Sally J. Pla: Warmest of welcomes to A Novel Mind, Emily! I have to say, first off, that I loved AFTERMATH. The emotions it evoked felt utterly true, real, honest, and brave. But before I start going on and on, perhaps you could give us a quick summary, in your own words, of the story.
Emily Barth Isler: Thank you so much for having me!!
At its core, AfterMath is the story of Lucy, who is the new kid at a new school where she’s having a hard time fitting in and making friends, while also struggling to connect with her parents at home, and trying to reconcile her love of math and its absolutes with all the uncertainties of life as a tween.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that: Lucy’s family has moved to this new town less than a year after the death of her younger brother, Theo, who was born with a congenital heart defect and lived five years. The new town, the fictional Queensland, VA, was the site of a massive school shooting four years earlier, and Lucy is the first new kid to join the class of kids who are all survivors.
Lucy is a math whiz and sees the world in equations and shapes. She tries to process life in terms of numbers and finite answers, until her math teacher, the extraordinary Mr. Jackson, introduces her class to the mathematical concept of infinity, and everything Lucy thought she understood is called into question.
Lucy initially decides to keep her own loss a secret, but when she takes an after-school Mime class, she slowly learns to open up and finds herself wanting to share about Theo, yet not knowing how to do so. She also makes a friend, Avery, the school loner, only to find out that Avery has a complicated connection to the school shooting, and that, while both girls have lost a brother, their circumstances are quite different.
Although infinity seems elusive to Lucy, she eventually comes to find that it represents not only grief, but also love, friendship, and family.
Sally: There is Lucy's family grief. And there is the grief of the school shooting survivor kids. Why take on not one, but these TWO different trauma situations, two different losses, in one book? Why wasn't one trauma enough for you? :-)
Emily: Ha! I get asked this a lot! Honestly, these were based on two things going on in the real world, tangentially in my life, at this time, so I was writing about them for my own mental health at first, as part of processing everything.
When I started writing AfterMath in late 2015, I was very much aware of and grappling with the ongoing onslaught of mass shootings in America, which is sadly still happening too much six years later. At the same time, I was also witnessing a friend of a friend go through the loss of her son who died of a congenital condition at the age of five. All of this loss and pain felt so incredibly large, and yet none of it was happening directly to me. I felt lucky and guilty and sad and helpless. The only thing I could think to do about it was to write, and what began as a self-soothing exercise quickly became something I felt might be helpful to other people, too.
Another reason for including both these traumas is that it was important to me that Lucy be an outsider to the school shooting depicted in the book. She’s the audience’s entry point to the really difficult and horrific topic of school shootings, and most of the people reading this book are not going to be direct survivors of gun violence. However, I really do think that most kids, parents, teachers, and educators reading this book, especially at this point in the pandemic, have been through or witnessed someone close to them go through some kind of grief. I wanted Lucy to also have her own grief, because she needed the language of loss and the elements of this mathematical equation to process it and compare it to her new peers’ losses, but I wanted it to be different enough to really explore the contrast.
Lucy had time to process and anticipate the looming loss of her brother, Theo. She had known for years that he wouldn’t likely survive past the age of five, yet it was still tragic and horrible for her to lose him. She had “Anticipatory Grief,” which is something that the people in Queensland who lost loved ones and friends in the mass shooting didn’t experience at all. This juxtaposition gives Lucy the lens through which to compare her loss to that of her new classmates, whose losses happened very suddenly, and very violently.
Sally: In the story, characters display many different forms of grief and styles of grieving. Can you elaborate on that?
Emily: In writing AfterMath, it was important to me to show the different forms and styles of grieving. I thought a lot about the idea of grief comparison. Many of us -- and I say this from personal experience! -- are taught from a young age, implicitly, that our pain or our experience isn’t “as much” as someone else’s; for example: "We have enough food to eat and a roof over our heads, so our challenges can’t be that bad," or "We have access to loving family members, so we don’t deserve to be sad about that which we don’t have."
It was even a popular parenting style up until recently-- telling a kid who doesn't finish dinner, “don’t you know there are starving kids in xyz?”-- the idea of minimizing our own feelings and issues because someone else has it worse. And in many ways, this perspective is necessary and helpful for kids. It’s essential for them to recognize and acknowledge their privileges, but when it comes to their pain, we sometimes forget or lose sight of where the line is, in terms of comparing their feelings to “much worse” ones.
In my life, this comparison of grief came up in a few ways. First, I lost my paternal grandfather right before I was born. It was a huge sadness in my childhood, but I didn’t feel entitled to mourn it, because I had another grandfather, as well as tons of doting family members. Plus, I never met my deceased grandfather, so how could I “miss” him? But as I’ve aged, I’ve come to understand that we can hold space for our losses and sadness and still keep perspective about their effect on us. I’ve given myself permission to feel sad about missing the chance to know my grandfather, while still relishing and appreciating so many other people I have or had in my life.
