A Blue So Dark studies the life of a girl who, as she turns from 15 to 16, watches her once lively mother lose her grasp on reality as she is overwhelmed by schizophrenia. Recently published by Flux, this is Holly Schindler's debut novel.
Little Willow: What prompted you to write about schizophrenia? How much research did you do into the condition before or while writing the book?
Holly Schindler: I hate math. I'm talking serious hatred. And science. Computers. Any class that involved definite right or wrong answers was not my favorite, either in high school or college. I preferred the courses that required more than just memorization and multiple-choice tests: Art. Literature. Creative writing. And I've always loved music to the point of obsession. (I didn't take any music classes in school - was never in choir or band - but I did race out of elementary school every Monday afternoon to get to my weekly piano lesson, and I spent Saturdays as a teenager driving all the way across town so that I could take guitar lessons from a member of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.) Basically, if it involved creativity, I was there.
I've also always been interested in what makes a person creative. Why one person can write an entire volume of poetry while another just stares at the blue lines on a blank piece of notebook paper, unable to come up with a single rhyme. My interest in creativity really exploded in grad school...I taught a few courses while working on my master's, and I was amazed by the way some of my students could go on for half a class period about the meaning in a poem I'd bring in for discussion, while others would just read the literal surface-meaning, not probing any deeper, not really making any connections or seeing metaphors. But why is that? Why do some people look at everything literally, while others constantly see something more?
A Blue So Dark isn't autobiographical in that I didn't grow up with a mentally ill mother. But while I don't have any personal experience with schizophrenia, I didn't have to probe very deep into the subject of creativity to find out that many of our "great" artists - playwrights, poets, novelists, painters, sculptors, musicians - were in some way affected by mental illness - schizophrenia as well as depression or bipolar disorder...The idea of the "mad genius" is so pervasive, there's even a Wikipedia entry for "Creativity and Mental Illness!"
With this novel, I got a chance to explore the idea that creative thought and mental illness are linked. And, yes, I did have to do some research into schizophrenia - symptoms, treatment, etc. But I was writing fiction - so of course, my characters and their experiences had to drive the book, not descriptions of the condition. I internalized everything I read, then put it all away. When I drafted (and revised) the novel, I focused on character development, plot, the mother-daughter relationship between Aura and Grace.
In fact, as I tightened up the novel, and Aura became a stronger, more fully fleshed out character, I actually felt like schizophrenia fell somewhat into the background. I know that probably sounds a little absurd for anyone who's just read the novel. But the first few drafts were almost completely about Aura and her mother. I found out that for Aura to be a real person, she had to be more than just an artist. More than just a girl struggling with her family's history with mental illness. She also had to have a best friend, a crush, a life at school...
But getting a little overwhelmed by background information is probably a danger any writer runs when they reach far enough beyond their own life experience to have to do a little research...It's a pretty delicate balancing act, really - you have to do enough research to sound like you know what you're talking about, but not so much that you neglect the life your characters have outside of the facts. I mean, if you don't have emotion in addition to the facts, you don't have a novel...
If you were aware that your creativity altered or infringed upon your mental state, would you sacrifice your art (your writing, your music, your fine art if you draw like Aura or paint like Aura's mother) to retain your sanity, or would you continue to create?
No doubt - I'd keep writing. In all honesty, writing is so much a part of who I am anymore, so central to my life, I don't think I'd feel like I had much of a choice.
Take another scenario: Let's say I was having trouble breathing, and rushed myself to the ER, and I found out I had this crazy-rare lung disease. And the doctor said, "Your lungs could explode at any minute if you keep breathing." Huh??? Wait a minute, doc. I'm gonna die if I don't breathe. That's how I feel about writing - it's just as essential to life as air. And it also pretty much sums up how I'd feel if a psychiatrist told me I had to quit writing or go insane: I'm gonna go insane if I don't write.
Like I said, I've always been interested in all sorts of different creative expression - art, music, etc. But there's something about writing. Always has been - ever since I wrote that first story at my kid-sized roll-top desk in my bedroom when I was a little girl. Writing just fit me in a way nothing else ever has...
Your artistic abilities extend beyond the printed page. Music is a huge part of your life, as it is mine. Tell me about your musical endeavors, and how teaching music lessons inspired your writing.
I've been playing music ever since - well, toddler-dom, if you count pulling out all of Mom's pots and pans and playing the "drums" while she cooked dinner. My first memory is of Mom's piano - I was so small, I'd stand on the floor and stretch my arms up over my head to press the keys!
In all honesty, though, I'm not sure the phrase "musical endeavors" should really be applied to me. Yeah, I love music. And yeah, in college, I did play and sing in a few garage bands...and I still do write songs, when I have a chance, and am always picking up new instruments to try out (the fiddle, the banjo...not that I have enough time to practice to do them anything close to justice). But I never really pursued music - not like I pursued writing.
I did, however, find a way to combine music and writing once I got out of college: by teaching piano and guitar lessons! It was the perfect setup: I'd get up early and write until three in the afternoon, when students would start arriving. That way, I figured, I'd be around literature and music all day...and get a few of those pesky bills paid in the process.
