Matthew Quick does not mind if you question his mental stability, but don’t call him a hypocrite.
A decade ago, when Quick was still teaching English at Haddonfield Memorial High School, he risked his very sanity to avoid becoming a walking contradiction.
“I went into teaching not because I wanted to teach, but because I was told you can’t make money as an artist,” says Quick via phone on a frigid January morning from his home in Holden, Massachusetts. “My students were brilliant kids who were all being pushed into math and sciences, even though they were great singers or great painters or loved to write literature. So I started telling them to follow their bliss.”
The problem was, he wasn’t doing that. “I had always wanted to write,” he says. “I needed to practice what I preached. People tell me I was brave to make that decision. But I always describe it as more like a last-ditch effort to save my mental health.”
Readers of Quick’s novels—Silver Linings Playbook (2008), made into the Oscar-winning film starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence; The Good Luck of Right Now, which came out in early February; and three young adult novels—will recognize a common theme. All are populated by characters who are not cut out for conformity.
Pat Peoples, the beleaguered man-child of Silver Linings Playbook, and Bartholomew Neil, the groundless son in Quick’s new novel, are both “different-is-hard-but-different-is-good people,” he says. “They have a lot to offer society, even though they don’t fit into it very easily.”
In that sense, they’re not so different from their creator, who turned 40 last year.
Quick was born in Philadelphia but grew up on the Jersey side of the Delaware River in Oaklyn, which he characterizes as a “small, largely blue-collar town. My grandfather was very much from the streets of Philadelphia, a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of guy. And my father was a not very successful banker when I was growing up who is now a very successful banker.
“I’m very much a product of that blue-collar upbringing,” says Quick, who is working at a decidedly higher pay scale of late. After the Hollywood success of Silver Linings Playbook, DreamWorks purchased the film rights to The Good Luck of Right Now, to be directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the team behind Little Miss Sunshine. What’s more, a third, as-yet-unwritten novel, Love May Fail—not due for publication until 2015—also has been optioned for film (by a studio that Quick cannot yet reveal).
Quick is less than forthcoming about his recent earnings, but says, “When I left teaching, everyone told me I would never make money as a fiction writer, and I’ve made more money than I ever would have in my teaching career.” He says that “not to brag,” but because he hopes his success will inspire other would-be artists.
Not surprisingly, Quick’s lifestyle has undergone several changes on the road to success. When he moved to Holden from Haddonfield, where he taught from 1998 to 2004, it was into the home of his in-laws. (Quick is married to the novelist and musician Alicia Bessette.)
The fledgling novelist set up shop in an unfinished basement, where he set to work on Silver Linings Playbook.
“My mother-in-law is always quick to point out that I was offered rooms upstairs,” he says. “But I needed a place I could be alone…. I needed to feel no one was going to take my space, which has very much to do with my upbringing as a blue-collar kid. I was taught not to emote, especially as a man. And that’s exactly what I was doing down there.”
The weird thing is he didn’t know it.
“At the time, I was convinced I was writing about football and male bonding,” he says. Reaction to the novel set him straight. More than blue-collar guys and Philadelphia Eagles fans, “mental health people embraced it. In retrospect, that makes perfect sense.”
Though he has never been formally diagnosed, Quick suffers from depression and anxiety. When he started writing, he was “working out a lot of issues—mental health issues. It was as though my subconscious was doing all the writing.”
Success hasn’t chased away his issues. On the day of his interview with New Jersey Monthly, Quick had scheduled a first-time appointment with an acupuncturist, hoping to alleviate a bout of anxiety.
“I’m completely open to talking about my mental health issues now,” despite the blue-collar code against it, he says. “I think in some ways the success of the books has brought out my issues more. There’s this idea that, if people give you money and praise, life is perfect. That’s not true.”
Neither is the idea that one size fits all in treating the problems he faces, says Quick. “Some people are really pro therapy. Some people are pro meds.” For Quick, “creative work” is the best therapy. “The writing will save you. When I’m writing, I’m in my safe place.”
Anxiety and depression have been a blessing and a curse, he says, and not only because his troubled characters have hit a nerve with the book-buying, movie-going public. “The fact that I’m empathetic, have some emotional intelligence and feel the world strongly” are products of his issues, he says. “Most writers, if they’re being honest, will tell you the art comes from being unhappy, from having problems,” he continues. “If I felt great and didn’t have problems, I would have kept teaching English. But the fact was, it wasn’t enough for me.”
Quick says he was broke when he finished writing Silver Linings in 2006. In 2007 came the film deal, which earned him enough money to move back to South Jersey, “the place I’ll always consider home.”
Quick and Bessette moved to Collingswood; there, encouraged by the response to Silver Linings, he began to write young adult fiction. Sorta Like a Rock Star came out in 2010, followed by Boy21 (2012) and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (2013). All feature captivating Quickian misfits—and all were influenced by his experiences teaching teens at Haddonfield Memorial.Hollywood, as with his adult novels, has sought the rights for his teen books.
“I went to the prom six times, not just once,” he says. “I felt I had a lot to say about the teen years.”
Quick suspects the studios are compelled by the sense of hopefulness in his books. “I think people in L.A. want to tell stories about real-life things, but they want to tell them in a way where you leave feeling a little uplifted. That’s what I do in my books,” he says.
A few years ago, Quick and Bessette, who have a dog but no kids, moved back to Holden to be near her family. In March they will move again, to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
“It’ll be the first time I’m not living around Philly or Holden,” he says. But even though his own environs are shifting, the Garden State settings of his books won’t. Not anytime soon, at least.
“There’s an endless well of material there,” he says. “They’re the people that I know, that I love.”
Contemplating South Jersey from a remove only helps him capture it better: “Artists are people who tend to be on the fringe, on the outside looking in. I don’t know that I could have written Silver Linings Playbook when I was there. I needed perspective. I needed to get away.”
No matter where he lives, Quick intends to return to South Jersey often. He’s close to his parents, who now live in Haddonfield. He also likes to visit an old haunt: the Oaklyn Manor Bar. And enthusiasm for his beloved Philadelphia Eagles never wanes in area code 856. “Basically, the area is who I am,” he says. “I’m homesick for South Jersey every day.”
Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor.