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July 4, 2018
WOTS is coming up fast…but just not fast enough! So we’re joining the Dufferin Grove Farmers’ Market with The Word On The Street Pop-Up! We sat down with Star Spider, who will be joining us to read at the event.
Be sure to join us there on July 5!
WOTS: First off, let’s talk about the title: Past Tense. Obviously, this at least in part refers to Julie’s mother—but how did it come to you, and what does it mean for Julie, as she copes through the story? Does it tie in with teenage experience at all—how we all grow up, and sometimes leave our old selves behind?
Star Spider: This story was originally very different. It started as an adult novel called Nil, and the main protagonist was the person who suffered from the mental health issue that Julie’s mom suffers from. I got halfway through before I realized that it’s not very dynamic to write a story from the perspective of someone who believes she’s dead. There is an element of repetitiveness, obsession, and depression that comes with the delusions that ended up making the character one dimensional and difficult to connect with. So I put the book aside and reconsidered it for about three months. Then I sat down one day to write again, and Past Tense was born.
As you said, obviously the title refers to Julie’s mom’s disorder, but I love the idea of it representing coming of age too, and our journey through time. We spend most of our time thinking about ourselves in past (or future) tense and the present often eludes us. Our memories and our histories make us who we are, and that transition from childhood to adulthood is such a fragile, beautiful and sometimes traumatic time. I can see how the title could honour Julie’s transition and, in a way, all of our transitions, no matter our age.
WOTS: Being dead-while-alive is a topic you see a lot in academic theory, but not so often in books. How did Julie’s mom’s conviction that she’s dead come to you, and what did it mean to you as you wrote this book? What do you want your readers to take away?
SS: Full disclosure, I’m not familiar with the dead-while-alive academic theories (although it all sounds very interesting). In terms of Olive’s conviction that she’s dead, it was a little less from theory and more from reality. Cotard’s delusion is a rare mental illness that so few people have suffered from, there is not much in the way of case studies or other information to draw from. It is possibly related to major depressive disorder and/or schizophrenia (although not enough is known about it to say for sure). I found it on a list of ‘weird mental health disorders’ (admittedly clickbait) and it caught my attention immediately. It was listed next to clinical lycanthropy (a delusional belief that the sufferer is a werewolf) which, come to think of it, could also be an interesting story.
As for what it means to me, mental health issues mean a lot to me personally as I am bipolar and I have always had an interest in the human mind (which I am now pursuing as a psych undergrad at Ryerson). More than any metaphor that Olive’s delusions might conjure, the main hope for me, when writing about mental health issues, is that teens (and adults) feel less alone, and are aware that they don’t have to take everything on themselves. I share my own struggles as publicly as I can for that reason too. Our mental health system isn’t by any means perfect, but if you are persistent (which, unfortunately, some people can’t be [when] in the depths of depression for example—which I have experienced first hand), there is help to be found.
WOTS: Tell us a bit about your process. How did you start writing? Do you have any favourite stories about when you were just starting out?
SS: I have written my whole life. From unpublished teenage love poetry to travel logs to an epically bad Harlequin romance in my teens/early twenties—to a published author of short stories, poetry, non-fiction and novels today. For most of my twenties I was in an abusive relationship that sapped not only my spirit, but also my creativity, and created an unintended hiatus from writing. It was a gap that divides my life in a strange way, when I escaped my situation and experienced a relieved outpouring of words, that ultimately led to me deciding to commit myself to becoming a published author. In terms of favourite stories about my writing, I would definitely count that as high on my list, because I think it really illustrates the quiet, persistent, interminable boundlessness of the creative spirit.
As for my process, most of it exists in my mind. I don’t usually outline, but just do a lot of wandering and thinking and talking to my husband (who is an amazing storyteller/video editor/dungeon master). Then I sit down to write and, quite often, if all the stars align, it is a quick process to get a first draft down. Then comes the hard part—the editing. I have also begun to research more for future books as I delve deeper into my psych schooling and learn new skills to help me (hopefully) make the issues I write about as authentic as possible.
WOTS: What are your favourite places to write? Any quirky must-haves when it comes to sitting down and building out a story?
SS: I love to write in my backyard. Or at cafes. Or at bars. I like to keep it fresh and only work at my desk when I absolutely have to. As for quirky must-haves, although I wouldn’t describe this as quirky, I must be in a certain state of mind to create. My bipolar, when not properly managed, becomes the greatest threat to my productivity and creativity. When I am in a depressive state, I have trouble getting out of bed and doing everyday tasks—never mind writing a book. And when I am in a manic state I tend to fly off the handle and take on grand projects that have absolutely no alignment with my interests and life goals (the last time that happened I decided I wanted to be an astrophysicist—despite not having progressed beyond grade ten math when I was in high school).
