Remembering Ned Vizzini, the Great Storyteller

Ned Vizzini

It hit me like an electric shock last night to find out that my friend, the writer Ned Vizzini, took his own life in New York yesterday at age 32. He was one of the most enthusiastic, vibrant people I knew; his classic YA novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story (which was adapted into a film in 2010) was based on Ned’s own stay in a psychiatric hospital after he was gripped by suicidal thoughts in his early twenties, but that still doesn’t make it any easier to believe that those feelings bested him now, because when I think of Ned, I think of that happy, crooked smile that you barely had to coax out of him.

I met Ned very randomly at a Human Rights Watch event a few years ago. All of his books (including Be More Chill and The Other Normals) are about outsiders, and at this tony private home in the Hollywood Hills, packed with polished and well-heeled gay activists, Ned was a shaggy outsider indeed: He was a little unkempt, a little bit loud, and, incidentally, the only straight guy there. But I immediately sensed that I had so much more in common with him than with anyone else at the party, and Ned and I hit it off so quickly that I think we were both surprised. It was eerie how in sync we were on every single pop-culture topic imaginable; it felt like a variation on the mirror scene in Duck Soup, where I would start a topic of conversation — “Can we talk for a second about Jennifer Connelly’s introduction in The Rocketeer … ” — and then he would flawlessly mirror me and continue it: ” … with the pantyhose and the lipstick and the eyebrows? I know!”

Ever since, we had a habit of meeting up at one of the oldest restaurants in Los Angeles, the Tam O’Shanter, to fill each other in on major life developments (Ned, a new father, had begun writing a YA series with original Harry Potter director Chris Columbus and was ascending through the TV writer ranks on shows like Teen Wolf, Last Resort, and the upcoming Alfonso Cuarón series Believe) but mostly to experience that giddy thrill that comes from talking to someone who knows every single goddamn thing that you do. Ned was a family man who’d grown up in Park Slope and I was an unmarried gay guy who’d never lived anywhere but Southern California, but when we would nerd out about The Girl With the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts or pore delightedly through a PDF I’d found of the first issue of Nintendo Power, we might as well have shared the same brain.

And he was a great storyteller. Ned had a full-blown anecdote for every subject imaginable, and for being such a nice guy, he wasn’t afraid to gossip. I remember a story he told me about the TV star who’d thrown a fit on set, unwilling to say the lines Ned had written for him. It was a genuinely juicy bit of news — this soft-spoken actor is the last person you would have expected to go full-diva — and yet, as Ned continued telling the story, he couldn’t help but rationalize the guy’s behavior. “I mean, he’s the one who has to give the performance, not me,” Ned said. “And for all I know, he’s having some trouble in his life right now and maybe he just needed to lash out.” Ned was bending over backwards to make me feel sympathetic for this actor who’d dismissed Ned’s script as a piece of shit, and I frowned. “Ned,” I said firmly, “You are absolutely ruining this good gossip right now.” But that wasn’t what it was. I realized later that Ned simply couldn’t tell a story without rendering a character in three dimensions.

I could go on about Ned Vizzini, and especially how encouraging he was of his friends and how genuinely in awe he was of other writers. Everyone he’d ever worked with or known well, he praised at length as though he simply couldn’t fathom how creatively that person’s mind worked. Every time, I just wanted to say, “Ned, you’re a better storyteller than all of them. You know that, right?”

The other day, I walked past the Tam O’Shanter, and I noticed that this restaurant, which has been around since 1922, had replaced its slightly dorky sign with a brand-new crest that was scribbled-looking and ostentatiously hip. I laughed and immediately made a mental note to tell Ned: How funny that a key part of this place where we so often met to discuss nostalgia had now become ephemera itself. I remembered that the last time we’d gone there, he had gotten on his bike at the end of the night to pedal home, promising me that he had another juicy story that he’d have to save for next time, since he had a young son to put to bed. As I thought of that yesterday, and wondered how somebody so selfless could commit such a selfish act, I searched his writings and his texts and his e-mails for answers. Then I found an interview Ned gave that reminded me of that final moment I saw him, a quote about something so vivid and yet earnestly described — so quintessentially Ned — that my heart leapt up in my throat. “My favorite distraction from suicidal thoughts is riding my bike,” Ned said in the interview, adding, “Bad thoughts get caught under the front wheel and good ones whiz up the back into my brain.”

Remembering Ned Vizzini, the Great Storyteller