Kate Axelrod: The Nervous Breakdown InterviewBy Andrea Arnold
January 06, 2015
Kate Axelrod’s debut novel The Law of Loving Others is about a high school student dealing with her mother’s recent schizophrenic break. The title was taken from a quote in Anna Karenina that reads: The law of loving others could not be discovered by reason, because it is unreasonable. This story is NOT autobiographical. Kate’s mother Marian Thurm was my workshop teacher at the Yale Writers’ Conference 2014. Marian and I chatted for hours in and out of class. She told me that the first story she sent out got published by The New Yorker when she was only twenty-five years old. Marian’s daughter Kate isn’t much older than that. She’s right on track. She holds a BA in creative writing from Oberlin College, a master’s in social work from Columbia University, and splits her time and efforts to satisfy both passions. When she flew out west this summer, I whipped up a batch of raw vegan pecan truffle bars and asked Kate over to my place in Santa Monica to get raw and candid about mental illness. We discussed her day job as an advocate in the criminal justice system, what it’s like to hail from New York literati and how she came to the story.
Your mom is a big time fiction writer. I think your dad writes too. When did you first know the writing bug had bitten you?
That’s a really good question. I think I knew at a really young age, or rather, because my mother was a writer I always believed on some level that I would do that too. Writing always felt really intrinsic, like a part of me. You know the way some peoples’ parents are lawyers so they just feel like they will end up being a lawyer? That was sort of how I felt, at least as a child.
How did your parents feel about you becoming a writer?
They were always supportive when I was younger. They would give me positive feedback and were encouraging. I went to many summer writing programs when I was in high school — at Columbia and then at the University of Iowa. Then I went to college at Oberlin and it became clearer that writing was what I was going to be doing. It was only when I decided I wanted to get an MFA that they started to express concern. They were like, “Hold on a second.” It is such a hard way to make a living. I think they were concerned about it and about me going into tons of debt. My mother definitely dissuaded me from getting an MFA.
There is this Oberlin mafia. I know a little bit about it. Lena Dunham went there. My friend Edan Lepucki did too. What is Dan Chaon giving you guys that the rest of us are not getting from our undergraduate creative writing teachers?
Dan is amazing. I had read all of Dan’s work before I went to Oberlin. I was excited to be working with him. He is talented but also just a really cool guy and he does great workshops. In retrospect, it was a great place to write and to be creative.
Is there some magic behind the curtain?
I guess so! I got some really productive writing done there. When I moved back to New York I realized what an amazing place it was to be able to nurture your creativity.
Did you start this novel there?
No, I mostly wrote short stories.
Besides Dan, did you have other writing heroes?
I’ve always been a big reader of contemporary fiction. I hear people say there is no good, new writing and they only want to re-read the classics, but I think there are so many wonderful new writers. I spend a lot of time in bookstores (they are kind of my happy place/safe space) and a lot of money on buying new, hardcover books when I should probably just wait for things to come out in paperback or use the library. But I get excited and can’t really help myself. I love Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn. That is one of my new favorites. Also, Justin Torres’s We The Animals. And I just read Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans, which blew me away. Antonya Nelson is one of my favorite writers, and, of course, my mother, Marian Thurm.
A bookstore is my happy place too. I love that. How did you make the transition from creative writing to social work?
I’ve always had these two loves. A year after college I moved to LA and thought I might want to do screenwriting. Pretty soon after I got to LA and worked in the movie business I realized that it was not right for me. I applied to MFA programs. And I moved back to New York, because I wanted to do something that felt more meaningful to me.
Were you reading scripts?
No, I was in charge of PAs. I was a production person. It was a great job, but wasn’t right for me. I came back to New York and thought I would want to do whatever is the exact opposite of working in Hollywood. I worked at a nonprofit and started doing homeless outreach. I was driving a van around, reaching out to homeless people. I fell in love with that kind of work. And I got into a couple of low residency MFA programs and I couldn’t decide what to do. Ultimately, I decided to get my MSW because it’s a vocational degree. I felt like I could always keep writing without an MFA, but I couldn’t move up in social work without a master’s degree, so I went to social work school.
