By Julie Kish

Scarborough is featured prominently in Leanne Toshiko Simpson’s debut novel, Never Been Better. The Mowat Collegiate graduate (class of 2010) has written a romantic comedy featuring three friends who meet while confined to a psychiatric ward in a Scarborough hospital.

Never Been Better is a witty story about a destination wedding, but it’s also about the serious issue of mental illness. The three main characters all have bipolar disorder. See review

“People hear it’s a mental health story, and they think it’s going to be really sad,” said Leanne. “In books and movies, mental illness is often used as a plot device, or it makes up someone’s whole character, but people with mental illness live very full lives. Don’t they deserve love stories and happily ever after?”

Leanne is speaking from personal experience. In her final year at Mowat, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a significant psychiatric illness that can be treated but not cured. Leanne says her life from age 17 to 24 was “really hard.” She was too sick to finish high school or graduate with her classmates. “They just froze my marks and passed me because I had already won a scholarship to the University of Toronto.”

Over the following years, she was on 21 different medications until the doctors finally found the right combination for her.

Despite these challenges, Leanne excelled at university, earning a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. She won a creative writing contest at the University of Toronto Scarborough in 2014 and was named Scarborough’s Emerging Writer in 2016. Leanne is currently working on her Doctorate at the University of Toronto and teaching undergraduate classes. She has also worked on the “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign to increase awareness about mental health.

In addition to writing a novel and earning three degrees, Leanne somehow found the time to get married and have a baby. She admits she doesn’t have much time for writing at the moment, but her novel was already finished when her son was born six months ago.

She spent six years, on and off, working on her novel. Initially, she considered writing a memoir but decided to write this fictional story.

“Fiction allows you to get at the truth of something without having to wound yourself or anyone else to do it,” Leanne said.

The characters in her novel are composites, and the story is “a mash-up of things that have happened and things that haven’t happened,” she said. In the book, there is a reference to the characters hauling a sofa onto a store roof to watch the sunset, and Leanne confirms this is an experience from her youth.

Leanne loved growing up in the West Rouge area. “We lived for the West Rouge Fun Fair and the community centre dances.”

“Scarborough is a beautiful, vibrant and community-oriented place, and this is how it is represented in my novel,” Leanne said. Although she lives in the Riverdale area now, Leanne visits Scarborough often since her parents still live in West Rouge.

Leanne believes she has managed better than others with her diagnosis because she was diagnosed young and has a very supportive family. Still, she is clearly an exceptionally strong young woman. She is also brilliant, incredibly resilient and exceptionally brave. She has already started working on her next novel.

Never Been Better is published by HarperCollins and will be available for purchase on March 5.