Did you know that September is National Suicide Prevention Month? I did, and when a publicist from JKS Communications asked if I wanted to help promote Michelle Levy‘s novel Not After Everything as part of this national awareness campaign, I didn’t hesitate for a second.
I couldn’t hesitate because suicide awareness and prevention are very important issues to me. A select number of my readers know that when I was 14, or less than three weeks before I turned 15, one of my aunts committed suicide. To be honest, she was one of my favorite aunts, the one who stuck up for me when other people in my family were either unable or unwilling, and I couldn’t help but have questions that are, even now, impossible to answer. When I was a teen, I used to listen to her copy of Smashing Pumpkins’ album Siamese Dream, which I’d borrowed from her before her death, and wonder why she couldn’t have waited, why she couldn’t have held off just a little while longer until she began to realize that it was “the greatest day [she]’d ever known.”
Since my aunt died, suicide has touched me in other ways. I know several other people who have attempted suicide or died from it, both family members and friends. This isn’t an easy thing for me to share publicly on my blog, but I thought, if there’s a chance that this interview and my story will help someone feel less alone or give them the courage to seek help if they need it before it’s too late, then I knew I had to share it. And now without further ado, here’s my interview with Michelle about Not After Everything:
YA Book Shelf: At the beginning of Not After Everything, you show Tyler going through his photos of his mom (and him and his mom) and counting his hidden savings. How did you develop this type of ritualistic behavior for Tyler, and how does it relate to the experience of grieving for the loss of someone to suicide?
Michelle Levy: I felt that losing his mother to suicide made him feel utterly helpless and he needed a way to feel in control, a way to have some semblance of order in his messed up life.
YABookShelf: In an earlier interview, I read that Tyler’s angry voice from the beginning of the novel came to you first, and you wanted to explore what had made him this way. What were the next steps you had to take to fill in the blanks about his back story before you could piece together the rest of his character development and the plot?
ML: I started with an idea of who he was at the time of his mom’s suicide—the popular jock with a bright future—and then I kind of worked my way backward. I had to figure out his relationship with his mother and why her suicide made him more angry than sad. I had to figure out what would drive her to suicide, which led me to his father and his relationship with his father. Then I had to figure out why he was such an overachiever and what his school life was like, his friends, his girlfriend, etc., before I could figure out where his journey was going to take him now that he wanted nothing to do will all that.
YABookShelf: In addition to grief, Tyler is suffering from the physical and emotional abuse that his father dishes out regularly as well as neglect. Do you think that the verbal tirades are just as damaging to Tyler as the physical abuse, just in a different way?
ML: I think the emotional abuse is more damaging than the physical abuse. Physical wounds heal faster than psychological wounds in my experience.
YABookShelf: Yes, I think many people assume otherwise, but it’s also my experience that emotional and psychological abuse stick with someone for a lot longer, especially if they aren’t getting help with it.
Dave tells Tyler that “20% of suicides don’t leave a note,” but Tyler doesn’t think it makes sense for his highly organized mom. Why would Tyler’s mom – and anyone else like her – not leave an explanation, especially if it’s so uncharacteristic of her usual behavior?
ML: I read as much as I could find on this topic as I was writing and revising. The idea that someone would just leave you without any explanation floored me. I learned that there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to who left a note and who didn’t, so I thought it would be especially frustrating for someone who was highly organized, who seemed the type to leave a note, not to. And scarily, the statistics have changed as more and more people began doing research on this topic. Even since my book went to print. The statistic today is thought to be that only somewhere between 15 to 38 percent of people actually leave a note.
YABookShelf: Wow…that’s incredible to me, Michelle. Though I think that even in the cases where someone does leave a note, the explanation can never really seem adequate, but it would be more frustrating not to have answer that you could cover to terms with eventually.
I’m sure that Not After Everything wasn’t an easy book to write, but I’m so glad you did. What was your favorite scene to write?
ML: Thank you! My favorite scenes to write were the early scenes with Tyler and Jordyn. The stuff where she’s not putting up with him and he’s enjoying it so he pushes her buttons even more to get an even bigger reaction. They had some fun banter in those scenes.
YABookShelf: During the scene in which Henry tells Tyler about his brother, I couldn’t help but cry because I know how important that moment of connection is for someone who has lost a loved one to suicide? Did you find yourself crying at any point while writing this book?
