You’ve been writing since you were 8 years old! I think that’s one of the signs of being a writer! And you wrote Slipping Reality when you were just 14! Tell us how you came to write it.
I wrote Slipping Reality because of Matthew Beaver, my older brother and best friend. He is, in fact, part of the reason I began to love writing in the third grade. My teacher had assigned a fable and instead of the minimum paragraph most of my peers turned in, I wrote ten pages. Matthew read my class assignment and encouraged me to write more. From then on he read every single word I ever wrote. He was my built-in support system that I expected to have through my entire life.
But Matthew was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma just three years later. He was fourteen – the same age I would be when I penned this book. He fought it for three and a half years. I was just six weeks into my freshman year at a completely new high school where I knew no one, when I learned that Matthew was going to die. Deep down, I knew the right thing to do would be to support him through that transition, regardless of the consequences to me but that didn’t stop it from being so hard…
I didn’t expect that the process of dying would make Matthew a different person from my brother. He was incoherent, weak and constantly drifting in and out of sleep. I didn’t want to be around him but felt obligated because I knew I’d never see him again. I stopped going to school eventually, and I wouldn’t leave the house because I didn’t know when his time would come. And one day, as I was walking up the stairs after visiting him, I thought of how much I would love to escape to the only place I knew that could comfort me now – my imagination. Immediately I had the idea of a girl whose brother was dying of cancer, and how she ran away from this inevitable fact in her imagination. I ran to my computer, sat down, and typed two words – Slipping Reality.
So the book is based on your personal story?
The book is fictionalized truth. I did not run away to my imagination like my character, Katelyn Emerson, did. I did not hallucinate two guides; Katelyn did. Katelyn carries a lot of my qualities in looks, along with some of my flaws, but she also is an emphasis of the emotional instability I had at that time, so I could be weak through her. The story you’re reading may reflect my own, but it is in no way my own. I lived my brother’s final goodbye the right way. It’s up to you to see how Katelyn lives hers.
For those who haven’t read it yet, can you give us a quick summary of what Slipping Reality is about?
It’s a story about 14-year-old Katelyn Emerson, who when faced with her brother’s deteriorating condition, falls into her imagination to help her cope – with the consequence of fading further and further away from reality. It was the story I wanted to live, but the story I could only tell. In my real life, I had to deal with the pain of watching my brother pass, so I wrote what I wished could be.
Even though you had your own experiences to draw on for the book, did you still have to do some research?
I researched a lot on dream analysis, book classics (for Tristan’s collection), Tuberculosis (which is what Diana originally died from), and hallucinations. I came at Katelyn’s condition from many psychological perspectives, from Freudian to cognitive to even neurological, before I decided to use my pinch of fiction to explain her “visions.” When she is too emotionally overwhelmed, her mind snaps, thus creating the hallucination. Simple as that. But before I could form that explanation, flimsy as it is, I went through a lot of research, on George Berkeley (and his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge) and Steppenwolf (later Tristan’s favorite book). An ongoing inspiration was the poem “Confessions of a Bound Soul” by Amanda Saveley on poemhunter.com. She writes about her brother and I recall it striking a chord in me that propelled me to write her emotions, too.
How did your brother’s battle with cancer affect your family? How did it affect you?
Prior to Matthew’s diagnosis, my family was absolutely normal, the quintessential picture of a nuclear family, until our lives were turned upside down with this disease.
When Matthew was ill I heard a lot of people asking my parents if they were okay, asking me if my brother was okay, my parents, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle… but I never heard anyone ask if I was okay. People don’t seem to take into consideration how much a sibling deals with during a tragedy, and as I one day found out in a grief-stricken search of the Internet, there’s almost no research on sibling grief – and most of it is directed at adults who lose their brother or sister in a car crash, which goes to show how rare a case this is. From what research I’ve found, we’re called “The Forgotten Mourners.” I certainly felt that way. I do not at all intend to undermine the emotional stress on the parents, spouses, or the patient especially, but I remember how it felt to not be as important. Especially coming from the youngest child who was used to the majority of attention, it was rough.
What are some things that would have been nice for people to say or do for you as you went through this painful experience? Do you have any advice for people going through something similar?
You know, it’s not really what people say, but how they say it. I’ve received countless hugs from hearing about my situation, but I remember the ones that genuinely came from a place of depth and sympathy. The same goes for words of comfort – my favorite nurse who took care of my brother, Amy Schneider, once told me that it is the people and their intentions that stay with you, not what they have said.
I don’t think I’m a good example of what to say when being confronted with a devastating situation. Truth be told, when the situation is reversed I, too, have difficulty finding the right words. It’s not so much a question of character or how much that person cares about your situation – trust me, they do. Today our society makes it so difficult for people to admit something’s wrong, which is something that deeply affected me during Matthew’s treatment – how do you bring up something so significant to your life without scaring people off? Everyone just wants to be normal – for a while, I did too. So I think the best thing I can say is to the people in the situation themselves – be understanding. The beautiful thing about people in their right minds is that they all want to say the one thing that will bring you comfort. Look at that instead of what they actually say, because that’s their intention.
Just hours before Matthew passed, you found out you were being published in the popular Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Was Matthew proud of you? How did the opportunity come about?
I don’t know if he was proud of me – he was too weak to really understand any news that we had. The opportunity came about when my mother told me about how Chicken Soup was looking for stories for a cancer book, and asked if I wanted to write something and submit it. I was 13 years old and in a constant hurry, but I did, and by some miracle, it was published. I was thrilled, because I had early on in Matthew’s cancer treatment begun obsessively reading Chicken Soup books, and because it was my first paid writing job. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the opportunities that came from being published in that book, and the amount of screaming I had to do when I opened the package that contained my first advanced copy.
David Tabatsky hailed Slipping Reality as a book that ”proves adults are not the only authors capable of cutting so beautiflly to the bone of a story.” How does it feel to get such high praise at the beginning of your writing career?
Ironically, I can’t even tap into the proper words to describe how it feels, and I’m a bloody author. I absolutely adore David Tabatsky – he was my mentor and my coach through this process, and I’m throughly indebted to him for all his amazing insight. To receive such high praise in return was an unexpected gift that really helped me realize just how much David believed in me, and how important that was.
You have a full life ahead of you to share your stories. Do you plan to write more books?
The funny thing is, I never dreamed about publishing a book beyond my high school years. It was kind of like, “Okay, I’ll publish a book, then what?” I admit I am working on a new book right now – though I hesitate to give its details – that I’m quite excited about. But who knows where my life will take me? Writing will always be a part of me because that’s what keeps me living. But I have other passions and other dreams I hope to achieve, and I want my life to be an adventure. So let’s just say – the future is open. I will never turn down the opportunity to write a book if the story comes to me, but I will never settle in to only writing books if I don’t have a story to tell. Anything is possible!
Facebook: Slipping Reality
Memorial Video for Emily’s brother, Matthew Beaver