There’s a hint of The Catcher in the Rye to Matthew Quick’s new YA novel, Every Exquisite Thing. Main character Nanette is a star soccer player, but when she reads The Bubblegum Reaper, she finds she has a lot in common with that novel’s anti-hero. In a Holden Caulfield move, Nanette develops an aversion to doing what’s expected and in interest in what Wrigley calls “quitting.”
But the story wasn’t inspired by J.D. Salinger’s 1951 work. Instead, the idea came from Quick’s own experiences as an author. While known for Silver Linings Playbook, which became a film starring Bradley Cooper, it was Quick’s previous YA novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, that struck a chord with readers. In that 2013 book, a teenager plans to shoot the high school bully before ending his own life. “I get really intense fan mail from teens who connect with Leonard [and] feel like he represents things that they think,” says Quick. “They read symbolism into it and want me to confirm that their view is right.” While Quick is flattered by his readers’ investment, he’s also conflicted.
“When you write about mental health, you want to start conversations [that are] helpful in the community,” he says. “But where does your responsibility as a writer end?” The author, who returns to Malaprop’s on Saturday, June 4, was a teacher before his writing career took off. He parlayed his classroom knowledge and his thoughts about those fan letters into Every Exquisite Thing. There, Nanette and two other teens befriend Booker, the author of The Bubblegum Reaper — a reclusive older man who serves as a sort of mentor.
As the teens in Every Exquisite Thing seek answers to their problems (divorced parents, feeling isolated, uncertainty about the future) in Booker’s out-of-print novel, they become obsessed the author himself. Plot points and characters serve as clues to the writer’s own life, though he has little interest in sharing his personal story. “Authors are not people who typically seek out fame — most authors are people who like to quietly work out things alone in a room,” says Quick. Adding to that conundrum, “the boundaries between reader and author are forever being blurred on social media.”
But Quick has his own list books that made an impression when he was a teen. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison were “books that make you look at society and question everything.” And as a kid who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, reading The Stranger, by existential writer Camus “felt revolutionary,” he says. “It was a moment when I saw that the adults in my life, there were other people who opposed their thoughts.”
Every Exquisite Thing is likely to be that for some teens. Early reviewers on GoodReads have already been pulling out pithy quotes (”Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it.’’) The book is full of brash poetry and challenging situations and one interesting literary tool: To get away from the habit of pleasing others, Nanette switches from speaking in the first person to the third person perspective.
“As a writer, you can’t be reader-centered,” says Quick. “It’s not good for the work and it’s not good for a you. You can’t take care of every reader the way you take care of every kid in a classroom.” But though fiction he can create a platform for conversation and introduce young people to new ideas and sympathetic characters.
So, he says, “I think I’m just going to keep writing.”
WHO: Matthew Quick
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Saturday, June 4, 7 p.m.