Interview by Flannery Fitch of Karen Fortunati Author of The Weight of Zero

Seventeen-year-old Catherine Pulaski knows Zero is coming for her. Zero, the devastating depression born of Catherine’s bipolar disease, has almost triumphed once, propelling Catherine to her first suicide attempt. With Zero only temporarily restrained by the latest med du jour, time is running out. In an old ballet shoebox, Catherine stockpiles medications, preparing to take her own life before Zero can inflict its own living death on her again.

But Zero’s return is delayed due to unexpected and meaningful relationships that lessen Catherine’s sense of isolation. These relationships along with the care of a gifted psychiatrist alter Catherine’s perception of her diagnosis as a death sentence. This is a story of loss and grief and hope and how some of the many shapes of love – maternal, romantic and platonic – impact a young woman’s struggle with mental illness.

Where did you get the idea for The Weight of Zero? Why did you choose to focus on bipolar disorder rather than clinical depression?

There was no one person or thing or event that inspired this story.  I didn’t consciously choose to write about a particular mental illness. Catherine, the main character, just appeared in my head one afternoon during a writing retreat. I knew immediately that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and that she feared life with this condition.

I’ve thought long and hard about why Catherine, why bipolar disorder and why suicide and I think she resulted from a blending of many of my life experiences. First, my husband is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and through him, I’ve learned about illnesses and treatments. Second, my life has been touched by suicide: the first by a work colleague and the second by an extended family member. Finally, I’ve witnessed the mental health journeys of family and friends, a few of which included bipolar disorder.

When I first started writing, I didn’t know that much about this condition, basically just the standard stereotypes so I threw myself into research. I’ve been asked if it was an emotionally difficult task to write this story. It was but not for the obvious reason of being inside a character with suicide ideation. I always knew how Catherine’s story would end. What got to me was the enormous responsibility I felt to make sure this story rang true; that it was authentic, accurate and respectful. I really worried a lot about that and without a doubt was the most difficult part of writing this story.

What do you hope Weight will do for readers?

The first is to reinforce for a reader struggling with any kind of issue is that they are not alone. I’d love for that reader to understand that help is really out there, even if it takes multiple attempts to find it. In The Weight of Zero, there’s a disconnect between Catherine and her first psychiatrist that becomes even more apparent when she forms a bond with her second psychiatrist. This was my vision from the very beginning and one that my editor embraced – this “failure” of care and the existence of quality treatment that might take some effort to find. I also wanted to underscore the tremendous potential when you form a true partnership with your clinician.

In addition, I’d like readers to gain an understanding of bipolar disorder by presenting an accurate portrayal of what many teenagers experience. It was critical to me that readers also appreciate how the stigma of mental illness – the stereotypes and jokes and even innocent phrases – so tremendously hampers treatment. The more aware we are, the more sensitive and respectful we become. These things have to happen if we are going to get mental health issues as mainstream as physical disorders.

What has been your favorite part of having The Weight of Zero published?

Meeting readers! As I write this, I’m less than a week out from the release date so my interaction is a little limited but I’ve done a number of appearances and have gotten to speak to readers who are awaiting the book’s release. It’s been incredibly moving to hear their reasons on why they want to read Catherine’s story and quite frankly, I’ve been blown away by their honesty. There have also been several reviews that have moved me to tears – the recognition of Catherine’s fears and struggles and equally as important, the sense of hope and optimism that the story has imparted.

I wanted this book to make conversations about mental illnesses a little easier and I’ve been floored at the response this story generates. Friends, work colleagues, neighbors, readers, potential readers, booksellers and librarians, basically anyone I spoke to about this story has had the same reaction. I give the synopsis, say the words “bipolar disorder,” “depression” and “anxiety” and the expression on their face immediately changes. The responses have been immediate: “Oh, my son/sister/ daughter has that” or “I struggle with anxiety/depression.”  That was how little it took, a thirty-second summary, to open the door to an open and honest discussion.

Why did you include a history project in this story and what was its impact on Catherine?

I was very much influenced by a paper that I wrote in school about Judy Chicago and her struggles as a female artist in the male-dominated art world of the 1960s and ‘70s. She turned to women in history for inspiration and strength but was also infuriated at how so many of their contributions had been omitted from mainstream history and culture. Her artwork, The Dinner Party, was her response.

When I set out to write The Weight of Zero, I wanted Catherine to draw inspiration and strength from a historical figure so I used a school project as a way to introduce this character. In my research, I focused initially on the D-Day Invasion and by complete luck found an article about the four women buried in the Normandy American Cemetery. Three of these women are from the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the first all female, all African-American unit to serve overseas. These soldiers suffered horrible prejudice especially in the 1940s because they were women, they were black and serving in a segregated military. And like so many accounts of women in general and during World War II, they remain basically unknown.

