Guest Post: A Divided Mind – A Q&A with M. Billiter

A very special THANKS to M. Billiter, who stopped by and shared some thoughts on her upcoming release, A DIVIDED MIND.

What was the inspiration behind this story?  When my son Kyle was in his senior year of high school and confessed he was “hearing voices,” my maternal instinct was to make them go away. Kyle’s reaction was to discover what was going on. My son and I navigated the world of mental health together without any clue of what was ahead.

As his mom, I often felt powerless to help. In those times, I found that the journalist in me surfaced. As a career journalist, I ask a lot of questions. My teenage son wasn’t too talkative. I asked questions I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answers to. But what started as a search for answers grew into a fictionalized story of what could happen if a divided mind is left untreated.

Kyle let me into a world I never knew he had endured. But instead of resigning himself to this life, I saw a young man choosing to have a different path. He worked tirelessly with counselors and mental health experts until he found someone in the field who understood and knew how to treat him. There was never an “easy” solution. But Kyle’s determination to be more than his disease was heroic.

By answering all my questions and delving into the darkness, the story unfolded. I knew how far a mother would go to protect her child and my son told the story of how far a divided mind will go to protect itself.

Tell us about your main character.  Branson Kovak will break your heart. From the way he weaves humor in explaining his symptoms to his high school counselor to the inner demons he shoulders alone, he is a beautiful survivor.

Which is your favorite minor character and why?  Aaron Kovak is Branson’s identical twin brother. Aaron made me laugh by his reaction to certain situations. Instead of devastation, Aaron often showed another side to coping with his brother’s mental illness. By keeping things light, he often helped his brother the most. Aaron was also intense when he needed to be. He truly took the reigns as the oldest twin. His relationship with Branson remains one of the most selfless ones I’ve ever written.

What is your favorite personality trait of your main character?  His honesty. Branson is painfully self-aware.

What is your favorite personality trait of your bad guy/girl?  Tara Lafontisee is a single mom, who has crafted her life and those of her children toward optimal success. Her aim at perfecting her family’s image is her attempt to erase her two past failed marriages. When Branson confesses that he’s hearing voices, the house of cards falls. However, what emerges is a single mom, who no longer cares what you think of her or her family. And when she no longer cares about public perception, she’s even more dangerous.

Tell us something funny about one of your characters.   The humor. The entire family uses humor to offset situations.

One of your characters is going on a shopping spree. Where does he/she go and what does he/she buy?
Branson likes the local convenient store for Mountain Dew and candy.

Your character is at a bookstore. Which section is he/she shopping in? What book is in his/her hand right now?
The only family member that would be at the bookstore is Tara, who would check on her New York Times bestselling book and where it’s located in the store!

Your character has the music blasting. What’s playing, and what is he/she doing while listening?  Branson & Aaron like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Tara prefers The Allman Brothers. Little Jack likes Jesse’s singing from “Full House” reruns.

I’m inviting your main character to dinner. What should I make?  Anything with a lot of carbs. This family is going through crisis – some aren’t eating (Tara), others are overeating (Branson) and others are left to fend for themselves (Carson & Jack).

Your main character is planning a vacation. Where is he/she going?  Mexico. When I was writing “A Divided Mind,” I often imagined whisking my son, other kids and myself off to a beach in Mexico. The ocean can cure anything.

Were you surprised by the behavior of any of your characters or the direction of your plot at any point while writing?  Here’s the best-kept secret – there are two endings to “A Divided Mind.” The one I wrote and the one my son suggested, which is how the work concludes.  When I shared my ending to the story with Kyle, he shook his head. “It’s not realistic,” he said. I was devastated. His suggested ending didn’t follow happily ever after. But I knew in my gut he was right. And now, I couldn’t imagine a different ending.

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Please share a few favorite lines or one paragraph.
Brandon’s Point of View
There was no doubt my mind was off the rails.
I couldn’t seem to get across to anyone who would listen to me or actually hear me that while I may have been losing my grip on reality, I wasn’t going to lose my shit on someone else.
My tone was sharp and piercing, like one of the many knives I collected. Knives I had to give to my mom when I told her about the “static” in my head.
I opened the door and was thrust into the hallway of my high school, surrounded by the chaos of people running around, trying to get to their next class. The noise was a welcome relief because, for a minute, it shut out the static
For a moment, I thought about telling my brother about the constant noise, the unending anger I felt every day for no reason, and the lack of happiness that made me feel empty and utterly alone. But as I stared into his hazel eyes, I saw his concern, and I couldn’t burden my twin with my problems.
Aaron’s eyes were a reflection of my own before I began to lose my mind. He gripped my shoulder, and for a minute it seemed like he knew what was happening, like our twin thing was working.

Tara’s Point of View
I touched the screen, traced his face from just a few months ago. What happened? I don’t understand. Branson, come back to me. Please. I need you to be okay.
I hit the steering wheel and raised my fist to the heavens. I will never forgive You if anything happens to my son. Never.
When your child confesses that they’ve been hearing voices and they can no longer keep the “static” quiet, there’s not really anyone with whom to share this revelation. Who would understand this and not judge? Who won’t look at my son differently?
My work and education were front and center. To the naked eye, they looked great, even impressive, because that’s what I did for a living. I packaged people to look amazing.
I couldn’t even muster a fake laugh. There wasn’t anything funny about mental illness, or thinking that my Branson suffered from anything other than the occasional teenage cold, cough, heartache or acne.
The truth of how I felt, nestled beneath all my anger, finally came out in a whisper. “I want his dreams to still be alive. I don’t want to be the one who takes them away.”

How long did it take you to write this book?  Six months. And it was the hardest six months of my life.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to play the lead characters?  I love that this question was asked. I can’t think of a better story to be made into a screenplay. I always imagined Jennifer Garner playing Tara – from her controlled professional life to her crumbling personal life. I imagine Garner would walk that fine line exceedingly well.
And since Branson is an identical twin… I think Dylan and Cole Sprouse (The Suite Life of Zack & Cody) would be unreal playing teens and twins Aaron and Branson Kovac.

How did you come up with the title?  When I interviewed my son, the image/thought that kept appearing was that of a mind divided in half.

Of all the books out there, why should readers choose this one? What makes your book stand out from the rest?
“A Divided Mind,” delves into the emotional experience of mental illness from both sides of the spectrum, the sufferer and caregiver. When I wrote this story, it was important to shed stereotypes. Branson is a teen, struggling through a serious diagnosis – but he’s not his disease. I was painfully aware that when it comes to mental illness, there is considerable misunderstanding and tremendous judgment.

My hope is that I’ve created characters that are relatable and a plot that is so believable it will generate honest conversations about mental illness for a long time.

Is there an underlying theme in your book? If so, tell us about it and why/if it’s important to you.  Forgiveness. There’s not one character in this family, who isn’t seeking or in need of forgiveness.

Fiction can often provide powerful life lessons. What message do you hope readers get from your book?  That someone with mental illness isn’t scary or to shy away from. Additionally, people with mental illness are usually the victims of violence rather than perpetrators.

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