Freshman Fifteens author Jen Brooks chatted with fellow Freshman Jasmine Warga to find out more about her forthcoming debut, My Heart and Other Black Holes (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, February 10, 2015).
Sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel is obsessed with plotting her own death. With a mother who can barely look at her without wincing, classmates who whisper behind her back, and a father whose violent crime rocked her small town, Aysel is ready to turn her potential energy into nothingness.
I’m getting higher and higher and I feel the swing set creak.
“Be careful,'” he says.
“Why?” I’m not thinking about being careful. I’m thinking about one last push, of letting go, of flying, and of falling.
‘”You aren’t allowed to die without me,” he whispers.
My Heart and Other Black Holes is about two teenagers who meet online with the intent of finding a suicide partner. What was the origin of your idea for this story?
This question is always so hard to answer. I guess the most honest answer is I’m not entirely sure. I started writing this book during a dark period in my life and I woke up one morning and had this voice in my head. I typed the sentence: “The way I figure it, everyone has a hobby and mine is planning my own death.” And everything else sort of flowed from there. That sentence is no longer the book’s first line—it actually doesn’t exist anywhere in the book—but it definitely was my gateway into Aysel and her mental state. I also think the book was born from thinking a lot about the darkness that exists inside all of us, and how as society we often refuse to acknowledge it. I was interested in how we bury so much inside ourselves and how we only rarely share those emotions with other people. I’m also fascinated by how certain people make us see ourselves differently, and furthermore, the gap that often exists between the way we see ourselves versus how other people in our lives see us. So I guess this book was a way for me to explore all that and more.
I have to admit that I was in tears while reading most of your novel. My heart simply broke for Aysel and all the pain she was feeling. What was it like for you to write her character? Did you find it more or less difficult to tell Roman’s likewise heartbreaking story since he was 1) a boy, and 2) not a POV character?
Well, thank you so much! I’m touched that you were that affected by Aysel’s story. To be honest, in some ways Roman’s story was even harder for me to tell because I had to dig deeper to understand him. Aysel came to me almost fully formed, but Roman was more of a mystery. I can’t say very much because I don’t want to reveal too many plot points, but Roman’s backstory almost hurts my heart even more than Aysel’s because of his very raw guilt.
Not only is the subject of depression a part of this book, but Aysel’s father commits an unspeakable crime as the result of mental illness. Do you have any training in the field of psychology? What kind of research did you have to do to write this book?
I definitely don’t! And I actually didn’t do much research, and instead I mostly wrote from my own emotional truth. Depression affects everyone differently, so I didn’t set out to write some sort of blanket or declarative statement about depression. Rather, I wanted to tell a story about people, real people, who happen to suffer from depression, both situational and chemical. I wanted to explore the murky boundaries between chemical and situational depression, as well as depression’s genetic legacy. That said, my editor did have the manuscript reviewed by a professional psychiatrist and we were both really pleased when the expert said that he found the book to be an accurate, authentic, and responsible depiction of depression and suicidal ideation.
What was your favorite scene to write in My Heart and Other Black Holes? and/or What scene was most challenging to write?
Oh, wow. I’m not sure. I think the most challenging part to write for sure was the ending. I rewrote it at least twenty times before selling the book, and my editor and I worked even more on it after that. My favorite scene? Probably Mike’s (Aysel’s little brother) birthday party. I felt really emotionally gutted while writing that scene and it made me think so much about family, especially the inherent bonds we have with our siblings. It surprised me while I was writing it, and surprise, I think, is one of the most rewarding feelings you can get while creating something.
Why do you write in the “contemporary” genre?
Oh, I don’t know! I want to write all types of things. This story in particular works as a contemporary novel since it’s about depression and love and identity and immigration and all of these things that are very rooted in our real, modern world. But I’m also very interested in playing around with all types of genre. To me, the story chooses the genre and I’m much more interested in story than I am in genre.
What books would you recommend to young adults looking for good stories in the contemporary genre?
Jandy Nelson! Both of her books—The Sky is Everywhere and I’ll Give You the Sun. Her writing is pure magic. I also love A.S. King’s work (do they count as contemporary? I know they have a surrealist quality to them…), Sherman Alexie, and Lauren Oliver (again, I know she writes in all sorts of genres, but her contemporary YA books are fantastic). My two favorite YA books as an actual teen were Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat and Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower And also everyone should read Natalie Standiford’s How to Say Goodbye in Robot.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Read! And walk my wild, crazy dog. And snuggle my precious cat. And drink too much coffee and wonder why I’m so terrible at yoga.
Who are some of your favorite authors? OR What are some of your favorite books?
Oh, well I named so many of my favorites in question #6. But other favorite authors include Junot Diaz and Margaret Atwood. I’m also obsessed with Adrienne Rich, Frank O’Hara, and Sylvia Plath’s poetry. And We Need to Talk About Kevin is a book I haven’t stopped thinking about since I read it, as is The Hours. Finally, I’m reading Americanah right now and I’m pretty sure it will go on my favorites ever list.
What has been your greatest challenge as you travel the road of traditional publishing? Your greatest reward?
I think my greatest challenge has been, and still is, staying out of my own head. I tend to second guess everything and so I’m constantly having to work on handling my own anxiety. My greatest reward has been getting to meet so many wonderful people–other writers, my brilliant editor, my wonderful agent–who all love books and have been so welcoming to me.
Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now?
Eee! I’m playing around with a bunch of things, but I guess in the most simple of terms the answer to the above question would be that I’m working on another dark love story. It’s still in such a fragile state that I don’t want to say too much and jinx it because I’m not entirely sure what it is yet.
What advice would you give to other writers? Anything specifically for teen writers?
Write! I know that sounds simple, but really that’s my advice. Write, write, write. Writing, like anything, is something you only get better at by doing all the time for a really long time. Also, take risks. Write the types of stories you wish you saw on the shelves and don’t worry so much about what other people will think about it. Remember you’re not only the story’s writer, but also the first reader. Write for your inner reader. Be vulnerable. Be honest.
If someone reading this interview is wrestling with the question of suicide, or knows or suspects that someone they know is wrestling with the question of suicide, where can they go for help?
First, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always open: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). I’m also a huge fan of the website/community, To Write Love On Her Arms. They do wonderful work and provide great resources. But most importantly, I think if you’re in that place, you need to find a way to verbalize how you are feeling to SOMEONE. Maybe that person is a friend, a parent, a guidance counselor, a teacher, a significant other–you need to find a way to communicate how you are feeling because sometimes just opening up about it makes all the difference.
Jasmine lives and writes in a small town a few miles outside of Cincinnati. She likes animals of all sorts (especially her cat Salvador and her puppy, Scout), surrealist sketches, iced coffee, the night sky, old swing sets, lemonade, and rainy mornings.