CRAZY, by Linda Vigen Phillips (see her bio at the end), is an acclaimed YA novel about a teenage girl named Laura, whose mother is mentally ill. Set is the 1960s—a time when mental illness was rarely spoken of, even within the families of the mentally ill—this story is told in the first person and entirely made up of poems. Reading the book, I felt all of Laura’s emotions as she tried to live a normal life while afraid and confused by what is happening.
I met Linda Vigen Phillips at Table Rock Writers Workshop last September and have excitedly followed her experience as her debut novel was published late last year. Linda stopped by The Writer’s Desk to talk about her debut novel.
Some of the accolades CRAZY has received include the following:
New York Public Library Best Books for Teens 2014
Young Adult Library Services Associaton (YALSA) BFYA nomination 2015
Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2015
“It should be in the hands of anyone—teen and adult—who has ever felt powerless at the hands of mental illness.” School Library Journal
“…worth a read for the text’s vivid link between emotions and fine art.” Kirkus
“Phillips’ accessibly written chronicle will resonate with teens who understand the desire to protect themselves from their families’ inner truths.” Booklist
Kindred Spirit Author: Tell me about Crazy. Why did you write this story?
Linda Vigen Phillips: Originally I wrote about twenty poems, mostly as a cathartic exercise to help myself understand the questions that surrounded my formative years growing up with a mother who had a mental illness. I began to get some of these poems published in adult literary journals, and was thinking of trying to publish them as a collection in a chapbook. After I had about twenty poems, my writing buddy, Carol Baldwin, suggested they would make a good story, and that was the beginning of the novel. Today, though, my goal is to use this book as a conversation starter to anyone who has felt helpless at the hands of mental illness.
KSA: Where did the idea come from to write it in verse?
LVP: Both my mother and my father loved poetry. They sent favorite poems back and forth to each other during the three years my father was in the service. They passed their love of poetry on to me, and it has always been the way I have been able to express myself the best.
KSA: Did you always want to be a writer?
LVP: My high school counselor told me “I would never make it as a writer” when I told her that is what I wanted to do. I never should have listened to her.
KSA: Have you gotten fan mail from young readers? What are your readers telling you?
LVP: Yes, apparently there is a class in the suburbs of Wash. DC that is using my book, because I have gotten two fan letters from there, one from a girl and one from a boy. The girl told me “I had the power to change lives” and the boy said, “you made me cry on the inside, but not in an unmanly way, you know!” Both letters have touched my heart deeply.
KSA: What’s been the most rewarding thing to happen to you since the book came out?
LVP: I think it has been the constant feedback I have gotten from people whose lives have been touched by mental illness, and who have related to my book, or to what I have said during a book talk. So many have willingly shared their stories, and that is exactly what I have hoped the book would do.
KSA: What do you like to read?
LVP: I love to read realistic fiction, memoirs, and biographies, and of course, poetry or any books in verse. I was excited to see that the Newbery and one of the honor books are in verse.
KSA: Tell me a little about your writing process. Do you have a particular time and place that you write?
LVP: I seem to be all over the board these days. I wrote Crazy while I was teaching, so of necessity, I often wrote at 4:00 in the morning before school, weekends and summers. Now, in retirement, I seem to be more flexible, and have found that I can write pretty much any time of day, and sometimes better if I get the errands and menial tasks done first, and write in the afternoons. I have a home office, a porch, a cubicle at the library, and a favorite sunny window and I sort of rotate around these spots.
KSA: Are you writing another YA novel?
LVP: Yes, I am currently working on another novel in verse about a teen girl dealing with her two brothers who have Batten disease. It is a rare childhood disease in which the victims usually do not live much past the teen years. I’ve had personal experience with two students in Charlotte with this disease.
KSA: What advice do you have for aspiring young writers?
LVP: Find your passion and write your heart out. Go to as many writing conferences and retreats as you can, and hook up with a good critique group or writing buddy. Forget detractors. They don’t know your heart.
KSA: Thanks so much for stopping by The Writer’s Desk. I have one last question: if you could give a writing prompt to a young writer, what would it be?
LVP: Tell me in 100 words what you would do if you couldn’t be a writer.
Linda Vigen Phillips has always loved reading and writing poetry. As a retired teacher she delights in having enough time to pursue these passions. Crazy, her debut book is a YA novel in verse. Drawn from her own experiences growing up in Oregon, it tells the story of a teenage girl coming to terms with her mother’s mental illness. Linda hopes that the book will speak to teens or adults whose lives have been affected by similar challenges. She and her husband live in Charlotte, North Carolina where they ride vintage bicycles on greenways and make regular play dates with the grandkids.