ReachOut Interview: Tamara Ireland Stone, Every Last Word
Living with a mental health challenge can sometimes mean living with a secret.
For Samantha McAllister, the main character of the upcoming YA novel Every Last Word, this is all too true. In fear of her friends' judgment, which can flare at offenses as innocuous as wearing the wrong outfit, Sam hides her Purely-Obsessional OCD and the dark thoughts and worries that come with it. Only her family and therapist know the truth. Until one day Sam meets a new girl at school who invites her to an underground poetry club where members reveal their innermost thoughts in verse and everything changes.
Intrigued? Read on for our interview with Tamara Ireland Stone, the author behind EVERY LAST WORD, and enter to win one free advanced copy before its release date on June 16th by posting in the comments below! The first person (located in the US) who shares words that inspire them (it can be poetry, a power jam, or even a mantra you like) will be our winner.
ReachOut: In the process of researching and writing this book, did you learn anything that surprised you about teens who live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? What was important for you to include in your depiction?
Tamara Ireland Stone: From the very beginning, it was incredibly important to me to get the OCD piece of this story right. Every Last Word is told from the main character’s point of view because I wanted people to understand what it’s like to live inside Sam’s overly active, occasionally frightening mind. To pull that off, I had to do my homework.
I consulted with multiple mental health professionals, worked closely with the 16 year-old who originally inspired this story, and read everything I could get my hands on—especially articles and blogs written by teens with OCD—in an effort to understand this disorder.
What surprised me most was learning just how quickly a single thought can turn into a full-scale anxiety attack. In the book, I call them thought spirals. We all have the occasional weird, random thought—one that makes us pause and question, “Where did that come from?”—but an OCD mind latches onto it and doesn’t let go. An intrusive thought can turn toxic and take over so fast, there’s little time to calm down and gain control.
I truly hope this story empowers teens—whether they’re dealing with mental health challenges or not—to be kinder to themselves and to each other. As AJ says in the book, “Everyone’s got something.”
RO: The challenge of managing Sam's Purely-Obsessional Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is made easier by the tools and support provided by her therapist Sue. It's also implied that Sue has helped Sam's mom better handle the unwanted thought spirals Sam sometimes experiences.What inspired this mental health professional character and the relationship she has with Sam and her family?
TIS: A close family friend inspired this story. I call her C.
She’s now 16, but when she was first diagnosed at age 12, I remember listening to her mom talk about the way the family was handling it—meeting with psychiatrists and therapists, researching medications, and consulting with her teachers in confidence. And they were actively talking with their daughter, encouraging her to help them understand what was happening in her mind so they could learn how to best support her.
It would have been easy for C’s parents to dismiss the diagnosis, to chalk it up to “something that will pass”, but they treated it the same way they’d treat a physical illness. I remember being so impressed by that. Her mom has always been a parenting role model for me, and this time, I was even more in awe. I’m sure she’d say it’s not as easy as it looks, but I know one thing: she’s a rock for her daughter.
It took some time, but eventually, they found the perfect match in a psychologist. I’ve never met her, but I modeled a lot of the relationship between Sam and Sue on the real life connection C feels to her therapist. It’s a professional relationship, but there’s also a special bond there, and I wanted to capture and honor that.
Sam’s mom and Sue work as a team in Every Last Word, and C’s mom and therapist operate the same way. They communicate regularly and they’re always in lock step, working hard to stay on top of this disorder and be sure C has the tools she needs to manage it. It’s inspiring.
RO: Sam's circle of female friends is characterized as toxic to the point of negatively affecting her mental health. Still, their shared history makes it hard for her to even consider leaving. What do you hope readers who find themselves in similar social situations will take away from this portrayal?
TIS: We moved a lot when I was growing up, so I never really had that experience of long-term, consistent friendships when I was a teen. By contrast, we now live in a wonderful town and have no intention of moving, so my children will likely graduate from high school with the kids they’ve known since kindergarten.
I look around and wonder what that must be like. Moving all the time was hard, but I also had multiple opportunities to reinvent myself. My daughter is only in fourth grade, but she already sees herself evolving, sometimes in ways that aren’t in sync with her closest friends, and that worries her.
It’s easy to hold on to friendships because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But it’s important to make decisions that are best for you—not best for everyone else. It’s not selfish.
If the people in your circle of friends don’t make you feel good about yourself, there’s probably nothing wrong with them… you might just be in the wrong circle. Take a close look at the people in your life, choose to hold on to the ones who really get you, and let go of the ones who don’t. It’s hard to do, but you’ll be a lot happier in the long run.
RO: Creative expression becomes a very important coping strategy for Samantha. As a writer, can you relate to this experience?
TIS: When I first started outlining this novel, I knew Sam would discover writing as a form of personal therapy. Like her swim routine, weekly therapist appointments, and daily medication, writing would become yet another tool she used to manage her mental health.
But the more I wrote, the more I began to realize that aspect of the story was taking on a life of its own. I was often in tears as I found myself tapping into my own personal experience with words and their healing power.
Writing—the simple act of putting words on paper and getting them out of my head—saved me when I was a teen. Even though I never let anyone else read my stories, poems, and journal entries, my notebooks were always my safe place. Words were my friends.
I simply love writing. I love finding that one word that perfectly fits what I’m trying to say. I love putting words together, flipping them around, playing with them. I love the cadence of a paragraph, when sentences work together so fluidly, they sound musical. I love it when words move me to tears and laughter and swoons and chills and… whatever they feel like doing. I loved making Sam feel all that for the first time.
RO: What message do you hope to send readers who recognize themselves in the character of Sam?
TIS: Sam's brain works differently than other brains. I surrounded her with three people—her mom, her therapist, and Caroline—to consistently remind her that, while her mind might be challenging, there are a lot of special things about it, too.
Throughout the novel, these three people are the carriers of my message to readers. At key points, they encourage Sam to find things that make her feel stronger—like swimming, writing poetry, and speaking her mind. They remind her to surround herself with true friends, people who want her to take off her mask and just be Sam. Sometimes they tell her she’s overthinking, making a big deal out of something that isn’t. They make sure she knows that her brain might be different, but she’s not broken.
For those readers who see themselves in Sam, but may not feel the same level of support, I strongly urge you to find someone to talk to. It doesn’t have to be a paid therapist. It can be a parent, a sibling, or someone outside your circle of friends at school. Look at your teachers, librarians, a friend’s mom or dad, someone in your community… anyone. But please start talking. The people around you can’t help if they don’t know you need it.
And if you're able to go to therapy route, I strongly encourage it. It may take some work to find the right fit, but there are so many incredible people out there who are dedicated to helping teens struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.