But something really magical happened when I taught those lessons. My students started...talking to me. Usually, they'd begin by telling me what had happened at school that day - but that would soon spiral outward, and before long, I was hearing about family vacations, or pranks played on friends, or maybe even problems they were having with a particular class...
I just couldn't believe how similar it sounded to what I'd gone through as a teen. And it hit me that fashion and technology constantly changes, but what we go through - our internal struggles and growths - pretty much stay the same regardless of the decade.
At the time, I was drafting adult manuscripts. But after talking to my younger students, I started plowing through drawers and closets, digging out some of my old high school writings...I poured through everything I'd written as a teen: journals, spiral-bound notebooks filled with poetry, class papers, short stories. All those old feelings and experiences came flooding back - and I decided I had to try my hand at a YA novel.
It's kind of funny - I thought my students were going to keep me afloat until I got a manuscript accepted. I didn't know they were going to give me priceless career direction...
Beyond the interaction with my students, though, I think anybody who plays music knows the benefits of repetition - playing the same chord progression or riff over and over until you get it right. The first clumsy time you struggle through "Für Elise" is nothing like the four hundredth time you play the piece.
That's probably why I adore revision so much. The rewrites are truly my favorite part of the process - because that's when a novel (or poem or short story) really starts to sing. When all the clumsy fingering's done away with, the sour notes perfected...
What else inspires your writing? Do you have a certain routine when you write?
I'm constantly working. Eight (or more) hours a day. Every day.
While that does involve some serious one-on-one time with my computer, I manage to mix it up a bit by doing a lot of outlining in notebooks. I feel way too self-conscious writing in public, though. (By "public," I mean a coffeehouse setting, with lots of eyes to watch me...but the edges of the nearby Finley River? Or Lake Springfield? Fantastic writing spots...nobody pays any attention to me there.)
And I always do carry scratch paper with me...physical activity sort of clears my mind. Out of nowhere (say, while pumping gas or grocery shopping or walking my dog), I get little epiphanies about my characters, or realize how I can fix scenes that have been nagging me. And if I don't write it down, it'll vanish.
I'm also an idea junkie. I get ideas for books all the time. Really. I'm not exaggerating. All the time. Right after grad school, when I first started writing full-time, I'd get distracted by new ideas - halfway through one project, I'd be so excited by some new topic that I'd be off and running on a completely different tangent. I learned that if I just write an idea / outline down, I can lay it aside and refocus on the job at hand.
However...that means I now have notebooks filled with ideas for novels. If I just stuck to the ideas I have outlined now, I'd have enough to work on until I was...oh...eighty-two.
Her mother's condition (and her father's lack of involvement) really hits Aura when she's in middle school, and she feels incapable of assisting her mom - she feels powerless and like she's too young to really help. Do you recall a time when you (as a kid or a teenager) realized the world was bigger, heavier than you thought it was, and that opened your eyes to things, for better or for worse?
My experience was really the opposite of Aura's: instead of finding the world was heavier than I'd thought, I realized that the world was a lot lighter - by, uh...failing miserably.
The thing is, I'm pretty sure I was the shyest kid in the tri-state area growing up. And, okay, I know that shyness sounds so incredibly unimportant when you compare it to schizophrenia...But I do remember feeling that the world was a heavy place when I was little - enormous and really just filled with judgment. (Maybe, in some ways, shy people hang back because they don't think they'll measure up?)
...I might have started to come out of my shyness when I was playing music in college, but when I graduated, I was still pretty timid. In all honesty, I think the best thing to ever happen to me was not getting any of my novels acquired right out of grad school.
I'd always been the classic over-achiever. Even if I didn't like a course, I studied myself silly. When I started submitting manuscripts, I saw publication as pass or fail: you're either accepted or you're not. So I really felt like I failed for the (gulp) more than seven years it took to get the first acceptance. But I learned that failing really was okay - you have to find out what doesn't work and just keep forging on, right?
Nobody instinctively knows how to write a novel. Let's face it - nobody's born knowing how to do anything. You screw up. You look silly in the earliest attempts. But so does everybody.
Bottom line: I'm not so embarrassed to look silly as I try new things. I have sense of humor about myself that I didn't have when I was younger. My whole trial-and-error period has really brought me out of myself...and that, more than anything, definitely makes the world feel lighter.
Which of the characters reflects you the most? The least? Who do you wish you resembled in ability, or in features, or in spirit?
I think I'm probably most like Aura. I don't mean that we're plagued by the same fears, or that our experiences are the same, but the voice that runs through A Blue So Dark sounds an awful lot like me. I think that once I realized how close I still felt to that old teenage me, I just let my natural voice flow straight onto the paper - I wasn't trying to make the book sound teen, I was trying to tell a brutally honest story. I think anytime an author writes in first person, though, elements of their own voice are bound to creep in - their own sense of humor, their own observations just can't help but be part of the story when they're using "I."
If I could be anyone? When I proofed the novel, I always found myself smiling when Nell entered a scene. There's a real strength about her that I think is fantastic. And there's a straightforwardness about Janny that I really like, too. They're not perfect people - if I've done my job right, every character in my book should have their own grab bag of flaws. But I think I wound up surrounding Aura with the kind of people I like to be around - real straight shooters.
