At an age when most of us were still trying to answer difficult questions like "What should I major in?" or "Do I, like, have to wear pants?", Francesca Zappia was already an agented author with a timely, critically acclaimed YA novel on the way.
And today, just weeks after graduating from college, Zappia's debut book "Made You Up" is making serious waves in the literary world -- including some recognition from a certain well-known native of her hometown Indianapolis. (*Cough*John Green*cough.*)
MTV News caught up with the author up to chat about getting a book deal before a college diploma, why mental illness is such an important topic for YA fiction, and what it's like to get a shout-out from your idol on Twitter.
MTV News: Your novel is getting a lot of attention. How would you describe it to our readers?
Zappia: "Made You Up" is about a girl in high school with paranoid schizophrenia. She's just trying to get through her senior year, and she's trying to keep her illness hidden from everyone in school, while also dealing with medication and therapy, as well as her own coping methods. But there's something going on at her school -- and if it's really going on, she needs to tell someone, but if she's hallucinating it and she tells somebody, she'd probably be put in a mental hospital.
MTV: Why paranoid schizophrenia, as opposed to some other mental illness?
Zappia: I had seen it in movies and on TV, which tend to show paranoid schizophrenia as really dark and dangerous. People who have it are villains, bad people, or they're always trying to kill someobody.
MTV: It's definitely used as sort of a catch-all for explaining evil motivations.
Zappia: But a lot of paranoid schizophrenics function in daily life. They're not murderers, they're not all in mental hospitals. And especially in a YA novel, I felt that viewpoint was important for teenagers to see.
MTV: So you wanted to present a more nuanced, realistic view of someone living with the disease.
Zappia: There are dark and scary parts in the book, because for the person who has it, paranoid schizophrenia can be dark and scary. But it's something my character deals with while also doing a lot of the things a normal girl in high school would do.
MTV: Speaking of high school, you've been working on this book since you were quite young.
Zappia: I started writing the original draft in fifth grade, but the book in its current form started coming together when I was a I freshman in high school. I wrote and rewrote it throughout high school, and for the first year of college.
MTV: So this has been pretty much a lifelong process for you. How long have you known that you wanted to be a writer?
Zappia: I've been writing since I was 8, but I didn't realize that being an author was something you could do until I was 15. I started looking for an agent then, and I looked all through high school. I found my agent the summer after my freshman year of college -- her intern had read my book and sent it to her -- and a couple months after that, I signed a contract with Harper Collins.
MTV: What was it like trying to land an agent while you were still in high school? Did you get any encouragement?
Zappia: I never put my age in my query letters, which-- I've heard of other teenage writers getting positive feedback when they mention their age, because agents want to encourage young writers. But I mostly got stock responses.
MTV: So what kind of response did you get when your agent realized how young you actually were?
Zappia: I'm trying to remember exactly how the conversation went! She asked me how old I was -- I was 19 at the time -- and I think she was just really excited, because she's really into building careers and I have my whole life ahead of me.
MTV: And you've already got some big things happening, career-wise. That shoutout for you and your book from John Green: what was that like?
Zappia: It was really cool. I was sitting in my living room, talking to my dad, and notifications were popping up every time I got a tweet, and one popped up that said "John Green" at the top. And I was like, that's not real, whatever, and just looked away. [Laughs.] Then I realized later: That was real! That was actually him! So that was very cool, I did not expect that at all.
MTV: You're also really on the cusp of -- I don't want to say it's a hot trend, which makes it sound frivolous, but mental illness as a topic is something we're seeing a lot of in YA right now.
Zappia: I think people have begun to realize that it's really something we need to pay attention to. Things like school shootings, the gun control debate, have brought it more to the forefront of people's minds. And I think YA especially does a good job of capturing what people are thinking about right now, what teenagers are faced with right now. You can see on Tumblr, like in Tumblr's activist community, that this is something people are talking about.
MTV: As a person who's in that YA demographic, is that something you encounter a lot, or something you see your friends dealing with?
Zappia: I think more recently, yes, because people are talking about it. I know more and more people who are comfortable being like, "I see a therapist," or "I might need to." And because everyone is talking about mental illness and trying to break down the stigma surrounding it, I think in the past few years it's definitely become more prevalent. People used to think of it as a weakness.
MTV: But now it's more seen as an act of strength, an act of courage, to talk about it?
Zappia: Exactly. I think people realize now that you're not wrong, and you're not alone. And if you talk about it at all, there are people out there who will help you get through it.
Francesca Zappia's debut novel, "Made You Up," can be found in bookstores and online.