Overall: 4/5 stars*
Growing up, kids often imagine themselves as heroes. Fed on an endless stream of heroics, they wield the force in their back yards, casting spells and brandishing imaginary swords. They hold out hope that one day they'll receive their letter from Hogwartz—that one day, they'll find some hidden ability within themselves, and be tasked with saving the world.
But what if a time came when you couldn't separate the imagined from reality? What if someone told you there was a threat, but you couldn't be sure that threat was real? What if you were older, angry, and didn't want to save the world anymore? That's the dilemma of Emmeline Kalberg, the protagonist in Erica L. Satifka's first novel, Stay Crazy.
As a schizophrenic with depressive tendencies, Em is not your typical hero, just as Stay Crazy isn't your typical heroic story. When the novel begins, Em is a college dropout starting a new job as a stock worker at Savertown USA, back in her hometown after two months in a mental hospital. Almost as soon as she begins work, an entity named Escodex begins communicating with Em through the goods of Savertown USA, warning her that disaster is pending, and imploring her to save both of their dimensions.
While the premise might sound light and humorous, Stay Crazy is frequently a dark, raw novel. From the start, Em is angry and abrasive, lashing out at everyone who comes near. As a character, Em has far more in common with Netflix's brooding Jessica Jones than CW's bubbly Supergirl. As Em herself says at one point:
"The most important person in the world doesn't stock shelves at Savertown USA. The most important person in the world doesn't need her mom to drive her to work, and she doesn't need to drop out of college after three weeks."
The driving force behind her character is anger. Em hates everything around her: her co-workers and the job she's been forced into, her therapist, her mental illness—sometimes, even her family.
Beyond her anger, Em's schizophrenia is a complex core element of the story. Unreliable narrators and reluctant anti-hero protagonists might not be new concepts, but they're always a delicate balance. It would be an easy thing for Stay Crazy for veer into "gotcha" territory, where Em's mental illness is used as a gimmick to play games with the reader. To Satifka's credit, that never happens; when Em wonders what is real, so does the reader. When she's grounded, so is the reader. It might be difficult to like Em at times, but it's not difficult to empathize with her, and that's one of the novel's greatest strengths.
Stay Crazy succeeds in its defiance of convention, in taking the most familiar story arc in existence and turning it inside out. As a first novel, it's a promising showcase of Satifka's talent, and fans of Philip K. Dick will feel right at home. It's not always the easiest ride—and at times it's painful to watch Em's self-destructive anger and vulnerability unfold—but it's certainly one worth taking, and one that's bound to linger with you long after you've put it down.
Interview: Erica L. Satifka
Conducted by Gary Emmette Chandler
You’ve been quite prolific and successful in your short fiction career, publishing in Clarkesworld as well as other high profile SF/F magazines. Stay Crazy is your first published novel. How long has it been in the works, and what was the transition to writing longer fiction like?
Funny story… I wrote this novel before I wrote any of the short stories, back in 2005-06. Safe to say that I didn’t know much about the writing business back then, and because I was allergic to editing (still am to some extent), I “trunked” it after it was rejected by one or two agents. I wrote almost nothing in the few years after that, for various stupid reasons, but I never forgot the story and how I wished I’d done something with the novel before quitting.
In 2011-ish, I started writing again! But I didn’t work on novels, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to finish a new novel without finishing this novel first, but I wasn’t ready to look at it yet. I wrote only shorts for a couple of years until I moved to Portland, and then I pulled out this novel, and then I rewrote it, and here we are. It looks like I graduated from short stories to novel writing in a typical path, but literally nothing about my writing career has followed a normal trajectory at all, and sometimes that’s just the way it is.
In Stay Crazy, your protagonist, Emmeline Kalberg, has schizophrenia with depressive tendencies. It’s refreshing to see a story deal with mental illness outside of the stereotypical institution setting. What inspired you to write this character and her story?
I came up with the story behind Stay Crazy while employed at a certain big-box store, in the frozen food section, just like in the novel. I was also reading a lot (and I mean a LOT) of Philip K. Dick at the time; I discovered him in my senior year of college and he quickly became my favorite writer and biggest inspiration. And I was also really depressed! I’d graduated college a few months back and afterwards found myself trapped in the tiny college town. I was also writing fiction, though as a hobby (back then I didn’t know you could actually submit fiction to magazines). Coming up with this story and working it through in my head was the only way I could deal with the crushing horror of working at that place.
I could be mistaken, since it’s been so long since I came up with the idea, but I don’t think Em originally had schizophrenia. That idea got added later, when I read Dick’s novel Martian Time-Slip. One of the main characters of that novel, Jack Bohlen, describes himself as an “ex-schizophrenic,” and while a lot of mystical things happen in that novel, the character is actually mentally ill for real; it’s not all a hallucination. And this just completely floored me for whatever reason, that a character could be battling demons both inside and outside his head simultaneously. I started reading more about schizophrenia from people who actually have it, and started to feel very strongly that this would add an extra layer that the story was missing (as well as keep it from simply being an autobiography with aliens). And I was right! The story clicked after that and I started writing it down for real, after I got out of that town.
A protagonist with schizophrenia is probably one of the more unreliable narrators a writer could choose. In your novel, Em has to balance her own hallucinations with a very real situation that seems absolutely crazy: an entity named Escodex who speaks only to the mentally ill (through the goods of Savertown USA, no less) and who tasks her with saving the world. Were there any extra challenges in writing Em that you might not have encountered with a different protagonist?
Honestly, a lot of Em is based on myself, as are most of my characters. I don’t have schizophrenia, but the sarcasm and the pessimism and the fatalism are all me. So her personality wasn’t that much of a departure. The hallucinations and delusions were, but after reading a dozen or so memoirs of people with schizophrenia (and I stuck almost entirely to first-hand accounts), I found it easy to slip into her POV. Just like folks with any sort of disability or difference, people with schizophrenia are all different, so I wanted to avoid making Em only her schizophrenia. It’s really just another thing about the character, like her eye color or love of weird comic books.
The main challenge was to avoid either stigmatizing or romanticizing mental illness. Basically, there are a lot of shitty portrayals of people with schizophrenia in fiction, especially science fiction and horror. Either they’re axe murderers, or their illness was entirely the result of the speculative element, a sort of paranormal gaslighting. Stay Crazy may not be entirely accurate but at least it avoids those tropes!
Stay Crazy strikes me as a rather unique take on the classic “save the world” tale, and seems to play with the conventions and expectations of that sort of story. Was this a conscious decision?
I’ve never met a convention or expectation I didn’t immediately want to invert, and I find heroes extremely boring. Going back to Philip K. Dick, one of the things I still find so refreshing about his work is that every character is an everyman, and not in that “everyone thinks he’s an everyman, but actually he’s a powerful wizard” way. While Em could be considered a variation on the Chosen One, there’s never a point at which things stop sucking for her, no graduation from the wizard school.
On the other hand, it wasn’t a deliberate subversion in that I didn’t take a “normal” plot and character and twist them, it’s always been a different sort of book. The reason I will never be a huge success at writing is that I am incredibly resistant to writing certain types of stories or following formula; I don’t think this makes me better than writers who follow a formula, but it’s all I know how to do.
Em’s path is a bittersweet one, but also fitting for the tone of the novel and her character. Can you see a sequel somewhere down the line for Em, or is her story at an end for you?
This is a standalone novel. Absent someone dropping a dump truck of money on my lawn to get me to write a sequel (someone please do this), I don’t see returning to this story, not because I don’t love the characters or the plot, but because… well, it’s done. It’s designed that way. I hear standalones are coming back, though that might just be wishful thinking!
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