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Interview: October 11, 2016

For a few years now, young adult authors have taken huge steps to discuss mental illnesses and the symptoms, treatments and life with these conditions. Few books, however, approach the topic of bipolar disorder with the grace, respect and humanity of debut author Karen Fortunati's THE WEIGHT OF ZERO. Already a title on the Indies Introduce list for Summer/Fall 2016 and a Seventeen magazine pick for "What's Hot This Month," THE WEIGHT OF ZERO is poignant, honest and above all, respectful. In celebration of the release, Teenreads had the pleasure of interviewing Karen about being a debut author, discussing difficult topics and staying true to her young readers. Read below to learn more! First of all, we have to say that we absolutely loved your book. You handled the subject of bipolar disorder with such care and respect while still giving your characters life and avoiding a preachy or academic tone. What was your inspiration for writing a young adult book about bipolar disorder? How did you get started as a new author?

Karen Fortunati: Thank you so much! Looking back, it’s a hard to pinpoint one person or thing or event that was the inspiration for this story. The main character appeared in my head one afternoon during a writing retreat. I knew immediately that Catherine had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and that she feared life with this condition. I’ve wondered myself where she came from and I think it’s a combination of several things. First, I’ve witnessed the mental health journeys of many family members and friends. Second, my husband is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and I’ve learned so much about illnesses and treatments over the years. And third, my life has been touched by suicide: the first by a work colleague and the second by an extended family member.

Regarding getting started as author, I started writing a middle grade fantasy about seven years ago, inspired by a vacation at a dude ranch that was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. I had no idea what I was doing, having never written fiction before. I have to say that joining SCBWI was the single best thing I did. I learned an incredible amount about the industry and connected with other writers who made my huge number of query rejections a little more tolerable. I wrote the first page of THE WEIGHT OF ZERO at a writing retreat organized by a SCBWI friend, Kathy Temean, and a few months later, submitted it to first page contest run by a literary agency. I had entered other contests with my MG story and never won. But this time, I got first place. Honestly, it was like something unclicked and my writing just flowed after that. I felt a confidence I never had before. That boost along with a steady honing of my writing skills turbocharged the writing of THE WEIGHT OF ZERO.

TRC: The beautiful thing about you main character, Catherine, is that she is so many things besides bipolar --- intelligent, cautious, talented and even a bit self-centered at times. Was she inspired by anyone you know personally or is she totally your own creation?

KF: Catherine is definitely her own person; she arrived fully formed with her own personality. I really like how you mentioned “self-centered” because I specifically wanted to highlight that trait. Self-centeredness is a normal part of adolescent development and in THE WEIGHT OF ZERO, Catherine’s self-centeredness was heightened due to her anxiety about her condition. As Catherine matures and also comes to define herself not “as bipolar” but someone “with bipolar," her lens widens and the reader can see her moving beyond herself and towards an awareness of the needs of others.

TRC: The “Zero” you reference in your title is a personification of Catherine’s own depression --- a cycle she knows will continue to return to her for the rest of your life. As a reader, I loved the way you gave Zero very creepy, human qualities. Why did you choose to personify depression this way?

KF: Catherine was blindsided by both her depression and diagnosis --- life was good and then suddenly, it wasn’t. It was shocking, unexpected and something she felt she couldn’t escape. It was natural for her to view her depression as some kind of stalker or intruder, an entity outside of herself.

TRC: Early on, Catherine describes the betrayal she felt upon finishing THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. Although she identified very strongly with the main character initially, she was devastated to learn that his issues sprung from a very real event, while hers were based in her own biology. How did you come up with this comparison and why did you choose THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER?

KF: I think the one thing that improved my writing was reading contemporary young adult novels. Once I started writing, I read differently. During the drafting of THE WEIGHT OF ZERO, I read THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER and absolutely loved it! Because I was in Catherine’s head at the time, I was also experiencing it through her eyes and knew immediately what her take on Charlie would be. That she would immediately identify with him and his sense of isolation but then grow disillusioned as his support network emphasized the holes in her own. Later on, once Catherine realizes that she is similar to Charlie, her perspective of PERKS changes radically. She understands it as a beautiful story of hope.

