When your mom thinks she’s Amelia Earhart, navigating high school, first love, and family secrets is like flying solo without a map. Driver’s ed and a first crush should be what Alex Winchester is stressed out about in high school — and she is. But what’s really on her mind is her mother. Why is she dressing in Dad’s baggy khaki pants with a silk scarf around her neck? What is she planning when she pores over maps in the middle of the night? When did she stop being Mom and start being Amelia Earhart? Alex tries to keep her budding love life apart from the growing disaster at home as her mother sinks further into her delusions. But there are those nights, when everyone else is asleep, when it’s easier to confide in Amelia than it ever was to Mom. Now, as Amelia’s flight plans become more intense, Alex is increasingly worried that Amelia is planning her final flight — the flight from which she never returns. What could possibly be driving Mom’s delusions, and how far will they take her?
I had the pleasure of interviewing Annie, who is not only a brilliant writer but also my “agent-sister” with Taylor Martindale! I’ve been eagerly awaiting her book since Taylor shared the synopsis last year and thrilled to have finally read it and interview her. Below, she shares insights into her book and her thoughts on writing what you know.
Aisha: Your lovely debut novel is a coming of age story that deals with a teen, Alex, whose mother is suffering from mental illness. Specifically, Alex’s mother suddenly develops a delusional disorder where she thinks she is Amelia Earhart. How much research was involved in studying the disorder and Earhart before you ever put pen to paper?
Annie: The very early writing process started without a lot of research, mostly because I had no idea what the story was going to be, what Alex’s mom was going through, and how big a role Amelia Earhart would play. At that point, I thought I was just writing a short story, but soon it became clear I needed to write something longer. With that in mind, I started doing research on Amelia Earhart (mostly to get her general timeline down and find cool details from her life that might connect with Alex’s mom) and delusional disorders and the stress experienced by family members of people with mental health issues. Everyone’s experience with mental health is different, so I didn’t want this to become a book “about mental health.” I tried to get inspiration resources I looked up, but I very much wanted this to be a particular family’s story.
Aisha: This novel is very compelling as we see things through the eyes of Alex who has to grow up quickly as her mother battles mental illness. What made you decide to write this novel as YA from the child’s perspective as opposed to from the father or the mother herself?
Annie: I’ve always been really intrigued by the teen perspective, even when I was writing more general literary fiction stories. Teens are already under so much pressure and trying to figure out who they are and how they interact with the world, which I find fascinating inspiration for stories. For THE CHANCE YOU WON’T RETURN in particular, the idea started with the line “my mother thinks she’s Amelia Earhart.” I wanted to find out not only what was going on with the mother, but also what that meant for her daughter. I wanted to explore a story of someone who’s suddenly required to take on a lot of responsibility in an uncertain family situation—the kind of responsibility she usually wouldn’t be required to take on at her age.
I never really considered writing the book from Alex’s dad’s or mom’s perspective. The writing process involved a lot of figuring out what Alex’s mom was going through, what pain she was in and how her brain was trying to protect itself against that pain. I don’t know if I would have gotten to the same place trying to approach it from her (emotionally guarded) perspective. And even though Alex’s dad is in a tough situation as he tries to hold the family together, as a parent and spouse he experiences the role of caregiver differently than Alex does, who never expected to be in this kind of situation.
Aisha: Early on in the novel, Alex is chatting with Jim, the boy she likes, about art. Jim jokes that he admires the artist Banksy but would change his mind if Banksy went crazy and cut his ear off Van Gogh style. This exchange reminded me about how mental illness is used so prevalently in daily conversation as a joke, calling people ‘crazy’ or ‘bipolar’ or ‘OCD’ is often thrown around in jest regularly. The conversation of course affected Alex a bit more than it would a regular teenager. Did you write such a moment so teenagers could consider the words they say?
Annie: I hope readers consider these phrases more often. It’s easy to say things like “Oh, man, that was so crazy” or “I’m so OCD about that!” but so often we don’t acknowledge the baggage that comes with these words or phrases. I know I still fall into that trap, too. But I think the more you think about what other people could be dealing with and how these words carry a lot of weight in our society, the more likely you are to have sympathy for people who are dealing with some kind of mental health issue. Like Jim, you never know what the person you’re talking to might be dealing with.
