IN JULIA WALTON’S debut novel, Words on Bathroom Walls, it’s 2012 and our protagonist, Adam Petrazelli, is 16 and just transitioning from public school to a private Catholic school. He has to deal with the tribulations every new kid faces: bullies, crushes, making new friends, plus all the unfamiliar traditions and restrictions that characterize a religious school. On top of that, Adam has schizophrenia, complete with reality-bending visual and auditory hallucinations. His condition manifests as reoccurring characters that may just be materializations of his emotional states. When we meet Adam, he’s started an experimental drug that allows him to, if not control his hallucinations, then ignore them. Each chapter takes the form of a letter to Adam’s therapist, whom he refuses to talk to in person. This epistolary form draws the reader intimately into Adam’s world, making the book a wonderfully sharp and funny coming-of-age story.
The following interview is excerpted from a longer conversation I had with Julia Walton. To hear the full, hour-long interview, check out the Writers’ Block podcast from Anastamos Interdisciplinary Literary Journal and YourPopFilter.com.
MIKE GRAVAGNO: When did you begin writing, and when did you decide to be a writer?
JULIA WALTON: I’ve always written, but I think it was probably third grade when I decided that’s what I wanted to do, or maybe it was the summer after third grade. I read, like, 40 books, and I decided that if I could make stuff up for a living, that’s what I wanted to do.
Do you remember a book that made you think this, I want to do this?
You know, I read a lot of Roald Dahl that summer. I think I read everything he wrote, everything I could get my hands on anyway. I devoured both his adult and children’s stories. He had a way of making — I don’t know about other readers, but me for sure — he made me think, “Wow, he’s writing in a weird and different way, and I feel like I could do that … I could make up these words and make something that other people respond to.” His weird creepiness was just so relatable.
So at what point did you actually start writing?
I originally wanted to write children’s books with illustrations. In eighth grade, I started my first novel, and I think I wrote maybe 30,000 words of trash … just garbage that had no end in sight. I kept adding things I enjoyed, and there was no rhyme or reason to it. You need to get that sort of thing out of your system before you can write anything anyone else would want to read. I’m glad I did that in eighth grade, and that I’m not doing it now.
Are there any themes or styles you notice you keep returning to?
For a long time, I was trying to write Harry Potter. Those stories meant so much to me when I read them, and they mean so much to me still. The first novel I wrote as an adult, when I was trying to actually create something, was a fantasy novel set in a library. I was really trying to channel all of the fantasy novels that I loved. It’s one thing to copy a writer or their style to help you develop your own, but it’s another thing to lose yourself completely and try to be that person and not embrace your own style. I think that was holding me back a little bit. There’s something to be said about finding your voice and allowing those people you respected and looked up to to influence you. Just don’t try to be them.
I can see some of the Harry Potter influence in your novel. I don’t know if it clicked while I read it, but emotional scenes happen in bathrooms, it’s set in a weird private school … It’s very different even though it’s YA, but I can see certain influences.
Yeah, I think you can see the connections. I mean I’ve read Harry Potter a billion times. I used to listen to the stories when I was working in my cubicle. I had a job doing invoices, and I was so miserable, so I’d listen to all the books over and over because I couldn’t deal with the fact that I was stuck in insurance and unable to break free. So there are a lot of references to Harry Potter throughout the novel, and it definitely colored my writing. At one point, Adam comes right out and says, “Harry Potter gets away with all the things that he imagines being real,” and because Adam is schizophrenic, he doesn’t have that same luxury. It’s a Chamber of Secrets shout-out there.
I really liked that, because it’s annoying in books and movies when they don’t reference huge pop culture moments. I know people say you don’t want to date your story, but it’s always going to be dated no matter what, so why not make it real?
That’s a good point because there were definitely moments in my first couple of drafts where I had to omit a few pop culture references that were going to date it. But Harry Potter was different, because there’s no way that’s ever going to not be understood. But I did have to cut out a Beetlejuice reference, and a Britney Spears reference. When my editor looked at the manuscript, she asked, “Are you sure you want to include these?” It hurt me a little to cut the Beetlejuice one out. She thought it might alienate some of the readers, some of the younger ones who might not get what I was going for.
Is pop culture generally a metaphor pool you go to?
No, it just worked for the story. I’m not sure why — this is actually the first story I’ve written where there were any pop cultural references I can recall. I guess just immersing myself in this high school milieu, and this time frame, and this character’s head — it just made sense that it was there. I put a lot of me into Adam’s character. It was hard to do that and not talk about Harry Potter, and baking, and so much of the stuff I love.
