Every Star That Falls
How did you research about psychiatric ward when writing Suicide Notes?
I have several friends who work in psychiatric hospitals, and with young patients, and they were wonderful resources for details about those places and how they’re run. Each place is different, of course, but there are enough common elements among them that it made creating the setting for Jeff’s story easier. I was both pleased and relieved when I began getting messages from readers saying, “This is exactly what the hospital I was in was like!” Not that I’m happy that anyone has to spend time in such places, but it was gratifying to hear that I captured the experience effectively.
And was it easy to decide how many details to include in the book so as to trigger readers or give harmful representations accidentally?
That’s always one of the trickier bits of writing a novel, particularly one that addresses emotionally difficult experiences. What is upsetting to one reader may not be upsetting to another, and how you experience a character’s story can vary greatly depending on what your own experience has been. My main purpose in writing the book was to look at how we deal with trauma and ask readers to think about how our responses to these events can differ. With Jeff’s experience specifically, I wanted to write about dealing with trauma with humour, which has always been my own approach and one that can easily be misunderstood. We are not all the same, and we don’t respond to trauma in one way, so I wanted to encourage readers to view things through not just their own experiences but experiences that are different from theirs.
It has been some years since you wrote Suicide Notes. Do you think the situation around teenagers’ mental health has changed?
I think we’ve gotten much better about acknowledging things like trauma and mental health. We didn’t used to talk about these things much at all, which made them feel like secrets we weren’t meant to share with anyone. Social media, while it can sometimes contribute to unhealthy behavior, has helped a great deal with letting people know that they aren’t alone and that there are resources for us if we’re struggling. The past few years have been challenging for most of us, and particularly for young people, and it’s been good to see more discussion about the things that young people are concerned about.
What about support for them to get the help they need?
That varies from place to place, of course, but in general I think access to resources is much better now and will continue to improve the more we talk openly about things like depression, trauma, and mental health. Again, social media has been helpful in this regard. Knowing that someone whose music they relate to, or who they see in films, might have some of the same struggles as they do themselves can be enormously helpful to people and is often the first step in getting more professional help in terms of diagnosis, treatment, and ongoing support.
The sequel to Suicide Notes, Every Star That Falls, just came out. How did you feel when you first realised everyone wants to know what happens next?
As a writer it’s always a fantastic feeling when readers relate so strongly to a character you’ve created that they want to know more of that person’s story. I was particularly pleased that people didn’t ask just about Jeff, the main character of Suicide Notes. They also wanted to know what happens to the other characters, particularly his best friend, Allie, and Rankin, one of the other boys in the hospital with Jeff who has a huge emotional impact on him. Something happens between them that readers react very strongly to and have a lot of questions about, and I was happy to see them thinking about that character so deeply and wanting to know more about him instead of just being upset with him for what transpires between him and Jeff.
And when and how did you decide it’s the right time to continue the story?
For a very long time I said that I would never write a sequel to Suicide Notes, because readers have different ideas about what they want to see happen to characters they love, and often I think it’s better to let them imagine the next part of the story for themselves and not disappoint them. But there were more things I wanted to say about Jeff and some of the other characters in Suicide Notes, and new characters I wanted to introduce readers to, so I decided to do it. Even though a long time has passed between when Suicide Notes was published and now, Every Star That Falls begins the day that Suicide Notes ends, so now it’s possible for new readers to end one book and go right into the next part of the story. Readers of Suicide Notes have had to wait very patiently to find out!
Now that you have written Every Star That Falls, do you think the support for teenagers who left the psychiatric ward is enough? What more should be done?
There’s always room for improvement regarding how we address mental health issues, for everyone. Ongoing support of all kinds is necessary. When it comes to things all of us can do, I believe it’s most important that we learn how to listen to people whose experiences might be different from our own and always treat others in a way that allows them to feel they’re respected and heard. We can’t assume that our personal experiences are the same experiences others have had. What that really means is to always be kind. It’s too easy to react to people with anger or frustration when they behave in ways we don’t immediately understand. This is especially true on social media, where it’s easy to forget that the people we see in comments, in photos, and in videos are more than what we might immediately read or see. It’s also important for all of us to understand that even when it might feel like it, we are not alone, and that situations that feel hopeless can change when we reach out and ask for help.