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Interview with Julian Winters | Shattering Stigmas

Welcome back to Shattering Stigmas! Today we welcome Julian Winters, author of The Summer of Everything, to talk about his books, keeping a balance between the good and the bad in fiction, and, of course, mental health!

 Q: Welcome to Shattering Stigmas! Let’s start by talking about your books, particularly your newest release The Summer of Everything. How does mental health relate to this story and your first two books?

A: Thanks for having me! In The Summer of Everything, the main character, Wes, is faced with quite a bit of anxiety about his future, his relationships, the approval of his family, being in a position where he has to move on, and how to process the loss that comes with it. This leads to his first realization that he’s having attacks related to his anxiety. Mental health is very important to me. I try to include and normalize in each of my books, especially with characters like Remy and Wes, who are queer, Black teen boys. We’re still fighting against so many stigmas within the Black community when it comes to mental health, getting assistance, openly discussing it; and it increases exceedingly when you add the varied intersectionalities within our community. I want to make sure Black and queer teens see it’s okay to talk about these things with people you trust and feel safest with.

Q: One of the most notable aspects of your work is that you balance the serious with the light-hearted really well. For example, Running With Lions deals with toxic masculinity and homophobia in sports but is still a fun read with hilarious characters. How do you keep that balance in a story?

A: Honestly, I struggle with it in each book. I love to laugh. I love to make people smile. But I also know I’m exceptionally good at avoiding the difficult parts of life. The more serious themes scare me. But they’re important. One of the ways I process and deal with fear is through humor. Or seeking out joy. While writing, I remind myself it’s important to face my own fears, to write about them, work through them… and then find something to be joyful about. Turn that worry into something I can laugh about. Finding that balance isn’t easy and maintaining it is even more difficult, but it’s needed.

Cover of Running With Lions by Julian WintersQ: Another important part of your books is that you very intentionally include diversity and happy endings. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the real world has been quite a mess (to say the least). So why is it so important to you to publish these stories featuring Black joy and queer joy and characters who get their happy ending?

A: Most of my younger years were spent with one constant reminder—as a Black, queer person, I wasn’t going to get the happy ending that others got. A lot of media and literature focused on Black and queer pain, trauma, and death. It was as if my existence was the moral of the story for someone else: “Don’t be like them.” It left a sad ache inside of me for a long time. Why didn’t I get to be the hero? Fall in love? Laugh with my friends at a coffee shop? Lead my team to victory?

I didn’t find my own joy in who I am until my late twenties and, once I did, I recognized that I can’t let this cycle continue. Black and queer people need to know that they don’t have to earn their joy and happy endings. They don’t have to suffer before being given something their peers have had since birth. They deserve joy. They deserve happy endings. Their existence is not to teach a lesson to someone else. So I will always write about that.

Q: Shattering Stigmas is an event that aims to keep the conversation around mental health going because it’s such an important topic. So why is talking about mental health important to you? Why is it important to bring up in your writing?

A: For me, I think it’s important because the world as a whole has spent so long shaming discussions of mental health. Society has made it this thing we put in a dark corner and turn a blind eye to. It’s important we normalize mental health discussions. Educate ourselves. We need stories from varied voices that explore mental health with authentic, unharmful representation, especially for young readers where these stigmas are loudest. I hope to find more and more ways to give mental health, through my writing, the light that it hasn’t been given for so long.

Q: This event also has roots in the book community, so let’s talk about representation. Where have you seen yourself represented in media? How do you hope to see mental health representation evolve and improve? 

A: I don’t know if I’ve seen my true self represented in media. Yet. I know the day is coming. I’ve seen such an evolution through movies and TV, definitely books, where the representation is growing. More BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ characters are coming to the forefront. I love what streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and Disney+ are doing to provide that representation. The discussions and depictions of mental health feel more authentic and honest and are shaking off the stigmas shown for far too long. Mental health is no longer the punchline in a really bad joke. We’ve moved past having one episode in a series that focuses on mental health and then silence on the topic for another twenty-two episodes. I hope this positive trajectory continues.

Q: Time for some shout outs! What are some of your favorite books that talk about mental health? What about other media (movies, TV, music, etc.)?

A: Obviously, everyone knows I’m going to shout out Darius the Great Is Not Okay and Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram! Also, I think Laurie Halse Anderson is incredible. Read everything she’s written. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan. When the Stars Lead To You by Ronni Davis. Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert. Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan. History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera. You Asked for Perfect by Laura Silverman.

As far as other media, I loved season three of Skam. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Randall in This Is Us. I think Inside Out is a brilliant animated movie and we need more movies/TV that explore mental health for children. I’m sure there’s a lot more great content out there, but I haven’t had as much time to do anything other than reading and writing these days.

Q: Now let’s leave off with some talk about self-care. What are your best tips and tricks for when you’re not feeling so great and need to relax or hype yourself up?

A: To relax, I love to take a hot shower and just let the water wash over me. I love reading graphic novels. If I can, I watch old movies that make me laugh or smile or feel fuzzy. My go-to movies when I’m not feeling great are The Princess Bride and Stardust. They’re fun and funny and magical and I don’t have to think… just enjoy. I go for walks in my neighborhoods, especially around sunset/sunrise. Something about watching the sky change shape and color calms me. Or I’ll sit on the floor, close my eyes, and just breathe. Sometimes, in those moments, I end up crying, but it’s a good cry. A needed cry. Sometimes, you need to let things out.

To hype myself up — I dance. I put on a fast, upbeat song, and just dance around the room with no one watching. Or I’ll watch Into the Spider-Verse. There’s no way I can walk away from that movie and Miles Morales not feeling excited about the things I know I can accomplish.

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Julian Winters
Photo Credit: Vanessa North

Julian Winters is a best-selling author of contemporary young adult fiction. His novels Running With Lions and How to Be Remy Cameron (Duet, 2018 and 2019 respectively), won accolades and awards for their positive depictions of diverse, relatable characters. Running With Lions is the recipient of an IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Award. How to Be Remy Cameron received a starred review from School Library Journal and was named a Junior Library Guild selection. A former management trainer, Julian currently lives outside of Atlanta where he can be found reading, being a self-proclaimed comic book geek, or watching the only two sports he can follow—volleyball and soccer. His novel, The Summer of Everything, released in September 2020.

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