Do you consider yourself more of an author or a social worker?
Whenever anyone asks me what I do I always say that I’m a social worker. I’ve never said I’m a writer! But I feel like in my heart, as cheesy as that sounds, that I am a writer. In terms of my day to day I’m a social worker.
Right now you work for the criminal justice system. What is your day to day?
I work with people who have either been charged or convicted with various crimes. Their attorneys hire us, my organization, to assess them, interview them, work with them, talk to their families and get records, that sort of thing. It’s an interesting combination because my work is essentially creating a narrative — telling someone’s story to the judge or the District Attorney — highlighting the mitigating factors that led this person to the place he or she is today. So basically we write a report, and then we make recommendations for treatment services as an alternative to state prison.
It is interesting you call it a narrative. It’s storytelling. Does your job in social work and literature go hand in hand?
Definitely. My supervisor at work said to me in the beginning, “Everybody has a story,” and it’s true. These are people who are alleged to have done really bad things. Sometimes it’s drugs or robbery, but other times we have clients who have raped and killed people. But everyone does have a story and we try to sift through all of their information, all history and the convictions, to present the judge with the story of their life. And more often than not you become empathetic and sympathetic to their current situation.
How did you come to the story of The Law of Loving Others?
Well, I want to say first that I never ever write about anyone that I work with. It’s so important because of confidentiality and because of my clinical relationships with clients to make sure that these two careers are separate. But I came up with the idea for this book when I was doing homeless outreach. There was an older woman who was very kind and quiet, probably in her late sixties. She was always reading in this public space downtown. I met so many homeless women and men during that time, and maybe it’s so obvious, but I started thinking about the fact that everyone who is homeless started out having such a different life. They all had histories. And I kept thinking about this older woman, she could be my mother, she could be my grandmother. And she had schizophrenia. I started thinking: what if my mother had schizophrenia? And the germ of the novel, the way I started it, was that the mother character had been homeless, because a lot of these people have psychotic breaks and then decide they can’t live inside anymore. That mostly got cut from the book.
Why YA? Rainbow Rowell said, “YA books teach you that weird stuff is normal.” Did you plan to write this for young adults or was it just the way the story went?
No, I didn’t make a decision to do that. I had this story in mind. I knew that I wanted it to take place in high school or college. I wanted it to be in this in between time where you still feel very dependent on your parents but you’re also feeling grown up. That as things are changing time. When I first met with an agent she said this idea would make a good YA book, but I wrote it the way I wanted to write it and afterwards it turned out that it appealed more to YA editors. It just sort of happened. In the first a draft, they were in college, but that was too much on the cusp so I changed it to boarding school.
Did you go to boarding school?
After all the recent school shootings, especially after Sandy Hook, there was a lot of talk about opening up the discussion on mental health issues. As a social worker, when do you think is the appropriate time to start talking to kids and teenagers about mental illness?
I don’t want to give any advice, but in my personal experience I think the earlier the better. I grew up in New York where a lot of people I knew were in therapy and where there isn’t as much of a stigma about going to therapy as there is in other places. I feel really lucky about that. It’s also generational, I think. I’m in therapy and I feel good about that. I’m an advocate of it. Whereas my parents’ generation thought that therapy was something to keep quiet. I definitely don’t feel that way. So I think the younger the better.
In 2014 we saw early departures of many creative souls in Hollywood such as James Gandolfini, Philip Semyour Hoffman and Robin Williams. In your novel you mention David Foster Wallace who is often referenced in literary conversations about the link between creativity and mental illness. Is there one?
