Tamara Ireland Stone tore open our hearts, then healed them back up in EVERY LAST WORD, the story of Sam, a girl with OCD who finds her voice and her courage through an underground poetry group. After finishing the book, we knew we had to reach out to Tamara for more on what inspired this powerful read…
We loved Every Last Word! What was the inspiration?
I first became interested in telling a story about a teen with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) when a close family friend was diagnosed four years ago, at age 12. It was heartbreaking to hear how the disorder affected her. She couldn’t sleep. She felt powerless to a stream of negative, often terrifying thoughts. And her group of friends unknowingly made things harder. I couldn’t imagine dealing with something so intense, especially at such a young age.
I wanted to learn more about OCD, and she was eager to share her experience in hopes of helping other teens understand the truths and myths around this disorder.
Working with her on this novel brought us closer, and I’m even more inspired by her than I was when I began this project. Her involvement shaped this story into one about a girl living with OCD—not struggling with or paralyzed by—but living with it, because that’s what she does every day. She’s incredibly brave and wise beyond her years. I’ve learned a lot from her.
The fact that the inspiration came from a real girl explains the honesty we felt when reading. We grew to love Sam throughout the book, and instantly fell for AJ. What trait do you love most in Sam and in AJ?
Sam: I love her willingness to dig deep to truly understand herself. She’s afraid of her mind, but she’s also passionate about figuring out how it works and learning to control it. I find that admirable.
AJ: He’s an open book. He speaks his mind and doesn’t care what people think. He’s never hurtful about it, but you always know where you stand. I like that about him.
Yes. We liked that about him, too. He was so instrumental in helping Sam find her voice. How do you think someone could begin using words to heal and find courage like Sam did?
When Sam first discovers Poet’s Corner, the whole idea of it terrifies her. But over time, in safety of this room, she begins to tap into her love of words and song lyrics, and eventually discovers the writer within.
Writing is something that’s always helped me get through the rough patches in my life. As a teen, I filled my notebooks with thoughts. Sometimes I put them into poems or short stories, and other times I didn’t feel like giving them structure. I never showed them to anyone, and while I’m in awe of the teens I see online, posting their poetry and stories so broadly, I don’t believe you need to share your words to benefit from their healing power.
It took me a long time to realize that my ability to write—and I don’t mean being an author, I just mean writing, articulating my feelings on paper—is a gift. Other people sketch, paint, dance, sing, play an instrument… I write. It brings me joy and clears my mind. It’s where I go to make sense of things.
Not everyone finds writing therapeutic, but if you do, I encourage you to embrace it and nurture this gift. Write simply because it makes you feel good. Share it if you want to, but not because you have to. And try to turn off that pesky inner critic that says your words aren’t good enough. They’re yours. So they’re already the right ones. Buy a notebook, find a quiet space, let go, and write. Surprise yourself. See what happens. What do you have to lose?
Good advice! You’ve admitted to being a hyperproductive insomniac. Is there much of Sam in you?
My mind comes alive at night. I’ve tried everything from relaxation tapes to medication… nothing works consistently. I used to hate it, until I discovered I could use those hours to write. That’s when I started drafting my first book, Time Between Us. Writing gave me a way to channel my active brain, and I had something to show for those hours when the sun came up. Bonus!
So, yes, Sam and I share that overactive, hyperproductive mind. And like her, once I start writing, it’s hard for me to stop. I’m not sure if it’s a clinical disorder or true passion at work—at this point, I’m choosing to embrace it as part of my crazy.
What I love most about Sam is how she does things that scare her. She pushes herself during her therapy sessions. She gets up on stage to read poetry. Aloud. Yikes. Whether she realizes it consciously or not, she repeatedly faces her fears to prove she can overcome them.
I can relate to that. Because being an author scares me. But I feel like I have something to say, especially to teens, so I’m working hard to be brave, to share my words, to set them free in the great big world—which, unlike Poet’s Corner, is not a judgment-free zone. It is, without question, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.
But each book feels like a huge personal victory. I don’t ever want to let fear keep me silent or stop me from doing what I love.
Speaking of things you’ve loved, did working on the “Think Different” campaign with Steve Jobs influence the book?
Participating in the “Think Different” campaign in my late twenties was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My team didn’t come up with the ad itself, but I was part of a small marketing group that got to watch it take shape and participate in Steve’s weekly brainstorming discussions. The commercial opens with the line, “Here’s to the crazy ones.” It features artists and dancers, entrepreneurs and musicians, outspoken leaders and big thinkers—people who wear their passions on their sleeves and often don’t fit neatly into society’s definition of “normal.” Near the end, there’s this one line: “While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.” That’s the one I love most. It helped me learn to appreciate my own crazy, and to value it in others.
I wanted to play with words like “crazy” and “normal” in Every Last Word, to look at minds that work differently, because I think they’re incredibly powerful. I wanted to explore the idea that there’s no such thing as “normal.” As AJ says in the novel, “Everyone’s got something.”
In many ways, this story is about embracing your own crazy, whatever that means to you. Because when you recognize it as part of your unique genius, it becomes a source of strength, not a weakness.
Playlists play an important part in Sam’s life. What would be the soundtrack for Every Last Word?
Music always plays a big role in my books, and this one is no exception. I haven’t shared the Every Last Word playlist, but this is the perfect time to reveal it. Go to www.tamarairelandstone.com and click on playlists.
Like Sam’s playlists, I gave it a three-word title—Anything But Empty—taken from the lyrics in Sarah Bareilles’s Brave. I love the line, “Let your words be anything but empty.”
While every song on the playlist is special to me, in addition to Brave, there are a few others that perfectly capture this story’s message:
Say by John Mayer is all about pushing through fear and speaking your mind: “Even if your hands are shaking and your faith is broken, even as the eyes are closing, do it with a heart wide open. Say what you need to say.”
The Monster by Eminem is all about recognizing and embracing your inner crazy—becoming friends with your monster: “Maybe I need a straightjacket, face facts I am nuts for real, but I’m okay with that. It’s nothing, I’m still friends with the monster.
Train’s beautiful song Words has been on my playlist since this book was just an idea. It talks about how words are powerful, able to hurt and heal: “When words keep you from feeling good, use them as firewood and let them burn.”
Then, of course, there’s Led Zeppelin’s Bryn-Yr-Aur, which has no words at all, but might be the most beautiful piece of music I’ve ever heard. I wrote every AJ scene with this song in my ears.
In closing, like Sam you love the power of words. So what’s your favorite word and why?
Onomatopoetic. I love the way it rolls off the tongue, how it sounds in the air. I can’t spell it correctly the first time, but I love that about it, too. It’s complicated. And I love onomatopoetic words like swish, drizzle, thump, flutter—words that phonetically imitate the sound they make. Get it? Bam!