uring his 24th birthday party earlier this month at
Manhattan's KGB Bar, Ned Vizzini was telling a story about a guy
who'd been locked up in a mental hospital. "He wants drugs, right,
and he wants them so bad. He throws himself through one of the glass
windows, which are pretty strongly reinforced, meaning he has to
work up some real momentum. Anyway, he falls about three feet onto a
balcony but still breaks his leg. The police show up, take him to
the emergency room and then arrest him. So he goes from the mental
hospital to a jail cell, where he still can't get drugs. Rough life,
novelist who will be giving a Calhoun master's tea on Mon., Apr. 11
at 4:30 p.m., can claim some real momentum of his own, but his
trajectory has not been quite so grim. And although he, too, had a
brief but harrowing stay in a mental hospital, he managed to get a
novel—due out in 2006—from the experience instead of a broken leg.
After his first novel, a science-fiction bildungsroman (think
Philip K. Dick meets Roald Dahl) called Be More Chill, was
published last year by Miramax, he worked obsessively to get it
publicized, even overseeing the creation of a viral marketing
campaign that treated the book's conceit—a pill-sized computer
called a "squip" that, when swallowed, makes you cool—as a reality.
Google "squip" now and you'll find sites like SQUiP News
(straightforward reporting on all things squip), Get SQUiP
(how geeks can get their own squips), SQUiP USA (insurance
coverage), and Celebrity Squip (it seems Justin Timberlake
has one), among many others.
The strategy worked beautifully. The New York Times ran an
article about it in October 2004. Then Vizzini appeared on the
Today Show, which selected Be More Chill for its book
club, and Entertainment Weekly put the book on its list of
2004's best novels. The Weitz brothers, who made American
Pie, are making it into a film with the help of Steve Pink, the
screenwriter behind High Fidelity.
Be More Chill was so successful, in fact, that Vizzini had
a nervous breakdown from the pressure of sudden fame. Soon it began
to affect his sleep habits and appetite. By then, he couldn't deny
the fact that he was clinically depressed. Fearing for his sanity
and his safety, he entered an adult psychiatric hospital in Brooklyn
and asked for help—only to learn that such a decision is, quite
literally, a real commitment. Once you get admitted, you aren't
going anywhere, at least not right away.
Vizzini spent six days in the mental hospital. In his everyday
life and career, his social networking skills and shrewd
observational instincts had always served him well, so he put them
to good use in the hospital, too. By the time he was allowed to go
home, he had become comfortable with the motley assortment of heroin
addicts and schizophrenics with whom he'd found himself surrounded.
"I have more respect for the people I met in adult psychiatric
than for many people I know in the outside world," he said. "They
were people who had been through incredible hardships and just
wanted to have very simple things that we sometimes forget about."
After his release, he dutifully sat down to write the Be More
Chill sequel that fans had been clamoring for but found his
thoughts returning to his experiences and the people he'd met in the
hospital. Setting aside the sequel project, he started writing
something else—a story about a suicidal 14-year-old boy who finds
himself locked in a mental hospital. "As soon as I got started, it
happened very quickly. I would just wake up and start writing. It
had never happened to me before, but sometimes a book will just pour
out of you."
Writing nonstop, he produced a 400-page manuscript in about one
month. Even as a first draft with the ink still wet, the novel is a
remarkably rewarding read, its propulsive and convincing narrative
told with clever, sharp prose that could pass for that of a younger,
more sincere Julian Barnes. His editor at Miramax loved the book,
and it's set to be published next year under the title It's Kind
of a Funny Story.
"I have a real hope," Vizzini said, "that I have something young
people can read and say, 'Not only am I not alone in going through
something like this, but it's not all dark. There's humor here and
there's life.'"Â Â Â