The Big Idea: Karen Healey
Posted on September 22, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 12 Comments
The unexpected: When it happens in books, it’s interesting. When it happens in real life it’s interesting too, although not always in the same way. During the writing of her highly praised novel The Shattering (“an intense and powerful novel,” wrote Publishers Weekly, in a starred review), author Karen Healey found herself captivated by the unexpected — both in how it affected the characters in her books, and how she found it suddenly having its effects in her own life.
I didn’t set out to monetize my crazy.
I didn’t even know I was crazy.
I was just lying in bed one morning, idly thinking through all the things that might happen that day and working out how to deal with them, reminding myself that I had to restock the painkillers in my go-bag and check the expiry date on my emergency kit water bottles, and rehearsing my parents’ eulogies just in case I would be called upon to make them at short notice, when I had my Big Idea for my second novel.
“Hey!” I thought. “What if there was a character who plans the way I do for horrible events that might happen? And something happens that she hasn’t planned for! Something awful, something really awful. A dead parent?
“No, Karen, everyone plans for that, don’t be silly, what’s something they don’t plan for? A sibling’s death? A sibling who commits suicide unexpectedly? Hmm. Her older brother killed himself with her father’s shotgun, and she hadn’t planned for it, and it’s upset her entire world.
“But! What if someone tells her it was actually murder? What if she had a plan to deal with murder, one that involved finding out who it was, and revenging herself on them? Okay, but why would someone suspect a murder – unless something similar had happened to them. Maybe there’s a whole bunch of unexpected suicides that aren’t. Of older brothers.
“And what if the murders don’t have natural causes? What if something sinister and supernatural is going on that a logical approach to a rational world can’t deal with? Oh wow, that would be so rough on someone who needs to plan for everything.”
I figured out most of the plot while I was lying in bed that morning. It all came from that first Big Idea, of someone who planned and prepared for horror, and was horrified when plans and preparation weren’t enough.
Someone like me.
But of course Keri wasn’t really like me. She was a biracial teenager from a low-income family who wasn’t afraid of physical violence and loved sports. I was a white woman in my late twenties who shied away from physical confrontation and thought that sports were doubtless very nice for those who enjoyed them. I had far more in common with the other two narrators; smart, book-loving Sione and showy, confident Janna.
Months later, well after I’d completed the first drafts, I ended up in a counsellor’s office. I’d spent weeks unable to sleep properly. I was afraid of everything: afraid of flying; afraid that my friends and family would die; afraid that I would be kicked out of university for being stupid; afraid that my first book was incredibly racist and would hurt people; afraid of earthquakes and fires and floods; afraid that every choice I had made to bring me to this point was wrong.
Twisting my hands together, I confessed to a nice woman that I thought I might have generalized anxiety disorder. (I’d looked it up beforehand. It’s important to be prepared!)
She agreed, gently, that I might.
Unlike anyone who’d spent much time around me prior to that point, I was genuinely shocked.
It wasn’t that I thought mental disorders were nonsense. My youngest brother has anxiety and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with autistic tendencies, and many friends have been diagnosed with clinical depression or bipolar disorder. When people implied that depression could be defeated by cheering up and getting a hobby, or that ADHD was caused by bad parenting, I got rightfully riled.
But when it came to the disjointed state of my own brain, surely it wasn’t a genuine problem, right? I really wasn’t trying hard enough! If I could stop being so lazy and think things through more carefully and make a stronger effort to be a better person, then I could control everything and the feeling of being constantly overwhelmed would just go away.
I can’t control everything. I can’t make myself neurotypical through sheer willpower. And no matter how hard I plan or how many preparations I make, the unexpected will always, eventually, happen.
It probably won’t involve black magic, though, which is an advantage I have over Keri.
The Shattering is a book about families; about the ones we are born into, and the ones we make, and the ones that make us. It’s a book about small town communities, about the steps adults will take to keep children safe, and the steps teenagers will take to make adults do the right thing. It’s a book about the cost of magic, and the clashes of cultural identity, and the sheer, terrifying beauty of New Zealand’s West Coast.
It’s also a book about what can happen if your conception of your town, your family, and your self is shattered.
And it’s about what you can do with the pieces afterwards.
