Peter Bognanni talks Things I’m Seeing Without You
Seventeen-year-old Tess Fowler has just dropped out of high school. She can barely function after learning of Jonah’s death. Jonah, the boy she’d traded banter with over texts and heartfelt e-mails… In the market for a grief-filled yet laughter-worthy read? Peter Bognanni’s ‘Things I’m Seeing Without You’ is exactly what you need, we caught up with the author to speak about capturing mental health within fiction and more.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us! First up, for those who haven’t heard of ‘Things I’m Seeing Without You’ how would you entice them to pick up a copy?
This is a book about heavy topics. It might be kind of depressing sometimes, but it comes at life with humour, emotion, and enough hope to keep you going. Tess is a funny, if difficult, main character, but I think she’s one worth following. Her dad owns a quirky funeral business. She has dropped out of a Quaker prep school. And all she wants is to figure out if the online relationship she was in meant anything at all. On her way to finding out this answer, she takes on big questions about death, mourning, identity, and the possibility of love after a loss. It will make you laugh. It will break your heart. It will, hopefully, piece it back together again.
Where did the idea for the novel come from?
A few years ago, a person I knew only through social media committed suicide. She was a fan of my first book, and we just exchanged a few messages. But I continued to follow the events of her life with interest. She was a songwriter and occasionally, she would post videos of performances or some lyrics she was tinkering with. I didn’t know her well, at least in a traditional sense, but when she died I felt an absence that I didn’t know how to process. I wanted to explore this feeling in writing, and this book is what eventually came of that exploration.
Grief, suicide, romance and internet relationships are all weaved into the book – what part did you find most difficult to write about?
Honestly, the hardest part of writing this was breaking through my main character’s shield of sarcasm. It can be hard to get Tess to say what she really believes, but as the book develops, she has to break down some of her walls in order to deal honestly with her grief. I felt like I was doing the same thing when I was writing her final scenes.
Mental health plays a large role in the book and it’s written in a way that avoids the stigmas and pitfalls that are usually associated with them. Did you do a lot of research into this topic?
Yes, I did some research. But I also have a long history of dealing with anxiety and depression myself, so some of what I did was try to think about a version of myself who didn’t make the choice to get help. I started experiencing all of this when I was eighteen, and it took me awhile to set aside my shame and talk to someone about it. I couldn’t help wondering: what if I hadn’t done that? What if I had stayed silent? The depiction of the character of Jonah came from this thought experiment. I hope that readers see the dangers of believing the worst about yourself and how much further we have to go as a culture in normalizing mental illness.
How did you capture the authenticity in Tess’s voice?
Long story short: I cheated. I teach a lot of 18-year-old students at Macalester College, where I work. Without those daily interactions with brilliant, funny young women, I’m not sure I would have been able to pull it off. A lot of the insecurities, jokes, and frustrations in the character came from my own experiences of being a teenager, but I had to be sure to filter them through the voice of a modern teen girl. Also: I tried to avoid too much slang. There’s no quicker way to out yourself as a fraud.
Tess is a sarcastic funny character, what’s your favourite joke that she says in the book?
I’m kind of in love with Tess. Or at least, the teenage boy in me is. There are a lot of lines of hers I like. But I think my favourite is a kind of understated joke when she’s describing a guy her own age who doesn’t seem very bright. She says:
“The problem with Skip, I decided, was that he said things.”
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
It’s very possible that I once had such a thing as a “typical writing day,” but now I’m the father of a two-year-old and all of that is out the window. On a day when I’m not teaching, it might go something like this:
1) Wake up earlier than anyone should ever have to wake up.
2) Take some notes for the day’s writing on my computer while my son eats a waffle with his bare hands and watches Paw Patrol on an iPad.
3) Convince my son it is a good idea to go to daycare and not to stay home eating waffles all day.
4) Spend the morning reading about how Donald Trump is eroding the foundations of democracy, and being anxious about how I’m wasting my valuable writing time.
5) Finally, write a few pages in the early afternoon that I don’t hate.
6) Pick up my son and play with fire trucks on the floor until we both fall asleep.
What advice would you give to young people looking to start a career as an author?
Read books twice. That’s right. Two times. Read them the first time for pleasure, but then, if you really love a book, read it a second time as a writer, trying to figure out how it works. What choices did the writer make to fill you so full of wonder? Peek behind the curtain and be open to what it has to teach you. Books are usually the best teachers; you just have to put the work in to find the lessons.
Also, don’t be in a rush to get published. Students are usually resistant to this comment. “Easy for you to say” I can see them thinking, “you’re already published.” But it took me a while to get here, and before it ever worked out, I had to figure out who I was as a writer. It takes a while to get to know your voice, your strengths and interests. Be patient with yourself. Work hard, but be patient.
Lastly, if Tess and her Dad were to plan your funeral, what weird things would you request them to do?
I love this question, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about it. I’m 90% sure I want an ice cream party. I was an ice cream scooper all through high school and I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur. I think right when things are getting depressing, I’d like an ice cream truck to show up and start making people sundaes. Life is fleeting. Eat more ice cream. That would be the message of my funeral. I might even consider that for my tombstone.