#MHYALit: Creating Georgia, A Mentally Ill Character – a guest post by author Yvonne Prinz
Today we are honored to host author Yvonne Prinz as part of the #MHYALit Discussion
In 1990 I moved to San Francisco from Canada, met my husband, and opened a record store in Berkeley, just over the Bay Bridge. Berkeley, for a variety of reasons, has a large homeless population, something I wasn’t familiar with, coming from a frigid socialist country. I started to take particular notice of a thin black woman on the street. Her name was Celeste. She always seemed to be having a conversation with an imaginary person, sometimes shouting, sometimes seeming to be in extreme anguish and pain, and sometimes fearful of something the rest of us could not see. I gave her things from time to time: a sandwich, a sweater, soap, money. Sometimes she seemed happy to see me, and other times she shouted accusations at me. She came into the store every day to exchange her sticky panhandled coins for paper dollars. Sometimes her hair was combed and her clothes were neat and clean, and other times she smelled and her clothes were dirty and her eyes looked wild. There are a lot of people like Celeste in Berkeley. It’s likely that these people are unmedicated (and in some cases undiagnosed) schizophrenics (At any given time, there are more people with untreated severe psychiatric illnesses living on America’s streets than are receiving care in hospitals. Approximately 90,000 individuals with schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness are in hospitals receiving treatment for their disease). One day Celeste simply vanished. I imagined her getting the help she needed and telling someone, “You know, I was even homeless for a while.” But I never saw her again.
In teenagers, schizophrenia is generally diagnosed between the late teens and early twenties. Genetics plays a big part in the illness and medical research is closing in on some other triggers. In my book If You’re Lucky, the main character, Georgia, was diagnosed at sixteen after a very troubled childhood and a series of incidents led her to Dr. Saul, a local psychiatrist near the hamlet of False Bay on the North Coast of California, where her family lives.
When he got the results from all the tests, Dr. Saul told me that I was likely suffering from chronic paranoid schizophrenia. He told me that I didn’t need to worry, that there were good drugs and we would keep it under control. He said that I could live a normal life, or almost normal. That’s when he started me on meds. I am nowhere near normal.
On the first page of If You’re Lucky, Georgia learns that her only sibling, Lucky, a likeable, easy-going adventurer, has drowned in a surfing accident in Australia. This event sends her reeling. She very quickly goes from somewhat stable to fragile to increasingly volatile to believing that her dead brother, who starts to appear to her as a ghost, is trying to tell her something urgent.
In researching the novel, I interviewed a psychiatrist who described what his schizophrenic patients reported before and after diagnosis. He told me about a woman who was convinced that her husband wanted to kill her. And a teen who had gone on vacation to Venice and run through the narrow streets, sure that someone was pursuing her, until she melted down on the cobblestones. Many of his patients heard voices in their heads until they found the right meds. He also explained that many of his patients reported negative side effects from the meds and wanted to go off them at one time or another, convinced that they were better and sometimes even that they were never ill in the first place. All of this informed Georgia’s story. She feels the side effects of her meds; her headaches are constant. And eventually she makes the catastrophic decision to go off them so that she can better “hear” what her dead brother is trying to tell her.
I also wanted to create a comfort zone for Georgia. She has mad baking skills and she’s better when she’s busy with her hands. My research taught me that structure and creativity are positive things in the life of a schizophrenic. Georgia has a job making desserts at the Heron Inn, just up the road from her house. The inn is a safe haven for her, and her desserts earn her respect from the Innkeepers and guests and even the arrogant Swiss French chef, Marc. It’s a source of pride for her and a good way for the reader to gage Georgia’s stability—when the baking starts to go bad, it’s clear that Georgia is not OK.
By the time I pulled the muffins from the oven they were scorched on top. I had to throw them away. I didn’t care about muffins anymore. I didn’t really care about anything except Lucky and uncovering the truth.
Georgia is the ultimate in unreliable narrators. Her troubled past casts doubt on what she states as fact, and when she goes off her meds her grip on reality loosens. The biggest challenge in creating her and her story was to keep the reader wondering what was real and what was a delusion. I wanted the reader to want to believe Georgia but always with a nagging doubt about whether what she was describing was actually happening. Through not revealing what was real and what wasn’t, I wanted the reader to be in Georgia’s shoes and create empathy for her struggles. Her struggles with everyday life, her distrust of strangers, and her bad judgment make her hard to get behind—but what if she’s right?
Hope for Georgia comes with vindication when she finally uncovers the truth and is taken seriously. This is of the utmost importance to her. She wants people to know that not all of what she sees is related to her illness and that she might have something important to say. She wants to feel that her connection to her brother while he was alive was real and meaningful despite the fact that they were so different and she was so difficult. She wants to feel his love for her and she wants to feel relevant in the community.
My research and resources on paranoid schizophrenia are listed at the end of the book.
When seventeen-year-old Georgia’s brother drowns while surfing halfway around the world in Australia, she refuses to believe Lucky’s death was just bad luck. Lucky was smart. He wouldn’t have surfed in waters more dangerous than he could handle. Then a stranger named Fin arrives in False Bay, claiming to have been Lucky’s best friend. Soon Fin is working for Lucky’s father, charming Lucky’s mother, dating Lucky’s girlfriend. Georgia begins to wonder: did Fin murder Lucky in order to take over his whole life?
Determined to clear the fog from her mind in order to uncover the truth about Lucky’s death, Georgia secretly stops taking the medication that keeps away the voices in her head. Georgia is certain she’s getting closer and closer to the truth about Fin, but as she does, her mental state becomes more and more precarious, and no one seems to trust what she’s saying.
As the chilling narrative unfolds, the reader must decide whether Georgia’s descent into madness is causing her to see things that don’t exist—or to see a deadly truth that no one else can. (Algonquin Young Readers, October 2015)
MEET YVONNE PRINZ is the award-winning author of The Vinyl Princess and All You Get Is Me. A Canadian living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she is the cofounder of Amoeba Music, the world’s largest independent music store.
Filed under: #MHYALit
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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