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#MHYALit Interview with HIGHLY ILLOGICAL BEHAVIOR author John Corey Whaley

The Teen and author John Corey Whaley

The Teen and author John Corey Whaley

Last night The Teen and I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing author John Corey Whaley. His most recent release, Highly Illogical Behavior, is the story of a teenage boy, Solomon, with agoraphobia and the teenage girl, Lisa, who wants to “cure” him so she can write a stellar essay and get herself into a prestigious psychology program. This is hands down one of my favorite reads so far of 2016.

The story came in part from Whaley’s own struggles with anxiety. He is a firm believer in write what you know and in this case he wrote what he was experiencing, though to a much lesser degree, to help him process where he was at and what he was dealing with. Although not agoraphobic himself, Whaley found himself struggling with intense anxiety and some panic attacks and he was increasingly cancelling plans and wanting to “hide from the world”.

Years ago Whaley wanted to write a love story about an agoraphobic boy who fell in love with a girl who hated to be indoors, so this seemed like a good time to revisit parts of that story. Gone was the love story, but the true heart of the story is found within this moving tale of what it’s like to be a teenage boy struggling with mental illness.

The Teen and Mary Hinson with their copies of HIGHLY ILLOGICAL BEHAVIOR

The Teen and Mary Hinson with their copies of HIGHLY ILLOGICAL BEHAVIOR

Solomon is a pop culture enthusiast who lives at home with his mother and father who are trying to let Solomon process his mental health issues in his own way and at his own pace. They are caring parents who are struggling to raise a child dealing with issues that most people can not understand unless they have some real life experience of the issue themselves. As Whaley reminds us all, although the diagnosis may be the same, people’s experience of mental health issues are personal and unique. One person’s experience of anxiety or depression can be very different from another persons. And what helps one person may not help another.

“This is a very personal story of one person’s survival with mental illness. This is not my treatise of mental illness, this is my way of adding one small sentence in the many conversations we are having about mental illness.” – JCW

Although Whaley did do some research, and of course he has his own experiences to draw from, he chose not to delve too deeply into the clinical aspect of mental illness because he wanted this book to be about a person first. It’s an important reminder to us all that a person with a mental illness diagnosis is not their diagnosis, they are a human being that also has a diagnosis that they are trying to deal with.

Author Julie Murphy interviews author John Corey Whaley at the Irving Public Library

Author Julie Murphy interviews author John Corey Whaley at the Irving Public Library

“It ‘s about telling a story that is emotionally nuanced and grounded in reality.” – JCW

The character of Lisa is a truly fascinating character, inspired in part by Track Flick from the book and movie Election. This is Whaley’s first female protagonist and he wanted her to be an exploration of ambition and the nature of ambition, in which I think he fully and interestingly succeeds. Lisa wants desperately to make sure she has a way out of the town and life she is living, and she is able to convince herself that she is helping not only herself but Solomon in the process. Of course most readers will know from the get go that her idea that she can “cure” Solomon is destined for failure; she may be intelligent, driven, passionate and even sincerely motivated, but she is still a high school girl who lacks the knowledge and experience to really counsel and cure a peer struggling with a severe mental health issue. But it is her journey that is often the most interesting part of Highly Illogical Behavior as she begins to realize that she may in face be in way over her head and comes to gain a better understanding of what it is truly like to live with agoraphobia.

“I like the idea of a strong female character driven by ambition but also one that is multi-layered and you find out that her ambition is somewhat justified when you meet her mother. She has deluded herself into thinking it is okay to advantage of Solomon if it ends up helping him in the end. If the end result is him being better, then how can it be a bad thing for him to do?” – JCW

Perhaps the most interesting part of the interview was a discussion about Stark Trek The Next Generation, which plays a pivotal part in this tale. You see, Solomon is quite invested in the show and it becomes an important bonding factor between Lisa’s boyfriend, Clark, and Solomon. Pop culture, Whaley points out, is where many people now bond and find their people. And since Solomon hasn’t left his home in three years, Whaley needed to find things that he could be emotionally invested in.

