Review of Everything's Not Fine and an Interview with Author Sarah Carlson
Everything’s Not Fine by Sarah Carlson made me cry—in the best way that a book can. Carlson’s writing transported me so completely into the story of 17-year-old Rose that I was heartbroken over the messed up family situation she finds herself stuck in along with all of the extra responsibilities that really shouldn’t be placed on a teenager’s shoulders. It’s no secret that this story centers around Rose’s mom’s heroin addiction and the overdose that nearly kills her. Carlson handles this timely topic with an honesty that acknowledges that young adult readers can deal with tough topics and, indeed, need authors to cover them because (unfortunately) they’re dealing with impossibly difficult situations in real life. That alone would have made the story a winner for me, but Carlson adds in delicious layers with a budding romance with a new (fellow-artist) student, the cruelty of the fast-paced, small-town gossip mill, and a sweet blanket of Midwest homecoming rituals. The characters are authentic in their dialog and interactions with each other—here the author’s background in psychology is clear. This story is painful and heartbreaking but also beautiful and hopeful—a relevant story for today that everyone should read.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Seventeen-year-old Rose Hemmersbach aspires to break out of small-town Sparta, Wisconsin and achieve her artistic dreams, just like her aunt Colleen. Rose’s love of Frida Kahlo fuels her paint brush and her dreams to attend a prestigious art school. Painting is Rose’s escape from her annoying younger siblings and her family’s one rule: ignore the elephant in the room, because talking about it makes it real. That is, until the day Rose finds her mother dying on the kitchen floor of a heroin overdose. Kneeling beside her, Rose pleads with the universe to find a heartbeat. She does – but when her mother is taken to hospital, the troubles are just beginning. Rose and her dad are left to pick up the pieces: traumatized siblings, a Child Protective Services investigation, eviction. As Rose fights to hold everything together, and her dreams of the future start to slip from her grasp, she must face the question of what happens when – if – her mom comes home again. And if, deep down, Rose even wants her to.
Q. Today, Sarah Carlson joins me so I can pester her with questions about her writing world. Thanks for taking the time to hang out for a little while. Sarah, as you can see, I really love your new book. But I also loved your first book All the Walls of Belfast, which also has teens navigating a difficult but very different situation. What is it about young adult literature that draws you to write for this audience? (Read the review for All the Walls of Belfast HERE.)
A. First and foremost, I love writing about and exploring that age, the cusp between childhood and adulthood where you’re being forced to make hard and consequential decisions about who you are and who you want to be, but you’re still naïve and your frontal lobe is still developing. Also, as a school psychologist, I like to write books that will help teens. Being a teen is stressful for everyone, but especially for teens who must juggle more than just being a teen. So I write books about finding resilience and inklings of hope.
Q. I know that by day (even remotely right now) you’re a school psychologist. How has your training helped you craft your stories and characters?
A. I think the biggest way it helps me is the work I live and breathe every day around the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and how our core beliefs (created by life experiences) impact the lens through which we see the world and trigger our thoughts and choices. I talk to children, teachers, and parents about this pretty much every day. I use this to help create my characters and guide how they respond to events and people in the book. It helps me to ensure my characters are responding authentically and have a rich internal life that feels emotionally consistent. I also have training in and provide intervention around trauma, which I think helps me capture its impact on the page.
Q. Were you at all nervous taking on such a tough topic? Did you do a lot of research on the topic of addiction and, in particular, parental addiction?
A. I was nervous, in large part because I don’t have a parent or family member addicted to heroin. That means I am telling someone else’s story, not my own. In order to try and authentically capture that reality, I read a lot of news articles detailing experiences of children who were taken into foster care because of parental substance abuse, watched documentaries about heroin addiction and recovery, and researched the psychological impact of parental substance abuse on children. I also worked with an authenticity reader, who inspired me to basically scrap my original plot and tell the story from an entirely different lens focused on the immediate impact of trauma and then starting to find resilience in the aftermath, rather than focusing on the day-to-day struggles of living with a parent addicted to heroin.
