Susan Vaught is the author of several books for teens, including Trigger and Freaks Like Us, and is a neuropsychologist at a state psychiatric facility. Her novels often include fascinating ties to mental illness, but her first middle grade book, Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy, reveals a hilarious new side to the author.
Fifth grader Footer Davis (her real name is Fontana, but don’t call her that) and her best friend, Peavine, are investigating a fire at her neighbor’s farm that left a man dead and two kids missing. She’s a shrewd journalist, and Peavine is a clever detective—but the more they dig, the more Footer thinks the fire could be connected to her mother, who suffers from Bipolar Disorder and has been sent away to a mental hospital.
Full of sparkling humor and Footer’s wry, snappy voice, Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy is equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking.
What inspired this story?
The deep, dark truth is, trying to draw a doodlebug using computer-drawing software instead of paper-and-pencil sketches set me on the path to Footer’s story—that and writing down her name as a possible character name, and a first line to the story. My stories often begin with a name, title or first line. I haven’t ever had a tale start with a bug, though—wriggling or sketched. So, Footer is unique! She knows this. Just ask her.
You’ve written several novels on mental illness and food disorders and have an extensive background in neuropsychology. What do you wish more people knew about Bipolar Disorder (as with Footer’s mom) and repressed memories (as with Footer)?
That recovery and a full, exciting life is possible even with a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. As for repressed memories, I think the brain is pretty amazing, not giving us information we can’t process until we’re ready for it. The return of memories temporarily held back is the beginning of a healing process.
What do you think is the hardest thing kids with parents who suffer from a mental illness must face?
The hardest thing? Worry. Kids are big-hearted and loving, and when someone they care about so much is sick, whether it be from a cold or a chronic illness, they worry. They worry about that parent, about their family, about the future. That’s a heavy load.
What were you scared of when you were Footer’s age? What are you scared of now?
SPIDERS. And spiders. Did I mention sssspppiiiiiiiiidddddeeerrrrsss??? <shiver> Anything that creeps up walls and drops in front of me wiggling eight little leggies, no thank you.
When Footer feels like she needs to prove that she’s strong, she makes jokes. What do you do when you need to be strong?
Ummm, the same thing? That might be a tad autobiographical. . . . Humor is my first and best coping mechanism. I just have to watch the class-clown tendencies in serious situations.
Footer really, really hates walruses. What’s so bad about walruses?
Some of them eat baby seals! They weigh around 1.5 tons, they have 400-700 whiskers, and those tusks can be over 3 feet long. Just think of them as serial seal-murderers that weigh as much as a Toyota—with giant white fangs sharp enough to stick into ice and help haul their gigantic bodies out of the Arctic Ocean.
What’s the main difference between writing for teens and writing for middle grade readers?
So far, in my learning, I’d say the amount of time/words spent on describing anything graphic (violence, romance). In YA literature, there really aren’t limits, and I didn’t have to spend time weighing how upsetting a topic or scene might be to a younger person. Also, less snark, in my opinion. I never did well writing characters with sharp, snarky dialogue because I wasn’t that way in youth, and I don’t have that in my real-life repertoire now. It’s nice to move away from needing more of an edge to my characters, and to be able to more deeply explore their innocence.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a piece currently called Ghostology, but I rarely get to keep my titles. It involves ghost stories in the deep south (around the Ole Miss campus), the Meredith Riot, mysterious clues about what destroyed a friendship and Alzheimer’s Disease.