Earlier this winter, we named Lizzy’s Mason’s The Art of Losing a must-read book of the season. This debut introduces readers to 17-year-old Harley, who’s struggling with overwhelming guilt and anger after her younger sister and boyfriend are involved in a car accident on the same night she found them kissing. The Art of Losing is a story about loss and growing up, sisterhood and addiction. We were thrilled to have the chance to sit down with Mason to talk about this compelling read. Here, Mason shares the moment in her life that inspired this book, discusses the bond she shares with her sister, and dishes on the role reversal of being a publicist who now has a book of her own in the world.
Bookish: What’s the story behind choosing the poem “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop to open the book and feature in the title?
Lizzy Mason: I’ve always loved the poem and its message about experiencing loss. It may not get easier, even with practice, but more often than not, with time, it’s not a disaster. We can survive. Sometimes it’s even for the best.
Harley is so lost in this book, and so afraid of losing, I felt like she needed to read it.
Bookish: This is an incredibly personal book for you. How did you know you were ready to tell this story?
LM: I started writing the scene where Harley walks in on Mike and Audrey the night my ex-boyfriend told me he’d cheated on me while he was drunk. I was devastated and furious, but I was also ashamed. I worried people would think less of me if they found out. I couldn’t stop thinking about what his cheating said about me. And so we stayed together too long, trying to make it work.
That scene started out as a different book, but after a friend of mine died after drinking and taking pills, I scrapped everything but that scene and started over. I’d been hesitant to tell a story about addiction, because I knew I would want to share my own story and I was afraid, again, of the judgment I might receive. I worried it would reflect poorly on me in my professional life because addiction is a lifelong illness and it doesn’t just go away. But it felt too important once it had taken away someone I loved.
It still took a while before I got the time to really write the book I wanted, and then longer to revise it, but I’m proud of how it turned out. And I’ve had time to come to terms with sharing this part of myself.
Bookish: When you aren’t writing, you work in publishing. Have your experiences as an author changed how you see or do your job?
LM: I have a lot more sympathy for how uncomfortable self-promotion is! I’ve always loved promoting books, but I’ve never been good at being in the spotlight. That’s why I’m a publicist: I get to work behind the scenes. But I’ve been a writer for a long time, so I’ve always felt a connection to the authors I’ve worked with and it’s made me work harder for them. That’s the thing I love most about publishing: We all have our love of books in common.
Bookish: Harley’s our narrator, but her childhood friend Rafael’s story mirrors your own: You both went to rehab in high school, attended AA meetings after leaving, and had to cut ties with some of your friends. Did you ever consider telling the story from the point of view of a character who shared your experiences?
LM: I did, and I still might tell that side of the story someday, but I wanted to show how many different forms addiction and alcoholism can take, and how easy it is to go from casual use to abuse. I felt I could do that better through the eyes of a character whose life is affected by more than one type of addict.
But mostly, I felt compelled to tell Harley’s story. I can’t explain why characters come to me the way that they do, with their stories to tell, but this was Harley’s story from the start. Because it’s more than just a story about addiction. It’s a story about how sisters love and hurt each other, how easily the things we love can slip away because of the choices we make, and learning how to accept change and reimagine the future.
Bookish: As you mentioned, ups and downs of sisterhood are a major focus in this book. What aspect of your own relationship with your sister most impacted this novel?
LM: Sisters can be so mean to each other! They‘ll tell you the things no one else ever will, both truths and lies, and can make you feel the worst you’ve ever felt. But it can also, simultaneously, be the most supportive and loving relationship, like no other.
I identify with Audrey a lot because I had crushes on a lot of my sister’s boyfriends as a teenager. I wanted what she had, always, because I’m the younger sister and I wanted to be like her.
My sister was and is my best friend. We’re a lot nicer to each other now than we were growing up, but she’s still the person I’ll always be honest with when she needs to hear it. And she’s always the person I go to when I need an honest opinion.
Bookish: The past and present are woven together in this book. What inspired you to tell Harley’s story in this way?
LM: In a lot of ways, this is a story shaped by memory. It shows how the way we remember our past forms who we are. The flashbacks piece together a different perspective on Harley’s relationships with the most important people in her life. Meanwhile, she’s also asking herself whether she can forgive Audrey for betraying her. Does it matter that Audrey doesn’t remember it, if the hurt is still there?
When I started weaving in flashbacks, I wanted to show how Harley and Audrey reached the point where the story begins. I wanted readers to see that sisters can be each other’s best friends and worst enemies simultaneously, and how, over time, resentment can build. I wanted them to see Harley as she used to be and how her faith in herself diminished over time.
The past doesn’t go away and it affects who we become and who we believe ourselves to be. We often find ourselves stuck on who we were, and not allowing ourselves to become who we want to be. But teens, especially, need to be able to explore who they are, to adapt and become different, better people.
Bookish: Independence is a theme that comes up throughout the novel: losing it, gaining it, being uncertain about what to do with it. What drew you to this topic?
LM: Teens always struggle with the issue of not quite being an adult, but no longer being a kid. They have some freedom, but not complete freedom. It’s not an easy time; I know it wasn’t for me. And when you’re a recovering addict and trying to regain the trust of loved ones who you’ve hurt, it’s even more difficult. I don’t think I can tell a YA story without that struggle for independence, but it was especially integral to this story.
Bookish: Rafael and Mike represent two different ends of the spectrum when it comes to addiction. Mike doesn’t believe he has a problem, while Rafael says he doesn’t even know if he’s an addict but continues to live a sober life and attend AA. What made you want to feature both of these aspects of addiction?
LM: Each addict’s experience is different, but I’ve never met anyone who accepted they were an addict or an alcoholic right away. Mike may not yet be an alcoholic, but his excessive drinking is dangerous to more than just him. Raf, on the other hand, knows he has a problem and wants to be sober, but struggles with the social ramifications of that sobriety. So much of our society is focused around the consumption of alcohol and it can feel incredibly ostracizing when you don’t drink.
Alcoholism is a progressive illness and sobriety is a process—and not an easy one. There’s a reason why acceptance is at the heart of the first of the twelve steps in Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s the hardest part.
Bookish: Were there any misconceptions about addiction or recovery that you hoped to clear up in your book?
LM: So many things, honestly. That relapses are the end of recovery and you can’t try again. That you can’t be an addict if you’re a teenager. But also that sobriety is a cure for every problem in an addict’s life.
Change is hard, but addicts develop habits outside of using that have to change too. And getting sober usually means giving up your friends and starting over, sometimes without the support of anyone at all. It’s scary. But that’s what the program, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, is for. The people there are strangers, but they will understand you and they won’t judge you. And they’ll help you build new habits and work on breaking the old ones.
Bookish: What’s your advice to teens and young adults who find themselves wondering if they or a friend have a substance abuse problem?
LM: Don’t assume you’re too young or that you’re not an addict because you haven’t hit bottom. If you think you need help, talk to a person you trust or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
The young people’s program of Alcoholics Anonymous was the best resource for me. Visit https://www.icypaa.org/ypaalinks, but some regions are better than others at keeping up their websites, so searching for “young people’s AA meetings” is the best route to find them.
Lizzy Mason grew up in northern Virginia before moving to New York City for college and a career in publishing. She lives in Queens, New York, with her husband and cat in an apartment full of books. The Art of Losing is her first novel. Visit her online at www.LizzyMasonBooks.com.