Road trip: two words summoning a cinematic optimism of emotive playlists, brilliant expanses of unforeseen mountain majesties, steady accumulations of coffee cups and cellophane wrappers, and a sense of adventure at the crank of a trusty ignition. In Mosquitoland, 16-year-old Mim Malone’s road trip begins not so much as an optimistic adventure as it does a desperate pilgrimage from a life she no longer knows back to one she thought she loved. Just as Mim finds her footing throughout the many unexpected detours on her journey, debut author David Arnold recounts the detours that led him to writing one of the most captivating, quirky, endearing voices of contemporary YA fiction. 

When I talk to Arnold, I’m calling from Brooklyn’s frigid winter. On the receiving end, he’s having a gorgeous day in Kentucky and sounds just as pleasant, warm, and inviting as the Southern climes (requisite lilt included). In his book, Mim is intent to escape from the stifling clutches of a new home in Mississippi with her father and stepmother in order to see her beloved mother in Ohio (a mother whose impending demise Mim is certain is being kept from her). Mim’s journey from Southern point A to Midwestern B isn’t a reasonably straight line. To say there are detours would be understating the depth and breadth of her journey—there’s a fatal wreck, a mysterious locked box, a haircut, a heartthrob, and other life-changing occurrences. In fact, it was a major detour that took Arnold from a profession in the music industry to writing Mim’s story.  

“Before I was writing—and it wasn’t that long ago—I was a professional musician for about 10 years. I had a home studio and it was a great job and I loved itarnold cover and it allowed me to be creative in my own space,” says Arnold. He had always been drawn to storytelling but his writing wasn’t serious, and he admits there was no urgency behind the words. The stories just fell flat. Then along came an unexpected baby and the decision to be a stay-at-home dad, which doesn’t lend itself to making music in the studio. “So I shifted a lot of my energy from music to writing the novel. But more than that, I would say I now had a sense of urgency. And I don’t mean necessarily ‘Quick, quick, quick, I have to write this novel.’ But this is important, this is s erious work that if I don’t do it right now it’s not going to be done.” 

Mim is a strong personality but like any protagonist she isn’t without her struggles. With a history of familial mental illness and as a cardholding member of the Abilify society, Mim has a fragility and vulnerability to her. Whatever the case with her mental health, her own father’s oppressive and obsessive concern for Mim’s mental well-being is at times worse than dealing with therapists, prescriptions, and chemical ups and downs. But Mim doesn’t feel gimmicky, inauthentic, or set on making a statement. “I have no personal experience with that kind of mental illness,” says Arnold. “It certainly wasn’t something that I felt I needed to tackle for the enlightenment of the community. Once I realized, though, that that was a vital part of Mim’s story, I knew I wanted to get it right.” 

It’s a tricky topic but Arnold handles it with the articulate honesty of a respectful outsider. “I had a few of my friends read the manuscript, three in particular who are therapists in their own rights. I just wanted to make sure that I was getting not just the terminology but the tone behind it right.”

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Mim speaks her mind from Mile 1 and by default Arnold does too. “I’m fairly certain that there are going to be a few things in the novel that are offensive to certain people but when presented with the opportunity to tell the truth or the opportunity to not offend somebody I’m going to always tell the truth. And I believe that every word in that book is true to who Mim is. I had to really come to grips with bleeding on the page in a way, which is scary. But it’s the only thing worth reading so it should be the only thing worth writing.”

This detour to writing has also been a detour from the negativity he experienced surrounding success in the music industry. “In my experience there were very few nice people and I’ve just been overwhelmed by the amount of kindness that I’ve felt in the book industry.”

A bit of advice for a getaway: fill your tank, open Mosquitoland, set it to cruise control and let Arnold do all the driving. 

Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. He is at work on his own picture book and teen novel.