I was just talking to a cousin of mine who is a psychiatrist, and we were saying that it has almost become this trope that you have to be struggling and have your demons in order to be a good artist. I don’t know if that’s true. I certainly hope that’s not true. But I do think that the ways I’ve struggled in my own life — nothing super significant — but I think it feeds your empathy and your sympathy and your thoughtfulness in terms of understanding other people’s issues and demons. If you can turn something hard and painful into art then great, but I don’t necessarily think they’re mutually exclusive.
In your novel, the protagonist Emma witnesses her mother’s schizophrenic break. Are the episodes Emma’s mother has typical? Is there a textbook outline?
In my experience doing homeless outreach I found that a lot of my clients had schizophrenia, but there are so many ways that it can manifest. I just sort of created these random episodes that were centered around paranoid. In the DSM there is certainly an outlined criteria, but I didn’t consult that when I was writing.
What’s the DSM?
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It’s big book that social workers, doctors, and psychologists consult when making diagnoses.
Is it a legitimate worry that Emma has that she could become schizophrenic by the age of twenty-five?
It’s legitimate in that there is for sure a hereditary link. I’m kind of a hypochondriac, so if I hear someone has something I think oh, I can get that. But, in my head, if I had to write the sequel, Emma definitely does not have schizophrenia. Though it is a legitimate concern because there’s a biological component. And the reason I said twenty-five was because that is often when the psychotic break happens in women.
Emma burns herself. I assume it is just like cutting. Is that common in kids who have parents with mental illness? Or why include it in the story?
I added that in because I wanted to show what a loss she was at, how much she was struggling. She had no idea what to do with all of her feelings. I think it was a combination of feeling really overwhelmed and feeling guilty and not having an outlet or not knowing the best way to articulate her feelings.
I read that people who had parents with mental illness have more hurdles to climb over in order to succeed or find happiness in their lives. How can someone like Emma best overcome her unique challenges?
I’m sure statistically that might be true, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily the mental illness itself. I think it’s about having support around the mental illness. We talk in social work about protective factors. If someone has an early trauma, like having a mother who has a psychotic break, it can absolutely lead to so many obstacles in their life, but there are also ways to buffer the hurdles. Protective factors like good, caring teachers, supportive extended family, a religious community, therapeutic services, something like that.
Besides her dad, Emma has a boyfriend Daniel. Was that his role in the novel?
I was thinking more about Annie, her best friend. And she has her grandmother. I think Emma wanted Daniel to be that person but he wasn’t, particularly because he is a seventeen-year-old boy.
His parents are very cool. They let him drink and don’t seem to mind he parties and brings drugs home. Is that how life was growing up in NYC?
Certainly not with my parents. Those parents were loosely based on parents I know — parents I feel a lot of affection for. I don’t want to make a generalization because in New York there are obviously so many different kinds of parents.
I thought those characters were very real. Emma’s father is closed off, he doesn’t reveal a lot to her, but Daniel’s parents are open. They’re his buddies. And Daniel is more stable than Emma. What does this say for the role of parents?
There are parents who say, if you’re going to do it, do it in my house. My parents weren’t like that. I still don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t know what kind of parent I’m going to be if I am one. But the positive thing I saw in Daniel’s parents, especially in his mother Jane, is that she says, “Let’s talk about this. We need to talk about it.” And although they had this laissez faire attitude, they were emotionally attuned. Emma’s father wasn’t and he was grieving, but I think the most important thing for parents is to pay attention and be emotionally present. It doesn’t mean that there doesn’t have to be boundaries. I think there can be and should be. You can still have rules but be emotionally astute.
She meets another boy named Phil in the hospital whose brother has bipolar disorder. I think it was great that you talk about this because it is so common, but was it a conscious effort to address more than one mental illness in this story?
I wanted her to have someone to connect to on that level. And for someone our age it’s probably more common. I don’t have any peers who have schizophrenia, but I do know a handful of people who have bipolar disorder. So on an adolescent level it felt more relatable.
