Author Ned Vizzini Talks about Depression, Suicide & Writing
Ned Vizzini is the author of three acclaimed young adult books: It's Kind of a Funny Story (now a major motion picture), Be More Chill, and Teen Angst? Naaah.... He has spoken at over 200 schools, universities and libraries around the world about writing and mental health. He writes about books in the New York Times Book Review and the L Magazine.His work has been translated into seven languages.
In November 2004, Ned called a suicide hotline after experiencing symptoms of clinical depression and suicidal ideation. His subsequent hospitalization and recovery was the basis for It's Kind of a Funny Story.
I had the good fortune of talking with Ned about his experiences. Check out the interview below to learn more about Ned and his thoughts on depression, suicide and writing.
Be the first to post a comment on this blog and win a signed copy of It's Kind of a Funny Story!
1. How much of It’s Kind of a Funny Story is true?
It's Kind of a Funny Story is 85% true. I actually did spend a week in the adult wing of a psychiatric hospital in Brooklyn after calling a suicide hotline in fall 2004. I was 23 at the time, however, not 15. I made the main character, Craig, 15 in the book but gave him my problems and worldview. Then I added the love triangle.
More specifically, in It's Kind of a Funny Story, Nia is based on a real person. Noelle is made up. The hospital patients are based on real people
2. What made you write It’s Kind of a Funny Story? Did you ever get nervous sharing so much information about yourself in the book?
I wrote It's Kind of a Funny Story because after I got out of the hospital, I had a very clear moment (when I was in my kitchen going through my receipts) where I felt “the Shift” as described in the book. I realized that suicide was not an option for me and I would be sticking around one way or another.
After that, I began writing about my time at the hospital. The writing flowed easily and I knew it could become a book. Since I find it hard to write books, I held onto that idea tightly and kept at it until the manuscript was complete.
I did not get nervous about sharing information about myself in It's Kind of a Funny Story. I'm a very open person who talks too much about myself anyway so I don't have any problem doing that in a book and getting paid.
3. How did family and friends react to the book?
My family was very supportive of It's Kind of a Funny Story. It was difficult for some of them to read because it starts in such a dark place, but the family members who have read it know that it ends in a better place. They have all bought the book, read it and told people about it, which is the way that a book lives. I'm very thankful for that.
When it comes to my friends, I'm not sure. I don't ask my friends if they've read my books.
4. What do you want young adults to take away from It’s Kind of a Funny Story?
What I would like young adults to take away from It's Kind of a Funny Story is that if you're feeling suicidal, call a hotline. Suicidal ideation really is a medical emergency and if more people knew to call the suicide hotline we'd have less suicides. One number, as related in the book (and just verified on Google), is 1-800-SUICIDE.
5. How does it feel to have your book become a movie? Was it weird to see it on the big screen? Do you have a favorite scene from the movie?
I felt very lucky seeing It's Kind of a Funny Story get turned into a movie. It was a bit weird to see some personal aspects of my life on the big screen but I made a decision long ago to turn my personal life into entertainment ― I can't complain about it now. Overall I just felt lucky because the movie did a good job capturing the tone and feel of the book and that often is not the case.
My favorite scene from the movie is where Craig is drawing maps under the table and his mother tells him to try and draw maps of “imaginary places.” My mother really gave me this advice when I was five in 1986! So for me watching this scene is like watching a memory with great lighting.
6. Why did you decide to go to the hospital? What did you learn from your experience being there? What was it like returning to your life after being hospitalized?
I decided to go to the psychiatric hospital because I was told to go. The person on the suicide hotline said I could go myself or they could send an ambulance for me. I didn't want to wake my parents so I put on my shoes and left. Sometimes I'm good at following orders.
The number one thing I learned in the hospital was that the things that I had given power over my life, like email, which I used to get very stressed out about, didn't really control me. When you're cut off from your email and your phone, you learn that they can't really kill you.
It felt great to return to real life after my time in the hospital. More than anything else, I didn't want to go back. I wanted it to be something that I learned from and the way I could prove that was by never returning.
7. What helped you the most in recovering from depression and suicidal thoughts? How are you able to manage your depression now?
Three things helped me most in recovering from depression and suicidal thoughts:
- My parents. I did not want to make them ask the questions that they would ask themselves if I killed myself.
- My retirement account. I have money that I can't access before age 59 ½ without facing tax penalties. I want to live long enough to get this money.
- It's Kind of a Funny Story. I wrote a book about overcoming suicide and depression, so if I killed myself now it would be dumb.
This might seem like an insensitive list, because not everyone has parents, a retirement account or a book so what can they do?
One way that I manage my depression on a day-to-day basis is by remembering something from the Dalai Lama's book, The Art of Happiness. The Dalai Lama reminds the reader that there are always consequences to negative behavior. If you wake up and you don't get out of bed because you're stressed out, you will feel guilty and terrible about that later in the day. Remembering how bad you feel as a result of negative behavior will help prevent you from engaging in that behavior.
8. How do you overcome negative or suicidal thoughts? What is your favorite distraction from these thoughts?
Reading helps me overcome negative and suicidal thoughts. Besides The Art of Happiness, I have found a lot of strength in Andrew Solomon's book, The Noonday Demon. I've also always liked Jesus' comments in the Sermon on the Mount about worry: “What man by worrying has added a second to his life?”
My favorite distraction from suicidal thoughts is riding my bike. Bad thoughts get caught under the front wheel and good ones whiz up the back into my brain.
9. What tips do you have for other young adults who have negative thoughts or are living with depression?
If you are living with depression, you have to keep track of that voice in your brain that says, “Hey, it's all right. You're overreacting. You're being a drama queen.” No matter how depressed you get, you have this voice. It's easy to bury this voice under your worries, but as long as you can find it, you'll be all right.
10. Are there any other books or movies you recommend for young adults living with depression?
I recommend The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon and Quitting the Nairobi Trio by Jim Knipfel. The first two I mentioned before. The third is a memoir about the author's time in a psych hospital that shows how humor conquers all.
11. What tips do you have for young adults who want to write? How do you overcome writer’s block? Where do you get your inspiration to write?
The number one thing that I tell young people who want to write is to not write a book. Writing a 300-page novel is difficult and time consuming. It's likely that you will get to page 60 and hate the whole process and give up on writing altogether. It's better to start with short pieces. I recommend short stories about your own life. That way, you know what happens and you can't procrastinate as easily. (It's very easy when writing fiction to say, “I'm not sure what happens,” and then you take a break and brush your teeth and eat some yogurt and all of a sudden you're dead and you haven't written anything).
I overcome writer's block through fear and shame. I know that if I am not writing I am disappointing people. I get my inspiration to write from fear of death and failure.
12. Describe your perfect day.
On my perfect day, I wake up at 6a.m. filled with an inspiring idea, sit down to write it and don't get up except to use the bathroom, drink coffee and eat junk food until I know I've got something unassailable and true. Then I ride my bike and hang out with my wife.
13. What is your greatest strength? What makes you feel strong?
My greatest strength is my ability to observe. I don't always observe the right things (I'm terrible with names, for instance) but I have a knack for observing things that, when I write them down later, people say “I noticed that too!” or “I felt that way too!” When I'm able to do this and connect with readers, I feel strong.
14. What are your future goals and plans? Will you be writing any other books?
My future goals and plans are to have a family and a writing career and stay solvent until I die. I have a new book on the way; it will be announced in 2011!
15. What is one thing you want other StrengthofUs users to know about you?
One thing I would like StrengthofUs users to know is that I have spoken around the world at over 200 universities and libraries about writing and mental health and I would be thrilled to visit a university, library or organization in your area!