John Corey Whaley is well-known for his first novel Where Things Come Back, which won the Printz award in 2012, and his second novel Noggin, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. His third novel, Highly Illogical Behavior, tells the story of an agoraphobic teen and the girl who decides to try and fix him. It’s a heartfelt, honest story of mental illness, friendship, love, and learning how to live.
I was lucky enough to speak with Corey about Highly Illogical Behavior, his writing process, and more:
I really enjoyed Highly Illogical Behavior. I’d love to hear more about where the idea for the story came from.
I was going through a really strange time. When I was in my early twenties I went to therapy for some anxiety issues but nothing I really ever needed medication for, nothing that really debilitated my life on a daily basis. It was something that just popped up every now and again that I could deal with with self-awareness and talking it out and breathing exercises, that kind of thing. And then my life is just going really great: I live in LA. I am in love. I have a new place. I live by the beach. All these perfect ingredients and I just suddenly went into this really strange spell of anxiety and borderline depression. I just found myself so frustrated to not feel like myself 100% and to be so easily triggered by so many things.
I’d been working on a book that just wasn’t sticking. I’d re-written it twice and it just wasn’t going to be the third book no matter how hard I tried to make it the third book. And then what I realized while I was going through this anxiety and having these panic attacks daily and my boyfriend was trying to help me get through it. What I realized was how much I didn’t understand about mental illness, and then I really realized when I talked to a lot of people who’ve never had it, how much they don’t understand about it. And I just thought maybe I need to write the most personal thing happening to me right now to get the best story and maybe that’ll be the most meaningful one. That’s where Solomon Reed came from.
I was never agoraphobic but there definitely came a time when I found myself easing out of my social life. I found myself hiding away because of the shame associated with mental illness, being irrational, being unpredictable in your moods, being anxious or nervous all the time, and so Solomon sprung from that. I don’t know where Lisa came from
Well she’s a good opposite.
Yeah. I’m a bit of a control freak so I have that in common with Lisa. And I also love the idea of exploring the positives and negatives of ambition. I make a Macbeth joke in the story: that she’s Lady Macbeth without the murder, and that’s because when I think of ambition that’s the play I think of. The positives and negatives of ambition and things like that, so that’s sort of where she started.
I’m curious about what kind of research you had to do to portray agoraphobia accurately?
I did a little research on specific mental illnesses like anxiety, panic disorder, and agoraphobia, which are now classified as separate mental illnesses. Usually agoraphobia is something that comes after anxiety disorder. What I realized when I started getting into a lot of psychological research was that it was pulling me away from the more personal part of the story, that if I wanted to tell the story that was really about the nuances and the individualized nature of mental illness and how I believe that that’s what has kept the stigma of mental illness prevalent for so long is because it’s case-by-case and not diagnosis-by-diagnosis, I knew I needed to go back and make it really personal. That meant that it was more about what my anxiety personally would inspire in these characters, and my experience with anxiety would inform Solomon’s brand of agoraphobia. Because really it’s about the individual person’s mental illness and that was what was most important to me. So yes I did a lot of reading and research but what it all came down to was finding the most personal place to approach these characters from.
Hopefully this will get into the hands of teenagers who are going through something similar.
That’s the hope. Even if it’s a kid who has never met someone with anxiety disorder, which is probably unlikely, or has and didn’t know or didn’t understand or know how to talk about it. You know, I’m a fiction writer. I don’t write books to save lives, really. I write books to tell stories. Anything on top of being able to be a storyteller is this really magical, inspiring thing. It’s a hope I have but it’s not an expectation.
What was your favorite part of writing Highly Illogical Behavior?
Oh gosh. It was probably writing Solomon and Clark’s friendship. It was something that became very different from first draft to second draft and when I realized I could really explore how each of them found themselves in the other person even though they were so different, that was really something I connected with. I didn’t have a Clark. I didn’t have a Solomon. My first book, Where Things Come Back, has this really close sibling relationship with the narrator, who’s a lot like me or was at the time, and his younger brother. And I loved writing that relationship because it was something I always wanted but didn’t have. A little bit of it is that idealized version of something you wanted. So I got to write them geeking out over games, Adventure Time, Game of Thrones, Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was fun and those parts were easy to write because as soon as Solomon and Clark met in the story it felt like their relationship just sort of took over from there.
On the other side, what was most challenging?
Probably writing the panic attacks. I wanted them to feel personal, but I also wanted readers who may have experienced them or witnessed them to recognize them. But I don’t know how other people experience panic attacks, because I’m not inside another person’s head. I really thought a lot about it and I edited a lot. I’m kind of a less-is-more writer. I don’t think I need four hundred pages to tell the stories I tell. So it was important to me that there weren’t four-page long descriptions of a panic attack because for this story in particular that wasn’t really needed. I needed it to be personal but authentic. And what ultimately happened was I had to write it the way I’ve experienced it. I definitely talked to other people [about their experiences]. So there was a little research but again, I found that the sweet spot of writing this was when I turned it back inward.
