By Nora Shalaway Carpenter and Rocky Callen
Cynsational Note: Today we are honored to welcome two YA debut authors, Nora Shalaway Carpenter and Rocky Callen, who talk about the importance and representation of mental health issues in YA literature, specifically their novels.
Nora: Hi, Rocky! I’m so excited to chat with you about our books.
Rocky: I’m excited, too! Who knew that when we met at VCFA during my first residency that we’d be debuting together just a few short years later!
Nora: Right!? In addition to sharing the VCFA experience, we also share a passion for mental health advocacy, and our debut YA contemporary novels both deal with theme.
Your novel, A Breath Too Late (Henry Holt, 2020), tells the story of Ellie Walker, who dies by suicide a week before graduation, but then is forced to witness the secrets, pain, hope and heartache she left behind.
Can you tell us why you chose the epistolary form for the book? How do you feel it impacted your portrayal of Ellie’s mental health experience?
Rocky: When I started drafting, I immediately wrote the prose addressing “you”…it came naturally.
Deep down, I knew that I wanted to create a certain intimacy with the reader, even if it was only a subconscious one. What evolved from that was the fact that, as people, we can be anyone in Ellie’s story, we can be anyone in another’s, anyone in our own.
We can be the person that makes someone feel seen, alive, vibrant, and we can also be the one who takes, hurts, and harms. We can do that in our relationships, to ourselves, from behind a screen or standing face to face. Our thoughts and actions have extraordinary impact—just like the characters in A Breath Too Late. Their lives are entangled and the ripple effects of their actions are felt deeply. It was a quiet and subtle intention, but I wanted readers to see that, to feel it and to wonder who they were choosing to be in their own lives and in the lives of others.
Nora: I love the idea that we choose who we are in everyone’s story. And you do such a beautiful job of showing that.
Rocky: The heart of why I wrote the book this way, however, was because I wanted to capture my own experience of depression on the page.
When I get into a downward spiral, I can feel lost in the depression and a way I can healthily step back is to make it its own entity and redirect my anger towards it rather than myself. To look at it, to say that I am a person experiencing this and not that this is who I am.
In the book, Ellie addresses her depression directly. We see her wrestle and grapple with it and work so hard to break free of it. And that is what I want readers to see. That a person struggling with depression is someone who is battling thoughts everyday—it may be unseen, but it is real.
Nora: That is also the OCD struggle in a nutshell: battling thoughts and compulsions every single day.
Rocky: And that is what we are showing with these stories, aren’t we? The real experience. You show that so well in your prose with Len.
But back to structure! The Edge of Anything (Running Press Teens, 2020) uses a dual narrative, close third person structure to tell the story of Len, an outcast teen photographer unknowingly suffering a mental health crisis, and Len, a popular volleyball star with a devastating secret—and the unexpected friendship that saves them both.
Why did you decide to use that form instead of focusing on one viewpoint?
Nora: Sage is able to notice things about Len that Len can’t see for herself and vice versa, and since the story centers on the friendship they create, this dual perspective best serves the book.
I also wanted to give readers a chance to not only experience what it was like to have severe OCD (through Len), but what it was like to be the only one who notices and reaches out.
A February 2019 study says that seven-in-ten U.S. teens consider mental health issues “major problem among their peers.”
How are they supposed to know how to interact with suffers when most adults don’t?
Additionally, Sage is a main character in her own right, so I realized pretty quickly that she needed her own voice just as much as Len did.
Rocky: Such a beautiful and powerful way to show the experience of OCD and the power of friendship, Nora! This is what young people need with these stories. The permission to take up space with their own experiences and the empathy to love and connect with someone else as they take up theirs.
I love the way you wrote these perspectives and your intention behind them.
Nora: Thank you! My own mental health experiences greatly informed The Edge of Anything. How did your experience with mental health issues impact A Breath Too Late?
Rocky: I wrote the first (terrible) draft of this book in just over a week. Sobbing every step of the way. It was the ripping off of a Band-Aid that I had haphazardly placed over a deep wound. I faced memories that I had buried, my own suicidal ideation that I constantly pretended wasn’t there, and my own depression and how it was gripping hold of my own life, even if other people couldn’t see it. It was in the writing of this book that I started to open up to my husband about my pain and experience of depression.
It was also when I started to be more open and vulnerable about my own experiences more publicly. Because I realized that like Ellie, I had stayed quiet too long when there were so many people around me who could keep me anchored in knowing that I mattered and that I belonged.
My life has been rife with struggle due to external circumstances as well as my own inner battles, but after every serious episode of unraveling or contemplation of suicide, I stumbled out to realize that there was more goodness, more life, more hope waiting for me in the dark.