The next way that grief and trauma came up for me was that I was bullied and physically abused by a teacher in my high school. It all came to a head in two particularly dramatic, violent incidents, one of which was very public. I buried my trauma for a long time after the incidents, telling myself that "so many people had it so much worse," so I didn't think I really deserved to fully feel the extent of my trauma. I had loving parents and plenty of resources and so many other advantages. I didn't realize that I could have all those good things and still experience my trauma.
That experience also became a part of AfterMath. The other students and teacher who witnessed the very public attack I endured largely kept silent about it at first, and most of them basically stopped talking to me completely because no one knew how to handle the situation -- someone we all respected and looked up to did something violent and confusing, and the other adults in charge looked the other way because it would’ve been really “inconvenient” to be the whistleblower, and it would have looked really bad for the school. (Eventually, many of these witnesses did testify, but it was a long time between the incidents and the public revealing of the truth.)
I channeled that experience into Avery’s story in AfterMath -- she tells Lucy how it felt like she became invisible after the shooting, because, as the half-sister of the shooter, other kids and community members didn’t know how to be around her. She was a reminder of their discomfort and pain, but she wasn’t at all responsible or involved in the tragedy.
I also used that experience in my portrayal of the students at the school where Lucy starts seventh grade as a new student. All the survivors of the school shooting are very open and direct with her about their survival stories, which is a classic stage of grief people often don’t talk about. I went through this, after a full year of pretending my own attacks didn’t happen-- it eventually bubbled to the surface and, for a while, I told everyone I met what had happened to me. It was the way I made it real again, after trying -- and failing -- to pretend it wasn’t.
I’ve talked to a lot of mental health practitioners about this phenomenon and wanted to put it in the story because it not only contrasts with the way Lucy is handling her brother’s recent death so far when the story begins, but I think in some ways, it’s a really healthy stage of the grieving process. And in this environment, where all these kids survived a mass shooting, and Lucy is the first person to come into their school community in the four years since, I thought it might be logical that they would feel compelled to make sure she knew what they’d been through and who they had lost. She was an unwitting interloper into a very fragile but increasingly healing ecosystem there.
Then we have Lucy’s parents’ grief. I feel incredibly lucky that I have not experienced the kind of loss they did in the story -- the loss of an immediate family member -- but I wanted to portray the challenges of parenting while grieving or struggling. As a mother, I know what it’s like to be worried, upset, frustrated, or sick, and still try to do the day-to-day parenting. I can imagine how this was for Lucy’s parents, to still try and be there for her even as they were consumed by grief for Theo -- and even before he died, the four years of his life (the same time since the school shooting affected the other kids in the book) where he was quite sick and they had to balance his care and all the associated pain, grief, financial strain, etc., with trying to parent Lucy in all the ways she needed.
I think middle grade readers are still very much looking to adults for guidance and examples, so I like to write both flawed and aspirational adults in my middle grade books, to give kids some different things to consider. I like writing parents into my books as larger characters -- I want kids to see adults as full, flawed, real, evolving humans. When I was a kid, I thought almost all adults were perfect, just by virtue of being older. Boy, did I learn that wasn’t true the hard way!
Lastly, when portraying styles and methods of grieving, I wanted to show how great therapy is. I wanted to normalize it within the world of the book. All the kids at Lucy’s new school are in therapy and talk about it like it’s a normal part of life. I’m sorry they had to survive a mass shooting for it to be that way, but wouldn’t it be great if we could normalize therapy in real life without having to survive a huge tragedy? I think we’re getting there, more and more, but I wanted to push that boundary on the page, and have Lucy as an outside observer, see it through her own lens.
I owe a debt of gratitude to my editor, the brilliant Amy Fitzgerald, for giving me permission to put all my characters into therapy by the end of the story :) I hope that reading that detail helps some readers feel good about asking for help and seeking therapy, or talking more openly about already benefiting from it. I think if we all talked to a therapist or counselor at some point (or many points!) in life, the world would be a much, much kinder place!
Emily Barth Isler is the author of AfterMath, an award-winning middle grade novel about grief, resilience, friendship, math, and mime, which activist and comedian Amy Schumer calls "a gift to the culture." Emily lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and their two kids. A former child actress, she performed all over the world in theatre, film, and TV. In addition to books, Emily writes about sustainable, eco-friendly beauty and skincare, and has also written web sitcoms, parenting columns, and personal essays. She has a B.A. in Film Studies from Wesleyan University, and really, really loves television. Find her at www.emilybarthisler.com. (photo credit: Shirin Tinati)