Bestselling author Barbara Claypole White creates hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness. Originally from England, she writes and gardens in the forests of North Carolina, where she lives with her beloved OCD family. Her novels include The Unfinished Garden, The In-Between Hour, The Perfect Son, and Echoes of Family. The Promise Between Us, which shines a light on postpartum OCD, launched in January, 2018. She is also an OCD Advocate for the A2A Alliance, a nonprofit group that promotes advocacy over adversity. To connect with Barbara, please visit www.barbaraclaypolewhite.com, or follow her on Facebook. She’s always on Facebook.
As someone who has lived in the shadow of mental illness since childhood, I’m fascinated by the stigma, shame, and misinformation that surround invisible disabilities. I grew up in a family that hid both my aunt’s untreated schizophrenia and my father’s decade of alcoholism; now I’m part of a family that talks openly about mental health (my son and my husband both struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder). I’ve been an enabler, an advocate, and a mental health coach for people I love. My learning curve continues, but the ongoing journey also feeds into the fiction I write—hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness. I guess that was inevitable, but it was also unexpected.
With one manuscript in the drawer, I was deep into my second manuscript when a character called James Nealy appeared fully formed in my brain and refused to leave. James has OCD, and he came from my darkest fear as a mother: What if, when my young son grew up, no one could see beyond his obsessive, anxious behavior to love him for the incredible person he is? When I met James, I thought I was writing love stories with a dark edge. My hero and heroine were tortured souls who shared a truckload of emotional baggage, but mental illness wasn’t even a blip in a subplot.
James was a revelation from day one, but I was nervous about writing a character with OCD. Could I treat the OCD in a sensitive, accurate way? Would people question why his OCD didn’t manifest in the same form as Monk’s, the germophobic TV detective whom most people identified as the face of OCD? Would James’s quirkiness take over the story of a young mother trying to make peace with the guilt surrounding her husband’s death? And yet there was James, taking up prime real estate in my brain, saying, “Write me into your story.” (He’s quite persistent, my beloved James…)
Eventually, I tore the manuscript apart and rewrote it to include him. After a famous agent declared James “too dark to be a romantic hero” and rejected the story, I ripped it apart yet again and added chapters from James’s point of view, allowing readers to eavesdrop on his hidden battles with anxiety. I’m not sure whether this was a moment of chutzpah or my British war mentality shining through, but it was the best literary decision I’ve ever made. I quickly snagged the agent of my dreams and thanks to her, I now have five traditionally published novels.
I owe James everything. Excavating his layers helped me discover my passion for giving voice to characters who challenge stereotypes of disorders. He also set me on my path as a career novelist. By the time I’d created Felix Fitzwilliam, the unlikely hero of THE PERFECT SON, it was obvious I was writing about the impact of mental illness on families.
While my novels are standalones, my characters share common traits: they show extraordinary courage as they navigate the minefields of their everyday lives; they are never victims; and they are flawed individuals who are messy composites of personality, brain chemistry, DNA, upbringing, education, religion, etc. When they screw up, mental illness isn’t always the culprit, and they are never defined by—or reduced to—a label.
Okay, time to get off my soap box. The bottom line? I believe fiction matters and novels can educate and enlighten as well as entertain. When I visit book clubs, we tend to share wine, information, tissues, and group therapy, which I love. Many of the private messages I receive from readers are filled with stories of daily struggles without treatment or support. Community is such an important part of recovery and management, and a recurring theme in my novels.
Happy endings aren’t guaranteed in the worlds I create, but my stories all close with hope. Endless hope! Life in the trenches with mental illness can be dark and isolating, and yet each new day brings the possibility of a fresh start or what I like to call light through the trees.
Which leads me to Amy’s question: If I could meet one author, who would it be and why? I’m going to pick four giants who’ve been open about their own struggles with messed-up brain chemistry: Marian Keyes and J K Rowling (depression), John Green (OCD), and Stephen King (addiction and alcoholism). When celebrities share their struggles, it helps demystify mental illness and spread awareness. If I were to meet these guys, I would say thank you: as a niece, a daughter, a wife, a mother, and a writer.
The Promise Between Us
“This is an eye-opening and realistic exploration of mental illness—a topic that greatly deserves to be front and center.” —Jodi Picoult, New York Timesbestselling author of Small Great Things
Metal artist Katie Mack is living a lie. Nine years ago she ran away from her family in Raleigh, North Carolina, consumed by the irrational fear that she would harm Maisie, her newborn daughter. Over time she’s come to grips with the mental illness that nearly destroyed her, and now funnels her pain into her art. Despite longing for Maisie, Katie honors an agreement with the husband she left behind—to change her name and never return.
But when she and Maisie accidentally reunite, Katie can’t ignore the familiarity of her child’s compulsive behavior. Worse, Maisie worries obsessively about bad things happening to her pregnant stepmom. Katie has the power to help, but can she reconnect with the family she abandoned?
To protect Maisie, Katie must face the fears that drove her from home, accept the possibility of love, and risk exposing her heart-wrenching secret.
Where to Buy The Promise Between Us
I'm generally pulled in a million different directions and I wouldn't trade it for the world. Here's a glimpse of my life - hope you enjoy it! And if there's a big lapse between posts, well, that's the way life goes in Amy's world.