Aisha: On that note, Alex feels like she has to hide her mother’s illness even from her friends. She seemed to have really good friends but she chose to distance herself rather than lean on them as she so badly needed to. Did you find that kids who are struggling with this tend to not tell anyone what they are dealing with?
Annie: It definitely varies from person to person, but I know a lot of people who kept their family situations private. That’s a totally valid choice and it can take a lot for kids to admit that their home life is kind of unstable, even to their close friends. It’s difficult to talk about, especially for kids and teens, who already feel so much pressure to be ‘normal.’
Since the book has come out, people have told me that they appreciated the book dealt with that kind of distance and secrecy because they had similarly hard times talking about their home situation to their friends as teens. I feel so honored that people have shared these experiences with me, and I hope other readers can see they’re not alone, even if they’re not ready to share that kind of information with their friends yet.
Aisha: In my research on YA books, I haven’t seen many that delve into the effects of living with someone with mental illness. Have you also found the same?
Annie: I haven’t either, but I know there are several good ones out there. I just read SAVING FRANCESCA by Melina Marchetta, which is a phenomenal novel dealing with a mother’s depression. More recently, THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY by Laurie Halse Anderson deals with a father’s PTSD. I’m really glad to see such amazing authors like Marchetta and Anderson tackle these kinds of situations, and I hope more authors share these stories.
Aisha: Were you met with any push back from publishers or editors regarding tackling this difficult topic?
Annie: Fortunately, agents and publishers were always generally positive about the ‘mental illness in the family’ topic. I think they recognized that there’s an audience for this kind of story and that so many people deal with mental health issues, either personally or seeing a loved one deal with them. Even more fortunately, my agent and editor were always very supportive of tackling this issue and making sure all the characters were treated sensitively.
Aisha: So often writers are encouraged to write what they know, as a writer delving into a subject matter that you are [thankfully] personally not afflicted with, did you have any concerns?
Annie: I still do! Even though I know people who deal with mental health issues and people whose parents have mental health issues, I still worry that I didn’t “get it right.” But mental health issues varies dramatically from person to person, even under the same diagnosis, maybe there’s no way to “get it right.” I do hope that readers will feel that I wanted to present a particular family’s situation as sensitively as possible.
Aisha: What advice would you give to writers who are steering off the “write what you know” oft-quoted advice and writing what their heart compels them to?
Annie: I think “writing what you know” is a total cop out. While we definitely need to highlight more diverse authors who can bring their personal experiences to books, other authors don’t get a pass just because they haven’t lived a particular experience. It’s scary and difficult to write from another perspective, but we all have a responsibility to share a multitude of different stories. For those of us who don’t have those personal experiences, that means doing research and talking to people who have had these experiences and asking (thoughtful, appropriate) questions and acknowledging that you don’t know everything.
Aisha: I saw in your acknowledgements that your husband is a playwright! How is it to have a spouse who is also in the creative writing area?
Annie: It’s great! Okay, so I love him and am totally biased, but I absolutely love being married to another writer. It means our careers are a little more unstable than most, but it also means that we both understand that writing is hard and it’s work and sometimes it means that you have to go into another room and not talk to your partner for a while. We also bounce ideas off each other and give each other feedback. It’s also nice that we write in entirely different genres—there’s no sense of weird competition between us.
Aisha: What authors inspire your writing journey?
Annie: So many! I only recently started reading Melina Marchetta’s books, but I’m in awe of how she can combine humor and grief and joy and everything in between. I also love how Lois Lowry and M.T. Anderson can write in so many different genres—historical, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.—and craft amazing stories in every single one. I’m also inspired by my fellow debut authors. Everyday they’re working hard and encouraging each other and putting out amazing books. I’m so glad to be a part of such an awesome collection of authors.
Aisha: What’s next for Annie Cardi?
Annie: Hopefully more YA novels! I’m working on my second book, which is also about family dynamics and identity, but (hopefully) it’s a much more comic novel. I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can, because it’s pretty much all I want to do with my time. That and sharing hilarious gifs on Twitter, of course.
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Annie Cardi holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College and a BA from the University of Virginia. Her short stories have appeared in The Georgetown Review, Vestal Review, Juked, and other publications. In 2011, PEN New England selected her as a winner of the Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award for the manuscript that would become her debut young adult novel, The Chance You Won’t Return. Annie lives near Boston with her husband and a portrait of a sea captain. You can find her sharing funny gifs and pictures of corgis at: Blog Facebook Twitter Tumblr.