#MHYALit Interview with HIGHLY ILLOGICAL BEHAVIOR author John Corey Whaley
Last night The Teen and I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing author John Corey Whaley. His most recent release, Highly Illogical Behavior, is the story of a teenage boy, Solomon, with agoraphobia and the teenage girl, Lisa, who wants to “cure” him so she can write a stellar essay and get herself into a prestigious psychology program. This is hands down one of my favorite reads so far of 2016.
The story came in part from Whaley’s own struggles with anxiety. He is a firm believer in write what you know and in this case he wrote what he was experiencing, though to a much lesser degree, to help him process where he was at and what he was dealing with. Although not agoraphobic himself, Whaley found himself struggling with intense anxiety and some panic attacks and he was increasingly cancelling plans and wanting to “hide from the world”.
Years ago Whaley wanted to write a love story about an agoraphobic boy who fell in love with a girl who hated to be indoors, so this seemed like a good time to revisit parts of that story. Gone was the love story, but the true heart of the story is found within this moving tale of what it’s like to be a teenage boy struggling with mental illness.
Solomon is a pop culture enthusiast who lives at home with his mother and father who are trying to let Solomon process his mental health issues in his own way and at his own pace. They are caring parents who are struggling to raise a child dealing with issues that most people can not understand unless they have some real life experience of the issue themselves. As Whaley reminds us all, although the diagnosis may be the same, people’s experience of mental health issues are personal and unique. One person’s experience of anxiety or depression can be very different from another persons. And what helps one person may not help another.
“This is a very personal story of one person’s survival with mental illness. This is not my treatise of mental illness, this is my way of adding one small sentence in the many conversations we are having about mental illness.” – JCW
Although Whaley did do some research, and of course he has his own experiences to draw from, he chose not to delve too deeply into the clinical aspect of mental illness because he wanted this book to be about a person first. It’s an important reminder to us all that a person with a mental illness diagnosis is not their diagnosis, they are a human being that also has a diagnosis that they are trying to deal with.
“It ‘s about telling a story that is emotionally nuanced and grounded in reality.” – JCW
The character of Lisa is a truly fascinating character, inspired in part by Track Flick from the book and movie Election. This is Whaley’s first female protagonist and he wanted her to be an exploration of ambition and the nature of ambition, in which I think he fully and interestingly succeeds. Lisa wants desperately to make sure she has a way out of the town and life she is living, and she is able to convince herself that she is helping not only herself but Solomon in the process. Of course most readers will know from the get go that her idea that she can “cure” Solomon is destined for failure; she may be intelligent, driven, passionate and even sincerely motivated, but she is still a high school girl who lacks the knowledge and experience to really counsel and cure a peer struggling with a severe mental health issue. But it is her journey that is often the most interesting part of Highly Illogical Behavior as she begins to realize that she may in face be in way over her head and comes to gain a better understanding of what it is truly like to live with agoraphobia.
“I like the idea of a strong female character driven by ambition but also one that is multi-layered and you find out that her ambition is somewhat justified when you meet her mother. She has deluded herself into thinking it is okay to advantage of Solomon if it ends up helping him in the end. If the end result is him being better, then how can it be a bad thing for him to do?” – JCW
Perhaps the most interesting part of the interview was a discussion about Stark Trek The Next Generation, which plays a pivotal part in this tale. You see, Solomon is quite invested in the show and it becomes an important bonding factor between Lisa’s boyfriend, Clark, and Solomon. Pop culture, Whaley points out, is where many people now bond and find their people. And since Solomon hasn’t left his home in three years, Whaley needed to find things that he could be emotionally invested in.
“That show, the entire series, is about exploring deep space to find out more about humanity; it’s going out to look inward. That’s exactly what Solomon can’t make himself do.” – JCW
I also realized during the course of this interview that this was the first time The Teen had been in a conversation with an openly out adult. Whaley talked about his partner and his partner’s support in both the interview and the book event itself. Whaley also discussed how he wanted Solomon to be gay but for this not to be a coming out story. He wanted Solomon to be a human being who was gay, who struggled with mental illness, and these were just parts of who he is and how he identifies himself. People are just people, not their labels, and our humanity is the one thing we all have in common.
“It’s 2016, there’s no place for shame for being who you are. If being who you are is someone who lives with mental illness and the more people who can expose the personal side of mental illness then the more people who are going to try to understand mental illness on a personal level. And this can change the way more broadly that it is treated and thought about.” – JCW
The entire journey ends in one of the most profound statements I have ever read about mental illness. Lisa does write her admission essay for the psychology program, but it is a very different letter then she thought she was going to write at the beginning of the book. And for me, that letter is everything.
“People with mental illness have to be the one to lead the push in talking about mental illness because we are the only ones who understand it the right way . . . Because we all experience it individually. Look at how big the DSMV is, it speaks to the very case by case, personal nature of mental illness.” – JCW
I actually discussed Highly Illogical Behavior last Friday as I think it is a profoundly important part of the #MHYALit discussion. Although Solomon’s story is about agoraphobia, many of the things that are said about mental illness and how we approach those among us who struggle with mental health issues apply broadly and are quite important and profound.
While I was there talking with Whaley, I got him to sign a copy of the book which I am going to be giving away today. The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and will be open until Friday, May 27th. Do the Rafflecopter thingy to enter. Also, I live tweeted his discussion with Julie Murphy and you can read the Storified version of those tweets here.
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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