John Corey Whaley Talks 'Highly Illogical Behavior', North Carolina, And Writing Superstitions
In Highly Illogical Behavior , National Book Award finalist and Printz Award-winning author John Corey Whaley introduces us to Solomon Reed, a 16-year-old agoraphobic who hasn't left the house since the fateful day three years ago when he settled a panic attack by taking off his clothes and dipping his body into his middle school's courtyard fountain. Lisa Praytor remembers that day clearly, and she intends to find Solomon, "fix" him, and write an essay about the process in an attempt to sway admissions officers and scholarship officials at the second-best psychology program in the country.
But here's the kicker: Solomon doesn't really need to be fixed. Yes, he's agoraphobic, but he and his parents have developed a precise system of life hacks that keep him happy, healthy, and relatively sane. He does his homework, he watches his favorite program, Star Trek: The Next Generation, he jokes around with his parents and grandmother, and he retreats to his safe space — his garage holodeck — when he needs a little time to reset. As Whaley writes:
"Solomon lived in the only world that would have him. And even though it was quiet and mundane and sometimes lonely, it never got out of control."
So when Lisa and Clark subvert Solomon's fragile world order, they don't fix Solomon. They help him cope with his panic attacks, certainly. They help reintroduce him to the outside world, sure. Mostly, they just become his friends. The novel isn't a lesson in "recovering" from mental illness. It's a story about learning that "the weird kid" who hasn't left his house in years might be more than his condition. He might just be a friend you haven't taken the time to figure out.
"It's easy to say 'that crazy kid' and not ever know who 'that crazy kid' is or what he likes or who he has a crush on or any of those things," John Corey Whaley tells Bustle. "I remember as a teenager it was so easy to be judgmental of things that are different and that are outside the realm of your own experience. It's so easy to write off someone as a mystery you can't solve, so you don't try to."
As part of his condition, Solomon suffers from severe panic attacks, described in incredible, almost-nauseating detail by Whaley:
"[Solomon] started to feel like he couldn't catch his breath. He leaned against the wall for a second, trying to breathe through it, hoping he could shake it off. But he couldn't. Now hyperventilating, he stumbled down the hallway and into his bedroom, where he crawled under the covers and rode it out, his body shaking from side to side, his eyes closed so tightly they were starting to hurt. It was brief but intense, and afterward Solomon just lay there listening to his breath as it leveled out. Sometimes that's all you can do when it's happening — hold on just long enough for the world to stop shaking."
Whaley, who suffers from panic attacks, says writing Solomon's attacks was difficult for him emotionally. In order to give readers the sensation of what a panic attack truly feels like, he wrote from his own experience. "One of the most frustrating parts of anxiety and panic disorders is explaining to someone how it makes you feel. It's very difficult, because people who have never had a panic attack have no clue," Whaley says. "The best thing I can do when writing those things to make them feel personal to my readers is to make them feel personal to me."
Though Highly Illogical Behavior makes huge strides towards destigmatizing mental illness, the novel is about far more than Solomon's agoraphobia. Over the course of the novel, Solomon comes out to his friends and family, Lisa learns a valuable lesson about the importance of truth in friendships, and Clark grows comfortable in his own brand of masculinity.
Handsome, tall, and athletic, Clark seems poised to enter the story as the stereotypical jock who taunts and teases Solomon because of his condition. Instead, Clark proves to be a thoughtful teenage boy who openly admits that he's not ready to have sex with Lisa and quietly laments his water polo teammate's tendency to sexualize and objectify women.
Whaley, who is gay, says he was able to use some of his experience as a teenager to write Clark. "I was pretty convinced most of my teenage years that I was a 'different kind' of straight guy," he says. "There are a lot of boys like Clark who don't fit the prototypical masculine mold, and I always want to represent those guys."
Despite being the perfect boyfriend to Lisa, a loving friend to Solomon, and an all-around nice guy, Clark, a certified homebody, sometimes stumbles in his attempts to accept Solomon's decision to stay inside his home as a legitimate mental illness. He says:
"He hasn't left his house in three years, Lisa. He's not crazy. He's a genius. Just TV and video games twenty-four seven. I think he's my new hero."
"Clark's such a nice guy, but even he, in saying those things, shows a certain level of cultural ignorance about mental illness and the people who suffer from it," Whaley says. "Even nice people — some of the time — don't talk about [mental illness] the way we should. We don't ever talk about someone's mental illness the way we talk about someone's cancer."
John Corey Whaley handles issues of mental illness, coming out, misguided help, and teenage friendship with a precision and authenticity that few writers could manage. Whaley owes some of this insight to his years spent with kids and teens. Before becoming a full-time writer, he worked as an English teacher for five years in his native Louisiana. Though he enjoyed teaching ("I got to talk about books everyday!"), he feels he has more of an impact upon young people as a writer, especially now that his first two books, Where Things Come Back and Noggin , have made their way into school classrooms and libraries.
"I think I was an OK teacher some of the time, but I think I'm a lot better at this," he says. "I think I reach more young people this way."
Reaching young readers in certain states has become a subject of contention amongst YA authors, especially in light of North Carolina's decision to pass the so-called bathroom bill, an anti-LGBTQ piece of legislation that has artists, authors, and corporations contemplating boycotts on the state. Whaley was one of 269 young adult authors and illustrators who signed an open letter in support of their readers in North Carolina and in opposition of the law. Several writers — most notably The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian author Sherman Alexie — have since decided to cancel events in the state.
Whaley, however, isn't so sure that canceling events is the best way for authors to address the situation. "[We] want to affect change on a broad scale, but maybe as authors, we can't quite do it that way," he says. "We don't have the financial, large-scale impact that corporations and rock stars might have. Maybe the way we affect change is to go anyway and give them a voice."
Whaley feels the pressure intensely because Highly Illogical Behavior is his first novel with a gay protagonist. "You want what you say at every stop — no matter where it is — to add to the conversation that your book started," he says. "Because of the conversation my book starts, it's important for me to figure out some way to deal with this situation."
Ultimately, he believes that canceling or participating in events in North Carolina is a decision that should be left to each individual author. "It's something that I respect each of us as authors — and specifically as LGBTQ authors — to consider on a very personal level," he says.
So what's next for Whaley? He won't say. "I keep pretty tight lips on my projects," he says. "I'm in the beginning stages of a new book."
His decision to keep mum on future books is a combination of superstition and practicality. "These books are really personal, and, all of the sudden, everyone who wants to read them can read them and ask me questions about them," he says. "There's certainly a comfort in keeping the characters in the story as personal to me for as long as I can before I release it to the wild and have it be open for scrutiny."
He will, however, happily lend a word of advice to all those out there working on their first (or second or third) novel. "Where Things Come Back is the first book I ever finished," he says. "It's the first book I ever published. The more that I write, the more I realize it's like practicing the guitar. You need to do a lot of writing that maybe no one will read. That's OK. It makes you a better writer either way."
Highly Illogical Behavior is available now.