Jeannine Garsee first entered my life through a hardback book called The Unquiet. My mom brought all three of her books over, actually, telling me how Jeannine is not only an awesome writer with a can’t-put-it-down style, but how Jeannine is also an awesome person. After emailing the author–and reading both The Unquiet and Say The Word–I learned Mom was right on both accounts.
Jeannine Garsee is not only a friendly, helpful gal, but she is also necessary. The blunt, witty attitudes of her teen characters are only the tip of the iceberg. She also tackles GLBT issues in Say the Word and her representation of mental illness–such as Rinn’s bipolar disorder in The Unquiet–is strikingly accurate. As a psychology major who used to work with teens in the mental health field, I am refreshed.
Giving teens–and all YA readers–a chance to dive into the lives of these characters will definitely peel some eyes open. Books like these lead to less bullying, more awareness, and deeper levels of acceptance.
I had the opportunity to ask Jeannine a few questions regarding her writing and the focus of contemporary issues in YA literature. She really is too cool to talk to.
1. When (and why) did you decide to become a writer?
I’ve always been a storyteller, from the time I could talk. As soon as I learned to read, I read everything I could get my hands on. It wasn’t until I was in second or third grade that I realized that “real people” actually wrote these stories (as if books somehow appeared out of thin air by magic alone.) In fourth grade I wrote my first full-length story; when my teacher read it out loud to the class, I was so thrilled by the positive reaction that I began to wonder if I could be a writer. For years I’d answer “An author!” whenever anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up; at that point, though, it was more of a fantasy. It wasn’t until middle school, when I actively began writing as a way to cope with a bullying experience, that I made the conscious decision to someday turn my dream into a reality.
2. How long did it take you to become published?
Decades, literally, for the simple reason that I was absolutely clueless. I had no writer friends to steer me in the right direction. I had no knowledge of the publishing business, or even of the basics of writing a marketable book. Though BEFORE/AFTER was my fourth novel (I never tried to have the first three published) I had no idea how to edit my work. Writing the novel itself took roughly eight years, and the manuscript a mess when I started submitting—multiple, meandering storylines, dozens of unnecessary characters and subplots, and a word count out of this world. Worse, I didn’t even realize I’d written a YA novel and was therefore querying all the wrong agents.
Once I discovered the Internet, began attending writers’ conferences, and found a solid network of other writers, both published and unpublished, to help me along, I learned how to improve my work and started re-sending queries. I worked with an agent at a major house who was instrumental in helping me edit the manuscript for the umpteenth; though she ultimately decided not to take me on a client, soon after that I signed on with the agent who currently represents me. That additional revise/edit/query period took nearly three years. After the novel was sold, it was another year and half before it hit the shelves.
3. What benefits do you think we can provide society by writing more about mental illness?
Mental illness still carries a stigma; young people in particular are embarrassed by their diagnosis and go to great lengths to keep it a secret from their peers. Though depression, suicide, overeating, anorexia, etc. are now familiar themes in YA fiction, you find very few characters who are dealing with mental problems like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Now, mental illness in teen fiction is where previously “taboo” subjects (consensual sex, rape, pregnancy, biracial relationships, family violence, etc.) were a generation or two back, and where GLBT characters were only a few years ago.
Mental illness is a disorder of the brain, the way diabetes and high blood pressure are disorders of the body; it’s not something we should hide from or feel embarrassed about. It is something that should be taught and openly discussed in schools, with emphasis on the fact that it’s a treatable illness. It should never be a reason to ostracize, harass, or joke about others—not in school or anywhere else.
4. How has your job working in residential treatment affected your writing?
The biggest way it affected my writing is that it inspired me to write THE UNQUIET. I knew very little about mental illness before I began my job on an acute stabilization unit, and, initially, had huge reservations. After years of working with patients with physical ailments, I now found myself surrounded by people actively hallucinating, screaming back at the voices in their heads, swinging fists at imaginary attackers, too paranoid to eat or drink or even get out of bed. What surprised me was that many of these patients were not schizophrenic, but actually bipolar, and that bipolar disorder, at its very worst, can exhibit some of the same symptoms. Other symptoms, such as the extremely manic behavior, the hypersexuality, the pressured, illogical speech, often make bipolar patients the most difficult ones to deal with.
When the antipsychotic medications kick in, the symptoms lessen and often disappear—and yet my patients often refuse to stay on their meds. When I’ve asked them why, they’ve been pretty honest with me: They like the “highs” of their manic states. I’ve also had schizophrenics say they “missed” hearing the “good” voices that kept them company; one in particular told me he’d seen “ghosts” all his life, and when he took his medications the ghosts went away.
All stories begin with “what if…” That was the “what if” that triggered THE UNQUIET.
5. Which one of your books did you have the most fun writing?
Though I have fun writing them all—to me there’s nothing more fun than writing a story—I had the most fun with BEFORE/AFTER, for the very reason I mentioned earlier: Because I didn’t know what I was doing! I wrote maniacally. Any little idea that fell out of my brain, I put it down on paper, till I ended up with the literary equivalent of a neighborhood carnival. Yes, I miss that feeling of reckless abandon (kind of like missing the “highs”?) Even though my first drafts now still have a semblance of this, I’m much more careful not to get too carried away.
6. What advice do you have for the writers who are still trying to get published?
To always take your writing seriously. By this I mean two things: To consider your writing a “job” even when you’re not getting paid for it. This means devoting your time to working on your novel even when there are other things you’d rather be doing. Don’t say you don’t have time—MAKE time! You’ll never get anywhere if you keep putting it off.
Also, there is a huge difference between a writer and a storyteller; we can all tell stories, but not everyone can write them down. You need to know how to do this, how to do this well, how to do it better than anyone you know. You need to be a master of your native language; don’t cheat yourself by thinking you can simply hire an editor to fix your mistakes. Instead, learn to recognize them and fix them yourself—then learn not to make them in the first place. Writing is one of the most fiercely competitive businesses on earth: You owe it to yourself to be the best writer you can be.