If you’ve known me for even a short length of time, you know that one of my all-around favorite authors and people is A.S. King. If you want to know why, I wrote a post about the top ten reasons I love her books here. I also talked to Amy for Shattering Stigmas last year, and you can find that conversation here. We had a lot to talk about, so I won’t spend too much more time doing introductions, but you should absolutely read all o Amy’s books that are out now, you should absolutely read Amy’s next book Dig when it comes out in March and you can find Amy on Twitter or on her website.
Tay: Hi Amy! Thank you so much for coming back to Shattering Stigmas for the second year in a row to talk about mental illness, writing and more (so basically, all of the really important things). I’m so happy to have you back too, because talking about mental health isn’t something that’s done once and then we move on to something else. Instead, the conversation about mental health is something that needs to be an ongoing conversation that we all have, both with ourselves and other people.
Amy: Thanks for having me back, Taylor. I’ve had an interesting journey with mental health since I was last here, so it’s good to be back and I agree that this isn’t a conversation that ever really stops.
Tay: So first, Amy, you have a new book coming out in March called Dig that deals with secrets, racism, and class with a sprinkle of your signature surrealist style. To start us off, can you discuss how you approach or deal with mental health and emotional wellbeing in Dig?
Amy: Dig is a sprawling book. Bigger than my others and to me, more complicated. And yet, it’s simple when it comes to mental health. Basically, everyone has problems. And they all stem from secrets and issues that have been passed from the preceding generations. It’s sort of a bird’s-eye-view of epigenetic inheritance. Whether we believe it or not, it’s been proven that trauma passes down. But on a simpler level, lies also pass down (even the ones we tell ourselves) and so do secrets.
At first, only one character came to talk to me. The shoveler. And he was clearly dealing with anxiety, but it’s not like he knew what to call it. He calls it tunneling. You’ll see what I mean when you read the book. Another character came to me then, and she is also tunneling in another way. As the characters arrived, each was dealing with a household that wasn’t entirely healthy for them. I think this can probably be said for most humans.
I suppose the difference in this book compared to my others is that it deals hands-on with three generations of a family. I’d set out to explore how racism is passed down in “regular” or “normal” seeming families—because to me, that’s part of the code that needs cracking in order to start talking more openly about inherent and systemic racism. I dare say that racism or hate, in itself, is a mental health issue. At its core, it is a matter of perception, and psychologically, we are all slaves to our perceptions unless we are compassionate and emotionally intelligent enough to change or open our minds.
Tay: Like so many of your books, Dig has surrealist elements that remind me particularly of the surrealist elements in I Crawl Through It and Still Life with Tornado. How did the surrealism develop for you in Dig and what was new, different, exciting and/or challenging about it this time around?
Amy: Here was my biggest challenge: I didn’t know what had happened to my most surreal main character until I got to page 350. I just had no idea what the heck was going on. And I can’t tell you because that would be a spoiler. But like all of my books, this one came to me as I wrote it, and I was surprised by it, which is always exciting. But 350 pages was way too long to go without having that piece of the puzzle. I had to trust. I’m glad I did. But that meant the book took longer to write. That seems to be the way of things for me, now. I’m generally happy about that, too. I wasn’t spending enough time with myself for a long time. Now my 11-year-old is my yoga coach and I am addicted to meditating. That’s surreal in itself. Especially the yoga.
Tay: In our last conversation, we ended up talking a lot about how adults’ misconceptions and misinformed ideas about teenagers’ experiences ultimately harms those teenagers. In your books, you confront this dynamic by showing adults whose ignorance, obliviousness or outright aggression negatively affects the teens in their lives, often in the form of trauma such as in Reality Boy and Still Life with Tornado. In Dig, the grandchildren of a wealthy, white suburban family suffer the consequences of their grandparents’ decision on how to spread (or not) their wealth. What is similar and different in the way that you handled multigenerational traumas and secrets here as compared to the past?
Amy: I have to clear this up before I start on this answer. I want to change your question from “In Dig, the grandchildren of a wealthy, white suburban family suffer the consequences of their grandparents’ decision on how to spread (or not) their wealth” to “In Dig, the grandchildren of a wealthy, white suburban family suffer the consequences of their grandparents’ decision on how to spread (or not) their love.” While yes, the book is about how different generations deal with money or lack of it, it’s far more about how different generations deal with love. And problems. And mental health. In fact, let’s start there. How many of our grandparents suffered with mental health issues and what was the practice at the time?
