Interview with Neal Shusterman, 2015 National Book Award Winner, Young People's Literature

Neal Shusterman

Challenger Deep Neal Shusterman, credit Neal Shusterman Challenger Deep
(HarperCollins Children's Books)
ISBN: 978-0061134111
 
Interviewed by Tim Manley
Every time I took out Challenger Deep on the subway, a stranger seated next to me asked to take a look. I handed each one the book and gave a brief explanation. “The Marianas Trench, yeah,” one woman responded. “Nobody knows what’s down there.”
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman is split into two narratives: Caden Bosch’s struggle with an amplifying mental illness, and Caden Bosch’s travels on a pirate ship to the deepest point of the Marianas Trench, Challenger Deep. The novel mimics the actual experience of schizophrenia in that we are sometimes uncertain what is happening. Interspersed throughout the story are illustrations from Caden, as he is the resident-artist on the ship and in the psychiatric ward he is actually living in. The drawings were created by Shusterman’s son, Brendan, during his own struggles with mental illness.
While much of Shusterman’s work plays with science fiction and fantasy, this book feels unique, possibly because we know the adventure at sea is a delusion in Caden’s mind. The effect is an honest — and action-packed, and funny — representation of schizophrenia. It’s a necessary book, especially for the large number of schizophrenic young readers who have not yet seen their story told.

Tim Manley: You explain in the author’s note that Challenger Deep is drawn from your son’s experiences with mental illness. Can you tell us the story of how you began writing this book and what it meant in your personal life?

He said to me “Dad, it feels like I’m at the bottom of the ocean, screaming at the top of my lungs, and no one can hear me.”

Suddenly I knew what Challenger Deep had to be about.

NS: It began years before there was any thought about writing a book on mental illness.  Brendan was in second grade, and had been assigned to do an ocean report.  He chose as his topic the Marianas Trench.  In researching the trench, we discovered that the deepest point had been named, Challenger Deep.  It struck a chord.  What a great name for the deepest place in the world.  And it sounded like a great title for a book.  At the time I had a two-book contract, the second book of which was still untitled.  I slapped on Challenger Deep as a placeholder title, then ultimately replaced it with an actual book later on.  For years Challenger Deep was my placeholder title for untitled contracts.  No story, just a cool title.
Then, in tenth grade, Brendan began to develop anxiety issues that spiraled out of control into mania, delusions, hallucinations.  He was hospitalized, diagnoses kept changing depending on which doctor was making the diagnosis, but one thing was certain: he had suffered a serious psychotic episode, and was facing a long and difficult struggle with mental illness.  As a family we were devastated, and did everything we could to help him. At his worst, when he couldn’t differentiate between the things inside his head, and the real world, he said to me “Dad, it feels like I’m at the bottom of the ocean, screaming at the top of my lungs, and no one can hear me.”  
Suddenly I knew what Challenger Deep had to be about.

It’s our hope that Challenger Deep will help remove the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and open a dialogue on a subject that, for too long, has been misunderstood.

I thought about writing it for years, but didn’t attempt it until he had really risen from the depths, and was truly thriving. At that point I asked him if I could write a story about mental illness – not about him – but about a fictional character struggling with the same things he had struggled with.  We would take bits and pieces of what really happened, and weave it into a fictional story that would, hopefully tap into the core of what it’s like to struggle with mental illness.  He agreed that it would be a good idea, and it has been a great experience for both of us.  The outpouring of support has been overwhelming.  It’s our hope that Challenger Deep will help remove the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and open a dialogue on a subject that, for too long, has been misunderstood.

TM: The illustrations that Caden drew were actually made by your son. Caden says of the drawings, “There’s this thing in my head that I have to purge onto the page before it changes the shape of my brain.” What purpose do the illustrations serve in the book, and what purpose did they serve for your son in their creation?
NS: The artwork existed long before the book.  In the depths of his illness, Brendan created dozens upon dozens of abstract pieces.  The idea that he had to purge them onto the page is very real, because that’s exactly what he was doing.  It was his way of dealing with the visions and delusions that tormented him at his darkest times.   It was the artwork that inspired the entire fantasy/delusion portion of the book. The pirate ship, and the surreal journey across the ocean was entirely inspired by his artwork.  Even more insightful are the pieces that express what it feels like to be hospitalized and heavily medicated.  I felt it was crucial to include some of the artwork in the book, and my editor agreed. (For anyone interested in seeing the full-color artwork, it’s up on my website at www.storyman.com)

TM: There are 161 chapters in Challenger Deep, some only a single page and occasionally, Caden’s reality shifts within a chapter. Is there a logic to how often you switched between the pirate ship and the real world?

