Q: Can you tell us a little about your debut?
My Ex-Imaginary Friend is a story of friendship, mental health, and what it means to be family, as told by ten-year-old Jack and the part-walrus imaginary friend named George he thought he'd outgrown. When Jack stopped believing in George almost a year ago, George disappeared. Jack thinks nothing of it until his family starts to disappear, too.
First, his Dad walks out on Jack and his mom, and does not look back. Then, in the middle of a manic episode, Jack's own mother abruptly abandons Jack at his aunt, uncle, and step-cousins' house without a word of explanation. Feeling completely alone, Jack decides that finding George again is the key to bringing the rest of his family back together.
Meanwhile, the invisible George has been searching for his place in the world, desperately seeking a new friend who can see him and maybe even explain why he suddenly seems to be disappearing. Though he discovers many things -- a mysterious gopher lady, his long lost family of walruses, and a skill for magic he never knew he possessed -- he cannot seem to find a friend. Until his journey of self-discovery somehow leads him back to Jack.
Unfortunately for the pair, not all turns out according to plan, and the reunited Jack and George must learn what it means to exist on the boundary of being seen and unseen, real and imaginary.
Q: How did the very first idea for your story come to you?
In 2007, I started an MFA program in Writing for Children at Simmons College (now Simmons University), and I enrolled in their Writing 1 class. The class, taught by the amazing Jo Knowles (everyone, go read her works!) was absolutely fantastic. One of our homework assignments was to write the first chapter of a Middle Grade novel. I reflected on feelings of loneliness that I had experienced over the years, and wrote about a kid in crisis, witnessing his parents' marriage fall apart while yearning for simpler times when an invisible part-walrus would throw him a joke every time he wanted to cry.
This was the birth of "My Ex-Imaginary Friend." Though the entire story has seen many intense revisions since that homework assignment, the first sentence of the book remained relatively unchanged after all these years.
Q: Your book deals with Bipolar Disorder in a parent. Can you tell us a little about how that influences the characters and plot? Do you name the disorder and explain what it means?
As the story begins, Jack's mother is in the early stages of a manic episode. Jack is unaware of her diagnosis, but he has no complaints as his mother takes him on a whirlwind tour of the city in a quest to find George. That is, until she ends the search by dumping him on the front lawn of his aunt's house, telling him he's too much. She needs a break. She's leaving him, too.
A heartbroken Jack watches as his mother gleefully drives off into the sunset, leaving him with the extended family he can barely tolerate. Over the course of the novel, Jack's Aunt Rachel, Uncle Dave, and step-cousins Jason and Morgan skirt around the words, doing their best to explain what is happening without being upfront or actually explaining anything. These chats end up further frustrating, confusing, and isolating Jack, until they are finally direct with him, both naming and describing Bipolar Disorder. Suddenly, things begin to make sense. Maybe everything is even going to be okay.
Jack's mother's Bipolar Disorder was influenced by somebody I knew growing up who was similarly diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. At the time, I was not aware of her diagnosis, and as a result, I found some of her actions to be confusing and sometimes scary. Like Jack, once I learned the truth, I had an aha! moment that helped me to understand. Fear and confusion were replaced with empathy and understanding.
Q: Your main character, Jack, has some up-front conversations about Bipolar Disorder with his family. Why was it important to you to have these conversations in the novel?
In my early drafts of "My Ex-Imaginary Friend," I did not name Jack's mother's Bipolar Disorder. She did many of the same actions (abandoning Jack, telling him she needs a break) and in my mind, she did these for the same reason. I had diagnosed her in my mind, but I never went so far as having these up-front conversations. As a result, all of my beta-readers hated her.
"She's so mean," they would say, and I was truly heartbroken. Sure, she is complex, and Jack is hurt by her actions, but "mean" (or worse) was not my intention or interpretation of the character. I realized that by avoiding the direct conversation surrounding her mental health, I was recreating exactly what had happened to me in my childhood. Both Jack and my readers were left confused and hurt, and we never reached a point of empathy.
As a strong advocate for removing stigma around mental health, I realized I needed to go that extra step, for Jack, for his Mom, and for the young reader at home who may be as confused or overwhelmed as I was all those years ago.
Q: Your book tackles a serious mental health issue, but also has the magical element of an invisible friend. How did you find a balance between writing authentically about mental health while still keeping your story entertaining and age appropriate?
George was a great help as I worked to tackle these difficult subjects. The imaginary part-walrus is hilarious and so I was able to bookend the more serious moments and conversations with his humor and whimsy. This made the tough topics more accessible to me as a writer, and I hope, to young readers, too.
Q: Did you have to do special research or get sensitivity readers?
Yes, I did a lot of research for "My Ex-Imaginary Friend," on everything from Bipolar Disorder to the psychology of children with imaginary friends to walrus fun facts. A portion of the story is based on my own mental health journey, but I wanted an unbiased opinion to make sure things were handled well so I also worked with a sensitivity reader.
Q: Who is your favorite character and why?
I'm not sure I could choose between Jack and George! I put so much of myself into Jack. His feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and loyalty are so much my own. Meanwhile, George is the hilarious punny optimist I wish I were.
Q: Tell us what’s next!
I have a few projects in the works. My Debut Picture Book called "Don't Say Poop" will be out April 20th from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This silly book offers young readers a series of hilarious tongue twisters as alternatives to everyone's favorite bathroom words.
I'm also working on a Middle Grade own voices novel about a kid who wants to be a star on the stage but struggles with intense anxiety and stage fright that cause him to ruin a school show. In the aftermath of The Incident, he finds himself in the middle of a queer love triangle between his two best friends, but he is completely unaware because he has been raised in a strict Catholic home so the possibility of being gay has never even crossed his mind.
Jimmy Matejek-Morris grew up in New Jersey as the middle child of five kids. He enjoys musical theater, Muppets, ice cream, and action figures. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his husband, Scott, and a very well-dressed poodle-Pomeranian named Rudy.
When he is not writing books and screenplays for kids and young adults, you can find Jimmy peeking through the blinds in hopes of spotting baby bunnies. Jimmy has a BA in Film and English from Cornell University and an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram @jmatejekmorris.