Author Beth Revis made a name for herself with her bestselling YA science fiction series Across the Universe. But for her latest book, A World Without You, she swaps space and explosions for a story that is set in the contemporary world. The novel follows a teen named Bo, who suffers from mental illness, and his sister, Phoebe, who struggles to come to terms with what Bo’s illness means for her. Revis spoke with PW about the book’s close-to-home origins.
Your previous books are science fiction (and a nonfiction writing guide), but this new one is a bit of a departure, being rooted in contemporary realism. What inspired the shift?
A World Without You was the book I never intended to write. It was supposed to be a time travel adventure – still very much in my established wheelhouse – but as I was writing, I discovered the twist, that the main character doesn’t actually have the ability to travel through time and the school for superheroes he thinks he’s attending is actually a school for mentally disturbed youth. And once I had the mental health aspect in the novel, it shifted into very personal territory, forcing me to write the truths I’d learned growing up with a brother with mental health issues. I was terrified to write what this book had become – an unfamiliar genre with a too familiar background – but I knew I couldn’t write anything else. This was the right book.
How did you pitch A World Without You to your agent and editor and did anything change from that initial pitch?
So much changed! In my original idea, I wanted there to be a slight mystery with the book that readers could solve by examining clues and photographs interspersed throughout the chapters. My agent [Merrilee Heifetz at Writers House], fortunately, pointed out that this was a crutch and filler; I was avoiding a deeper story with superficial content. So that went. The second iteration, which I pitched to my editor [Marissa Grossman], involved my main character telling half the story in narration and half in letters and journal entries. Through edits, the epistolary nature of the book was completely cut, and as I pushed deeper into more personal ground, the narrating character of the sister told about a quarter of the book from her perspective.
You’ve said that the book is semi-autobiographical. Can you say more about that? How was your experience writing close to home?
Growing up, I thought television shows like Full House and Family Matters were a lie – not because of the crazy hijinks that were solved within a half hour, but because the siblings were all... normal. And even if they didn’t get along, they never lost sight of being brother and sister. My brother and I were not like that. We were as different as it was possible to be, even as small children, but once we were older, those differences were exacerbated by his mental health issues. [He was] diagnosed as bipolar with manic depression (labels that have since changed) and undiagnosed for other issues, and our family dynamic shifted more and more as we got older. I felt immense self-imposed pressure to “make up” for the problems my brother caused, so I pushed myself into a Hermione-like role of perfect grades, perfect behavior, and perfect silence. Meanwhile, my brother spiraled out of control, started taking illegal and prescription drugs in an attempt at self-medication that never worked for long and eventually killed him.
Obviously the main character of my novel doesn’t have the same problems that my brother did, but I think his ability to time travel is my unintentional and subconscious way of giving my brother his past back. So a lot of the early stages of this writing dealt with my own regret and sorrow – that I didn’t understand him before, that I couldn’t change his past. But as the story continued, and I found myself looking through my character’s eyes, I also found myself envisioning the world through my brother’s eyes. I gained a deeper understanding, not of the diseases that plagued his brain, but of him as a person, memories that I’d been avoiding for years. Additionally, I got pregnant while writing this book, and the concept of new life growing while remembering old life gone heavily impacted the final iteration of the book, leading me to find a thread of hope that I had not originally seen.
You deal with many difficult topics in A World Without You (mental illness and suicide, just to name a few), something that we’re seeing more of, not just in YA, but in middle grade and some picture books too. Some people are for it and others are wary. What is your opinion?
Everyone needs different books. Age doesn’t matter; there are kids far younger than we would like who need a book on drug use, on death, on cancer, on mental health. Of course, we want our children and youth safe and happy and to never need these kinds of books. But the world doesn’t cater to our wishes, and the children need the books.
This debate wouldn’t exist if books were not so powerful. Give the power to the children who need it.
The narrative alternates between Phoebe and Bo’s viewpoints. Were both voices there from the beginning or was one added later?
In the original draft, the book was entirely Bo’s. It wasn’t until a far later draft – very close to the end of the book’s editing, actually – that Phoebe’s chapters happened. I was pushing the deadline of the book, not just to finish it, but to finish it before I gave birth. The Phoebe chapters were added in the last months of my pregnancy, and they are also the most personal, told from a point of view very similar to my own, with the added awareness of my upcoming child. I was hormonal and my emotions were raw; I think that hyper-awareness of both past and future really seeped into Phoebe’s chapters in particular.
Was it a conscious decision to make Bo an unreliable narrator or did the story come first and he just naturally became one?
One of the root aspects of his character was that he was unreliable, even before I’d determined the other themes of the book. I knew Bo would have to solve a mystery from the start of the story, and I knew that Bo himself would have unconsciously contributed to the mystery. As the story developed, the unreliability’s cause became his mental health issues, but I still like to play with what’s real and what’s not. Careful readers will see that Bo’s story isn’t neatly tied up, and that there are possibilities for a different interpretation of what exactly happened. The unreliability of the narration exists even after the “truths” are exposed.
What do you hope readers take away from A World Without You?
This question is one that I asked myself a lot. [There’s an idea that Bo has [in the books] that he’s connected to the people he loves through invisible strings. He doesn’t always see them, but they’re there, tying him to people and places, giving him roots even when he feels adrift. Phoebe mentions in one of her chapters how lonely she is, and that was something I felt growing up. I didn’t want the outside world or the world of my family to ever co-mingle, so I kept both at a distance. Phoebe – and I – never felt the strings that bound us all together, the way we were all connected. But I hope A World Without You will remind readers that they’re not alone, and even if they can’t see the strings, they’re still there, linking them to the people who love them.
A World Without You by Beth Revis. Razorbill, $17.99 July ISBN 978-1-59514-715-8