In Conversation with It's Kind of a Funny Story Author Ned Vizzini
Though now just 29 years old, Ned Vizzini – whose novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story reaches the screen on October 8 – is a literary veteran. A wunderkind writer, Vizzini first sprang to prominence at the age of just 15, when he started writing a column for the New York Press. Two years later, he was asked to write for the New York Times Magazine, and at the age of 19 he published Teen Angst? Naaah…, a “quasi-autobiography” inspired by his columns. In 2004, he changed gears, putting out his first work of fiction, Be More Chill, a young adult novel about a teenager who takes a fantastical chill pill (or “squip”) which helps him relax and impress the girl he has a crush on. The book was a huge hit, drawing rave reviews and becoming a bestseller.
However, the ecstatic response to Be More Chill – and the two-book contract that followed – had an adverse effect on Vizzini. In the winter of 2004, he briefly checked himself into a psychiatric ward for depression brought on by the intense pressure he felt to emulate his previous success. Turning a negative into a positive, though, he derived inspiration from the experience of being hospitalized with other people dealing with mental health issues, using it as the creative launchpad for his next novel, 2007’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which also drew heavily from his own experiences as a student in the ultra-competitive envirionment of Stuyvesant High School.
Now, with Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s movie adaptation of It’s Kind of a Funny Story about to have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, we sat down with Vizzini chat with him about his literary roots, the role writing plays in his life, and what it’s like to have Funny Story about to hit the big screen.
You got published at a very young age. How young were you when you first started writing seriously?
I started writing seriously at 15 when I began contributing to the alternative weekly paper New York Press. I knew that I liked writing for a few years before then but that was when I first got paid and saw my name in print; that made things pretty serious.
Was writing therapeutic – or even cathartic – for you? If so, has that continued to be the case?
George Orwell says that the #1 reason writers write is “to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood.” He's not wrong. Writing was therapeutic for me when I was a teenager because it enabled me to express myself in an adult arena and reveal what I really thought the people around me, many of whom were making my life difficult. Kids and adults.
Cathartic is different from therapeutic; catharticis stronger; I didn't find any real catharsis until I started writing fiction. While writing the end of It's Kind of a Funny Story was cathartic, and the writing process continues to be at times, it is more often maddening or workmanlike.
Who were your literary idols – or more general creative inspirations – when you were growing up? And who are they now?
The three authors who made me want to be a writer as I entered my teens were George Orwell, Stephen King, and Michael Crichton: Orwell because of his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys;” King because of It; and Crichton because of Jurassic Park, which I read on the toilet until my legs fell asleep. (“This is power!” I thought after I tried to stand up and fell over in the bathroom.)
Nowadays I try not to have literary idols so much as people whose careers I respect and admire and think about as I make my own creative decisions. That list would include (in no particular order and off the top of my head) Jim Knipfel, Marty Beckerman, Nick Antosca, John Strausbaugh, Jerry Stahl, Gary Shteyngart, and Amy Sohn... I'll stop at 7 writers because 7 is a psychologically powerful number.
What was it like having such exposure early on? And how did you cope with being called a literary prodigy?
When I first saw my name in print, I had an out-of-body experience. My story floated above the page and shimmered; I felt pride, fear, a bit of quixotic shame... Having that at 15 inoculated me against it later, when my books were published. People say young success ruins people but old success also ruins people.
I've always been less comfortable with success than failure. Failure has a simpler solution: try something else. Success requires that you keep it up. I didn't cope with early success well – I ended up in a psych hospital – but I like to think it's part of a master plan.
Being so young, did good reviews and bad reviews have a much bigger impact on you than they would have with a more typical first-time author?
My first book, the nonfiction collection Teen Angst? Naaah..., collected my stories from New York Press and was released in 2000. The first review on Amazon was a 1-star takedown: “"Teen Angst! NAAH!" is yet another reason our literacy rate is on the decline. As I read it, I could literally feel the inherent filth seeping into my very body and desecrating my soul like some sort of relentless, burrowing bug with 3-inch long poison mandibles. “
I'm not sure who wrote the review – I think it was Jake from high school (not his real name). I put it on a flyer along with a positive quote I'd gotten from Jonathan Ames.
I handed those flyers out at concerts and parties when I told people about my book. One blurb was credited to the award-winning author of The Extra Man; the other was credited to “some guy from Amazon.” Bad reviews only affect people who don't hate themselves enough.
And then how was it for you moving on to your next project without feeling pressure to emulate your initial success?
People have misconceptions about “success” in the book world. Some think that once you've published a book, especially if you are young, you are successful for life. My first book became a success over a period of years, first through Free Spirit Publishing and then through Random House (who, on October 12, 2010, are putting out a new trade edition of the book). I didn't have a problem moving onto my next project, my second book and first novel Be More Chill in 2004.
Moving from Be More Chill to It's Kind of a Funny Story was the difficult one. For the first time in my life I was under contract to write a book, and the one I was working on was turning to dreck in my hands... Those are the conditions that caused It's Kind of a Funny Story.
