Recently the Brooklyn Rail met with young-adult author Ned Vizzini in his childhood neighborhood of Park Slope to discuss, among other things, his third book, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a novel that channels an autobiographical story of suicidal depression through a teenaged narrator.
Rail: In literary fiction, when a young writer comes up with a hit book, they’re expected to follow up very quickly, and there’s a great amount of pressure that can destroy careers early on. What is it like to be a young writer writing for kids? Versus literary fiction or genre fiction. Is there less pressure, or competition?
Vizzini: There’s definitely not less pressure. If anything, there are tons of people who want to get into writing for young adults, because it’s been very successful over the last ten years. It’s one of the few sections of the market that has shown some robust growth. It’s pretty rare that the young adult community treats you with the same kind of chew you up and spit you out kind of mentality that can ‘inflect’ the literary fiction community. I say ‘inflect’—first of all it’s probably not the correct term—but what I’m getting at is that it’s an easy thing for writers to complain about who can’t come up with a second or third book.
Rail: I’m talking about various critics and authors who are older than us, who lament the break from slow-nurtured careers, in favor of a sped-up process, with a few instant successes.
Vizzini: Well, I started writing when I was 15. I published books when I was 19, 23, and 25, okay? Now I’m 25, I have three books out. They’ve been moderately successful. For a couple of years. Although due to my own neuroses I’ve constantly pursued other employment. I feel like now I’m at a starting point, because I would like to move on to write things for adults. So I’m really at the same level as anybody else, in that regard. I don’t bemoan the fact that I was given the chance to see how the industry works and to develop a readership; I look at it now as entering a new phase.
Rail: What do you think about all the stress that happens to kids who are 15, or 18, in what you call the ‘sixth-life crisis.’
Vizzini: (Laughs) I’m just talking about—I understand that times are tough for everyone, all the time. Everybody has got it worse off than their parents. We all complain about the peculiarities of surviving in the 21st century, right? That being said, there are real consequences to having a child be a professional from the time they’re 4 – 5 years old. When I look at a statistic like the fact that among 15 – 24 year olds suicide is the third leading killer in America [according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 2001]; that sounds like something that should be happening on a Polynesian island. I can’t help but think that it’s tied to the way that we raise people today.
Rail: I do have more questions on how you see therapy and medication and how it’s doled out, but I want to ask you, since you just mentioned plans to write for an older audience: What do you think happens to that kind of stress after you grow up a little, overcome the ‘freshman suicide slump’ (laughter), and realize that life is actually this hurry up and wait deal, where you realize that you had more time than you thought—than your parents told you you had, or your teachers told you you had—this idea of 30 is the new 21, and we have all this free time.
Vizzini: I might have to disagree with that statement. 30 is the new 21. I don’t know. I think 12 might be the new 21.
Rail: It’s true that as kids we’re asked to declare what we want to do, who we want to be for the rest of our lives; in first grade when they ask you what you want to be when you grow up, the answer can actually mean something to people, and they stick to it, through college choices and all of that. But I’m saying that maybe, after college, you don’t necessarily have to stick to it.
Vizzini: That you don’t have to do it?
Rail: Maybe we’re just telling ourselves that it doesn’t matter—and we’re actually ruining our lives. But it seems like we have more time that we were told we’ll have, as kids. And I’m wondering if that’s something you’ve ever considered writing about?
Vizzini: More time than we’re told. A way to reinvent—that’s what I’m trying to write about now. From a bit of a comical perspective. I’m trying to write about a man reinventing himself, because I think there’s room for reinvention in America. I don’t believe that there are no second acts in American lives, as F. Scott Fitzgerald says. There’s room for reinvention all over the place. But you’ve got to be pretty good at the first iteration of what you do to have the opportunity to reinvent yourself in the second.
Rail: Do you feel like talking about the Harvard sophomore a little bit?
Vizzini: You want me to help gang up on this girl?
Rail: I saw something in Forbes that shed a little hopeful light on her situation, in reference to the Jacob Epstein story of about 25 years ago, when he was found out plagiarizing Martin Amis, but then went on to be a successful television writer. Saying there’s hope after plagiarizing.
Vizzini: Of course.
Rail: But at the same time the conservative media will come down really hard on somebody like James Frey for doing a memoir that he embellishes.
Vizzini: First of all, the chief lesson of our young century is that there is no right and wrong. There is no good and evil, except when it comes to the terrorists. Therefore plagiarizing, inventing, calling something nonfiction when it’s fiction, none of these are bad things anymore, they’re only attention-getters. And you can get just as much attention for plagiarizing as you can for writing something really fantastic. In fact if you put those on a chart next to one another, you might get a little more ink for plagiarizing than for inventing, say, a new way of looking at the world. (Laughter)
Rail: You write in the book’s press materials that in the psych hospital you were drawing with Cray-Pas.
Vizzini: Cray-Pas! Yes, that was a fun aspect of my life.
Rail: Did you make the brain maps there, or were you making something else?
Vizzini: No, I made some art. I made some actual paintings when I was in the hospital, which I hadn’t done before. It was actually theraputic; it was fun. I have cell phone pictures of that stuff. Maybe I can put it on my website.
Rail: Did you find anything there to contribute to others, as Craig makes the drawings for his fellow patients and finds enrichment?
Vizzini: Well I think I found that story. It became the book. I found a tale that I wanted to tell.
Rail: Everything in the book is managed; everything from social pressures to feelings are capitalized, and termed. Is that a way for, if not just the character, then our generation to cope with this stuff by making the same kind of systems that we’re put through?
Vizzini: You’re saying that we cope with pressures by putting them into a system?
Rail: Yeah, or at least as an attempted means.
Vizzini: It can be very helpful, no matter what you’re going through, to be observant about it. You can find humor in it that you didn’t expect. I found it really funny that a month after I’d gone on the Today Show, and I was supposed to be going to a high school reunion, where I was supposed to impress everyone with my preternatural success, I was sitting under a television with freaking Cray-Pas in my hands, watching a guy lift his arm over and over again. It was funny; it wasn’t just sad, it was ridiculous. That, for me, was like bringing it into my system; by seeing the humor I brought it into my system of world beliefs and kind of digested it.
Rail: Do you want to talk a little more about the autobiographical process?
Vizzini: Well, writing was a cathartic experience, that I’ll never forget and I’m glad I went through. The basic message of the book is that your life may not get better. But it might be wise for you to remove suicide as an option from your thinking. Maybe you’ll find that things will be slightly better when you do that. But in my life it’s really been maybe the biggest change. I go through a lot of crap, but I’m at a higher level of, let’s call it self-preservation, than I was before. Honestly, when you write a book like this, you’re kind of writing yourself into a corner—a good corner. Like, I can’t be the guy who writes a book about teen depression, where at the end of the book the main character wants to live, and then kill myself. That wouldn’t work. So I’m stuck to living—I’m gonna have to live a long and natural life now.
Rail: Living according to the example of the book.
Vizzini: (Laughter) It was all part of the plan—and love every minute of it.
DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.