June 22, 2017

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Jennifer Yu on Mental Health, Writing, and Her Debut “Four Weeks, Five People”

Through the alternating perspectives of five teens brought together at a summer camp for young people with mental health issues, Jennifer Yu’s Four Weeks, Five People (Harlequin Teen; May 2, 2017) honestly tackles tough topics, such as suicide, anorexia, and depression. The debut author chats with SLJ about her inspiration for the work, her writing process, and what she’s working on next.

What inspired you to write Four Weeks, Five People?

I wrote the opening pages of Four Weeks, Five People the summer after my freshman year of college after one of my friends challenged me to write a story set at summer camp from different perspectives. (I know. He basically did all of the hard work for me!) That same day, I sat down and wrote Stella’s opening monologue. Then I saved the Word Doc, went to get coffee with a friend, and forgot all about it. I left those pages on my hard drive, unopened, for almost two years.

It wasn’t until junior year, when I took a creative writing class that focused on middle grade and young adult novel writing, that I revisited Camp Ugunduzi.

By junior year’s fall [semester], mental health problems that I had been dealing with since high school had come to dominate my life. The previous semester, I had withdrawn from a class and nearly taken a leave of absence from school. I had gone to individual counseling, about 10 hours of mandated group therapy a week (“I try to think of it as any other extracurricular,” I told my friends), and had monthly check-ins with the university and my parents. Unable to understand why this all was happening to me, frustrated at my inability to mentally will myself into a better place, and not yet ready to face the reality of my situation head-on, I did the only thing that I could to escape: I wrote.

This [novel] is not autobiographical, but I do believe that [it] was shaped by my experiences with mental illness and group therapy. I doubt I would have written a story about five very different teenagers confronting very different problems, seemingly united only by their shared disdain for the situation that their parents\teachers\therapists have hoisted upon them, were it not for the many hours I spent sitting in rooms with very comfortable couches discussing very uncomfortable topics with veritable strangers (some of whom eventually became very good friends!).

You tackle issues of mental health from the perspective of five different teens. What kind of research did you have to conduct?

The hardest part of writing Four Weeks, Five People, by far, was balancing the desire to do enough research to write a fair and accurate representation of what someone struggling with mental illness might experience at a camp like Ugunduzi with the knowledge that it would be impossible to capture everyone’s experience of every mental illness. And that is a scary—terrifying, even—challenge, especially as someone living with mental illness who has encountered as many books about mental illness that—quite frankly—somewhat enraged me, as I have books about mental illness that resonated with and moved me.

As discussed above, much of the research for the novel was rooted in personal experience, which is as scary to admit now as it was when I first started talking to people other than my creative writing professor and workshop classmates about the novel two and a half years ago. I could not have written [this book] without spending hundreds of hours in group therapy trying to override the rather unproductive thought that throwing a bunch of people with their own massive issues into a room and expecting them to help each other was hopelessly naïve, or without the events that landed me there in the first place.

I also did external research—both in the library (reading psychology textbooks, journals, papers, etc.) and through conversations with people who had experienced or were experiencing mental health issues similarly to those experienced by the characters. When I felt ready and informed, I wrote. In the end, I’m somewhat thankful that I didn’t know that the novel I was working on would end up published, because the pressure and the fear would have been well and truly paralyzing.

Readers see the summer’s events from the eyes of five distinct protagonists. How were you able to craft the different points of views? What was your writing process like?

My writing has always been character-driven, in that my stories usually start with a person in my head talking to me (that, oftentimes, I then am unable to get to shut up) rather than a physical place or a plot point. Four Weeks, Five People was drafted that way. I had these five characters in my head who were all clamoring for page space, and—like many writers—I am nothing if not a slave to my muse.

From there, developing the characters during drafting was mostly about mentally engaging with them whenever and however possible. I wrote countless character sketches—on weekends, when I had downtime during work, and especially, especially when there was other homework that I really should have been doing instead.

Is there a character that you identify with the most? Which one was the most difficult to write?

I want to say something along the lines of “Hmm, this is tough,” because that feels like the right answer to this question…but it’s actually not tough at all, and the answer is definitely Stella. Stella was the character who started Four Weeks, Five People, and her voice—the voice of this teenage girl who’s smart and sharp-witted, but also scared and defensive and tired—came the most easily to me.

The most difficult to write was Clarisa, who is really genuine and earnest and well-meaning in a way that I, quite frankly, could only ever aspire to be.

I really appreciate how the characters’ fates and stories aren’t completely resolved at the end. What made you decide to keep the conclusion open-ended?

I think a lot of narratives and stories about mental illness focus on this idea of “getting better.” And that’s certainly understandable—I remember when my depression was the most debilitating it had ever been  in my sophomore year of college, my primary coping mechanism was furiously denying that anything was wrong (to others, and also to myself) in hopes of making it all go away, in hopes of making myself “better.” And even after I started going to therapy and opening up to my friends about what I was going through, it was hard not to feel like the “goal” of all this self-care was to return to a time when I was “better.”

Eventually, I came to understand that managing my depression was as much about overcoming the pressure I put on myself to magically be better—whether through medication or intensive therapy or furious escapism via ill-advised crushes—as it was about self-esteem or cognitive behavioral therapy or building better coping mechanisms. That it becomes a lot easier to get out of bed in the morning when you resist the urge to tell yourself that you are a fundamentally broken person in need of fixing, rather than a human who is just learning or relearning how it feels to believe that there is a reason to get out of bed in the first place.

I really believe that mental illness is not something that is simply “fixed,” and that (this is the critical part) THAT’S OKAY. That the storybook ending—everything is sunshine and rainbows and puppies and you look in the mirror and barely recognize the person who once spent an entire night lying on the floor unable to move to the bed!!—isn’t always true to life, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t progress, and there isn’t happiness, and there isn’t a reason to try. Some people find the end sad and discouraging because not everything is resolved and not everyone is “better.” And there are certainly elements of the end that are sad, but I actually think that the idea that it’s worth chasing the rainbow, even if there isn’t a pot of gold at the end, to be quite hopeful.

So that’s a very long explanation for why Four Weeks, Five People does not end with the words, “And then they all lived happily ever after.”

You worked on this book while you were still in college. What advice would you give an aspiring teen author of color?

This isn’t particularly groundbreaking or inspiring, but honestly, I would say, if you want to be a writer, write. Write about things that make you happy. Write about things that make you sad. Write about things that make you that happy-sad combination that is impossible to write about, but try anyway. Write about the jerk who dumped you at the lockers in-between fifth and sixth period (what the hell?) and write about the friend who comes over afterward with chocolate and a Taylor Swift CD. Write about your family and your culture (but only if you want to—it’s hard!), because—really—there isn’t anyone else who can.

And then when people tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t become a writer for whatever reason—whether that’s your age or your race or, I don’t know, your SAT score—you can tell them that they’re wrong, because you’ve already done it.

What are you working on next?

Earlier this year, I finished my second novel, which follows Stella through her junior year (the school year before the events of Four Weeks, Five People). I’ve taken the last couple of months as a much-needed breather—I started this book in my freshman year of college and have been working on a novel pretty much non-stop since!—but I’m feeling refreshed and ready to dive back into the as-yet untitled Book #2 (revisions!) and start my third novel soon (drafting!).

 

 

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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