Q. I had read in a different interview that you were writing All the Walls of Belfast at the same time as Everything’s Not Fine. Although the stories are different, as a fellow writer that seems like a challenge. How did that come about? And, how did you manage creating separate storylines at the same time?
A. I started writing both while I was living in Singapore for my husband’s job. While living there, I couldn’t work as a school psychologist, so I took on a part-time gig as a tutor. This left me with A LOT of time and mental space to write. I often used my long rides on public transportation to write. I also joined the Singapore Writers Group, which I truly believed help launch me as a writer. There were many skilled writers from all around the world in that group, and they helped propel my skills to the next level and challenged me to write authentic, well-researched stories. I also found some of the best critique partners with whom I’ve ever worked. My writer friends also gave me the push I needed to get involved in social media—create a website, start blogging, and join Twitter. It’s through a Twitter pitching contest that I first met my agent. I often alternated working on the stories; I stared with All the Walls of Belfast, then when that was with critique partners, I worked on Everything’s Not Fine, and switched back and forth. My time as an expat in Singapore was definitely a turning point in my writing career.
"ALIVE WITH VIBRANT, RAW EMOTION." - Kirkus Starred Review
Q. I always appreciate a story that includes real places that I recognize. It makes me smile when I can picture Kwik Trip and Culver’s in your story. While those two chains have grown a lot, this story feels authentically Wisconsin. Did anyone ever tell you to make those types of references more generic or were they embraced by your early readers or editors?
A. First off, I love how you see Wisconsin in Everything’s Not Fine, because that’s a big part of what I was hoping to capture, the culture and life of the state I love. After years researching and writing All the Walls of Belfast, I wanted to use the same sociological lens to capture Wisconsin (triggered in part by my homesickness while living in Singapore). Growing up, I don’t think I ever had the opportunity to read a book set in Wisconsin (let alone small-town western Wisconsin), so I wanted to bring a little more cheese curds and lefse into the world. My agent and editors wholly embraced it; honestly, I think it was part of the appeal. I can’t think of any instances where I was pushed to change anything, other than the fact that I originally spelled Casey’s General Store with a K, and my editor (as she was checking things) corrected me!
Q. You’ve had a busy couple of years with book releases. Do I dare ask if you have another project in the works? (I ask because I’m nosy, but also because I really, really love your writing and can’t wait for the next one!)
A. I’m working on another young adult contemporary set in Wisconsin Dells. What can I say? I love Wisconsin and I’m drawn to unique settings. We’ll see if anything comes of it!
Q. Can you tell us about the different jobs you’ve had? I always like to ask authors this, mainly because authors always seem to have had interesting job histories.
A. Well actually, my first job other than baby-sitting was cashiering at Walmart, just like Rose and Rafa, so I drew a lot from my personal experiences when writing Walmart scenes. During college I worked in a campus cafeteria, as an office assistant for the Psychology department, a youth worker at a Day Treatment program for children and teens with significant mental health and behavioral needs, a day camp counselor on a military base, a tutor in Singapore, and then a school psychologist.
Q. Before we move on to the Super Six list, is there anything else you want to tell readers about yourself or your books?
A. Hmmm… I guess just that, in my books, I like to explore finding resilience in the face of things beyond your control, and I hope that, even though All the Walls of Belfast explores intergenerational trauma post-Troubles Belfast and Everything’s Not Fine explores parental substance abuse, readers will connect with the messages of trusting others to help carry your burden and the power of defining your own narrative.
Fav Pizza Topping: Pepperoni and green olives
Book You’re Reading Now: honestly…in the time of COVID, I’m having a hard time finding the time and mental space to read books ☹. I’m supporting virtual learning at my school while juggling childcare with my husband and working to get the word out about Everything’s Not Fine.
Coffee, Tea, or Both (or neither): COFFEE big time
Fav Activity as a Child: as a young child, creating vast imaginary worlds and playing in them, and then honestly it was writing, because I still got to create worlds and stories to play with in my head.
Most Interesting Place You’ve Lived: Singapore
Best Place You’ve Vacationed: New Zealand
Q. Where can readers discover more about you and your work?
Thanks for taking the time to answer all these questions, Sarah!!