The PEN Pod: On Knowing We’re Not Alone with BIll Konigsberg
Bill Konigsberg is the award-winning author of six young adult novels, including The Porcupine of Truth, which won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Stonewall Book Award in 2016, and Openly Straight, which won the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor and was a finalist for the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award and Lambda Literary Award in 2014. He joined us on The PEN Pod to discuss the hidden mental illness epidemic, especially amidst the ongoing pandemic; how we can promote a more sensitive and comprehensive national conversation about mental health; and the necessity of more LGBTQIA+ representation in young adult literature.
Content warning: This interview includes discussions of suicide and suicidal ideation.
The Bridge, your new novel, deals very frankly with mental health issues, in particular depression and suicide. These issues are obviously extremely important at all times, but for me it feels especially timely now, given the toll that this moment is having for so many of us—not just on our physical well-being with fears about the virus, but also our mental health, perhaps especially so for young people who are coming of age right now. How did this story emerge from your own experiences with mental health?
I am someone who’s dealt with chronic depression since my childhood. And actually, when I was 27 years old, I did attempt suicide by taking pills. For so much of my professional life, I’ve been writing and talking about being gay, and right around the time I was searching for my next book idea, after The Music of What Happens—which was my last book—I saw this epidemic of suicide all around me, especially in young people, so I decided it was time to write about it. And now, it kind of feels like a second coming out almost—in some ways talking about mental health is more challenging for me than even talking about sexual orientation. And maybe that’s because it’s new. As for this moment, yes. I hear so many people struggling, and I myself have been struggling with severe depression recently. One thing that’s helping is knowing that I’m not alone. I am certain that a lot of young people are struggling, and boy, do I hope this book helps them.
“Now, it kind of feels like a second coming out almost—in some ways talking about mental health is more challenging for me than even talking about sexual orientation. And maybe that’s because it’s new. As for this moment, yes. I hear so many people struggling, and I myself have been struggling with severe depression recently. One thing that’s helping is knowing that I’m not alone. I am certain that a lot of young people are struggling, and boy, do I hope this book helps them.”
Another guest we’ve had on the pod, Andrew Solomon, who is the author of The Noonday Demon and is a former president of PEN America has spoken very frankly about the hidden mental health epidemic that’s happening at the same time as the very visible one that we’re seeing now.
Yes, I saw that Michelle Obama recently spoke about dealing with sort of a low-grade depression. I just think that we’re learning that we need to talk about this, that this has been a taboo for so long, and we’re finally as a society coming to talk about mental health.
You mentioned earlier that it feels in a way like a second coming out for you, talking about depression and mental health. I found it really interesting that the two main characters of the novel—Aaron, who is white and gay, and Tillie, who is a Korean American adoptee—are both from marginalized groups in which perhaps it’s even harder to talk about the struggles that they’re facing. How did you decide to tell this story from these two dual perspectives?
I think I typically identify with characters from marginalized groups, and that’s probably because I grew up gay during the 1980s, when it was particularly challenging. In terms of these specific characters, my process is I generally allow my imagination to play, and the characters begin to come to me through their voices. I hear their voices. And with Aaron and Tillie, I heard them quite clearly. So, I just went and figured out the answer about why it would come. And I think it did—Aaron is very much like I was as a teen; he’s scared, he’s lonely, he has depression and doesn’t understand that. I certainly didn’t. Most importantly, he wants more than anything to be admired.
I also have just a strong connection really with Tillie, but I would say it’s more metaphorical. Growing up, my parents divorced when I was four, and my father got remarried and started a new family. And I guess just like Tillie, I felt like a misfit in my own home—like their new son was my father’s real son and that he wished he never had me, which probably wasn’t true, but it’s certainly how I felt. Tillie was adopted by wealthy white people who couldn’t have a biological child, and then about seven years later, they got pregnant. So she feels like she doesn’t belong, like an outcast, and I totally get that. She’s also a big girl. A reviewer wrote, “She’s a big girl in a skinny family,” and that is definitely something I can relate to metaphorically.
“I think the misfits have stories to tell. People who feel that way have more of a need to read in some ways, so I think it’s a perfect marriage.”
When I was a young adult and reading YA books, a lot of the experiences that I was drawn to—even if the experiences of the characters were very different from my own lived experiences—were of characters who felt like outcasts or were misfits, as you said. I think it’s just something that’s so needed, especially for younger readers.
