Karen Gregory is the author who penned one of 2017’s most hard-hitting and unforgettable contemporary books, ‘Countless’. This was one of my most eagerly anticipated new releases and lived up to every bit of hype surrounding it. The book tackled the stigma surrounding mental health, as well as the trials combated by the sufferer.
We got chatting to the author, to get her views on the tough subject matters her book dwelt upon, and how these have affected her own life.
When I was a teenager, I spent some time in an inpatient mental health unit and knew a number of girls with eating disorders. It was in the back of my mind for a long time to write a story about someone with an eating disorder, however it wasn’t until I had a couple of other manuscripts under my belt that I felt I’d learned enough to tackle the topic and do it justice, and then Hedda’s story more or less appeared all in one go one day. It was the writer’s equivalent of ‘When the student is ready, the master (or book in this case) will appear!’ It probably helped that I had enough years of recovery from my own difficulties to be able to look back and draw on the experience with objectivity
What is it that compelled you to write in the contemporary genre?
I love contemporary and it’s the genre I read the most in, so it felt very natural to write ‘Countless’ as a contemporary. When I was growing up, I loved Judy Blume’s books and how they tackled real issues like bullying, illness and divorce. It feels like a great time to be writing contemporary at the moment, with so many writers out there that I admire
Could you ever see yourself branching out into other, more fantastical, genres?
I would never say never to any writing project in the future! I love the idea of being able to make up an entire world and the freedom that comes with that. The first novel I wrote as an adult was actually a dystopia, and I definitely want to revisit it one day. I also love magical realism and elements of the supernatural – another favourite teen author growing up was Christopher Pike. There’s something currently sitting on my hard drive that blends magical realism with a contemporary story, and I’m hoping to get back to it once I’ve finished my current book two.
Hedda is a very troubled and yet a very lovable protagonist. How did the creation of her character come about?
I’m so happy you think she’s lovable! She can certainly be frustrating, but I think she has a big heart and I always saw ‘Countless’ as a love story.
In my previous writing, the process has been more of a slow discovery of a character, but Hedda simply popped into my head one day, along with the basic structure of the book, and that changed very little during edits. Hedda felt very real to me right from the beginning so the process of rewriting and editing was about uncovering more layers to her character and motivation.
Her pregnancy, and others’ judgement of it provides much conflict in the book. Why did you choose to feature it so prominently in the story?
I started writing again after I had my first baby, partly in response to the really visceral experiences of pregnancy, birth and new motherhood. I wanted to explore ideas of what it means to be a ‘good mother’ in our society, especially with the odds stacked against you and little support. I knew straight away that the conflict and catalyst for change for Hedda was going to be the pregnancy – perhaps I could relate as I found motherhood to be a completely transformative experience – but I also recognised there were not going to be any easy answers. I didn’t want to put forward a sentimental idea that a baby would solve everything or ‘save’ Hedda in some way; she has to be the one to save herself.
I was also conscious there is still a stigma around young mothers, and being a single mum myself, around single parents too so I feel those elements were sadly reflecting reality. The challenge was to make sure Hedda remained relatable for young adult readers as her experiences are quite far outside the norm.
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Are there any characters in the story you can relate to specifically, or that were created in your image?
I have a real fondness for Robin! He’s a really important presence for Hedda, helping to pull her out of the ‘anorexia world’ and back into experiencing more healthy relationship dynamics. Hedda does have elements of a much younger me, although she is probably spikier than I am! But all the characters in the book are very much themselves; I don’t think I could have written them otherwise.
The diversity of characters and the exploration of darker themes are becoming increasingly more common in literature. What are your thoughts on this?
I think it’s a really positive thing and there’s some brilliant writing happening in YA at the moment. As readers, we often look to see our own situations and lives reflected in the books we read; it can help to feel less alone and conversely reading about people from different backgrounds brings insight, compassion and empathy, which I think we could all do with a bit more of sometimes!
In terms of darker themes in YA specifically, I do think authors and publishers need to work to ensure these are handled with care, bearing in mind the target audience, but without patronising readers and recognising that people can and do have really terrible experiences. Their stories deserve to be told authentically without sugar coating. It’s a very difficult line to walk.
In ‘Countless’, I wanted to have as realistic a portrayal of a very horrible disease as possible, but not one that dwelled on details gratuitously so I worked hard to make sure I didn’t mention how much Hedda weighed, or behaviours that could be seen as weight loss tips. I hope I’ve done a good job on this, but of course, there may be readers who are triggered by any mention of eating disorders, in which case I think they probably need to make the choice not to pick up that specific book, or to put it down if they are feeling overwhelmed. I don’t necessarily think encountering a trigger is a bad thing if it helps you think about an issue you’re struggling with in a new way; it’s more of a problem if it brings up feelings you’re not able to deal with.
Mental illness is also another subject matter that is being spoken of more, both in real-life and in books. What does this mean to you?
I really dislike the way we separate physical and mental health. We’re complex people and health should be seen holistically. I firmly believe there’s a big interaction between mental and physical health. To take anorexia as an example, there are definite elements that are a result of the physical process of starvation as well as the emotional and mental side of the disease. Physical health is often neglected in people with mental health difficulties but can have a huge impact.
Mental illness is just as real as physical illness. I have been quite wary of speaking out on this in the past, both in my personal life and as an author, because I think the stigma is still there and very real. It’s massively important to me to see people sharing their experiences and breaking down those barriers in real-life and in books. Shame and stigma make any mental illness much worse. It goes back to empathy and compassion again.
Can we expect any more from Hedda in the future?
That’s a really interesting question! I don’t have any plans to write more about Hedda at the moment, but I may do in the future if something compelling comes up. Her story feels quite resolved in my mind. I do think about her, but now ‘Countless’ is published, I feel like she’s not really ‘mine’ in the same way now, but belongs to the people who read the book. I do think Hedda will be OK in the long run though.
Are there any other projects you are working on?
Yes! I am in the middle of revisions for a second book, which is another contemporary standalone and is scheduled to be published by Bloomsbury in 2018. I’m really excited about it and can’t wait to share details when the time is right. I also have a few other things waiting for my attention so I’m looking forward to getting stuck in once I’ve finished my book two edits.