No stranger to difficult things, Kathleen Glasgow’s books about self-harm, drug addiction and grief all stem from her own personal experiences. The result? Novels that take you on an emotional rollercoaster and break your heart, all whilst providing the equal hope of rebuilding it. And it’s the vulnerability behind her writing which has helped propel her debut novel back to the top of the New York Times best sellers list, six years after its publication.
Before transitioning into the world of best sellers, Kathleen never planned to write about scars or mental health. As she put it, “no one wants to hear that story”, but everything changed for her on a bus ride to work.
Kathleen, then in her late twenties, was on the morning commute to her coordinator role for the creative writing course at The University of Minnesota, when she noticed the girl who sat next to her had scars on her arms: “When she saw me looking she pulled down her sleeves.
“I was so shocked because I couldn’t believe she was so openly showing what I had been hiding for years. I wish I’d told her that she wasn’t alone before she got off the bus. And that’s why I wanted to write Girl in Pieces – because if you’re struggling with something, someone else will be too.”
Described as “an intimate and gritty novel offering a realistic view into what it’s like to self-harm” the book chronicles 17-year-old protagonist Charlie Davis’ struggle with mental health, as she embarks on a journey to put herself back together again after a suicide attempt.
“I was pretty sure the book would never be published so I went hard and let everything out in the character of Charlie. She shares my physical scars and feelings, but her story is her own.”
The book made Kathleen, now 54, a best selling author almost instantly after its release in 2016 and remained in the charts for six weeks: “I didn’t ever expect to be a bestseller, I just wanted to write.
“I started writing poetry and then I tried my hand at the book. I never thought about what would possibly come after – I just wanted to write a good book about hard things. It took me nine years but I didn’t have any idea how to write a novel when I started. I wrote it for me, and for the story, so I didn’t have a timeline. I just let things unfold.”
Girl in Pieces soared back to the number one spot of the New York Times list of young adult best sellers in December 2022 and January 2023, after its surge in popularity on ‘BookTok’.
“I found out when I was on my own on the sofa at home and I was so shocked and stunned. I did manage to have a little celebration – by cleaning my house and having some cake.
“My childhood was full of anxiety and depression and that transitioned with me into adulthood. I thought there was something wrong with me and I couldn’t understand why other people seemed so ‘normal’. I was so anxious that I tried to make myself smaller and smaller through self-harm.
“But writing helped me to overcome that and I realised anxiety is not a flaw, it’s a feeling. I have and always will have anxiety. It’s something that is a part of me.”
Books have been a powerful tool in helping Kathleen to escape her feelings of anxiety: “Reading has always been an adventure and solace for me. There’s nothing more comforting or pleasurable than losing yourself to a story.
“I like to write my way through things by creating fictional worlds; I do truly believe that art and creativity can alleviate some things that tug at us. They can’t solve our issues, but they can bring things into manageable focus sometimes.”
And fans of the novel will be happy to know that a sequel could be on the cards: “I would never rule it out, I will always keep the door open for Charlie.”
Whilst she didn’t always dream of being a best selling author, Kathleen’s love of books started at a young age: “I was a reader very early on, following the lead of my mother who was a fan of mystery and historical fiction.
“The biggest impact my childhood had on me was books – wanting to lose myself in them and then dreaming that I could be the person who wrote stories that other people could then lose themselves in.”
Kathleen lives in Tucson, Arizona where she grew up. And to say her household is busy would be an understatement – shared with her children, two dogs, two cats, two tree frogs, and a bearded dragon named Bacon, Kathleen escapes the mayhem in what she calls “the lego room.”
She said: “It used to be my office but the kids have completely taken it over, hence the re-naming!”
And it’s there that Kathleen pencils the hard-hitting books she’s renowned for, inspired by her personal experiences with mental health and addiction: “These things have all been part of my life and it feels natural to write about and explore them.”
And that’s exactly what she did when writing her second novel, How To Make Friends With The Dark. Released in 2019, the book is a tale about grief, family and the love that can pull you through the darkest of times, as a teen’s life is overturned when her mother dies and she’s sent to a foster home: “I lost my mother and my sister. Grief is always with me. I wanted to explore that in a fictional world.”
Her struggles with self-harm and grief were also interlocked with drug addiction – a battle which inspired Kathleen to write and subsequently release her third novel, You’d Be Home Now, in September 2021.
The book centres on Emmy; ‘the good sibling’ desperately trying to protect her brother Joey who’s just come out of rehab, whilst wrestling with her own school life and the popularity of her beautiful sister Maddie – all under the watch of strict parents.
Kathleen, who has been in recovery for 13 years, said: “I thought about my own experiences when writing about Joey.
“Recovery is painful, it’s lonely and there are days when I feel like I can’t go on anymore. But I do. I keep walking toward the future, whatever it may be.
“Addiction is a public health crisis; it’s also a crisis that touches each one of us.”
She wanted Emmy to convey the sense of invisibility that a child often feels when their sibling is struggling with drug addiction: “We all have personal experience with addiction, a family member, ourselves, members of our community.
“The collateral damage of addiction is mental health – not only for the person trying to recover, but for those that surround them; that’s where the character of Emmy comes in.
“We need to change the conversation surrounding addiction from one which puts blame on the person, or accuses them of being weak, to one of empathy, compassion and care.”
And Kathleen isn’t worried that writing books about such sensitive topics could leave her open to criticism: “When you read, watch a movie, or listen to a piece of music, you bring your own life experiences to that moment. That moment might touch you deeply or perhaps not; that’s the beauty of art.
“One person receives a particular feeling, another person receives a different feeling. Addiction isn’t one thing; it’s many, so reactions to its portrayal will vary. I tried to be honest toward the story I was telling.”
Luckily, Kathleen has been commended for how well she portrayed the issue and its impact on families, with author Amy Beaschal praising it as “an unflinching tale of addiction.”
Kathleen said: “Addiction and the experiences of it is not one size fits all, so I’m pleased when people see facets of their experiences reflected in the book.”
But why is a young adult author even writing about such serious issues? Kathleen explained she recognises how she would have benefited from reading books about “people like her” when she was younger: “We don’t need to make young adults aware of the issues I write about – they already know and live with them everyday.
“Sometimes we don’t know how to put our experiences into words and reading a novel about things that we are experiencing in real life, but don’t know how to talk about, can be a comfort. The character’s experiences may mirror our own and provide us a language to express how we’re feeling.”
In addition to her solo success, Kathleen has turned her hand to co-writing. Kathleen and Liz Lawson released mystery thriller The Agathas in May last year, with sequel The Night in Question set to be released in June 2023.
Kathleen is also currently writing her next solo book, which will be released in 2024: “Without giving too much away, it’s about a girl who is overwhelmed with everything.”
If you’re struggling with the issues mentioned, help is available from the Samaritans.
Kathleen is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Pieces, You’d Be Home Now, and How to Make Friends With the Dark. Alongside Liz Lawson, she’s the coauthor of the bestselling mystery series, The Agathas and The Night in Question. Her books have been published in more than 30 countries.
Yasmin is a third year journalism student at The University of Sheffield, specialising in feature writing. She has previously written for the Sheffield Tribune and women’s magazine Pick Me Up! She is particularly interested in how mental health issues are portrayed in fiction.
Favourite genres: Romance, Crime and Thrillers.