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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. https://abc.go.com/shows/abc-new-shows/news/shows/a-million-little-things-coming-soon-to-abc  was used to gather information about the new series A Million Little Things.

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Dash Queen Fetish

I have a dash fetish. I am the dashes-create-tell-all-adjectives queen.

My addiction began while writing reality recaps for my daughter’s website, athletchic.com. Jessie, my daughter, asked me to admit I was addicted to The Bachelor and begin blogging recaps about the show. Athletchic.com readers were asking for them, and Jessie dedicated her Monday evenings to blogging about the Kardashians. So could I write it?

Admitting I watched The Bachelor was no easy feat. I was working in the business world and hoping my co-workers didn’t get wind of it. My dash-queen qualities began surfacing slowly. First I mentioned Shower-shy Brit—a bachelorette noted for not taking showers. Then came What’s-her-name Megan whose name the Bachelor could never remember. It advanced to Love-my-widow-story Kelsey about a girl who (it almost appeared) relished recanting her widow story. Then it peaked. I reached the dash-queen apex when my fingers typed Pick-me-pick-me-I’m-a-virgin Ashley for a girl who constantly flaunted her virginity hoping to persuade the Bachelor to pick her. It was there in print before I knew it. I had sunk to a new low. Six dashes. Is there a linguistic chastisement for using that many dashes?

Now my real-world diction mingles with my blog-world diction. It is a thoughtless diction that was accidentally catapulted by addiction. Yet, in the blogging world, readers loved it. Compliments flowed and followers multiplied. They couldn’t get enough of the dash-queen’s adjectives.

So now I read and reread, watch and re-watch Write 101x’s adjective lectures to right my wrong. Bad habits are hard to break. But I must change my ways and refocus as I enter back into the literary atmosphere.

Let my love-my-dashes-more-than-conventional-adjectives ways cease to exist. Well, at least Tuesday through Sunday.

 

Saturday Morning Runs

Saturday Morning Flights

From the sky it looks like a puzzle piece, Presque Isle. The sort of piece that finds your hand first because it’s the most colorful, most distinguishable. It’s the one you want to begin with, fit the other pieces around. From high above, its jagged edges disappear into the blue water, and its magnificent green hues mix with soil brown and take your breath away.

There is so much to love about Presque Isle.

A bald eagle took my breath away there once as he soared along the shores of the bay. Three of us were lucky enough to witness his wide wings slowly and gracefully, rising and falling in flight. He was there and gone in an instant—a small, blessed piece added to each of our puzzles on a near-perfect morning.

I’ve logged over thirty years of Saturday mornings in the same manner. Running. Mostly on that little strip of land jutting into Lake Erie called Presque Isle State Park. And usually with my best running buddy, Robin. Runners have come and gone over the years, but Robin and I remain—a little slower, a little wiser, and, more profoundly, a little closer to gathering up all of our journey’s puzzle pieces and heading home.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” At a stone’s throw from sixty, I know the importance of the journey.

And that thirteen-mile stretch of road on Presque Isle State Park has been a big part of mine. Its contour is flat and lazy. Yet, there are times, bone-chilling mornings, when its frost and ice-bending trees hide the beauty within its edges, when woods and wildlife cower, but somehow I appreciate even its worst days with Robin and Heather and Carol and Laura and Jan at my side. Good friends and encouraging words firm up the slickest footing and most treacherous terrain. As we talk on those days when our breath fades into the air like puffs of icy powder floating away, we slip in and out of each other’s lives and forget the biting cold. Even in life’s most wickedly cold hours, the pieces snap warmly into place.

I buried a child on a cold February day. An infant. A little girl with a full head of hair that would be flowing over her shoulders by now if she had lived. For a long time afterwards it was hard to run at that park, nearly impossible to see its beauty. Yet every Saturday, my friends showed up and ran beside me, their shoulders so close to mine I could feel their warmth, their strength. They would not let me fall.

Life is precious. It’s sad to think of death on land so alive, and yet death, too, is a part of the journey.

So, occasionally when I run at Presque Isle, I reflect on my little angel or on other loved ones who have journeyed home, and my thoughts sometimes settle on a June Saturday in 2015. I began that morning as usual, congregating with other runners, leaning against my car, texting late friends, “Are you coming?” The mood was light. The conversation, jocular. I didn’t know my path was about to cross Death’s path once again. That Death would swoop down in front of me and claim another mother’s child.

He was seventeen years old, and seventeen is so much a child to someone finishing her sixth decade. My running buddies and I first saw him at the mouth of the Peninsula. A car sped by. He was a passenger inside. I don’t recall the exact time or the temperature or his face, but I remember the air was thick that morning. One runner mentioned the car’s erratic ride, but we began our run with hardly a thought of it. We were a mile or two down the road when we heard the crash, a half mile from the accident when the metallic smoke singed our nostrils.

A few minutes later, the scene was horrifically upon us. There was a cyclist standing near the car and two hunters came toward us, herding us away, saying we didn’t want to see inside. I remember the quiet anguish of the air. The stillness that fell on life. I will never forget that scene—that moment in time when the boy’s journey ended, when his path crossed other paths for the last time. A senseless car accident, metal against tree, and he was gone—a mere memory, one small but much-loved piece forever clicked into eternity’s puzzle.

I think of him whenever I pass his resting place. Pray for his family. Pray for my own children and my friends’ children, because on that little patch of road, I watched every mother’s fear come to life. I was ashamed that I knew her grief before she did. Hated that, really. His last piece falling to complete strangers.

Yet, one never knows how many lives they have touched until that final piece finds its place. I still take in the beauty of Presque Isle State Park, but I treasure the people who run beside me a little more now because of that child. He taught me that life is fleeting and that every encounter I have, no matter how brief, fits finely together with the others and shapes me.

Next Saturday, Robin and I will probably meet at Presque Isle. On that path of profound beauty, we’ll run alongside each other, placing one foot in front of the other until we finish our journey. We will talk about our families and the places we have been or the people we have met and the pieces we’ve gathered, because, like Hemingway, we know the journey is more important than the end.

And if our run becomes taxing and our legs heavy, we can remember that day we saw the eagle. Watched as his massive wings floated up and down in splendor. Took in his beauty as he sailed along the parkway. We can recall his flight toward the sky as he glided upward, soared, ascended like an angel flying home, and then gazed down at us as we journeyed up and down and over and around on winding path.

Yes, from above, the path looks unfettered and the journey amazingly clear, and Presque Isle, like a beautiful puzzle piece embedded in stark, jagged blue—and in me.

Cyndie Zahner is a freelance writer at www.athletchic.com and www.cyndiezahner.com. Follow her on Instagram at athletchicz or on Twitter @Tweetyz.

Saturday Morning Flights was originally written in 2013 and then updated on April 20, 2017.