A couple of months ago, I discussed Julie Schumacher’s essay “A Support Group is My Higher Power,” which appeared in the New York Times’ Modern Love column. I was struck by this piece, which rang true to me and resonated with my own writing about Stella’s birth. Today I’m going to discuss her latest young adult novel, Black Box, and also post an interview with Julie.
Black Box is the story of what happens to a family when depression enters their lives. After teenaged Dora becomes suicidally depressed, her younger sister, Elena, takes on the responsibility for keeping Dora safe. Though this doesn’t sound like an easy read, Julie assured me it was a quick read, so I thought it would be the perfect novel to take on the plane as I headed to Chicago for AWP last month. It turned out that it was the perfect plane novel in the sense that I couldn’t put it down—even when I began to experience motion sickness—but I’ll admit that it’s not the best book to read in public. By page three, my throat was tight and tears stung my eyes.
Part of what brought tears to my eyes was the carefully wrought relationship between the two sisters—I kept thinking, in a desperate kind of way, how grateful I was that Stella and Zoë have each other and how I hope they will be as close as Dora and Elena. Part of what brought tears to my eyes was a wrenching guilt for the pain I must have caused my own parents when—almost two decades ago—I was a young adult struggling with severe depression. All I can say about that is that I will never forget the look on my father’s face when he arrived at that emergency room in Iowa City. I will never forget the look on his face as he stared down at me in that hospital bed.
One thing I really appreciate about Black Box is that it is narrated not by Dora, but by her sister, Elena. I think it is difficult to convey the darkness of a suicidal depression, to open it up enough to allow readers in without overwhelming them. I was relieved not to be in Dora’s head because there is too much pain in there. That’s not to say that Elena isn’t in pain, as well, but her pain is at the same time easier for a non-depressed person to understand and more complex than Dora’s pain (and by this I mean that serious depression sometimes feels two-dimensional).
When Elena and her parents go visit Dora in the hospital, Elena struggles to find her sister, the sister she has known her whole life, buried in the young woman sitting before her. As Elena and her parents get ready to leave Dora after their first visit, Dora says,
“Little El. What the heck are you doing over there?”
I walked toward her and she reeled me in and held on to me tightly, her bony arms a collar around my neck. “Do me a favor?” she asked, with her mouth by my ear.
“Sure,” I said. “Name it.”
“Save me,” she said.
Elena tries to carry the weight of this request, tries to comply, to save her sister, and as the book progresses we how this impossible responsibility affects her.
I love Julie’s writing—her prose is lovely without being overwritten and her characters are so real that I think I know them. I do know them. I see myself in them. I imagine what I would do and how I would feel if my own daughters ever experienced this. (Please, no, never.)
I encourage you to read Black Box and send it to your friends, especially if they have been touched by depression. It is a quick read, but I recommend finding a quiet spot where you can sit down and sob if you want. No planes. No coffee shops.
Julie was kind enough to answer a few questions about Black Box and about navigating writing and motherhood:
KH: I’d love to have you talk a little bit about why you chose to have Elena narrate the story. Was this how the book began or did she evolve into the narrator?
JS: I chose the point of view of the depressed girl’s sister because I wanted to write about the confusion and the helplessness of a person who was trying to understand the experience from the outside. I wanted to describe the desire to help, beginning with the hope that “this isn’t serious,” and progressing from disbelief to worry to fear. The attempt to understand and the desire to alleviate another person’s suffering—that’s where the book started.
KH: I’m also curious about what Black Box might have looked like it if had been written as an adult novel with the mother, Gail, as a narrator. Have you considered writing an adult novel on this topic?
JS: In retrospect, I do wonder what it would have been like to write the novel from an adult point of view. But I’ve always been interested in children as characters—whether in adult or young adult fiction—and I’ve always been drawn to younger narrators who are grappling with the material of their lives, trying (and sometimes failing) to understand the stories they tell.
