures here.”

WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON (John Green and David Levithan) – Depression

“This. Just, this: I had no doubt that Tiny thought he got depressed, but that was probably because he had nothing to compare it to. Still, what could I say? that I didn’t just feel depressed – instead, it was like the depression was the core of me, of every part of me, from my mind to my bones? That if he got blue, I got black? That I hated those pills so much because I knew how much I relied on them to live?

No, I couldn’t say any of this because when it all comes down to it, nobody wants to hear it. No matter how much they like you or love you, they don’t want to hear it.'”

“Seconding this recommendation very strongly. The way Will Grayson talks about experiences of depression is both painful to read because it feels so true, and fantastically expressive.”

LOVELY, DARK, AND DEEP (Amy McNamara) – Depression

“Wren Wells wants to hide herself away in the wake of a horrific car accident, and she’s almost dragged under by the strength of her own depression. Lovely, Dark and Deep explores not just the experience of situational depression, but the role of therapy and other tools for managing depression without shame or judgement. This is also a fantastically beautifully-written and intense novel, so there’s that too.”

s.e. smith reviews WILD AWAKE

s.e.smiths.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. smith’s writing on representations of disability in science fiction and fantasy was recently featured in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 7. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California. You can follow s.e. on Twitter, ou personal site, Goodreads, and lots of other exciting places online.

Cover for WILD AWAKE(Note: this review discusses the ending of the novel.)

I’m lying awake in bed for the fourth, or maybe fifth, night in a row, heart pounding, mind scattering in a billion different directions. One moment I’m thinking about the stars, the next about how people fill pastries, the next about that history paper I have due soon, soon soon soon, is it tomorrow? Is it the next day? I would get up to check the syllabus but I might start spinning all over the room, and then I’d float through the ceiling. The days are starting to blur together in a coloured fever, the Christmas lights I hung up to decorate my otherwise stark dorm room after people started commenting on it are burning out one by one because I leave them on all the time, I’ve stacked books and papers hyperobsessively, neatly.

My friend Kenneth says I must maintain a secret real dorm room, and this is just the one I show to the public. Then I start wondering if everyone has a secret real dorm room, if maybe everyone around me is an android, fake, if I could peel their faces back and find out what’s inside them, I lie awake in bed at night thinking about androids and social experiments, wondering if it’s possible that this whole thing is a setup, everything, the maple trees changing colour and the counselor I see once a week and lie to politely about how I’m doing and falling asleep in my astronomy class because it’s dark and cool and for just a minute my brain stops running.

This goes on for days, weeks, months, maybe years, I can’t really tell, as I relentlessly and flawlessly front to the world around me, everything is fine, everything is okay, and then suddenly I’m flying home and no one has noticed, astounding, and I’m soaring high above the earth and even after the plane lands, I’m still soaring. I stay up all night working on things that I don’t show anyone and I walk to the beach and play in the waves and make up intricate names for everything around me, inventing my own language, and then I am supposed to fly back to college, and that is when everything starts to fall apart, when I sit shuddering on the aircraft wondering what I am doing and then three days later I am home again, a failure.

I was 16, and I was crazy.

In Hilary T. Smith’s Wild Awake, 17-year-old Kiri Byrd has been left alone for the summer by her parents. She’s the nice, reliable, calm, focused child, the talented pianist getting ready for a major showcase who can be counted upon to water the azaleas and collect the mail while her parents go on a cruise and her brother conducts research. But everything upends for her when she gets a mysterious phone call about her dead sister which sends her careening along a quest for the truth, and an adventure of self-discovery.

I see a lot of people writing and talking about Wild Awake in terms of a love story; as a narrative of love and loss and coming together. And there is a love story wound within the text, that of Kiri and Skunk, the kindly guy she encounters while staggering around in the street reeling from a series of emotional and horrific discoveries about her sister. They forge a connection that runs deep and complex, but this isn’t, to my eye, a love story.

This is a story about what it’s like to go crazy, and it is brilliantly, masterfully crafted. Because the thing about going crazy, or, as Skunk and later Kiri put it, having a Thing, is that it doesn’t happen all at once. There’s not a crazy switch that gets activated. It’s a slow downward slide that you often don’t notice as the person experiencing it, especially since you’re often a teenager. So much is happening around you as you and the culture around you is changing, as your body is changing, as you’re growing out of and into things.

So when everything starts seeming brighter and sharper, you don’t really see the problem with that; it makes things more fun, more tactile, more real somehow. And when you sleep less, and gradually not at all, that just leaves more time for more important things. And when your brain is spinning with ideas and it won’t stop, you don’t think for a moment that maybe it’s a carousel that’s about to fly off the central axle and scatter parts all over the circus.

