I first became aware of Ned Vizzini in the year 2000. I was the trade book buyer for a college bookstore, which meant I bought the books that weren’t assigned reading – or, as I liked to put it, I got to inflict my tastes on the book-buying public. One of the perks of the job was getting promotional copies of books for free. Intended to engender word of mouth, the promo copies usually ended up regifted or hoarded, seldom mentioned to customers. One exception came from Free Spirit Publishing, who had published Teen Angst? Naaah… by Ned Vizzini. He wrote about what high school life was like, how his friends could embarrass him and be cool at the same time, how awesome Magic: The Gathering was, how anxious (and poor) the prom could make you. Furthermore, he did this in the moment – that is, the book was a collection of essays that he wrote while he was in his teens. Further-furthermore, his writing was better than mine. I couldn’t be jealous, though – I enjoyed his voice too much. Confident in his geekiness, detached but curious. Vizzini had a style that I could really get into even though I was older than he. I ordered multiple copies for the store and hand-sold the hell out of them – an easy thing to do when you believe in what you’re doing.
“I’m working on a novel from scratch and that’s harder,” Vizzini said in an interview. “George Orwell once said that the only reason a man would write a book was if he were possessed by demons, and I can empathize with that.”
The novel, Be More Chill, was praised, but it was his next book, 2006’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, that saw Vizzini at his peak. It’s about a teenager who checks himself into a psych ward for depression, where he finds out that things aren’t so terrible after all – or, as the tagline to the movie made of the book said, “Sometimes what’s in your head isn’t as crazy as you think.” The book was based in part on Vizzini’s own stay in a psych ward, and I remember being glad to read that he’d discovered he wasn’t so bad off after all.
Flash forward to the winter of 2009. I was in a very low state of mind. My college alumni magazine sent a request for an update, and here’s what I told them:
Patrick Robbins made under six thousand dollars last year, which should start putting a dent in his $55,000 worth of grad school bills. He is unemployed, as his last position, working the third shift in a warehouse, was only a seasonal one. His car, a 1997 Ford Escort, recently passed the 135,000 mile mark – and won’t pass any others, as it failed inspection spectacularly. He can’t get an agent to read his novel. He would probably be living with his girlfriend, if he had one; as it is, once this housesitting gig is over, it looks like another summer staying with his parents. All of which serves to distract him from his prehypertension and slight weight gain, though the receding hairline is harder to miss. So hey – to all you people who don’t send news to the alumni mag, on account of you don’t have a great success story to tell… now you got no excuse.
It was so depressing they only printed half of it – which, if you’ve read any alumni mag class news updates, you know takes some doing.
Shortly after that, I saw that one of my Facebook friends had friended Ned Vizzini. I took a chance and sent him a friend request, along with a note (I don’t believe in Facebook-friending strangers without at least a little introduction) explaining who I was and why I hoped I was worthy to be considered his friend, adding that I’d love to talk music with him.
To my surprise, he responded straightaway. “Hey, I’m always down to talk about music,” he said. He teased me a little for my need to paint myself in such a cool light – “Very funny that you feel you have to assert your hipster credentials! I’m just trying to not wear plaid” – and at the end, he said, “Thank you so much for all the support over the years — it means a lot to me.”
I took him at his word about always wanting to talk about music. His email address was on his website; I took it and started sending him collections of YouTube videos of songs, half a dozen at a time. Six-Pats, I called them. Every four to six weeks, often when I was in some kind of funk or other, I’d put together a new batch of faves to send him – in part because they were faves and I was cheered up listening to them, and in part because he always, always responded. They had various themes – songs about California, instrumentals, soul, power pop – and I’d give each song a brisk into and then let it speak for itself.
Some of the clips he hated – the word “putrid” came up more than once – but others he loved, and he’d thank me for introducing him to artists like James Carr and Brinsley Schwarz. When I sent him a mashup of Johnny Cash singing “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” backed by the Beatles, Beastie Boys, Ted Nugent, and Led Zeppelin (it’s a beauty – check it out here), he wrote back, “This kinda stuff is why I open your emails.” That’ll buoy anybody up, believe me. It was also fun for me when he’d tweet out the stuff I’d sent him.
He told me I should go and see the movie version of It’s Kind of a Funny Story when it opened, going so far as to tell me where it was playing in Maine. Sadly, it was over an hour away from the sticks where I lived, but I promised him I’d buy the DVD. I did, too, and I paid full price, something I almost never do. I let him know that I liked it a lot more than I expected to; I was nervous that it would be Hollywooded up, but they’d pulled it off without adding any sap, and Zach Galifianakis’s thousand-yard stare at the very end really moved me. He wrote back, “I thought the final shot of Zach G was amazing. I really thought it made the film.” Again, being in sync with him made me happy.
After the ninth Six-Pat, he asked me, “when are you going to put this stuff on a blog and start monetizing it instead of wasting your time sending it to me?” He also posted a video I’d sent him on his Facebook page (Booker T & the MGs live, with a psyched CCR watching from the wings – watch it here), adding that he’d been telling me that I really needed to start a blog. It was a gauntlet, one that I was eventually ready for. I decided to write about cover songs, titling the blog “Oh Boy, Another Cover Song Blog!” (You’d be surprised how many there are.) After a few months, I applied to write for the blog Cover Me, using my blog writing as an example of what I could do. I was snapped up; within six months, I was the features editor, a position I hold to this day. Oh, and I can’t forget becoming Grandpop Culture either, a few years after that.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I told Ned that he’d talked me into it, he wrote back, “I’m so glad you have a blog now! Great work.” A month later, he told me, “This is going to have to be the final Six-Pat for me.” He was a new father, and he had too many responsibilities to respond to my Six-Pats anymore, but he was going to continue to follow my blog and he wished me much happiness; I did likewise.
I gave him his space, not writing to him for a good year and a half or so. Then I sent him a clip I thought he’d find amusing, of Jon Stewart eating a blueberry-wrapped pancake on a stick dipped in Baconnaise Light (watch it here). His response caught me off-guard. “I only liked that show back when Craig Kilborn was hosting it,” he said. “Oh wow so Jon Stewart gags at the thought of Baconnaise Light (which makes perfect sense to me). What a stunning surprise that he looks down on this food! He’s so smart and cultured!” I was a little taken aback, but put it down to a bad day and wished him well, saying I hoped his next book tour could take him deep into the bowels of New England so he and I could finally meet. “Thanks Patrick” he replied. “I hope so too!”
A little over a year later, on December 19, 2013, three years ago this week, Ned Vizzini committed suicide. He jumped off the roof of the house in Brooklyn where his parents lived. He was 32 years old.
I websurfed from site to site that day, reading what other people had to say about Ned. One thing kept coming up over and over again – dozens of kids, maybe hundreds, were feeling suicidal, and they read his book It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and it inspired them to get the help they needed, and they wrote him to tell him this, and he wrote them back to encourage them. Over and over. I was amazed at how much he was in touch with his readers, how much he changed their lives for the better – and how much it didn’t change his ending.
I’m not going to pretend Ned Vizzini and I were close friends – for a look at what it was like to be his close friend, I recommend Marty Beckerman’s essay on MTV.com – but I will say that the connection he and I shared was special to me, and that it altered the course of my existence, and that I’m very very sorry he’s gone. I’m also very very glad that every time someone picks up one of his books and starts reading it, he comes back.
If you’re depressed this holiday season, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. They’re open 24 hours a day and are ready to talk. As Ned said, “Suicidal ideation really is a medical emergency and if more people knew to call the suicide hotline we’d have less suicides.”