Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Our Interview with Kathleen Brandt and Max Maddox!

Walks on the Margins

A mother watches her son crush his painting and leave the remains under a “No Passing” sign along an empty highway to Iowa. For her, Max’s canvas, a reminder of her son’s promise becomes one more abandoned souvenir along the footpath of bipolar disorder. In Walks on the Margins, mother and son weave two narratives into a single powerful story of the illness once known as Manic Depression.

It’s the whiz kid and his vexed mother. His emotional unrest and her gentle compassion. She strives to piece together a semblance of her son as he takes another frenzied walk through the corridors of mania and is then paralyzed by depression. The two struggle to decode an enigmatic disease in a world beset by institutional failure. Down the twisted road to emancipation from the powerful forces looming over severe mental illness, they confront the new unknowns of their lives and find hope in recovery.

Kathy writes the Hannah Sampson Underwater Investigation Series (Swimming with the Dead, Dark Water Dive, Dangerous Depths, and Under Pressure), which were recently released as ebooks. She is also the author of Walks on the Margins: A Story of Bipolar Illness, co-written with her son, Max Maddox. The book was a finalist for the Iowa Review Award in Non-Fiction. Kathy was on the Board of Directors of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Colorado Springs (NAMI) for six years and served as President. She is currently the NAMI-CS liaison to the Mental Health Court in Colorado Springs. She received the 2012 National Member of the Year Award for her outstanding service to NAMI. Kathy has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Rhetoric and taught writing at the University of Colorado for ten years.

What was the driving force that prompted you to write this book “Walks on the Margins”?

 After my son, Max, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was twenty and in college, I struggled to help him and keep my family functioning.   Eventually I became active in advocacy for those with mental illness and became the President of the Board of the local affiliate of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). As a writer, my advocacy inevitably involved writing about the issues.  And I wanted to tell Max’s story so that people would understand the difficulties of having mental illness and that recovery is possible.  But I wouldn’t do it without Max.  Though reliving the years of illness would be painful, Max agreed to write the book with me. The result is a memoir about our joint and separate struggles with bipolar disorder titled, Walks on the Margins: A Story of Bipolar Illness.

Writing the book brought us together in ways I never imagined and it helped us make sense of the years of chaos.  We have succeeded in telling an honest though often painful story that ends with the understanding that mental illness is a life time deal but that redemption and recovery are possible.  We hope that others with mental illness and their families will find comfort in the book will realize they aren’t as alone as they thought.  We also hope that we have succeeded in breaking down the barriers of stigma and made human and understandable an illness that so many fear or even demonize. 

This was a difficult book for both of us. We dredged up memories that we would have sooner left buried.  We wrote things that we’d rather have left unsaid, worried that our words would hurt one another and knowing we that we were revealing our most innermost fears and embarrassments.  I worry about the risks, especially for Max, because he is exposing his illness to the world, but it’s something he wants to do.  Like me, he’s become an advocate.

I have to say that this is the hardest book I have ever written, but the most important.

How did it work for you and your son to collaborate on the memoir? 

When we started, Max and I wrote our segments independently, knowing it was important to just get our own memories and emotions down.  At the time, he was living in Philadelphia and I in Colorado, so we began emailing our material back and forth and talking on the phone for hours.  Soon I began flying to Philadelphia for long weekends or Max flew to Colorado.  At one point we house sat for a friend with a beautiful house near the Garden of the Gods in Manitou Springs.  We spent a week there in isolated retreat working on the book.  That week was intense.  Tears were shed as we talked about our experiences during Max’s episodes.  Collaborative writing can be very difficult, but we have been a good team and as I said earlier, writing the book has brought us much closer.  We’ve come to understand how each of us was struggling during crises of illness.  It probably helped that we are bound together as mother and son and love each other very much. 

Are you an organized writer? Do you do things like take notes and make lists of characters?  Or do you free write and work it out as you go?

When my son and I decided to write, Walks on the Margins, I’d been keeping a journal of our struggles with mental illness for years so the material was at my fingertips.  The challenge was to turn it into a memoir, know what to include, what to leave out, and to make the narrative come alive.  We knew the material and how the book would proceed, so we didn’t outline before drafting. However, we did outline the book afterwards to get a complete picture of what we’d done.  Then we did a lot of restructuring and rewriting, cutting material, and working on the story arc.

When I write my Hannah Sampson Underwater Investigation mysteries, I start by doing some general research and plotting.  I simply can’t outline my fiction because about a quarter of the way through, I don’t know what happens next.   Instead, I do time lines and character descriptions and diagrams of the story arc. Then I write the entire book.   I find comfort in Anne Lamont’s statement that everyone deserves the luxury of writing “shitty first drafts.”  Mine definitely fit that category.  But it happens that I love the rewriting process.  My first draft is my chance to discover meaning—what it is that I really want this book to be about.  When I have a story—a beginning, middle, and end—I revise and revise.  I move scenes, drop characters, cut, paste, add, subtract and then I toy with prose. 

