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11 Questions | Brittany Harrison, Writer

This week I'm launching a new component on this blog called Eleven Questions. My inaugural guest is my friend and fellow writer Brittany Harrison. I've known Brittany for 13 years now. We met in college. In the years between then and now, she's started her master's degree, worked with students with mental disabilities, and finished her first novel.

Here she talks about life as a writer, living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (a diagnosis she received only recently, but one with origins in her years as a child), and why she chooses to write for young people.

James D. Hogan: Tell me about where you are today, as a 31 year-old author with a novel and a literary agent.

Brittany Harrison: I am delighted to have an agent. I'm not sure whether being 31 really comes into it (though I'll admit that it took most of the sting out of turning 30!) And I am profoundly delighted with the particular agent I have, Josh Adams of Adams Literary. Being taken seriously by a professional in the industry bolstered my confidence both in my writing and in my goal of one day being able to support myself with my writing. Josh has been an invaluable source of both professional and personal support since we met in April of 2011.

For me, receiving an offer of representation from an agent stopped me worrying about my writing career. It doesn't work that way for everyone, but it did for me. Despite the fact that I don't have a publisher yet, my relationship with Josh makes me confident that I will, one day. This lets me relax and get on with my writing, undeterred by most existential crises! Getting an agent was my responsibility; getting me published is largely his, so I'm able to put the business aspects of writing from my mind until he tells me who I need to talk to and what I need to do.

Though if there are any aspiring writers reading this, I should emphasize that "relaxing and getting on with your writing" is crucial at every stage of your career, never more so than before you've finished your book and found an agent and publisher. The best advice I ever heard from a writer was from Simon House, who came to speak to a writing class I had with Ron Rash in college. During the Q&A, after receiving the usual glut of questions about how to get an agent and how to get published, he pointed out that that wasn't what any of us needed to be worrying about right then. Focus on writing a really good book, he said. Once you've done that, the process of getting an agent is...not easy, but relatively simple. There are lots of guides available online that break it down into steps.

I suppose that's where I am today--I'm biding my time, doing my job (writing) while my agent does his job. I'm relaxed about the prospect of being published. Money would be nice, having a printed edition of my book to show people would be even nicer--but losing myself in a story, having friends who'll read it and give me their feedback, that's the holy grail of being a writer. In my opinion.

Fabulous amounts of money and awards wouldn't suck, but that's just ego talking.

How did you go about finding your agent? Was it simple? Easy?

For a few years before I finished my own book, I'd been hearing my very good friend R.J. Anderson (http://www.rj-anderson.com/) sing the praises of her agent, and since I knew that he represented young adult writers, it just made sense to put his name at the top of the list when I was preparing my agent queries. I'd already taken all the steps, written the letters to Josh and four other agents (I'd decided to query in batches of five)....and then I got a wonderful surprise. Rebecca read my manuscript and tweeted about it enthusiastically, and Josh basically asked her to ask me if he could take an exclusive look at it. I lost no time at all saying yes, and a month later he called me and we had a fantastic conversation, and he made me an offer of representation. So as it happens, I never had to send out my meticulously prepared query letters, and I got to skip the agonizing process of waiting to hear back from agents.

I got lucky, there's no question about that. But if you take time to invest in a community of fellow writers (which I strongly recommend doing) networking connections like that aren't at all unheard of. I was fully prepared for the average wait of a year or more before my queries turned up a result. I'm delighted I didn't have to wait, but waiting is a big part of the writing/publishing process, and you have to be zen with that, especially when you're just getting started.

You wrote fan-fiction for a long time and built quite a following. How do you look back on that writing now? Are there passages you're still in love with? Was it more of an exercise for you as a writer? 

I don't make any serious distinction between writing fanfiction and any other sort of fiction writing. It's certainly not easier. It is, possibly, a bit less lonely, because you can, if you're any good, potentially reach a large and immediate audience and get almost instant feedback. I think having had that experience with feedback is what enables me to be quite patient about the time it's taking to publishing my original work. I'm not stewing and fretting over what will happen the first time people other than my friends see my work. I've already found out what it's like to get lavish praise and irrational hatred from strangers because of my writing.

Crucially, writing fanfiction also took away a great deal of pressure to be perfect and publishable right out of the gate. I've been writing novels since I was sixteen, and I tended not to finish any of those early works, because I'd grow up so much in the space of a single year that reading back over the early chapters of a project would either spur me into a total rewrite, or make me throw my hands up in despair and move on to the next idea. But with fanfiction, the pressure was off. I could be terrible, and it wouldn't matter. Participating in a community of fic writers gave me all the motivation I needed to just write and write and write. I was doing that anyway, but it was so much more fun when I knew that people were looking forward to reading it. It was like when my friends in high school cornered me in the hallway before class, demanding the next few pages of my terrible novel about English poets living in Florence in the 19th century, only with thousands of potential readers instead of three.

