Today, people with schizophrenia are still portrayed as weirdos or “freaks.” They’re portrayed as scary and violent, and, almost always, as one-dimensional, almost always as caricatures. However, in Cindy Baldwin’s gorgeous, heartfelt, middle-grade book, Where the Watermelons Grow, what we find is a multidimensional, compassionate character.
Where the Watermelons Grow is the story of Della, a 12-year-old girl, who yearns to heal her mother, who has schizophrenia. It is a realistic portrayal about how mental illness affects the entire family, and it is a story of empathy and acceptance. As Della’s father tells her one morning, “Pills or no pills, she’s still your mama. She’s still herself—it’s just buried a little deeper. She’s not crazy, honey, she’s sick. You gotta understand, Della, as hard as it is for us, it’s ten times harder for your mama. When she gets like this—it hurts her, honey, inside and out. More than it hurts either of us. She’s struggling, and she needs our love.”
Below, in our interview, Baldwin explains why she chose to explore schizophrenia and how she went about researching the illness, since so much misinformation, sadly, exists. She also discusses her own writing process, navigating the biggest challenge in writing Where the Watermelons Grow, her go-to writing resources, and soooo much more. I love this interview, and I think you will, too.
Q: Why did you pick paranoid schizophrenia as the mental illness that Della’s mom would have?
A: I don’t have schizophrenia, but like Della’s mama, I am a disabled parent. In Where the Watermelons Grow, I really wanted to explore the idea that disability doesn’t have to be removed for characters to achieve happiness—which is a trope that pops up a lot in books with disabled characters. So often, the disability itself is the great barrier to a happy ending, and that ending can’t be achieved unless there’s a magical cure involved.
When I was growing up—and even still, as a disabled adult—I found these narratives so frustrating, because my health conditions are not ones that will ever go away; it was very invalidating to be shown again and again that I couldn’t have a rich, happy life while being disabled.
In Watermelons, I wanted to write a book that was anti-magical-cure, showing that it’s possible to have a loving, happy, wonderful life, even if your challenges look significantly different from those of your friends. My illness is fairly serious and has a profound impact on the shape of my husband’s and daughter’s lives, as well as my own. Because that’s my own reality, it felt natural to write about a family, like ours, who is also greatly impacted by disability. I wanted to explore the way that serious disability can impact a family, but also the way that disabled mothers still deeply love their children, even if their mothering may not always look like our traditional ideas of what mothering is.
Q: How did you go about researching paranoid schizophrenia, since there’s sadly so much misinformation and so many myths about schizophrenia? What did you learn that surprised you?
A: I spent a lot of time reading clinical papers on schizophrenia, its subtypes, and treatment protocols. I also sought out first-person accounts by people with schizophrenia (especially for what it feels like to experience delusions or have a break with reality), interviewed friends who had spent time in behavioral health hospitals, and had a number of different people read the novel to give expert advice—both parents who have dealt with schizophrenia or other severe mental illness, children who were raised by parents who had severe mental illness or experienced a break with reality, or who were both mentally ill themselves and the child of a mentally ill parent.
I knew that there was a lot of misinformation about what schizophrenia is and the kinds of symptoms that it creates, and I tried as much as possible to consult first-person narratives and medical sources for my information, and to make sure that I was reading things that had been published within the last few years, so as to get as much current accuracy as possible.
The most surprising fact that I uncovered in my research was the way that schizophrenia interacts with pregnancy. I did a lot of reading about when the onset of paranoid schizophrenia usually occurs in women, and because the character in my book is a mother, I also spent a lot of time researching how schizophrenia impacts reproduction, pregnancy, the postpartum period, and parenting.
Going into it, I had the idea that maybe Suzanne’s illness would have been triggered by her pregnancy—since pregnancy is so often a mentally and emotionally turbulent time for healthy women—but found while researching that for many women with schizophrenia, pregnancy is actually a time where symptoms are lessened, and it’s not until after the birth that postpartum hormones really interfere with symptom management. I found that really fascinating, and used it pretty heavily in the plot of my story, as well. (Though of course everyone is different, and there are definitely some women with severe mental illness who get worse during pregnancy.)