ML: Oh, I cried. A lot. Pretty much every time Tyler cries in the book I cried along with him.
YABookShelf: Not After Everything is filled with pop culture references to films, TV shows, YouTube videos, and even Lifetime movie clichés. How did you develop Tyler’s knowledge base?
ML: Ooh, what a great question! I pictured Tyler in his younger years watching a lot of television with his mom, because I imagined that was her escape from reality.
YABookShelf: Ooh…yes, I can totally see that being the case. Thanks so much for sharing that explanation.
Other than Tyler, who was your favorite character to write?
ML: I love Jordyn. She’s so bold and sassy. I wish I’d had her spunk in high school. I also really loved writing Dr. Dave.
YABookShelf: Yes, Jordyn is great. I can totally see why you loved writing her, and I also loved the scenes with Dr. Dave, in part, because I loved that Tyler had someone he could turn to when he felt ready to be completely honest about what was going on with him.
After his mother’s suicide, Tyler is forced to attend counselling with Dr. Dave, but only until his 18th birthday, regardless of whether the treatment plan had been successful or not. Is there anything that you would change about the way mental health treatment is administered for teens and other vulnerable people if you had the power to do so?
ML: Oh, man. Excellent question! First of all, I get extremely frustrated when people are too ashamed to get help. I would love for it to not be such a taboo thing. I suffer from depression and anxiety and have no problem talking about it. Hopefully it’ll encourage someone else not to be ashamed. Secondly, our insurance needs to get with it and provide much better coverage for mental health. Much better. And lastly, some of the most vulnerable people simply can’t afford mental healthcare. This needs to change. Immediately. In the real world a kid like Tyler might not get the kind of support he does in the book with Dr. Dave. And if he would’ve had to pay for it, forget it. He can’t afford food let alone therapy. Help shouldn’t be a privilege, it should be a given.
YABookShelf: Great answer, Michelle! I agree with all the points you mention, in part, because I’ve lost some people I really love to their depression and battles, on their own, with mental health. And the consequences for a society that doesn’t care for the most vulnerable people in this regard…they’re immeasurable.
And finally, since I know you worked as a casting director for Six Feet Under, one of my all-time favorite shows, what was the role you were most excited to cast and what episode did you like the best?
ML: Unfortunately, I didn’t start working on the show until season two, so I wasn’t involved in the original casting, which is some of the best casting for a series, movie, anything, ever. Imho. From the episodes I worked on, my favorite role was the guy who carjacks David (Michael C. Hall) in a season four episode called “That’s My Dog.” The character was supposed to be this sweet, unassuming guy who David feels sorry for and gladly helps, who then turns out to be a complete psychopath. Michael Weston played the character brilliantly and continues to be one of my favorite actors out there after doing that role exactly how I pictured it when reading the script. I mean exactly.
And my favorite episode is probably the pilot. What a way to set up a series! It was like a promise of how this series was going to be in a whole other league than anything else out there. I remember watching that pilot episode and immediately knowing it was going to be my favorite show. And then I got to work on it!
YABookShelf: YES!!! That episode with David totally took me by surprise. So well done. And yes, the pilot was incredible, but I’m partial to the finale. I think it’s one of the best send offs of any series, like a love letter to the characters and the fans.
Thanks so much for stopping by my blog as part of September’s Suicide Awareness Month. I really enjoyed your début novel, and I can’t wait to see what your next contemporary YA book is about!
ML: Thank you!!!
A gritty but hopeful love story about two struggling teens—great for fans of The Spectacular Now, Willow, and Eleanor and Park.
Tyler has a football scholarship to Stanford, a hot girlfriend, and a reliable army of friends to party with. Then his mom kills herself. And Tyler lets it all go. Now he needs to dodge what his dad is offering (verbal tirades and abuse) and earn what his dad isn’t (money). Tyler finds a job that crashes him into Jordyn, his former childhood friend turned angry-loner goth-girl. She brings Tyler an unexpected reprieve from the never-ending pity party his life has become. How could he not fall for her? But with his dad more brutally unpredictable than ever, Tyler knows he can’t risk bringing Jordyn too deeply into the chaos. So when violence rocks his world again, will it be Jordyn who shows him the way to a hopeful future? Or after everything, will Tyler have to find it in himself?