Jen St. Jude on portraying mental illness in her apocalyptic novel, If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come

And whether we should be lenient to people who are less kind to others in an apocalypse.

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If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come is an apocalyptic story, but it is also a story about speaking the truth and seeking the support we need.

Avery Byrne has secrets. She’s queer; she’s in love with her best friend, Cass; and she’s suffering from undiagnosed clinical depression. But on the morning Avery plans to jump into the river near her college campus, the world discovers there are only nine days left to an asteroid is headed for Earth, and no one can stop it. Trying to spare her family and Cass additional pain, Avery does her best to make it through just nine more days. We are honoured to have Jen St. Jude here today to chat but she decides to portray mental illness and depression in an apocalyptic story.

First of all, why did you choose an asteroid to be the reason why the world ends?

The word apocalypse is derived from the Ancient Greek apokálupsis which means to reveal. Apocalyptic literature is popular in religious texts as well as modern day media because it forces us to face our mortality and its terrible, beautiful implications. I chose an asteroid because I wanted the characters to have a shared timeline, as opposed to a pandemic like in The Last of Us or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

This book is such an emotional book. How do you balance the pessimism from the apocalypse and the optimism you wish to give readers in Avery’s position?

Depression impacts people even in the best circumstances. Avery’s depression is that way—clinical, chronic. Each unfortunate event that happens in her life doesn’t cause her depression, but it reveals what she’s trying to bury or hide. I figured: if I can put her in the most tragic situation, can she find hope? And if so, what does that mean for the rest of us?

If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come starts with Avery planning to end her life. However, that wasn’t her first time doing so. Why did you decide to portray her depression starting at such an early age?

Depression doesn’t discriminate by age. For me, it started to become a big problem when I was in middle school, but I see stories of children younger than that dealing with the same thing. The longer you live with it, the deeper you internalize the experience as part of your story. It’s hard to believe life could ever be different when it’s all you’ve ever known.

Part of Avery’s struggle in college is due to having to balance her studies with soccer. While Dr. Talley does not agree with special treatments for athletes, what do you think the school should have done to support athletes like Avery?

Mental illness in college athletes is rampant, and we’ve seen a devastating pattern of suicides especially in female athletes. Universities need to do better when it comes to mental health for all students. Even at the most expensive, elite institutions there are not nearly enough resources. Coaches, professors, and other leaders should also take an active role in creating an environment where students feel safe to come to them with challenges.

Avery doesn’t tell her parents that she is struggling, which is understandable. How can teens have difficult conversations with their parents when they might not listen?

Parents often want to solve problems for their children and have a hard time accepting they can’t fix everything. Prefacing a conversation with something like, “I don’t need you to fix this for me, I just want you to know how I’m feeling,” can set expectations. It can also be true that your parents might not be the best people to turn to no matter how much they love you.

Avery herself tries to understand Cass by reading but that’s also deemed as not enough. What can friends do to understand and support each other?

Educating yourself about the struggles other people in your life and community face is crucial; there is so much information online these days. It’s important you don’t force your loved ones into the role of teacher all the time, and it’s a sign of respect and care to learn about what they go through. Having said that, each person’s experience is unique, and there’s no one-size-fits-all way to create a safe and loving environment. Listening to people is key, as is understanding you can’t be everything to everyone. As much as Cass loves Avery, there are other people in her life who get different parts of her in a way that Avery will never be able to, and that’s OK.

When Avery came out to her parents, they brushed it off completely. Why do you think this is as harmful as an outright negative reaction?

Her parents are so afraid of Avery’s queerness that they’re in deep denial and aren’t ready to acknowledge it. This sends the message that they’re stilling willing to love her only if she agrees to stifle that part of herself, and that they aren’t ready to handle pieces of her that are inconvenient. This makes her feel fractured in her identity and compounds her shame and depression.

Do you think you tend to be more lenient or critical of the characters who are less kind to others when there is an apocalypse happening?

To return to the theme of ‘reveal,’ extreme circumstances show a lot about the core of who you are in that moment—what you value, what you’re willing to discard or ignore, who you’re willing to hurt. Both are true at once: I give grace to people when they’re just trying to survive, but they’re still responsible for their actions and the impact they have on others. In my own worst times, I did things I’m not proud of, but I have to live with them, trust I’ve learned from it, and make it a point to be better, do better.

Finally, let’s end this with a fun question. We can definitely see If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come as a movie – who do you want to cast as Avery and Cass?

It would be cool to cast some unknown/emerging talent—to give young actors a chance, especially someone who shares Cass’s Mexican-Indian-American identity or her experience as a biracial person. In terms of vibes though, I’ve thought of Alisa Ramirez (the drummer from the band The Aces) or the Toni Shalifoe character from The Wilds (#RIP)—very cool, very gay. For Avery, Georgie Sadler is voicing the audiobook and she’d be incredible. Sadie Sink and Liv Hewson come to mind too. There are so many young adult shows on the air right now with unbelievable talent.

If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come is out now. (Penguin)
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