Abbey Lee Nash’s debut young adult novel Lifeline is about Eli Ross, a boy whose senior year is upended when he accidentally overdoses at a party. Although he’s resuscitated, the jig is up. There are no more opportunities to ignore his stepfather, lie to his mother, or downplay his drug use to his girlfriend…and his reign as a lacrosse champ is over. Everybody but Eli can see how far down the rabbit hole he is. He begrudgingly goes to rehab where he is forced to confront the demons his picture-perfect life covered up. Abbey Lee Nash was kind enough to answer some questions for us about her new book.
Mary Sullivan: Lifeline is about a teen struggling with addiction. It’s impossible to turn on the news without seeing stories about the opioid crisis. Even more pernicious is the way “street drugs” like heroin have become ubiquitous, even in rural areas and wealthy suburbs (and anywhere in between). What motivated you to tell this timely story?
Abbey Lee Nash: Like many families, my family has been touched by opioid addiction. My younger brother has struggled with addiction for a very long time. Similar to Eli, my brother and I grew up in middle-class suburban areas; both of our parents are educators with master’s degrees. But as you mention, addiction doesn’t discriminate by age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. In writing Eli’s story, it felt important to create a character who seemingly had everything going for him—athletic prowess, popularity, and a loving, supportive family—and yet still suffered from the disease of addiction. It’s my hope that Lifeline can help to reduce the stigma that often surrounds addiction by starting conversations that will hopefully lead to increased awareness and prevention.
Equally important to me, however, was the idea that the novel would offer a sense of hope for the possibility of recovery. When I started writing Lifeline, I knew that while the subject matter was dark and intense, the central message of the book would be about the light that comes through the broken places and the things that we hold onto when we think there’s nothing left: faith, love, and hope.
Ultimately, the novel became a prayer for my brother and the millions of other people for whom sobriety is a daily struggle.
MS: The structure of Lifeline reminds me of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice in that the narration closely follows the main character from “regular” life to diagnosis to treatment and all of the ups and downs, denials, successes, and setbacks that includes. I felt Lifeline, like Still Alice, taught me what it must be like to get a devastating diagnosis and seek help for that disease. I felt like I learned from your book (though I was also very entertained by it—more on that later!). Tell us why you structured your novel the way you did.
ALN: First of all, I love that book! And I know what you mean—as a reader of Still Alice, you definitely feel like you’re experiencing what Alice is experiencing through her diagnosis. The comparison humbles me—thank you! In terms of Lifeline, I felt that the structure of the novel needed to be inherent to the process Eli would go through. Twenty-eight days is standard for a typical first round in a treatment facility, so that amount of time provided a natural window through which the reader could view Eli’s recovery process. In addition, an important philosophy of twelve-step recovery is the idea of taking the recovery process “one day at a time.” Some of those days will feel like tremendous successes, but others, as in all things, will hold terrible setbacks. I wanted to show Eli navigating his recovery one moment at a time and learning that the most important part of recovery is to just keep showing up.
MS: Lifeline is written entirely from Eli’s point-of-view. Because so many young adult novels are told from the perspective of a female protagonist, I wondered what made you choose to go with a boy? And, how did you find his voice?
ALN: It’s funny—an early critique suggested that I re-write Eli as a girl because “boys don’t read.” I knew I didn’t agree with that opinion, but I also knew that Eli just was a boy. I’m sure part of that choice was (at least subconsciously) the fact that he was inspired by my younger brother, but his voice also came to me pretty fully formed. I knew he was smart and could be manipulative; I knew he loved Benny and that every sharp edge inside of him came from a place where he was hurting. I knew that what he wanted most in the world was to know that he was loved and wanted and enough. I usually take the first draft to let my characters tell me about themselves—they become more fully evolved through revision.
MS: Lifeline was informative, yet it wasn’t didactic. I didn’t feel like I was “eating my vegetables” by reading it. I was pulled into Eli’s story for the sake of reading his story. How did you make a novel about such a serious topic so entertaining?
ALN: Great question! I think that the secret to dealing with tough topics in fiction and not coming across as “preachy” has to do with your intention in writing the book. If you’re writing the book to deliver a moral lesson, then it’s going to come off as “preachy.” This is particularly true in YA fiction, where didacticism is sniffed out a mile away. I wrote Lifeline because it was the story that I needed to write—writing Eli’s story pulled me through the worst parts of my brother’s addiction.
In addition, I think it’s important to have some personal experience with an “issue” if you’re going to write about it. If you get in the habit of reading the acknowledgements at the end of a novel, you’ll notice that novels dealing with tough topics are often written by authors who have lived through similar experiences. They haven’t written the novel to wag their finger at readers—they’ve written it to heal, and they hope that by reading it, someone else might hear what they need to in order to start healing as well.
I’m actually going to be teaching a workshop on this topic in August at the Summer Writing Retreat at Bryn Athyn College in Bryn Athyn, PA. My class is called “Write What You Know (Or What You Wish You Didn’t): Dealing with Tough Topics in YA Fiction.” Interested writers can check out details and application instructions here.
MS: Many of our Book Club Babble readers are also writers. Can you share a little about your writing journey?
ALN: My journey to publication has been a long road, beginning in 2008, when I decided to go back to school to earn my Master of Arts in English at Arcadia University. The last ten years have been an emotional roller coaster, full of incredible highs and the kind of lows all writers can relate to—rejection, disappointment, and self-doubt.
Lifeline went through two years of rejection and rewrites. Because writing the novel had been so cathartic, sharing it felt equally important. I was also inspired by a dear friend, a painter, who had recently begun hosting art shows. I interviewed her for my blog recently; you can read that interview here. In the way that a painter can hang a painting for others to see, I wanted readers to experience what I had written and felt that the novel’s journey wouldn’t be complete until it was in readers’ hands.
I briefly considered self-publishing but decided to submit to small, independent presses first. When I found Tiny Fox Press online, I was impressed by their commitment to author comfort and satisfaction throughout the contract negotiation and publishing process. Since then, I’ve developed such gratitude for my editor’s consistent availability, invaluable editorial insights, and willingness to put time and money into marketing. Working with Tiny Fox Press has been a blessing, and to finally have a novel reach fruition in this way is an absolute dream come true.
About the author: Born to parents with a serious case of wanderlust, Abbey Lee Nash has lived in some pretty weird places, including a Christian farming commune in rural Georgia, above a third-world craft store in Kentucky, and on a Salvation Army retreat center in the Pennsylvania mountains. She currently lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband, two daughters, and one very rambunctious Australian Shepherd. She received her MA in English from Arcadia University in 2011 and currently works at Bryn Athyn College where she teaches writing and literature. She is an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. “LIFELINE” is her first novel.
Lifeline is available here or wherever you buy books.