Absolutely. I think the misfits have stories to tell. People who feel that way have more of a need to read in some ways, so I think it’s a perfect marriage.
Do you foresee us as a nation taking more positive steps towards recognizing the need for and providing proper resources for mental health?
Well, I certainly hope we will. I don’t think we will before November 2nd, but my hope is that there’s this groundswell for conversation about mental health issues. Whenever I’ve spoken about this book, either online or in person, I have to say that the excitement for the topic is unparalleled for me in my career. Everybody is looking for this conversation. And I do think given the right administration—an administration that has maybe a more caring regard for its citizens or more holistic one—positive steps are achievable. We just have to elect the right people and realize that money spent on mental health will actually greatly improve our society. I really hope that this is a new revolution. That would be a really good thing for us.
One important consideration in discussing or portraying difficult topics like suicide or self harm is, how to talk about it without glamorizing it. In recent years, there’s been increasing conversation and perhaps criticism leveled at shows like Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. Was that something that you were considering while you were writing The Bridge? How can we as a society talk about these issues in an open, but still sensitive and mindful fashion?
That question hits the nail on the head. Those were the main things that I was thinking about when I wrote this book. I was and still am extremely concerned about media that glamorizes suicide, and I see a lot of it. When I think of 13 Reasons Why, I do think it’s a very smart story, and I think it’s well told—both book and movie, or TV show. But I think that there can be an impact to books and movies that go on to something like a post-suicide, revenge fantasy without actually exploring the repercussions of the actual suicide, especially for a teen audience.
In part of my research, I went up to the top of the George Washington Bridge where this book starts. I did that for research, and it showed me the brutal reality of that place, how dreadful and unhappy it is. My heart breaks, thinking of the people whose lives ended there, and I couldn’t leave soon enough. So I was very clear as I was writing about it that I wanted to make sure it was clear how brutal and awful that experience was. I didn’t want anyone thinking, “I should check that out,” and of course, by writing the book the way I did by exploring, as I do in this book, every possible permutation.
“The inclusion of joy is a huge shift that I’m sure is having a big impact on young people. I think what we have to do now is simply grow, find the unheard voices and have those stories told—preferably by their own voices, because that sort of representation was elemental to my own survival, as a young gay. I know how valuable and lifesaving it can be.”
So two kids meet on top of the George Washington Bridge. They both are there to jump. They interrupt each other. Then basically, we explore all four things that could happen: either of the teens jumping, both of them jumping, neither jumping. My hope is by doing that, the novel will be thought-provoking for young readers who are struggling with suicidal ideation, about what their choices are—, even when it feels like they have none, which is definitely how a deeply depressed person feels, and I know that. I wanted young readers to have a safe place to explore the ramifications of suicide and how far-reaching they are. I’ve been calling the inclusion of these topics a more complete discussion of suicide. And my hope is, as a nation and as a world, we start having more complete conversation.
How have media representations of LGBTQIA+ youth and the way that mental health particularly impacts the community changed over the last decade or so? And what do you think are some steps that we can take towards more accurate and well-rounded representations and stories?
Especially when it comes to LGBTQ+ plus youth, I think that the most incredible thing is just how media representations of LGBTQ+ youth have changed so dramatically in such a short time. When I published my first book Out of the Pocket, which was 2008, there were maybe 30 books that year in the young adult canon that had LGBTQ+ protagonists. I believe now it’s something like 300 to 400, the last I heard. But within that, there was this painful lack of novels with trans characters, people of color, and there were lack of novels with characters dealing with something other than coming out as the main issue. I mean, when I think about it, really, the inclusion of joy is a huge shift that I’m sure is having a big impact on young people. I think what we have to do now is simply grow, find the unheard voices and have those stories told—, preferably by their own voices, because that sort of representation was elemental to my own survival, as a young gay. I know how valuable and lifesaving it can be.
I feel like the answer to the question of how we can responsibly depict different stories always comes back to this idea of more. We just need to really open those gates and allow for stories about, for example, coming out or traumatic things, but also, talking about joy and what day-to-day life looks like for a character that would fit into any one of these intersections of identity. That’s something I absolutely agree with, and I’m hopeful that we do move in that direction overall.
I’m cautiously optimistic when I see some of the titles that are coming out. I think, “Okay, this is new. So let’s hope there’s more coming.”