On Parental Love & Addiction: Lauren Myracle

An interview with Lauren Myracle, the author of This Boy, which follows a teenager named Paul Walden through four years of high school, capturing moments from the small and sweet to the tragic and life-altering.

In This BoyLauren Myracle follows Paul Walden through four years of high school, capturing moments from the small and sweet to the tragic and life-altering. As the book begins, Paul, just dipping his toes into the start of high school, feels out the complicated social scene constantly evolving around him, settles into a new friendship with Roby, and falls swiftly and deeply in love with Natalia. Yet, as the story unfolds, each high note is increasingly tinged with an undertone of uncertainty (at best) and self-loathing (at worst). Readers see Paul slipping toward addiction to dull his deep anxiety and sadness well before he or those close to him can fully name or address his problems. Myracle explains the compulsion she felt to tell this important and nuanced story right now.

Lauren MyracleWhy and how did you decide that now was the right time to tell Paul’s story?
Why? Good Lord, opioid abuse is the biggest drug crisis America is currently facing. Nobody chooses addiction. Nobody. But there is still all kinds of stigma attached to drug abuse, and that makes it a difficult topic for people to talk about, especially people who are addicts themselves or have addicts in their lives.

I've kind of made a career out of putting anything and everything out there in my fiction, so my thought about This Boy was, yikes, scary as it is, I might as well put this out there, too. I got my son's blessing and permission to share this fictionalized account of some of the things he went through. Both he and I feel strongly that if the book can help anyone, then hey, let's do it. We want to help. In the end, I wrote the book based on what we went through as a love letter to my son, and also as a written hug to everyone else out there, kid or parent or anyone, who's going through this.

It's hard. It's terrifying. It feels shameful, even if it shouldn't. But there is a way out, and that's something to hold on to.

How did your family’s experience help shape this story?
Well, it's still going on, for starters. And, it didn't impact the story so much as propel the story, because I love my son so very much. Addiction and drug abuse cast a big web. The bare bones of my son's and my experience is that my sweet boy, always sensitive, always highly attuned to others' emotions, and always determined to stand up for the underdog, swore up and down in middle school that he would never do drugs, period. It wasn't a pledge meant to reassure me; it was a reflection of his value system and his outlook on how best to live a rich, meaningful life. And, of course, it was a reflection of his 13-year-old innocence. Then high school hit, and boom. "Sweetness" was suddenly not a characteristic valued in young men, at least not as reflected by his peers. And, oh, the anxiety!

This Boy by Lauren MyracleTell us more about the narratives around masculinity experienced by teenage boys today.
Young women have actively and purposefully changed the narrative of what being a "good girl" means, and hallelujah. We still have a ways to go, but the paths for young women have opened up tremendously. For young men, though, I'm not sure the same can be said. Being strong, tough, manly, even being tall, that's still the script, you know? Add to that the complicated place young middle-class white men hold in society right now. I think there's a true fear and uncertainty for young white guys who find themselves thinking, "Where do I fit in this world if I am the bad guy?"

My son started experimenting with weed first, and then other substances, because they cocooned him and put a layer of gauze between him and the world. When he found anti-anxiety meds, that's when he fell off the cliff. Why? Because they worked. Dang, that's the awful thing. As anyone who suffers from anxiety knows, to have that anxiety mitigated is such a relief. But my son wasn't prescribed these meds; he was buying them from classmates and from street sellers. He got into a bad, bad place.

Though Paul experiences very dark days, when This Boy closes, he is in a much better place. What did this path look like for your family?
It sucked. I figured out, too late, what was going on, and I tried to help him. I initially went about it the wrong way. Things got worse. My son had a psychotic break, on an airplane, as he and I were going to visit my parents. It was a trip meant to celebrate the fact that he was clean; only he wasn't! And now here I was, bringing my beautiful son to see his beloved grandparents, and everything fell apart. No more secrets. No more cover-ups, because in Atlanta, away from his sources for drugs, my son couldn't self-medicate to hide what was going on.

[Read: Heroine by Mindy McGinnis ]

I was forced to confront my mistakes. My son was forced to confront his addiction. We both finally got a different and far more effective sort of help. I just hope that my son, as he grows into a man, learns as much from my parenting mistakes as he does from the things I've done well. Likewise, I hope that he'll stay on the path toward recovery, because he's amazing and has so much to offer the world.

Paul is innocent and vulnerable yet simultaneously vivid in his descriptions of what it’s like to be a young, sexual being. How did you get inside a teenage boy's head to capture this piece of Paul?
I have two sons, both amazing, and three daughters, also amazing. I have teenagers filing through my house and my life 24/7. I listen, I treat them with respect, I share my genuine interest and investment in their lives. They share back! There's no "don't even think about it" topic in our house. Anything goes!

Paul and his mom have a close relationship clearly built on mutual respect. This is somewhat unique for YA lit, where parents typically take a less dimensional role. Why was fleshing out this relationship a priority for you, and how did you do it in a way that would still resonate with your readers?
It's way easier, in YA fiction, to kill off the parents or make them irrelevant in some other way. I couldn't do this in This Boy, because it is a story of a mother/son relationship, in addition to everything else. That said, teens don't really want to read about boring middle-aged women! I tried to make sure that Paul's story was front and foremost, with his mom as a supporting and supportive character, but not at all the main character.

Natalia, Paul’s girlfriend, is a strong, confident young woman. How did you shape her character?
Oh, golly. She's a mix of several young women I love dearly and admire deeply. They're all strong and confident, so I just stole from them!

What was your process like in writing this book? 
It was harder than writing any other book. And messier. If not for my brilliant editor, Susan Van Metre, it wouldn't be a book. It would be a tear-drenched sprawling dump of words.

What’s next?
It is time to write something lighter! So next up is a middle grade novel called Cry Baby, about a sixth grade sociopath. Not kidding. And it's going to be awesome!


Jill Maza is the Director of Libraries and Research and Upper School Librarian at Montclair Kimberley Academy, an independent school in Montclair, NJ. She has served as a librarian in public school libraries (from a large suburban high school to an urban magnet elementary school), taught summer reading workshops to 9-12 year olds in Harlem, and worked in bookselling, publishing and public libraries. She loves exploring the intersection of creativity, curiosity, and inquiry with her students and colleagues.

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