Kirsti Call: Everything’s Not Fine, by Sarah J. Carlson, is a beautifully visceral book which explores themes of resilience, family, love, loyalty, eviction, poverty, addiction, and parentification. It’s a compelling and powerful read.
Thank you for visiting Writers’ Rumpus, Sarah. Everything’s Not Fine is a powerfully raw story. What inspired you to write the book?
Sarah J. Carlson: I’m a young adult author, but I’m also a school psychologist. In my twelve years working in the schools, the things I see children and teens struggle with most are things beyond their control, such as parental substance abuse. I wanted to write a story about a teen finding her resilience in the aftermath of trauma in the hopes that it might help teens dealing with tough life circumstances, whatever they might be.
Some of the messages I hoped to convey:
Find the courage to admit that everything really isn’t fine and trust others to help carry your burden; you don’t have to go through it alone.
But at the same time, sometimes it’s okay to try and put your thoughts and worries in a metaphorical box and shelve it to allow yourself to just be a teen.
Focus on what you can control.
You have the power to define your own life narrative.
KC: I love how colors, art, and the act of painting are themes in the book. Are you someone who paints with brushes as well as words?
SJC: When I was in elementary and middle school, my parents bought me cheap craft paints and I painted for fun. In high school, I was the kid who always wanted to take art, but instead ended up taking the classes I thought would look better on a college application (I advise against this; following your passions is more fun and makes you a more well-rounded person.) After I finished graduate school, I took an oil painting class through a community recreation program, and it’s here I learned about mixing paint and how to oil paint. The way Rose paints and mixes and sees the world through colors, all of that is drawn from things I learned in that class. Someday, I’d like to get back to it again; I still have my brushes and my oil paints. Apparently oil paints are good for years. Because, like Rose, I love the thrill of that first brush stroke, the way the words and thoughts become instead colors and shapes. Painting, and art in general, can be so soothing and therapeutic. It can be a release. Just like writing.
KC: What is you advice for aspiring writers?
SJC: Treat your characters like real people. Give them a backstory including critical life events that helped define who they are. Think about how your character’s life experiences have shaped their worldview. It’s through the lens of their worldview that characters (and people) interpret what happens to and around them. Their interpretation of this, and the thoughts they have in response, is what triggers their emotion and their reactions. Keeping this front-and-center in every scene, for all characters, will help them respond in ways that are consistent and authentic. This can also help you to capture your character’s unique voice.
Everything’s Not Fine is set in my high school hometown. In that spirit, I’ll also share one tidbit I’ve held on to from Ms. O’Neil, one of my high school English teachers—“specific is terrific.” To be specific, I sprinkle concrete details (like names of stores and textures of sofa fabric and writing on a T-shirt) throughout my stories to make the reader feel like they’re immersed in a real, three-dimensional world, whether it’s a galaxy far, far away or some rural town in Wisconsin.
One final bit of advice—never give up. Apart from very rare exceptions, it’s the writers who get rejected again and again but keep picking themselves up and pushing their craft to the next level who eventually achieve their goals.
Sarah J. Carlson writes contemporary YA that delves into complex, real world problems. Professionally, she is a school psychologist with a professional focus around supporting the success of children with behavioral and mental health needs. Sarah lives outside Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and two young children. Her works include All the Walls of Belfast and Everything’s Not Fine.