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Mother And Son Reunite To Write Their Latest Book Addressing Mental Health Challenges

Mother and son Kyle Thomas and Mary Billitersit on a stoop holding their books, smiling.
Mary Billiter
L-R: Kyle Thomas with his mother, Mary Billiter.

Wyoming-based mother and son duo published their first fiction novel, titled A Divided Mind, together back in 2019. The book largely centers around topics and impacts of mental health. Now, Mary Billiter and Kyle Thomas are back with a sequel and shared how they got started as well as why this was important to them.


Naina Rao: The book is called A Divided Twin, but it is actually a sequel to A Divided Mind. So can you talk a little bit about what A Divided Mind is? And then what got you to write or to create a sequel to that first book?

Mary Billiter: So A Divided Mind came about when Kyle was in senior year in high school, in 2015, [he] came to me and admitted that he was hearing voices. And so the mom in me wanted to make them go away. And Kyle wanted to have answers. So we traversed this whole road of mental health together, and I really found the journalist in me come to the forefront too, and I just kept asking him questions while he was playing video games, trying to find out like, you know, as a parent, you just don't want anything to be wrong with your child. I looked at the mental health diagnosis. Really frighteningly, and Kyle totally embraced it, and so we navigated this road together and wrote A Divided Mind. And what we were able to do was exorcise all those demons that Kyle never acted on with his affective schizophrenia disorder. So we were able to really go into some areas of what if, and what if a mind is left and divided and go from there. And from there came the divided twin because our publisher really wanted a follow up,

Kyle Thomas: I got to really voice some symptoms I was having when I was in high school. I got to be able to voice it correctly with many of the journal entries that were inside the book of A Divided Twin. A lot of them are reflective of some things that happened when I was going through mental illness. I thought it would be illustrated best in that kind of mindset through the book and if anyone was kind of relating toward those kinds of symptoms, or having doubts,I hope that they would be able to read this book and kind of get a grasp or somewhat idea that it's not completely normal for someone to be having that kind of struggle, I guess, of mental illness and how they should just seek help or do whatever they can to address it as early as possible. So for me, A Divided Twin and A Divided Mind, were just a good way to get my personal history of mental illness out there. And that's how we got to create these two books.

Naina Rao: That being said, so now I'm curious, how did you both decide what you wanted to incorporate from real life and what you didn't want to incorporate from real life?

Kyle Thomas: We had to choose like a fine line to not incorporate some things that I was going through, because there are some stuff that's not included that was pretty dark at the time. For me, it was choosing what would be best in the book, while also trying to keep some secrecy on what happened with mine. Or, whenever I wrote the entries in A Divided Twin, I kind of had to go back into [the] history of some of the darker stuff I was going through. And I had to bring me, into a very negative state of mind to be able to write that. So I wasn't all cheery, like, 'Oh, let's go write about this troubled past I went through.' I had to bring myself to a very, very dark place to be able to write and revisit my past, which is good in the sense to revisit all that's happened. But at the time, I was like, 'I don't know if I want to do this.' So it was very difficult to decide whether to write this.

MB: And I think that we always use one degree of separation. So there are a lot of similarities. As his co-author, I really had to separate myself from being his mom, to being his co-author. And that really helped me. So that was my one degree of separation that I'm a fiction author, so this is what I do well, and integrating his voice into it. In fact, his voice is entirely in it, [that] was how I showed up to make this happen. So there was a lot that was drawn on, just I think, to tap into some structural things for us. But there's a lot we didn't delve into, which I'm glad that you realize that we really did keep that one degree of separation for us.

NR: Kyle, you described how challenging and difficult this process was, but what kept both of you going?

KT: For me it was if someone who may be going through similar things is to read this book and have some kind of peace of mind through it that they're not alone in the battle for mental illness, that really kept me motivated. I'm like, 'If I can help at least one person, then that doesn't bother me to have to go back and revisit my past.' I thought that had more value to it than me having to worry about the stuff that associates with writing these kinds of books, like the dark undertone of it and all that stuff. So for me, it was just if I'm able to help someone, I feel like that has more weight to it.

MB: I would say the thing that propelled me was the deadline. I'm very deadline oriented. So even when I didn't want to I was like, 'Kyle, we've got a deadline, you know, our publisher is expecting this.'

NR: If you could explain why is it important for these books to be out there in the world?

KT: A lot of books I've read that, in regard to mental illness, it doesn't seem like it's coming from a realistic standpoint. So I feel like these books do a good job to really get to the grit of a mental illness and how it's just not like, 'Oh, take some medication, you're fine. And then you'll live your days and be happy,' and stuff like that. It's like, 'No, there's more to it than just simply finding a good doctor and good medication.' I feel like it addresses some areas that some other books or some other topics might not cover 100 percent. And like I said, it's coming from someone who actually went through it. I'm sure there are authors out there that I probably just haven't read, who have had mental illness and correctly portray it. But it does help to have someone who's gone through it to kind of reflect on that into the writing. So I feel like that's what these books did.

NR: Mary Billiter and Kyle Thomas, thank you so much for talking to me.

KT: Yeah, thank you.

MB: Thanks Naina.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Naina Rao comes to Wyoming Public Radio from Jakarta, Indonesia. She has worked at NPR for Story Lab and the nationally syndicated show, "1A". Naina graduated from Michigan State University in 2018 with a B.A. in Journalism. Naina enjoys swimming, listening to podcasts and watching Bollywood movies.
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