Chatting With YA Author Barbara Stewart About Her Debut Novel, "The In-Between"

"There's always someone in the room trying to explain the unexplainable. But if you've ever experienced something truly bizarre, something truly phenomenal, then even the rational explanation is unsatisfying."

Nov 24, 2013 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

When I first heard about "The In-Between," I was highly intrigued by the premise -- a novel with a protagonist caught in a strange reality where it's difficult to tell if she's being haunted or experiencing mental illness? Written in a journal format? Sign me up. 

I was glad I checked it out, because this deftly written debut novel really blew me away. Stewart's depiction was canny and crafty, and explored an aspect of mental illness that certainly rang true for me although it won't for everyone: when something feels true for you but everyone denies it, what's real? 

I was honored when she agreed to sit down and have a talk with me about it -- and not just because we share pie tastes. 

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Courtesy St. Martin's Press. 

xoJane: This is a very ambitious debut novel: were you intimidated or given second thoughts at any point during the process?

Barbara Stewart: So much of this book feels like it follows some kind of dream logic. Intuitively I felt it made sense, but I couldn't explain how or why. I was uncertain if readers would be able to jump in on the dream and follow Ellie's twisted narrative or if the whole story was too far out there. Ultimately, Ellie and what she was experiencing had to dictate the story. Her thoughts don't flow in straight lines.

xoJane: I see that some readers appear frustrated with the open-ended nature of "The In-Between" (something I personally liked about it). What made you decide to take that route rather than resolving the story as a solely supernatural or solely physiological series of events?

Barbara Stewart: I'm a die-hard X-Files fan: I want to believe. [Editorial note: she's not the only YA author we've interviewed who loves the X-Files. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.] But when my internal Scully and Mulder duke it out in my head, it's usually a draw. Writing this story, I had to anchor myself in Ellie's mind, so I believed. At the same time, though, I had to keep stepping back to see the other characters' points of view, to gauge their responses to what was going on with this girl.

If I hadn't gone with the journal format, I don't think the ending would work, it would've felt like a cheat, like I was being cagey. But the personal nature of the journal lets the reader in on Ellie's deepest hopes and fears, things she would never confess to another soul. Ultimately, I don't think anything could've convinced Ellie that what happened wasn't real, so confirming or negating her experience felt artificial. In the end, I didn't feel it had to be one or the other for the story to be complete. There's always someone in the room trying to explain the unexplainable. But if you've ever experienced something truly bizarre, something truly phenomenal, then even the rational explanation is unsatisfying.

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Courtesy St. Martin's Press. 

Photo: JNP Images. 

xoJane: Themes of hauntings, mental illness, and blurred realities are so rich and have been explored by so many amazing authors. Did any particular stories, authors, or texts serve as inspiration while you were working on "The In-Between"?

Barbara Stewart: This book grew more out of my love for creepy movies. Monster movies, horror movies, movies about hauntings and possession and the slippery slope into madness. I have my late grandmother to thank for that -- my obsession with the supernatural. She used to let me stay up with her and watch Chiller Theater. I still get the tingles when I think about the dead tree in the background, that gray, rubbery hand wiggling up through the dirt. I can't believe some of the stuff she let me watch.

xoJane: As someone who confronted the onset of mental illness in my teens, much of this book resonated with me; what kinds of experiences do you have with mental health conditions and how did those influence your writing?

Barbara Stewart: I'm a pretty anxious person. I like to joke that I keep myself from going off the deep end by channeling all my fears and insecurities into my characters. My brother-in-law is an ER nurse trained to handle patients who come in presenting mental health issues. He has asked me the same thing: Where did this come from? The honest answer is, I don't know. I guess that's another one of the doubts I had while writing this: whether or not I could accurately portray Ellie's condition.

xoJane: What's on the recently-read-and-fabulous or to-read lists for you right now?

Barbara Stewart: I screeched when I saw it in the bookstore window: Stephen King's "Dr. Sleep"! "The Shining" is one of my favorites, hands down. I've read the book twice, but I can't count the number of times I've seen the movie -- the Stanley Kubrick version. The idea that I get to meet up with those characters again makes me giddy, but I have to wait -- my mom and dad are getting it for me for Christmas. I guess you know what I'll be doing on December 26th.

xoJane: What about your current playlist?

Barbara Stewart: Jazz is always on my playlist. Coltrane, Monk, Davis. Led Zeppelin's always there, too. I'm also on some weird Heavy Metal/Hard Rock kick right now. Plus a little Daft Punk.

xoJane: I always love asking authors to tell me what they'd like to be asked (and hopefully answer their own question) -- what do you wish interviewers would ask you that no one ever seems to get around to?

Barbara Stewart: Since this is one of my first Q&As, I have to rely on the fantasy interviews I've given. I saw this one on Forbes.com, on a list of “25 Oddball Interview Questions,” and knew my answer immediately:

"Pick two celebrities to be your parents." -- Asked at Urban Outfitters, sales associate candidate.

For a dad, I'd choose John Amos -- specifically, John Amos as James Evans, the father on the '70s show "Good Times." He was tough but fair, and always stuck up for his kids. For her incomparable style and grace, I'd pick Jackie O for a mom.

xoJane: Finally, a key question for our readers: cake, or pie?

Barbara Stewart: Definitely pie. Lemon meringue if you've got it.

"The In-Between" is available on shelves now! Go forth and read it.