Leanne Toshiko Simpson is a mixed-race Yonsei writer pursuing an EdD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She teaches undergraduate courses in BIPOC and disabilities literature at U of T. 

Simpson credits her diagnosis of bipolar disorder at 17 years old, and her subsequent hospitalization in a psychiatric ward, with inspiring her to become an ardent advocate for mental health awareness in her academic, professional, and literary life. Never Been Better is Simpson’s debut novel, published this month with HarperCollins Canada. 

Described by the publisher as My Best Friend’s Wedding meets Silver Linings Playbook, Never Been Better entered the contemporary fiction scene as an offbeat, heartfelt novel about three friends who met in a psychiatric ward. 

When Matt and Misa invite Dee to their seaside wedding a year after discharge, Dee must reckon with the unspoken feelings she has harboured for Matt since before she was kicked out of the hospital. However, if Dee confesses her feelings for Matt at the wedding-belled resort in Turks and Caicos, she risks jeopardizing her entire support system. Ultimately, as the book’s synopsis writes, when readers follow Dee’s whirlwind expedition to Matt and Misa’s wedding, they must ask: “Is she falling in love or falling apart?”

The Varsity recently had the privilege of interviewing Simpson to learn about her personal experiences with mental health recovery, her Japanese-Canadian identity, and her voyage into the writing and publishing world.

The Varsity: Take me to the very start of your writing process. When did the first inklings of Never Been Better erupt in your head, what inspired you, and how did you work to further develop it?

Leanne Toshiko Simpson: During my undergrad at U of T, I dropped out and spent time in a psychiatric ward, where I wasn’t allowed to read many books about bipolar disorder because my doctor was worried they were all too sad. The one exception was The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, which was an unusual romantic comedy — it was such a beacon for me that I hoped one day I’d be able to write something similar. 

I wasn’t really well enough to reflect on my experiences in the hospital. It was in my creative writing MFA at the University of Guelph that I finally delved into fiction and ended up penning Never Been Better — which I like to call a mental health beach read!

TV: Your novel’s primary characters all struggle with bipolar disorder in varying ways. What was it like bringing that aspect of your personal life into your craft? 

LTS: I think I always knew whatever I ended up writing would tackle bipolar disorder — but I knew I also had to do it in a way that was safe for me. Fiction, and romantic comedy in particular, helped make that possible. I really wanted a story with a happy ending, the kind that would have given me hope ten years ago. But at the same time, I wanted to capture the realities of living with chronic mental illness, which I knew all too well. 

I am so glad that Never Been Better balances both — it refuses to fall into an easy recovery narrative but it also highlights the importance of the small but important steps forward and the big-hearted community that comes with a diagnosis. 

TV: This novel deals heavily with Japanese-Canadian identity through the character of Misa. Was there an authorial intention to write this novel from the first-person perspective of a white protagonist, Dee?

LTS: When I started writing the original plot of Never Been Better seven years ago, I think I was still working through what it meant to be mixed-race Japanese Canadian. As a result, a lot of the novel’s growth comes from conversations between Dee and Misa, who tend to misunderstand each other — and I think that also reflects how I felt about the tension between my identities at the time. 

It’s an unusual authorial choice, but I think it reflects who I was at the time. That being said, my next book is written quite differently, as I have become more confident writing in conversation with Japanese-Canadian history. 

I think when you’re writing an often-overlooked story and feeling the weight of representation, there can be a sense that you have to get it ‘right.’ But seeing as I am writing from a community that has been deeply impacted by political violence, I’ve learned to recognize that there are layers and layers of experiences out there, and all I can do is try to write through those gaps in understanding and capture the many nuances of our lives.

TV: You have said that 2000s rom-coms heavily inspired this novel. Without giving too much of the plot away, were there any aspects of the rom-com genre that you were particularly excited to employ and other aspects that you were committed to avoid?

LTS: I love the structure of classic rom-coms — they offer us a strong sense of comfort amidst some compelling character-driven storytelling. But at the same time, I think many critics have noted that ‘happily ever afters’ aren’t always available for people living on the margins, and one thing my book tries to do is tackle why that is, and why romantic love is sometimes offered as a ‘fix’ when there are so many other competing and important factors in our overall happiness. Although the set-up is quite cinematic, I think how my characters learn to care for each other is very real in that sense.

TV: Could you give us some insight into what your publishing process was like? And, what advice would you give to any aspiring writers from U of T?

LTS: My process was very long! But I think that ended up helping me process everything. As a disabled person, I knew that I’d need to be able to support myself and afford medication throughout my writing process, so I worked in communications until my book came out this year and taught part-time too. Although it meant I moved a bit more slowly than some of my peers, I was also able to take care of my health and grow alongside my characters. 

I was initially approached by my agent, who saw a video blog I did about my illness, when I was working on a memoir in 2016, but I’m very glad that I didn’t end up submitting a manuscript until this one was ready in 2020. It’s the right story for me to tell, and the longer timeline gave me time to improve my writing skills and get comfortable being an advocate for others.

TV: Give readers a teaser of the novel’s vibes! What are five things you associate with your book?

LTS: My Best Friend’s Wedding, infinity pool, Fanta, onigiri, and old-school burned CDs!

Interested readers can purchase a copy of Never Been Better at local bookstores such as Queen Books, TYPE Books, Book City, Ben McNally Books, Another Story Bookshop and more. Simpson’s novel can also be purchased through Indigo and Amazon. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.