Book Birthday and Author Interview: THE HALF-ORPHAN'S HANDBOOK with Joan F. Smith!

For fans of John Green and Emily X.R. Pan, The Half-Orphan’s Handbook is a coming-of-age story and an empathetic, authentic exploration of grief with a sharp sense of humor and a big heart.

It’s been three months since Lila lost her father to suicide. Since then, she’s learned to protect herself from pain by following two unbreakable rules:

1. The only people who can truly hurt you are the ones you love. Therefore, love no one.

2. Stay away from liars. Liars are the worst.

But when Lila’s mother sends her to a summer-long grief camp, it’s suddenly harder for Lila to follow these rules. Potential new friends and an unexpected crush threaten to drag her back into life for the first time since her dad’s death.

On top of everything, there’s more about what happened that Lila doesn’t know, and facing the truth about her family will be the hardest part of learning how a broken heart can love again.

About the Author

Joan F. Smith lives with her family in Massachusetts, where she works as an associate dean, a creative writing professor, and a dance instructor. She received her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College, and has written articles for The Washington Post and Thought Catalog on destigmatizing discussions around mental health and suicide prevention. The Half-Orphan's Handbook is her first novel.

Twitter: @jf_smit

Interview (by J. Elle)

I'm so excited to be talking to you about THE HALF-ORPHAN'S HANDBOOK, which came out yesterday! Since seeing the cover I've been chomping at the bit to read it. To start could you tell us, for those who might not know, what the book is about? Thrilled to be chatting with you! The cover was such a delight to receive. In The Half-Orphan's Handbook, sixteen-year-old Lila Cunningham creates a series of rules to help prevent her from feeling the kind of pain she felt after she loses her father to suicide. When her mother sends her to a Maine grief camp, Lila must confront the unanswered questions behind her father's death head-on while forging new friendships and falling in love with someone who might not be who he says he is. It sounds so good and so necessary. Kirkus calls it "a tender, honest exploration of finding a way through the impossible." And from what I've read its saturated with this very tangible heartfelt authenticity. Even at the prose level. This story feels deeply personal. Are you comfortable maybe sharing a bit about why this story was so important for you to get out there? What inspired you to tell this story? Of course. Unfortunately, Lila's story is heavily influenced by my own experience. I have a long family history of mental illness and addiction (which all too often hold hands), and like my protagonist, I am a survivor of suicide (someone who has lost someone to suicide). My father kept an addiction hidden from my brother and me for seventeen years, and it has always struck me that illnesses, addictions, and the side effects of all of these can be both visible and invisible. I also lost an older cousin (who was a minor public figure) to addiction, and the book is actually now coming out on what would have been his birthday. Something like 1 in 7 kids experience the death of someone in their family, and as someone who felt stigmatized by the experience of all of this, I felt like this story was one that could be relatable to teens. Joan, thank you for sharing something so deeply personal. I have no doubt this book is going to be such a healing balm for so many. I understand firsthand how writing through our own pain and trauma can be so hard. I was pleasantly surprised though to find writing my own debut novel was actually healing in some was ways as well. What did penning this novel do for you? And in general was there anything that surprised you about writing this book? Your words bring me joy! It was definitely a healing experience to write all of it. I think it is important to differentiate ourselves from our characters where we can, but tapping into the real-life trauma was incredibly cathartic. I can totally see how writing Wings of Ebony may have been a similar experience for you. What surprised me was how much I knew the characters from the start. I hear you. That's beautiful. I'm so glad. <3 I love how vivid the story is. What's one of your favorite moments in the book and why? Two fun ones and one serious one. There's a scene in the book set in the camp's gymnasium that was so thrilling to write. It's pulled from experiences I had in my teen years, and anyone who was there with me will recognize it immediately. (I cringe as an adult looking back on this moment.) Another scene involves hijinks in the camp director's office. The last one is Chapter Thirty-Eight, a one-page chapter that was among the first scenes I wrote and is almost entirely unchanged from the original draft, other than its placement in the novel. Ah! I can't wait to get to those parts. And then, in terms of writing... was this the first book you wrote? Can you tell us a bit about your writing journey? I'd love to know more about the moment you found out you were going to be a published author!! This is actually the first novel I ever finished writing, which I know is not incredibly common. My dad died just before my last semester getting my MFA, and for a few years in my twenties, I grieved, healed, taught, wrote on the side, got married, and started our family. The book came to me in a fever moment in 2016 (literally, I didn't know I had a fever yet; I was on a plane!). I didn't start querying until several revisions, when I felt the manuscript was very ready. It took a few months to get an agent in 2018, and while the book sold to a first-round editor, it was still a months-long process (long enough for me to write an entire second manuscript)! In May of 2019, the book sold, and I found out when I went to change my music while teaching dance class. I kept teaching without knowing the full details of the offer, freaking out inside. That's SO exciting. I have goosebumps FOR YOU!!! I can't wait for it to debut and be out in the world. Readers are going to love it. Congratulations on all of your success, again! Let's talk more about the creative writing process. What writing mechanics did you find most fun to explore or play with as you composed this novel? Any particular challenges? JOAN: First, congrats on your success. I have absolutely adored getting to know you and so many in our debut class. Your journey has been incredible. <3 This was definitely a learning novel for me. I tend to write the scenes I'm excited about first, all over the place, and then I reverse outline and start from the top, writing linearly through. There are a lot of elements of humor in this novel, and I loved writing those lines. Wow, okay. That's really neat. This has been so fun. I selfishly want to squeeze in a gazillion more questions, ha ha. But, let's do two more and then we'll make sure readers know where to find you online! So, I'd love to know--if readers take away one thing from HALF-ORPHAN'S HANDBOOK what would you like it to be? JOAN: Life is messy! My junior year English teacher said that life was peaks and valleys, and that's stayed with me. Grief goes up and down, and so does joy. Time is a healer and a thief. There is so much! I have chills! <3 <3 Have I mentioned how excited I am about this book?! How hard I'm gonna hug my physical copy when it comes in?! How many kids I'm going to gift it to! Cannot wait. Okay, so last question: For fans of this beautiful book, what can we expect next from you? Are you able to share anything about what you're working on? (Feel free to share an aesthetic if you have one.) Once again, you bring me so much joy!!! And, YES. I've got lots of projects in the works. I'm working on two YAs, I'm finishing my first draft of an adult project that I've been slowly tackling for the last year and a half, and I sort of wrote a picture book on Super Bowl Sunday? This was so fun, Joan! Thank you. Can you let readers know where they can find you online? JOAN: I'm @jf_smit everywhere social, and my website is . Thank you so much, J.Elle!

Pick up a copy of The Half-Orphan's Handbook at your favorite indie bookstore or at the following retailers:

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