Suzy Gonzales – bright, smart, and her whole future ahead of her – committed suicide in her freshman year of college. She sent a letter on a time delay to her friends and family to let them know what happened. As a magazine journalist, Gayle Forman wrote an article for Cosmopolitan on Gonzales and two other girls who committed suicide that year. But it was Suzy’s story that haunted Forman.
Fast forward a few years. With several successful YA novels under her belt and a companion to her novel Just One Day in edits, everything was falling into place for Forman’s career. But the story of Suzy Gonzales still lingered in the back of Forman’s mind.
And so she took some time for herself while working on edits for Just One Year and started to work on something inspired by Suzy. And I Was Here was born.
“I didn’t write a book about Suzy, obviously, but I began thinking about what would be like to be on the other end of that email, a timed suicide note,” said Forman. “It was clear that somebody had gone away to college and somebody had been left behind.”
In I Was Here, Cody struggles in the aftermath of her best friend Meg’s suicide. When Cody leaves to collect Meg’s things from her college dorm on behalf of her parents, she doesn’t expect to find new potential friends – or to be gifted Meg’s computer and all the mysteries on it. With chunks of Meg’s e-mail inbox missing and an encrypted file in her recycling bin, Cody begins to suspect that somebody may have helped Meg commit suicide. Cody won’t rest until she finds out who and why.
Some might argue that a college setting puts Forman’s novel squarely in the space of the newly crowned “new adult” category, a division of literature devoted to the characters between the 19 – 26 age range and their experiences. But Forman doesn’t see it as new adult.
“I haven’t really written about high school since If I Stay – none of my books have taken place in high school,” said Forman. “I’m much more interested in that transitional space. If we’re talking about young adult, this is the period of young adult. This really is when you’re trying on being an adult, when you’re getting your first flush of independence. That’s one of the reasons I keep getting drawn to this 19, 20, 21 age. I think that we don’t know what to call [the post-high school period]. I often hear people say, ‘Oh, what’s new adult, what’s young adult,’ and once heard an editor describe young adult as being on the precipice of change. I think it is out there, and people are unclear of how to market it, these sort of upper YA as they’re called, or new adult. I think people should write what they want to write, and I think there’s probably a hunger for seeing all kinds of experience and all ages represented.”
Cody’s experience was one that Forman worked hard to capture. The bare bones of the story came to her easily. Forman balanced the dichotomy of Cody’s “caustic anger” with Meg’s loss and the love she still had for her best friend. But things changed as she began writing it. I Was Here wasn’t just the story of the girl who had been left behind. It was also the story of the girl who had left, and just how tangled their lives were.
“What became interesting to me — and wasn’t part of my original conception of the book — was when I finished reading it, how present Meg was on the page, even though she was dead, because Cody’s identity was so wrapped up in Meg – in a bad way,” said Forman. “One of the lessons, if there are lessons, and one of the themes of the book is what happens when you give away your power. From [the discovery of who Meg had given her power to]came the realization that so much of Cody’s view of herself was in relation to Meg, and so instead of taking that out, I went back and wrote that back into it, because it seemed a natural part of who she was. She thought she was only a reflected glory of somebody else and had nothing to offer on her own. She’s an unreliable narrator, in that way, because everything she does over the course of the novel, proves to me just how smart and resourceful and brave and loyal she actually is.”
Characters who struggle with their identity play a huge part in Forman’s novels. The dramatic incidents that surround them set the scene for their characters and their development. Some might describe them as issue books, but Forman disagrees. I Was Here is “no more a suicide book than If I Stay was a car accident book.”
Others would challenge the content of the novels. Too filled with death. Too realistic. Too dark. How can teenagers read such things?
