|Jessica Warman||Interview, September 2009|
Walker & Company 2009
A semi-autobiographical novel of love, secrets, and the ties that cut and bind.
When Katie Kitrell is shipped off to boarding school, it doesn’t take her long to become part of the It Crowd. She’s smart, she’s cute, and she’s a swimming prodigy who has a first-class ticket to any Ivy League school of her choice. But what her new friends, roommate, and boyfriend don’t know is that Katie is swimming away from the secrets of her past, and from the schizophrenic older brother, Will, who won’t let her go. As Katie’s star rises, Will descends deeper into insanity. And when he does the unthinkable, it’s all Katie can do to keep her head above water. Largely based on the author’s own experiences, Breathless is a stunning debut that explores illness and health, love and lust, friends and enemies, and the moneyed world of prep school with a deft, expert hand.
More books by Jessica Warman
Between (2011) [a heartbreaking character study, a touching romance, and ultimately a hopeful tale of redemption, love, and letting go.]
ETC: The primary focus of the book is on relationships, specifically that of Katie and her mentally ill brother, Will. Since the book is semi-autobiographical, can we assume that you have a similar relationship with your brother? Is he like Will?
Jessica Warman: My relationship with my brother is a complicated, painful thing. Right now we’re estranged. Even though my brother is not institutionalized (like Will is at the end of the novel), I almost feel like Katie and Will’s relationship is healthier in many ways. I was able to give her character some kind of closure, which I don’t think I’ll ever get with my brother; the pathology just goes on and on. He hasn’t read the book, and doesn’t care to, which I suppose is fine with me, but there’s a small part of me that wants him to understand my perspective so badly. So I suppose that the answer is yes, my relationship with my brother is very similar to Katie and Will’s. But in the novel, I was able to provide the catharsis for all of the characters – Katie, her parents, and even Will – that I don’t necessarily think my family will ever have.
ETC: On a similar note, how did your parents respond to the book? What about your close friends?
Jessica Warman: Of course, everyone wanted to know how much was true and how much was fiction. Everyone close to me who isn’t family was curious about how many of those gritty, behind-closed-doors events actually occurred. But I think the most striking reaction was from my mother with whom I am very close. We were sitting at my kitchen table on the day the book was released, and she’d written me a letter, basically saying that she was proud of my accomplishments and proud to be my mother. Then, as we were talking, she looked at me and said, “I think you and I are the only two people in the world who will ever understand how really true the book is.” And she started to cry. Not because she was upset with me, or hurt in any way – but because she and I grew up witnessing so much that nobody else saw, not even my father. (Like the Ghost, he was always at work.) My dad reacted to the novel by being somewhat defensive and hurt, but ultimately accepting. It was my mother’s reaction, though, that I cherish the most. She’s a visual artist, so she understands the process of creation, and she would never begrudge me for turning my own life into material. Beyond that, she is completely unembarrassed by any of the content – she gets it in a way that nobody else can. I have the utmost of respect and appreciation for all of her support.
ETC: You wrote the first draft of the novel at age 18, right after graduating from boarding school yourself. Yet it wasn’t published for another 10 years. How many changes did it go through in that time?
Jessica Warman: A lot of content was removed; there are several characters and subplots that just weren’t necessary when it came to the final draft. But it’s interesting to note that, as I changed, the book would change with me. I think the first draft was much more gritty, (if you can imagine!), much more risqué than the final book, because I didn’t hold anything back. I was 18, I’d just finished boarding school, and I thought: I have to write this all down before any of it leaves me. Then, as I grew into an adult, things got toned down. I became a mother myself, which HUGELY changed the way Katie relates to her parents in the book. (I have a lot more sympathy for parents now!) On the same note, as a mother, I became much more sensitive to the content, and found myself asking questions like, “would I want my daughters to read this?” As a whole, though, it’s amazing how much of the original draft is a part of the final book. There were plenty of rewritten scenes, reworked characters, etc, but in general the book remained pretty much the same for ten years!
