Naomi Hughes’s latest YA novel Refraction introduces readers to Marty, a 17-year-old who is exiled to an abandoned city after getting caught dealing on the black market. Once there, he realizes that he’s in serious danger because the city isn’t as deserted as it seems. Here, Hughes talks about sharing an OCD diagnosis with her protagonist and why monsters were essential to telling his story.
When I decided to write a book about obsessive-compulsive disorder, I knew it had to involve monsters. This is partly because I like monster movies. Godzilla, Pacific Rim, Jurassic Park—who doesn’t want to watch a big, scary, inhuman villain get bested by good old scrappy humans? The other reason is because OCD, which I’ve had since age 13, sometimes feels like having monsters living in your head.
For those who don’t know, OCD is a mental disorder where a person obsessively fears some catastrophic thing—anything from accidentally hitting a pedestrian to contracting some terrible disease. They perform repetitive actions called compulsions to try to keep that thing from happening. The tricky part is that it’s the compulsions, not the imagined catastrophe, that typically end up causing the biggest problems. The precautions you take to keep the imaginary disaster at bay can end up consuming your life, until you’re spending hours on end circling the block to check for dead bodies or doing constant mental gymnastics to make sure you’re not thinking any “bad thoughts.”
You could see how that might end up feeling like your mind houses a monster.
Obsessive fears aren’t real monsters. You’re pretty sure they can’t actually hurt you. But they can pop out from behind the furniture at any time of day or night, flash their claws and bare their teeth, and make you think you’re facing imminent death if you don’t do something to stop them right now. It can make you feel helpless, frustrated, and deeply unsafe—even when (or maybe especially because) you know the monsters are actually just your own mind playing tricks on you.
So, I wrote about monsters. I wrote about Beings with obsidian scales and bodies crafted from shadow, with wings like the razor’s edge of night. I wrote about a world swathed in fog, where everything feels muddled and hidden and like danger could be around every corner. I wrote about mirrors, about how if you dare to look at your own reflection for too long, a monster might just crawl out of it. I wanted to make them scary, because the truth is, having OCD or anxiety can be very scary, even for those of us who have experience in successfully managing it.
But I also wanted the book to be hopeful. I wanted my story to say something not only about OCD, but to readers (especially teens) who have OCD themselves. And I think I wanted it to say something to me, too: You’re not alone. The monsters aren’t what they seem to be. You can do this.
So I wrote about a protagonist who has OCD himself. I put him right smack in the middle of his journey through his condition, because while I think books about the path to diagnosis are great and absolutely needed, I wanted to write about someone like me—someone who knew they had OCD and who had already learned how to manage it. I gave this protagonist some of my own flaws: a desire to control his thoughts, a misguided idea that there’s a way to perfectly manage his disorder, and a desperate determination to fight his fears—even when what he really needs to do is accept and work with them.
And that’s how Refraction was born.
I know a lot of writers say their books are their babies, but I don’t think that’s the right way to describe this story. Refraction is more like a piece of my soul, a glimpse into my (often rather weird) brain.
Here be monsters—but also hope, and friendship, and bravery.
Naomi Hughes grew up all over the U.S. before finally settling in the Midwest, a place she loves even though it tries to murder her with tornadoes every spring. She writes quirky young adult fiction full-time. When she’s not writing she likes to read, travel with her family, and geek out over British TV and Marvel superheroes.