In 1979, 23-year-old Joe Guppy was struggling with a bad breakup and existential angst, but a few stomach pills drove him into paranoid psychosis… and straight into a mental ward. He shares his story in My Fluorescent God, a raw, often comic memoir that’s a powerful spiritual and psychological adventure. He’ll be reading from this newly published memoir at Elliott Bay Book Company at 7pm on September 13.
But first, we caught up with the Seattle native, an award-winning writer and performer turned psychotherapist turned author, who shared with us his struggles and successes on the road to publication, as well as some sage advice for aspiring authors.
Tell us about your path to publication.
I had had a lot of experience in journalism and writing for theater and television, but I had never written memoir before and knew nothing about the publishing business. My Fluorescent God was a “from the ground up” project. I was lucky to have deep archives for the project, all the medical records from my time in the mental hospital, my own and my mother’s thirty-year-old journals, even a taped interview from 1979 with my psychiatrist and some fellow patients. But I not only had to write the memoir, but also learn how to write a memoir. When it came time to seek a publisher, Jen & Kerry’s class showed me how to get a book proposal together. I started out with the traditional route, discovered Query Tracker, and collected plenty of agent rejections. I ended up landing with a local independent Seattle publisher, Booktrope. It’s definitely not self-publishing but I have had to do more work on the publishing side than a mainstream author. The trade-off is I’ve had a lot more control. As a control freak, I like that. I am very pleased with the quality of the finished product.
Why were you inspired to write this book?
This 1979 journey through delusional psychosis was the most traumatic and most meaningful event of my young adulthood. As a writer, I had known from the moment I recovered that I wanted to write about it someday. I didn’t know it would take me thirty years to get to the project or that the experience of writing it would be so personal and profound.
What professional services did you seek out in the process?
My cover designer had designed the Joe and Nancy Guppy annual comedic Christmas cards for years. I didn’t know if he’d be right for this more serious subject matter, but he nailed it on his first attempt. I love the cover. I’ve worked with two different editors, a couple years apart. The first editor, who had written her own terrific memoir, functioned more as a teacher. By the time I got the second editor, Seattle’s own Karin Snelson, I was able to collaborate head to head. We got into some wonderful and intense literary struggles, which resulted in the book being the lean, crisp, page-turner it turned out to be. Jen & Kerry started me on my road to publishing. The book proposal, and the ability to think in marketing terms—which came out of their class—was crucial.
What surprised you during the publishing process?
The amount of detail work in book design. Page headers, table of contents, placement of graphics, font choice. It’s seemingly never-ending. I’ll never look at books the same way again.
What’s been the best moment/aspect about getting published?
The reaction from readers. The most common comment is that the narrative draws the reader deep into the mind and the experience of a mentally ill person. And people often add that, while my story is fairly extreme, all humans have been there to some degree, and we all fear falling into that place of insanity. Above all, I want to engender more empathy and understanding for mental illness. No one should be dismissed or ignored as “crazy.”
What one piece of advice would you offer to burgeoning authors?
You need to be a bulldog. A bulldog with wings.
What’s next for you?
My wife Nancy and I have a project going, a comedic look at long-term marriage. Right now, I’m too swamped in marketing My Fluorescent God to think much about that.
Look for interviews with Joe later this month on KUOW-FM, on the Seattle Channel’s Seattle Voices with Eric Liu, and on KING-TV’s New Day Northwest. He’ll be speaking at the “Psychology for the Other” conference at Seattle University the weekend of November 7th. Read more about Joe and Nancy in this Seattle Magazine article.