As a portrayal of the onset of mental illness, Wild Awake takes us into the feelings not of friends, family, and other outside observers, as these narratives so often do, but into the world of the person experiencing it. And it’s written in a very real, immediate, gripping way, one so visceral that I almost felt the need to reflexively count my meds as I was reading—did I take yesterday’s dose? I feel a little spinny right now.

This is also a depiction of mental illness in the beforetime, before it’s diagnosed, before it’s treated, before you understand what is happening when the world is turning topsy-turvey around you. Kiri is living in a world of kaleidescope vision and she hasn’t figured out yet that there’s a kaleidescope there, but she needs to figure it out before it shatters, and as a reader in the aftertime; diagnosed, treated, managed, I shuddered for her, and I shuddered remembering, too.

Unlike Kiri, I wasn’t surrounded by observant people who got her into treatment quickly, and instead I experienced what she did for years.

But Smith also shows us the aftertime in the form of Skunk, who had a Thing (later revealed to be a psychotic break) before the events depicted in in Wild Awake. He talks about thinking that the members of the band were broadcasting his thoughts over the speakers, his steady decline into paranoia and confusion, and, ultimately, the break that caused him to attack a bandmate on stage. The subsequent hospitalisation and treatment, followed by release into the care of his uncle and aunt with a long list of confusions, become a part of the narrative as we learn who Skunk is and why he’s so secretive.

Smith doesn’t take the easy way out, though, presenting us with a perfect contrast of stable, medicated boy and unstable, riotous girl. Skunk has chosen to stop taking his meds, disliking what they turn him into and struggling with the management of his mental illness. As Kiri slips deeper into a manic episode, he’s steadily dragged closer to the brink of psychosis, and the two start firing off each other in a way that’s potentially highly explosive, even as they cling to each other and the deep link they’ve forged.

In the end, we saw the start of a glimmer of hope for both Kiri and Skunk as he got on track with his treatment and she was surrounded by people prepared to help her—and as she realised that something had gone beyond her control and she needs that help. But this wasn’t presented as a final, crisp, happy ending where everything would be okay now and return to normal. Instead, Kiri recognised that she lived in a new normal, one from which she could not return, not just because she knew the truth about her sister and the world she inhabited before her death, but because she knew the truth about herself, too.

It’s rare to find depictions of mental illness in YA, and rarer still to find good depictions. Mentally ill protagonists in particular are highly unusual. More commonly, I see mental illness, and my experiences as a mentally ill person, used as a plot device, and usually written by authors who clearly don’t understand mental illness. Mentally ill authors, however they identify, can experience stigma when it comes to writing and getting published, making the fact that Smith discloses and talks openly about her mental illness important here. All too often, it feels like we are not considered valid authorities on our own experiences, making reclamation of this nature critically important.

It’s frustrating to see mental illness continually used as a cheap character device; she’s ‘crazy’ and not worthy of attention, he’s ‘psychotic’ and evil, she’s ‘depressed’ and lies around whinging all the time. When authors actually do their research, or, better yet, write from their own experience and have that honoured and respected, the results can be amazing, and Wild Awake is such an example. It’s just one story about two people and the world around them, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s a punch in the face against stereotypes, it’s a visceral depiction of the experience of the onset of mental illness, it’s a narrative that challenges cultural assumptions about what it’s like to experience mental illness.

Texts like this are an important part of our lexicon in general to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness, but especially when it comes to YA. Because the most common age of manifestation is young—teens and people in their early 20s, like Hilary, like me, are those most likely to experience the onset of mental illness. And that means that we in particular crave, and need, these kinds of books, to see ourselves represented in fiction, to process our experiences, to help us understand ourselves.

And, perhaps, to help us when it comes to identifying that something is wrong and reaching for help. While Smith didn’t set out to write an Issue Book (thankfully) and Wild Awake doesn’t read as such, it still has the potential to make a profound impact on readers, and not just those of us who are mentally ill. I would hope that it also forces a change in perspective for other readers, and creates a deeper sense of understanding among them; that, for example, when you’re feeling spun out and out of control, you’re not necessarily aware of it. That you can’t always control paranoia, and that your thoughts feel totally rational and logical to you even if they make no sense to those around you.

That sometimes, you watch yourself fucking up and you can’t figure out why, and the only logical solution you see is fucking up more, because it seems like that’s all there’s left to do. This is a book for all the people who’ve had Thingies of their own out there, and it’s got something to say for those who love us, too.