I gotta say, though - Angela Frieson's maybe not a character to really admire, but there's just something about her. I think of all the people Aura interacts with, she understands Angela the least. And that really intrigues me. There's a story there, a reason Angela behaves the way she does. Hmmmm...where's my notebook of novel ideas?
When was the title for your book finalized? Were other titles ever tossed around?
The book was acquired under the title The Ocean Floor. (And the book had at least three different titles before that.) Brian (Farrey, acquisitions editor at Flux) told me right from the get-go that The Ocean Floor probably wasn't going to stick around. So I read and re-read the manuscript for phrases that might make good titles...I shot Brian several, but he immediately liked A Blue So Dark...
Are you satisfied with the final title?
Yes, of course, I'm satisfied with the title (I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't like it). But what I really liked most was how ecstatic Brian was when he first heard it. I mean, a, "That's the one! That's the title!" kind of response is what you want. Especially for a first novel.
Bookstore shelves are brimming with new titles from tried-and-true authors. I figure, if you're going to entice readers to try you out, grab up your first book, it has to have a completely captivating title. The first step, I thought, to winning over readers was winning over my editor. So when I got his seal of approval, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Where you involved in the creation of the book cover at all? How so? If not, when did you see the final cover, and what did you think?
Flux did ask me to show them some covers of YA books that I liked, but really, the credit for the cover goes completely to Ellen Dahl. In short, I think it's absolutely spectacular.
Remembering that the book was acquired under the title The Ocean Floor, I also really like the fact that the title and my name are at the bottom of the cover rather than the top...they both kind of look like they've settled down to the bottom of the ocean, don't they?
How did you come to find your publisher, Flux?
I first read about Flux in a writer's marketplace...I really loved their slogan - where YA is a point of view, not a reading level. I checked out some of their titles, and actually submitted and sold the book myself - which just proves that the slush pile isn't a hopeless dead zone!
A Blue So Dark will be your first published novel, and you have other books sold and in the works as well. What are you currently drafting or polishing?
I'm thrilled to have sold a second YA novel to Flux! Playing Hurt, a romance, is set to release in 2011.
Playing Hurt centers on two former athletes: Chelsea Keyes, a basketball star whose promising career has been catastrophically snipped short by a horrific accident on the court, and Clint Morgan, an ex-hockey player who gave up his much-loved sport following his own game-related tragedy.
Chelsea meets Clint (who's working as a resort fishing guide) soon after arriving with her family for a summer vacation in Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. Sparks fly, igniting the pages, even though Chelsea has a boyfriend back home in Missouri...and even though Clint has sworn never to put himself in the position to be hurt emotionally again.
Their unlikely romance has the potential to heal their heartache and force Chelsea and Clint to realize just how timidly they've been living - but are they really ready to give themselves completely to one another? How will the weeks spent in another man's arms play into Chelsea's feelings for her boyfriend when she returns home? Will Clint allow himself to fall for a woman who's bound to leave him at the end of her summer vacation? By playing hurt - entering into a romance with already-broken hearts - are they just setting themselves up for the kind of injury from with they could never recover? Will Chelsea and Clint pull away from each other before they have a chance to find out just how beautiful their story could be?
I know what you're thinking: Wait. We go from a literary novel to a romance? In all honesty, my writing interests are every bit as varied as my reading interests. And I hope that Playing Hurt is my first step into writing in many different genres. Yes, I do love literary, character-driven work. But what I love most about my second book is that I've managed to infuse some serious character development into a romance...Playing Hurt is not your average summer fling.
What are your ten all-time favorite books?
Okay - here's the thing. My favorite literature professor in college basically insisted that for a lit student, good is an irrelevant term. The books I was studying had already been deemed publishable. Had already been deemed classics. As a lit student, it was my job to dig out the meaning, to explore the richness, to figure out, in a sense, why the book did get published, did become a classic.
...I never un-learned that rule. I still come to a book thinking, Somebody invested a lot of time and money in publishing this book. Somebody thought this was important enough to publish. Why?
So instead of gravitating to specific authors over and over, I'm constantly on the lookout for new voices. And instead of really having favorite books, I now have favorite tidbits that I take away from every novel I read. I always find something to admire: maybe it's a carefully-crafted plot. Or dialogue that zings. Or gorgeous description. Every published author does something spectacularly well. And the beautiful part is, if you attack books this way, you can help yourself become a better writer every single time you read a new novel...
Many thanks to Brian Farrey for arranging this interview and its publication.
Visit Holly Schindler's website and blog.
Read an excerpt of A Blue So Dark.
Here's the roundup of links to today's interviews across the blogosphere:
Mary Jane Beaufrand at The YA YA YAs
Rita Williams-Garcia at Fuse #8
Jennifer Hubbard at Writing & Ruminating
Charise Mericle Harper at Shelf Elf
Holly Schindler at Bildungsroman
Check out the full schedule for the 2010 SBBT.
Read my 2012 interview with Holly Schindler.