October 19, 2017

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The Debut: Evan Roskos’s ‘Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets’

Dr Birds Advice for Sad PoetsFeeling a little depressed? James Whitman might recommend that you yawp more. Inspired by the bard who shares his last name, James uses poetry to help him deal with his mentally and physically abusive parents and stave off thoughts of suicide. He seems to have always been depressed, but it is so much worse now that his beloved older sister Jorie has been kicked out of the house. Dr. Bird, James’s human-size pigeon therapist, provides counsel to him, but progress is slow. Then a bright shining light named Beth King walks into his life, and maybe, just maybe, James can find a reason for being alive. Author Evan Roskos digs deep into real-life adolescent issues in Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets, including high school expulsion, self-abuse, stalking, and cliques. SLJTeen asked Roskos to talk a bit more about his emotionally moving and ultimately redemptive debut YA novel.

Jorie is already living elsewhere when the story starts. While the reader gets introduced to Jorie through James, it soon becomes apparent that he doesn’t really know that much about her. It’s ironic that Mrs. Yao, a teacher who “is trying to stay invisible,” is the person that knows Jorie’s darkest secret.

In a parallel universe, I’ve likely written a book about Mrs. Yao. She only has a short amount of page-time, but she’s a crucial representation of how teachers can’t always absorb everything students throw at them even if they want to. My good friend and author, Matthew Quick, has discussed the emotional toll teaching can take on people and, while I’ve never taught in a high school classroom, even at the college level it can be a challenge. Students will share their anxieties, they will need help, they will need advice or someone to say things will be okay. It’s difficult to be that one person for so many without falling into their emotional turmoil.

When James realizes he must see a human therapist, he knows he needs to ask his parents to pay for it. When he tells them “I have anxieties,” his father’s response is “Don’t we all.” How important is it in the story that James must find a way to get to therapy, no matter what?

I think it’s very important to the story for both a boring reason and a profound, character-based reason. First, boring: the plot needs obstacles. If his parents pay for it, then he doesn’t need a job, he doesn’t feel as much pressure, etc. This isn’t to say a book with supportive parents, like Ned Vizzini’s novel (It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Miramax, 2007), for instance, can’t work. But James has to learn to stand up for himself, to take his mental health into his own hands. Further, he’s not going to succeed by doing this alone, which is why I am so pleased by the reviews and responses that highlight how the novel doesn’t provide easy answers. I believe great stories don’t provide easy answers. So, while James believes he can help himself, he still has to accept the help of others. Success requires both internal and external assistance.

In real life, things are a bit different. There might be legal obstacles to getting into therapy without parental consent, especially if suicidal tendencies are involved—but I was less concerned with the legal reality of our world and more with the test of James’s character. What would James do to save himself? What would convince him he has to survive? He doesn’t simply do it—Jorie is his guide and her well-being, not simply his, becomes the goal. And in the end, without spoiling anything, he learns his true responsibility.

James becomes obsessed with convincing the principal to allow Jorie to come back and finish high school. His parents are of no help, and neither is the administration. I thought of Don Quixote.

I like the comparison though Don Quixote wasn’t in my mind as I wrote! If anything, Douglas Coupland’s novel Life After God (Washington Square,1995) influenced me. It’s one of my favorite of his pieces. It’s not quite a novel. It’s sort of a short story collection. While the central focus is not mental illness, it explores depression, anxiety, alienation, loneliness in a way that is electric.

James goes to the mat for his friend Derek when the older woman Derek is having an affair with seems to be cheating on him. How did that whole turn of events come to you?

Derek began as kind of a jerk as I drafted the novel. Then, I realized that Derek was doing his best to help James without really knowing what James was going through. James doesn’t actually open up about how he’s feeling to Derek, yet calls Derek his best friend. When Derek gets James a job, it’s a huge favor (it gets James out of the house). And I didn’t even plot it out ahead of time. I wanted James to get out of the house, too!

More importantly, when James screws that job up, he needs to face the consequences. And it causes James to appreciate his friend in a new way. So, when James helps Derek out in that somewhat over-the-top manner, it’s a great juxtaposition to the way Derek has slowly, subtly helped James.

Beth King is like pure oxygen for James. She’s adorable, smart, and loves poetry. He can hardly believe it when they become friends. She’s a very different sort of woman than the others in James’ life.

Beth was a tricky character to write. I’m not sure she totally comes through with depth until the scene in the restaurant that James thinks is a date. She’s sort of aware that James has an issue, but she has no idea what to do to help him. So when she agrees to go to this restaurant she’s doing what James and Jorie both do: they try something. It’s an attempt with only the knowledge that trying something is better than nothing. It’s her way of reaching out a hand. She’s letting James know that he’s being heard.

Sadly, James interprets it as romantic not platonic, but, again, OBSTACLES!

I found the scene where James picks up tiny pieces from a broken dish (thrown by his mother) to be very Zen. Does this signal a major turning point for him?

For me it absolutely does and I am very glad you cite it as a Zen moment. Symbolic interpretations abound in this moment, but at the very least I want people to understand that James cannot be easily fixed, but he’s going to be okay. Especially if he can slow down time or his sense of time rushing forward. Look at it this way: he sees the broken pieces and he can pick them up. But only one at a time, and gently. Very gently.

Of course, ending the novel in that moment would’ve been too solitary; I planned all along to end the novel with a song of celebration similar to the song-of-self opening chapter. So we get two moments at the end: the solitary moment and the celebratory song of connection. The interior and the exterior. This time James is blasting positivity outward, into the world, because he’s got some joy to spare.

Evan Roskos

Photo: Catherine VanCuren

Evan Roskos completed his MFA at Rutgers University–Newark in 2009, and currently lives in Collingswood, New Jersey. He was named one of Narrative’s 20 Best New Writers, and has had stories in Best Fiction, StoryQuarterly, and other literary journals. Visit his blog at www.evanroskos.blogspot.com.

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Dodie Ownes left the glamorous world of retrospective conversion and disco to jump on the library vendor train. Since then, she has been learning at the feet of the masters about all things library. Dodie lives in Golden, Colorado, where even the sign which arches the main street says "Howdy."

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