Do you think you’ll stick with YA or just write whatever comes up?
One of the projects I’m working on now is a novella. But I like YA a lot, and I think that’s because I never really grew up from reading YA fiction. Those stories are the ones that hit me the hardest, and they keep on hitting me. There are so many wonderful new YA books out there. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is phenomenal. Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi — these are brand-new books that are fantastic and full of emotion and hard-hitting stuff, and I’m just honored to be on shelves with these people. I think readers enjoy YA because it gives them the freedom to remember when they felt things intensely, when they had those moments of clarity and emotion.
That’s interesting because Adam, your protagonist, isn’t that emotional. Not just because he’s schizophrenic, but also because he’s a pretty taciturn, mellow guy. So you’ve created this reserved character where the emotional moments really hit, because they’re rare.
Yeah, I would agree with that. I think Adam holds back a lot. But the reason he does is because he’s hiding a lot. I think he’s just learned how to operate without letting everything show. He has to keep so much hidden, and he’s always conscious of that. Maybe without the schizophrenia, he might be a little more emotional, but I think he would still be less emotional than most protagonists in his age group.
Obviously the schizophrenia is a huge piece of him, but I didn’t want it to be the only piece. I wanted him to be a complete person, and I wanted him to tell his story in a way that invited people in, so even if they don’t understand his mental illness, and even if they don’t understand where he’s coming from or they don’t have any way of comprehending the weight on his shoulders, they’ll still be able to see him as a person and they’ll still be able to see him struggling with something. And that will create a level of empathy.
Each chapter is a letter to Adam’s therapist. How did you decide that’s the way you wanted to structure the book?
I don’t even remember the moment I decided to do that. I remember being mad in my cubicle and having had a recent conversation with friends from Catholic school. And I guess sometimes when you have conversations, or you have dreams, or you watch good movies, and it just kind of settles into this soup in your brain, it all comes out. I remember writing that first entry on my lunch break, and that was just the way it came out. I had to be telling a story, I had to be telling it to someone, but then the character didn’t necessarily want to have a back and forth with this person. He just wanted to say his piece, and that was why he was responding in writing and not having an actual dialogue.
Was there any version where the therapist was a fleshed-out character, rather than Adam’s sounding board?
Not in the piece, but in my head. I never wanted him to have his own say. I thought that would take away from Adam. As it is, you do get little snippets from the dosage prescriptions at the beginning of the chapters. I thought that would be an effective way of conveying why Adam was acting the way he did, that the reader needed to see the dosage increases. You get snippets of information like this from the therapist, but that’s it. I didn’t want there to be a lot. I wanted it to be Adam’s response to him, and that’s how the reader would get to know the therapist.
How did you develop the other characters, like Adam’s friend, Dwight, and his love interest, Maya?
Maya was always part of it, and Dwight came somewhere in the middle of the first draft. I was trying to create Adam as a loner, but once I started writing, it didn’t really make sense that he would stay a loner or want to be 100 percent a loner. I don’t think anyone really wants to be completely alone — despite how angsty or goth you might think you are, you don’t really want that. You want friends, you want people to relate to, you want your story to be heard by someone. So Maya was always a part of it, and I guess I used my husband’s traits as a kind of template for that because there’s a lot of him in her. Adam was originally based on my own experiences, and it just made sense that, when I started thinking about Maya and how I wanted her character to take shape, she would have a little bit of my husband.
Do you find it impossible to avoid drawing on your own experiences and the people you know?
I don’t know if that’s a good idea generally, to use people you know and then talk about it … Maybe not for the next book, maybe we keep that tighter. But I think, for me, it’s impossible not to do that in some fashion. I know other writers who can’t let any of themselves in. Well, maybe not consciously — like, they can’t say, “Okay, this is my third grade teacher,” and channel them 100 percent. But for me, there will probably always be a tiny flicker of something real in the story that only people close to me will know.
Do you think that’s why things ring true — why Adam and Maya seem like a very real relationship, because they’re built on a foundation of true experience?
In this instance, yeah. I think because I started with something real and then created from there, it was easy for me to just build from that starting point. This book was probably the easiest story — I mean, it was still hard, but the easiest to get out. Writing the rough draft … it was like breathing. This was something I had never felt before, because I was just letting everything out completely. And now that I’m writing other stuff, I’m wondering why it’s harder for me to do that. I think I’m being harder on myself now. I need to let myself screw it up a bit in the notebook version, and then fix it, and everything will be fine in the editing.