Book Nerd Guest Post
Guest Post with Nicole Wolverton
Writing Mental Illness
The literary world is full of mentally ill characters. From Don Quixote to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, from Sybil to Fight Club—they make for compelling writing. Why? On some level, writers might be drawn to these types of characters because writers (particularly poets) have a higher risk of mental illness themselves. Of course, it might also be something much simpler: writing about perfectly healthy and happy people with healthy relationships and no stress is boring.
So whether you read genre fiction or literary fiction, you’re bound to run into a character facing depression or substance abuse or anxiety disorder. Hell, in life you’re likely to as well—the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that at least twenty-six percent of Americans have a diagnosable mental problem. There’s no shame in that, and so as a writer I think it’s important that we don’t condemn the mentally ill. Part of that is doing the research to make sure we have our characters down. Lela White, the main character in THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS, very obviously has some delusions. She believes that she holds the key to space program safety. As part of that, she breaks into the homes of astronauts and watches them sleep. If she detects a sleep disorder, well, she’s prepared to ensure that astronaut doesn’t go into space by any means necessary.
I never name Lela’s particular disorder in THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS because it’s told from Lela’s point of view, and she does not believe there’s anything wrong with her. She recognizes that her life isn’t normal, but she believes she must live this way because the universe has tasked her with a special project. That said, I chose a very specific disorder for her: schizotypal personality disorder. This disorder affects only three percent of the population, and it presents with a decreased capacity for personal relationships, a tendency toward eccentric behavior and cognitive distortions, and there’s a possibility of psychotic episodes along with it. That’s a really simplified description, of course. Before I even started to write Lela, I put together pages and pages of research on the disorder as well as the typical course and patterns, etc. I spoke to a psychologist or two. I would have loved to have spoken to someone with the disorder, but I couldn’t find anyone. Plus, let’s face it—Lela is not the standard case. She’s able to mask her symptoms pretty well, and underneath that she’s on the extreme end of things. THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS is not a book that claims all people with schizotypal personality disorder are going to sneak into your home and kill you if you have a bout of insomnia.
Despite the risk of violence to those around Lela, on some level I think we can empathize with her a little. She does the things she does not because she wants to creep anyone out or kill them or injure them—she does it because she wants to keep the astronauts safe. Her entire life is, from her point of view, completely altruistic. In a way, she’s Dexter-ish. Yeah, he kills people, but it’s for the greater good.
Everyone around Lela considers her a private woman with a passion for her lab work. But nighttime reveals her for what she is: a woman on a critical secret mission. Lela lives in the grip of a mental disorder that compels her to break into astronauts’ homes to ensure they can sleep well and believes that by doing so, she keeps the revitalized U.S. space program safe from fatal accidents. What began at the age of ten when her mother confessed to blowing up the space shuttle has evolved into Lela’s life’s work. She dreads the day when an astronaut doesn’t pass her testing, but she’s prepared to kill for the greater good.
When Zory Korchagin, a Russian cosmonaut on loan to the U.S. shuttle program, finds himself drawn to Lela, he puts her carefully-constructed world at risk of an explosion as surely as he does his own upcoming launch. As Lela’s universe unravels, no one is safe.
PRAISE FOR THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS
"Wolverton has taken some liberties with details of the space program, but the primary fantastic elements are the symptoms of Lela’s increasingly dubious grasp on reality; this work is less horror or fantasy than a skillful mainstream examination of a psychotic woman’s final descent into insanity." -Publishers Weekly
“The Trajectory of Dreams is unsettling, beautifully written, and truly original. In Lela White, Nicole Wolverton has created one of the most haunting characters in contemporary fiction. This is a remarkable debut.” –Emily St. John Mandel, author of THE LOLA QUARTET, THE SINGER’S GUN, and LAST NIGHT IN MONTREAL
“This novel is a free dive into the bottomless ocean of insanity. With every chapter, every kick of the fins, you’re sucked in deeper as the darkness mounts and the pressure builds. And like the ocean, The Trajectory of Dreams gives up its secrets grudgingly, so you’ll continually be stunned as the protagonist, Lela, falls to her inevitable implosion.” –Mike Mullin, author of ASHFALL and ASHEN WINTER.