October 10, 2012

Psychtember Interview with R.J. Anderson!

I'm happy to welcome R.J. Anderson to the blog for a Psychtember interview! Rebecca is the author of several YA novels, including Ultraviolet and the upcoming companion novel, Quicksilver, due out in spring 2013 (from Carolrhoda Lab).

First, a bit about Rebecca and Ultraviolet:

"R.J. Anderson (known to her friends as Rebecca) was born in Uganda, raised in Ontario, went to school in New Jersey, and has spent much of her life dreaming of other worlds entirely.

As a child she immersed herself in fairy tales, mythology, and the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit; later she found inspiration in books by Ursula LeGuin, Patricia A. McKillip and Robin McKinley, and learned to take as much pleasure from their language as the stories they told.

Now married and a mother of three, Rebecca reads to her sons the classic works of fantasy and science fiction that enlivened her own childhood, and tries to bring a similar excitement and timeless wonder to the novels she writes for children and teens. She currently lives in the beautiful theatre town of Stratford, Ontario." (from her website)

"Once upon a time there was a girl who was special.

This is not her story.

Unless you count the part where I killed her.

Sixteen-year-old Alison has been sectioned in a mental institute for teens, having murdered the most perfect and popular girl at school. But the case is a mystery: no body has been found, and Alison’s condition is proving difficult to diagnose. Alison herself can’t explain what happened: one minute she was fighting with Tori—the next she disintegrated. Into nothing. But that’s impossible. Right?" (from Goodreads)

And now for the questions...

1.) a) Frequently in YA we see a character displaying symptoms of a mental disorder, but the story doesn't actually show us the treatment of it. Why do you think that is?

Sometimes YA novels include mental illness as part of a character's background or present struggles, but the main plot of the story isn't about MI so we don't get a lot of details about the disorder or how it's being treated. I don't think there's anything wrong with that per se, because I think it's possible to respectfully acknowledge the existence of mental illness and the challenge it can present without going into a lot of details.

But if the main plot is about the character dealing with a mental illness, either their own or someone else's, I think treatment ought to come into it eventually. Maybe some authors don't want to tackle the treatment angle because it demands too much research, or maybe they're afraid it would bog down the story and bore the reader. I don't know. But I feel that if you're going to write about MI at all, you need to be prepared to do a lot of research; and I think anything can be written in an interesting way if the author cares enough to do it.

b) A significant part of your book takes place at a psychiatric facility. In what ways do you hope Ultraviolet addresses this gap in the literature?

Part of what made me want to write about life as an inpatient at a psychiatric hospital was my frustration with the stereotypical, sensationalized and downright misleading portrayals of MI I'd seen elsewhere, TV and movies especially. On one hand I saw portrayals of people with mental illness as loveable eccentrics or unorthodox saints, and on the other hand they were portrayed like wild animals or dangerous criminals, and there wasn't a lot in between. Similarly, psychiatric hospitals in these stories tended to be either sunny halls of hope and healing, or dismal prisons full of people in straitjackets locked up in isolation. I wanted Alison's experiences of psychiatric care, and her interactions with her fellow patients, to be more nuanced. Within any health care system there are all sorts of different personalities and approaches to the giving and receiving of treatment, and sometimes the combination of caregiver and patient is a positive and healing one and sometimes it's disappointing or painful, but it's not that easy to sort everybody into heroes and villains. With Ultraviolet, I've tried to reflect that.

2.) For authors attempting for the first time to write a character dealing with mental health issues, what are some "must-haves" for their writing and what pitfalls would you recommend they avoid?

I'd say the first thing to do, if you don't have firsthand knowledge or experience of dealing with mental illness, is to throw out all your preconceptions about what mental illness is like and how it is treated today. Read memoirs by people with MI and by their family members, look up blogs written by nurses and aides and psychiatrists, watch educational videos about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and depression. Try to build up a detailed picture from all angles, instead of relying on just one source or point of view -- which is where I think a lot of stories about mental illness go wrong.

3.) How would you suggest a teen reader gets the most out of a book focusing on psychological issues? For example, are there any strategies a reader might use to detect when an author is portraying a mental disorder or treatment clumsily or inaccurately?

I don't think there's any way to know that unless you have firsthand experience with mental illness or have been doing your own research into the subject, because as I mentioned before the portrayals in TV and movies are so misleading. Because of that influence, I think it's easy for a lot of readers not to notice when an author does a poor job of portraying mental illness, because the mistakes and wrong assumptions the author's making are probably similar to their own.