KH: I know that primarily you write fiction, but since you are a mother of young adults (and since I’ve had this question on my mind since AWP), I’m wondering how you balance your need to write, to craft stories, with the needs of your kids—their opinions, their privacy, etc.
JS: There’s an ethical dilemma in being a parent and a writer of realistic fiction (or nonfiction), that is, a person whose real life and relationships can be a starting point for creative work. When your children are very young, you’re free to comment on their behavior—as well as your own parenting skills—in their presence; as they get older, they don’t want to be the subjects even of positive conversation (“Look how she’s grown!”). That said, I think writers can model responsible self-inquiry — Who am I? What does my life mean? — and demonstrate to their children that creating art, and asking difficult and sometimes unanswerable questions about relationships, families, and societies, is part of living an examined life.
When I have published nonfiction about my children (as in the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times), I’ve gotten permission from them first. (In fact, the editor at the Times pointedly asked if I had done so.) Fiction offers a bit more of a cover; still, I’ve asked my children to read each of my young adult novels — including Black Box — before they were published. I think my kids understand what are for me the two enormous truths of this parenting/writing experience: 1) I love my children wildly, unreservedly, and 2) I can’t live my life without writing things down.
KH: In the “author’s note” at the end of the book you say that you hope Black Box will allow readers to recognize some part of who they are and that you hope they will “feel acknowledged.” I was very moved by the whole “author’s note” and about why you wrote the book, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little more about the role of writing in your life. Has it changed over the years? If so, how?
JS: The author’s note at the end is something my beloved editor, Jodi Keller, urged me to write. At first I resisted: the book should stand for itself without an explanation, etc etc. But Black Box, because of its subject matter, is different from my other novels. I wrote much of it in a state of despair, feeling bitterly lonely — and the author’s note gave me a chance to say to someone reading the book, “You don’t need to feel this way. You aren’t the only one going through this.” I don’t want to pretend that books can solve serious problems, but I do think that in acknowledging and naming our experiences, they can make us feel less alone.
As for the role of writing in my life: I value the practice of writing more now than I did when I was younger. When I was younger I was conscious mainly of pouring my heart out onto the page. Now I’m more likely to think philosophically about the time I spend shaping words into stories and narratives. I definitely value that time more than I used to, and I probably make better use of it as well.
KH: Can you talk a little about the response to the book? Have people recognized themselves in these pages? Is there a specific reader response that has especially touched you?
JS: The response to the book has been very moving to me. I’ve gotten emails from readers who have told me about their own or their friends’ experiences with depression, about aunts or uncles who committed suicide, about the shame and loneliness and confusion they’ve felt in the face of mental illness. One reader wrote, “I don’t know why I get down so much because my life is perfect.” Another wrote, “I can feel Dora’s pain and I can feel her problems living in me and it makes me feel so connected to her.”
KH: Black Box is your fourth young adult novel published in five years. Can you talk a little bit about why you started writing young adult fiction and how you are able to write these books so quickly?
JS: Writers who publish a few books in quick succession did not necessarily *write* those books in such quick succession. I had an eight-year dry spell during which I published almost nothing, even though I was doing a lot of writing. I started writing novels for young adults as an experiment, because I was terribly stuck on a long novel that I’d been working on for years. The idea was to write something short and direct that emphasized plot and structure. And I discovered, when I was finished with the first young adult book (Grass Angel), that I had truly loved writing it. Whereas I had been miserable while working on the failed novel for adults.
KH: I’d love to hear a little about your literary influences.
JS: I’m a lover of realistic character-based fiction of any stripe, from George Eliot and Jane Austen to Ian McEwan, E.B. White, Grace Paley, Tobias Wolff — you name it. I never get tired of reading literary portraits of human beings and their interactions.
I want to thank Julie for taking the time to talk with me. Thank you, Julie! Please check out her books. I’d also like to congratulate Julie: Black Box is one of four finalists for the 2008 Minnesota Book Award in the young adult category! Way to go, Julie!