Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ned Vizzini
1981 - 2013

I guess there's no "good" way to find out about a person's death. As these things go though, social media has to be one of the worst. 

Yesterday I got on Twitter and noticed that Ned Vizzini was trending. I was like "Oh, that's cool," and clicked on his name. Then I saw the "top tweet", a headline that hit me right in the heart.

Author Ned Vizzini, 32, commits suicide in Brooklyn

I'm still in shock. 

I interviewed Ned in 2012 for Praxis. He was kind, funny, and generous, and I was beyond thrilled that he took the time to talk to me for my little literary magazine. I'd been a huge fan of his work for nearly ten years. It wasn't, however, the first time I corresponded with him.

In the summer of 2003, I was working part-time at the circulation desk of the Fountain Square Library in Indianapolis. One quiet weekday afternoon, I noticed a YA book that had been dropped into the return slot titled Teen Angst? Nah... I checked it in and then, instead of putting it on the shelving cart, I started to read it while standing there at the desk (as I said, it was an unusually quiet day). I was surprised and impressed by this quirky, funny, wise collection of essays from a gifted teen growing up in a loving but eccentric family. I finished it by the time my shift was over.

At the back of the book, there was a website and an email address, encouraging fans to get in touch with the author. I dashed off an email to Ned, telling him that although I was much older than his targeted demographic (30), I still really enjoyed Teen Angst and hoped that he would write more (the book, published in 2000, was his first and only one at the time). I didn't expect to hear back, but a few days later I received a message from Ned. He said he was glad that I enjoyed the book and thanked me for reading. I was touched that he'd taken the time to reply to me.  

Fast forward two years. I was living in St. Paul, MN and, while perusing the stacks in Highland Park Library, I found Vizzini's second book, the 2004 YA novel Be More Chill. I checked it out, read it over the course of a weekend, and loved it. I decided to get touch again, telling him in another email how excited I was to find that he'd written a novel and that I thought it was a very clever and innovative story. I also added something to the effect of "I'm not sure if you remember me, but we exchanged emails a few years back when I wrote to tell you how much I adored Teen Angst."

I got an email from Ned the next day. He wrote, "Yes, I remember you." He thanked me for checking out his novel and told me that he was working on another book that was due out the next year (2006).

I watched for Ned's next book and read it as soon as it hit the library. I was surprised that it was a bit more personal and, although it featured a lot of the humor that he'd become known for, it was a bit more serious than his other work. Titled (ironically) It's Kind of a Funny Story, it was a semi-autobiographical account of a severely depressed young man who checks himself into a psychiatric unit when he starts having serious thoughts of suicide. The novel struck a chord with a lot of his young readership, many of whom wrote in to tell Ned about their own issues with suicidal thoughts and depression and how IKoaFS had helped them get through it. I found myself wishing that the book had existed when I was a teenager, battling my own untreated depression.

Ned Vizzini in an interview with the mental health website Strength of Us
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 years old in the book but gave him my problems and worldview.  
In 2010, IKoaFS was made into a feature film starring Zach Galifianakis. As a fan of the book, I didn't feel that the movie did it justice. The Galifianakis character wasn't even in the novel, yet he featured prominently in the movie (kind of gimmicky, in my opinion). I also thought a lot of the book's humor was absent from the film. Still, I thought the performances were excellent and I was happy for Ned; it was exciting to see his work adapted for the big screen. 

In our interview, Ned talked about about his experiences on the set of the film:
P: You wrote a series of reports from the set of It’s Kind of a Funny Story where you talked about watching the actors shoot the “Under Pressure” scene. Having witnessed it performed live right before your eyes, what was it like seeing it on the big screen? And now (two years later) what stands out the most about your time hanging out with the actors and film crew?
NV: That “Under Pressure” scene looks better on the big screen than it did when it was being filmed. Of course it looked cool then, but when you hear the music being piped in and see the actors taking their positions, you peek behind the curtain in a way you can’t with the finished product. In terms of what stands out the most: filming on the Brooklyn Bridge. I had a date with me when I visited the set that night and she’s now my wife.
Read my Praxis interview with Ned here.

Going through my inbox while writing this, I'm surprised at how many (short, friendly) emails Ned and I exchanged back and forth, particularly over the past year. We also replied to one another several times on Twitter. I think it just goes to show what a sweetheart he was. A busy bestselling author who published two novels in the past two years--The Other Normals in 2012 and House of Secrets in 2013--wrote for television (Teen Wolf, Last Resort, and Believe), contributed work to Salon, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, lectured at colleges throughout the country, and yet still took the time to engage with fans and support his fellow writers. Although I never met him in person, I feel like I got to know him well, or as well as you can get to know someone over email and Twitter.

Link to one of the Tweets I received from Ned, dated January 26th.

The last I heard from him was an email on October 19, which I now sadly realize was two months to the day that he took his life. It was in reply to a message I sent recommending that he read Greg Sestero's The Disaster Artist:
andie thanks for sending me a book rec I actually appreciate!! Tom Bissel cowrote this 'Room' book and I like his writing so I want to check it out.
As I said, I'm still pretty much in shock and my thoughts are unorganized and disjointed. I'm just so saddened by his death. I can't even begin to imagine the hell that his family is going through. My heart goes out to them.

Rest in peace, my friend. The world was lucky to know you.

"Did you have to change all your poet's fire into frozen dust?"