You Are Stronger Than You Think: An Interview With Marya Hornbacher

Marya Horbacher is an award-winning journalist and bestselling novelist that became a Pulitzer Prize nominee at 23 years old. She's written Madness and The Center of Winter, both fictional novels, and two self-help books: Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps and Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power. In this interview, Marya gives youth advice on how to deal with mental disorders, finding authenticity in writing, and overcoming the fear of exposing one’s personal life. Interview by Dvita Kapadia. 

Lithium: Most of your pieces such as Wasted, Madness, and The Center of Winter discuss coping with mental disorders. What advice would you give to youth struggling with mental disorders? What advice would you give to friends of people dealing with mental disorders?
Marya: The most important thing I can say to young people is that they are stronger than they think. It’s critical for them—and for their friends and family—to recognize that struggle gives rise to enormous strength. They need to find that strength in themselves and share it. Their voices and stories are of enormous value, and I urge them to remember that.

Lithium: When Wasted was released, the attention given to eating disorders was far different than it is now. Do you think that the present approach to preventing, treating and recognizing eating disorders has changed? If so, how?
Marya: I do not honestly think that the majority approach to eating disorders, in terms of prevention and treatment, is appreciably better than it was in 1998. There is still an overwhelming amount of ignorance and misperception wrapped up in how we look at eating disorders and try to assist the people who have them, at both a clinical level and a public one. However, one key difference I see is that more people now are aware that full recovery is possible. The refusal to believe in recovery was a mainstay of eating disorders research for decades. Now, there are forward-thinking treatment providers who are willing and able to spread the awareness that recovery is a reality and that it is something we can obtain.

Lithium: Many believe that while the awareness of mental disorders is beneficial, youth are now “romanticizing” mental disorders through social media and poetry. What is your approach towards that kind of glorification?
Marya: I hate to say it, but youth have always romanticized the darker corners of the human heart and mind. Look at the Romantic poets—the literal source of much of this romanticization—many of whom wrote their poetry before the age of 25. The perception that “madness” coexists with “genius” and that “genius” must be “tortured” is of course completely absurd, but it is also persistent. Social media plays a terribly destructive role by encouraging this perception and creating a very public forum in which to engage with the actually—not beautifully—tragic nature of a very self-destructive age. I would urge youth to stay away from people and forums where that belief, and others like it, are perpetuated.  

Lithium: Madness and Wasted are memoirs of your struggle. Were you scared to reveal the personal information in these books? How did you overcome this fear? What are some methods that aspiring creative nonfiction writers can overcome the fear of revealing the truth?
Marya: Yes, those memoirs were very personal accounts. I was less scared than you might think, for the simple reason that a writer is not the same person as the character in her book. While four of my books are nonfiction and their contents are the plain facts, people who read the books do not know me personally. They know some details about my past, but they do not know my present experience or who I am; they know my writing style. More importantly, those books—like all memoirs—focus on one aspect of my life, one singular time plucked from the whole morass of human experience. So the books, while they contain information many people would want to keep secret, do not expose my personal life today. 

Lithium: Are there things you left out of your work? If you are comfortable with doing so, could you share a story you didn’t include in your work?
Marya: There are millions of stories left out, most of which have nothing to do with mental health or addiction. For example, today I got up, walked the dogs, put on a suit, and went to work at a university. Nothing dramatic, nothing risqué. Later tonight I will teach a class, and then I will work on my new book. My life is full of stories like that.

Lithium: Most writing comes down to being inspired and finding new perspectives. How long does it take for you to write a book? How do you suggest that young writers overcome 'writer’s block' and find authenticity?
Marya: I hold with those who believe writing comes down to finding inspiration in the tiny details of the world, and also those who believe that writing is more perspiration than inspiration. New perspectives are essential, you are so right. Books take me a very long time or not very long at all. It depends entirely on the book. For example, one of the books I’m working on right now has been underway for five years, and it isn’t done. Another one has been in process for a year, and it’s almost done. I can’t account for it. For new or young writers, the most important thing in finding authenticity is to stop trying to sound like someone else. Sound like yourself. You are enough and you rock. Writer’s block—well, the cure for that is simply to write awful work until the good work comes.

Lithium: Another essential aspect of writing is creating a voice. How did you create your voice in your books? Do you think it was easier in nonfiction than in fiction?
Marya: I don’t think any two books of mine have the same voice. The voice is the voice of a given work, more than it is the voice of the author. While there are strains of voice that can be heard in much of my work, my essays are in a completely different voice than my memoirs, and of course my articles sound nothing like my fiction. Finding the right voice for a work is a tricky thing, mostly trial and error. I find it easier in fiction.

Lithium: If there was one thing in any of your books you could go back and rewrite, what would it be and why?
Marya: I would not write Wasted today. The culture is too saturated with obsession, sickness, and self-destruction. The only valuable thing about that book in today’s context is the 2014 afterword, in which I talk about recovery as both an individual necessity and a social responsibility. 

Lithium: Are you writing anything new?

Marya: I am in the process of researching a book on the state of American mental health and health care, and I am completing a collection of essays about women and solitude.


  1. Madness is a memoir. Not a fictional novel as you describe it.

    1. Oops.. I mistyped on that one I think! Throughout the interview it is referred to as a memoir though, so I think I just messed up..oops

  2. even as an interview, this was really thought provoking