First, a bit about Janet and My Beautiful Failure:
"Janet Ruth Young, who lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts, graduated from Salem State College and from the creative writing program at Boston University. She was a co-editor of the literary magazine stet and a founder of Writers' Circle, the writing workshop at the Cambridge Women's Center. Having left her job as a textbook editor to pursue a career as a novelist, Janet has published three novels with Atheneum Books for Young Readers, a division of Simon & Schuster.
The Opposite of Music (2007), about a teen boy who attempts to save his father from a life-threatening depression, won the PEN New England Discovery Award and was a Book Sense Pick, a Borders Original Voices selection, and an American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults nominee.The Babysitter Murders (2011), about a babysitter who has thoughts of harming the child she cares for, was nominated for a CYBIL and received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. A paperback edition with a new author's note will be released in the fall of 2012.
"A haunting account of a teen boy who volunteers at a suicide hotline and falls for a troubled caller. Billy is a sophomore in high school, and twice a week, he volunteers at Listeners, a suicide hotline.And now for the questions...
Jenney is an “incoming,” a caller, a girl on the brink.
As her life spirals out of control, Jenney’s calls become more desperate, more frequent. Billy, struggling with the deteriorating relationship with his depressed father, is the only one who understands. Through her pain, he sees hope. Through her tears, he feels her heart. And through her despair, he finds love. But is that enough?
Acclaimed author Janet Ruth Young has written a stunning and powerful story with no easy answers; it is about pain and heartbreak, reality and illusion, and finding redemption and the strength to forgive in the darkest of times." (from Goodreads)
1.) The relationship that develops between Billy, a volunteer for the Listeners suicide hotline, and Jenney, a caller, is an unusual one, since they communicate only over the phone. In what ways (either positive or negative) do you think their friendship is markedly different from one developed in person? In terms of the effect on both individuals' mental and emotional health, what would you say are some of the benefits of having this limited contact and knowledge of another person, and what are some of the drawbacks?
A Listeners relationship is not a friendship. It differs in that one person is in it to help and the other is in it to be helped. There is no mutuality. Although the Listeners aren't trained psychotherapists, their interactions with callers are similar to the clinical relationship a therapist has with a client. For therapy to work it must have clear boundaries. A therapist should not spend the hour interrupting the client and talking about himself and his own problems. A client should never know as much about the therapist as the therapist knows about her.
Although Billy understands depression and mood disorders from having helped his father through an illness, he isn't clear enough on the difference between a friendship and a clinical/therapeutic relationship to be able to maintain the right boundaries at Listeners. Without really knowing it, he is looking for a friend, and maybe a romance. Underneath his motivations of wanting to help other people, he's seeking a cure for his own isolation and discouragement. But the phone calls from Jenney really need to focus on Jenney, not Billy. If the calls were devoted entirely to her needs, the Listeners formula might be successful and this story would not become complicated. (For more about not meeting in person, see question 5.)
2.) Your book effectively demonstrates why the rules at suicide hotlines are so important, but also why someone might want to risk breaching them. As a writer, how challenging was it for you to keep Billy a sympathetic character, while still having him make some controversial choices?
I think readers will applaud Billy's desire to do something ambitious and to be of use in the world; they'll probably cheer him on as he joins Listeners. Then I'm hoping they'll cringe as they see him start to bend the rules. My editors at Atheneum helped me to see that readers would empathize more with Billy's missteps if they saw what he had been through with his dad's illness. Accordingly, I added flashbacks to the lowest days of Bill Senior's depression to show that Billy is in the midst of recovering from his own trauma. Most of all, despite the inauspicious circumstances, Billy is a boy in love. For the first time in his life, a smart, accomplished, and funny girl thinks he's wonderful. Sometimes Billy walks out of the Listeners office floating six inches off the ground. Those parts were fun to write.
3.) Your previous novel Things I Shouldn't Think (originally titled The Babysitter Murders) had a female teen protagonist, whereas My Beautiful Failure has a male teen narrating. How did you find the writing of these perspectives differed? Was one more difficult than the other?
