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Award-winning author Carrie Mac is well-known for her adeptness at captivating young adult audiences; she has written ten books for young adults, and won the 2010 Sheila A. Egoff Book Prize for her previous work, The Gryphon Project. She lives with her family in Vancouver, BC.
Carrie Mac is well-known for her adeptness at captivating young adult audiences. She has written ten books for young adults, and won the 2010 Sheila A. Egoff Book Prize for her previous work, The Gryphon Project. She joined Penguin Random House for a Q&A about her latest book 10 Things I Can See From Here, the nature of anxiety, the unhelpfulness of platitudes, and more.
Carrie Mac’s 10 Things I Can See From Here is a novel about a anxiety, love, family, and connection. Maeve Glover suffers from severe anxiety, and her mother’s sudden decision to leave for Haiti for six months is not helping. Because that means Maeve is being sent to stay with her dad in Vancouver, a big city where all manner of horrifying things could happen (and have happened). But Vancouver is where Maeve meets Salix, a girl who teaches her how to trust–if not the world, then herself.
10 Things I Can See From Here unapologetically paints a brutally and refreshingly honest picture of what it means to live with anxiety, and portrays homosexual love in a non-novel way (which is just as refreshing). Maeve and Salix’s budding love is at the heart of the story, to be sure, but the fact that their love is of the queer variety is not. Mac’s novel is a hand to hold onto in a world where mental illness and sexual orientation can still be stigmas rather than mere characteristics.
We were lucky enough to grab some of Carrie Mac’s time for a Q&A a couple weeks after her book hit shelves. Read on for her thoughts on anxiety, platitudes, comfort, and more.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: Maeve suffers from severe anxiety. What function do you think such intense anxiety serves for Maeve, and for people like her who suffer from anxiety?
CARRIE MAC: If there were any helpful function to that kind of anxiety, it would slide on a scale. Anxiety can keep us safe, warn us away from dodgy situations, or propel us to make decisions or take actions that are hard or we’d rather put off, if it weren’t for the constant gut-wrenching, screaming, excruciatingly painful presence of severe anxiety.
Sometimes the anxiety is so loud and terrible that it’s easier—and safer— to do what it says, rather than put up with it for one moment longer. If you do what it says, it will be quiet. Even if for just a moment. Back to the question, though. What function does such intense anxiety serve for Maeve? It’s a catalyst. It keeps her going, even if it’s just out of fear or worry.
PRH: Why is it important to write about anxiety and mental illness in novels?
CM: I write about people. Some people have anxiety or other mental illnesses, therefore some of my characters will be living with mental health issues or diagnosed disorders. I want those characters to have fair play when it comes to telling their stories, mostly because I enjoy writing them and not sugar-coating out their neuroses, and then I love hearing from readers who have enjoy seeing themselves reflected.
PRH: Maeve’s parents tell her she may “grow out of” her anxiety. Why do we say anxiety/depression is something we can grow out of but we don’t say the same for more obviously physical illnesses, like diabetes?
Not trusting what we can’t see.
Thinking we know what’s best for our children because once they were very small, and that was very true, and as they grow older and can begin to advocate for themselves, a parent still wants the Best Life for their child. A Best Life doesn’t include pills or support groups or a lifelong struggle with whatever mental health issue has taken up camp, be it anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, bipolar, or disordered eating.
We want our children to be healthy, and many parents will deny and pretend and brush that beast away before consenting to let it become a defining presence in their child’s life. If you don’t medicate it, it doesn’t exist. And maybe it really doesn’t exist at all, right?
Maybe this is just an anxious kid, and everything will smooth out as she matures. Maybe she’ll look back on her quirky childhood and laugh and be thankful thank that she ‘escaped’ being pathologized or medicated. Growing brains might grow right out of it. Right?
The danger is that not all families are as supportive as Maeve’s.
The danger is that the teenager who doesn’t get formal help might hurt themselves, or worse, die by suicide.
If families have psychiatrists, or psychologists, or good counselors or therapists on hand, I worry about the unmedicated kid less.
When that unmedicated kid is trying to figure it out all on their own? That’s when I worry.
PRH: Thinking about Maeve’s tendency to thought-spiral and craft imaginary obituaries, how much do the stories we tell ourselves influence what happens in our lives?
CM: The stories we tell ourselves are our lives. Out of moments and hours and days and weeks and months and years, we pick out the threads that become our story. We’re given the story, but we pick the words. Frame it beautiful. Frame it frantic. Frame it fabulous and famous. Frame it failure. Frame it unfair. In this version, it’s up to us to tell the story.
The reverse is true too—the lives we live tell our stories.
It is such a comforting thought to think that you can manifest your destiny by positive thinking, or praying for good health, or happy relationships, or by repeating hopeful mantras to yourself while you cycle to work, or having a ‘vision’ section in your beautiful bullet journal that you work on at lunch hour.
Or by praying to your god in your own way, asking for your own private wonderful.
Does any of this beautiful, hopeful, positive manifestation change one damn thing in a lifetime?
If you just believe it hard enough, if you pray harder enough. If you deserve it, your dreams will come true. Right?
Sure, it might look like it for some people. But there is no deserving to having a safe home or a fancy car just as there is no deserving to be kicked onto the streets because your parents hate that you’re queer, or being in a marriage where you get hit.