Q: Writing a book is no easy feat, and takes a lot of time, energy and effort. You’re also a mom who lives with chronic illness. What was your writing process like, and how did you carve out time and space to write?
A: I always laugh when people ask me how I can find time to write, parent, and manage my illness, because my illness is actually a huge part of how I started writing in the first place! I have cystic fibrosis, a genetic illness that affects the lungs, pancreas, and other organs. Because CF patients deal with constant lung infections and congestion, I spend about two hours a day doing breathing treatments as part of my disease maintenance (more when I’m sick!).
When I was a preteen, one of the ways that my parents would get me to sit and focus on my breathing treatments was by letting me use their computer to write stories. To this day, breathing treatment time is still when I get the most writing done! My “home office” looks a little unconventional, and involves a few more machines, as a result.
Parenting has also made me much more flexible and much more efficient. Because my daughter is young (only five) and doesn’t start regular school until this autumn, I’ve learned how to be able to take advantage of small chunks of time—when she’s playing happily, when she’s got a friend over, after she’s gone to bed at night. Sometimes I’ll even take my computer to the park and get some writing in while she plays.
The hardest thing about the balance has been learning how to juggle all the other things that come with the professional side of authorship: responding to emails, doing events, traveling, mentoring emerging writers. The biggest thing I’m having to learn is simply to live carefully and intentionally, making sure that if my plate is really full one week, I’ve got time to rest and recover the week after.
Q: What was the hardest part of writing Where The Watermelons Grow, and how did you navigate it?
A: My goal with this story was to tell an honest but disability-positive story, in which the disabled character is seen as fully human and their disability doesn’t need to be removed in order for them to have a full and happy life. However, since the story is told from Della’s perspective and not her mama’s, it was sometimes hard to balance the emotions that children of disabled parents often experience—including frustration and even resentment—with that positive portrayal of disability.
As I mentioned above, some of the sensitivity readers who I had read the manuscript in its early stages were both mentally ill and the children of mentally ill parents; that was really helpful, because they were able to speak from both of those perspectives at the same time.
Q: What are your go-to writing resources, whether they provide you with inspiration or instruction (or both)?
A: My favorite writing resources tend to be community-based. I’ve learned and grown so much from attending writing conferences (my favorite is the yearly Storymakers conference in Utah, but I also love the super-cheap entirely-online WriteOnCon, which is a goldmine of info!), as well as participating in the online writing community.
I was accepted into the online writing contest PitchWars in 2015, and have mentored in the contest for the years since then, and that community has really buoyed me up immensely through the ups and downs of my own writing journey!
I love reading author blogs to glean writing advice (K. M. Weiland and Robin LaFevers were two whose blogs I’ve spent a lot of time on!), too. But probably more than anything, the thing that keeps me inspired and excited about writing is reading widely in my genre. Often when I’m feeling unenthused or passionless, all I really need is a few days buried in a really good book and then my fire is lit again.
Q: Why do you write?
A: Writing has always been one of my very favorite ways to spend time, for as long as I can remember. I’ve actually had long periods in the past where I stopped writing because it was too hard, too stressful, or because I was too busy, but I’ve always ended up going back to it in the end!
For me, writing is a way to connect with the world around me, as well as to pass on some of the magic I’ve received myself from reading books I’ve loved. There is nothing quite as exciting to me as a blank page, or as exhilarating as writing “the end” on another book!
Q: What do you want readers to take away from Where The Watermelons Grow?
A: In so many ways, I wrote this book for two groups of children: children like the child I was, who desperately need to be reassured that their lives have worth, even if they don’t look like everyone else’s; and children like my daughter, who are growing up with moms who may not be able to do everything other moms can do, but love them no less for that. I hope, above all, that it’s a book that can help readers feel a little less alone.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?
A: That no matter what our bodies, our minds, or our struggles are like—and no matter how they might make us look different than those around us—our lives, too, are filled with value and beauty.
Cindy Baldwin is a fiction writer, essayist, poet, and author of the new middle grade book Where the Watermelons Grow. She grew up in North Carolina and still misses the sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. Where the Watermelons Grow is her debut novel. Learn more about Cindy at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com.