For author Sarah J. Carlson, her background in psychology helps her understand how the brain works and how people process information, which helps with getting into her characters’ heads.
Carlson, a Fitchburg resident and school psychologist who works in the Madison Metropolitan School District, published her second book, “Everything’s Not Fine,” on Tuesday, May 26, through Turner Publishing.
Carlson said she wanted to touch on social issues with her new young adult novel including poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and substance abuse.
In “Everything’s Not Fine,” fictional character 17 year old Rose Hemmersbach wishes to escape her life in small-town Sparta, Wisconsin, and attend a school of arts. Her dreams are upended when she discovers her mother nearly died of a heroin overdose, which results in a Child Protective Services investigation and local media attention.
Rose tries to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the overdose and navigate the fallout including legal ramifications and the shame that comes with her whole community knowing, while struggling with finishing her senior year of high school.
“I wanted to show what it is like to go through something dramatic, but also to discover one’s own agency and resilience, finding hope in situations where you don’t have a lot of control,” Carlson said. “My hope is that this book will resonate beyond just teens and parents – but with all of us – those situations where we can’t control what is happening and it’s ravaging our lives.”
Carlson said the young adult novel is recommended for teenagers 14 and older. The book contains a discussion guide with questions.
Apart from her background working with kids, she strove to capture what they experience authentically by watching documentaries and reading books about kids whose parents have substance abuse problems. She also interviewed a lawyer, police officers and staff at Child Protective Services.
Carlson even hired an authenticity reader, who had a parent addicted to heroin, to review an early draft of her manuscript. This resulted in her throwing out everything she had written to rewrite the story from a different angle, she said.
Carlson decided she had written the book too much from the perspective of a psychologist, and felt she hadn’t captured an authentic voice for people who had history with drug addicted parents.
She said she wanted her writing “coming from a place of what can you do as a teen” to escape from such situations.
Originally, she planned to draw from her experiences working on the western side of Wisconsin while completing graduate studies at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She witnessed methamphetamine abuse becoming a growing problem in the area during that time; however, Carlson said that over time, heroin became a much bigger issue nationally and she felt it was more relevant.
“All drug addiction is tragic, but for the majority of people who abuse heroin, it started as a prescription,” Carlson said. “I started exploring that, the tragedy behind that, the things drug companies do. People begin taking opioids thinking it’s safe because a doctor prescribed it, they get addicted, but then heroin becomes cheaper than prescribed opioids.”
Carlson began writing the book while living in Singapore for two and a half years. Her husband, who works for Epic, was relocated there to help lead a project. While working as a tutor there, Carlson began feeling homesick and missing Madison.
Carlson had never read a book set in Wisconsin, so she wanted to write a book based there and wanted to capture the “language” of her home state, she said. She decided to write a book set in Sparta, where her family had moved when she was in eighth grade and where she graduated high school.
Since returning from Singapore, Carlson has lived in Fitchburg for four years with her husband and two small children. For her next book, she’s considering continuing the theme of a Wisconsin setting, and said maybe she will write a book that takes place in Wisconsin Dells.
For now, she’s learning how to promote the publication of a new book in the era of COVID-19 and physical distancing. As opposed to her typical book readings or signings at Madison retailers such as Mystery to Me and A Room of One’s own, she’s leveraging social media, podcasts and interviews as part of a virtual book launch.