“I don’t believe that reading about anything dark, or anything at all, is going to make you that person. When I was 14, I read Jackie Collins’ books and, by that logic, I should have been a cocaine-snorting slut. And I was not. I just liked to read about those things,” laughed Forman. “The things that we assign them to read in school, whether it’s Shakespeare or Dickens, are incredibly dark and deal with all of these themes, but they deal with them in a context that is not as familiar to teen life, so perhaps that feels safer. They can look at them at a distance. They can look at suicide or depression or madness from that angle. Whereas it’s, I think, scary to parents to see. There’s this idea that ‘oh no, if my kid reads about this, then that’s going to happen to them’ and the reverse of that, ‘if my kid doesn’t read about this, it’s not going to happen.’ And that’s bullshit. That’s magical thinking.”
She’s taken a stand against those who would see so-called dark YA novels as a problem. Take, for example, her recent Time article entitled “Teens Crave Young Adult Books on Really Dark Topics (and That’s OK).”
But while Forman thinks teens should be able to read about the things that interest them, it’s not the only reason she fights for and writes so-called “dark” YA. Forman has seen what happens when dark things latch onto people. Her friends have suffered from depression. And the shame that people attach to the disease, and the isolation it creates, isn’t something she wants anybody to experience.
“It’s weird to say that there’s strength in numbers, but there’s a solace – I think that’s where reading in general is so comforting for so many people, because you see your experience mirrored, whether it’s somebody who’s like you or not like you.”
Of course, Forman doesn’t set out to lecture or teach people through her novels – “it would be horrible, [I] would be writing after-school specials” – but she loves when people talk about the issues her novels touch on. Readers of If I Stay told Forman that it challenged them to “cherish their life, [to]really appreciate what they had because of how it could all change.” If I Was Here can get people to talk about suicide and depression, about “seeing what happens – not just when somebody hides the depression, and is ashamed of the depression, and won’t get treatment for the depression – but seeing what happens really after suicide, the devastation it leaves and that never, ever, ever goes away,” she’ll be satisfied. But it’s only a start to the bigger cultural problem Forman sees.
“Things like [depression]– they thrive in darkness, they thrive in secrecy, so having sort of known a lot of people who have gone through these really serious depressions, the first step in getting out of it has been to talk about it, to admit to it,” said Forman, before groaning, “I’m frustrated that we still have to use that kind of language, admit to something that, to me, is no different with any kind of disease. You wouldn’t feel this same kind of shame if they got pneumonia and needed treatment – so why should you feel that way if you get something that’s biochemically induced and causes a physical kind of reaction?
“You need to find other people who can help you. With depression, that means taking the first step and finding an adult out there – whether it’s your parent or somebody else – who can help you access what you need, which is to find a doctor, to find a therapist. If you want to get treatment, if it’s gonna be mood stabilizers and therapy, there’s stuff out there that works and you need to figure out what it is. You just need to take that first step out of the darkness. And if you’ve lost somebody like this – it takes years to get over loss, and it takes years to incorporate loss into your life. It’s not something you get over on your own. The only solace, I think, is among community, however you find community.”
In the case of the real Suzy Gonzales and the fictional Meg, the community turned out to be dangerous and made their situations worse. “It’s why you have to go to somebody you trust, because there are people out there who don’t have your best interest at heart.”
I Was Here launched onto the New York Times’ bestsellers list the week it released. Readers have loved it. But if Forman could do anything with her power as an author, it would be to make life easier for those who suffer like Meg did and like Suzy did, and to ease the struggling of those left behind like Cody.
“I have seen people who I love deeply fight depression on two fronts – which is on one front, dealing with the actual disease; and on the other front, dealing with the shame of having it. And if I could just slay the shame for people, because the disease is hard enough to deal with, without you feeling like you’ve done something wrong or that you’re weak, because you’re not. It’s something that’s going on in your body that is causing you to feel this horrible way. That, alone, is like getting any physical disease. It’s not because you’re weak. It’s not because you can’t get over it. You need to get the help that you can, because there’s no other way to get over it.”
For more on Gayle Forman, visit her website.