I kind of lied up there; my Big Idea wasn’t really the point where Keri’s preparation for the worst failed to be enough. I began the book after her brother’s suicide, when the shattering of her world had already taken place.
What was most interesting to me, and I hope, interesting to my readers, is what she and her friends did next.
The Shattering: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.
Karen’s talked about having an anxiety disorder here, which is both interesting and somewhat brave to do in a space that’s not her own. Do me a favor and should you have the thought to make a snark about “crazy,” keep it in the inside of your brain, please. It’ll make me happy if you do that.
I’ve read The Shattering and even though I’m not a member of its target audience (being over 50 does that) it’s absolutely made of win. Karen Healey does a fantastic job with her three main characters. They could just walk off the page, just like the ones in her first novel, Guardian of the Dead. And kudos to Karen for writing a story for teens which deals with suicide, queerness, anxiety disorders and bullying without being preachey about any of them. That one of her characters is based on her own reality is not terribly surprising to me. The old cliche about writers – that they should write what they know – wouldn’t be a cliche without it being true at least part of the time. That Karen “outed” herself as a person with anxiety disorder is the surprising and very brave thing. Thank you very much and I can’t wait for the next book.
This looks like a really interesting book, and I appreciate the disclosure about anxiety disorder; I have experience of it myself (it’s surprisingly common). Any book that manages intelligently to draw upon this – as sounds to be the case – has to be worth a try.
John: Thank you. Too many people still use “crazy”, “loony”, etc as a pejorative, in much the same way that “gay” was (still is? I would hope not!) used as a pejorative in the 80s. Mental illness is still highly stigmatized, which makes it that much harder for the people affected to search out the help they need. People with mental illness don’t ask to be born that way, and they don’t deserve to be scorned, shunned and ridiculed for something they can’t control. Kudos to you for making it clear you won’t put up with that type of conduct on this thread.
I’ve talked about having anxiety before, although admittedly always in spaces under my control, and I’m not it’s really all that brave. Although I’m generally terrified of everything, so my metrics on “brave” are not to be trusted! I’m very glad you liked the books.
You had me at “New Zealand’s West Coast”.
It’s amazing country. I’m from North Otago myself, but the women in my family took a roadtrip across the island, and from Greymouth to Karamea, so that I could do my landscape research.
The more I hear about this book, the more I’m excited about reading it!
Hurrah for a New Zealander! North Otago is also lovely country. I’m from Christchurch, which is probably not good for GAD these days!
I pre-ordered from Amazon for the US release and I’m also along with Melissa, (being, moreso, a +50 SWM who happens to be en eldest son with younger sibs) not of the soi-disant target audience, perhaps of the **publishers** — not unless Karen’s target were “readers who enjoy well-done story-telling” — which struck a bull’s-eye with me.
Karen unleashes some very strong and very right moves — in a Fred Astaire just-found-some-firecrackers-in-my-pocket fashion — in this gripping yet thoughtful tale. In the first few pages, Karen reminded me of when my younger brother the fledgling wire-walker fell cheek-first against the top of our picket fence when I was seven, he six, and the gap in my otherwise acute visual memory.
Now go hence and buy The Shattering. I tell thee three times.
When you’re finished, go check Karen’s LiveJournal for “What Happened After There and Back Again”.
Adding to the “this is a fantastic novel” chorus.
Karen’s character work is always brilliant, but she really nails this one. All three leads are engaging, distinctive, flawed individuals who really grow in the course of the novel. They’re smart and tough and they face up to their fears (they take after their author, obviously). She also writes landscapes very well, capturing the essence of a locale, and the way place and people interact.
Seriously, ignore the YA Label – if you’re in the least inclined to let that sort of thing bother you. Target audience shmarget audience, it’s a GOOD BOOK.
(Interesting to see the US cover too – I think I prefer the Australian one)
I just want to say, thank you for making yourself so vulnerable on The Interwebz. As a fellow Person With Anxiety and author, I was happy to see how your anxiety worked with your writing– particularly how you situate your character right at the point at which her neuroses fail her. (What an uncomfortable position to be in! And a perfect one, for characters and people alike.)
I’m excited to read. Good luck!