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ReachOut Reads Interview: David Stahler, Author of ‘Spinning Out’

by RO_Meredith Books, Interviews

Today's Reach Out Reads exclusive interview is with author David Stahler, talking about struggling with the onset of mental illness. Don't forget to read David's bio at the end!

Your new novel, Spinning Out, depicts a teen’s gradual decline in mental health despite having involved parents and a promising future. What do you hope your readers will take away from this young man’s story?

David Stahler: I’m reluctant to say there’s a particular message I want readers to take away from this novel. It’s really about chronicling a breakdown from the perspective of someone who isn’t experiencing it himself but is closely connected to one who is. In other words, it’s more about telling a story than trying to impart a “lesson.” Life is complicated, and these kinds of situations can be very tricky. There isn’t always one right or wrong approach. That said, what I think what most characterizes Frenchy’s situation is the importance of not giving up on someone who is struggling under the weight of mental illness or to just hope that someone else will do something about it. This is especially true for young people, who may feel powerless in the face of something so new and unsettling, or who may believe that it’s not their place to act. In terms of Stewart, his parents may be “involved,” but there are different levels of involvement. They’re obsessed with getting him into a good school but don’t want to deal with anything that deviates from their perception of their “perfect” son. I’ve seen it plenty in my own life both personally and professionally (as a teacher), and I think we sometime overestimate how often these situations occur. Denial—it ain’t just a river in Egypt, as the saying goes.

Frenchy, the protagonist of Spinning Out, offers support for his struggling friend while facing a number of setbacks in his own life, including poverty and the death of his father. How is he able to endure so much for his friend without having a mental breakdown of his own?

David: Again, as a high school teacher, I encounter young people who are dealing with incredibly horrible things. Some of the stuff just blows my mind. How can they endure and be as functional as they are? Just as we overestimate how on the ball adults sometimes are, I think we also tend to underestimate how resilient young people can be in the face of life’s pain. But we shouldn’t—it’s one of the hallmarks of our species. We’re survivors. The other thing I would add is that there’s an important distinction between Frenchy’s situation and Stewart’s. Stewart is suffering from a mental illness that has a physiological basis. One of the things that frustrates me about our culture is that we tend to forget that many—if not most—cases of mental illness have a biological component. As a result, we end up stigmatizing people who are struggling from this “invisible” disease, which complicates treatment and causes many to suffer more than they should ever have to.

Spinning Out is a story about friendship just as much as it is about mental illness, as Stewart and Frenchy lean on each other for support through many difficult trials. What inspired you to tell the story from this angle?

David: I originally designed this novel as a sort of retelling of the Quixote tale. I was fascinated with the idea of writing a novel based on a musical that was itself based on another novel. The musical, of course, also has a split dimension to it, morphing between the story of a fictional version of Cervantes and his real-life creation. Of course, the Quixote tale is all about perception and reality—or rather detachment from reality—which fit quite nicely with this idea. It was all very meta and cool, like a house of mirrors. The point being, I didn’t set out to write a “buddy” novel or an issues novel. But one of the great things about writing novels as opposed to other forms is that they often take on lives of their own. As this story took off, my interest in my original purpose (which was probably too clever by half) gave way to the characters I’d created and their very real struggles. This isn’t to say the Quixote tale still isn’t at the heart of this. One of the things that I always found touching about Cervante’s novel is the way in which Sancho Panza cares for Don Quixote. He knows, at least on some level, that his friend is delusional, but he still sticks by him and looks after him. Where Don Quixote (or Man of La Mancha) doesn’t work for me is the way in which it tends to romanticize mental illness, even suggesting that on some level the problem is with society. Even Sancho at times plays along with his master’s fantasies. It’s an interesting notion from an artistic or philosophical perspective, but in practical, real-life terms, it’s dangerous and becomes its own form of denial. At the end of the day, Stewart, like Quixote, is ill and needs help. And that’s why his friendship with Frenchy is so important. Mental illness or not, life is too hard to make it on your own. Sometimes it only takes one person to get you through—someone who understands you, who accepts you, who will stick by you no matter what, and maybe even get you to do the things you don’t have the strength to do on your own. Frenchy’s got to be Sancho to Stewart’s Don, but he also has to be more. He can’t just humor him or even accept him—he has to step up and help him. In this way, I wanted Spinning Out to be both an homage and a kind of critique of the traditional Quixote story.

As a young adult writer and a high school teacher, you must spend a good amount of time looking back on your teen years. How much of your early experiences do you bring into your novels?

David: I don’t actually spend that much time looking back on my teenage years. Not on purpose, anyway. When you spend all day working with teenagers, their consciousness is enough. Teens live intense lives. Their feelings, thoughts, and passions are raw and right out there for everyone to see. It’s a rollercoaster time when everything is new and you stumble around and screw up a lot. We’re all pathetic in our own way, but teens are especially pathetic for this reason. I know I certainly was when I was a teen. And it’s okay! You have to have a lot of compassion to teach high school and even write YA fiction. You have to be willing to remember you were just as messed up at that age and cut your students and characters just as much slack as you now (hopefully) cut yourself. The kids are alright!

ReachOut is all about helping teens get through tough times. What helped you get through a tough time when you were a teen?

David: I’m almost embarrassed to say that I led a pretty boring life as a teen. I was fortunate to come from a home with two parents who loved and supported me unconditionally. I was the oldest so, as is often the case with the oldest child, they were pretty strict. As a result, I walked the straight and narrow through most of high school. It was actually in my first year of college that I went through a bit of a depression, being away from home, trying to figure out where I was going. I was eighteen, and it sort of overwhelmed me and caught me off guard. What got me through was the knowledge of my family’s love and a basic stubbornness to persevere. I would like to add, though, that as an adult, I went through a difficult patch and sought counseling. It is a wonderful and empowering experience to be able to talk through your feelings with an objective, professional counselor. You don’t have to be undergoing a life-changing crisis or in the throes of mental illness to seek help. I think it’s especially vital for teens to seek out an objective adult who can help provide perspective and offer ways to deal with life’s many challenges. We have a couple very capable counselors in my school who helped me with this story, and I’m continuously amazed at the work they do with our students. They are making a difference!

About David: David Stahler Jr. received his bachelor's degree in English from Middlebury College in 1994 and later earned a graduate degree from the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Dartmouth College. His other provocative works for young adults include Truesight, The Seer, and Otherspace. He teaches in Vermont, where he lives with his wife and two children.



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