One of my favorite parts of Shattering Stigmas is having the opportunity and honor to talk to authors about the craft of mental health representation as well as their own advocacy efforts to break down the stigma around mental illness. Today, I’m so excited to welcome Rocky Callen, author of A Breath Too Late, today to Shattering Stigmas to talk about her writing and mental health advocacy. You can find Rocky online on Twitter and find more A Breath Too Late content in her Linktree.
Taylor: Your debut novel A Breath Too Late is a riveting, heartbreaking epistolary novel about a teen, Ellie, who dies by suicide and relives both past memories and witnesses the aftermath of her death on those to whom she was close. Can you discuss how you came to juggle these two timelines in the book and also how you came to choose and curate the various addressees in the letters throughout the book?
Rocky Callen: The structure of the book came to me very organically. Initially, the epistolary format and dual timeline emerged on its own but as the story developed, I became more intentional about my choices. A Breath Too Late is very much about the words we never get to say and the hope that we so often overlook. As I struggled with my own mental health, pain eclipsed so many of my own memories and dreams and so I wanted a story that could explore the past and present in a way that allowed Ellie to sit back as a witness to her own life. I wanted her to see everything in a way that we so often can’t (or won’t). I wanted to her to understand the possibilities she had lost as well as the love that was always there. Love that was there for her, exactly as she was. Every address is to something or someone that impacted Ellie’s life and I wanted to show how people and things can deeply matter to us even when we have forgotten them. Finally, with the series of chapters to Depression, I wanted to show the inner battle that people with depression are waging that often goes unnoticed and how depression (or any mental health condition) can be a part of a person’s experience but is not the whole person.
Taylor: One of my favorite parts of A Breath Too Late was Ellie’s evolving relationship with August, her best friend, both before and after her death. Can you discuss how and why you came to include August in the book?
Rocky Callen: Oh, August. How I adore him. I wanted to show how friendships can evolve, shift, break apart and come back together in meaningful ways. I also wanted a character to be an opposite to Ellie’s father to show that relationships do not have to be manipulative or controlling or cause harm, but be affirming, supportive and offer love in vulnerability. I think the best friendships and relationships want each other to be seen for who they truly are and both August and Ellie do that for each other. We also witness August’s grief and understand that Ellie’s loss wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t save her. He could just love her through it all.
Taylor: A Breath Too Late isn’t just a book about depression and suicide—it’s also a portrait of the emotional and physical toll of domestic violence through the representation of Ellie’s father. Can you discuss how Ellie’s family dynamic came to be and how you approached the writing of that particular issue in the book?
Rocky Callen: This emerged in the very first few pages when I wrote my first draft. As someone who knows this subject intimately, I have always been saddened and frustrated about the portrayals of domestic abuse in the media and cultural conversation. There is a lack of understanding about the way that these relationships develop, the shame and silence that marks them, and the utterly complete control that is exerted overtime. Domestic abuse rarely happens all at once. There are signs of manipulation and control and I wanted readers to see that – especially as they examined their own relationships. The earlier drafts of this story had much more graphic depictions of violence and through editing, we tried to show the raw reality of DV while not overshadowing the other themes of the story.
Taylor: In your post for We Need Diverse Books, you discussed making sure that writers approach these issues with care and also the difference between drafting immersively and then revising responsibly. Can you expand a bit on what the difference in drafting and revising A Breath Too Late was like?
Rocky Callen: I wrote the very first draft of A BREATH TOO LATE in just over a week. It was messy and terrible and raw. I just needed the feelings, the thoughts, the pain out. But that pain isn’t for everyone, I realized. It was so I could experience this story in its totality before stepping back and deciding what my reader needed to hold in order for this story to matter to them too. We edited out method, graphic and repetitive violence, and also meticulously thought about word choice (both as what could be least triggering in an already very heavy read, but also what would be considered the most honest and real to the experience). It took many, many drafts to go from that first version to the one that finally got published, but it was an important process.
Taylor: In your author’s note for A Breath Too Late and other interviews, you’ve talked about how the book came from a personal place and that you’ve struggled with high-functioning depression and suicidal ideation? Can you discuss how you take care of yourself when writing about deeply personal and possibly triggering issues?
Rocky Callen: With this story, I needed to dive into the deep end and give my all in big chunks and then emerge to recuperate. I ugly sobbed every day with the first draft and often cried in revision. I think for some people, doing this sort of writing in small chunks is helpful so you don’t get tugged too far into the feeling, but for me, I needed to cycle my exposure to the content. One revision was 45+ hours in three days and then I didn’t touch it for weeks. I think the biggest thing is to honor your process and what you need and never judge yourself for either one. Self compassion is absolutely necessary for the journey with projects like this.
Taylor: You also have some mental health advocacy projects in the works. Can you talk a bit about the HoldOn2Hope Project and the Bleed Ink Foundation?
Rocky Callen: I am very excited about both even though COVID paused so many of the projects that I had planned for 2020. The core of both projects is to provide resources and access to writers and artists, in particular the ones who are grappling with mental health and suicide prevention in their work. Both projects would also have their own grant to offer emerging creatives. I am looking forward to some of the artistic collaborations ahead once we emerge from this pandemic safely.
Taylor: What is one of your favorite books with mental health representation you’ve read recently and loved?
Rocky Callen: Nora Shalaway Carpenter’s THE EDGE OF ANYTHING comes immediately to mind. Nora is equally passionate about mental health and her story shows the power of friendship and healing in wonderful ways.
Taylor: Lastly, do you have any self care tips and tricks you’ve been using this year and would like to share?
Rocky Callen: I think everyone needs different things and the important (and often most difficult) step is to be honest with ourselves about what those things are and understand our worthiness of doing them. Therapy, coaching, counseling, unplugging from social media, moving your body, establishing strong boundaries around your time/space/energy, eating nutritious foods, going outside, sleeping, focusing on doing one thing at a time, learning to be ok with your “best” looking very different day to day, asking for help, being honest about how you feel, flooding your space with things that inspire/motivate you or are evidence of good things in the world (and in you!).
Here are some of the things I do: I have a daily morning practice where I write out my vision for the future, things I am grateful for, things I want to let go of or understand and then I meditate. I also try to listen to something inspiring in the morning. I have learned to say what bothers me quickly and let it go (I have long struggled with holding things in). I take regular breaks from social media and I have set up a private no following/follower IG acct so that I can document my thoughts and feelings without the need for external validation. I think a big part of this is to find your people. The ones who see you and love you as you are and that can take time. I feel grateful that my friendships are life-affirming ones where we honor and reinforce each other’s goals and boundaries. That was a process, but it is so important in self care.
Also, stay hydrated.
Thank you so much, Rocky! Be sure to order A Breath Too Late if you haven’t read it already.
Rocky Callen, the daughter of an Ecuadorian immigrant, has long lived a life of service ever since she was a 13-year-old advocating for the undocumented immigrants in her community. She interned at NASA at 12 years old, started lobbying congress at 13, and wrote and produced student radio stories at NPR at 14. She was a behavioral therapist for over ten years. She received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband, daughter, and baby boy. Rocky founded the Bleed Ink Foundation, a creative hub and resource center for writers, and the HoldOn2Hope Project, which unites creatives in suicide prevention and mental health awareness. A Breath Too Late is her debut novel.