A Conversation with Hilary T. Smith


Hilary T. Smith, formerly known as INTERN, is the author of Wild Awake, a lovely and funny and heartbreaking and huge-hearted novel about growing up and figuring out who you are. She was also one of my very first friends on the internet, but that doesn't make me biased, promise. It's a really, really great book.

One of the things I loved about Wild Awake is its refusal of a redemptive narrative arc--at the end of the book, there's no tidy solution for Kiri, though she does get some closure. Both Kiri and Skunk deal with their mental health in ways don't follow traditional narratives about "illness" and "treatment"--can you talk about why you made that choice as a writer?

If Kiri and Skunk don’t follow traditional narratives of illness and treatment, it’s because I’ve become less and less comfortable with those narratives over the years. Metaphors and similes have tremendous power, and some of the most popular ones in mental health discourse right now are sort of insidious, if well-intended.

For example, “Mental illness is just like diabetes or [insert disease here].” On one hand, this is intended to destigmatize mental illness; on the other hand, it glosses over the incredibly complex factors that go into making and keeping a person “mentally ill” (not just biological, but social, cultural, political…) while holding up lifelong medication as the sole and uncontestable solution (“you would take your diabetes medicine, wouldn’t you?”).

With this in mind, I had no interest in writing an “issue book” where that kind of script would be reinforced unquestioningly. I wanted to show what an experience of “mental illness” can look like from the inside out. And I wanted readers to be able to see Kiri’s experience through all sorts of lenses—grief, family breakdown, reaction to living in a world full of yoga condos—rather than saying “look, she has brain-diabetes and once she takes the pills it will all be okay!”

We have talked a fair amount about our mutual discomfort with the identity of Young Adult Writer as opposed to just, like, Writer. Now that the book is out, how are you negotiating the multiple identities of Hilary T. Smith? Do you think you'll keep writing YA?

"Negotiating the multiple identities" is such a graceful way of putting it. For me, it's been more like lurching. Blogging-wise, I've felt torn between a desire to write what I want, and a perverse sense of loyalty to readers both real and imagined who “expect” me to keep writing as INTERN, or as a squeaky-clean YA writer version thereof. I've "negotiated" that tension by more or less going silent. And while I am super stoked about the YA novel I am currently working on, there is a Hilary waiting in the wings who can’t wait to swoop down with some Rikki Ducornet-style novella madness once this contract is finished. I’m an omnivore... so yes, just Writer, please.

And yes, there are frustrations to having your book categorized as a YA novel instead as opposed to just a novel novel. It’s going to get packaged, promoted, reviewed and consumed in a way that suggests it is less “serious” than other books. Nobody would e-mail an "adult" literary fiction author asking for some "fun swag" for a Cupcake Kittens Hot Boys of Summer giveaway, but if you're a female "YA author" that's what you're going to get. Nobody would write an Amazon review complaining that J.D Salinger should have shown more serious consequences for Holden Caulfield’s underaged alcohol use, but a (female) YA author should know better than to let her (female) characters get away with drinking or smoking--I mean, what kind of EXAMPLE is she setting? (It is obviously a female author’s responsibility to set a Good Example for the Children.)

Both of our books deal, in different ways, with some kind of underworld journey, and I am curious what kind of mythology you read growing up--whether it's mythology in the classical sense or a more unorthodox interpretation of the word. Did those stories influence the kinds of stories you wanted to tell as an adult?

I was raised Catholic, so there were always books about saints lying around. For me, the stories about saints were a wonderful initiation into the fantastical--a loaf of bread turns into an armful of roses, a giant carries a boy across a river, people hear voices and see visions and have all sorts of amazing experiences without ever leaving the “real” world.

From a young age, I was used to the idea that one could have a second, stranger and more intense reality superimposed onto the regular one. The characters in the stories I write often reflect this. In Wild Awake, Kiri lives in the real world while simultaneously entering this heightened space where her perceptions are anything but ordinary. I’m interested in the place where consensus reality diverges; where objects and impressions take on a life of their own.

I was reading an article about Rachel Kushner, who wrote The Flamethrowers, a fantastic novel whose lady main character has a lot of particularly epic adventures. Jonathan Franzen (I know, I know, bear with me) had her as a writing student and apparently said of her, "I had the sense that she came from a place where nobody had told young women what they could and couldn't be." Despite the source, that quote's really stuck with me, as someone who was told all throughout my early life that I could be whatever I wanted (which I think my parents might have later come to regret). Both of us have had somewhat unconventional lives, I think, and I am curious as to how you think that's informed your writing.

My parents, and my mother in particular, had an extreme distaste for girly stuff--dance lessons, pink clothes, makeup, the Baby-Sitters' Club. That kind of thing was essentially banned in my house. In some ways I grew up more boy than girl, which caused me a fair amount of grief and social awkwardness in the high-school years but which gave me a sense of independence and agency in the world I now realize has been responsible for pretty much every adventure I’ve had. I now realize that in shielding me from Mattel-syle girl culture when I was a kid, my parents gave me an enormous gift, even if it was a painful one at times.

That sense of agency led me to go on long hitchhiking trips and to seek out strange and occasionally dangerous experiences--because if Jack Kerouac could do it in On the Road, why couldn’t I? That bank of strange, uncomfortable, sometimes luminous experiences has been a huge influence in the kind of books and the kind of characters I want to write.

What are some books you've read recently and loved?

Well, there was this amazing novel called All Our Pretty Songs... [The Editor is blushing.]