Longtime publicist Lizzy Mason knows all about promoting other people’s books, but this February marks her debut as a YA author. The Art of Losing is a novel about addiction, finding yourself, finding confidence, and finding love. Mason spoke with PW about what it’s like to be on the other side of the publishing process, and her hope that being honest about her own issues can help struggling teens.
Did you always want to write, or was that an interest that grew as you worked in publishing?
I always wanted to write a novel, but in my early 20s, I didn’t have much experience being an adult or much to write about. I started in publishing in 2003, and YA wasn’t what it is now. When it started taking off and I started reading it, I thought, “This is amazing; this is what I want to write.” I’d been a teenager; I knew about that. The Art of Losing was my fourth attempt.
What were you writing initially, and what was the process of writing this book?
I started by writing fantasy, which was what I was reading at the time. Then I wrote a paranormal story, which got me an agent, but it didn’t sell. Book three was sci-fi, but it wasn’t going well. Eventually I thought, “Okay, I love reading contemporary YA, so I’ll try that.” I wrote what became the first scene for this book—although I thought I was writing something else—when I found out my then-boyfriend had cheated on me. That evolved into the scene in which Harley walks in on her boyfriend with her sister Audrey. At the time, I was ashamed that my boyfriend had cheated, but then I realized it was his failing, not mine, and I wanted to write that into the book. I’m sure a lot of people feel those feelings.
My boyfriend and I broke up in 2012, and that same year, my mother called to tell me that a friend of mine had died: he was just 24, and he drank and took drugs and didn’t wake up the next day. That story brought back my teenage years: memories of drinking and doing dangerous things and thinking you’re immortal. Those events were the origin of the cheating and addiction story lines. It was a difficult period in my life, and there were times I wasn’t writing, but in 2015 I came back to the story and really began working on it.
In the book’s afterword, you talk about your struggles with addiction as a teenager: was it difficult to write about that?
Early in my career, I couldn’t talk about addiction issues: I was trying to build my name, to be a professional. At this point, though, I’ve been sober a long time; I’ve been dealing with this issue for more than 20 years. I’m more confident, and I’ve proven myself to be responsible: I’m not going to show up to the office drunk. If I can be a resource for teens, that’s what’s important to me: if the book helps someone figure out how to talk about their issues or those of someone they love, that would be amazing.
The protagonist, Harley, isn’t the one with the drinking problem, but she struggles with sibling rivalry and with self-confidence. How did those plot lines come about?
The idea that a person could be confident as a child and lose confidence over time felt real to me. Harley is a lot like me, actually. She’s the older sister, but I’m the younger one—my sister and I are just 21 months apart—and I envied my sister so much. I wanted to be just like her. At the same time, a lot of the way I defined myself was against how my sister was. Audrey compares herself to Harley and thinks less of herself, partly because of how Harley thinks of her: it was so hard to write the scenes where Harley is mean to Audrey!
Have there been any surprises as you’ve gone from publicizing other people’s books to having your own book to promote?
I feel like I owe my writers an apology for telling them to do self-promotion—an apology, and maybe some chocolate. It’s really uncomfortable asking people to buy your book. I know what to do; I understand the system, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable asking for favors, calling up booksellers, that kind of thing. People have been wonderful, but it’s hard to ask for help.
You don’t just have a novel out—you’ve also just made a big career change. Can you tell us about it?
I’ve left Bloomsbury Children’s Books, where I was publicity director for five years, to move to Page Street Publishing in Salem, Mass., where I’ll be director of marketing and publicity. Page Street initially published mainly lifestyle and wellness books, and it’s grown organically into other areas and is now publishing picture books and YA. It’s exciting to be working with so many debut authors—we have that in common, which I think really helps. I’ll also be doing more marketing in this job, mainly to schools and libraries. Librarians and teachers are so enthusiastic; it’s great pitching books and authors to people who love them.
How does it feel to be leaving New York City?
I’ve been in New York for 20 years, and I was ready for some place a little easier. I’m excited about being able to drive somewhere. My husband was born in Flushing, so I thought it would be a hard sell, but it turned out not to be.
What’s next on the writing front?
My second book is scheduled to come out in fall 2020, also from Soho. It’s about a girl who’s just finished high school when she finds out that her father is schizophrenic and homeless. Curious about him, and worried that she could develop the illness, she tries to find him. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder as a teenager and struggled to manage it. Until my early 20s, I was reluctant to be on antidepressants, but they turned out to be life-changing. But more serious mental illnesses run in my family, and I wonder how I’d have handled that, and whether I’d have been willing to take medication. Alzheimer’s also runs in my family, and that’s a concern I’ll live with the rest of my life. That worry is partly what inspired the new book, Between the Bliss and Me.
I teach a writing class for men in transitional housing: they’ve been living on the streets and are waiting to move into housing. The father figure in the book was shaped by some of them. Teaching these men is actually the thing in New York I’m saddest to leave. I hope to do something similar in Salem, and if there isn’t a program like that there, maybe I can start one. I could go on at length about how our society has failed the mentally ill, how they’ve been mistreated and ignored, so the book will give me a chance to share some of that history and talk about present-day concerns.
The Art of Losing by Lizzy Mason. Soho Teen, $18.99 Feb. 19 ISBN 978-1-61695-987-6