Your first book was essentially all autobiographical writing, so what was it like to transition into fiction? Was it easier because you weren’t writing directly about yourself?
Even though I don't write the nonfiction I did back in New York Press and Teen Angst? Naaah..., I write enough reviews, blog entries, and correspondence to make it feel like I'm writing about myself constantly (like right now).
There are two great things about fiction:
- By changing people's names, you avoid getting yelled at.
- You can take anything in your life and add fire and love triangles.
The transition to fiction has been good for me.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story arose out of your own issues with pressure and depression, when you checked yourself into a psychiatric ward in 2004. How quickly were you thinking that you wanted to write (directly or indirectly) about those experiences?
I'm always looking for things to write; my father calls it a “disease.” When I was in the hospital, I got the sense, as I sometimes did in high school, that the people around me were too good to be real – that no one would ever believe me if I wrote about them.
A week after I got out of the hospital, I was in my kitchen sorting out receipts and I had what I describe in the book as “the Shift” – I realized that suicide was stupid; it wasn't an option for me anymore. I'd put my family and friends through enough. At that point I started writing the book.
Would you say that it’s fair to characterize you as someone who compelled to derive the core of your work from personal experience? If yes, how do feel about being this way?
A compelling need to derive the core of my work from personal experience sounds a lot like narcissism, and I'm probably a narcissist. My only defense is that I'm always searching for moments that other people can connect with, not just me.
How did you feel when It’s Kind of a Funny Story was optioned to be made into a film? Was this something that you had thought about at any stage? Did you feel it was well-suited to be adapted for the big screen?
I was thrilled when It's Kind of a Funny Story was optioned. When it actually went into production, I was beyond thrilled, I was perplexed – that doesn't really happen to people.
I wasn't sure it would work on the big screen until I met the people making it. So much of the book is in Craig Gilner's head. It had to be done with visual innovation.
I did not think about a film adaptation as I wrote It's Kind of a Funny Story; I was just happy to be writing!
How much communication did you have with Ryan and Anna initially during the process of them writing the script and then later on during production?
I met Ryan and Anna at a screening of Half Nelson in 2006 and was blown away – first by the movie, then by how much they liked It's Kind of a Funny Story. They gave the book such a close read. I realized while speaking to them that I had never bothered to name Craig's parents...
The project went into development. Sometime later I got Ryan and Anna's script. The script was innovative, and it also had all the key scenes. I loved it.
I was given input during production in two ways:
- In the soundtrack, Ryan and Anna elected to use a song by the WoWz, “Happy Today”, at my suggestion. This song is a personal favorite of mine and was put out by Chris Maher of Holy Ghost!, a musician and producer I've known since I started writing for New York Press.
- I'm a fan of the band Drunk Horse from San Francisco, whose song “AM/FM Shoes” partly inspired my first novel and second book Be More Chill. In one scene in the movie, a character (I'm not going to say which one) wears a Drunk Horse T-shirt that is in fact my T-shirt; I called the 's bass player in Mexico to clear the rights. (It's kind of a funny story.)
Unbeknownst to me Ryan and Anna also had something up their sleeve. My book Be More Chill is front-and-center in one scene in It's Kind of a Funny Story – it even made it into the trailer.
How detached do you feel from the film? Is it as much your “baby” as one of your books is to you, or is there a further layer of remove?
With It's Kind of a Funny Story, there are three layers of remove:
- There's my life.
- There's the percentage of my life I used for the book.
- There's the percentage of the book that was used for the film.
One scene in particular came through clearer somehow, at three levels of remove, than my actual life – the scene where Young Craig draws maps. I did this as a 4-year-old in Manhattan. The dialogue in that scene was adapted by Ryan and Anna and put into book form by me but the originator is my mother Emma Price Vizzini (hi mom!).
What was the experience of watching the movie for the first time like? Were you nervous beforehand?
I was a little nervous watching the film, sure, but mostly because I was running late and I had my beard shaved ridiculous to look like James Joyce for Bloomsday... I find ways to be nervous that don't even make sense.
Have you ever been approached about adapting one of your other books? Is screenwriting something you are at all interested in or might consider in the future?
Be More Chill went through a development process but never entered production; a lot of readers think it would make a good movie and maybe that will happen in the future. When it comes to adapting my own material, I have difficulty, but I do write original material for film and TV, plus I am co-creator of Attack of the Killer Turtle (1996).
As a writer, how did moving from Park Slope to L.A. affect you? Did the huge cultural difference between the two places have big impact?
Los Angeles has been more creatively productive for me than Park Slope. It has to do with ambient noise: in Park Slope the ambient noise makes you always feel like you should be doing something else; in Los Angeles you wake up and birds are singing and there's nothing to do but write.
I finished a new book here in Los Angeles that I hope to be doing interviews for someday. So I would have to say L.A. has been positive.
You are an active blogger and also run seminars. How important is contact with your readers to you? How does everything fit together for you?
I've been a lot of things since I was 18, but I've never been bored.