I’ve been reading several psychology textbooks for my next project. I am specifically looking at how the psychological world has dealt with the study of emotion over the centuries. If we go back in time and see how people in the 1950’s and 1960’s were told to deal with their mental health and/or their emotions, we can see that it was not only taboo to talk about, but often just plain non-existent…even if it totally existed. As a culture we have left conversations about emotions—the whole spectrum of them from anger to joy—off the table. We oversimplify. For example, women were tagged “emotional” for having emotions and men were just not supposed to have them, bar anger and other “manly” emotions. This has led to an inequitable view of the genders which led to everything from uneven dress codes at schools, normalized domestic and sexual violence, i.e. the rape culture we live in daily. So talking about and showing emotion is an incredibly important thing. And it was this I wanted to write about in Dig and in most of my books. Because what limiting the discussion about normal human emotions does is harrowing for not only the people going through pain, but the families they have and raise, and our entire culture. If, as a society, we don’t support a move toward a more fluid emotional intelligence, we are creating a dangerous place for future humans. But isn’t that what we’ve been creating all along? More specifically, in families, what does love look like and how do we pass it on?
As a child, I was most probably seen as “too” emotional. I expressed my emotions quite a bit, for sure. And I also had a gut feeling that my emotions were important. And I didn’t understand why others didn’t feel the same way about their emotions. My parents were raised in the 40’s and 50’s. Different time. But also, my parents were not dumb or in any way blind to my emotions. They just dealt with them when they happened. And they dealt with them, sometimes as all parents do (me included) in the way they were taught. So my generation, Generation X, came to the seriousness about our mental health later in life. Most of us, anyway. When I look back, I can see I was probably a mildly anxious kid. But my life since I was a late teenager and beyond was filled with fear and my anxiety cut me off at the knees in my late 30’s. No one had ever told me about anxiety. No one talked about it ever. Like—not even in health class. HOW DO I KNOW WHAT THE COWPER’S GLAND IS BUT NOT KNOW THE BASIC FACTS ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS? I went to high school in the 80’s. Why were we not being taught these things? The answer is simple. No one knew to teach about these things yet. The people who made the classes were all Boomers or older. It wasn’t mean or bad, it was just the way things were.
But here we are now. We have a situation where 70% of teenagers who have a mental illness are undiagnosed and untreated. That is not good. We know better. Why aren’t we dong more?
Well, we are…in spots. At my teenager’s high school they are doing mental health screenings now. That’s good. But who is talking to them about emotions? Who’s being honest with them about how feelings really work? If their Gen X parents weren’t taught to reach out to therapists then will they take their teenager to a therapist?
In short, our attitudes about mental health move with each generation. But it’s hard to get older generations to move with us. So it’s a slow bus. Change is always a slow bus.
Oh boy. I kinda went off there.
But yeah, the book is about love. Not money. Because that’s what matters to me the most. Love. Not money. It’s why I write books, that’s for sure. If I was in it for the money, I’d have stopped long ago! I’m in it to pass on the love. Because someone out there needs the compassion of a book.
One of the funniest things I deal with as an author is this idea that my books aren’t “really” for teenagers. Adults talk about this right in front of me—they claim that my writing or my ideas are maybe too sophisticated or deep for teenagers. They couldn’t be more wrong. That said, my books, Dig included (or maybe more so), are not just for teenagers. They are also for adults. The idea for me has always been to bridge the gap between teenagers and adults so the conversations that need to happen can happen. How ironic, then, that some adults are reading my books and claiming that teens may not be sophisticated enough to read them as well. It’s as if I’m trying to trick adult readers into caring about themselves enough to be able to change their perception of teenagers and care about them, too.
Tay: The community between these five teenagers that develops seems key to the premise of Dig. And last time we talked a lot about the importance of stories about mental health and illness that make us feel less alone and the value of bridging adults and teens by having adults listen to teens and teens feeling like their concerns are taken seriously. But what about community? What is valuable about people coming together to share an emotional burden? And what advice would you give your teen readers who are looking for that sense of community and might find it in your writing, but want it in their own lives?
Amy: Community is a hard subject these days. The world is changing and we are connecting more and more through online mediums than at community meetings. For mental health, we have online forums and even online therapy now. It seems as if we area a sort of global community—and I’m not entirely sure how to find that feeling inside of everyday life in a singular town. Especially if one doesn’t drive or have access to public transport. And what of the large percentage of teenagers who don’t have Internet access at home? What is their place in that global community if they don’t have access to it and how can they make their own communities stronger if most of their peers are engaging online more than in person? These are questions, not answers.
My own connection to community happened when I reached out to a local organization that I cared about and I volunteered. I met people there and made friends. I helped people in the community while I did my work and it made me feel mentally healthier.
