Matthew Quick talks ‘Silver Linings’ and suicide in YA books
It was eight years ago when Matthew Quick quit his job as a high school English teacher and moved into a basement to write the novel that has since been transformed into a major Hollywood film. “The Silver Linings Playbook,” about a 30-something man attempting to put his life back together after a stint in a mental institution, was first published in 2008. The film, starring Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence, won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday. It will be in theaters in November. We caught up with the 38-year-old Massachusetts author to talk about his basement-to-big-screen success and “Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock” -- his new young-adult book about a suicidal teen that will be published next year by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Jacket Copy: What was your reaction when you heard that your debut novel, “The Silver Linings Playbook,” won the People’s Choice Award?
Matthew Quick: It’s a little mind-blowing, obviously, when you think about my story of creating this in my in-laws’ basement and then seeing how far it’s gone already and how far people are predicting it will go. A lot of people put a lot of time and talent into this project, and to see it get so much attention already, I couldn’t be happier.
Jacket Copy: David O. Russell’s adaptation of your novel is a bit different from your book. What was the original storyline, and how was it changed for film?
Matthew Quick: My tag line for “Silver Linings” is this: It’s about a man who thinks his life is a movie produced by God. Pat is his name, and he gets out of a mental health facility at the beginning of the book and goes to live with his parents in South New Jersey. He has this theory that if he gets physically fit and practices being kind rather than right, God will return his estranged wife to him. You don’t know why she’s not in the picture. On the screen, you see what Pat is doing. In the book, you’re getting Pat’s thoughts in words. David had to take what I did in 300 pages and reduce it to two hours of visual screen time, adapting, and the heart of what I was trying to do in my book is definitely there on screen. Mental health themes run throughout all of my books, and David was very respectful about the way he presented the same mental health issues on screen. I feel as though the movie is a great gift for the mental health community, and I think it’ll get a lot of productive mental health dialogue going.
Jacket Copy: In the four books you’ve written, mental health looms large. Why is that so important to you?
Matthew Quick: I write about people who are usually damaged or neglected by society finding each other and forming relationships that are quite extraordinary and in some cases life-saving. I’ve had a few of those relationships, which I value highly.
Jacket Copy: Is that the case with “Leonard Peacock”?
Matthew Quick: Well, I don’t know if I want to give any spoilers, but one of the things I wanted to address was tragedy involving guns. That’s been on the minds of everybody for the last several years in America. Whenever there’s a shooting, especially at school, everybody’s quick to highlight what went wrong, which is a natural response, but as a former schoolteacher who saw things going right on a daily basis, I wanted to highlight some of the work that’s being done out there every day that people don’t pay attention to. This book is about tragedy and school violence and a severely disturbed teenager. Leonard Peacock is very angry. He doesn’t fit in, and in a lot of ways he’s been failed by his community, but there are certain key relationships that prove very beneficial in small but incredibly important ways. I don’t think we really value the heroes that are in the high schools working with a lot of these kids, the educators and community leaders that are preventing a lot of tragedies.
Jacket Copy: What was your experience as a teacher?
Matthew Quick: I haven’t taught since 2004, but I taught high school English for seven years, primarily at a place called Haddonfield Memorial, which is in a very well-to-do-community in Southern New Jersey. I did a lot of counseling and unofficially worked with kids that were going through some really tough problems that weren’t openly discussed by the community.
Jacket Copy: Such as?
Matthew Quick: Kids with pregnancy scares, AIDS scares. Kids dealing with abuse, psychological and physical. Kids that were not happy. Kids that were perhaps suicidal. Kids who had dealt with the death of parents. Alcohol abuse was a big problem, drug abuse. Sexual identity issues. This goes on in every high school in America.
Jacket Copy: A lot of adults are surprised that books for teens are so dark, but it’s really just a mirror of what’s happening in real life. High school is a pretty rough time.
Matthew Quick: I think so. I was teaching American lit classics, so we were dealing with some pretty heavy issues that would come up in discussions both in class and after class, as well as when kids would seek me out one-on-one. Kids were so hungry to talk. They didn’t get a lot of opportunities to talk about some of the things they were going through. I learned how much teenagers repress so much of their feelings. For some of the more intense and intelligent teenagers, that can be a real problem. What’s going on in their brains is never processed anywhere else but their brains. They don’t get a chance to vent and process openly in a safe environment. As a teacher it was my job to help kids get into college. It wasn’t necessarily my job to deal with the mental health of my students, but that came up a lot, and I took it very seriously.
Jacket Copy: Why did you have “Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock” vetted by mental health professionals?
Matthew Quick: Because of the nature of my books, I’ve made some really good contacts within the mental health community. “Leonard Peacock” deals with some pretty heavy issues. I wanted to get feedback from therapists and social workers. They really embraced the novel and gave me some good insight into the mind of Leonard Peacock. I wrote this book because I hope it will help kids who are feeling out of sort, and I wanted to make sure I was sending the right message.
Jacket Copy: What role do books play with troubled teens?
Matthew Quick: It’s the same role that great literature plays with everyone. When you find a great book that speaks to you, it makes you feel less alone, sometimes like less of a freak. When you read a book and what’s happening feels authentic, the reading experience becomes a really safe place to say, “Hey, this is how I feel, too.” It normalizes experiences that are often kept private.
Jacket Copy: Without giving away any spoilers, how would you describe “Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock?”
Matthew Quick: “Leonard Peacock” is about a kid who takes a gun to school on his 18th birthday, intent on killing himself and his ex-best friend. And it’s set in real time. It takes place over the course of one day. It’s about all of the emotions he has as he moves toward the final moment when he has to make a choice.
Jacket Copy: Your first novel, “The Silver Linings Playbook,” was written for adults, but your three novels since have all been for young adults. Why did you make the switch?
Matthew Quick: My agent asked me to write YA. At first, I refused. I didn’t want to do it. I had been in an MFA program, and I had this idea that I was going to be an adult writer of more literary fiction. I had a lot of preconceived, misguided ideas about who I thought I was as a writer. My literary agent said, “You worked with teens for seven years. You write first-person stories that lend themselves to the YA world. You should just do exactly what you do but set it from the point of view of a teen protagonist.” That was very freeing. I thought, I could do that, and that’s exactly what I did.
Jacket Copy: Will you write another adult novel?
Matthew Quick: I have, but I can’t talk about that just yet.
Jacket Copy: Understood. How did “The Silver Linings Playbook” get picked up and turned into such a huge film, with major stars and even Oscar buzz? It’s pretty amazing since that was your very first book.
Matthew Quick: I sent the book to literary agents in 2007, and I was green and didn’t know much about the publishing world, so when I signed with my agent, Douglas Stewart at Sterling Lord Literistic, I was thrilled just to get an agent. After a few weeks, he got us a really great book contract in Italy. Then I got a call from Rich Green at CAA, who said, “I’m your movie agent.” He has a partnership with my agent in New York that I wasn’t aware of. My response was, “I have a film agent?” He had sold the movie option. Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella had read it and loved it. Harvey Weinstein came on board. Sarah Crichton purchased the U.S. book rights. It just snowballed over time. I’ve always been a huge David O. Russell fan. I love the film. I couldn’t be happier. It’s kind of been a dream come true in every way.
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