The Power of Story: Hope

When I decided to write my newest novel The Bridge, I was opening a door that I hadn’t opened yet. Instead of coming out as gay, which I had done in my first young adult books, this time I was coming out about my mental health issues. In some ways, this was actually harder for me.

 

 


When I was a teenager, I used to sit on the radiator next to the window in my bedroom and imagine what would happen if I simply opened the window and leaned all the way to my right.

Some of it, though, was about brain chemistry. I didn’t know it then, but I suffered from chronic severe depression. Feeling suicidal wasn’t always “about” anything; it was how my neurotransmitters worked. Some of my wish to not exist anymore was about being gay in a world where that was considered among the worst things you could be. This was the mid-to-late 1980s; there were no gay people on TV yet, unless they were the butt of the joke.

When I decided to write my newest novel The Bridge, I was opening a door that I hadn’t opened yet. Instead of coming out as gay, which I had done in my first young adult books, this time I was coming out about my mental health issues. In some ways, this was actually harder for me. For one thing, it’s new talking about this. For another, there’s such a taboo surrounding mental health issues.

In writing a novel about two teens who go to the George Washington Bridge with the intention of jumping, and then following all the possible outcomes—he jumps, she jumps, they both jump, neither jumps—I wasn’t writing autobiographically. I never went to the bridge as a teenager. Instead, what the novel represents for me is an exploration of those two causes of suicidal ideology: situational and chemical depression.

Aaron Boroff is a lot like I was—gay and melancholy. Because he is in a very supporting environment, his suicidal ideation is generally about his brain rather than one specific thing.

Tillie Stanley feels like a misfit in her family and school, and she’s dealing with traumatic events related to bullying. She represents that other part of me as a teen that was struggling with real problems that I could not seem to solve.

As it turns out, I didn’t attempt suicide as a teen, though I thought about it constantly. It caught up with me at 27. I downed a bottle of sleeping pills. I had second thoughts after I took the pills and I called a friend, who called 9-1-1 when I passed out. I woke up in the hospital.

So when people ask me if the book is about me, I say that it is metaphorically my story. And I think that with subjects like this, it has to be that way. The writer has to sit in the chair of the character(s), and having some personal experience of understanding what depression feels like in the body (it actually hurts sometimes) is very helpful.

This is all heavy stuff, and as a writer whose audience is teens, I attempted to walk a fine line: I wanted the book to be one hundred percent authentic in its depiction of depression and suicide, but I also wanted the book to offer some hope. That’s why I wrote the novel the way I did. By showing the options both teens have while up on the bridge, I tried to make sure readers understood that even at their lowest moments, there’s always a choice, there’s always some hope. That hope is next to impossible to access in the midst of depression; at least that’s how it is for me. But my hope is that the message of the novel, that love and connection are the antidotes for suicidal ideation, gets through.

To me, that’s the power of story. Story can work on multiple levels at the same time. While entertaining the reader, my hope is that this story reveals the power of our connection as humans, of how despite our differences, in so many ways, especially emotionally, we are all very, very similar.

I find so much hope in that fact.
 



Bill Konigsberg is the author of six books for young adults, which have won awards including the Stonewall Book Award, the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor, and the Lambda Literary Award. Bill lives with his husband, Chuck, and their two Labradoodles, Mabel and Buford. Please visit him online at billkonigsberg.com and @billkonigsberg.

This article is part of the Scholastic Power of Story series. Scholastic’s Power of Story highlights books for all ages that tell the stories of historically underrepresented groups specifically related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental abilities, religion, and culture. Hear from other speakers on this topic and download the Power of Story catalog at Scholastic.com/PowerofStory. Check back on School Library Journal to discover new Power of Story articles from guest authors, including Varian Johnson, Kelly Yang, Aida Salazar, and more.

 

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