Gayle Forman: An Exclusive Interview on I Was Here

Gayle Forman: An Exclusive Interview on I Was Here

Where did the idea for the story originate from?

Years ago, I did an article about young women and suicide for Cosmopolitan. There was one woman, Suzy Gonzales, whose story really stuck with me. She seemed so charismatic, so alive, and yet she had taken her own life, under very sinister circumstances. Years later, I was thinking about Suzy, about how it would feel to know someone so bright, so brilliant, so full of promise, and to receive an out-of-the-blue email suicide note. And when I did, Cody was there, raring to go.

Did you know how things would play out before you started writing? Did you know it would almost become a murder mystery?

In a way, suicide is the ultimate murder mystery, because the victim and the perpetrator die together. Before I had a title for the novel, my themes were suicide, mystery, love story, so I guess yes, I knew it would be a mystery. And as with so many mysteries, as Cody uncovers the layers of Meg’s death, she begins to uncover some secrets she’s kept from herself as well.

What qualities did you love exploring in Cody as a character?

I started writing I Was Here on the DL. I was finishing up the Just One Day series and those two characters, with all their waffling, were trying my patience. Cody was the opposite of them. So badass and brave (and also foolish), it was refreshing to write her, to tap into her brand of anger.

Who was your favourite character to write aside from Cody?

I loved writing Stoner Richard and his father. They were such good people, such antidotes to Bradford, who is the first and only villain I have ever written.

Was it a challenge to get yourself into the mindset of your characters? Particularly Cody and Meg?

Cody came to me easily, viscerally. There was something about her. She is so full of power and yet she doesn’t realize it. She has convinced herself that her power is only a result of other people’s glory. I get that. As for Meg, by intention, I never get into her mind-set. She is gone by the first page and it becomes clear that there were whole swathes of her that even Cody, her best friend, didn’t understand. What I did understand, too well, was the deep friendship Meg and Cody had, and the pain Cody experienced having lost that.

Why did you choose to write about the person left behind rather than the one who commits suicide?

When the story came to me, it was from the point of view of Cody, the one left behind. It was the story I wanted to tell. The ripple effect of suicide. The hard road to redemption.

Do you have a favourite quote/scene from the book?

It’s funny because I’m Jewish but I love Richard’s father’s sermon at church about forgiveness. I think there’s this idea that you forgive because it’s noble but really when you forgive, when you let go of something that’s eating at you, you help yourself. Forgiveness is a miracle drug.

Why did you choose to focus on friendship for this book?

My friendships are deep and intense and nearly as important to my happiness and wellbeing as my family. Over the years, I’ve had friendships fall apart, spectacularly, bloodily, painfully. We tend to assign friendships to a backseat behind romantic relationships but I think that’s wrong. They can be just as important, just as deep, and just as damaging when they fall apart.

What was the most challenging part of writing this story?

Writing Bradford. In the original draft, I skipped over nearly all the Alt_BS/Bradford sections. He was such a dark character to write, but he also had to be charismatic and seductive, his logic had to make a certain sense because otherwise Meg would not fall for it. It was a scary place to go, and I did it incrementally, getting a little closer to him with each draft.

How have readers responded to your book?

I’ve had many readers tell me how grateful they are to have an honest book about depression. Suicide doesn’t happen out of the blue. It’s the end-stage of mental illness, most often depression. There is still so much shame about depression and that prevents people from talking about it, and getting help. This book has helped readers talk about it. For that I am grateful.

Why did you choose I Was Here for the title?

The original title was A Code Unknown, but that made it seem like a book on hacking or computers. We were going back looking for other titles (another possible one: Oh So Brief And Bright, which is a lyric from one of the Firefly songs. But in the end, I chose one of the bits of graffiti Meg and Cody had seen and Meg had scrawled on her wall. It really summed up Meg’s life. And Cody’s. And all of ours. No matter what’s happening in our lives, we are here, on this earth, until we are not.

Grief, guilt and the quest to understand are big themes within this book. What drew you to write about them?

After I wrote If I Stay, I dug into Where She Went, in part because I wanted to follow the characters but also because I wanted to explore grief from someone a degree away from tragedy. A lot of times, we don’t feel entitled to our grief, and that prevents us from processing it, and that’s when trouble begins. With Cody, all that happens, but it’s even worse because Meg took her own life and Cody has no idea why. The guilt she feels around that – the guilt that loved ones of suicide victims experience – makes it even harder to just mourn her friend. It’s the double whammy of loss and guilt.

Did you carry out much research for your book, particularly into online forums? What was the most interesting thing you came across?

When I wrote the Cosmopolitan article, I went through a lot of the transcripts from forums that Suzy had been on. When I started I Was Here, I researched to see if the forums still existed – they did but in far smaller numbers than when I’d written about this years before. One question from the book – What About My Wife? – was taken directly from the boards, as were the answers, which horrified me; all these people were saying the wife would be relieved if her husband killed himself. I knew enough suicide survivors to know that no one ever felt relief. Profound guilt and heartbreak yes but relief, never.

What message do you hope people will take away from this book?

Different people take different things from books. I hope anyone who is suffering from depression understands how serious it is, and how to get help. I hope anyone who has a friend suffering from depression sees what it looks like and supports their friend to get help. I hope parents with children with depression don’t keep it secret. I hope anyone thinking of taking their own lives sees that the darkness is temporary and will lift, but that the devastation wrought by suicide is permanent. I hope people understand the power of forgiveness.

Which books would you recommend for someone who enjoyed I Was Here?

Nina LaCour’s first novel Hold Still is another quiet exploration of the after effects of suicide. Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why is another novel that chronicles suicide. Imagine Me Gone by Adam Hasslet puts you inside the head of two characters suffering from mental illness and I think increases empathy.

Which authors inspire you to write?

Any time I read something that knocks my socks off, my first experience is pure jealousy, but it’s quickly followed by inspiration. Not that I want to copy what a writer did or am even directly inspired by a particular book, but any time I see a writer reaching higher, taking risks, putting it out there, I challenge myself to do the same.

What’s next for you? Do you have another book underway?

I just published a novel, my first one starring adults, called Leave Me. Now I’m working on a new YA novel. It’s one I’ve been trying to write for years and have finally, I think (hope) figured it out.

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