Nora: And I am so thankful you’re still here! And that you wrote this gorgeous book to let others know they are not alone. I completely relate to staying silent.
Society has such a stigma against mental health issues, labeling sufferers as “weak minded” or “crazy” that it took me a very long time to open up about it.
Rocky: And now you have written this book which helps break that stigma and silence! That requires so much vulnerability.
Did you have a similar emotional experience while working on The Edge of Anything?
Nora: I definitely cried during some of Len’s chapters, right there in the café where I was writing. To make this book authentic I had to dig deep into a very dark time in my life, and that was difficult.
But I definitely didn’t write the draft in a week! The first draft took me roughly nine months, and they were long months.
Writing this book was also immensely healing for me because I had lived these emotions, and despite what I put these characters through, I could also bring them through it. That’s one of the reasons that I, like you, am such a huge champion of books about mental health issues, particularly books written by authors who have experienced the conditions of their characters themselves (aka #ownvoices mental health).
Why do you think books about mental health issues are important? What do you hope A Breath Too Late will give readers?
Rocky: Mental health issues portrayed by those who have intimately experienced the issues themselves unlocks a door to understanding. It shows the reality of that life, stripped of any romantic luster, and reveals the grit and honesty of it. I think this can create empathy for those who live outside the confines of this experience as well as offer an important and necessary opportunity for those who struggle to feel seen.
My hope for this book is that it holds readers close and whispers to them that they are not alone in their struggle and that their lives matter. This book in its own way is my own letter to the reader.
It is my heart asking them to stay.
Nora: That definitely comes through! Now, let’s talk endings for a bit. I love that while our books both address mental health issues and the tremendous and rippling impact that others’ perceptions (or lack thereof) can have on those experiencing such crises, the endings of our novels are quite different.
Although Len isn’t magically cured and she still has a lot of work ahead of her, she does manage to survive a situation that almost kills her. She is hopeful and ready to move forward in her life.
In A Breath Too Late, Ellie realizes much of the same things about life as you have, but too late. Ellie dies on the first page, and unlike some novels, the end doesn’t miraculously save her.
Why did you make that choice with this story?
Rocky: Suicide can be romanticized in fiction, and I knew I wanted to avoid that. As someone who has struggled with these thoughts, I needed to write a story that illustrated the finality of it.
The finality and absoluteness of Ellie’s death is the truth. And that is the tragedy. The inability to go back, to try again, to start over.
I wanted to give my readers a chance to witness someone falling back in love with a life they lost. I wanted to show that life offers us—even in its heartache or cruelty—the chance to keep going and that alone is worth the fight.
Your book isn’t about that finality. It is about the chance and choice to keep going in that messy life. Did you know from the beginning of The Edge of Anything that Len was going to get a chance to heal?
Nora: I did. It was a conscious decision for two reasons. First, Len’s ending is very much tied to the bond she develops with the other main character, Sage (and vice versa). The Edge of Anything is really an exploration of the transformative, and in this case, life-saving, power of friendship.
Would either Sage or Len be alive at the novel’s end if they each hadn’t met the other?
It’s one of the questions I hope readers think a lot about after reading the book. There’s a lot of heartache in the world and so much injustice. It can often feel like there’s no way one person can make any kind of substantial difference. I hope The Edge of Anything challenges that view.
The second reason I knew I wanted both young women to have the chance to heal was that I wrote this book in part because it was the story I needed when I was battling with my own (then undiagnosed) severe OCD and PTSD.
I wanted a book that showed a person undergoing what I went through and not only surviving, but being loved and appreciated for who they were as a person despite what they were going through.
As you show with your book, mental health struggles don’t define people, and I wanted Len (as well as readers) to discover that.
Rocky: That’s so important to show young readers. There is life beyond the struggle. And while our books are different, at their heart, they are meant to inspire readers to keep going.
Nora: Thanks so much for taking time to talk to me today! You can find Rocky @rockywrites on Instagram and @rocky_writes on Twitter. I’m @noracarpenterwrites on Insta and @norawritesbooks on Twitter. Let us know what you think about mental health themes in YA!
Nora Shalaway Carpenter currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband and three young children. She’s struggled with OCD since early adulthood. Her next book, Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America, comes out with Candlewick on Oct 13, 2020. Learn more at noracarpenterwrites.com.
Rocky Callen worked as a behavioral therapist for over a decade and has done advocacy work since she was very young. She has grappled with depression since childhood. Her passion and experience with mental health issues inspired the writing of her debut novel A Breath Too Late. She received her MFA in Writing from VCFA in 2019. She lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband, daughter and son.