Mallory hasn’t left her house in months. Ever since her dad left, the thought of going outside sends her into a crushing spiral of anxiety and panic attacks. She attends classes via Skype, and spends a lot of her time taking down her web nemesis BeamMeUp.
When her classmates nominate her as homecoming queen as a joke, her safe space is shifted out of balance, and her life takes a surprising turn. If she can open up to the world, and get football star Brad Kirkpatrick to be her date, maybe her life will go back to normal.
Witty, relatable, and delightfully nerdy, Kerry Winfrey’s debut novel Love and Other Alien Experiences is sure to draw in fans of contemporary YA romance and geek pop culture.
Mallory’s voice is one that’s wry and candid, with several sarcastic asides and thoughtful insights. The familial relationships are refreshing and heartwarming, and Mallory’s relationship with her best friend Jenni is one of unconditional support. Having an anxious main character tackling her issues head on without only being labeled or recognized for her anxiety is incredibly gratifying for anxious readers such as myself, and Winfrey took this to heart .
“Since I’m an anxious person myself, Mallory’s anxiety came naturally. Her voice clicked for me almost instantly. She’s sarcastic as a way of hiding her vulnerability, she’s passionate about her interests, and she cares deeply about her family and her best friend.”
Writing agoraphobia on top of a generalized anxiety disorder provided its own challenges. Winfrey was creative with the different settings Mallory would be exposed to, as well as how she could communicate with her friends and classmates. Keeping the realities of anxiety and agoraphobia in mind was essential.
“I’ve never dealt with agoraphobia. Writing-wise, Mallory’s agoraphobia meant I had to keep her ‘comfort zone’ in mind at all times. What made her interesting to write was that her initial inability to leave her house makes achieving her goals extremely difficult. Over the course of the book, she starts to venture out and take more risks, but it’s still extremely hard for her if the setting isn’t comfortable for her.”
Doing an anxious main character justice comes with a fair amount of responsibility. Rather than creating a character that’s merely a list of symptoms, Winfrey kept certain ideas in mind when writing the intricacies of both her protagonist and the diagnosis.
“As a person who’s always dealt with anxiety, parts of Mallory were very easy for me to write. It was also important for me to remember, as my editor told me, that I was writing a person, not a diagnosis. Mallory can never represent every single person with anxiety/agoraphobia; she’s only one character. Ultimately, I tried to balance being accurate and respectful about Mallory’s anxiety while also writing an entertaining book.”
Being respectful about anxiety involved listening to other people’s experiences as well as her own. Listening to as many stories as possible created a well-rounded and accurate protagonist rather than one relying solely on tropes and societal expectations.
“I made sure to talk to other people about anxiety and panic attacks. I read some books by people who deal with anxiety and agoraphobia and I also did a lot of online research. Mostly, though, as simplistic as it sounds, I try to listen to other people whose experiences are different than mine. That means listening to people in my real life, listening to people online [and]reading #ownvoices writers.”
The most important part of the story however, and the part that resonates most strongly to me, is the idea of dealing with anxiety as a journey. By the end of the book, Mallory is not cured because of the homecoming dance, or because she can interact with her classmates. Her mental illness doesn’t disappear with a kiss or with help from the love interests in the story (a dangerous trope seen in all forms of media). Although she succeeds in her goals, Mallory knows her journey is far from over and recognizes that she is a strong and capable person who can conquer any challenge she is met with.
“It was really important for me to show that making out with a cute person isn’t going to solve all your problems (as much as we might wish that it could). Mallory is happier at the end of the book than she was at the beginning because she faces things she was hiding from, but she’s still the same person. The main thing I hope readers take away from the book is that they are worthy of love and acceptance exactly as they are. Anxious girls can get a happily ever after and still be anxious.”