(Excerpted from an interview I did with AReCafe.)
What inspired the story behind House with a Blue Door?
The year and a half I spent working at a group home for mentally handicapped residents, many of whom had additional diagnoses like Down syndrome, Tourette’s, and paranoid schizophrenia. My main goal is to show this group of people as people, not stereotypes. 10% of my royalties will go to charity.
What did you find was the biggest challenge for you in writing this book?
Pacing. I thought about using the group home as a backdrop for a more complicated storyline—like having someone masquerade as a resident to avoid law enforcement, the mafia, etc. But I decided that risked reducing the residents to props, and that would have defeated the point. So I left the plot at the day-to-day level; the book basically follows a new staff worker as he navigates from shift to shift. The trick was making that interesting.
It took several revisions, but one thing I did was structure each chapter around a particular theme. “Stealing from Jesus,” for example, explores the influence of religion on the residents, while “Laid Her Up on the Dash” examines how they deal with universal urges in a highly restricted environment. I tried not to be too overt, though; the characters still dictate where the story goes more than anything else.
I also did a lot of cutting. When I finished my first draft, I felt like it had some great moments. But when I reread it, I thought those moments were often separated by too much detail: what the residents’ behavior programs looked like, when they went to their workshops, how their medication was doled out… I kept the bare essentials, but a lot of the minutiae got the ax. What’s left is better for its leanness.
What misconceptions about mental illness do you hope to clear up with your stories?
I don’t know that I clear up any misconceptions, other than (hopefully) humanizing a section of the population that usually goes unnoticed. But another theme was the huge difference a dedicated staff member can make. There are some amazing social workers out there. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of bad and/or burned out ones. And the system is far from perfect. So unless more resources suddenly become available, those amazing social workers have to go on being amazing. It’s a lot to ask.
What's next for you?
My second novel, The Red Wraith, comes out in September.
The story is a bit of a genre jump: historical fantasy instead of literary fiction. The Red Wraith is set in Early America, and features a Native American protagonist who becomes the focus for magic’s reentry into the world. But I carried over a lot of the lessons I learned from writing House with a Blue Door—I think every book you write builds a bit on the previous one, even if they’re not part of the same series.
We’ll see if that holds true for my third novel, which is also a historical fantasy. It takes place during the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. I’m about 100 pages in. The goal is to finish drafting this year, and then revise and publish next year. We’ll see. Historically, that kind of optimism has proven to be its own type of fantasy for me. But I’m hopeful. I’ll post updates on my website.