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Setting Myths About TS “On Fire”: an Interview with Author Dianne Linden and Her Inspiration, Granddaughter Erika

TSFC member Dianne Linden is the author of a new YA-adult crossover novel, On Fire. The character Matti Iverly, one of the narrators in the book, is based largely on the life experiences of Erika, a young person with TS and Dianne’s granddaughter. [PHOTO: author Dianne Linden with Erika] GG Award Winning author Glen Huser has said of On Fire: “Linden brings many combustibles to this story ablaze with creativity: magic realism… mountain country mythology… survival stories… even some kindling from Dante. But what burns brightest is the voice of Matti, a teenager with Tourette Syndrome—true, and funny and heart-breaking—as she describes what happens when a young man with amnesia wanders out of a forest fire and into her life.” The TSFC got in touch with Dianne and Erika to learn more about this new book and its impact on the writer and her inspiring family member. Q: Dianne & Erika, could you each say in your own words what you think On Fire is about? A: Dianne – On the surface On Fire is the story of Matti Iverly, a fourteen-year-old girl with Tourette Syndrome whose life is changed when a young man with amnesia wanders out of a forest fire area and collapses at her feet. It’s also the story of that young man’s struggle to reconnect with his life and reconstruct his identity. And about the power of community. At a deeper level, it’s an allegory of the labyrinthine trials our kids often go through trying to “fit in”, and the courage and community support that allow some of them to make it through. A: Erika – It’s about a girl like me who has Tourette Syndrome. She makes a promise to help this guy who needs her help and she keeps her promise, although it takes everything she has. Q: Whose idea was it to have a character with TS in the novel? A: Dianne – It’s hard to say where ideas come from. This much is true: I tried for many years to write about my son’s struggle with mental illness as a teenager. I could never do it, until Matti unaccountably drifted into the story. She came in complete, and very much influenced by Erika. Although she may not realize how important she’s been in writing this book, Erika has been my muse. Without Erika/Matti, I doubt if I could have completed it. A: Erika – It was my grandmother’s idea. I only found out she was doing it when she began to talk about it. She asked me if it was okay. Q: Dianne, what are some of the ways that the character Matti is like Erika? How do these characters differ? A: Dianne – Matti is like Erika in her forthrightness and determination. You don’t ask her what she thinks unless you want to know. (Sometimes she tells you when you don’t want to know.) And Matti manifests Tourette Syndrome in the same way as Erika, primarily through vocal tics. They both need order and structure and have difficulty when their routines are disrupted. They both are fiercely determined when they want to do something. Neither Matti nor Erika worry a lot about being “in style.” In Matti’s case, it may be because she’s never been exposed to ideas about fashion. But Erika is definitely aware of the messages girls get about how they should look and dress, and she’s determined to do her own thing. Erika is a great animal lover, especially horses. Matti doesn’t have that same connection. Q: Erika, how would you compare yourself to Matti? A: Erika – We both have the same kind of tics. We’re both determined. And I’ve been picked on, like Matti, although I never ran anybody up a tree because of it. I mostly yell as a way of standing up for myself. I’m lucky enough to have two parents who support me though, where Matti’s mother is dead. And her relationship with her father is kind of distant or professional. Also I’m a city girl. I’ve never lived in the mountains. Q: Erika, what does it feel like as someone with TS to read (or be excited to read) a book where a character has TS? A: Erika – I was curious to see how TS would be depicted in On Fire. It was more true to life than I expected, so it feels good—like being seen for who you really are. I think it’s important that we have people like Matti to read about in fiction books so we see they’re human. We are. It’s important to get our perspective. Q: Dianne, was it a challenge to write about someone with TS? How did it compare to writing another character? A: Dianne – The only difference in creating Matti as a character with Tourette, as opposed to another character, was in how to represent her tics. My editor wanted me to describe them. How do I do that as a non-Tourette person? A hiccup going backwards is one of the descriptors I came up with. I didn’t want to over-do the tics, though. That would make Matti a caricature instead of a person. I wanted readers to get a picture of what her Tourette was like, and understand some of the challenges she faced because of it, but also to identify with her: to see Matti as more than her T.S. Q: Erika, what is your favourite part of the novel? A: Erika – I loved it when Mrs. Stoa asks Matti to get her some lemonade and Matti takes out her credit card, starts cleaning her fingernails and says, “I’m tied up right now. Maybe later.” It’s an expression I think I’ve used before. I never saw how funny it is to say that when you’re obviously not busy at all. Another time, Matti corrects a girl who calls her Matilda because that’s isn’t her name. I like how she speaks her mind. Q: Dianne, what is your favourite part? A: Dianne – I love a lot about this novel, so it’s hard to choose. I like Dan’s second narrative when he gradually begins to return to reality. I like his relationship with Howard. But if I had to pick one thing, it’s the section toward the end of the book called, Out of the Phone Booth. Matti says on the first page or so of the book, “At school they called me Tourette’s Girl, like I came out of a phone booth, wearing a costume and made funny noises for their entertainment.” In the section I’m talking about, she actually does dress up with a black toque and sunglasses and a purple bomber jacket to shield herself from the chaos that’s going on around her as her village is being rebuilt after the fire. She steps out of her house, where she’s been in seclusion, but she doesn’t do it to be entertaining. She does it because she has come to see herself as someone who can make things happen. She believes she knows how to solve a mystery that develops in the book and she goes for it. Yeah, Matti! Q: Dianne: – Authors put some of their own life experience into the life experience of their characters. What experiences, if any, did the characters go through, that you used from your personal life? A: Dianne – Although the setting for the book is completely fictitious, I did grow up in the mountains, where ghost towns held great fascination to me. I’ve mentioned how Matti is connected to my experience through Erika.  And how I’ve tried for years to write about my son’s adolescent experience with mental illness. When Matti visits the young man she’s decided to call Dan in the Metal Springs Hospital, (Mental Springs, some people call it), she’s living my experience totally. It’s just that I experienced it as a mother visiting my son in a lock up ward of Alberta Hospital outside Edmonton, and Matti does it as a young girl trying to keep a promise she made from her heart. Q: Dianne, What do you hope your readers will take away from reading On Fire? A: Dianne – There’s so much pressure on adults as well as kids today to be like everyone else. I hope readers will get the message that diversity is good, and that embracing uniqueness is essential if we are to survive as a society. And I hope they’ll see that as much as anything that happens to Dan in the hospital, it’s the community Matti brings together for him that really helps him heal, and holds promise for others. And she does that as a person who’s had struggles of her own, but has never given up. Q: Dianne, for those reading this who are aspiring writers, what is your advice about how to make it? A: Dianne – The best way to improve as a writer is to write. Take advantage of workshops that are available to you, or writing groups, as long as they’re constructive. Be willing to revise and revise. And don’t forget to read. Pick books that are not necessarily mainstream. Experiment with styles. And with the changes in the publishing world, investigate all the options that are available: self-publication, publishing on-line, etc. I assisted a poet at a school workshop where the kids wrote their poems in chalk on the sidewalk outside school. That’s publishing, too. Stay tuned to the TSFC Blog: a book review of Linden’s On Fire is coming soon!

1 Comment

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