Swanky Seventeener Carlie Sorosiak recently interviewed Karen Fortunati, author of THE WEIGHT OF ZERO, a Contemporary Young Adult novel published by Delacorte/Penguin Random House on October 11, 2016.
About the Book:
Seventeen-year-old Catherine Pulaski knows Zero is coming for her. Zero, the devastating depression born of Catherine’s bipolar disease, has almost triumphed once, propelling Catherine to her first suicide attempt. With Zero only temporarily restrained by the latest med du jour, time is running out. In an old ballet shoebox, Catherine stockpiles medications, preparing to take her own life before Zero can inflict its own living death on her again. But Zero’s return is delayed due to unexpected and meaningful relationships that lessen Catherine’s sense of isolation. These relationships along with the care of a gifted psychiatrist alter Catherine’s perception of her diagnosis as a death sentence. This is a story of loss and grief and hope and how some of the many shapes of love – maternal, romantic and platonic – impact a young woman’s struggle with mental illness.
About the Author:
Karen Fortunati is a former attorney, whose experiences on the job with children and teens and personal experiences witnessing the impact of depression, bipolar disorder, and suicide inspired her to write this story of hope for those who struggle with mental illness.
Karen lives in Connecticut with her family and rescue dogs and works part time as a museum educator.
Carlie: The Weight of Zero deals with a host of difficult, important issues. How did you find the writing process emotionally?
Karen: THE WEIGHT OF ZERO deals with suicide ideation, mental illness, and bullying so I felt a huge sense of responsibility to get this story right and to make it one of hope. I knew that my characters’ experiences had to be authentic so I was researching constantly for personal accounts. Kay Redfield Jamison’s AN UNQUIET MIND was a tremendous resource for me as was the International Bipolar Foundation (website, webinars and magazine.) I also knew that the information about medication and treatment had to be accurate. My husband is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and helped with those aspects. He also helped me understand the symptoms and the wide range of presentations of bipolar disorder.
My goal in telling Catherine’s story was to speak honestly and hopefully about living with a chronic mental illness. While Catherine’s voice came to me almost effortlessly and the writing of her story happened so smoothly, I felt a great deal of pressure (self-imposed) to ensure that it was realistic and respectful. That was by far the most difficult part of writing this story.
Carlie: Family is such an important influence in The Weight of Zero. How much of your own family experience did you incorporate into your book?
Karen: I love this question! I think my own family experience played a huge role in shaping the characters and relationship dynamics in this story. I come from a large, extended family where nothing is sacred. So all the scenes in the home of Catherine’s friend, Michael Pitoscia, could’ve been straight from my house growing up. All the Italian dishes are stolen from my mother in law’s kitchen. She’s an amazing cook and makes the best sauce (“gravy”), braciole and lemon drop cookies. In real life, we call these “Mima cookies;” in the book, they’re “Nonny cookies.”
Looking back now at my characters, one common theme is independent and self-reliant women. Catherine, her mother and grandmother, Nonny, Michael’s mom, Kristal and Kristal’s mom, Jane Talmadge and Aunt Darlene – all of them are really strong. I think I took that from my own strong matriarchal experience. My grandmother was an immigrant and arrived in the United States speaking no English. She married, had five children and was widowed at the age of forty-four yet managed to get a job, keep her house and raise her kids. She was tough, an eternal optimist and would always sing to us grandkids and great-grandkids, “You Are My Sunshine.” When I wrote one of the scenes with Catherine and her grandmother, I used the same song.
Carlie: What was your revision process like for this book?
Karen: It’s amazing for me to compare the pre-edits draft to the final version. My editor Kate Sullivan is brilliant and pushed me to dig deep into my characters’ psyches. As a result, the story deepened and she pulled from me ideas and themes I had meant to expand upon but had forgotten about. It was an incredible learning experience to see what she wanted to hone down and expand upon and I got a better sense of pacing and story rhythm. Some of my favorite passages in the book were written during the editing process and resulted directly from her comments or questions. I had no clue how collaborative the process would be and I’m grateful that Catherine’s story was in Kate’s hands.
Carlie: Have you grown as a writer through the debut process?
Karen: I think so. My first instinct now when I get critiqued is to listen. Before this whole debut process, my initial response would be to try to defend my writing. But now, I take the time to let the comment sit and marinate and be open to it. My new attitude is that if there’s a question, then I haven’t explained something fully enough. But I’ve also gotten more confident in my writing so if after I mull something over and it still doesn’t ring true for me, then I’ll go with my writing instinct.
When you’re writing, music or silence?
Favorite book when you were sixteen?
I loved all of Judy Blume’s books but FOREVER really sticks out in my mind because it was pretty controversial back then. A few months ago, I realized that my main characters have the same names as the main characters in FOREVER (different spellings though.) The book must have made more of an impact on me than I realized.
Dogs or cats?
Dogs. I like cats but I’m really allergic to them.
Choose one: Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts
Dunkin’ Donuts – it’s cheaper and there’s about three per town in New England.
Favorite talk show host?
Tie between Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.
Character in a novel who you’d most want to be friends with?
Bernadette from Maria Semple’s WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE?
About the Interviewer:
Carlie Sorosiak is the debut author of IF BIRDS FLY BACK (Summer 2017) from HarperTeen. Her life goals include traveling to all seven continents and fostering many polydactyl cats. She currently splits her time between the US and the UK, hoping to gain an accent like Madonna’s. You can find her on Twitter @carliesorosiak.
IF BIRDS FLY BACK is a YA contemporary novel about two teens whose lives converge around a missing cult film star’s sudden reappearance, forcing them to confront questions of love, family, and the mysteries of the universe.