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Interview with Katherine Perreth, author of Making Lemonade with Ben

About Making Lemonade with Ben

With deftly wielded humor and heart-wrenching candor, Katherine Perreth vividly recounts the myriad physical, mental, emotional and spiritual repercussions stemming from her son’s massive brain hemorrhage. Seven-year-old Ben suffers numerous disabilities and, later, mental health challenges. Yet, love wins. Making Lemonade With Ben is a compelling Cinderella story tracing sixteen years of Ben’s life. It begins with the night a University of Wisconsin Hospital neurosurgeon saved Ben, and follows Ben through young adulthood. Although he encounters years of substantial obstacles, in 2011 his never-say-die cheery attitude and uber-outgoing ways ultimately carry him to Washington D.C. There he represents the Madison Children’s Museum, his employer, at a national award ceremony. Wearing his ankle-foot-orthosis with a smiley face on the back, Ben juggles one-handed everywhere he goes, accomplishing his life goal: “Make humanity smile.” Universal themes of perseverance and compassion encourage readers to contemplate contemporary issues: mental illness treatment, recovery and stigma, the role of intentional employers in the lives of those with disabilities, and the success that can occur when a community values all of her citizens.

What inspired you to write your first book?

Ben. And women asked for his story, and mine. Many people followed Ben’s recovery for years after his initial emergency craniotomy. When I would email updates, women invariably responded, “I hope you’re going to put this in your book!”

I thought they were crazy. For well over a decade, I dwelled simply in familial and personal survival – albeit, sometimes it was non-functional survival.

Making Lemonade With Ben: The Audacity to Cope (MLWB) alternates between two timelines: 1996-2010, Ben’s traumatic yet often hilarious childhood, and the fall of 2011 when he was hired by a children’s museum as a one-handed juggler, and sent to Washington DC to collect a national award.

At heart, MLWB is a love story with multiple threads: mother-child, husband-wife, mother-daughter, supportive communities-suffering family, nurturing women-hurting woman. Wrapping up my life’s loose ends in what I’ve come to call Life With Ben, I found the completion of MLWB extremely gratifying. Just like finishing laundry.

Some folks misread the title, and thus believe the book to be about hope. For me, MLWB is about what happens after hope has evaporated, poof! What do you do then?

The book starts emotionally rough, with Ben in a coma. However, the structure provides sweet breathers – I organized MLWB the way I’ve learned to live, with joy, laughter and humor in the midst of pain.

MLWB inhales my brand of quirky and exhales heartache. While I’m dead serious on some subjects in the book, notably my suicidal tendencies, depression, psychotherapy and how we can better support our struggling citizens, you’d be hard pressed to read too long without finding humor. After all, it has been high on my family’s list of coping strategies. I also feel that humor makes us stop and think.

What books have influenced your life the most?

How much space have I got?

I’m 53, and I’ve read what seems like billions of words in a wide range of genres over my lifetime. I’m particularly fond of The Classics (Hardy, Trollope, James, Dickens, Austen et al.) and well-written British mysteries that have substance. I am also biblically literate and especially appreciate the Psalms – they’re emotionally raw and thought provoking.

What are your current projects?

Writing for my hometown newspaper and speechwriting.
When Johnny Depp hugged me at 4:00 in the morning six years ago, I knew I had a story. That began my feature story niche. I love tooting the horns of my hometown folks. BTW, Fans Of Johnny, all is revealed in MLWB.
(You’re welcome.)
As a journalist, I love a story. But I really love a backstory – the how and why of the thing. My standard speech details the bewildering, slightly OCD, creation of MLWB.
Recently, Ben and I received a standing ovation from over 100 people after delivering the 2014 keynote speech for our local National Alliance on Mental Illness annual banquet. My uber-outgoing, cheerfully charming 25-year-old son also juggled lemons on stage. (This had a great deal to do with that standing O I’m thinkin’.) You simply cannot stop Ben from communicating with humanity, pursuing his goal to make everyone smile.
When I write, whether my book, speeches, or feature articles, I must be entertained. I’ve learned if I’m entertained, others are. There has got to be honesty, as well. I’m going to tell it like it is, and hopefully you’ll die laughing.
Or crying. Obviously, there’s much sorrow and pain in life, no laughing matter. Ben’s life underscores that. But if I can inject black humor into my dismal situation, that also aids in expressing troublesome emotions. At least I’ve found that to be true. I say I’m an equal opportunity employer when it comes to humor: white, gray and black, I’ll use ’em all to survive.

