John Corey Whaley’s third novel following his Printz Award winner, Where Things Come Back, and his National Book Award nominee, Noggin, is told in two voices – Solomon Reed, teenage agoraphobe, and Lisa Praytor, a high school junior in need of a subject for a scholarship essay titled, “My Personal Experience with Mental Illness.” Whaley, who manages a debilitating mood disorder himself, will be hitting the road to talk about Highly Illogical Behavior with the hope of making it easier for people to talk honestly about mental health.
Did some specific incident make you decide to write about mental illness?
Well, a couple of months before and after Noggin came out, I had a severe bout of anxiety and depression. I had been diagnosed a decade earlier with an anxiety disorder but I hadn’t had to deal with it on a chronic level. I found myself living a really nice life in California, everything was going well, and then these panic attacks started. It made the tour for Noggin really stressful. And as with most things I don’t understand, it came down to having to write about it. I was writing something else at the time but I knew if I didn’t write about this now, I might never be able to figure out what’s going on. So I abandoned my work in progress and Solomon Reed stepped in so I could figure out what my mental illness means to me after not really having to deal with it on a daily basis for a long time.
Sounds like a good topic for a scholarship essay!
Right! Well, I didn’t really figure it out it as much as I figured out how I was going to address what seems to be a very serious mental illness. Part of the problem with mental illness, with depression, or anxiety, is your inability to make other people understand what you are going through. Luckily for me, my boyfriend had also experienced anxiety and depression, and there is a family history, so I had a lot of support.
One of my favorite things about Highly Illogical Behavior is Solomon’s parents, who are just terrific. I’m hoping you’ll tell me you based them on your parents.
Totally. That’s exactly how my parents are. I normally don’t play too close to reality when I write but the spirit that Solomon’s parents have and the supportive mindset – the idea that, ‘We’re going to let our kid survive however he needs to,’ that’s exactly what my parents did. I grew up in a small, conservative town, but in an open-minded, progressive household with parents who were a lot like Solomon’s. His grandmom is inspired both by my grandmother and my boyfriend’s, both outspoken, strong women who, despite growing up during the Depression and having to overcome the rabid sexism of American history, were able to be really successful. In fact, I hadn’t actually planned for Solomon’s grandmother to play such a big role but I loved her so much when I started writing her that she kind of took over. That’s always such a great surprise, when you fall in love with a character you created.
How do you manage to toggle back and forth between creating authentic teen characters and authentic grandmothers?
I like to write adult characters just as much as I like to write teen characters. I was just at YALLWest and got a question about whether it was hard to keep writing about teenagers as you got older and disconnected from your own teenage years. I think it’s less about the age of the character so long as you start with making them human. That’s how you make the connection with your reader. You don’t start with a label, you start with making sure they are human, flaws and all.
This is the perfect segue into asking you about Lisa Praytor, the girl who decides she will cure Solomon of his agoraphobia, write an essay about it, and win a college scholarship. Have people already told you how much they hate her?
Not too many people have complained about her to my face yet, but I’ve been trolling Goodreads and seen some of the negative comments, but you have to remember she’s a fictional character. As a writer, you’re biggest goal is to incite an emotional response in the reader. So I look at Lisa – she existed in several different versions of herself and in some she was a lot worse than she is now – and I think, in the end, Lisa redeems herself, despite her Lady Macbeth qualities.
Ha! That is a great description of her from the book – “like Lady Macbeth without the murder.” I wondered if she was supposed to personify the incredible stress to achieve and to stand out from the pack that the college admission process puts on high school students. Was that something you were trying to point out?
For sure. Lisa wants more than anything to escape and the only option she thinks she has is to win this scholarship because she can’t see any other way to get out of her own personal turmoil. But it was a very selfish thing to do, to try to get your full ride to college at Solomon’s expense. Her motives are inappropriate; even if she tries to convince herself that she’s helping him, it’s sort of slimy. But I also wanted Lisa to represent this misunderstanding of mental illness that so many outsiders have, that it’s something that can be easily fixed.
Have you had that experience?
People think, why are you depressed? Just do something happy. Shake it off. That’s not the way it works. What I have is generalized anxiety disorder. Originally it was called cyclothymia, which really isn’t a thing anymore but it’s a mood disorder, related to bipolar disorder. I can have long periods of positive feeling, bordering on being hyper, and then, every now and then, days or weeks or months of feeling really low.
Yes. And maybe there’s some OCD in there, too. Oh, this tour is gong to be really fun talking about my crazy everywhere. But all of this talking about it is what I signed up for when I started writing the book. The point of the book is to be part of the conversation. I don’t really want to lead the conversation but I have my own take on it, which is, all mental illness is a really individual thing. You can think you understand, but you don’t understand it until you experience it first-hand. Actually, I’m excited to be part of the conversation about this. The panel at YALLWest was about authors who live with mental illness and it was great. It was the first time I talked about this onstage in front of people. Solomon would be so proud.
Who else was on the panel with you?
Adam Silvera, who wrote More Happy Than Not, Melissa de la Cruz, and Veronica Roth was the moderator. She and I had a really good moment and made a connection. Her questions were so well done. And during the Q&A, we had a father from the audience who thanked us for talking openly about it. That was a moment I needed. The little signs are telling me these are the right things to do. There might have been a teenager in that room who would never have told anyone they were troubled and maybe if he or she hears one of us, or reads [Neal Shusterman’s] Challenger Deep, that teenager will understand there are others dealing with similar issues.
Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley. Dial, $17.99 May 978-0-525-42818-3