I was so lucky this year to be able to choose two Pitch Wars mentees! I'd fallen in love with two very different books sharing a common thread - they are both YA contemporaries dealing with tough topics in their own unique way. The humor and quirkiness of THE ART OF INSANITY grabbed my attention right away, and when I had a chance to discuss the story with Christine Webb, the author of this #OwnVoices story, I knew I wanted to make sure this manuscript reached the agent round:)
I am so pleased to introduce you all to Christine Webb, the author of THE ART OF INSANITY!
Please tell us how you started writing.
I started writing by plagiarizing my best friend’s story in first grade. It was about a bunny named Blue and his nemesis, Betty. I believe the film rights have not yet been sold.
After I learned that it’s not cool to steal your best friend’s stories, I started periodically making up my own. I didn’t really get into writing until middle school, where I had a teacher who was positively obsessed with English. She talked about sentence diagrams like they were going to change the world.
At the encouragement of my teacher, I started writing some short stories and entering them into competitions. I wrote my first novel during college. It was about a teacup collection, and I assure you it was not very good. This Pitch Wars book has no teacups in it. I think that’s a step in the right direction.
Tell us about your writing process. Are there any special things you need when you’re writing, like music, snacks, a special location?
I usually work in the corner booth at my local coffee shop, Fourth Coast. Fourth Coast is one of those fabulously quirky coffee shops with exposed brick walls, lime green ceilings, and local artists’ work showcased everywhere. The people there are the type who like to compare tattoos, discuss their next neon hair colors, and get into deep conversations about the meaning of life. I love them. I have no tattoos and my hair is boring old dishwater blonde, but they accept me into their tribe anyway.
I always buy a cup of tea (Mango Ceylon, every time), and I refill that cup with hot water about once an hour while I’m working. You’d be amazed how many cups of tea I can make with one teabag. One time they were out of Mango Ceylon. I had no idea what to do with myself.
Lemon mint, by the way, is what I did with myself. My writing probably suffered because of it.
What was the inspiration for your #PitchWars manuscript?
Hmmm…writing is cheaper than therapy?
The real reason why I wrote this story is because I couldn’t find any good young adult books that addressed bipolar disorder. Maybe they’re out there, but I haven’t seen them. As a middle school teacher, I want my students to be exposed to literature that displays mental illnesses in a non-scary way. Too often, when people hear I have bipolar disorder, they associate it with some episode of CSI or “didn’t that mass shooter have bipolar disorder”? If the only information people have about an illness is the absolute scariest worst-case-scenario, then it’s no wonder that stigma thrives in our society.
In my opinion, stigma breaking has to start as young as possible. I want my students to have books that show people who have mental illnesses and still rock at life. That was the real inspiration for this book.
Your manuscript is an #ownvoices story. What does this mean to you?
Theoretically #ownvoices means I should know what I’m talking about (eeeep! No pressure).
The #ownvoices movement has been a beautiful trend in publishing. The idea is that diverse authors write a protagonist that shares the same type of marginalized background as the author (racial, cultural, sexuality, neurodiverse, etc). This book would fall under the neurodiverse category of #ownvoices. The protagonist has bipolar disorder, and so do I. The mental challenges she faces and the reactions she gets from people about her disorder are almost all authentic to experiences I have had, even though the plot itself is completely fabricated.
The cool thing about #ownvoices is that the reader gets to hear about a marginalized group from someone who’s a part of it. I liken it to hearing about the Vietnam War from talking to a veteran instead of just reading a history book. History books are great, and I think there are definitely places where it’s advantageous for an author to write from outside of a marginalized group, but there’s something raw and real about an author who can write from within their own collection of experiences.
Your manuscript combines a very heavy topic with a humorous voice. It’s one of the things that drew me to your story – that I could laugh out loud one minute and then feel Natalie’s pain in the next. Can you tell us why this combination was important to you?
This combination is the heart and soul of my book. As I said, I want readers to understand that people with mental illnesses can still rock at life. They have a lot of the same challenges as people who are mentally healthy, like dealing with high school awkwardness, trying to navigate dating, dealing with friendship issues, etc. Life is weird, okay? It’s weird for all of us, but in different ways. I want this book to be one that shows, “Hey, these characters you like? The ones having fun and doing all the same types of things you do? They’re mentally ill. And also awesome.” In some ways, their illnesses can even add to why they’re so awesome.
I like people best when they make me laugh, so I tried to do that with my characters. Hopefully that can endear them to the reader and help the reader understand that not all mentally ill people are like scary characters from crime shows.
Also, on a personal note, mental illness is so depressing in my real life that I couldn’t write a depressing book about it. I know some people are so, so talented at writing books that showcase the true tragedies of mental illness (my mentee sister is one of them!), but I’m just not. Funny’s way easier for me, because it’s how I deal with life.
Why did you enter #Pitch Wars?
My friend Rebecca McLaughlin entered Pitch Wars in 2015, and her novel, The Nameless Queen, is currently slated for 2018 publication (woooot!).
I used to query the “old fashioned way,” and she basically said, “This is a new age, Christine. You have to get on social media and start entering your book through Twitter and the like. If you want to be in the publishing industry, you have to go where it’s going.” She was right.
How did you feel when you knew you’d been selected as a mentee (Go Team #VictoryFleet!)?
I was doing research on a NOAA ship when the list was posted. I was in the lab most of the day. At one point, in between hauls of fish, I said I needed to dash up to the room to grab my water bottle. I clicked refresh on my browser for the 287th time that day, and the list was up.
I held my breath, scrolled the list, and my name was there! I gasped (which Katherine tells me not to use in my book because it’s a dramatic cliché, but I’m telling you – I gasped. I even covered my mouth with my hands. Picture every dramatic cliché. This was me). Then I started dancing around my tiny ship bunkroom in my lab clothes and covered in fish guts, and I hoped my roommate wouldn’t pick that moment to walk in. But I didn’t really care if she did.
You could say I was excited. I was 100% excited. “Daunted,” “scared,” and “intimidated” didn’t come until a few hours later.
Do you have any advice for other writers thinking about entering Pitch Wars or other similar writing contests?
Do it! What do you have to lose?
And now for the speed round:
Sweet or salty? Sweet. One of my siblings is a dentist and another is in dental school. I’m going to need them both.
Tea or coffee? Tea (MANGO CEYLON!). My grandma’s British, so I probably had tea in my bottle as a baby.
Cabin by the lake or cute loft downtown? Cabin every time. My parents have a cabin in Northern Michigan, and I spend as much of my life there as possible. Want to see the sunrise over the river this morning?
Book or movie? Is this even a question? Are you trying to trick me, Katherine? BOOK. Always book. Never movie.
Superman or Batman? Batman, but only because my cousin’s three-year-old daughter wore a Batgirl costume every day for a year. My cousin couldn’t get her to wear anything else. Anyway, she’s cute, so I’ll go with Batman.
Favorite song? “Mmmbop” by Hanson. Yes, the hit single from 1997. They still have a fanbase.
If you had to pick one color to describe yourself, what would it be? Glitter.
Describe yourself in high school in one word. Nerd. (I bet a lot of people say that, but I wrote a rap about organic chemistry with my three best friends. There may or may not be a music video. We EARNED that nerd title, y’all).