What draws you to writing about characters with mental health issues?
I write about people who see the world in unique, deceptively simple, wise, and often hilarious ways. Traditionally, artistsa shockingly large number were/are also members of the mental health communityhave stood on the fringe of society and looked back from a different vantage point. They see and convey what the herd cannot. When I was a teenager, I was struggling with anxiety and depression. I didn't know what those things were back then; I just felt embarrassingly odd. But the depression and anxiety made me different, gave me an atypical point of view, and ultimately drove me to the page and kept me there. Being different gave me a voice and made me a fiction writer. Many of my characters have personal struggles that also give them something unique to sayoften times, what so called 'normal' people cannot.
Why Richard Gere?
Years ago, I received a Free Tibet letter in the mail signed by Richard Gere. I remember coming home and my wife joking, "Someone famous sent you a letter!" This was back before I had brushed up against fame and the thought of corresponding with someone specialas silly as it soundsgave me a thrill. I immediately realized it was a form letter mass produced by a machine, that the PRETTY WOMAN lead had never actually touched the piece of paper in my hands. And yet, it was a thrill anyway. I wondered if there were really people out there who thought Richard Gere was personally sending them mail. People lonely enough to pretend. I marveled at the power of celebrity and the experience stayed with me. When I started writing THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW, I began researching Gere's life and worldview. In many ways, he was the perfect mentor for Bartholomew. Synchronicity? I've scratched my head many times.
How is writing an epistolary novel different than writing a traditional format?
Since my early teen years, I've always had pen pals, to whom I've written endless epic letters, so I'm quite at home with the format. Reading a letter addressed to someone else provides a thrilling, vicarious intimacy. Maybe like emotional pornography. I find it fascinating, studying how one human being presents him or herself to another in the privacy of written correspondence. We aren't experiencing Bartholomew Neil as he presents himself to the world, but as he presents himself to an imaginary Richard Gere. Those are two very different realities. It's almost as good as having access to a person's prayers.
All of your books have been optioned for film; do you keep that in mind when you're writing?
At the end of my MFA experience I saw LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE in the theater; it was a moment. I had been reading a lot of highbrow literature with a capital L and trying to convince myself that I was going to be a Nobel Prize winner like the man I was studying (and obsessing over) at the time: Gao Xingjian. I was also secretly working on Silver Linings, worrying that it was too commercial, as crazy as that sounds now. Soul Mountain was a transcendent reading experience, but watching LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was probably more important career-wise, because I had a revelation and it went something like this: 'Q, you love quirky movies about misfits; these are the types of stories that make you happiest; just write them; be okay with that.' That was it. Never did I think that if I continued to write quirky stories about misfits, I would be attending the Oscars in just a few years. I would have sooner believed I would travel to Mars. When Dayton and Faristhe husband and wife team who brought us LITTLE MISS SUNSHINEwere tapped to direct THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW, that MFA revelation I had in the movie theater took on a heightened meaning. Synchronicity? Looking back, I like to think my career took off when I stopped trying to be what I wasn't and started writing what I felt called to write. It was never, 'Hey, write a book that can be made into a movie,' but rather, 'Tell the stories that are in you to tell; put the most authentic version of yourself into the world, and maybe good things will happen.'
Do you have people in mind in your life that you occasionally model your characters after?
Consciously, never. Subconsciously ... am I responsible for my subconscious?
What role do you see humor playing in your writing?
Humor keeps me here on this planet writing. As someone who deals with depression and anxiety, I've learned that laughter is right up there with oxygen, sleep, scotch, story, love, and long walks with my wife. I've heard people say the best comedians are the saddest people, and maybe it's because they appreciate the value of a good laugh more than those less sad. If I'm not laughing and crying consistently when I write, I won't finish the project.
Where did you hear of synchronicity?
The first time I heard the word 'synchronicity' was on the radio: Sting singing the song by The Police. I was a kid and I had no idea what it meant. Much later in life I came across Jung's work, probably when I started to read Joseph Campbell. I am not an expert on Jung or synchronicity, but I am thoroughly fascinated by the concept. While I was writing The Good Luck Of Right Now, many coincidences happened, which were, of course, heightened by the subject matter of my novel. I'll be talking about this on book tour with much more specificity.
Do you believe in fate?
When I taught Oedipus Rex to high school students, I used to take it to the next mind-blowing level and ask, 'Does it matter if we believe in fate?' No one wants to be Oedipus. When Alicia and I stood on the red carpet at the Oscars amongst A-list celebrities, I had a moment when I realized I couldn't possibly answer this question: "How the hell did I end up here?" I'm not sure I will ever be able to answer that objectively. I have a lot of religious baggage left over from my youth, which I'm sure my readers have noticed. Maybe everyone has his or her own dharma. Maybe everyone vibrates at a certain frequency. My mother would say I'm 'fulfilling my purpose.' I don't know. But GOOD LUCK is definitely an attempt to revel in the mysteries of the unknown. And maybe that's all we humans can ever dorevel in the mysteries.
What can people learn from your narrator's unique perspective?
Every reader has a very personal and intimate relationship with a novel and I fear that stating what I hope can be learned would take the mystery and fun out of the reading experience. It's a spoiler. It's also worth noting that I continue to be delightfully surprised by the vast array of reader reactions, which collectively have a way of illuminating my work for me. I've often said I don't really know what my books are about until after they've been published and run through the minds of the masses. My job as a fiction writer is to create the story and send it into the world. Readers react while I write the next book. As a former teacher, I'm all for learning, but I never want my fiction to be didactic.
You recently published a YA novel as well; what is it like tailoring your writing for the youth and adult audiences?
I do the same thing regardless of how the industry labels my novels. There are misconceptions about Young Adult literature, many of which do a great disservice to the genre. The only difference between my YA and Adult works is this: the age of my protagonists. I approach everything else exactly the same way. One thing I love about teen readers, they have less reading baggage and tend not to posture. If they love something, they love it independent of what everyone else is saying and aren't afraid to proclaim that love loudly. But there are many adults who have managed to hold onto this good trait. These are always my favorite people. Love what you love. Be you. Maybe the hardest thing to be, but always the best.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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