Ned Vizzini: Surviving Teen Angst

“That table’s worth more than you. If there were a fire in this house, I’d take that table out first, and then I’d come back to get you.” This was the senior yearbook quote of bestselling author Ned Vizzini (’99). “It’s a quote of my father’s,” Vizzini said. “Then the freaking Stuyvesant yearbook people added a typo to it! My father knows about the quote and he feels horrible about it, because he tells me he was just being sarcastic. I grew up in a very sarcastic household.”

Reflecting on his high school years, Vizzini identified Stuyvesant as a trove of lessons and experiences. Among the memories of studying for tests and “playing Magic cards on the sixth floor,” he remembers Stuyvesant for its “hard fun [and] Asian kids,” he said. He especially loved the idiosyncrasies of the student body, “because the only thing people had in common was that they passed the test. So it was weirdoes of all stripes,” he said. Vizzini even appreciated the academic pressure, because the hardships thrown at him later in life could not measure up to those in Stuyvesant. “Whenever things get bad in my working life—for example, last year, when I had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to write “House of Secrets” (a New York Times bestseller) before going to work on “Last Resort”I realize that Stuyvesant was harder. So I really appreciate the pressure in hindsight,” he said. One thing he hated, however, was (unsurprisingly) the homework load. “Four hours a night? I’m still happy I don’t have homework,” Vizzini, 32 years old, said.

Unlike most Stuyvesant students, Vizzini felt no need to fill his list of extracurricular activities. “The only extracurricular activity I am documented to have been in was “Banned Film Club.” But I wasn’t even in that club. They just pulled me aside while they were taking the picture to make it look like it had more people in it,” he said.

Instead, Vizzini pursued his love for writing, which he found as a hobby in grade school. “When I was in second grade, my progressive grade school in Brooklyn had “Writers’ Workshop week,” where they gave us a blank book and told us to fill it. I couldn’t believe it. I thought blank books were very rare and were all hoarded by the book companies. I was off to the races,” he said. At Stuyvesant, he found an outlet in “New York Press, the newspaper that inspired the first kind of writing I ever had success with,” he said. “I met with The Spectator people early on and they didn’t like me. “New York Press” was available on the streets on my walk to school, and it was the most incredible paper I had ever read in my life.”

This local newspaper helped him publish a personal essay called “The Bagel Man” in 1996, jumpstarting his success in writing. Vizzini found much inspiration in his own life, particularly his experiences in high school. In fact, these brought life to his earliest novel, “Teen Angst? Naaah…,” which is an amusing memoir of thoughts and experiences collected from middle school and high school, published when he was 19. He also drew from his high school experience in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” a novel about a depressed teenager who institutionalizes himself in a psychiatric ward.

“‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story’ is 85 percent true. I made the main character 15 instead of 23, and I added the love triangle, but all the people in the story are based on real people. So I put quite a lot of myself in there,” Vizzini said. Regarding his own experience with depression, he said, “I was 23 and under contract to write a book and couldn’t. I thought my career and life were over because my art had betrayed me.”

Unlike in his novel, his depression didn’t relate to his experience at Stuyvesant. “I idolized suicide for a long time before I was diagnosed with actual depression. I don’t think it had to do with [Stuyvesant]. It had to do with Nirvana, because I loved that band, and since Kurt Cobain killed himself, I had a bad role model,” Vizzini said. However, he does believe that the pressure in high school can be too much to handle sometimes. This is why he suggested that “all students, in [Stuyvesant] and elsewhere, should get five ‘mental health days’ to use during the year to stay sane.” Eventually, time helped him climb over the rut in the road and go on to become a successful writer. “I found comfort in time. Time is also what helped me overcome. Time is great,” Vizzini said.

Today, with five published books to his name, Vizzini is recognized as a popular young adult author. He is currently writing for “Believe,” an upcoming NBC television show that will air Sunday nights at 9 p.m., starting March 2014. “Believe” centers on a ten-year-old girl with supernatural powers who needs to protect her abilities from being used by evil forces.

Vizzini’s proudest achievement, however, is “happening now, as “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” continues to find a wider audience than he expected. “House of Secrets” being an official New York Times Bestseller (which “Funny Story” is not) is also a big deal,” he said.

Vizzini credits his success to his ability to write about his own life. For him, writing about himself is easy because he enjoys connecting with his audience. “You just have to be shameless,” he said. “I have always been interested in writing about my own experiences. I’m an open person. If you spent four hours hanging out with me, you would know just as much about me as if you read one of my books,” Vizzini said. “So you might as well just read my books, so I get a little money.”

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