They help each other cope. Phil says, “I keep having to remind myself that it’s his disease, not mine.“ Did you write the novel hoping to help young adults deal with having loved ones with mental disease?
No, but if it does that I will be so happy.
Daniel, Emma and Phil are pretty well off financially. What would happen to a family in a similar situation but that had financial challenges?
That was definitely something I felt conflicted about in the book, because mental illness obviously affects everybody and it’s so much more difficult to manage if you don’t have financial support. I wanted to work that in somehow, but it didn’t end up happening. There are public hospitals and others that take all different kinds of insurance, but having money makes these things easier. It doesn’t make them go away, but it makes the day to day easier. In my job, I spent a lot of time in psych wards in public hospitals, and it’s just not the same as some leafy campus.
What’s the takeaway? What do you want your readers to get out of Emma’s story?
That’s a hard question. I think when you are young and impressionable and get into a romantic relationship there is so much codependence and merging of selves. I think it’s important to stay true to your own identity and create a boundary between yourself and someone, who is sick or not sick. There’s a line in the novel where the dad says something like, “You can go on living your life. You don’t have to hold a vigil to your mom every day.” I imagine it must be really hard to have a sick parent. Luckily, I never did. But I have loved a lot of people in my life who have been sick, and I think it’s really hard to learn how to be good to yourself and your partner at the same time.
You hit on some very racy topics – Emma has sex, drinks, does drugs, burns herself. Emma is not innocent. What do you say to your future critics who say this is too full of adult content and themes for fourteen-year-olds?
That’s a great question. I talked to my agent about this a lot. She says that even though Emma smokes pot and has sex, at her heart she is such a good girl. She is trying to be bad and act out, and she really can’t be. Or her acting out is minimal. And when I was a teenager I definitely wanted to read books that were more interesting or racier than my own life actually was. I would never say to a teenager, go out and smoke a lot of pot, have a lot of sex. But also, Emma is okay. She’s struggled and made some mistakes, but she’s working out her issues and will be okay. I don’t want to give some PSA about drugs.
Because that’s not what fiction is.
Yes! I just wanted to tell her story.
What was your writing process? Did you outline?
I had written a bunch of short stories out of college and when I got into social work school I got nervous that I was going to stop writing and lose this writerly part of myself. I was really busy. I was in grad school and working two part-time jobs. I started writing in tiny bursts. I don’t know if you feel this way as a writer, but sometimes you’ll be doing something, like you’ll be at the supermarket and something comes into your head and you just want to get it down. I was about to see a movie, I was waiting in line to buy a ticket, when some details came to me or a sentence starting forming in my head. So I went to the bathroom in the theater and sat down and started writing notes for the scene. It was not a linear process, it sort of just happened.
Susan Straight always says she writes in the car while waiting for her kids to get out of practices.
It was sort of like that. I wrote on the subway. Whenever I had a few minutes.
Any pieces of advice to emerging writers?
Write whenever you can as much as you can. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. I have a friend who is working on her thesis for a PhD program, and she gave me good advice, which was to just write everyday, no matter how long or how good it is, but just get something out. I picked 200 words. That’s not very much, but I did it. And if one day I only did one hundred words, the next day I would write three hundred. That’s literally how I wrote my book. And then my brain just sort of caught on after a while, and it became a very natural process.
Was your mom giving you advice along the way?
Not really, but she was super helpful. I would write fifty pages and be like Mom, will you read this?
She was super helpful to me too!
She’s a really good editor! And motivator!
Are you going to write another book?
I hope so, but I’m not working on one consistently at the moment.
Any other topics you might want to write about? Will you stick with mental health?
I don’t know. I tell my mom stories about things that happen at work and she says, “You have to write everything down,” but I don’t want to use my social work career for content or as inspiration for writing. There is something that feels really exploitative and wrong about that. But there are definitely themes that keep coming up, resurfacing for me.
It’s what you know!
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