Since the goal was to make the reader feel the same type of disorientation and confusion inherent in schizophrenia – to basically put the reader through their own psychotic episode – I decided that I couldn’t take the reader by the hand. Readers would have to make sense of things themselves...

NS: The structure of the book is very deliberate.  The story is broken into four basic sections.  There’s the real world, in which Caden is losing touch with reality, and becomes an unreliable narrator, because his version of the world is increasingly skewed. Then, simultaneously, there’s the world on the ship – a dark, fantastical voyage which we eventually discover is Caden’s delusion – an alternate version of his experiences in the hospital.  Third are observations on life, and reflections on the nature of mental illness, that are almost like journal entries and are not tied to any specific time at all. Fourth are the chapters in which the real world of the hospital, and the world of the ship begin to flow into one another within the same chapter, as those two realities start to merge.
I wrote the book in short bits – as a thought occurred to me.  There are times I wrote on the backs of envelopes, or receipts, or other scraps of paper when a thought came to me.  Mostly it was written in a notebook longhand.  Because of the disjointed nature of the story, when I entered each bit into the computer, I color-coded it so that it wasn’t so overwhelming.  Red was Caden’s reality. Blue was the ship.  Green was for reflections and observations, purple was when Caden lost his sense of self, and his narrative went from first person to second person.            
There was a lot of shuffling of chapters to find the right placement of all those puzzle pieces.
 A big question was how much I should explain, and how I should leave the reader to figure out for themselves. Since the goal was to make the reader feel the same type of disorientation and confusion inherent in schizophrenia – to basically put the reader through their own psychotic episode – I decided that I couldn’t take the reader by the hand. Readers would have to make sense of things themselves — which would make them active participants in Caden’s story. 


TM: All of your books have elements of science fiction and fantasy, as does Challenger Deep. Why write this story in two parts — the “real world” and the internal, fantastical world — instead of simply writing a sci-fi narrative that would metaphorically represent the journey with mental illness? What is gained from this route?
NS: The key statement there is “elements of science fiction and fantasy.”  I don’t think of anything I write in terms of being sci-fi or fantasy – but I like to use the surreal and the speculative as storytelling tools, because sometimes it’s the best way to communicate something I feel is worth saying.  
Telling a story about mental illness that was entirely in the objective real world held no interest for me.  Telling a metaphorical story in a fantasy world wouldn’t have been satisfying either.  What I wanted to do was to focus on the interface between reality and delusion – and how blurred that line gets when one is struggling with a debilitating mental illness.

I think those in the business of creative expression do a fire-dance just this side of sanity.  A controlled burn, rather than a supernova.  It’s our job to shine light into the abyss, and translate what we see – always hoping that the abyss doesn’t stare too deeply into us.

TM: Caden writes: “For hours at a time I walk… And I see things. Not so much see, but feel. Patterns of connections between the people I pass. Between the birds that swoop from the trees. There is meaning out there, if only I can find it.” This searching seems not unlike the experience of a writer. Is there a bit of schizophrenia in every artist?
NS: I think all of us search for meaning in our lives, but schizophrenics become lost in that search. Writers and other artists lose themselves in the search, too, but with a lifeline that’s hopefully sturdy enough to pull us back.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that mental illness is often accompanied by bursts of profound creativity.  It makes me think of supernovas – and how all the elements of the universe are created in those explosions.  Beautiful by-products of devastating cataclysms. 
I think those in the business of creative expression do a fire-dance just this side of sanity.  A controlled burn, rather than a supernova.  It’s our job to shine light into the abyss, and translate what we see – always hoping that the abyss doesn’t stare too deeply into us.

Tim Manley is the writer and illustrator of Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, and the co-writer of The 10 Letters Project. His one-person show, Feelings, debuted this year at the New York International Fringe Festival. He is online at timmanleytimmanley.com.

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Photo credit: Neal Shusterman