Nicole Eva Fraser’s debut novel, The Hardest Thing in This World, is a story about family, mental illness and the search for hope and meaning in the things that hurt. It was published in October 2013, and here is the official description:
Sexy, smart-mouthed Melody Sawyer is an underachiever, a home health care nurse with good intentions and a chip on her shoulder. Her troubled daughter Renee recently dropped dead at age 24, but Renee’s ghost keeps popping in on the family. And Melody has no clue about her married daughter, Kayla–who since age 16 has been deep in a clandestine affair with pro baseball player Baron Lee Presley. Join the Sawyer women on their offbeat, darkly funny, and sometimes tragic journey as they try to conquer the hardest thing in this world.
Nicole was kind enough to answer a few questions about herself and her book. But first, her bio:
Nicole Eva Fraser received her MFA in creative writing from the NEOMFA consortium in northeast Ohio and graduated summa cum laude from Baldwin-Wallace College with a double major in English and communications. She is an adult-literacy advocate in Cleveland, Tanzania and Malawi. She runs 10ks (slowly), used to speak French, and often can be found putting her foot in her mouth.
Q. What is your book The Hardest Thing in This World about?
A. Sexy, smart-mouthed Melody Sawyer is an underachiever, a home health care nurse with good intentions and a chip on her shoulder. Her troubled daughter Renee recently dropped dead at 24, but Renee’s ghost keeps popping in on the family. And Melody has no clue about her married daughter, Kayla—who since age 16 has been deep in a clandestine affair with pro baseball player Baron Lee Presley. The Sawyer women travel an offbeat, darkly funny, and sometimes tragic journey as they try to conquer the hardest thing in this world.
Q. How and when did you start writing?
A. I started writing stories in second grade. Looking back, I see that my writing gave me a sense of empowerment and freedom. My childhood home was a place of daily traumas. It was unsafe to keep a diary or journal, so instead I wrote stories about girls surviving terrible ordeals or living the happy lives I fantasized about. My stories proved that my life mattered, even if only to me. In fifth grade I wrote a 50-page novel about a girl who time-traveled in her sleep and ended up living happily on Mars!
Q. What inspired you to write this novel?
I wanted to write about how mental illness affects a whole family. A few members of my childhood family had mental illnesses, so I grew up immersed in it. And I live with the PTSD, the flashbacks and depression, that came as a result. I added dark humor and supernatural elements to the novel, to give it some uniqueness and to use storytelling techniques of my Micmac Indian heritage.
Q. What kind of research did you do for the novel?
A. I did a three-month stint as a home health aide but needed more information on the kinds of assignments a visiting LPN like Melody would get in Cleveland. I also researched treatments and medications for various mental illnesses, and consulted with a Pittsburgh expert for the scenes set there. And I researched the boat crash on Little Lake Nellie that killed the two Cleveland Indians.
Q. What led you to include sports and pop culture, including baseball and Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
The story needed some context because it isn’t written in straight linear time. Since sports and pop culture are time-bound parts of our lives, they were good anchors, touchstones to ground the characters.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the ultimate unconventional hero. She is awesome. If Renee were real, Buffy would totally be her role model, her light in the darkness.
Pro baseball was the first sport I ever loved and learned. I was in second grade at the time. And the summers I was fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen, I knew some baseball players.
Also, baseball used to be the number-one All-American sport, but the NFL and the NBA have dethroned it. That major fall, from importance to afterthought, makes baseball interesting to me.
Q. What do you hope readers will walk away with?
A. Mostly I want you to be entertained or emotionally affected by the story. Also, to ask yourself questions like, “Is Melody a bad mother?” “Does Kayla deserve what she gets in the end?” “Was Renee truly Beloved by anyone in her family?” And I want the book to encourage you take a fresh look at how you relate to people with mental illness, and what you might want to do differently.
Q. Were there any specific inspirations behind the characters?
The seeds of all three women were in parts of me.
Melody: the practical, hard-working façade. Afraid of her own fears and everyone else’s, too.
Kayla: the high-functioning façade. On a secret seesaw between fantasy and despair.
Renee: no façade and barely holding on.
Q. Can you share more about the dynamics between family in this novel?
A. Someone once told me, “Where there is tenderness, nothing else matters. Where there is no tenderness, nothing else matters.”
There is tenderness between the Sawyer family members. They care about each other and they’re doing the best they can for each other and they definitely have a sense of family. But they’re imperfect. Aren’t we all? They don’t have magic wands to heal each other or themselves. They often don’t have any idea how to help, so they retreat. Or they act like everything’s fine. Or they try and put the problems out of their minds.
When you look at the fictional Sawyers, when you see where they go wrong, I’d just say, ask yourself what you would do differently. Because that will help you to someone else, or yourself, in your real life.
Q. Is there anything readers may not know about you that influenced the novel?
A. I ask myself what I really want to stand for in this life. I don’t want it to be all about me. But with PTSD, the flashbacks and depression, I can get really stuck in my head, my interior life, myself. Activism has helped me move beyond that. In high school I was a math tutor. Now I’m a certified adult-literacy tutor and fundraiser for adult-literacy efforts in Cleveland and Africa.
Most recently I’ve started supporting Bring Change 2 Mind and NAMI, two organizations that work to bring awareness and end the stigma of mental illness. I find it terrifying to stand up and say, “I’m Nicole and I have post-traumatic stress disorder.” But I’m going to keep doing it.
The Hardest Thing in This World is my activism as a writer, to tell a different kind of story about mental illness, and encourage you to ask yourself. “In their shoes, what would I do?”
Q. What are you working on next?
A. I have two new books coming in 2014. I Don’t Think It’s That Simple is a novel about a high school basketball coach who forms a father-son bond with his star player and falls in love with the boy’s married mother. GPS for Writers is nonfiction, designed to help new writers navigate the five paths to getting their books published. There’s no other book like it on the market, and I hope it’s going to be really helpful for people.
Find The Hardest Thing in This World on Amazon.