Junk Talk Interview with Ned Vizzini, author of, It’s Kind of a Funny Story

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Ned Vizzini is the author of TEEN ANGST? NAAAH…, a collection of personal essays about high school, many of which were published by the New York Press. He went on to write a young adult fiction novel, BE MORE CHILL and several years later he wrote another novel, IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, which was later made into a major motion picture (pictured). FUNNY STORY is a work of fiction, but it’s largely based on Vizzini’s own experience with mental illness, suicidal ideation and a week spent in a psychiatric hospital when he was 23 years old. Most recently, he has released a limited-edition comic he wrote while in high school, UNCLE TUMBA, the tale of a septuagenarian monk and his pet pig ($2 on Etsy).

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Junk interviewed Ned Vizzini about his high school comics project, his current efforts to educate about mental illness, and writing fiction and memoir.

Holly Huckeba for Junk Talk: In your senior year at Stuyvesant High School, you applied for early admission to Harvard and landed an interview with admissions staff. Your comic, UNCLE TUMBA, may have played a role in the eventual outcome of that interview, with the chief criticism leveled against UNCLE TUMBA being its use of profanity and other naughty bits. When you look back at that interview and your decision to try and sell UNCLE TUMBA to the interviewers, what do you think is the “lesson learned”? If you had it to do all over again, would you change anything, either creatively (content) or politically (the interview)? Or would you do it all exactly the same?

Ned Vizzini: The lesson learned is that you shouldn’t be too interesting in your college interviews. I wanted to get into Harvard, so of course I felt stupid that I tried to sell UNCLE TUMBA and basically got this look from my interviewers like, “This guy’s weird.” What can I say—it was my Italian peddler heritage. If I could go back and do it again, I’d change the content and curb my entrepreneurship, but thankfully I can’t.

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Junk Talk: You wrote your comic, UNCLE TUMBA, when you were 17 years old, and you wrote the essays in TEEN ANGST? NAAAH… from ages 15 to 18. How does it feel to look back at your teenage writing now that you’re older and more mature? What do you think of your work? Has your impression of adults changed much, if at all? Of yourself as a teenager? Of pet pigs?

Ned Vizzini: It feels great to look back on the things I wrote when I was a teenager. (I’ve had to do it a few times as TEEN ANGST? NAAAH… has been reprinted.) I was a late bloomer, so there are some things in TEEN ANGST that are literally pre-sexual; I’m proud to have recorded thoughts from that time. My impression of adults remains the same, my impression of myself remains the same, and I still love the pet pig in UNCLE TUMBA.

Junk Talk: Do you plan on writing more memoir? When you wrote your first memoir, TEEN ANGST? NAAAH…, you were very young. Although FUNNY STORY is a work of fiction, you’ve also claimed that it’s 85% true. Would you consider writing another memoir now that you are older (he’s 30, folks), wiser, and a more experienced writer?

Ned Vizzini: I have moved from memoir to fiction because I think it’s a bigger prize and a bigger challenge. Writing a good memoir is an admirable thing, but a memoir is really of its time and place. For TEEN ANGST? NAAAH… that time was the 90s and that place was New York, which happen to be an era and location that people still care about, but in 50 years I don’t know if anyone is going to look back on 90s New York with the same reverence that they look on, say, 1920s Paris. A good story, on the other hand, lasts for hundreds of years. I’d rather swing for the fences in that arena than write the true-life tales of what it’s like to be… uh… a 30-year-old YA author living in 2010s Los Angeles.

Junk Talk: You write and do a lot of public speaking about mental illness and suicide prevention. Similar to the stigma associated with addicts and addiction, there is a huge stigma associated with mental illness. This stigma can be the biggest barrier to seeking help. Tell us your thoughts on how story telling can help.

Ned Vizzini: It’s not all gloom-and-doom when it comes to mental health and stigma. In the five years since IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY was published, I have seen a shift in attitudes toward depression, bipolar, and anxiety disorders. These diseases are more accepted and understood now than they have ever been. This is due in large part to people who are willing to share their stories, whether it be to their families, through campus organizations, or on the internet. It’s no longer really big news when a celebrity like Hugh Laurie announces that he suffers from depression, but it does make a difference in the long run.

As to the act of storytelling itself, I find that stories hinge on taking bad situations and turning them into entertainment, which is also a nice way to approach mental illness. If you can laugh at it, you can survive it.

Junk Talk: At Junk: A literary fix, we focus on memoir about addiction and the effects of addiction on us or those we love. We define addiction pretty broadly and don’t just focus on drugs and alcohol, but also on addictions to people, places and things. How has addiction played a part in your own personal story?

Ned Vizzini: I had an addiction to a collectible card game called Magic: The Gathering for 10 years. There is an essay about it in TEEN ANGST? NAAAH… (featured here on Pojo.com) but it wasn’t all cute and cuddly like that. I kept buying the cards and then throwing them away and then buying them again—and then I discovered online forums where you could play for free illegally and I spent hours at a time getting my ass handed to me by 13-year-olds in Portugal. When I moved to Los Angeles, a friend suggested that I come to a Magic tournament for old times’ sake. I went and for some reason Ron Livingston from OFFICE SPACE was there walking around like he was researching Magic for a movie. I got my ass handed to me by a man with a boil on his forehead. That’s it; I’m done; I don’t play anymore; I have too much self-respect.

Ned Vizzini August 2010 B&W photo credit Sabra Embury

Ned Vizzini author of TEEN ANGST? NAAAH…, BE MORE CHILL and IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY. His forthcoming young adult novel is THE OTHER NORMALS. Purchase UNCLE TUMBA here.

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