TRC: Throughout the book, Catherine and her school partner, Michael, are researching World War II soldiers for an AP U.S. History project. When Catherine learns about Private First Class Jane Talmadge --- an African American soldier who served in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion --- she is totally swept away by the woman’s bravery and determination. How did you learn about the 6888?  Is Jane Talmadge real?

KF: Jane Talmadge is a fictional character based on the real life accounts of members of the Six-Triple-Eight. Before I started writing, I knew I wanted Catherine to be inspired in part by a historical figure and my research first focused on the D-Day Invasion. By complete luck, I found an article about the four women buried in the Normandy American Cemetery. Three of these women were from the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the first all female, all African-American unit to serve overseas. I studied up on the Six-Triple-Eight and their courage and perseverance astounded me. They suffered horrific prejudice especially in the 1940s because they were women and black and serving in a segregated military. And like so many accounts of women in general and during World War II, they remain basically unknown. I’m happy that with the publication of THE WEIGHT OF ZERO, the story of the Six-Triple-Eight will spread.

TRC: Although Catherine has plenty of reasons to despise her bipolar disorder, one of the most heartbreaking ones is that she believes it made her friends abandon her. As she meets new people, however, she begins to see the flaws in her former friendships, which I found to be one of the most powerful aspects of your book. Why did you think it was important for Catherine to reflect on her past friendships this way?

KF: It was critical for Catherine to understand that her condition does not control her life and that there were dynamics present that had little to do with her diagnosis. One of these is the natural life cycle of friendships, especially in high school. High school is a time of tremendous change and as Catherine’s psychiatrist advises, it’s not uncommon to enter school with one group of friends and leave with a completely new one. The arrival of new friends who genuinely care for Catherine highlighted the flaws in those old relationships. It helped Catherine understand that not all the drastic changes in her life were rooted in her diagnosis.

TRC: As Catherine begins to respond to her treatment, her doctor, Dr. McCallum, explains that some of the most painful things happening to her --- including her broken friendships and fights with her mother --- might have happened even if she wasn’t bipolar. Similarly, when Catherine inadvertently hurts her friends, she learns that she may be blaming her disorder for some of her own mistakes. How did you achieve this balance between Catherine’s disorder and her personal flaws?

KF: I never defined Catherine by her condition. To me, she was always a 17-year-old girl coping with the loss of her grandmother and the anxiety over the return of her bipolar depression. Because she was afraid and nervous, she was irritable which manifested in lashing out at her mom. Because she felt guilt as well, she kept all her fears to herself to avoid any further burdening. In the aftermath of the diagnosis, when so many things went wrong, Catherine attributed all of them to her condition. A critical part of her journey is when she understands that it was her fear and anxiety and not her condition that shaped some of these events. Catherine takes ownership of her actions.

TRC: Speaking of Dr. McCallum, was he inspired by anyone you know personally? I loved his ability to see beneath Catherine’s hard exterior and willingness to discuss all sorts of treatments with her, just so that she could feel more in control of her body.

KF: My husband is the inspiration for Dr. McCallum.  He’s a gifted psychiatrist --- sensitive, kind and truly caring about his patients and their families. He was incredibly helpful with this story. In addition to technical information about the disorder --- symptoms and treatments --- he reviewed the dialogue in Catherine’s sessions with Dr. McCallum and told me how he would handle these situations. He also advised me on furniture placement, who sits where, etc. So I feel confident that these scenes were accurate portrayals.

TRC: Although discussions of mental issues are becoming less taboo, I believe many people still think that being bipolar means that you are laughing one moment and crying the very next. What do you hope readers, especially teenaged ones, will learn about bipolar disorder from THE WEIGHT OF ZERO?

KF: I wanted to avoid that exact stereotype and present an accurate representation of what many teenagers with bipolar disorder experience. I’d love for readers gain a better understanding on how the stigma of mental illness so tremendously hampers treatment. I think an awareness naturally increases sensitivity and respect that will help in getting mental health issues as mainstream as physical disorders.

TRC: What are you working on now? Can we expect more books about different disorders from you?

KF: I’m finishing another serious yet hopeful contemporary young adult novel that looks at a young woman’s experience at the often dangerous intersection of mental health and law enforcement. Bipolar disorder is at the heart of this story too but this time it’s seen through the eyes of a sibling and it examines the secret prejudices we may carry. This book will also be published by Delacorte/Penguin Random House but we don’t have a release date yet.