New York Times bestselling author, Chris Bohjalian, writes that Sonja Yoerg’s All the Best People contains “Not just the best people, but real people: authentic, quirky and troubled. I cared for them all." I couldn’t have said it better. Yoerg immerses us in family in crisis; instead of looking away, we become invested in their journey through love and healing.
All the Best People presents an unflinching look at mental illness. What do you hope people take away from this honest portrayal?
Mental illness is so prevalent that it is part of the fabric of our lives. We can choose to ignore it or downplay it, but that means turning our backs on real suffering. My job as a writer is to shine light into dark corners; the process helps me understand how people cope with the tragedies that befall them, how their humanity both trips them up and lifts them higher. Mental illness, such as the schizophrenia afflicting the main character in this book, is a very dark corner. I hope the story will foster compassion both for the mentally ill and for those whose lives are bound to them.
The word grace comes up a lot from people reading your novel. How would you define grace? Where does it come from?
The word has a specific meaning in Christianity but I think of it as the internal equivalent of physical grace, a kind of balanced and sensitive way of moving through life. A graceful person does more than avoid doing damage; their actions are beautiful, responsive and apt. Life can come at you fast and is notoriously unfair, so maintaining grace isn’t easy. While some people are naturally more in tune with other people’s feelings, I firmly believe becoming less of an emotional klutz is something we can all work on.
I know that you have lived in California and now make your home and beautiful garden in Virginia. Tell me about your connection to Vermont and why you choose to set this novel there.
We chose to move to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in part because the area resembles Vermont, my home state. It was a wonderful place to be a child and reliving those experiences while writing this book was a distinct pleasure. The story begins in 1972 when Alison, whose mother has schizophrenia, is eleven-year-old. That makes Alison and me the same age and although Alison’s story is her own, I identify with her strongly. Throughout the book, I use my knowledge of small town Vermont and my interest in the state’s history as a secure scaffold for telling this family’s saga.
What do you learn about living and loving yourself from writing?
Looks like we are circling back around to the idea of grace. Digging deeply into the characters’ lives—rummaging around in their heads—has made me more empathetic and also more scrupulous about importance of honesty. On the downside, writing is a tough gig and with all the self-promotion required of authors, I often want to run screaming into the wilderness where tweeting is something only birds do. It’s hard to find the right balance between writing as an enriching, creative process and writing as a business, so I suppose my most significant discovery is that finding grace is a process. I’m working on it!
This article first appeared on Women Writers, Women’s Books.