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Novelist mines her experience with mental illness to craft a psychological thriller for UNO Press | Books

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Writer Amy Crider never had any connection to New Orleans until lightning struck twice within six months.

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The first-time novelist submitted her manuscript last year for the University of New Orleans’ $10,000 international Lab Prize. Graduate students in a UNO publishing class combed through more than 900 submissions and selected Crider’s novel “Disorder” as the winner. Then, in spring, she won the 2021 Tennessee Williams One-Act Play Contest for a work called “Fourteen.”

Crider is a native of New York and a playwright in Chicago, where she’s lived for 20 years. Her novel had been languishing for a decade and a half among literary agencies all over the country, rejected more than 100 times. For Crider, diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features when she was just 28 and treated successfully for decades now, it seemed her idea for a psychological thriller in which the main character has a mental illness just wasn’t connecting with literary agents.

“A few years into my diagnosis, as I was experiencing more and more paranoid mania, I mused in one of my lucid moments that it was a good thing I wasn’t involved in a murder investigation, since my grip on reality was tenuous,” Crider said. “But I knew then that this entire concept was something I wanted to write about, so my murder mystery began to take shape.”

From the moment the novel begins, main character Wendy Zemansky, a graduate student at an upstate New York college, warns the reader that she’s not really an “unreliable” narrator (but doesn’t say she’s reliable either) because after all, she notes, how reliable is anyone — since we all see things through our own narrow windows?

The lens through which Wendy views the world can be tainted by manic episodes, delusions and crippling paranoia. So, for the next 300 pages, the reader is taken on a wild ride, constantly wondering whether details of a missing roommate, a dead girl found buried on a snowy highway, or the motivations of everyone, from the cops and boyfriends to college professors, are real accounts of events — or merely the imaginings of a person with a diagnosed mental illness.

The graduate students in the UNO publishing class found the premise enticing, said Abram Himelstein, professor and editor-in-chief of UNO Press. The grad students’ job was to comb through more than 900 manuscript submissions, with some novels never making it past page 10. It’s a process referred to these days by many screenwriters as the “Netflix effect.” Writers must grab the viewers’ attention very quickly, or those watching will change the channel. These sentiments have taught writers today that grasping the reader by the throat immediately is critical.

Unknown authors in particular need to draw people in from the get-go, Himelstein said. And in Crider’s novel, that happened.

“In the case of ‘Disorder,’ you’re pulled in immediately to an environment which most of us have no knowledge of,” the professor said. “It was a gift to be drawn into this world of bipolar disorder. To touch something so sublime was truly a thrill.”

The process of finding the winning novel for the UNO Lab Prize is painstaking. Each submission must be looked at by at least two people initially — although they are not required to finish the book if it hasn’t adequately compelled them. Books that pass the test are forwarded on to the next batch of readers for further scrutiny.

Jillian Borukhovich, who is working on her master of fine arts in creative writing with a focus on fiction, received “Disorder” in the second round.

“I was required to read 30 pages at this juncture,” Borukhovich said. “But I ended up breezing through the whole book in just a couple of sittings. Apart from great writing, I totally connected with the focus on mental health and thought it had a really good representation of bipolar disorder, which is an important story to tell. This should be a note to all authors that if your work is being rejected, perhaps it just hasn’t found the right home yet.”

The contest has now been presented with an embarrassment of riches in terms of quality manuscripts. Himelstein noted that one of the recent submissions to UNO which didn’t win, Tomasz Jedrowski’s “Swimming in the Dark,” was recently hailed by The New Yorker.

UNO Press has just published “Disorder,” and Crider will begin a press tour after the first of the year. In the meantime, she’s worked on a second novel which she says is short, at 53,000 words. (She noted “The Great Gatsby” was only 47,000 words.) The UNO prize money will go toward funding the production of one of her plays.

There’s nothing glamorous about mental illness, but it can provide insights into situations which escape most of us. In an op-ed Crider wrote for The Chicago Tribune, published over the Thanksgiving weekend, she mused that “A Christmas Carol” is a case in point. Crider believes that Scrooge was never afraid of dying, but was instead mortified that he could never redeem himself for all he’d done wrong if he died too soon. But as Crider knows, there’s redemption and joy in the knowledge that one can always start over.

Email Leslie Cardé at lesliecardejournalist@gmail.com.

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