Author Interview: Willa Strayhorn Talks The Way We Bared Our Souls

Combining Native American culture, disability and the theme of letting go, Willa Strayhorn’s The Way We Bared Our Souls makes for a compelling coming-of-age read. Today, to celebrate the book’s recent release, Willa answers are burning questions about the book’s tough topics and more.

What inspired you to write about a girl with multiple sclerosis?

At first I wasn’t sure if Consuelo would really have the disease. I thought maybe she was a hypochondriac. But then I did the sadistic writer thing and made her legitimately sick. Poor girl. But she needed to be seriously ill in some way because I’m interested in how transformative that experience can be. When I’m nauseated or something, all I can think about is how nauseated I am. It absorbs a lot of my focus and affects how I engage with the world. So I imagined ramping up that discomfort to the nth degree. Multiple sclerosis attacks on numerous fronts. It seems life altering in a way that would really challenge this character and force her to confront her core beliefs.

What other books that tackle serious illnesses inspired you as you wrote The Way We Bared Our Souls?

This is the part where I have to admit that I’ve never read The Fault in Our Stars. Please don’t take away my YA writing license! I will read it some day! One book that stands out for me as an inspiration is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a beautiful and heartbreaking memoir by a man with locked-in syndrome. Because he couldn’t move any other part of his body, he composed the whole book by blinking his left eye. Though the author (Jean-Dominique Bauby) had a real and devastating illness, his condition also serves as a metaphor for anyone who feels trapped in his or her body due to physical suffering. I imagine that it feels pretty isolating and could force you into extreme self-examination.

What’s the most challenging part about balancing a cast of characters? The most fun?

The most challenging part about writing a wide cast of characters is making them all full, well-rounded people. I don’t know if I succeeded or not. Consuelo, Thomas, Ellen, Kit and Kaya are all absolutely real to me, but does that communicate to the reader? And I worry about being fair to all of them. Did I give everyone an equal amount of dialogue? Did they each get the same amount of action? It makes me sympathize with the writers of Friends or something. You know, “Is Rachel going to be happy with this script? Did we give her fewer lines than Phoebe?” Not that my book is an ensemble television comedy, but you get the idea. The most fun was exploring my five characters’ one-on-one dynamics. I could just put them in rooms or cars or rodeos together in various combinations and see what happened. Many of these teenagers might not normally interact in organic social situations, but when they’re thrown together by the shaman’s ritual, I can make the sparks fly.

The book also includes elements of Native American culture. Do you have personal ties to the culture or did you have to research the customs and practices?

Because I don’t have personal, firsthand knowledge of any indigenous tribes, I felt a little wary about putting so much Native American history in the book. I didn’t want to give the impression that I was trying to appropriate what wasn’t mine. But that part of the country (the Southwest) is packed with fascinating history and ultimately I couldn’t ignore it. I just hope that my deep respect for these New Mexico tribes shines through more than my ignorance. I did a lot of research for the book, and have actually been reading about America’s indigenous peoples since I was a teenager and discovered my dad’s beautiful books about them. I also had an extraordinary teacher in high school who’d studied Native American history and was sure that his students didn’t neglect it even as he pumped us full of info about the founding fathers for the AP exam. But books and museums can’t compare to firsthand knowledge, which I woefully lack. 

What do you hope readers gain from reading the book?

I hope it helps some readers find that powerful, connected, unshakeable part of themselves that can sometimes elude a person when he or she is suffering. When I was a teenager I felt sometimes that I didn’t have a fundamental essence or core that could survive all the radical transition of adolescence. But of course I did. We all do. I just didn’t have enough faith in myself to go looking for it. I could have saved myself a lot of grief by being more attentive to my soul (for lack of a better word) and its needs. But please feel free to read the book even if you’re already wise beyond your years and far more enlightened than I’ll ever be! For you, I’d recommend the makeout scenes.

What are five surprising things your readers may not know about you?

1.I once built my own treehouse.

2.Since I wrote The Way We Bared Our Souls, two of my siblings have had children, but the cool aunt in the novel isn’t based on me. In reality, I’m way cooler.

3.I used to write erotica in the south of France.

4.Willa Strayhorn is a pseudonym. I’m actually the queen of a small Nordic country.

5.I grow hair on my toes faster than anyone else alive.

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The Way We Bared Our Souls is out now, so be sure to grab a copy today! And don’t forget our Everything YA page is full of even more author interviews and other exclusive content!

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