Jandy Nelson Interviews Debut Author Helena Fox

Award-winning New York Times bestselling author Jandy Nelson interviews author Helena Fox on her critically-acclaimed debut novel How It Feels to Float. Covering topics of inspiration, mental health, sexuality, and writing, these two women deliver a thoughtful and lyrical conversation for readers to reflect on.


 

Award-winning New York Times bestselling author Jandy Nelson interviews author Helena Fox on her critically-acclaimed debut novel How It Feels to Float. Covering topics of inspiration, mental health, sexuality, and writing, these two women deliver a thoughtful and lyrical conversation for readers to reflect on.


Jandy Nelson: First, congratulations and thank you! I haven’t been so dazzled by a YA in ages. Can you tell us how this masterpiece came into existence? What was the impetus for writing this story?

Helena Fox: Thank you so much, Jandy! It means the world to have your support and love for this book!

The voice of my main character, Biz, came to me about eight years ago, in fragments and glimpses—I kept writing these tiny, strange pieces about photography, mental health, quantum physics, and death, among other things! As I followed those glimpses, I discovered a vulnerable, smart, funny girl whose dad had died when she was young, whose photographs spoke to her, who was lonely, and loved, and who desperately wanted her father back. Initially, I wasn't sure how to do Biz's story justice, so I took a six-year break before returning to the book. The impetus for continuing was, after living through some very difficult times of my own, I knew what I wanted Biz's story to say—how profoundly grief and trauma can affect mental health, and how love and community can help bring you back to life.


JN: Biz’s voice is wild and rollicking, lyrical and hilarious, utterly authentic to her character. We’re inside her point of view to an almost molecular degree—there isn’t a false note. Can you tell us how you achieved this spectacular interiority? How did you get so inside this character and find her very particular lyricism, humor, science, and poetry?

HF: It felt like Biz arrived and just stepped into my skin, to be honest. I don't know how I found her, just that I did. I love her wry honesty, her cynicism and tenderness, her vulnerability and her humor; I don't know how I got so lucky to discover her! Having said that, Biz's brain works a lot like my own—we both love quantum physics and random existential questions, and adore poetry and the sea. I also understand, and deeply empathize with, her sorrow and her hurt, so it felt very natural to tell her story, and to tell it from deep inside her mind. I suppose I stepped into Biz's skin too, just as she stepped into mine. And she and I told our stories together.
 

JN: What so moved me about the novel was how masterfully and generously Biz’s mental illness was depicted. You somehow made the harrowing experience of being in the mind of a character who’s coming apart also a transcendent one. It felt both creative and mystical the way Biz perceived and animated the world. Can you talk about the blurred lines between creativity and mysticism and mental illness in the novel?

HF: Thank you, Jandy. I have always been interested in the hypothetical, quantum, and mystical elements of life, so I suppose my curiosity and particular way of seeing went quite naturally into Biz, as we are similar in so many ways! Also, since childhood I have lived with complex trauma and dissociation (among other things), so I know well how it feels to carry darkness with you, to come undone, and to float, sometimes literally outside my body. 'Floating' can be a very ethereal, calming, and even transcendent experience, but also quite a faraway, unnerving, and lost feeling when you're in it. And while you are living with dissociation, and processing grief and trauma, you can also be functioning in and curious about the world; you can dream, think abstractly, think deeply, and create (you can even write whole books!), and you can laugh gloriously by the sea. This is the complexity and duality of living with mental illness. I hope this comes across for readers, and helps those living with mental health conditions and those who support them.
 

JN: Why did you decide not to reveal Biz’s diagnosis?

HF: I didn't reveal a diagnosis because Biz is only really at the beginning of her journey into better mental health when the book ends. From my lived experience, my conversations with others, and my research, I know it can take a while to settle on a mental health diagnosis. And even then, new discoveries can pop up in later years, as they have for me. I didn't want to pin Biz to a mental health condition when she is only just stepping into an understanding of herself and her history. Having said that, I do mention the word 'trauma' in the book, as it is clear this is something Biz has experienced, and is actively processing. Her diagnosis is one part of the picture, one that is just developing as the book ends—and I wanted the focus of Biz's mental health treatment to be primarily on someone being lifted up and loved, listened to and cared for—no matter what—and the healing benefits of that.


JN: I love how sexuality is depicted in the story as something uncertain and ambiguous. Biz’s friendship with Jasper seemed so much more profound to me because it didn’t become romantic. Did Biz’s sexuality evolve as you got to know her? Did Jasper’s?

HF: I discovered Biz had kissed her best friend Grace in the moment I wrote the line! I had no idea until then. When I followed the thread of that moment, I learned that Biz's sexuality wasn't clear cut and that she was in the process of figuring out her identity. I think that's very normal for many people—it can take a while (sometimes decades) to find the words for our sexuality. And even then, sexuality has a huge spectrum and is often quite fluid, so I wanted the book to touch on and honor that as well. As for Jasper, for his own reasons he is private about his identity, something that Biz completely respects, and that's another thing I wanted to touch on—just how personal this journey is, and how important it is for us all to be able to tell our stories in our own time.

Jasper and Biz's friendship is incredibly precious to me. They come to love each other so purely, and I wanted the book to show how that kind of love—and love in all its different forms—can hold you and keep you alive. I have seen and experienced this kind of pure love and friendship in my own life, and it's just as dear and beautiful as I hope it comes across in the book.


JN: What’s your writing day like? Any quirks, superstitions, weird habits?

HF: My writing day, if it's at home, involves a cup of tea, often a cat on my lap, sitting at a desk beside a window, and trying to write from 9 a.m. to midday if possible. There is ALWAYS music—I create musical mood boards for myself and use them to click into story and step into character. I also often like to write away from home—in cafes, on trains, and in libraries beside big windows. My “quirk,” if I have one, might be that I really love writing, and love it unconditionally, even when the work is going super slowly or the words I'm creating are iffy at best! Writing gives me a sense of clarity and connection to my true self—a feeling of 'here I am. This is me.' After a writing session (even if it's two hours spent on a paragraph, with hardly any “progress” made), I always feel alert and soul-satisfied—as though I'm tuned in, all senses alive, to the world. Thank you for your questions, Jandy! It's been a joy to answer them.


About Helena Fox:

Helena Fox lives in Wollongong, Australia, where she runs creative writing workshops for young people. She's a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. How It Feels to Float is her debut novel. She can be found at www.helenafoxauthor.com
 

Download the discussion guide for How It Feels to Float.



Praise for How It Feels to Float:

“Beautiful.” – BCCB, starred review

“Masterful.” – Booklist, starred review

“A beautifully crafted story of finding hope and love when both appear to be gone forever.” – BookPage, starred review

“Lyrical and profoundly affecting.” – Kirkus, starred review

“Exquisite.” – Publishers Weekly, starred review


About Jandy Nelson:

Jandy Nelson, like her characters in I’ll Give you the Sun, comes from a superstitious lot. She was tutored from a young age in the art of the four-leaf clover hunt; she knocks wood, throws salt, and carries charms in her pockets. Her debut novel, The Sky Is Everywhere, was on multiple Best Books of the Year lists, was a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults pick, earned numerous starred reviews, has been translated widely, and continues to enjoy great international success. Currently a full-time writer, Jandy lives and writes in San Francisco, California—not far from the settings of The Sky Is Everywhere and I’ll Give You the Sun.



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