The best an author can do, I think, is try to be responsible, respectful, and thorough about their research in all areas, even those that don't involve mental illness. Because if the reader finds that they are reliable in one aspect of the story that they do know about, they're more likely to trust the author to be reliable in other areas as well. But if the author botches up other facts, it's hard for the reader to trust them after that. And rightly so, because that's often a warning sign that the author hasn't really done their research.

4.) There's a paranormal element to Ultraviolet. How challenging was it to blend this with the fact-based psychological aspects of the book? Were you concerned about tackling two genres in this way?

Fantasy and Science Fiction are my first love, and my original concept for this story was very strongly rooted in the SF element. I was actually more worried about pulling off the contemporary aspect than anything else, because it was less familiar territory. And I always knew that there were going to be some readers who didn't want to come all the way on Alison's particular journey -- in fact I worried at first that no editor would buy it simply because of that cross-genre aspect. But at the same time, I knew I couldn't tell this particular story any other way. If I took out the paranormal and science fiction elements, I'd have to write a totally different plot, or else turn it into a "But she was really crazy all the time!" story or a "Then she woke up and it was all a dream!" story, and neither of those options were interesting to me. So I was very relieved and grateful to find two editors -- Andrew Karre at Carolrhoda Lab US and Sarah Lilly at Orchard Books UK -- who loved the manuscript and got what I was trying to do.

My editors also did me a great favour by encouraging me to drop more hints about the SF aspect of the story earlier in the book, so that when the twist came at least some readers would feel that it made sense. I wanted Ultraviolet to be a book that would reward re-reading -- where people could go back and say "Aha, I see what you did there!" even if they hadn't caught it the first time around. So even in the early sections of the book there are plenty of SF in-jokes and allusions from Star Trek and Star Wars, The X-Files and Doctor Who, Blade Runner and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- plus blatant references to SF classics like War of the Worlds and The Day The Earth Stood Still. I don't know if any of my readers picked up on all of those little easter eggs, but I had a lot of fun putting them in.

5.) Stigmatization is still a big part of mental illness in North American culture. What tips would you give for incorporating stigma into a story to realistically reflect our society, without coming across as demeaning to individuals with the mental illness?

It's a difficult issue, because no matter how you handle it there's so much potential for offence. Some readers are going to be upset if an otherwise likeable character behaves badly, or says something insensitive or ignorant. They may even mistake that character's point of view for the author's, unless that character gets an immediate smackdown that makes plain the author doesn't endorse such behaviour. But real life doesn't work that way -- people say insensitive things without getting called out or punished all the time -- and if the author tries to fix everything their characters do wrong, you end up with a preachy, unrealistic story.

I think the best way to handle it is not to eliminate or ignore the insensitivity, or have some Voice of Authority step in to immediately correct the misbehaviour, but to realistically portray how that kind of stigma affects the people who are subjected to it. To put the reader into that person's position, even if only for a moment, and make them understand how inaccurate and unjust the stigma really is.

6.) If you could ensure that readers take away one fact or message about mental health/psychology from Ultraviolet, what would it be and why?

I think it would be the same lesson that Alison gradually learns over the course of the story -- that people with mental illness are struggling and suffering in some very obvious ways, but that doesn't mean they're some strange alien race, or otherwise essentially different from the rest of us. We're all human beings with our own hurts and fears and temptations to overcome, and we need to be compassionate to one another, because none of us can make it alone.

7.) Can you recommend some other YA books dealing with synaesthesia (or one of the other psychological issues involved in Ultraviolet)?

I didn't discover this book until well after I'd started writing mine, but Wendy Mass's A Mango-Shaped Space is a contemporary novel about a girl with synesthesia, and also deals with issues of grief and depression. It's beautifully written and I'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in learning more.

Thanks very much, Rebecca, for these thoughtful responses to my questions!

Readers, I'm curious — have you read many YA novels that highlighted the treatment of a mental illness, not just its symptoms/diagnosis? What have been your impressions of the portrayals of psychiatric facilities in YA?


  1. Ultraviolet has been on my radar for awhile now, but it's just been moved up to a must-read! Great author interview!

  2. I have this on my to-read list so it was great to read more about it. I think it's so good to really research this topic before writing about it, there are too many stereotypes out there, so readers really need to know the real issues and situations


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