One week. That's all Jessie said. A one-week break to get some perspective before graduation, before she and her boyfriend, Chris, would have to make all the big, scary decisions about their future--decisions they had been fighting about for weeks.
Then, Chris vanishes. The police think he's run away, but Jessie doesn't believe it. Chris is popular and good-looking, about to head off to college on a full-ride baseball scholarship. And he disappeared while going for a run along the river--the same place where some boys from the rival high school beat him up just three weeks ago. Chris is one of the only black kids in a depressed paper mill town, and Jessie is terrified of what might have happened.
As the police are spurred to reluctant action, Jessie speaks up about the harassment Chris kept quiet about and the danger he could be in. But there are people in Jessie's town who don't like the story she tells, who are infuriated by the idea that a boy like Chris would be a target of violence. They smear Chris’s character and Jessie begins receiving frightening threats.
Every Friday since they started dating, Chris has written Jessie a love letter. Now Jessie is writing Chris a letter of her own to tell him everything that’s happening while he’s gone. As Jessie searches for answers, she must face her fears, her guilt, and a past more complicated than she would like to admit.
I was lucky to have a chance to speak to author Kim Purcell last week - here's what she had to say...
Bethany: Why do you write?
Kim Purcell: Well, with this particular book I had to write it because it was such a personal story for me because it was based on one of my best friends who disappeared. So this book in particular I wrote because I had to, and the story just sat inside me. Even though there are a lot of books on suicide, I didn’t feel like enough addressed the feeling of guilt and how the body reacts when someone is suddenly gone from your life and how the brain sometimes wants to create that person standing beside you. It happened to me so I wanted to mirror that in a story.
I also wanted to talk about mental health and suicide. I wanted to send the message to kids that even though there are a lot of books out there that say, “It’s your fault, you created this,” it’s really not. We all do the wrong thing at times, and we don’t need to beat ourselves up over it. Also, terrible things happen to all of us and it’s normal to feel sad, but if we’re getting suicide thoughts, the brain isn’t working right. There's usually some kind of component where the brain’s biochemistry is off so it’s important for kids to realize that there is nothing wrong with them if they are feeling those thoughts, but they do need medical help.
I think there is way too much stigma against brain problems. You know, if we have any other problem in any other part of our body, like if we have a leg problem, “Of course you have to see a doctor,” but once it’s your brain, the response is different. Sometimes it’s not functioning properly, which is so easy to happen. For example, hormones and lack of sleep can turn it off, which happens a lot for teens. All kinds of things can throw off brain chemistry so it’s really important to get help when it happens. And when it happens, it’s not a big deal, you can get it back on track just like how you can get any part of your body back on track, but, somehow, we want to treat the brain like it’s a different thing, and I feel that that really needs to be addressed. The stigma towards getting help is still there, and we need to get rid of it. That’s why I was super passionate about this book and had to write this book.
Bethany: Racism is a prevalent theme in the novel as well, as Jessie is the only one in her town in an interracial relationship, and she receives a lot of prejudice for that. What would you say to someone that was facing prejudice for being in an interracial relationship?
Kim Purcell: Any form of love is great to me. I would want anyone to fall in love with anyone they want. It sucks when people look at you funny, and when you have moments where you’re like, “Whoa, did that person just do that?” But you shouldn’t let other people’s biases stop you. I also feel that it’s super important for you to put yourself in the other person's shoes with regards to the bias they are facing. In an interracial relationship, your experiences are different. Understanding this is super important.
Bethany: Suicide is a huge theme in the novel as well, but no spoilers here. What would you say to anyone who was thinking of taking their own life?
Kim Purcell: Well, I would really just beg them not to do it, because I think, from my own experience, if you wait a day, and you wait a week, and you reach out for help, it really does get better. If it isn’t getting better because of brain chemistry issues, a doctor can prescribe medicine so it can get better. I feel that therapy sometimes is not enough, and so I just think it’s important to look at all different avenues and to recognize, “Yes, it super sucks this way of living with my brain feeling so miserable,” but there are lots of ways to solve that problem without saying, “End.”
