The Inspiration behind My Novel, The Suicide Gene

Is there such a thing as a suicide gene?

As if Thirteen Reasons Why wasn’t controversial enough, on September 26, one week after my novel, The Suicide Gene, hits the market, another TV series, A Million Little Things, begins with a suicide.

I don’t like the “S” word, yet I planted it front and center in my novel. I chose the name three years ago when I had the idea of beginning a novel with the death of an identical twin. Back then, suicides weren’t in the headlines as often, and most people hadn’t heard of the novel, Thirteen Reasons Why.

Now ABC’s A Million Little Things airs September 26th. The series begins with a suicide. Its premise is “friendship isn’t one thing, it’s a million little things,” and “friends may be the one thing to save them from themselves.”

The Suicide Gene is totally fictional and was inspired mostly by my crazy imagination and a little by my life. But the story bears the similar idea that environmental factors (certainly friendships) can influence depression. I have long wondered if there is a suicide gene, and if so, does the gene run in my family?

Here’s a little bit about the inspiration behind the book:

First, Minnie McKinney was my great-great-grandmother’s name. (Who names a child that?) I made her a little crazy not only because her name seems to imply it, but because someone once told me she was the black sheep of the family. Since she was three generations removed, I didn’t think anyone would mind if she wasn’t so sane. I named her twin Mary because it was the most common M name I could find.

Second, I chose the name Emma for the main character simply because I have loved the name ever since I saw Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment. Period.

Thirdly, I named the good guy in my book, Gifford John Johnson. Gifford after my grandfather and Johnson after my mother’s cousins because I liked the sound of John Johnson.

Naming one of the main characters Gifford was important to me because my grandfather, Frank Gifford (not THE Frank Gifford but Frank Merle Gifford) was a big inspiration behind my thinking. He attempted to commit suicide after his wife died. Hence Giff was named after my grandfather; however his personality was patterned after my own son. I created Giff as a minor character, but because he was so like my son, of course I grew to love him and couldn’t bear him taking second fiddle to any other male characters in the book. So he emerged as a main character. (He is the good guy and not the least little bit suicidal.)

Here is something I learned and something I advise other authors: Never base a character after your child or grandchild.  Its disconcerting. You can’t bring yourself to write anything bad about that character. (Go ahead and try. I dare you.)

I will never again make this mistake. There are a myriad of reasons why (pardon the pun) but I’ll state my top three: 1) You’ll protect your child/grandchild on paper as much as you will in life (nothing bad can happen to them), 2) there can be no intimate scenes involving that character (even typing that felt creepy—there are some things a mother never wants to know), and 3) I read Gone Girl and never want to cast an Amazing Amy burden on any of my offspring.

Fourth and finally, the idea that a suicide gene might exist came from my own life. Here comes the confession. Only my husband and close friends know this. When I was in my teens, twenties, and thirties, I suffered suicidal thoughts. The feelings surfaced three or four times a year and always before my period. Routinely, I told myself to suffer through the next week and I would be all right. Obviously, I suffered through.

Yet, therein lies the spark that ignited in my head and developed into a book. I don’t know if I believe there is a suicide gene or not. Scientists and researchers must tackle that question.

My book is totally fiction and includes other anomalies, such as the impossible identical twin gene, but I believe the novel will generate questions about genetic links. Today, people are enamored by genetics. Our DNA secrets seem to be as close as a stroke on our computer keyboard and, what, $99?

We need more research, more compassion, and more funding for mental health issues in our nation. I’m very sure that statement will spark a multitude of pros and cons, but please—save those remarks for our politicians. I simply want to know: Do you believe someday scientists will identify a suicide gene?

What a better world we would live in if we could eliminate this horrid problem that strikes so many.


CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene and Dream Wide Awake.  was used to gather information about the new series A Million Little Things.

4 thoughts on “The Inspiration behind My Novel, The Suicide Gene

  1. Judy Emling

    Wow, Cyndie. I must read your book. I believe there is a “suicide gene” but I have no empirical evidence so it’s a thought based on my family history. Congratulations, my Friend.

  2. Mary Newlon

    I know for sure that depression runs in families, and it would be my guess that all suicidal people are depressed, but not all depressed people consider suicide an option.

  3. Mary Newlon

    I know for sure depression can be genetic, which often leads to suicide. I would guess that those who commit suicide are always depressed, but not all who are depressed

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