Named Dr. Bird.
Yes, it's not just some cool name for a DJ or a birdwatching forum username. Dr. Bird is a pigeon, in James's head. A pigeon that James knows is just part of his own mind, but one that still provides wisdom and perspective. It's the one aspect of my book that gets the most bird-like reaction from people. (You can already see it, that little "Oh really?" head tilt.)
|An imaginary pigeon therapist? Oh really?|
You might think the story, the crisis, would be the best allure. But no, a character that talks to a pigeon to deal with anxiety and depression becomes immediately more fascinating.
Writing a novel about a kid suffering suffering from mental health issues was not something I expected to do. But then I struck up a profound friendship with author Matthew Quick (The Silver Linings Playbook, Sorta Like a Rock Star, Boy21, and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock). We lived in the same town and began having coffee once a week. Eventually, we started planning a novel with interwoven narratives. The goal: give readers a great, emotional story that shows how things can be better even when they are awful now. This was a big promise to make, especially since things can be awful for teenagers suffering from mental health issues or environmental issues like abuse; but Matt and I both believe that a book can put a hand out and pull a person through a bad day.
A variety of things prevented Matt and I from getting far beyond the initial first chapters, but I'd been struck by all the possibilities of a character named James who recites Whitman and talks to an imaginary pigeon to help cope.
I became absorbed. I had to write a book that made me laugh, and one that let other people laugh and feel a little bit better about the possibilities of the world. I didn't want to write about a character who was caught in muck on page one and only frees himself from the sludge late in the book. Mainly because I would not enjoy writing a book with such a grim density. I wanted to show the highs and lows of life, how one day we can be joyful and miserable. I wanted to spend time with a character that found things -- Whitman, Dr. Bird, poetry, photography -- that helped him get through a rough time of his life.
When I finished the novel after three months of intense writing, I feared showing it to anyone. I didn't think it was a project I was meant to publish. I didn't even show Matt the manuscript.
I didn't hang out with my book, either. I let Dr. Bird sit for a year; then I re-read it and found James and Dr. Bird and Jorie were characters that I could share with others. They were sufferers and survivors. They were funny and real. They could reach out and pull someone through one bad day.
I worked hard to get the novel ready and when Sara found the perfect editor for it, I was elated. More importantly, a few months later, Matt and I reconnected and repaired our friendship. We acknowledged the things we'd done poorly and how our mutual acquaintance, depression, exacerbated issues. We acknowledged the importance of communication and of having friends that understand how it can be difficult to be a good friend sometimes.
During our time apart, we both wrote books that sprang from our initial joint project. Dr. Bird will be released in about two weeks. Matt's Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock releases in August. They are different books, but threads still unite them.
And my goal has become clear: tell great, funny, emotional, profound stories that hold out a hand (or wing).