YA authors examine unexpected loss, self-harm in latest novels

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A 17-year-old who blames himself for the deaths of his three best friends and a 17-year-old girl on the road to recovery from self-harm are at the center of Jeff Zentner’s “Goodbye Days” and Kathleen Glasgow’s “Girl in Pieces.” And as part of Read Up Greenville’s yearlong program to celebrate young adult and middle-grade literature, the two authors will be in conversation at M. Judson Booksellers on Saturday to discuss their latest novels and answer questions.

“Goodbye Days” (Crown/Random House, 2017) is the second novel by musician-turned-author Zentner, who was inspired to write for a teenage audience after volunteering at a youth summer music camp in Nashville, Tenn.

photo by Jamie Hernandez

“I thought the way they clung to the art they loved was so beautiful, and the way they’d make it part of their identity was wonderful,” he says of the experience.

In “Goodbye Days,” Carver Briggs is coping with a devastating loss. His three best friends — Mars, Eli, and Blake — were killed in a car crash, and Carver can’t shake the feeling that he’s responsible. Just before the accident, Carver sent a text message that distracted Mars, who was behind the wheel.

Carver’s guilt and grief are soon compounded by fear, as Mars’ father, a judge, wants an investigation opened to determine if Carver can be held liable for his friends’ deaths. But in the accident’s aftermath, there are a few people who stand by Carver, including Blake’s grandmother, who invites him to spend a “goodbye day” with her to give Blake a proper farewell.

Zentner’s interest in — and ultimately fear of — death was the catalyst for “Goodbye Days.” Although he clarifies that he’s never dealt with loss to the degree that his protagonist does, Zentner says the desire to write about that experience “comes from a place of having to cope with something that scares me — losing several people that I care about all at once.”

His approach to writing about death and loss from a teenager’s viewpoint was grounded in a belief that “the essential personality and intelligence are there by the time you’re a teenager.”

“What you don’t have is a lot of life experience, so it’s a matter of teasing out how I would react with that intelligence but without that experience and perspective,” the author says.

While Zentner wrote “Goodbye Days” to explore and confront a hypothetical scenario, the inspiration for Glasgow’s debut novel “Girl in Pieces” (Random House/Dealcorte Press, 2016) is rooted in the author’s past experiences with self-harm.

photo by Jade Beall Photography

“I like to say I gave my narrator, Charlie Davis, my scars, but that her story is her own,” Glasgow says of her personal connection to the book’s subject material.

“There are certainly moments in Charlie’s narrative, particularly some of her emotional narrative, that are very close to me, so those moments were hard to explore.”

Glasgow’s Charlie has endured both mental and physical trauma. Her father killed himself, and her abusive mother kicked her out of the house. Charlie begins “Girl in Pieces” in a treatment center following an almost fatal incident of self-harm. Upon her release, at the invitation of a friend, Charlie leaves her home in Minneapolis for Tucson, Ariz., in search of a fresh start.

But coming to terms with her past isn’t easy, and the temptation to engage in self-harm constantly lingers. Although Charlie experiences numerous setbacks as she navigates her new life, it is ultimately the kindness and connections she finds in Tucson that help her realize recovery is possible.

For Glasgow, it was essential that “Girl in Pieces” present an open and honest account of self-harm and other forms of trauma — even if that meant producing a work that is gritty and, at times, difficult to read.

“‘Girl in Pieces’ is a tough book. There is no way it was ever not going to be a tough book. You cannot romanticize self-harm, and there are no easy fixes. It’s hard work to come out the other side,” Glasgow says. “I didn’t pull any punches in the writing of the book. Charlie is not easily healed by love or therapy, but she does get to a better place at the end of the book, a place she’s worked hard to reach, on her own. And that’s indicative of life. So I didn’t dull anything down for teens.”

While the storylines of “Goodbye Days” and “Girl in Pieces” ultimately diverge, both novels intertwine in their explorations of recovery and healing, forgiveness, and inner strength.

For Zentner, some of the main takeaways in “Goodbye Days” are that “there’s no right way to grieve or process loss” and that “your threshold for what you can survive is probably a lot higher than you think.”

Glasgow echoes the latter sentiment. “I hope that readers realize even though sometimes you feel completely alone, there is always a tiny bit of light in the dark, if you can feel around for it,” she says. “I do truly believe that.”

Book Talk & Signing with Jeff Zentner and Kathleen Glasgow
M. Judson Booksellers, 130 S. Main St.
Aug. 19, 2–3 p.m.
Free
mudsonbooks.com

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