Amber: Was it difficult to write Freaks Like Us from Jason’s point of view, since he is schizophrenic?
Susan: It was difficult to develop a schizophrenic character that other people could relate to, because the symptoms of the disease tend to push people away and isolate the person with the illness. It was also hard to find a way to let people into Jason’s emotions, when he has so much difficulty understanding and feeling them itself. His actual voice—it was hard for the first few pages, maybe the first chapter, then hard again toward the end, as he became more stressed and ill. The point of view, though, I think that came more naturally, because I’ve spent many years talking to people with the illness, and attempting to understand how they see the world and people around them.
A: What was your research process like for this book?
S: After working for over twenty years with people who have severe mental illness, the part of the book I had to research was how the FBI responds to child abductions or handles situations were vulnerable children go missing. I spoke to an agent and spent time on their website, and spoke to law enforcement folks I am lucky enough to know. I also had to hit up a few of my military friends to be sure Jason’s mom, who is an active-duty officer, could access legal assistance as fast as she did!
A: Who was the most challenging character to write?
S: I always have the most difficulty with villains, and in this story, a couple of my worst villains are bullies. Trying to get inside the mind of a bully was hard for me. I have low tolerance for mean people in real life.
A: What was your inspiration for this story?
S: Around the time I formed the idea for Trigger, my novel featuring a brain-injured narrator, I also wanted to write a book narrated by a character with schizophrenia. It took many years for Jason to take form, and to become a character that average folks might relate to and want to understand. The inspiration for the actual plot to go with the character and voice—that didn’t happen until the last sentence of the first chapter.
A: Freaks Like Us has the ability to open up a dialogue about mental illness. Did you think of that when you wrote it?
S: I thought of that more when I had the desire to write a book with a schizophrenic narrator than when I was actually writing the story. Once I got into the character and voice and plot, all I could think about was Jason and his life, and where I wanted to take him and his friends. I certainly do hope it opens more dialogue about mental illness, and I also hope it gives readers a gut-level understanding of struggles they hadn’t previously imagined, like trying to survive with chronic mental illness day-to-day.
A: What is the main thing you hope people take away from this book?
S: I hope everyone who reads this book comes away feeling that Jason and people with Jason’s illness are more like them than different from them. I hope people understand a bit more about what teens struggling with mental illness have to contend with every single minute of every single day. I also hope they take away a feeling that the story itself, that the trip into a mind who thinks in atypical directions from their own, was a great ride!
A: What projects are you currently working on?
S: I’m working on a series of ghost-y, spooky stories set in an old asylum. This is all my editor’s fault. She asked me for a short story, then liked the short story and wanted me to make a novel in that setting.
A: Who are some of your favorite authors?
S: This is always so, so hard! There are authors I have been reading most of my life, like Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley and Stephen King and Ursula Le Guin. Then there are authors I’ve fallen in love with more recently, like JK Rowling, Scott Westerfield, Laini Taylor, and George R.R. Martin. I could probably make five or six pages of “favorite author,” since I’m always reading. I do lean toward fantasy, science fiction, and horror, though I’m not opposed to a good urban fantasy or literary read, either!
A: If you could sit down to dinner with one of the characters from Freaks Like Us, who would you choose and why?
S: Wow, this was a tough question. And an excellent question! Before I over-think it, let me pick . . . Jason’s mother, the Colonel. She believes in him so strongly, and would go down in flames defending him, just like she puts herself on the line defending our country. I admire people who can be that powerful, decisive, and dedicated. She’d have to bring Jason with her, of course.
A: What song do you think describes Jason and Sunshine’s relationship?
S: I have almost 12 days of music on my iTunes, and you want me to pick ONE SONG?
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, Susan!