A third book should be in that mix. My first published novel was The Opposite of Music, which is the story of Bill Senior's depression, told from Billy's point of view, partly in diary entries. So I had already written in his voice before attempting My Beautiful Failure. Although reviews of Opposite were mostly favorable, some critics said Billy didn't sound enough like a teenage boy. I can accept that. In my revisions I kept trying to make him sound younger, less female, and less literary (in other words, less like me), and when I look back at Opposite, I still see a few spots that I should have changed---for instance, by making a sentence shorter or using a simpler metaphor. Having had that preparation, I think I nailed the voice better this time around.
Things I Shouldn't Think is written in third-person omniscient, mostly from the point of view of Dani Solomon, who thinks she may be a potential child murderer, but also from the perspective of a teen boy named Malcolm who is suspicious of Dani and begins stalking her. I deliberately chose a flat, clinical style for that book, to capture the sense that someone is following Dani and that she is constantly being scrutinized---with great curiosity but without insight. As a result of that choice, some readers decided that I just can't write very well, which I think is funny. Those people will be surprised when they read My Beautiful Failure. Billy's voice has music and poetry in it.
4.) One of the characters in My Beautiful Failure shows signs of bipolar disorder, but is never officially diagnosed with it. Why did you choose to make this ambiguous? What are your thoughts on the gray area between flamboyant creativity and potential mental illness?
Billy continues to be very concerned about Bill Senior, who may not be depressed anymore but now decides he's going to paint forty paintings in forty days and put on an art show. Although Bill Senior is under a doctor's care, and I want readers to know that taking antidepressants can lead to hypomania, I wanted to keep readers on the fence about whether the art show is a good or a bad idea. All of us come to a point in our lives at which we realize that we haven't fulfilled our potential and we need to step on the gas. Bill Senior does this with his art show and Billy does it with Listeners. Can a person go too far with this? Yes. But we all have to do it. Even if we know on some level that the world doesn't need another novel, cookbook, painting, screenplay, or blues song. I think all art can be viewed as unnecessary and crazy in the context of the utilitarian world we live in. Yet I have a lot of Bill Senior in me. I didn't publish my first novel until I was 49. Now I'm publishing three books in five years. Does that make me crazy?
5.) One of the conclusions I took from My Beautiful Failure is that we can never really fully understand what someone else is thinking/feeling/experiencing — and especially not when our only contact with them is over the phone. What ramifications do you think this has for the strictly online nature of many friendships (e.g. through Twitter, Facebook, etc.) these days?
That is certainly a valid conclusion, but not one of the main points I'm trying to make. Yes, we have to be wary of making assumptions about others and of investing too much in people we hardly know. And people who don't meet in person forego some cues such as facial expression and gesture. But I wouldn't want Failure to be a cautionary tale about meeting on the phone, on Twitter, or by any other medium. Remember that a hundred years ago, lots of people got to know one another by writing letters, and many of them became lifelong friends or married one another. I don't see electronic written media as being much different from letter writing. And people who meet, for instance, in a discussion group about a favorite band already have an affinity going for them that might indicate true compatibility. Another example: You, Danya, seem to understand what I'm saying in my books. Because my books represent a true and profound part of me, perhaps you know me better than does a cousin whom I've known all my life but who has never read my work.
I'd love to hear what readers think of the Billy/Jenney relationship. I, for one, believe there was something real there. And it was extremely important to me that the "something" develop without regard to appearance. At a time when the world of information keeps beautiful couples such as Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson in the center of our field of vision (and my own Things I Shouldn't Think features a beautiful couple, Dani Solomon and Gordon Abt), I wanted affection and regard to spring between two people who've never seen one another. A true meeting of the minds. That's what Billy's parents had when they met at Bill Senior's graduate-school art show, and that's what Billy wants and deserves for himself.
Thank you very much for the interview.
And thank you, Janet, for these thoughtful replies to my questions!