Jennifer Hubbard’s terrific new young adult novel, TRY NOT TO BREATHE, explores depression and suicide through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Ryan, who is “fresh out of a mental hospital and trying to figure out how to reboot his life after a suicide attempt” and Nicki, a teenaged girl who is struggling to understand her father’s suicide. Jennifer was kind enough to respond to a few of my questions about her work. The interview follows below.
How did you come to choose the topics of depression and suicide for your book?
They chose me. I’d wanted to write a book on this topic for years. Especially, I wanted to write about someone who comes back from a suicide attempt. There are many good books out there that end at the life-or-death moment, or start with a suicide and explore what led up to it. I wanted to explore the process of putting a life back together, of dealing with the inevitable ups and downs.
I was working on an idea for a verse novel, and I had this image of a boy standing under a waterfall. I wrote the first draft of the early scenes with no clear idea of who he was or what the waterfall meant to him. And then I realized that he was going to tell the story I had wanted to tell for so long. He was the character who was coming back from the brink.
Your two primary characters seem so real. How did you research them?
Most of my characters start talking to me almost of their own volition. I think my stories and characters form in my subconscious, and then move up to my conscious mind.
I’ve been to places like the ones my characters describe: the glass house, the quarry, the waterfall, the graveyard, etc. Ryan and Nicki suit each other well; they don’t let each other get away with their usual defense mechanisms. They encourage each other to take the risks that bring people closer together, most of all the risk of honesty.
Does any of what you write about come out of personal experience?
It seems to me that suicide, depression and mental illness have touched so many people’s lives, that we all know people who have been through such experiences. It is, sadly, not that uncommon. I didn’t base Try Not to Breathe on any one person’s true story, but I used a variety of sources—some more personal than others—to make Ryan’s experiences as authentic as I could.
For a book that deals with life and death issues, I came away from it feeling hopeful. Was that your intention?
Absolutely. It should not be assumed that characters always speak for their writers. But in this case, the insights Ryan has at the end of the book—about change being continual, about the rewards of living—are mine also.
What do you like about writing for young adults?
Young adulthood is an intense time of life, where you have a lot of decisions to make about the future, and you’re confronted by a lot of changes. Also, there are so many firsts: first job, first boyfriend or girlfriend, first time driving, etc. It’s a very rich, interesting time to write about.
And I remember the books I read as a child and a teen with an extraordinary vividness; that’s when books first became important to me. There are teens out there now who review books and blog about them with an enthusiasm that’s wonderful to see.
I think parents could learn a lot about the inner lives of their teenagers by reading your book. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
I think adults can learn more about young adulthood in general by reading the books, and listening to the music, and watching the shows, that their children are interested in. And I think that talking about a book, even if the book doesn’t reflect your own actual life, can bring people together.
Is there a single message that you’d like readers to take away from your book? Or is that a stupid question?
Writers often use a relevant phrase when they sign their books. For this book, I often use, “Live with hope.” That gives you a clue, I think. But mostly, I try to write something that feels true and hope that readers will connect with it, that they will find something meaningful for themselves.
What kind of response have you had to your book? Have you heard from teens who have dealt with depression and suicide?
I appreciate it more than I can say when people take the time to write me about my books. I’ve had some very warm responses to Try Not to Breathe. Some people just like the story or the characters. I’ve heard from a few whose lives have been directly and personally touched by suicide or mental illness and, as you can imagine, those messages are very powerful.
Anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to comment on?
I urge anyone who is dealing with depression or thoughts of suicide to seek help immediately. One resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
About This Blog
Welcome to my blog, which grew out of my experience as a suicide survivor and my experience writing Why Suicide? (see below). On occasion I’ll be posting an essay based on something I’ve read, someone I’ve met, an experience I’ve had, or just a memory of someone in my life who took his or her life. If you have a thought on something I’ve written, I hope you won’t hesitate to join the conversation by leaving a comment.
About Eric Marcus
Eric Marcus is the author of several books, including Why Suicide?, Is It A Choice?, and Making Gay History. He is also co-author of Breaking the Surface, the #1 New York Times bestselling autobiography of Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis. And he currently serves on the national board of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (Photo Credit: Dixie Sheridan.)