David A. Robertson's supernatural YA novel is about learning to cope with mental health issues
David A. Robertson is a multi-talented writer. Since 2008, he's published 25 books across a variety of genres, including a graphic novel series about key figures in Indigenous history, a Governor General's Literary Award-winning picture book called When We Were Alone, illustrated by Julie Flett, and the novel The Evolution of Alice. His latest book is Strangers, the first in a series called The Reckoner and Robertson's first ever novel for young adults.
The main character of Strangers is Cole Turner, a teenager living with mental illness after a tragedy drove him away from his home Wounded Sky First Nation. Ten years later, Cole is faced with returning home to a community in chaos.
Why write YA?
"I like to challenge myself with different kinds of literature. I was reading a lot of YA at the time and I thought that this story would fit that genre really well. I decided to take a crack at it, and it was a tough form of literature. It's probably the hardest thing that I've done. I actually wrote this book three times before I got it right.
"One of the things I was the worst at when I started writing was dialogue. I found that listening to how other people talked helped and it helps to have a teenager in the house now. The challenge is making everybody sound different and to write realistic interactions between characters. I read the dialogue out loud to see how it sounds. Two things I asked myself whenever I wrote dialogue were: 'Does this reveal character?' and 'Does this drive plot?' If it didn't do either of those, I typically would cut it out of the script."
Reconnecting with your culture
"Cole lives in Winnipeg before the book starts because he's been brought away due to a traumatic event in the community. I was trying to reflect a cultural disconnect, which is something I went through as a kid. Cole is a stranger to the community and the community is a stranger to him. That re-integration is something I've seen a lot. I've experienced it too.
"When I was born, because of the experiences my dad went through as a youth and in his adulthood, my parents decided that they were going to raise me without knowledge of who I was as an Indigenous person. That's a reflection of the time we were born in, my brothers and I. So I grew up without any connection to Indigenous community, culture and history. My identity was kind of broken, or it wasn't shaped as I was growing up. The process of reconnection through hearing stories from my father was something that was very powerful and very healing. I wanted to talk about that through Cole's experience and how empowering it is in the shaping of a strong identity."
Learning to live with mental illness
"As much as the book is about murder and mystery and supernatural elements, the heart of the story is about mental health. Reading the story, someone experiencing anxiety might see in Cole in themselves. I think that's very empowering for people dealing with mental health issues.
"Part of the conversation of this book is actually talking about access to adequate healthcare and addressing the mental health issues our youth are going through in communities. It was a difficult subject for me to tackle in a way that was sensitive and appropriate, but it is something that is close to my heart. I've been to a lot of communities where I've talked to youth and adults who are dealing with mental health issues and communities who are going through suicide epidemics. I draw from my own personal experience in living with mental health and I'm very open about that. I'm very open about my journey with anxiety. One thing I've felt has helped me a great deal is understanding that I'm not alone in my own struggles with mental health. Cole finds that too in facing that trauma in his own life. It helps him to learn how to overcome or to live with mental health in a more productive way. I went through my own anxiety even writing [about this] and addressing it in Cole because I knew I was addressing it in myself. But in the long run, it was a healing journey for myself."
David A. Robertson's comments have been edited and condensed.