That was vague. So let me be specific. As a survivor, I’d always wanted to help other survivors. I had done my own work around my past and felt strong, but I didn’t feel strong enough to do some of the harder work around helping survivors like helplines or advocacy work in hospitals law enforcement. (Massive respect to people who do this work. Massive, maximum respect.) What I found was V-Day and The Vagina Monologues. I have stage fright so I never could do the acting part, but I could help get the show on stage and I could work alongside other survivors who felt the same way I did—that we were doing good and raising money for survivors in our community and for V-Day, so they could help survivors on the front lines.
When I first knew of the show, I didn’t think I wanted to see it because I knew it talked openly about rape. But when I worked with the show, I felt as if those seven days surrounding the show—the late nights designing programs and rehearsing and decorating—those seven days made me feel better about the other 359 days in my year. So on a larger community scale, these opportunities are out there. But they are also rare.
As for smaller communities—groups of teenagers in school, etc. I do not know how to get them talking about emotions or mental health. This would seem to me to be a wonderful solution to a lot of issues we’re having. I know of school group sessions for kids who have lost a parent or for kids going through divorce at home, and I am aware of GSA groups and other clubs and communities inside schools that help others and talk about their own lives while together. But I am not aware of groups specifically formed for the strengthening of mental health or emotional literacy.
Tay: One of the things that stands out to me most in the description for Dig is this implied notion of the corrosive quality of “politeness,” especially in affluent white culture. Can you discuss a little bit on how we can push beyond the boundaries of “politeness” to talk about the issues that matter and specifically how that might serve ongoing conversations about mental health?
Amy: Well, the politeness in (I’ll call it suburban vs. affluent) white culture generally is one of the reasons we’ve always had trouble talking about race. And here are teenagers who are in that culture, and who are thinking about race…and who are coming up against, for most of them, either parents who don’t talk about race, who are racists, or who talk openly about race and the white supremacy. You can imagine which of the teenagers, then, is a bit more stable when it comes to that particular conversation. (If you didn’t guess, it’s the one whose father talks openly about race.) But mental illness? Oh wow. I mean, that’s a serious blind spot for pretty much most of the adults I know. Denial is supposed to follow us through life, you know? Facing problems isn’t easy and it often takes us decades to see our own. And again—I was raised in a time when you didn’t really talk about those things. I was [accidentally] actively taught to ignore my own needs. I think that description fits a large percentage of people. So in that polite culture—how does one broach the idea that one may feel suicidal? If you can’t talk about race, rape culture, or reality, and the reaction of polite adults is to shush you, then when, exactly, is it going to be appropriate to say, “Hey—sometimes I feel like dying and I’m not sure who to talk to about it?”
Ignoring the mental health issues of teenagers (or anyone) is not polite at all. Same as being racist isn’t polite. It all lumps together in this weird white adult world where being polite actually means not talking about things that make other white people uncomfortable. Shutting up a human being and whispering “That’s not a polite thing to talk about” is quite the opposite of polite. It’s cruel—especially if a person is trying to tell you about their pain.
So wow, I guess the way to push past it is to…push past it. Make people uncomfortable. Why not? I mean, look around. Are other people going out of their way to make YOU comfortable? No. So why do it for them? Live your truest life and talk about what you need to talk about. If the people around you are too fragile to handle the truth of you, then reach out to people who get it. They’re out there.
In re-reading that last paragraph, I feel somewhat hypocritical. I certainly practice what I preach here in my books, but in real life, I’m still working on it. So, maybe that’s why I write books. Definitely. That’s definitely why I write books. I am reaching out to people who get it. (Or not being polite…you choose.)
Tay: This year for Shattering Stigmas, I’m thinking a lot about how we push the conversations we’ve been having about mental health in and out of the YA community forward and what’s the next step. Where do you think we go from here?
Amy: I think it’s time to start talking about toxic positivity culture. No one is happy all the time. I think it’s time to talk earnestly about privilege and open our minds to admitting that we have been wrong. Adults, I’m looking at you. The children are watching and learning from you, like you watched and learned from the adults around you. And yes, we ALL judge. We all have false perceptions of others. I think we need to talk about that basic reactive judging all of us do. Start a new sort of living. The last few decades, we had to catch up with the Internet and the constant media bombardment. Now, it’s time to find a way around it in order to stay connected to ourselves in a way that makes us responsible, compassionate beings who want to learn new things about ourselves and others.
We must keep the conversation open. Our minds open. Our hearts open.
Tay: Thank you for answering my questions and coming back to Shattering Stigmas, Amy!
Amy: Thanks for having me, Taylor. I really appreciate that you continue to keep this conversation open.
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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!