Author Matthew Quick is most famous these days for his first novel, The Silver Linings Playbook (FSG, 2008), the basis for the award-winning 2012 film of the same name, written and directed by award-winning David O. Russell of American Hustle (2013) and Three Kings (1999). But before Silver Linings, he was already well known in the YA world for the first two of his three stunning teen novels (all Little Brown), all centered around issues of traumatic grief and mental health: Sorta Like a Rock Star (2010), Boy21 (2012), and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (2013). More recently, he has published another adult novel, The Good Luck of Right Now (HarperCollins, 2014). His novels draw their strength from Quick’s incredibly deft handling of first person narration─powerful voices who speak directly to teens and adults alike.
Says Quick, “My characters tend to be people who feel the world strongly, and they experience tragedy, but they also want to make sense of it. They want to make order. To me, that’s why they’re heroes. Sometimes they have delusional philosophies─but they’re always moving in a direction towards trying to figure out something, trying to make order out of the chaos.”
SLJ caught up with Quick to talk about his books, mental illness, the stories behind the stories, and more.
All of your books center around characters with varying levels of mental illness. Can you talk about your inspiration for those characters?
I spent most of my life confused about why I had certain feelings. I didn’t have a vocabulary to talk about those feelings, because I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood, and the men in my life were largely from rough neighborhoods in Philly—they were taught to suppress emotions. So when I started to feel anxious or depressed, what I learned to do is you push that as far down as possible and you soldier on. So when I started to write Silver Linings Playbook, I started to write about mental health, and it wasn’t necessarily an intentional thing. As I created Pat’s voice [the book’s narrator], I realized it was fiction, but I was starting to address a lot of things that I hadn’t addressed before. And of course when I published Silver Linings, I was [asked], “Why are you writing about mental health?” And it was terrifying at first, but it was very freeing. And I had friends who were coming up to me and saying, “How did you know about this stuff? Because, [I felt this,] too.” Even people in my family started talking about it.
So you write this adult novel, Silver Linings, and it’s optioned as a movie, and then you turn around and write three teen books. How did that happen?
We got a movie deal, and we weren’t sure when they were going to shoot the movie. I met with my agent, and he said, “You have to wait [to write another adult book]. If you have an adult book with a movie [coming out], it’s going to be worth so much more.” I said, “What can I do?” Without missing a beat my agent said, “You should write a YA book.” I had a lot of lingering academic snobbery, and I’m not proud of this, but I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I do not write genre.” Doug [my agent] rolled his eyes and sighed at me and said, “Catcher in the Rye.” And I thought, “Wow, I could be J.D. Salinger.” [Later on] we were trying to think of an idea for [my wife, the author Alicia Bessette]. We have a friend who’s a veterinarian, and he likes to argue. So I—very tongue in cheek—brought up the issue of health insurance for pets. I told my wife, “You should write about a homeless girl who has a dog, and she’s trying to get health insurance for her dog.” And she said, “You should write it,” and I said, “All right.” And that became Sorta Like a Rock Star.
In Forgive Me Leonard Peacock, Leonard’s teacher gives him an assignment to write letters to himself from the future, to give him perspective on his life. You were a high school English teacher for many years—did you ever give that assignment?
I’ve given similar assignments. I actually just received a fan mail today from a teenager who’s depressed, and he did that assignment: he wrote a letter from his future son and his future wife, to cheer himself up. Which is to me very humbling, and it reminds you that when you send a book out into the world it’s about a lot more than Goodreads reviews or how many sales you get.
In Silver Linings Playbook, Pat is convinced that his life is like a Hollywood movie, and now his life is a Hollywood movie, with all of the changes in the story that come with movie making. Can you talk about the process of making the book into a movie?
Pat thinks his life is a Hollywood movie but the message of the book is that life is not a Hollywood movie. You’ve got to work, and there is no such thing as “happily ever after,” especially if you’re dealing with some form of mental illness. I made my peace early with [the changes to the story]. To me it was all about being grateful that my book got a lot of exposure and remembering that I’m a novelist and not a moviemaker. The book is there. Not a word changed in the book. They put Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s faces on it, but all the words are the same. And David [O. Russell] made a great movie, too. The first time I watched it, I really enjoyed it—David was really worried that I was going to hate it. He’s a storyteller, too. I was grateful he got all the accolades he did.
What other YA authors do you read? Or what authors did you read when you were trying to write Sorta Like a Rock Star?
I remember reading Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (Pantheon, 1974) for the first time, and that kind of blew my mind. And his other books too. It’s good stuff: very dark and real and smart, and it really challenges you to think about things. Of course Catcher in the Rye, I taught it every year. It influenced me greatly. I read Perks of Being a Wallflower (Pocket Books, 1999) when I started to write YA. That book hit me really hard. I remember reading it straight through and finishing it at three in the morning. I read one of my best friends, Evan Roskos’s book Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets (Houghton Miffin, 2013). [Evan is] somebody’s who’s really open about his struggles with anxiety and depression, as well. So I think that if you like my stuff that’s definitely one to check out.
Check out Matthew Quick and other YA authors in the upcoming July 24 SLJ SummerTeen virtual online event, register at: http://slj.com/summerteen/. (For those unable to watch and participate on July 24, the event will be in our archives.)
Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He is the co-editor of School Library Journal’s Adult Books 4 Teens blog and is currently serving on YALSA’s Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults committee. Contact him via Twitter @droogmark.