What is your normal writing day like? Do you write when you are inspired or do you have a schedule?

I plant myself down in front of my computer and write.  When I’m engaged in a project and especially when I have deadlines, I write–four or five hours, five days a week.  Often that can turn into eight when things are going well.  I’ve learned to protect my time and space.  Since I write full-time, I conduct my day like a nine- to-five job.  I take a cup of coffee to my office, spend an hour responding to email, then work until noon when I take a lunch break.  Then I’m back at it until three or four.  I do have the luxury of isolation. I live on seven acres down a long gravel driveway in the Colorado Mountains, so I’m seldom interrupted.

Who is your favorite author and how did they inspire you to write?  

There are so many authors I love that it’s hard to choose a favorite.  But there are two very different authors who have influenced me.  One is Carolyn Keene, who really isn’t one author at all but a series of authors who wrote the Nancy Drew books over the years.  I read every one when I was a kid and developed my love for mysteries – thus my mystery series. 

On the other end of the spectrum is Joseph Campbell.  His book, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, is a classic study of the function of myth in societies and cultures and a wonderful account of the story arc (the hero’s journey) that is part of all myth.  It’s turns out to be an excellent roadmap for the storyteller.

It’s easy to see that you have a passion for writing but is there any part of it you don’t like?

Writing is very hard.  I get stuck.  I agonize.  I question.  I wonder if it’s good enough, if I’m good enough. Sometimes I have to enlist every ounce of will power to avoid looking for something, anything, more satisfying.  Even cleaning the toilet sounds appealing.  But I just keep going.  I know better than to think that I can wait for inspiration.  I’ve spent many hours looking a blank computer screen, but I know if I get out of the chair, the book will never get done.  It can be painful. The good days keep me going, the days I peck out a word that turns to a sentence that turns to a page, the times my characters take on lives of their own and decide events for me. I guess that’s what people mean by inspiration but for me it can’t happen unless I’m actually writing.  Some writers call it “being in the zone.”

I see you have several books out with one being a memoir; in the other books are there any personal experiences in the others?

Those are the Hannah Sampson diving mysteries.  It’s funny how personal experiences creep into my mysteries.  I love it when that happens because the memories are vivid and I can translate those visual images into the books, such as in scenes of Hannah diving, what she sees under the water, storms my husband I weathered out on our sailboat, people I know.  Many of the island characters are based on the local people I’ve met.

Your books have been published with Penguin, do you see the tried and true staying around or do you see publishing going to the new way?

Penguin was a wonderful publisher to work with.  However, after talking with other writers  and doing considerable research, my son and I set up Monkshood Press to publish our memoir, Walks on the Margins, both as an e-book and a trade paperback.  As indie authors we will receive higher royalties—65-70 percent for the e-book, a bit less for the trade paperback, while royalties from traditionally published books usually run around eight percent.  Self-publishing also eliminates the middle people (publishers, agents) and gives the author full control—from book cover to pricing.   Promotion falls to the author whether you are traditionally published or not unless you happen to be a Stephen King as publishers do very little marketing for your books.  So to be successful, you’ll need to do your own marketing one way or the other.  And if you self-publish, once the book is complete, it can be published in a matter of weeks as opposed to a year or more with a traditional house. 

But self-publishing is not for everyone.  First and foremost, you’ve got to make sure to hire a good editor who will give you feedback on everything from structure to word choice, who will do line editing, and finally careful proofing.  Because my son is an artist, he was able to do all of the cover design.  And both he and my husband are very savvy when it comes to the technicalities of formatting and getting the books up as e-books and ready to print.  Otherwise, one may need to hire a cover designer as well as someone to format the interior and put the book online.  I’m extremely pleased with the way Walks on the Margins turned out and glad we decided to publish it ourselves. 

Do you have any online sites where others can read more of your writing?

Walks on the Margins is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and most of the other online sites as are all my mysteries. I also write a blog about mental health issues and writing at http://kathybrandtauthor.com/kathy-brandts-blog  and my website is www.kathybrandtauthor.com

Do you have any more stories in the works? What kinds of stories do you plan to write next?  

I need to finish a novel I’ve got sitting on my desk called “Out of Sight,” which is a mystery about a woman with bipolar disorder.  For a long time I’ve considered writing a story based on my mother’s life.  She had a tough childhood.  And then of course there are the Hannah Sampson Underwater Investigation Mysteries.  I’d like to add one or two more books to the series.

Who would be your first choice to play Max in your book “Walks on the Margins’?   

Hum…. Maybe Ryan Gosling or Colin Farrell.  They have the ability to convey vulnerability and sensitivity as well as strength.

If you could meet anyone from any time who would it be and what would be your first question?

My grandparents.  I would ask them to tell me everything, where they came from, how they grew up, how they lived, about their parents, my parents, everything.  Guess that’s a lot more than one question!