I’m passionate about removing stigma from mental illness. The sooner we all understand that mental illness is just like physical illness, the better for everyone. Mental illness is nothing new, nothing to be ashamed about, is a global concern, and can be a killer – just like physical illness. Even if we can’t be “fixed,” the choices we make can either alleviate or exacerbate our illnesses – physical and mental. There is a measure of empowerment in that.

And powerful good can happen when a community values all of her citizens through intentional employers and proper mental illness treatment and support. Ben’s life bears witness to that.

I believe the Clubhouse Model of mental illness treatment, support and recovery is critical. For more information, visit http://www.iccd.org

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

Of course! My perfectionism dictates that. But writing is never going to be perfect. Never. There’s always something to tweak. At some point, I just have to declare “good enough.” Gotta push “send” sometime, and for me that’s when it’s clear, sincere, has a degree of humor, and I’m happy with it. Despite knowing that in a few days I’d be happier with it if I just…
That’s why I let pieces percolate a bit after writing, and then adjust. Repeating as necessary, as long as deadline and sanity allow. (Remaining sane is crucial.)

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author?

Honestly, readers have been overwhelmingly positive, and on so many levels, as have reviewers. The most consistent criticism is the book’s length, but it’s just a titch bit longer than To Kill A Mockingbird, and oodles shorter than Anna Karenina, so I’m okay with that. Could it be edited further? Sure! I could’ve removed my encounter with Johnny Depp.
(Naw!)
Everything is in the book for a reason, which led to a very unexpected consequence: my heart was put back together, something I didn’t think was possible.
People often muse that writing MLWB must have been cathartic. Actually, all the writing I did for years before beginning MLWB was cathartic. Telling the story, organizing the writing, weaving in humor and my Creative Cathartic Vignettes, putting all that together into one hefty rectangle, was more than cathartic. It was healing. I often say MLWB is my heart and soul in 3D – it may be a broken heart, but it has been soldered. And if you’d like to know why I chose to offer it to the general public, it’s because I have a social work degree from the UW-Madison, but even more important, I have a social work heart. (There’s part of the backstory, for you – for free! Don’t you love free things?)

What has been the best compliment?

I only get one?

Having an Olympic-like medal placed around my neck November 2013 for “Nonfiction: Inspirational” from an international book award contest I entered.

However, readers contacting me to thank me for my honesty in writing MLWB, definitely trumps that medal. I have struck a chord with many who either suffer themselves or love someone struggling with mental illness, raising a special needs child, and/or living with chronic disability. People tell me they have found my words helpful in either better explaining themselves to family and friends, or better understanding someone else. Really, how can you best help someone you love if you don’t understand the situation?
Still, I’ve got to go with Ben’s critique of the book that bears his name, “Flawless sprinkled with awesomeness!”

Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?

Make yourself happy in your writing, first and foremost. Keep at it, but pay attention to living, as well. Do not forget to live. These are things I tell myself.
And, it’s never too late. I reinvented myself at age 51 by writing MLWB.

What is your favorite quality about yourself?

My willingness to be vulnerable.

What is your least favorite quality about yourself?

My willingness to be vulnerable.
(This is a good example of the double-edged swords I talk about in MLWB.)

Is there anything else you would like to share?

People always want to know what my family thinks of my writing such a candid book.

I gave my kids the three censorship options: Trust me, I’m your mother, read the entire manuscript, or read only the sections in which you feature. Ben read it all and offered insights, commentary, and clarifications, making MLWB so much richer. In fact, three of his essays are included, and I gave him the last word. My other two kids chose to read only their appearances, and approved them all – I threatened to stop cooking nightly dinners if they didn’t.

My husband read every draft, adding his voice while encouraging me to keep mine. Whenever I wanted to yank this section or that, because I felt too vulnerable, he talked me out of it every time. I took his advice except for the chapter entitled “A Woman Is A Woman.” He asked if I could at least blow up some shoes. Ain’t gonna happen.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and for your support!

About Katherine Perreth

Katherine holds UW-Madison Social Work and Sociology degrees, is a reporter for her hometown newspaper, the Middleton Times Tribune, and conducts a class on reminiscence writing. In addition, in her role as administrative staff with WESLI (an ESL school on Madison’s capitol square), she deals in chalk. And paper. Oodles of paper. She recently took an EmptyNester Victory Tour with her husband of 28 years, but hasn’t yet changed the locks on their home. Their three kids can still get in. Her latest books is Making Lemonade with Ben: The Audacity to Cope Drop by to pay her visit at: www.katherineperreth.com.