Today, we’re in conversation with Brian Francis, author of the acclaimed YA novel—and Governor General’s Award-nominated—Break in Case of Emergency.
Centred around the story of a girl named Toby, the novel has been praised for opening up important conversations about teen mental health. According to the Globe and Mail, “Francis beautifully explores issues around mental health and suicide in a story that packs a powerful punch and stays with you long after you close the book."
Brian Francis is the author of two previous novels. His most recent, Natural Order, was selected by the Toronto Star, Kobo, and The Georgia Straight as a Best Book of the Year. His first novel, Fruit, was a CBC Canada Reads finalist and was selected as one of Amazon.ca and 49th Shelf’s “100 Canadian Books to Read in a Lifetime.” He lives in Toronto.
Trevor Corkum: Break in Case of Emergency takes us back to 1992, and tells the story of Toby, a teenaged girl who has just learned that the father she has never met is coming to visit. Not only that, but her father is a female impersonator. Where and how did you come up with such a fabulous, heart-wrenching story?
Brian Francis: The initial idea started way back in 2008 or 2009 when I saw an interview with Craig Russell on CBC’s Life and Times. He was a Canadian female impersonator and rose to fame in the '70s. The interview was done at the tail end of his life, when he was dying from AIDS. There was just something compelling about him and he stuck with me over the years. But it wasn’t until Toby entered the picture that the story took off. In terms of the heart-wrenching thing, it’s important to me to tap into a reader’s emotions. I’d rather have a reader walk away from my books feeling something than thinking something. I’m more about the heart than the head, I guess.
TC: After two highly-regarded adult novels, this is your first foray into YA. What made you decide to tell the story as a YA novel, and what was it like to make the switch?
BF: I didn’t set out to write YA, but once I was through the drafts, that seemed to be the natural fit. My first book, Fruit, could’ve been considered YA, but it wasn’t categorized as that. So I’m somewhat familiar with writing teen characters. When I understood that this book was YA, it made me much more aware of the audience. More so than my previous books. I had to be really thoughtful about the topics I was writing about, specifically mental health and suicide. Not that I wanted to skirt around the issues, but I also knew that the book would be read by younger readers and I felt I had a responsibility to them. More so than I would feel if I were writing to adults.
I had to be really thoughtful about the topics I was writing about, specifically mental health and suicide. Not that I wanted to skirt around the issues, but I also knew that the book would be read by younger readers and I felt I had a responsibility to them."
TC: The book has been warmly received. It was nominated for a Governor General’s Award and named a Quill & Quire book of the year. How does it feel to be getting this kind of recognition?
BF: Honestly, it feels great. After you’ve been around the publishing block a few times, you know that these sorts of things are never guaranteed. Good books can get ignored. Mediocre books can become bestsellers. There’s so much out of your control in terms of reader and critical response. So when the recognition happens, you need to crack open the Spumante Bambino and enjoy the moment. That’s something I’ve learned more as I get older. Taking a few minutes to celebrate yourself. Then get back to work.
There’s so much out of your control in terms of reader and critical response. So when the recognition happens, you need to crack open the Spumante Bambino and enjoy the moment."
TC: Toby—the star of the book—struggles with serious mental health issues. She fears she is unworthy of love, and that no one really likes her. How did you find your way into the heart and mind of a teenaged girl? What challenges arose in finding her voice?
BF: I did some research into teens and mental health because I wanted to better understand the issues and perspectives. But you have to be careful with research because if you rely on it too much, you end up writing a case study, not a character. In terms of getting her voice right, I relied a lot on my editor, Suzanne Sutherland, for her input. There were a few scenes where she was like, “No, a teenage girl wouldn’t think that.” So I listened to that feedback. But I find that once a character’s voice sets in, it’s pretty much locked into place.
TC: Finally, what have been some of your favourite reactions from readers of the book? How has it been received among younger audiences, in particular?
One reader posted a review that said she couldn’t believe how much the book mirrored her own life. I’ve heard from people who have lost a parent to suicide or have been suicidal themselves. And they’ve said the same thing: they loved the book. It’s such a huge relief for me because I was so nervous about getting it wrong. Recently, I got a stack of thank-you letters from some high school students I spoke to. One of them wrote, “You are one of the most human people I’ve heard.” I’m not saying this tough old bird got a little misty-eyed at that. But I’m not saying I didn’t, either.
Excerpt from Break in Case of Emergency
That day, in the restaurant, after the waitress had taken away the empty plastic baskets and my mom had put the letter my father had written back inside the secret folds of her purse, she lit a cigarette.
“You should’ve had two parents at home,” she said, looking up at the glowing pendants. “And I tried, Toby. God, did I try. But you can only try for so long before your head starts to hurt from banging it against the wall.”
I searched my mom’s forehead for bumps. I was too young then to understand figures of speech.
“But even if you don’t have a normal family,” my mom said, “you are loved all the same. By me, by Grandma Kay and Grandpa Frank. And even though you’ve never met him, your father loves you too, Toby. I know he does.”
How could you love someone and never meet them, I wondered? How could my father love me without knowing me? Without knowing what my favourite food was? How could he love me without even knowing the colour of my hair?
The waitress came by and refilled my mom’s coffee cup. I shifted in my seat. She wasn’t supposed to drink too much coffee. It made her nervous. We hadn’t been to the pharmacy lately. I hoped she had enough pills. When the waitress walked away, my mom inhaled deeply and leaned back in her chair.
“He. Was. Magic.”
I felt something cover me when my mom said those words. Something settled over my head. Not a cloud. It was finer. A cloth that sparkled, but one that was heavy all the same. I felt it brush the top of my head and I knew that it would stay there forever, that it would always be there, hanging over me, whether I wanted it to be there or not.
From Break in Case of Emergency by Brian Francis, published by HarperCollins Canada, 2019.