In The Weight of Zero, Catherine is inspired by the fictional character of Private Jane Talmadge, who is based on the recollections of members of the Six-Triple-Eight. Talmadge suffers tremendous prejudice – horrific racism and sexism – yet still forges on despite the stigma. Catherine draws on Talmadge’s example for strength to battle the mental health stigma she experiences.

Do you have any plans for future projects?

I’m finishing another serious yet hopeful contemporary young adult novel that looks at a young woman’s experience at the often-dangerous intersection of mental health and law enforcement. Bipolar disorder is at the heart of this story too but this time it’s seen through the eyes of a sibling and it examines the secret prejudices we may carry.

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview with Alexandra Duncan, author of Salvage

Photograph by Kristi Hedberg.

Photograph by Kristi Hedberg.

Alexandra Duncan, who’s debut novel Salvage will be available in April from Greenwillow Books, agreed to be interview by Teen Book Crew member, Ryan W.  Alexandra Duncan grew up in a small town in North Carolina and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she is a librarian. Learn more about her at alexandra-duncan.com

(Ryan’s questions are in bold)

If you had to choose, which writers would you consider mentors?

I’ve been extremely lucky to have a community of writers both online and in my own town that I can turn to when I need advice or encouragement. I owe a lot to horror writer Nathan Ballingrud and Y.A. contemporary writer Stephanie Perkins, as well as all the talented women from the Friday the Thirteeners blog group. One of the things I love about the Y.A. writing community is that people seem to embrace the idea that a rising tide lifts all ships. From what I’ve seen, everyone genuinely loves reading and writing Y.A. literature and spreading the word about new and exciting titles.

When did you decide to become a writer?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since before I could spell. When I was a kid, I would draw pictures in a blank notebook and ask the adults around me to write down my descriptions of the illustrations. Then, when I was in fifth grade, our class did a project in which we wrote stories and had them bound in book format. Mine involved a group of girls spending the night in a supposedly abandoned house full of haunted animatronic dolls and a recluse with a tragic past. That was when the idea that I could do this writing thing as a career really clicked for me. I loved reading more than anything, and I knew abstractly that authors wrote books, but the idea that authors were real people like me had never really solidified in my mind until that moment.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

There are times in writing when the story and dialogue are flowing, everything is clicking, and you lose track of time. Then there are times when everything you type feels clumsy and wrong. You’re convinced that what you’re putting down is terrible. You stare at the screen. You get up to find a snack. You start a load of laundry. You check your e-mail. Then you stare and despair some more. During those periods, it’s hard to remember that your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect and that you can fix it later. You have to push through those times and keep creating the raw material that will be your story.

Did you encounter any challenges while writing Salvage?

I had written short stories and novellas when I started Salvage, but I had never finished an entire novel before. It’s daunting to take on such a big project, especially when you’re a slow writer, like I am. When I began the novel, I was working full time as a youth services librarian and earning my Master of Library Science degree. It was a lot to juggle. My husband and I got rid of our TV service, and I spent all of my lunch breaks and weekends working on my book. I would even take vacation days from work just to write. I was lucky that my husband, my family, and my coworkers were all very understanding and supportive. I still work full time as a librarian (and love it!), but I have a much more balanced schedule now.

What inspired you to write Salvage?

Some of my inspiration for Ava’s world came from growing up as a preacher’s daughter in a small, rural church where everyone knew everyone, and there were very strict expectations about behavior, especially for girls. I started sketching out the setting in 2009, when I wrote a short story called “Bad Matter” that was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Part of that story took place aboard the merchant crewe ship Ava belongs to in Salvage. When I finished the story, though, I knew I wasn’t done with the world. I wanted to spend more time fleshing it out and telling stories from it. Salvage grew out of that desire.

Is there a message in Salvage that you want readers to understand?

There are quite a few messages and themes that I hope readers will see, but the major one I hope to get across is that your true family isn’t necessarily the one you’re born into. No matter what they look like or where they come from, the people who love you, support you, and accept you fully are your family,whether you’re related by blood or not.

Do you feel any connection with any of the characters in Salvage?

Every character I write has a little piece of me in her or him, but the character in Salvage I feel the most connection to is Ava. I wrote Salvage for the girl I was at sixteen – someone with huge burdens of responsibility who was caught in a terrible, suffocating home situation. I’m not saying she is me, but some of her thoughts, fears, and insecurities mirror what I thought and felt as a teenager.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Write the books and stories you want to read. No matter what the subject matter, I think a writer’s enthusiasm and love for a story shines through and gives that story life.

Are there any new authors that have grabbed your interest that you would recommend?

I’m a first-time author myself, but there have absolutely been other titles from debut authors in the last year that I would recommend. I especially liked Natalie Whipple’s Transparent, about an invisible girl trying to escape her father’s criminal empire and lead as normal a life as she can. I’m also excited to read her upcoming release, House of Ivy and Sorrow. It’s about witches, and I’m in the mood for a good witch book.

What books have influenced your life the most?

