Hey! Daniela here! Today I am joined by New York Times best selling author, Jen Lancaster! Jen is obsessed with fast cars, wears pearls regardless of the occasion, and adores 90’s rap. You’ve probably already heard of Jen, as she has written nine memoirs, five adult novels, and has appeared on The Today Show. Her first-ever YA novel, The Gatekeepers, talks honestly about the pressures teens face and explores important themes like teen suicide. Lucky for you, The Gatekeepers has already hit bookstores. I assure you, you do not want to miss out on this incredibly important story! This book is amazing and I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I did. Alright, enough waiting. Let’s get to the interview!
Hey Jen! Thank you so much for joining us today! I just got done reading your new book, The Gatekeepers, and I truly believe it's one that should be on every high school bookshelf. Can you tell our readers a little bit about what they can expect? Readers can expect a story that’s not sugar-coated as it’s based on real events. I live in a community called Lake Forest, which is much like the fictional town of North Shore. In 2012, we lost a group of our best and brightest to a series of suicides. Until then, I thought the students up here were the luckiest kids in the world, as they all drove the same kind of car I’d worked my whole life to buy, went to my same personal trainer, shopped in all the same stores. None of them wanted for anything material. Until the suicide cluster, I assumed they were the happiest kids in the world. I could not have been more wrong. The incidents stuck with me. I started to do some research and I found out that kids from families with an income of at least $150K/year have the highest instances of anxiety and depression, as well as the most problems with drugs and alcohol. I had no idea the kind of pressure local kids endured. What I realized is that privilege comes at a price. Even though the characters were different in a lot of ways, they all struggled with similar problems. What was it like for you when you wrote from each perspective? Everyone thinks what they’re going through is unique, but that’s not true. If you’re suffering through something, it’s likely that your peer is, too. I wanted to show that appearances don’t matter and that the only way to get through problems is to share the burden. In assuming a number of character’s voices, I aimed to make each story feel more personal. I hoped to show how similar our thought processes are, how the package we’re in is no determination of how we deal with problems and stressors. I know a lot of YA authors do a great job of discussing topics such as mental health, drug abuse, and eating disorders individually, but this is one of few books I’ve read that touches on all of those and more at once. What prompted you to write about so many of these real-life issues? I wrote about all of them because they’re all real. None of them exists in a vacuum; they go hand in hand. I especially wanted to highlight the issues with opioid addiction because that’s such a clear and present danger. In communities like mine, and so many others, this issue is swept under the rug. In fact, I did a volunteer training program with the local PD last year, which involved about 40 hours of classroom work, as well as police ride-alongs. That’s where I learned that many local parents keep a supply of Naloxone on hand. This is a drug that counters the effect of an overdose. They have this because if their kid ODs, they want to keep him or her out of the “system” by treating the OD themselves. The idea that when their kids’ lives are on the line, they’re still looking to keep up appearances is just shocking. Your novel has hands-down one the most beautiful conclusions I’ve read. Did you always know how you would end the story?
Oh, thank you! I did not originally intend to end the book this way. I wrote two different endings first, both darker. But, ultimately, I wanted to conclude with hope. For me at least, this novel accurately touched on high school life. Too often, teenage hardships and struggles are dismissed, and I think the idea of all of us becoming Gatekeepers is brilliant. With that said, how would you define being a Gatekeeper? Some of my friends laughed when I said I was going to write a YA book. They were all, “Do you even *know* any high school kids?” (Yes. I knew two.) Here’s the thing—while I had to research the details of growing up in the 2010s, exploring the different technologies and expressions, I didn’t have to fabricate what it feels like to be that age. I remember. In learning about how teens communicate now, I got the feeling that everyone is disconnected. We have all these technologies to bring us together, but what social media does is tear us apart. These are synthetic relationships, and no substitution for the real thing. The idea of being a Gatekeeper is real, tangible. It’s sitting across the table from another person to ask them how they are. Gatekeeping isn’t about tweeting a thought or prayer; it’s standing next to someone struggling, holding their hand, letting them know it’s going to get better. What can schools do to better help students who are struggling with mental health? This is a tough one because it can’t just be the school’s responsibility. The school can provide programming, but if their efforts aren’t supported at home, they’re useless. A number of schools have discussed stepping back the curriculum so that kids aren’t overwhelmed, but in many cases, it’s the parents who fight these efforts. Everyone has to agree that kids are the priority and everyone needs a hand in making this so. Over the course of my research, I learned the number one way to gate-keep. Every mental health expert agrees that the best thing to do is for parents to sit down and have dinner with their kids. No devices, no TV, just conversation. The Gatekeepers has helped me better understand suicide, and I’m sure it will do the same for other readers. What are some resources for those who want to learn more or are in a tough spot? The resources to help kids exist. A good start would be to go to one of the groups set up for this, such as the Suicide Prevention Lifeline or The Society For The Prevention Of Teen Suicide. I paint a grim picture of North Shore, but in real-life Lake Forest, some parents had enough loss and decided to so something about it. They created the Text-a-tip program, where kids can text a number and within moments, have a trained mental health professional talk to them. (They’ve found that teens are most comfortable communicating via text.) This program is the ultimate in see something, say something. Suicidal ideations are often fleeting thoughts. But if there’s someone there to pull that person out of the tunnel vision that comes with the ideation, suicide can be prevented. Not only can kids who need help get it immediately, it’s also an anonymous line where they can report something that seems off. In fact, this line is responsible for preventing a mass school shooting in McHenry county.
Coincidentally, I just recently watched The Breakfast Club for the very first time. I totally regret not watching it sooner! I know you are a huge fan of John Hughes films. Which of his films is your absolute favorite?
Some Kind of Wonderful is actually my favorite, but I have to say that The Breakfast Club totally stands the test of time. I based my characters on those in the film, as I wanted to show what might happen to these characters in 2017. Now, if they’d had a detention, each person would simply spend eight hours on his or her phone, and never connect. For those who just got done reading The Gatekeepers, what do you recommend they read next? Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places is wonderful and heart-breaking, and another way of telling what can happen to the mentally ill without intervention. Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about? This is a little inside-baseball, but the world of publishing is changing, as is the way people consume their entertainment. So, I’m broadening my mediums. I have a podcast with a friend that’s really fun, called STORIES WE’D TELL IN BARS, and we’re a handful of downloads away from reaching 100K downloads. I’m also writing screenplays, as I’m looking to transition to television. While there are no new books in the work, I intend to continue to tell stories that both entertain and help people understand their world.
That’s it for today’s interview with Jen, but be sure to come back again next week, when Daniela will be back again with Lorie Langdon to chat about Lorie’s new book, Olivia Twist.