“That show, the entire series, is about exploring deep space to find out more about humanity; it’s going out to look inward. That’s exactly what Solomon can’t make himself do.” – JCW

I also realized during the course of this interview that this was the first time The Teen had been in a conversation with an openly out adult. Whaley talked about his partner and his partner’s support in both the interview and the book event itself. Whaley also discussed how he wanted Solomon to be gay but for this not to be a coming out story. He wanted Solomon to be a human being who was gay, who struggled with mental illness, and these were just parts of who he is and how he identifies himself. People are just people, not their labels, and our humanity is the one thing we all have in common.

“It’s 2016, there’s no place for shame for being who you are. If being who you are is someone who lives with mental illness and the more people who can expose the personal side of mental illness then the more people who are going to try to understand mental illness on a personal level. And this can change the way more broadly that it is treated and thought about.” – JCW

The entire journey ends in one of the most profound statements I have ever read about mental illness. Lisa does write her admission essay for the psychology program, but it is a very different letter then she thought she was going to write at the beginning of the book. And for me, that letter is everything.

“People with mental illness have to be the one to lead the push in talking about mental illness because we are the only ones who understand it the right way . . . Because we all experience it individually. Look at how big the DSMV is, it speaks to the very case by case, personal nature of mental illness.” – JCW

I actually discussed Highly Illogical Behavior last Friday as I think it is a profoundly important part of the #MHYALit discussion. Although Solomon’s story is about agoraphobia, many of the things that are said about mental illness and how we approach those among us who struggle with mental health issues apply broadly and are quite important and profound.

highlyillogicalbehavior2

While I was there talking with Whaley, I got him to sign a copy of the book which I am going to be giving away today. The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and will be open until Friday, May 27th. Do the Rafflecopter thingy to enter. Also, I live tweeted his discussion with Julie Murphy and you can read the Storified version of those tweets here.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

#MHYALit: Agoraphobia in YA Lit, THE OUTLIERS by Kimberly McCreight and HIGHLY ILLOGICAL BEHAVIOR by John Corey Whaley

Agoraphobia is an extreme type of anxiety that can result in panic attacks. It can become so extreme that people become unable to leave their houses and they stick to strict routines hoping to avoid triggering these panic attacks. Peanuts creator Charles Shulz, for example, suffered from depression and agoraphobia. Towards the end of his life his agoraphobia became so extreme that he built an ice skating rink near his home to write and he would walk the same, familiar path every day to this rink to write. The life of someone with agoraphobia can be very difficult to navigate and there are two recent YA titles that have recently been released dealing with this topic; I recently read them both.

theoutliersThe first is The Outliers by Kimberly McCreight. The Outliers is first and foremost a thriller with some sci fi overtones, and you should know that it has already been optioned for a movie production deal.

Although she hasn’t left her home in a few weeks now, Wylie receives a text from her friend, “Please Wylie, I need your help.” Then Cassie’s mom shows up asking if she knows where Cassie is. Soon Wylie and Cassie’s boyfriend are on the road trying to track Cassie down and save her from a terrifying fate. It is an edge of your seat thriller; I started reading it at around 9 o’clock one evening and didn’t stop until I put it down until about 1 the next morning when I had finished. It was an interesting premise with some unpredictable twists and turns (and a couple that I clearly saw coming). Though I’m not sure how I feel about it as an entry into the #MHYALit discussion.

In the beginning, I was very excited about the way Wylie’s mental health issues were discussed in The Outliers. For one, she clearly uses the word anxiety to discuss her anxiety and agoraphobia. When we were trying to come up with titles for our various #MHYALit book lists, which are currently in process, we noted that there weren’t many titles that actually used the word anxiety – and here was one that did, bonus! And I felt it was a pretty good description and representation of what anxiety can look and feel like. But as the mystery of what is happening begins to unfold, the mental health issue gets kind of clouded. Let me explain, and there will be spoilers here: it turns out that a small percentage of people have some special abilities – “heightened perceptive abilities” –  and Wylie is perhaps one of these people (which is super convenient because her scientist father is the one who discovers the outliers and it is his research that puts her in jeopardy). It is also suggested that her anxiety issues may be tied in with this special ability. So here we’ve taken a character with complex and well developed mental health issues and suggested that they may somehow be tied in with these other special abilities which are clearly in the speculative fiction realm and does nothing to normalize mental health issues. If anything, it kind of romanticizes them by suggesting that they are an indicator that she has some special abilities.

