I am so, so, so pleased to welcome Jenn Bennett, one of my favorite YA contemporary romance writers, to the blog today to talk about writing mental health into swoony rom-coms, self care and more. If you haven’t read Jenn’s books yet, I can bet you’ll want to by the end of this post and if you love Jenn’s books as much as I do, you’ll definitely want to read on. You can also find Jenn on Twitter or at her website.
Tay: I’m interested how the pieces of a plot come together for you. A Jenn Bennett book seems to be one part complicated family relationships, two parts swoonworthy sex positive relationships, one part quirky work setting and one part poignant heart and representation of issues. What generally comes first for you, plot, setting or character? And at what point do you start weaving in mental health and illness representation?
Jenn: Every book is different. Usually, though, some kind of a plot comes first, and that’s only because I’m beholden to my publisher. I can’t pitch characters to my editor: “I have this great idea for a girl with urticaria who likes astronomy.” That doesn’t cut it. Publishers want a plot-based hook: “I have this great idea for a romance between two teens who get stuck in the wilderness together after a camping trip goes wrong.” So that’s generally what I start with, to generalize things. However, the mental health aspects…those usually pop up when I start writing and getting to know my characters.
Tay: Several of your books that feature mental health representation—ALEX, APPROXIMATELY, STARRY EYES and your upcoming 2019 release SERIOUS MOONLIGHT are contemporary romances and yet you strike a perfect balance between lightness and seriousness. As a writer, how do you balance these tougher, more serious issues in a genre known for its lightness and fun?
Jenn: I suppose I’m trying to do two things: (1) portray mental health issues in a non-glamorized or fetishized way, and (2) show my characters coping/dealing/facing their issues and living happy lives. Hope is everything to me. It’s my lens. No matter what genre I write, my books are always going to be full of banter, laughter, quirky characters, love, and hope. That’s just who I am as both a person and a writer. Don’t get me wrong: I think there’s great value in books that choose to focus on the grim realities of mental health issues. But stories that focus on a light at the end of the tunnel are equally important. That’s what I try to show. If you’re a character in one of my books, yes, you may struggle with depression or grief or PTSD…but you will still find love. You still have a sense of humor. You still have ambitions. You still get your happy ending. It doesn’t make you less worthy, and it doesn’t define you.
Tay: In several of your books, you work depression, PTSD and suicidal ideation/attempts into the worlds of your characters? Why are these important issues to include in your writing and what draws you to return to them again and again?
Jenn: I never set out to include them, not intentionally, but I suppose there’s some truth in writing what you know. I’ve struggled with anxiety and been on anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants. My husband struggles with depression and adult attention-deficit disorder. Writing, in a way, is digging into your own emotions and memories, so I sometimes feel as if every book I write is an extended counseling session with my ego, super-ego, and Id.
Tay: Building off my last question, in your next book, SERIOUS MOONLIGHT, you have an MC that deals very much with the psychological impacts of grief and you also have a plot thread in which suicide and comforting people we know who have struggled with suicidal ideation and attempts. What inspired you to write about these issues in a more foregrounded way than you have in past works?
Jenn: It’s strange how the title of this book was prophetic. It’s taken from a David Bowie lyric, but in a way, it influenced the tone of the story. Yes, this book is still frothy, funny, and romantic, but the mental health issues are more prominent than they were past books. If I had to guess why, I suppose it’s partly because it was written after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Americans are living in a time of turmoil and divisiveness, and as an author, it’s pretty much my job to be sensitive, reflective, and observant of both myself and the world around me. When you’ve got your sensitive-artist antennae out, it’s hard to stop all that darkness from infecting you and leaching into your work. In addition to that, around the time I was writing this book, someone I grew up with as a teenager committed suicide, and I think perhaps his presence was a bit of a ghost inside my brain when I was writing this book.
Tay: A big part of the push behind putting on Shattering Stigmas this year was to continue the conversations we’ve started in the bookish community around mental illness. Why do you find it important to continue fighting the stigma against mental illness?
Jenn: Because I believe we’re all better off if we’re talking honestly and openly about mental illness—not ignoring or isolating it. We’re all in this together, learning to be better. I’m still learning healthier ways to think and write about mental issues. And probably still making mistakes! But I truly believe that stigmatizing mental illness makes all of us sicker.
Tay: What types of mental health issues would you like to see more widely represented in YA?
Jenn: No matter the issue, I’d like to see it being represented with more love and humanity, and less as a plot point that titillates or as a prop to make the protagonist more sympathetic.
Tay: Finally, do you have any self care tips, tricks or secrets?
Jenn: We’re all addicted to social media, and there are plenty of positive things to reap from it. But when your timeline is filled with triggers, anger, and stressors, it’s time to take a break. Even for a day—even for a few hours. Turn off your notifications, for the love of Pete! Did that? Okay, now watch a movie without checking your phone. Go for a walk. Play with your pets. Cook a meal that gives you pleasure. Read a book. Talk to your neighbor. BREATHE. Whatever you choose to do, I promise, all that breaking news and drama will still be there when you’re ready to come back. Take care of yourself first.
Thank you so much, Jenn! I’m so grateful for your time talking about mental illness!
Super interested in Jenn’s YA books now, if you weren’t already? Happy to send you down the Goodreads rabbit hole:
Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, one of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!