In Bill Konigsberg’s new YA novel The Bridge, main characters Aaron and Tillie meet by chance on the George Washington Bridge, having both gone there intending to jump. From that accident of timing, Konigsberg spins the story four ways: one where Aaron dies, one where Tillie does, one where they both do, and one where neither does and they join forces to confront their problems and make things better. Konigsberg spoke with PW about how talking helps fight depression and suicidal ideation, and what he hopes the book will do for readers.
The things that make Tillie and Aaron suicidal aren’t catastrophic, per se. They’re more like last straws. Was that something you wanted to show about suicide?
Aaron suffers from chronic chemical depression, which is what I suffer from, and I think that things that don’t seem so bad on the outside can really cause challenges that don’t seem to make sense unless you’re living them. And that’s depression. For Tillie, I don’t think she’s depressed; I think she’s challenged. By that I guess I mean what is considered trauma doesn’t have to be a death in the family or something like that. Things impact us in personal ways that might not seem as if they’d be that impactful. What pushes Tillie to this point is a confluence of something that’s been going on for a long time that seems to be getting worse along with two events that were unexpected.
Aaron doesn’t know he’s depressed; he just thinks that’s how life is. Do you think that is typical among teens?
I think it is. It was certainly my experience. I was depressed as a kid, and you could never have told me that there was a word for what I was feeling. As a young person, you’re going through so many things, and it’s really tough when someone categorizes you. If someone had said something to me about depression, I’d have thought, that’s someone else, not me; you can’t put me in a box.
Aaron’s gay, and there have been findings that LGBTQ kids have a higher rate of suicide, but his identity isn’t depicted as a factor in his suicide attempt. What made you decide to handle his story in this way?
I wanted to avoid making the story about his identity. As a writer, I was discerning the difference between somebody wanting to kill himself because he’s gay and somebody wanting to kill himself and he’s gay. And it matters. I had a suicide attempt in my 20s, and I think it was that way. It was an and. It doesn’t mean that being gay didn’t impact me; it just wasn’t about that. This isn’t a problem novel. It’s not about what it feels like to be different, but being different has ripple effects. Similarly, Tillie’s being adopted affects everything about her, but it’s not the point of the story.
You write in your author’s note that a teacher once told you it was bad to talk to teens about suicide. Clearly you don’t agree. What are you hoping this book can do?
I think that this is the kind of book that, in the best of all worlds, teens will have someone they can talk with about it after reading it. Suicidal ideation and depression love quiet and darkness, so what I’m trying to do is get people talking and thinking about this. The point of the book, other than being a good story, is for people to not feel so alone in their struggles. The more that people can share this and say, “I read this book and the characters struggled and I related to it. Do you relate to it?” the more they’ll be able to build connections like the characters do in the fourth version of the story.
The Bridge by Bill Konigsberg. Scholastic Press, Sept. 1 $18.99 ISBN 978-1-338-32503-4