For July’s YABookmeet, the lovely Helena Fox joined us to discuss her breathtaking debut How It Feels to Float. Her visit was rescheduled from the June YABookmeet, which was struck down by a bout of winter illness. If you missed out, catch up on everything below, and find out who’s coming in August!
How It Feels to Float follows Biz as she tries to find her missing father, using the clues from her memories and the photographs that start talking to her. Please note that this event recap will touch on the book’s representation of mental illness, as this experience is the source of Biz’s ‘floating’.
How It Feels to Float gives justice to the teenage girls who fall through the cracks of society. Disability and mental illness are still heavily stigmatised in 2019, with many people suffering because of this lack of education, understanding, and empathy. These attitudes are equally as pervasive in fiction that explores these experiences. There are many novels where the narrative tension is fixed on the conflict or trauma that can be created by mental illness, and Fox believes that these have their own valid place in the market and with audiences. However, this was not the novel that she wanted to write.
Fox’s novel has a radical compassion for its protagonist, Biz, who is never painted as a problem or a failure, and receives steady support and validation from the people around her. Having a strong support network is not a guarantor against misunderstandings or other complications, Fox says, but it’s something she has seen help to bring people to a healthier place in real life. Giving Biz the same support was an instinctive choice, as well as ensuring that the actual plot was centred on Biz’s goal of finding her father. This allows Biz an agency that we rarely seen in Young Adult Fiction with protagonists with mental illness — she has her own desires, and she actively pursues them.
Biz chooses a photography course as an alternate learning path when school is no-longer a viable option. The photos become characters in their own right, speaking what they know of their contents to her. Histories and memories, real and imagined, weigh on Biz, and it’s her frequent revisiting of them — Fox likened the practice to rubbing over a wound — that increasingly destabilises her mental health. Fox also laughingly admitted that she took a photography course some years back, though she didn’t befriend any kindly Grandmothers there. (I said there was always next time.) This emphasis on the power of images in their captured and recollected forms makes it a very visual novel, with Biz’s perceptions of the world being immediate and vivid. A testament to this is the cover design: when the first sample arrived, Fox was delighted to note that even without her suggestion, the designer had used her favourite colour for the background: ‘twilight blue’.
The outstanding aesthetic quality of the novel is also notable. The prose illustrates Biz’s ‘floating’ with a dreamlike quality that stops just short of being a stream of consciousness, having been carefully refined during the editing stages. (Roughly 15,000 words were cut early on, at the advice of her agent.) Fox’s knowledge of the craft of writing is obvious in how she speaks of it: she describes her process as ‘feeling into the story’. The novel was originally written in a series of vignettes, and even featured photos and chapter titles that were later removed. But despite this, Fox surprisingly doesn’t have a Pinterest or other form of mood-board for the novel!
When I raised the comparisons made between How It Feels to Float and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Fox said she was ‘honoured’ by the association. She used Jandy Nelson as a comparison title when querying her book, and it was her U.S. editor who first suggested the comparison at a publisher’s meeting. Fox remembers writing, ‘we’re using what?!‘ in response to learning this. Fortunately, the novel more than lives up to the comparison. However, despite it’s heavy content, there is a lot of humour and lightness in Biz’s journey. Her family, her dog, and her friends all provide reprieves from the battle she’s fighting, and give Biz a chance to show what Fox believes: that novels with characters who have mental illness do not need to be about their mental illness. Likewise, Biz’s journey towards understanding her sexuality is something that is thoughtfully interwoven with the greater narrative.
Of course, we talked about many more things: alternate titles to the novel, writing Biz’s unpleasant visit to a different town, and cactus socks. If you want to know more about the How It Feels to Float, you can check out the book here! You can read Fox’s own musings on sexuality and labels here.
And if you want to come to an event like this…
The next #YABookmeet will be on August 3rd at 2:30pm at Dymocks Sydney, with special guest A.J. Betts visiting from Perth for an in-conversation about Rogue, the sequel to her 2018 novel Hive, which was one of my top reads of 2018. You can read about the two books here and here and RSVP for this free event by sending a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org !
See you there!
Publisher’s blurb for How It Feels To Float
Biz knows how to float. She has her people, her posse, her mom and the twins. She has Grace. And she has her dad, who tells her about the little kid she was, who loves her so hard, and who shouldn’t be here but is. So Biz doesn’t tell anyone anything. Not about her dark, runaway thoughts, not about kissing Grace or noticing Jasper, the new boy. And she doesn’t tell anyone about her dad. Because her dad died when she was six. And Biz knows how to float, right there on the surface—normal okay regular fine.
But after what happens on the beach—first in the ocean, and then in the sand–the tethers that hold Biz steady come undone. Dad disappears, and with him, all comfort. It might be easier, better, sweeter to float all the way away? Or maybe stay a little longer, find her father, bring him back to her. Or maybe—maybe maybe maybe—there’s a third way Biz just can’t see yet.