Q&A: Erin Stewart, author of “The Words We Keep”
A beautifully realistic and relatable story about mental health and the healing powers of art – perfect for fans of Girl in pieces and how feels floating.
We chat with author Erin Stewart about her latest release The words we keepplus 2022 book recommendations, writing, and more!
Hello Erin! Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?
Salvation! I’m a young adult author who lives in Utah with my husband, three kids, and a super-needy goldendoodle. My new contemporary YA, THE WORDS WE KEEP, is out March 15th! I’m a heart failure survivor, tamale addict, have no sense of personal space and I’m a firm believer that people get in our way for a reason – always! I am also the author of the 2019 youth novel DES CICATRICES COMME DES AILES.
How has 2022 been for you so far?
Probably like it was for everyone…a trash fire inside a dumpster rolling down a hill into a bigger fire.
When did you discover your love for writing?
I’ve been writing since I was in kindergarten, pages and pages when I had to write a few lines. Luckily, I had a teacher who always encouraged me to go where the story took me! My stories always ended in some sort of tragic death or explosion, though, and my mom thought I needed a therapist. Good news: my characters now have a slightly higher survival rate. Remark : everyone need a therapist!
I took a detour into journalism during my college years and early in my career, but I never lost my love of creative writing and was so happy to return to it over the past ten last years.
Quick Lightning Ride! Tell us about the first book you remember reading, the one that made you want to become an author and the one you can’t stop thinking about!
Absoutely Little woman. I know it’s a bit cliché for a writer to say because we all secretly believe we’re like Jo March, but it’s true. It was the first book I read that totally swept me into the characters and their world, and it made me want to write realistic stories that showed all the pain and beauty of everyday life.
your new novel, The words we keep, is out now! If you could only describe it in five words, what would they be?
Brut, poetry, beauty, anguish, love.
What can readers expect?
THE WORDS WE KEEP is definitely real; I didn’t want to run away from the truth about living with anxiety or other mental health issues. Throughout the story, Lily, the main character, struggles with intrusive thoughts, compulsions, perfectionism, and a feeling that she is responsible for keeping her and her family together after the self-harm incident. of his sister. So readers can expect authenticity about the darkness of these subjects, but also a story that is ultimately hopeful. There’s a lot of love, laughter and light in Lily’s life (especially in her makeup scenes with Micah!). The book is also full of art and poetry in unexpected places that helps Lily and Micah and many of their quietly struggling classmates express themselves. I hope that readers who have similar difficulties will leave this story feeling less alone, and that readers who don’t will leave with more empathy for others.
Where does the inspiration come from? The words we keep comes from?
This story came from a very personal place for me. I’ve struggled with various forms of anxiety throughout my life, and the one that’s always been there is perfectionism anxiety that tells me I’m not good enough. Intrusive and negative thoughts have been a background soundtrack for much of my life. As teenagers, we didn’t talk about anxiety as we know it, so I thought it was just a problem with me. But now I understand that my mental health issues are a part of me, but they don’t define me. I may not necessarily love that part of myself, but I don’t have to let it fuel self-hatred either. So I wanted to write a book that would resonate with teenagers like me, who don’t know where to turn but feel trapped by their own minds. I want them to know that they deserve to be loved for who they are. That their struggles don’t define them either, and that they deserve help.
Can you tell us a bit about the challenges you faced while writing and how you managed to overcome them?
The biggest challenge was definitely diving deep into my own story with anxiety. It’s something I tried not to face for so many years because, like Lily, admitting I needed help went against every perfectionist fiber of who I am. So looking at those parts of myself while creating those characters was painful at times, but also so beautiful and healing.
Are there any favorite moments or characters that you really enjoyed writing or exploring?
Micah. Micah. Micah. I simply love it. He was such a fun character to write and he added so much light and positivity to the story. He has his own issues too, of course, but I like the way he deals with the trauma he’s been through. He knows he still has choices in life, that he is more than his diagnosis, even if the world doesn’t see it.
I also really enjoyed writing the relationship between Lily and her two sisters, Alice and Margot. Alice is back from a treatment center, so she and Lily tiptoe around for a while, afraid to say the wrong thing. But the three sisters truly love each other, and it was so nice to rewrite them into each other’s lives and hearts. I also have two sisters (I’m in the middle!), so I tapped into a lot of my sweet (and let’s be honest, not so sweet) moments from my childhood to make those sibling relationships real.
The words we keep dives into mental health. Can you tell us about tackling such a heavy and difficult subject?
It was hard. Not only for me as I mentioned above, but because it is so important to get the right representation. I was fortunate to have several people with life experience and doctors speak to me to ensure that I grasped mental health respectfully and accurately. Very often these kinds of issues are thrown into a book to be sensational or to create two-dimensional, stereotypical characters. I absolutely did not want to do that! For me, tackling sanity was about showing that yes, it’s a major issue that needs to be addressed, but these characters are so much more than that. They have dreams, desires, talents, and a whole life beyond sanity.
What’s next for you?
I’m planning my next YA right now! It’s a bit of a different vein for me, but I’m very excited about it! I also took the last year to write an intermediate level book with a touch of magic that excites me. In short, I try new things and I love it!
Finally, do you have any 2022 book recommendations for our readers?
Always! And there are SO many amazing books coming out this year! I’ve already read THIS MIGHT GET AWKWARD by Kara J. McDowell (another great anxiety rep with a fun story!) I can’t wait to have some time to read GOLDEN BOYS by Phil Stamper, AN ARROW TO THE MOON by Emily XR Pan and THE AGATHAS by Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson.