An Interview with McCall Hoyle, Author of The Thing with Feathers

McCall Hoyle is an award-winning author of who tackles illness and YA romance with her new novel, The Thing with Feathers.

Sixteen-year-old Emilie Day is not like the other girls from her town on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She has epilepsy, homeschooled, and would rather be reading classic literature than be the center of attention. Ever since her father’s death and her diagnosis, risk has not been in Emilie’s vocabulary. Unfortunately, all the safety she’s built for herself is about to be stripped away when, on her doctor’s recommendation, Emilie is sentenced to spend her junior year at North Ridge High School.

Fueled by frustration, Emilie doesn’t plan to stay…or tell anyone about her epilepsy. But Emilie isn’t banking on meeting new friends or getting to know the handsome and charming Chatham York. And she definitely isn’t counting on falling for him when they’re paired up to do a research project on Emily Dickinson. Chatham challenges Emilie to face her fears—but he doesn’t know what she dreads most is a public grand mal seizure.

Hoyle’s book comes out in time for National Bullying Prevention Month in October and National Epilepsy Awareness Month in November. Read on for an interview.

Q. What inspired you to write The Thing with Feathers?

A. As a teacher and mom, I observe so many teenage girls hiding their true selves from their peers. So I wanted to write a hopeful story about a girl learning to a accept herself for who she was. I taught a student whose family was greatly impacted by her sister’s epilepsy and learned about the unique challenges of living with a covert disability that isn’t immediately visible to strangers and acquaintances. I also love dogs. By chance, my family inherited a golden retriever who was bred to do service work. The dog was more human than many humans. I began working with this amazing dog training him for agility and obedience.

I became fascinated by golden retrievers and assistant dogs and did a tremendous amount of research and reading about service dogs and the people they love. I was especially intrigued by seizure alert dogs as seizure alerting cannot truly be taught and is greatly affected by the bond between the owner and dog. I knew I had to write a story about a girl with epilepsy learning to love herself unconditionally the way her golden retriever did.

Q. What is behind the title?

A. The title is a line from a well-known Emily Dickinson poem. She writes: “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers; that perches in the soul; “ When the title came to me, I knew it was perfect. Everything about this book and about Emilie, the main character, is about learning to find hope even in the most difficult circumstances. And reading poetry and studying Emily Dickinson have a major impact on Emilie’s emotional arc in this story. Thankfully, my agent, editor, and publisher also agreed the title was perfect. I don’t personally think a title is going to make or break a book, but I love a nice title—especially one that’s somehow connected to the theme of the book and that readers have to uncover the meaning of for themselves. And I think this title does just that.

Q. As a writer, was it difficult to combine romantic elements with the exploration of Emilie’s condition?

A. This is an excellent question. First, I wanted this to be Emilie’s story. I wanted it to be a story of strength and resilience and hope. I did not want the romance to overshadow Emilie’s emotional growth. But in my experience, relationships are a central part of who we are. We’re constantly starting, developing, and ending relationships. Emilie’s story is about opening up, taking risks, and learning to hope. Taking a risk on friendship and first love were a natural part of her growth as a human being. I feel like it worked. Epilepsy is a big part of Emilie’s life, but it’s not her entire life. She’s a perfectly average teenage girl. Yes, she has epilepsy, but she’s also dealing with all the things teenage girls deal with including boys.

Q. Do you feel like your book depicts a pretty realistic view of what life is like for a teen with an illness or a disability?

A. I’ve taught middle school and high school for twelve years. I’ve raised a teenage daughter, and I was a teenage girl. On an average day, I spend more time with teenagers than with adults. Also, I experienced some of the greatest trials of my life during my teenage years. It’s actually frighteningly easy for me to put myself in the mindset of teenage girls. So I feel really confident about the teenage girl part.

As far as living with epilepsy is concerned, I interviewed several students who either have epilepsy or love someone with epilepsy. I also did lots and lots of research and had several parents of children with epilepsy read the book. Because there are so many types of epilepsy and types of seizures, almost everyone who has epilepsy has a unique story.

Emilie struggles with managing the challenges of her epilepsy and her seizures, but in my experience, most teenage girls are struggling. When I write, whether it’s about a girl with epilepsy, or a girl struggling with grief, or a girl struggling with body image issues, I try to tap into the emotions I’ve experienced in similar situations and write from those emotions. And above all, I aim for honesty. I want teenage girls to know that no matter how flawed they feel, there is a place for all of us. And there is always room to hope.

Q. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing Emilie’s story? Any interesting facts that you found out in your research?

A. As I said, I’ve been fascinated with service dogs for years and have worked with students with epilepsy and their families for years. I also mentioned Emily Dickinson’s poetry plays a central role in the book and in my main character’s emotional development.

Emilie, the protagonist of The Thing with Feathers, must complete a research project on Emily Dickinson for her English class. I’m an American Literature teacher and thought I knew a lot of the basics about Dickinson as a reclusive poet, but I still needed to verify things like when she died, where she went to school, etc. In the process, I came across a biography published in 2011 that hypothesized based on several poetry references that she suffered from a disability of her own and went on to explain that the disability could very possibly have been epilepsy or some type of seizure disorder.

I don’t think anyone will ever be able to confirm this one way or another, but it certainly added to the already growing connection between Emily the poet and Emilie my main character.

Q. How you do think this book will open dialogue among teens about mental health and disability awareness?

A. I hope that The Thing with Feathers will open dialogue concerning the invisible and covert nature of mental health issues and a wide variety of other illnesses. Mostly, I want teenagers to realize that growing up can be really painful but really beautiful as well. I want all of us to remember that just because someone doesn’t wear an illness, or disability, or emotional wound on the outside doesn’t mean she isn’t carrying one on the inside. Mostly, I wish we would all learn to be a little gentler and kinder with one another and with ourselves.

Q. What are you working on next?

A. I love the Outer Banks setting of The Thing with Feathers and am working on another book that takes place on the ruggedly beautiful barrier islands of North Carolina. In this story, two teenagers with very different outlooks on life, and death, and love are trapped on the islands, cut off from the rest of the world in the face of an oncoming hurricane and have to learn to put their differences aside in order to survive.

You can buy The Thing with Feathers here.

McCall Hoyle writes honest YA novels about friendship, first love, and girls finding the strength to overcome great challenges. She is a middle school language arts teacher. Her own less-than-perfect teenage experiences and those of the girls she teaches inspire many of the struggles in her books. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s spending time with her family and their odd assortment of pets—a food-obsessed beagle, a grumpy rescue cat, and a three-and-a-half-legged kitten. She has an English degree from Columbia College and a master’s degree from Georgia State University. She lives in a cottage in the woods in North Georgia where she reads and writes every day.

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