This is a tricky topic. Personally, I don’t believe that you can manifest/hope/pray in the good thing and manifest/hope/pray out the bad thing. That is too simplistic, and it is a set up for disappointment.
If that were true? If we could? The world would be unrecognizable.
PRH: When Maeve goes off on anxiety-ridden tangents, she cites true facts as backup, and can actually be quite persuasive. How much worry is justified, living in a world where awful things truly do happen every day?
CM: Those true facts certainly help her worry-tornado spin faster and faster, but they’re helpful too in that there is a limit to the truth. If the worries that the cars will slide of the ferry ramp into the ocean, she can recall the fact. One did. If she worries that the captain will sink the ship because he’s having sex with his girlfriend, she can recall that, yes, that did happen. Once.
So, facts restrain her a bit. Plant her feet in the real world, however horrible she might think it is. It is only as horrible as she can prove with those same facts.
She also uses those facts as a cushion between her and people who don’t worry so much. She can get them ‘on her side’ by offering up facts. This method is not as effective as she’d like it to be.
PRH: Do you hate anti-anxiety platitudes as much as Maeve does? As contrived as they can often sound, there’s also some comfort in them, somehow—I recently watched this video by John Green on his recent acceptance of them, and he makes a pretty convincing case for them.
CM: Yes, I do hate anti-anxiety platitudes just as much as Maeve does, if not more. Now, I just watched the John Green video, and it makes sense to me that he’s shifting towards acceptance of helpful platitudes. He’s tremendously successful, so he is one of those people who can ponder this— did his hard work and hopefulness bring him there, or was he deposited by fate?
My friends who literally live on the street would have a lot to say about that video.
I have so much to say about human worth, and value, and how we can only seem to see it through our own gaze, or the gazes of the people within immediate reach, and how that cripples our humanity immensely.
PRH: Is there a “right” way to be there for someone who has anxiety?
There are plenty of wrong ways, such as offering up any of the platitudes listed in the front of the book.
Or overly identifying with our own anxiety, which will likely be mild—even if it feels mammoth—compared to someone who feels like they’re going to die from the panic attack you are trying to talk them out of with your story about locking your keys in the car that morning.
I know how you feel. Not true. Ever. For any situation. Never say that to anyone.
Strike that useless phrase from your vocabulary. You should never, ever use it.
Different things help different people who are experiencing anxiety.
If you have a friend or loved one with severe anxiety, ask them (when they are not panicking) what you can do to help when they are.
Some might want you to turn off the lights and shut the door and keep the roommates quiet.
Others might want you to take them on a walk and talk at them the whole time.
Maybe someone wants a glass of water, or a chocolate bar, or a piece of paper and a pen to make a list of why this thing they are worrying about it not going to result in the end of the world as they know it.
One thing that is true for nearly everyone I know with severe anxiety is that breathing is a very powerful way to help their bodies get back to a regular state and turn off that flight or fight feeling.
Ask in a calm time if you can help them steady their breathing when they are panicking. Ask them what works. A hand on the back? Quiet counting together? Head between their knees? Brown paper bag?
*A note of caution: very well meaning bystanders often shout “BREATHE, honey! Calm down now and just breeeeeeeeeeeeathe. YOU HAVE TO BREATHE!” when they see someone having a full-blown panic attack.
This is not helpful.
PRH: I love that you chose to write a book where the main character is gay, but the fact that they’re gay isn’t at the center of the novel. Why did you choose to approach Maeve’s sexuality in this way?
CM: I’ve been Queer my entire life. There was a time in my teen years that I hunted for books about queer kids. This was a long time ago, and the stories were mostly bleak. I looked for adult books about queers. Back then? Mostly bleak. So I figured I’d write a few that were not bleak at all, at least in the Queer-ness of them.
It’s brilliant that there are so many Queer Books about coming out and dealing with family and homophobes, or even just where the story is a Queer story. I want more books for teens where the story is whatever it is, and it is populated by real people. Real people are queer, or poor, or anxious, or saving up for a trip to Mumbai to meet their grandparents, or babysitting for a family where the mom is dying of cancer. I want to populate my books with real people. And especially Queer kids, because I didn’t see them in the books I read growing up. Although I have my suspicions about Harriet and Scout.
PRH: I recently included 10 Things I Can See from Here on a YA-adult crossover list for Penguin Random House because I think it has appeal for readers of all ages. Would you like to make the case for YA as a genre that people from all walks of life could benefit from reading?
CM: I’m not going to make the case for the genre, because like any genre, there are good books and not-good books. What I notice is that more people are reading YA, and passing the ‘good’ ones onto their friends of all ages. That’s how it gets read.
So if someone loves unicorn war sagas, and they find a YA series, they’ll read it because it is a unicorn war saga. Then if that unicorn war saga is enjoyable, they’ll recommend it to all of their friends. If a story is about unrequited love, and you’re in the bookstore with a broken heart, you might pick it up, YA or not, especially if it was mixed in with a display of broken-heart books. Then you’ll pass it on to your friend who also has a broken heart.
If you are looking for protagonists that you can relate too—one with crippling anxiety, for example—you’ll pick up 10 Things I Can See From Here and get to know Maeve, who might be ten years younger than you. But you have so much in common. Readers love it when they can see themselves in a protagonist. That happens across the ages and across the genres, thank goodness.
A good story is a good story, and so it gets passed on.
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