Incidentally, I could name a dozen published novelists off the top of my head who are also fanfiction writers, including at least one who regularly graces the top of the New York Times bestseller lists. I'm not at all unique.

Is the span of writing you're doing now more lonely, then? If so, how do you address that?

Not especially, because I've built up such a network of trusted friends who are also writers that I tend to have an audience when I need one. Though I believe loneliness is another aspect of writing that you just have to adjust to. Nothing cures it entirely.

You've been diagnosed with PTSD. Aside from your blog, has this...ailment? disorder? found its way into your writing? Do you write to work through the challenges that come with your diagnosis? 

Anyone with a chronic illness (illness was the word you were looking for, incidentally) can tell you that having one affects everything you do. Even when you're not symptomatic, it's always a part of your reality. So yes, my illness finds its way into my writing, though it would be about as useful to say that "human nature" finds its way into my writing.

I've never written about mental illness specifically as a theme in any of my novels. I've written about the circumstances that can create it, such as abuse. And while writing can obviously be therapeutic, I don't believe anyone writes well when in poor health. I've yet to meet a writer who composed a story in between bouts of vomiting into a toilet when they had stomach flu, and mental illness is no different from illnesses of the body in the way they drain your resources. Writing about my illness helps me to process it, naturally, but I write very much in spite of it--being mad is not a magical source of inspiration, whatever you've been led to believe.

When you mention PTSD, most people envision a war veteran, perhaps returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, who has witnessed a terrible atrocity, or who has been mentally concussed in battle in an attack, and so on. Do you ever find yourself explaining that 31 year-old writers can suffer from PTSD, too?

Well, it doesn't come up in conversation as often as you might think, but...yeah. The depth of most people's ignorance about all mental illness is pretty astounding, and PTSD is no exception. I'm delighted that there's so much awareness these days about PTSD in soldiers, because de-stigmatization is hugely important, but it's a bit wearying when you're searching for support networks or research articles on the subject and everything you find is geared to a population group that excludes you. The circumstances in which you develop PTSD have a huge effect on how you experience the illness, so the research findings that apply to a veteran won't necessarily apply to a survivor of child abuse.

What drew you to write for a young adult audience? Did you start off with such readers in mind when you wrote the first draft?

I did, yes. FIND ME HERE was always a young adult novel, and all the novels I've planned or worked on since have been as well. I was just always going to write about teenagers. The mystery of how anyone survives to adulthood supplies enough material to keep any writer going for a good long while.

I think it's an easy generalization to make that adolescence is tough, but then again, millions of teenagers seem to do just fine. That isn't to say it's without trial or tribulation. What is it, in particular, that you find most challenging for today's young people?

I don't think there's any way to generalize about such challenges, since "today's young people" are anything but a homogeneous group. Adults are invested in delegitimizing the problems of the young because it frightens them to admit that they have failed, will fail, and sometimes cannot help but fail to protect their children. The truth is, adolescents face all the same problems adults do, plus they have a separate set of challenges all their own. There are teenagers who have to support their families, find shelter, care for younger siblings (and their own parents.) Teenagers go to war. They raise children of their own. These problems are not exceptional. They may be more uncommon in your neighborhood if you're white and middle class because money and social privilege solve a lot of problems for the people who have them, but the essential quality that virtually all teenagers have in common is a degree of powerlessness. And wherever a power imbalance exists, there is a potential that the disempowered party will be marginalized, humiliated, neglected, manipulated, or abused.

That probably makes it sound like I think being a teenager is necessarily a grim experience, which I don't believe at all. But every generation of adults seems to get the notion that "kids these days have it easy", which is a failure of memory and imagination. It's never easy.

Do you think that kids these days experience delayed adulthood? A stereotypical hypothesis is that delayed adulthood might occur more in places where money and social privilege squash other, "unseemly" problems teenagers face....

I really wouldn't know. I'm a novelist, not a sociologist. But it sounds to me like just another way of othering young people, as though they were a different species and not merely immature human beings.

That's what makes John Hughes so legendary, right?

Home Alone 2 was definitely the voice of my generation.

What would you tell the 20-year old college writer that you used to be?

I would tell her that the quality of her writing is inextricably intertwined with the quality of her life. That writing isn't going to redeem her; she must redeem herself first, and the writing will follow. Living is more important than writing, people are more important than characters. Take more risks. Learn the difference between feeling vulnerable and making yourself vulnerable in relationships.

I doubt that telling her that would help her much, because she had to learn those lessons in her own time, but that was what she needed to hear.

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