Interview with Ned Vizzini

by Margaret Borchert

Ned Vizzini is the bestselling author of It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Be More Chill, and Teen Angst? Naaah… The film adaptation of It’s Kind of a Funny Story—starring Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, and Emma Roberts and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck—will debut on October 8, 2010. As a teenager, Ned wrote articles for the New York Press, an alternative newspaper. He currently lives in New York and reviews books for The New York Times and L Magazine.

Where do you find inspiration for your fiction pieces?
First and foremost, by reading. The second place I get inspiration from—sort of the same place I’ve always gotten inspiration from—is to observe and catalogue human life around me. If you’re observant, you get inspiration from the way people actually act, because people are just strange sometimes.

So do you do a lot of people watching?
I don’t, you know, sit on a bench just to watch people. But believe me, if I’m at a party or if I’m out getting lunch, I’m always watching people. If you’re hanging out with me, I’m probably watching you.

In your book Teen Angst? Naaah… you talk about how you started writing to vent your frustration over an incident involving an escalator, your backpack, and a mean girl. Do you still use a journal for these types of things?
I don’t keep a journal, nor did I ever really keep a journal the way some people picture keeping a journal, where you have a special, secret book that only you look at. I definitely use writing—fiction writing mostly—to let off some steam. But it’s more automatic than it was when I started and I no longer need to have a humiliating incident to happen to me in order for me to write.

What do you think is the most important part of the character development process?
Being thorough about the life of the character beyond the novel. You may not need to know what their favorite food is for any reason in the book, but if you don’t know these little things about your character, you can find yourself in narrative traps. By narrative traps I mean getting to a place in the book where you’re like, “Wow, what should my character do? I have no idea. I’m stuck.” You have to love your characters, you have to be rooting for them, and you have to know them inside and out to make fiction work.

Who is your favorite author?
That’s one of those things that changes frequently. I like to mention Michael Crichton because I think in the next fifty years he’ll gradually gain recognition as the American Jules Verne. He died a few years ago and his work was very important to me as a kid. When I started reading Jurassic Park, I was so into it that I sat down in the bathroom to read and my legs fell asleep and my brother was banging on the door to use the bathroom. When I got up, I fell on the ground because my legs didn’t work because I had been sitting in some weird position for so long. That was how good the book was. And I remember thinking to myself, This is real power! The power to be able to write something so compelling that you make your reader forget how they’re sitting.

Are you reading any books right now?
Something I’m reading that’s really unique and fun is called The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis. Every once in a while, the narrator will tell you what the origin of a random word is – its etymology – and I’ve always been a sucker for that stuff.

You began writing for the New York Press at fifteen. How did you get into that and what do you recommend aspiring writers—such as the ones on Figment—do in order to get connections in the publishing business and eventually get their works published?
The first thing I tell people is: “Don’t write a book.” Chances are if you sit down at thirteen or fourteen saying, “I’m going to write a novel,” you’ll just get frustrated and it may turn you off from writing altogether. It’s much better to start with short pieces. You can hone your craft more quickly doing this, instead of taking months and months traveling down the rabbit hole of writing a novel.

I highly recommend that young people who want to become writers start out trying to work with alternative newspapers and their local communities. Young peoples’ opinions are actually very valuable because people think that you know what’s cool. Editors are going to say, “Oh, this is someone reporting from the trenches of American youth!” The way that I started with the alternative press community in New York was by writing an essay about my high school and sending it in to the address of the New York Press. A couple months later I got a call from one of the editors. They read the essay and liked it, and they were interested in working with me. So it was really that simple.

The world is a little different from when I started in 1996, but the essential attitude is still there. The first thing you have to do is read and identify a newspaper or magazine that may publish a piece of your writing. The second thing you have to do is write it. And the third thing you have to do is send it off and be respectful and professional.

Your book It’s Kind of a Funny Story was made into a movie that is coming out October 8th. How much were you involved in the movie-making process?
The first thing to say about the movie is that it’s been a fantastic process, Focus Features has done a great job and I’m very, very lucky. I didn’t write the script to the movie, it was written by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden [Half Nelson, Sugar], who are also the directors. They’re really talented filmmakers and when I heard they were interested in the project I was really excited! We met and really hit it off. Some things had to be modified to make it a good movie, but all of the critical things from the book—emotional vibe and narrative structure of the book—are very well encapsulated in the movie.

I saw a cut of it a couple weeks ago and the emotions that went through me were everything from amazement to otherworldly – I don’t know – otherworldly terror. I’m still kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know? The movie was so good that part of me is thinking, Someone’s gonna get you, Ned, for having so much fun with your life.

Did you spend a lot of time on set?
I met the whole cast and they were all very sweet and cool and professional. I was not really needed on the set of the movie, but they made me feel good and the one thing that I heard a lot on the set was: “Hey, thanks, you got me a job! If you didn’t write that book we wouldn’t be shooting this movie and I wouldn’t be working right now.” It was cool. One of my t-shirts is worn by a character in one scene, and in one segment of the movie Craig is reading a copy of Be More Chill which I didn’t even realize they were going to do. There are these little hidden messages in the movie that I appreciated, things that will make it fun for me and my friends.

Are you working on anything right now?
I have finished a new book and my agent and I are bringing it to publishers; we’re literally at the very beginning of that process right now. It’s a young adult book that delves deeply into my love of role-playing games. So if you like Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft and Magic the Gathering, it will be a book that’s right up your alley.

Margaret is a freshman at Franklin College Switzerland and spends most of her time fooling around on the internet, talking to the voices in her head, and avoiding actual work at all costs.

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