Tackling mental illness through literature in If I Fall, If I Die

Confronting mental illness in literature can often be difficult, however UBC MFA graduate Michael Christie tackles this topic head on in his new novel If I Fall, If I Die.

The book follows the story of a young boy, Will, whose mother suffers from agoraphobia -- an anxiety disorder that involves a fear of social situations that will induce panic attacks. Sufferers of agoraphobia are often unable to leave their houses, as is the case with Will’s mother. She keeps her son inside creating a world within their home full of books, paintings and everything Will could want -- until he steps into the outside world to see for himself.

Christie described the book as a coming of age story, commenting that it was loosely based on his own childhood growing up with an agoraphobic mother, but added that many parts of the book were purely fictional.

“It’s very much about family, the relationship between parents and children and how scary it is to grow up ... but also how amazing it is,” Christie said.

After moving to British Columbia at the age of 17, Christie completed his undergraduate degree at Simon Fraser University before going on to his MFA in creative writing at UBC. However, his career path was not entirely traditional; he was originally a professional skateboarder, and focused much of his time on it while growing up. Previous jobs also involved working for skateboarding magazines, including a position as senior editor for Vancouver skateboarding magazine Color Magazine.

Now, married with two children and living on Galiano Island, Christie said he loved the creative writing program at UBC, noting that the natural setting and the opportunity to meet other writers was an amazing part of his time at the university.

His first work of fiction, The Beggar’s Garden, is a collection of short stories drawn from his experience working in a homeless shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside; he noted that the subject of mental health had always interested him.

The most challenging aspect of writing If I Fall, If I Die for him was the transition from short story to novel, and dealing with the complexity and larger number of characters that came with it.

“It was hard, it was a learning process for me and it was a lot of fun as well, but it involved throwing out tons and tons of polished work in the process ... but that’s writing. If it’s easy you’re probably not writing stuff that’s going to be that interesting,” said Christie.

Although he added he will probably return to short stories at some point, he said that he is currently mapping out a project that is shaping up to be a novel.

“I’m a glutton for punishment.”