What is your writing process like? Do you consider yourself a pantser, plotter, or something in between?
Something in between. I used to say pantser but with this book I did an outline, and then I scratched it out and did another outline.
I outline a bit. I follow them very loosely. I write chapter by chapter usually when I’m in the thick of a novel. I usually work on the first few chapters for months to get them just right, to get the voice and the direction that I want. A lot of rewrites, a lot of throwing things away and starting over. A lot of that to really peg down the characters. What’s most important to me is really getting down the characters and their voices and then it’s about the story and where I need it to go to say what I need to say.
And sometimes an outline can help structure my thoughts but a lot of times it can distract me from that early process. So it’s a happy medium. And honestly, every book is different. With Where Things Come Back, I wrote half of it with an outline and then I got to the 16th or 17th chapter and realized I was going to get confused if I didn’t start keeping track of what was going on in this book. I’m right there in between. But you never know: the next book could be completely outlined or completely right out of my fingertips and frantic.
When I do sit down to write, it’s usually a lot at a time, but I may go months without writing a word.
[This is when I told him that his way of writing is like the Bill Murray/Groundhog Day way created by Morgan Matson and Siobhan Vivian]
As I’m sure you’re aware, diversity is a big topic in the book community right now. Is that something you think about while writing?
I would like to say yes for political correctness. I wrote a story about a gay kid with mental illness and I am a gay man with mental illness, so I won’t say that this was my decision to write my diverse book. I look at it as I’m happy that maybe there will be kids out there who can find some identifying factor, something to connect with Solomon, who happens to be gay. I very much wanted the point of this book to not be that the main character is gay and he’s coming out. It needed to be casual because as I say frequently, straight people don’t have to come out and it doesn’t have to be a big deal. So yeah, those things are always in my mind and I’m always doing whatever I can do to make sure that my characters mentally and emotionally can represent any of my readers in some way. That to me is my way of being present and thoughtful of the diversity we need in storytelling while I’m writing.
As far as in a broader sense, I think in the business as a whole we need publishers to seek out and publish authors of diverse backgrounds. We need authors of color. We need people who represent the people who are reading our books. They’re not all white, cisgendered people so I’m a big supporter of that and that’s something that is a frequent conversation with my YA author friends. We all talk about, how can we help this community be better and more diverse?
If you could have lunch with a character from Highly Illogical Behavior, who would it be & why?
Well Clark’s cute but I don’t want to have lunch with him.
Grandma. I think it would be Grandma. Grandma is inspired by my grandmother, who I call mamaw because I’m southern, and my boyfriend’s grandmother who is 93. This woman stole my heart the minute I met her and is never going to give it back and I’m fine with it. The sassiness and the bluntness is inspired by a combination of the two of them and every time I’m with either of them, it’s this precious moment.
When you were Solomon’s age, what were some of your favorite books?
I was a bad reader when I was a kid. I’m still a slow reader. I wrote more than I read. I was a much better writer than I am a reader, and I think I probably still am. I fell in love with Perks of Being a Wallflower, I fell in love with Catcher in the Rye. To Kill A Mockingbird changed my life like so many lives.
The thing is that as soon as I knew that coming-of-age stories existed, that characters could make me feel like I had some understanding in an outside world that maybe seemed scary to me, that there were authors out there telling these stories, that really meant a lot to me. It made me want to challenge myself to be like them. Because I connected to those coming-of-age stories is why I became a writer of inarguably coming-of-age novels.
What are some of the books you’ve read lately that have been your favorites or memorable?
I read The Haters by Jesse Andrews. Hilarious. Jesse’s a friend of mine so I’m a little biased, but he’s such a talented, funny author. It’s hard to write an original road-trip book and he pulled that off so beautifully and so comedically.
Another road-trip story is The Last True Love Story by Brendan Kiely. It’s not out yet. It’s a beautiful book. There’s a grandpa character, Gpa, who’s going to break your heart. You’re going to love it.
Can you give us a hint about what you’re working on now?
Total secret. I found out last night at my event that it’s my one writing superstition. My editor and I work really closely on figuring out what I want to say with a story. So we take the little inklings of ideas I have and talk about them over months when we see each other. It’s really about all the pre-writing I do before I’m ready to put it on the page.
— Lauren (@LWengrovitz) May 18, 2016
Thank you so much to John Corey Whaley and Penguin Young Readers. Make sure you check out Highly Illogical Behavior, which is in stores now!