The other quibble that I had with The Outliers is that after McCreight establishes that Wylie hasn’t left the house in quite a while because of her anxiety/agoraphobia issues, she then leaves the house. It’s not easy for her to leave the house, but it is much easier than I have seen it portrayed in other media and it didn’t seem to fit in with what had already been established about Wylie’s struggles. But, this is not a realistic title dealing realistically with real life issues, it’s a science fiction thriller and on that level, it undoubtedly succeeds.

highlyillogicalbehaviorHighly Illogical Behavior by John Corely Whaley handles the topic of agoraphobia much more successfully in my opinion, but then it is also a contemporary fiction title. This title is arguably one of the best titles of 2016 and it is something every single person should read just for the end discussion about mental health issues. But let me start at the beginning.

Lisa is a high school student who wants desperately to get into a prestigious psychology program, which is why she has decided she will “befriend” the extremely agoraphobic Solomon and write about her experience for her entrance essay. Worst. Plan. Ever.

Solomon hasn’t left his house in three years. He lives with supportive but obviously deeply concerned parents and they are all trying to figure out how to not only deal with but how to help Solomon with his crippling mental health issues.

So Lisa and eventually her boyfriend Clark befriend Solomon, determined to “fix” him so that she can write her precious essay and get accepted into the school of her dreams. This is, as you can imagine, a very bad plan. Lisa and Clark are in no way equipped to help Solomon. And when Solomon learns the truth, it has devastating consequences for everyone.

There is a scene in which a beloved family member is hospitalized and Solomon tries to leave his house to visit her in the hospital. This scene was heartbreaking in every way and seemed a much more realistic depiction of what it is like for someone with extreme agoraphobia to try and leave their house. In fact, I have a family member with agoraphobia and I felt this was a pretty realistic and accurate depiction. Readers will leave this book having a better understanding of how limiting and devastating agoraphobia can be.

I was pretty angry with everything about this book for the first three-fourths of it. Lisa is a selfish young lady who is way in over her head and is clearly engaging in unethical behavior in the interest of reaching her personal goals. To say that I hated her would be an understatement, I loathed and detested her and wished bad things would happen to her. But as she immerses herself into Solomon’s world she comes to truly like him, she does in fact learn a lot about him and what it’s like to struggle with a mental health issue, and she does indeed write that psychology program entrance essay. This essay is everything. I want every teen, every adult, every person to read Lisa’ essay. What she says about how we as a culture treat and regard people with mental health issues is profound. I like what she says so much I screen capped the pages and texted them immediately to Ally and Amanda, my #MHYALit discussion partners. And their response to me was simply: Whoa.

I recommend both of these books, though for very different reasons. The Outliers is an engaging thriller, teens will read and enjoy it. Highly Illogical Behavior is a moving, compassionate story about a teen’s struggles with mental health issues and it challenges us all to think deeply about how we view mental illness, how we treat those who struggle with mental illness, and how we as a culture try to silence the discussion of mental health issues because they make us uncomfortable.

Publisher’s Book Descriptions

The Outliers by Kimbery McCreight

It all starts with a text: Please, Wylie, I need your help.

Wylie hasn’t heard from Cassie in over a week, not since their last fight. But that doesn’t matter. Cassie’s in trouble, so Wylie decides to do what she has done so many times before: save her best friend from herself.

This time it’s different, though. Instead of telling Wylie where she is, Cassie sends cryptic clues. And instead of having Wylie come by herself, Jasper shows up saying Cassie sent him to help. Trusting the guy who sent Cassie off the rails doesn’t feel right, but Wylie has no choice: she has to ignore her gut instinct and go with him.

But figuring out where Cassie is goes from difficult to dangerous, fast. As Wylie and Jasper head farther and farther north into the dense woods of Maine, Wylie struggles to control her growing sense that something is really wrong. What isn’t Cassie telling them? And could finding her be only the beginning? (HarperCollins, May 3)

Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

Sixteen-year-old Solomon is agoraphobic. He hasn’t left the house in three years, which is fine by him.

Ambitious Lisa desperately wants to get into the second-best psychology program for college (she’s being realistic). But how can she prove she deserves a spot there?

Solomon is the answer.

Determined to “fix” Sol, Lisa thrusts herself into his life, introducing him to her charming boyfriend Clark and confiding her fears in him. Soon, all three teens are far closer than they thought they’d be, and when their facades fall down, their friendships threaten to collapse, as well. (Dial Books, May 10)