"Blake, who had a relatively low alcohol tolerance, had now sunk into a maudlin, faux 'deep and meaningful' drunkenness and did what all people like that do to a game of 'Never have I ever' - he dragged it down. "Never have I ever contemplated suicide," he said slowly. Meredith rolled here eyes. No one except Blake drank, which was staggeringly uncomfortable for everyone else involved."
September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day and something designed to raise awareness of suicide, self-harm and depression. I received a few questions from Robyn, asking about it and talking about a scene in Popular, from chapter XII. I thought I'd answer her questions here and thanks to Robyn for getting in contact. I hope I've been able to clear a few things up and to talk a bit more about this issue.
R: There's a scene in Popular where Blake mentions having contemplated suicide before. But none of the characters react sympathetically and even the book seems to judge him for this. Don't you think it's a bit dangerous to present a scene like that?
G: Well, Robyn, I read back on that scene now and I actually do wish that I had written it differently. I wouldn't have changed how the other characters reacted, because I think an essential part of Blake's story in Popular is the tragedy that he has really no close friends that he can talk to. And even if he did, he'd cut them all out the moment they implied that he might be gay. I do, though, regret implying that he was lying when he'd said it and the way it reads, now, is certainly as if he was doing it solely for attention. What I meant by that scene was to show Blake's mental isolation and the fact that he doesn't really know what he's doing anymore. On the one hand, he's openly admitting to a group of people that he's apparently contemplated ending his life, but at the same time - when he's sober - he's gamely acting as if everything in his life is perfect and he's having the time of his life being separated from Cameron.
R: I did think that the book was a lot more sympathetic to Cameron's mental health issues and very harsh with Blake's. Was that deliberate?
G: It was deliberate that it would show Cameron's in more depth, yes. In the first book, Blake is supposed to be much more of an enigma and it was always intended that readers would finally see and hear it from his point of view at a later date. I have to say, though, that I was quite surprised when people took so strongly against Blake, but then for some people what he does is truly unforgivable. One reader told me a few months ago when I was in Waterstones that the pain Blake puts himself through in those few months after Cameron's birthday are awful and that they deserve sympathy, but what made her stop feeling sympathy for him was that he wasn't just prepared to make himself feel that pain but that he also inflicted it totally on Cameron. After all the work Blake had done to become the closest person in Cameron's life, to treat him that way by just cutting-off all contact was both spineless and unforgivably vindictive.
I suppose I could see her point and I do think what Blake does is horrific. But, to me, he's still a good guy who happened to do a bad thing. And good guys do that, sometimes. In Blake's defense, what he does to Cameron (and to himself) is one massive, unbelievable, mother of all mess-ups. But, it'll be the first and only one Blake will make. He will learn from this and he will grow up. You start to see that at the end of Popular. Even though he does a very unattractive thing and runs away again, only sending Cameron a letter, rather than calling him or seeing him in person, I wanted readers to see, at the end of the novel, a sliver of hope that Blake will one day come back as a better man because of all this. I still think his character is essentially that of a good guy.
R: Was Blake ever actually a suicide risk?
G: I don't think he was, Robyn, to be honest. I think there's actually quite a big gap between contemplating suicide and being a real risk; it's up to people around each other, family and friends, to keep an eye on their loved ones and to know when to seek professional help, if they can. Sometimes though, tragically, there are no warning signs. In Popular, Blake is such a master of repression that his family don't know that anything's wrong and he's axed all of his close friends in Belfast in his desperate attempt to run as far and fast away from the possibility that he might be gay. Which, when you think about it, is utterly heartbreaking. I think in his darkest moments, he's thought about it and I do think there were many days, after he left Cameron, when he hated waking up. But no, I don't think it ever quite progressed to self-harm or anything like that. Deep in his heart, I think Blake either thought that he'd run so far and so fast that he would be able to crush his self-doubts about his sexuality or that, one day, he'd be able to get Cameron back. Poor Blake's mind, between December and May, was just a vortex of contradictions. But, no, he was never intended to be openly a clear suicide risk and, if he had been, I'd have written his story very, very differently.
R: Was Cameron?
G: No, absolutely not. I think Cameron had something close to a nervous breakdown, when, all of a sudden, he just fell totally to pieces. For Cameron, it's not just a case of heartbreak and sexual confusion, it's also the shattering of his trust. You have to remember that, as far as Cameron was concerned, Blake was close to a superhero. He absolutely idealised him and, in his own way, deeply respected Blake's moral code. To all of a sudden realise that the guy he thought was near-perfect was capable of inflicting such pain on him is gut-wrenching. The shattering of our romantic hopes, trusts and illusions is never an easy thing to endure.
But Cameron felt a lot of pain in a short period of time; Blake felt it, then repressed it, in less depth but over a much longer period of time. I think there were days when Blake thought everything was fine and actually managed to convince himself that he was happy - but if you have to convince yourself that you're happy, then chances are that you're really not.
Cameron, above all, had good friends around him and, in the end, that's what made the difference and helped him get better. Whether it was Imogen's smothering affection or Meredith's tough love! Maybe a combination of both. Cameron was heartbroken, yes, but that was the extent of it.
R: People in Cameron and Blake's age group though are a big suicide risk. Were you not tempted to include that as a storyline in your book?
G: I really wasn't, Robyn. The suicide risk to young men between the ages of sixteen to twenty-four is something I feel particularly strongly about, because it's a big issue, especially in Northern Ireland. And obviously, people dealing with their sexuality can be especially at risk. That's why things like the Trevor Project's It gets better campaign was so amazing.
However, I tend to think that it's often long-repressed unhappiness and depression that leads to the high levels of suicide in that age group/gender. That's why the World Suicide Prevention Day is so important, because it draws attention to the fact that there doesn't actually have to be something "wrong" with you to make you a risk of suicide and self-harm. It can be a deep settling of unhappiness and isolation from the world that you just can't shake and you don't know entirely what's wrong or why you feel this way. But it's there and you can't get rid of it. Days like this encourage people to seek help - because when one in four of the population suffer from mental health issues or depression at some stage in their life, there can't be, and there isn't, any shame in seeking help. I love the characters of Blake and Cameron; I really do. But let me make one thing clear, the fact they get through their issues without asking anyone for help doesn't make them strong. It's make them the exact opposite: both of them are essentially weak. And that comes in part from the fact that they're sixteen and too young to fully appreciate that the sign of a strong person is someone who can ask for help when they need it. Do I think that Blake and Cameron would behave this way at the age of twenty? Good God, I hope not!
If you have anything - either in the specific or just generically - that makes you feel as if life is not worth living, then talk to someone and use the resources that days like World Suicide Prevention Day highlight. Remember - you are not alone, even if you feel that way.