People often have this dreamy, romanticized idea about mental illness in relation to creativity. Especially with bipolar. They imagine this deep, suffering artist writing their heart out about love and loss in the depths of depression. Or a manic writer producing endless works with great speed and insight. While I suppose this can be true in some cases, suffering just doesn’t really work for me as an artist. If I want to be truly productive and creative, I need my mood to be balanced and managed. That’s a big ask though sometimes. Luckily I’m getting better at recognizing the signs in myself and I have good supports in place to catch me when I fall, or tie a string to my toe in case I fly too high.
WOTS: What would you say to a writer who’s just starting out? What one thing do you think it’s crucial to know?
SS: Art is a beautiful thing. It can wrench our souls, make us laugh and fill us with wonder. It’s good to hold onto the things you love about writing as you make your way through the world, and it’s even better to have passion projects that really reflect you, and really inspire you, especially if you decide to brave the wild world of publishing. The reason I say this is because becoming a published author is a business, just like any other—and that is good to know that going in.
When I first wrote Past Tense, I considered it my baby. I wanted to hold on tight to it, and got touchy when people wanted to change anything about it. But slowly, over time, I realized that when you are writing any kind of work you want to be paid for, it is a collaborative process and a business endeavour. You are essentially starting a company. You are an entrepreneur. And a good entrepreneur knows their product doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I have always been an entrepreneur, since I started my first company in high school throwing raves for charity. Later I started an event planning company, then created a company with my husband doing video editing. And then I became an author. The similarities in all these endeavours are striking.
So here’s the real advice. Be a good business person. Always answer emails quickly and politely. Meet your deadlines. Never talk back rudely (especially in the face of rejection—the publishing world is smaller than you think). Listen to your editors, they will help you polish your book into something shining and golden. Pick your battles. Fight only for the darlings you absolutely can’t bear to kill. Be enthusiastic, grateful and courteous. I know this sounds boring. I know this may even sound crass, “but my art!” you might say. Yes. Art is wonderful. Art is deep and meaningful and profound. And your art can stay that way. It will stay that way. Just don’t be so precious about it that you alienate the people who will help bring your art to the world.
WOTS: In early reviews, some readers are finding Julie’s relationship with Lorelei hard to read—they’re uncomfortable with how Julie is treated, and struggle with not being able to connect with Lorelei. What place do you think “unlikeable” characters have in the YA canon?
SS: One of the best pieces of feedback I have received was a rejection from a magazine that I submitted a short story to in my early days of looking to publish my work. The story was written from the perspective of an absolutely intolerable kid who worked at an aquarium. Over the course of the story he changed and came to see the error of his bad-attitude ways when he met a talking fish who he fell in love with. But the editor of this particular magazine didn’t read that far. They sent me an email saying they had to stop reading almost immediately because ‘they had met kids like this jerk before and they had no time for their stories or negativity’ (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point).
I was upset at first, but then completely flattered. They had referred to my character as though he was a real person and they felt an utter revulsion towards him. I had created a strong, intense reaction from a person towards a character that I knew to be repulsive. I was really pleased. I never went on to publish the story, but I still love it to this day because it was the first moment I really felt like I had created something real.
I feel the same way about Lorelei. She’s not a likeable character, and that’s the point. Some people in our lives just become villains. Whether it is from our own perspective or a more objective villainy, it’s important (in my opinion) that we are exposed to people who make us feel that way. In small ways I hope Lorelei showed she was a human. Her momentary lapses in self-esteem or her choice (or lack of choice?) to engage in a dangerous, unhealthy relationship. To me, it’s the small things we must be vigilant to look for, that allow us to see the vulnerable, human cracks in the people we most dislike. Everyone has a story, a reason they are the way they are, and I think it’s important to represent all of that in teen fiction.
WOTS: Some readers weren’t sure if your book was magical or not—they got the sense that Julie’s mom’s “death” might be a bit of fabulism. In the end, they realize it’s pure contemporary. What do you think of this liminality, between real and unreal, in your book?
SS: I love this. Fabulism is actually my favourite thing to write. I have written short stories about girls who turn into meadows, girls who eat the world, boys who fall in love with talking fish, kids who make best friends out of soil. Contemporary fiction is actually a bit of a departure from the norm for me. In fact, Past Tense, in it’s original iteration (Nil) was meant as a fabulist book. I imagined what might happen to someone who has Cotard’s delusion if it went a little further. I had my character become a full-blown superhero, as she was so convinced she was dead that she didn’t care for her body and put herself in harm’s way to save other people. You can see this reflected a little bit in my final version of Past Tense, but it was much more obvious before. I definitely like the direction the book ultimately went, but I like the idea that people might consider the possibility that the book is fabulist.
I think my love for fabulism stems from my interest in psychology. There is a pretty rich opportunity for metaphor we can find in that space between magic and disorder. Ultimately, there is so much that is still mysterious and unknown about the way our minds work, and with care and a light artistic touch, I hope the stories I produce can touch the out-of-the-ordinary world of mental health in ways that can bring us closer to empathy and understanding.