In Getting His Game Back (Dell, Feb. 2022), debut author Gia de Cadenet addresses the stigma of depression. Its leads, Black technology executive Vanessa Noble and Algerian French American Khalil Sarda meet in the latter’s Detroit barbershop and are instantly smitten with each other.

But Khalil lives with seasonal affective disorder and avoids therapy because, de Cadenet says, “he has this false idea that, as a man, he shouldn’t need therapy.” And Vanessa has taken a break from dating after a series of bad matches. Friends eventually become lovers, but when Khalil’s depression comes roaring back, he pushes Vanessa away, “because he falls back into old patterns of thinking and behaving,” de Cadenet says.

PW’s starred review said, “Khalil and Vanessa set a high standard for couples with their patience, support, and respect for one another—combined with sizzling chemistry.” The author spoke with PW about toxic masculinity and depictions of mental illness in popular culture.

What was the inspiration for this story?

Khalil’s character appeared in my mind one day, started talking, and wouldn’t shut up. I knew the character was gregarious and outgoing. He’s a ladies’ man. He’s someone who has everything going for him. Having dealt with depression myself, I know what it’s like to have a mask—a persona that you have for the rest of the world. Every now and then, it gets difficult to carry and put on for everybody else. Women are accustomed to being and doing for others. We’re not so accustomed to thinking that about men. Khalil is this person who is there for everybody—the good friend, perfect boyfriend, great brother, supportive business partner, great community leader, and the person who wants to see everyone around him do well. What does it mean when he’s not doing so well? I wanted to explore that.

What were the challenges in writing a character like Khalil?

Romance readers no longer expect the clichéd “alpha male”—the hard man who has no weaknesses. We want nuanced men. We want men who are willing to show that they are fallible and are imperfect. They have needs. They’re willing to change. They’re willing to be wrong. They’re willing to make mistakes. As I was crafting Khalil, it was important that his weakness is that he won’t ask for help. It was important that he had some toxic masculinity to unpack. He can’t be a good partner, because he’s damaged, but he doesn’t articulate it as that right away.

Why is it important to engage with mental health issues in fiction?

Look at how people are reacting to [the therapy discussions in] Ted Lasso. The way to get people to understand mental illness is to take it beyond the sensational, The Shining or One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In this book, I’m dealing with depression. In my next novel, I’m dealing with the impact of untreated personality disorder. I have two other projects that deal with severe chronic depression and bipolar disorder. We’re doing ourselves a disservice not to have a better concept of how to treat and live with the impact of mental health in a gentle and respectful way. The novel as an art form is my way to do that. Everyone’s dealing with something, and we’d all do better by supporting ourselves and each other. The more people see mental illness as something to be openly discussed, the better.

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