Sometimes we get into a cycle of negative thinking, especially about ourselves. There are lots of methods to stop this cyclical thinking, but the first is recognizing it’s just a thought, not truth. You can say to yourself, “Ok, hello thought. I’ve seen you before, and I’m just going to put you in this imaginary garbage can in my brain.” And then you replace it with a better thought. Just marginally better is fine. Then another negative thought comes and you put that in the garbage can, and replace it with a better thought. And you start the upward spiral.
When you do start to feel better, hopefully you can reach out to other people and help them move through it too because many people go through that in their life, and, actually, quite a small percentage take their life as a result. I would like to make that percentage smaller.
Bethany: I saw on your website that you teach yoga and meditation to teens to help them to gain peace.
Kim Purcell: In Brooklyn, I taught yoga at a juvenile detention center for awhile with this organization called Yoga for Youth. Now, when I teach creative writing, I often combine it with a little meditation exercise. I prefer to post a very short three-minute meditation on my Twitter or Instagram, and I’ve learned from working with teens that three minutes is way more than most teens are doing and it can really help with stress and anxiety.
Bethany: So what advice would you give to teens dealing with daily stress from like school or work because I know that so many people just deal with school-related stress from getting a lot of work. I deal with it, and all my friends do too.
Kim Purcell: I just think it's good to look at where all this stress is coming from. Most of the time, it’s fear-based. We think, “I’m going to get an F, and then I won’t get into college and then I won’t get a job and then . . .” It is totally counterproductive. It’s negative spiral thinking. And it’s not true.
A lot of kids are dealing with anxiety because of school. I think it comes from parents too, especially for high achieving kids, who are at high risk for suicide or depression. And all this stress is for nothing. Marks are not that important in the end. I’ve met a lot of people in my life who are very successful, and almost none of them had top grades. I know parents don’t want to hear this, but I think it’s more important how you feel about yourself as a person and what kind of compassion you have for others.
If people look up all their heroes and look at what they did in school, they typically did not get good grades, but they did have a vision and passion. They were not lazy, didn’t watch TV all the time. They focused obsessively on the thing they loved. So, if you’re getting stressed about marks or tests, maybe shift the focus to what your passion is. Then you’re not stressed and you’re really fired up and don’t care about how much work you have to do or how much studying you have to do. Let’s say you want to find a cure for cancer, your passion becomes learning everything you can about cancer and science. You’re not stressed. You're thinking, “Wow, it’s so cool.”
I also think teens should get off of phones and screens, and do whatever thing makes them feel truly joyful. I have a 13-year-old, who loves to write, so whenever she gets stressed, I just say, “Go write in your story,” and so she writes in the book. She also loves baking, so sometimes I tell her to go bake something. I think it’s important to go do something you love as a break from stress.
Bethany: This book combined my two favorite genres: romance and mystery. What’s your favorite genre?
Kim Purcell: Weirdly, I love thrillers, and I really get into fantasy novels too, but I have a pretty wide range. I like books that make me laugh or cry.
Bethany: Who are some of your favorite authors who you draw inspiration from?
Kim Purcell: In terms of realistic contemporary fiction, I really love Jason Reynolds. When you read his books, they're such page turners and beautifully written. Jason Reynolds’ books have taught me so much. I especially love All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds. Brendan Kiely’s point of view from the white character helped me figure out how to portray white bias in This is Not a Love Letter and Jason Reynolds’ point of view character taught me about creating a rhythm with your words and incorporating the body language of power. I also love Kate DiCamillo - her books have a little bit of fantastical weirdness in them, which I really like. I also just read Denton Little’s Deathdate. I was just dying laughing because it’s very funny. A. M. Jenkins wrote Repossessed, and that’s another hilarious books. I thinks she’s super brilliant. She wrote Damage too. It's about depression, and I think it is the best second person book I’ve ever read. Jennifer Castle is an incredible writer too. She wrote the Beginning of After and has Together at Midnight coming out. I read about 10 books a month, so I read constantly because it fires me up and teaches me so much about how to be a better writer.
We would like to send a huge thank you to Kim for spending some time with us!
Bethany L., EO Blogger