ETC: So – will you let your daughters read the book?
Jessica Warman: When they’re older, yes, of course. They are only 4 and 2 now, but my 4-year old already understands that Mommy is a writer, and I’m sure she’ll be curious about the book! There is some edgy content, sure, but it’s all there for a reason. Hopefully, we can discuss the book and what it means and they’ll come away with a better understanding of their mom – not just the idea that I used to be a rebellious teenager!
ETC: What is the main thing you hope people are able to take away from reading the book?
Jessica Warman: Definitely a better understanding of mental illness, and its devastating effects on the families that it touches. With Breathless, I wanted to portray a family where everyone had the best of intentions at the onset. You have two intelligent, committed parents, two bright children, and a family that has been fortunate enough to find some affluence. And then, as the illness begins to permeate all of their lives, everyone falls apart in a different way that ends up tearing the entire family apart. It’s not for lack of love or commitment or caring; it just happens. It becomes too much for each individual to deal with, and the illness itself prevents the family from functioning effectively as a unit. I wanted people to understand why some people (like the mother) choose to simply tune out and turn off. I wanted them to see that, deep down, Katie was not just a teenager who cared about nothing but boys and popularity – these were her distractions from the very serious life she was trying to escape. Hopefully, people are able to see that as they read the book.
ETC: What made you decide to write the book? Beyond that, what made you decide to become a writer overall?
Jessica Warman: I’m one of those people who could never have done anything except become a writer. When I met my husband – when I was 19, in college – and I told him I was going to be a writer, his initial reaction was, “isn’t that just what people say they’re going to be to get out of doing any real work?” He sees now how much “real” work it actually is! By the time I was 18, I had spent my summers writing and taking creative writing classes; I was president of my boarding school’s Writer’s Forum… in other words, writing has always been the only way I was able to create an identity for myself. There was never any choice in the matter. As far as writing “Breathless” is concerned: going to boarding school – especially a coed boarding school – was such an incredible, unique experience, especially since my home life was so similar to Katie’s. I remember graduating from school and thinking, “I have to write this all down. I have to remember it all as it happened, before any of it slips away.” I wrote the first draft of the book in about six weeks immediately after graduating high school, and then I sat on it and made very few changes for the next four years. When I got to graduate school and had to choose a thesis project, I knew that it was time to revisit the novel. Several years later, the rest is history…
ETC: How would you address the grittiness in the novel? Specifically the scenes with sex, violence, and drugs, which can be a turnoff for some readers?
Jessica Warman: The only way I know how to address them is to speak to their truth – in my life, if not in the lives of other teens. As I said, the content was actually toned down quite a bit as the book went through the editing process. But I wanted to keep much of the grittier aspects only because they were real for me; they shaped me into the woman I am today, and made a lasting impact on me as I was growing up. It certainly wasn’t my intention to condone any of the drug use or sexuality – on the contrary, I tried to convey the message that these were negative aspects of Katie’s life, things that held her back. But I can see how it would bother some people. It bothers me, sometimes.
ETC: What are you dying to talk about that nobody has ever asked you?
Jessica Warman: This is a tough question! I think I’d like to point out that, if readers look closely, they will find that there’s a strong feminist angle to the book. When I was in high school, I took Women’s Studies from a male teacher, and I can’t express to you how much that changed my life. It was so different from hearing feminist theory from a female; coming from a male, it somehow made it more credible to me at the time. Not because he was a MAN, necessarily, but because he looked at us and said, “this isn’t how the world has to work for you,” and because he was telling us all of this as an adult male, if that makes sense. This goes along with the grittiness of the novel, particularly the more sexual scenes. Hopefully, readers who really take the time to explore the novel will come away with an understanding that the scenes of teenage sexuality in the book are meant to be thought-provoking, and certainly not necessarily a positive!