Ursula LeGuin’s novels have had a major impact on me – not just my writing, but the way I think about the world. Her books showed me what excellent worldbuilding should look like, and more importantly, they introduced me to new ideas. I grew up in a small town in a North Carolina farming community during the ‘90s. There was a huge stigma against homosexuality at that place, in that time. It wasn’t a thing anyone would talk about. So when I read LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness during my senior year of high school, it was a gateway into awareness of LGBT issues for me.

 


Don’t miss the Teen Book Crew review of Salvage and look for the novel at Bookshop Santa Cruz this April!

Jill Wolfson Interview

Jill Wolfson, author of Furious, graciously agreed to be interviewed by SC Book Crew member, Ryan!

Wolfson, Jill

Ryan: Hi, I’m Ryan, I loved your book Furious! I have to say that it’s one of my favorites. I’m really glad you’ve agreed to an interview and I hope you are too!

Jill Wolfson: Hi Ryan, thanks for the nice words about Furious. So glad that you love it! Thanks also for asking me to be on the blog and for the interesting questions. I answered some of them, and also threw in a few of my own. Hope that’s okay.

What inspired you to write the book?

When my daughter, Gwen, was in high school (G.B. Kirby in Santa Cruz), she came home from school with a couple of girlfriends and announced a plan for their Halloween costumes. They had a Western Civ class that year and were studying Ancient Greece. They decided to go as “The Furies.”

When I looked up pictures on the Internet, I totally got it. Fury images in art are sometimes of ugly, hideous creatures; other times, the trio is sexy and gorgeous. But the figures are always slightly scary, powerful, hair flying, female energy venting its full righteous anger. Who wouldn’t want a costume like that?

I immediately knew that I wanted to write about them, but I didn’t want to portray generic monsters to be avoided or killed. I wanted to tell the story from the Furies’ points of view. My goal was to look deeper into who these creatures of vengeance are, why the Ancient Greeks created them and what they mean to us here in 2013.

My daughter and her friends never got their costumes together, but I got a great idea for plot and characters. Score!

Is there a message in Furious that you want readers to see?

I try not to be all preachy when I write. Preaching should be done from a pulpit, not in the pages of a novel. Instead of giving a message, I hope that the story gives readers things to think about. Beneath an exciting tale of gods gone wild, revenge, anger, injustice and high school love are questions that I ask myself all the time – age-old questions that I bet you have asked yourself, too: Why is life sometimes so unfair? Why do some people get away with being cruel, selfish and hateful? What would you do about injustice if you had unlimited power? Would you use it wisely? Or would you go out of control and let the power use you?

Are the characters based on real people?

I can’t point to any one person and say, That’s Meg or that’s Alix or Stephanie. But like a lot of writers, I draw from a combination of family, people I know and, of course, myself. There’s some of me in each Fury. I have Stephanie’s passion for environmental action and social justice; I have Alix’s love of children and the ocean; I have some of Meg’s shyness and desire for family. Plus, like the furies, my hair is really frizzy.

What was the hardest part in writing Furious?

The hardest part was writing the fantastical sections. I started my writing career as a journalist – no making up anything. Then, I wrote three books of realistic fiction. So it was a stretch to let my characters really take off and even throw a lightening bolt or two.

What books or authors have influenced your writing?

I read a lot of fiction by authors who write for children, teens and adults. Here are some of my favorites right now: Paul Fleishchman (He lives in Santa Cruz, too), Roald Dahl, George Saunders, Lois Lowry, Libba Bray, John Green, Katherine Paterson, The Brothers Grimm, Sherman Alexie, S.E. Hinton. That’s for right now. The list could change tomorrow. My favorite writing mixes dark and light, heavy topics with humor.

Being bullied is a theme of Furious? Were you bullied?

There’s a character Raymond who mentions that he was shoved into his locker in middle school and then it was superglued shut.

That came from somewhere. Enough said.

Is your settings based on a real place?

The town in which Furious is set is never named, but it’s a beach town with the statue of a surfer on a cliff. There are redwoods nearby and a downtown with street musicians. So, locals will find it pretty familiar. I decided not to call it Santa Cruz, because that would lock me into keeping things exact. I wanted to the freedom to change stuff, like moving Steamer’s Lane a little further up the coast.

Is your writing influenced by music?

Yes! I’ve even put together a playlist for Furious – music that I listened to while writing or songs that capture the feeling of the book. Here it is:

Heads Will Roll – Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs.

Tickin’ Bomb – Shovels & Rope

Pipeline – Stevie Ray Vaughn

You Don’t Own Me – Lesley Gore

Fire Ant – Alex Winston

Where’s My Bow? – Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer [Imagine Raymond playing this on his violin]

Feeling Good – Carly Rose Sonenclair

Criminal – Fiona Apple

Jill Wolfson: I hope you enjoy Furious and the music that goes with it. I’d love to hear your opinion of the book and suggestions for songs about anger and revenge.

Ryan: Thank you!