Matthew Quick may be best known for The Silver Linings Playbook and the Oscar-winning movie it inspired, but he’s never really stopped being a teacher. Writing for teens simply lets him send his intended messages to a wider audience. “If you care about kids,” he says, “teaching is the hardest job in the world.”
In Quick’s new YA novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Leonard plans to celebrate his 18th birthday by using an old Nazi handgun to kill his former best friend and then himself. But first he has gifts to deliver to the four people who mean the most to him: an elderly neighbor with whom he trades Humphrey Bogart quotes; a classmate whose violin music soothes him; his completely out-of-reach crush; and his Holocaust studies teacher, Herr Silverman, who plays a crucial role as Leonard draws closer to what may be his final act.
Just as Leonard carefully chooses whom to trust with his secrets, Herr Silverman must decide what he’s willing to do to help a student in need. “I really wanted to show that conflict,” Quick says in a call from his Massachusetts home. “When you have to grade 80 five-paragraph essays for kids trying to get into Harvard, and some kid comes to you with some type of crisis and is crying, which do you choose? Do you comfort that kid or do you grade the essays? Or do you comfort the kid and grade the essays and tell your wife you can’t go out that weekend? I wanted to set up that relationship as something that was challenging. When is it time to break down those boundaries, play loose with the rules? How far do you go?”
Helping these students can save their lives, but as Leonard’s favorite teacher learns, it can also create a set of ethical questions without any easy answers.
“You can’t put a price tag on empathy.”
Quick—who left his job as a high school English teacher in New Jersey to pursue an MFA in creative writing—understands that teens want to be on equal footing with their adult teachers while still needing them to be dependable authority figures. Connections between teachers and students matter—and linger. Quick tells an anecdote about a lonely student who once approached him for advice. Quick told the young man, “You don’t know who you’re going to meet in five years. Your best friend could be out there, your life partner could be in some other high school, having all the same issues and the same problems—you don’t know who they are yet, but you’ll meet that person eventually.”
Quick soon forgot about the conversation, but his student didn’t. Eight years later, the former student returned to introduce Quick to his wife and told him, “You were right about that.” Quick was touched. “The things we tell teenagers are powerful,” he says. “They remember.”
So why did Quick leave the classroom for writing? Several reasons, he says, including returning to an earlier passion and “knowing how to find balance.” During his own teen years, Quick was discouraged from pursuing a career in writing, as it was considered “unmanly” in his blue-collar hometown. But Quick found that teaching, counseling, coaching and chaperoning left little time for writing—or anything else. Becoming a full-time author made him feel “fully alive” while also providing for himself and his family.
Leaving teaching was a risk, but one that paid off. Along with The Silver Linings Playbook, Quick is now the author of three books for young adults and the upcoming adult novel The Good Luck of Right Now, set to be published by HarperCollins in 2014. And since the success of The Silver Linings Playbook, he’s found himself with more readers, sales, translations and speaking engagements than he ever expected.
“But that’s not why I write,” Quick emphasizes. Instead, what drives his novels is the idea that everyone—even those who don’t consider themselves bookish types—can benefit from the increased sensitivity that fiction provides. “You can’t put a price tag on empathy,” he says.
Although most of Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is told from Leonard’s point of view, a series of letters interrupts the narration from time to time. These letters come from a lighthouse on the edge of a post-apocalyptic world. No ships have been seen in decades, but the lighthouse keepers—a man, his wife, their daughter and the man’s father-in-law—faithfully maintain the beam anyway. The significance of the letters, and how they relate to Leonard, becomes clearer as the novel progresses.
“Leonard is damaged, angry—but wonderful,” Quick says. “He’s sending out light. He just wants to be loved, and no one sees it.”
According to Quick, the ambiguity at the heart of this novel was intentional—and any actual resolution irrelevant. Teens “will tend to exaggerate to make their point because nobody’s listening,” Quick says, and this sense of drama can kick into high gear on especially symbolic days, like birthdays. “Leonard has to take it to this crazy height and level to get people to see how much pain he’s in.”
But YA literature allows for unresolved conflicts and open endings just as much as hopeful, happy resolutions. Says Quick, “I don’t think that YA should be required to do anything except make kids think.”