Sep 21, 2023

Stories of Mental Health are Absolutely Necessary: A Q&A with Rocky Callen, co-editor of Ab(solutely) Normal

interview by Anne-Marie Strohman

Rocky Callen is a passionate person–passionate about stories, writing, people, and mental health. Rocky graduated from VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program a couple semesters ahead of me, and she was always kind, open, resourceful, empathetic, and energetic. Those qualities come through in her writing–her debut novel A Breath Too Late, which deals boldly with the costs of mental health crises on the person themself and their loved ones, and in the collection of short stories she edited with Nora Shalaway Carpenter, Ab(solutely) Normal: Short Stories that Smash Mental Health Stereotypes. You’ll see Rocky’s generosity and energy in her answers below. I hope you learn as much from Rocky as I have. —Anne-Marie

KidLit Craft: *Ab(solutely) Normal includes stories about characters with mental health conditions, written by authors who share those conditions. Where did the idea for the collection come from?

Rocky Callen: I had long desired to do a mental health anthology, but I lacked the experience editing one to feel confident pitching the project. Enter the glorious Nora Shalaway Carpenter! We both wrote debuts centered on mental health experiences, and we collaborated on posts and panels on the subject. We both were passionate about mental health, and we bonded over that. Then Nora popped into my inbox and pitched the idea of co-editing Ab(solutely) Normal with her. It was an immediate, enthusiastic YES. Our vision, passion, and conviction matched on every point, and the proposal was whipped together quickly. We were both adamant that this collection feature protagonists living with mental health conditions and be written by authors with lived mental health experiences. There are many incredible stories out there that aren’t written from lived experience, but we wanted this anthology’s mere existence to be a testament to how those living with mental health conditions can still chase dreams and lead fulfilling lives.

KidLit Craft: Your first novel also deals with mental health struggles. Why is it important to tell these stories for teen readers?

Rocky Callen: Nearly half of all young people are diagnosed with a mental health condition. As I battled depression and suicidal ideation in silence, the isolation fueled the terrible spirals I experienced. I never want another person to feel alone, to feel other, to feel wrong because of their brain health. The more we talk about these issues away from media stereotypes of social stigma, the more collective healing and understanding can take root. My debut was my own exercise in radical honesty. The experiences within it were ones I long kept silent and secret, and the tragedy of the story is that for Ellie the silence and secrets won. By sharing these stories, my goal is that hope wins.

KidLit Craft: What advice do you have for writers attempting to write stories that include mental health themes? Any dos and don’ts? Things to watch for?

Rocky Callen: Aim to never present mental health as a caricature or simply a plot device. Many readers will have lived/are living with these issues, and we want to humanize, respect, and understand the reality of that experience as much as possible. 
Research. Talk to people with the same experiences as your character. If you have your own mental health experiences, then journal and capture your honest and real feelings. Refer to those entries as you craft your characters. But always go back to research. Even though I had my own lived experience, I still researched to try to round out what I brought to the page.

KidLit Craft: Each story in the collection has a note from the author to the reader. Why was it important to include those?

Rocky Callen: Our authors are phenomenal, brave, and wonderfully willing to break down all barriers for our readers. Since the protagonists exist with the same mental health conditions as the authors, the stories are inherently intimate. Every author was passionate about this project because of its potential impact on young people—in either making them understand themselves or understand others. The notes only deepen that respect and intimacy. It shows that the authors are willing to open themselves up that much more to reach a reader, and Nora and I were so, so grateful for that. In order to combat mental health stigma, we need to engage in open, honest, intimate conversations and these notes are a beautiful example of that.

KidLit Craft: What kind of feedback have you received from readers, teachers, therapists? (I just recommended the book to my kid’s therapist, and she was really excited for it!)

Rocky Callen: We’ve been blown away by the response. Nora and I have gone to many conferences and there has been such tremendous enthusiasm for the book. Teachers and librarians love the fact that our authors are diverse in identity, the stories range in genre and tone, the stories have distinct narrative structures, the back is full of resources and the book kicks off with a letter from Nora and I discussing the mental health crisis for young people in the U.S. and why we felt this book is absolutely necessary. As one teacher told us, this book is full of potential lesson plans and is an awesome conversation starter. We have also been so grateful that mental health professionals and teachers have volunteered their time and talent to create amazing accompanying resources for the book.

KidLit Craft: You and Nora Shalaway Carpenter edited the collection. How did the process work? Did you solicit manuscripts, put out a call for submissions, or both? How did you decide who edited what?

Rocky Callen: Even before we sold the project, Nora and I made a huge list of authors who had publicly shared their mental health experiences, and we were very intentional about approaching authors with diverse experiences from identity to diagnosis. We reached out to authors and asked if they wanted to participate in the project, and so many said YES! We were thrilled. We were able to reach out to some authors after we sold the project but it was always by direct invitation. We split up the stories equally. We led the editorial process for our stories and remained in contact with our set of authors but then swapped to add our comments or thoughts. We read all the stories but this made the workload more manageable as both Nora and I were very much in the trenches with our set of authors.

KidLit Craft: Any advice for writers attempting short story writing? 

Read, read, read! There are so many ways to tell a short story, and reading as many as possible can inform or inspire your approach to writing them. I think it is also easy to either fall into the trap of trying to say too much (smooshing in details/plot points/ideas that simply don’t have enough space to offer an emotional pay off) or too little. [In the case of “too little,”] it is rarely about a spare writing style/too few details. It is more about not delivering on the external/internal conflict and resolution of a character’s arc.

The key is to simplify and not dilute. Pick a scene, a moment or a sequence that can allow the reader to follow a short period of conflict/epiphany or transformation, and let us ride that roller coaster together. A roller coaster ride is short, but you feel something as you whip up and down and around the turns and screech to a stop. Short stories should make you feel something, too.

KidLit Craft: *What current and next projects are you working on? Where can we find you and your work?

My next novel, Crashing Into You, just had its cover reveal! It is a YA Contemporary novel that is about street racing, grief, first love, and family. It is available for preorder and will hit shelves on June 25, 2024. I mostly hang out on Instagram and my website is www.rockycallen.com.

Rocky Callen (she/her), daughter of an Ecuadorian immigrant, is a former behavioral coach and the author of the young adult novel A Breath Too Late, which was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Book of the Year and a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best selection of 2020. It was also featured on the Mujerista’s list of Ten Best YA Books by Latinx Authors in 2020. The novel grapples with suicide, depression, and domestic violence and was inspired by her own experiences. Rocky founded the HoldOn2Hope Project, an initiative that unites creatives in suicide prevention and mental health awareness. Her next YA Contemporary novel, Crashing Into You will be out in June 2024.

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