In her third YA novel, This Is Me Trying, Racquel Marie addresses the weight of teen suicide, immeasurable grief, and the messiness of coping. Teens Beatriz​ and Santiago haven’t spoken since their best friend Bryce died by suicide and Santiago moved away without a goodbye. When Santi returns to their Vermont hometown for their final year of high school, their reunion reopens old wounds as the pair work through the loss of their friendship, their complicated feelings around Bryce, and what comes next. In a conversation with PW, Marie discussed the responsibility in writing about teen suicide, misconceptions around healing, and her titular Taylor Swift reference.

Your first two novels, Ophelia After All and You Don’t Have a Shot, are tonally different from This Is Me Trying. What made you feel ready to tackle a novel with heavier themes?

I definitely agree it’s a bit of a shift. Part of it was that in my personal life, I had experienced a lot of grief. I’ve talked openly online and in my acknowledgments about the fact that I lost my mom unexpectedly in 2021. I was sitting with a lot of heavy emotions about grief and the state of the world as well. It felt like a moment in time in which I trusted myself to be able to handle writing about heavier subject matter, knowing that I could still infuse it with hope as well. Especially when you’re writing for teenagers, I think that’s important. I don’t imagine myself ever writing a particularly "capital S Sad Book”

What was your preparation for this project like? Did previous works surrounding suicide help you understand what you did and didn’t want to do with your own book?

That was something I felt very seriously about because some media in the past portrays it in a way that can start to sensationalize or romanticize the concept of teen suicide. One book that I looked to that shifted my mindset was The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R Pan. That was the first time I had seen the wording “dies by suicide” and not “committing suicide,” as if it’s a crime or these aggressive wordings. It felt like a much more respectful approach to it. There’s an author’s note that talks about writing it that way [and] identifies it more as this being an element of mental illness and something that has caused somebody’s death, but not some type of moral failing. I also have worked with a therapist myself, who I spoke with about making sure I was responsible and respectful about this. And I spoke with a lot of friends of mine who’ve dealt with this in their teens and into adulthood. I felt a heavy responsibility in approaching the subject matter.

How did you approach writing about a character who is physically absent but kept present via memories?

I wanted to give the reader a sense of who Bryce was and what his relationships were to these characters. But I also wanted to be very delicate as to not make it feel like he was too present. I didn’t want to fall into a trap that some media portrays of teenage suicide where it makes it seem like you can still be around in the narrative after someone has died. I wanted to make it very clear that this is a permanent thing. If someone dies by suicide, they don’t get to be present in the narrative in an intentional, super active way. I wanted to keep his memory very rooted in how these characters perceived him and show that there was always going to be this absence of him. I wanted the reader to always feel like you never quite got a full understanding of who he was and what he felt because he is gone. That is the tragedy.

Many of the characters in the novel have faced loss and grief before, but Santiago notes that losing someone to suicide is a completely different experience. Can you talk about that concept?

When anyone dies, an immediate reaction is, what if things could have been different? I think [with] suicide it is even more so because everyone takes on this personal responsibility, “if I could have said this or done that, I could have changed things.” And it is complicated because it simultaneously is no one’s fault, and it also is something that needs to be addressed more candidly. There need to be more open and honest conversations about suicide and suicidal ideation, so that people can pursue help. It was an interesting thing to play with. If someone has a car accident or dies of cancer, it can have this element of sometimes things just happen. But suicide is something that feels so particular and intentional. It’s difficult to make peace with knowing that that choice could have been different. I wanted the characters to sit with that feeling, while also not accidentally projecting this idea that everyone messed up and it was everyone’s fault.

On social media, you’ve described this project as a combination of Taylor Swift’s “This Is Me Trying” and “Chinese Satellite” by Phoebe Bridgers. How do those two songs relate to the themes of this book?

I think this is the first time I’m directly responding to the Taylor Swift of it all! The phrase “this is me trying” gets to the root of so many of the characters’ experiences, which is that it may look like they’re not doing anything from the outside, but this is them trying. It may look like they’re just wallowing in their grief. It may look like they’re not giving any effort, but they are giving it their best attempt at existing. And “Chinese Satellite” is a great song regarding grief and that paradox of wanting to believe you’re going to see this person again someday, but not knowing if that’s true. If you don’t have that to hold on to, what do you do from there? I think both of those songs really get to the core of philosophizing about grief and the future and what it means to sit in difficult circumstances and still be giving it your best shot and knowing that everybody around you thinks you should be doing better.

Did writing this book help you come to any new understanding around navigating loss?

A little bit. I started writing this iteration of the book in the aftermath of my mom’s death. It has been about two and a half years, which is the same space the characters have been [in]. So I got to experience in real time the way that people expect you to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and start moving on. One of the things that I’ve learned both from working on the book and in my personal experience is that people have this notion of grief being a temporary thing, or being something that you are just supposed to move on from, or it gets better, or it feels different. It can feel different, but it is always going to be something that you carry with you. Compared to my first two books—where even if there were sad moments, by the end we could maybe get a happier ending—at the end of this book, someone was still going to be dead and [the characters] were still going to have this loss in their life. That is difficult to sit with when you’re grieving and difficult for people who haven’t lost someone to realize. But I wanted to present the idea that yes, this is something you’re going to carry with you forever, and it probably is going to suck for the rest of your life to some degree. It doesn’t mean there isn’t still good ahead as well. It can coexist alongside all the good too.

This Is Me Trying by Racquel Marie. Feiwel and Friends, $19.99 Apr. 16 ISBN 978-1-250-89138-9