Many Arizonans know Suzanne Young for causing a social-media firestorm when she tweeted a picture of the pro-abstinence sticker from her son’s biology textbook. The Gilbert author was driven off social media by harassment and worse.
But Young doesn’t want to be remembered for that incident. Or even for her bestselling novels. Rather, the author of The Program and its sequels holds up her work as a high-school English teacher as her biggest source of pride. And it’s something she’s missing more as her writing career has taken off.
“The hardest thing right now is that I’m not teaching,” Young says during a recent chat at the First Draft Book Bar in uptown Phoenix. “If I could, I would still be in the classroom full-time. But when your book sells 300,000 copies, your publisher has certain expectations, and you have to adjust your plans."
Young’s bestselling series is set in a dystopian world where one-third of the country’s teens commit suicide. Those who haven't live in fear of “The Program,” a government treatment which erases the teens’ triggering memories in an attempt to curb the deaths.
“I pitched it as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Children of Men,” Young says.
The fourth novel, The Epidemic, hits stores on Tuesday, April 19. It is the second in a prequel duology that focuses on grief therapists who assume the roles of lost loved ones. She is currently working on a pair of novels that will conclude the series, examining how the victims of the Program try to put their lives back together once the Program has been dissolved, using implanted memories.
It's heavy subject matter for YA novels — almost too heavy for her publisher.
“I’d originally started working on a contemporary story about a girl who attempts suicide. When she went back to school, everyone knew and was judging her. As if your mental state is something up for debate,” Young says. “My editor rejected it, saying it wasn’t realistic. Which is funny because it was the most real thing I’ve ever written.”
So she retooled the story, setting it in an unnamed future, and The Program was born.
“By spinning it out into the future like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, [I] figured I'd remove the snap judgment and stigma that talking about suicide and depression carried,” she says. “I wrote The Program in 2010. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come in just six years. We’re finally starting to talk about depression openly.”
While Young was writing the novel, her students were some of her most enthusiastic supporters.
“They're part of the books, too. During class, I’d bounce ideas off them for the story and they’d give me their opinions," she says. "They were my biggest cheerleaders, but it also helped foster their creativity. They felt my passion and it helped them find their own passion. Now that I'm at home writing my stories, I miss that."
The class even helped her promote the second book in the series, The Treatment.
"They made a YouTube video that garnered 55,000 views, designed bookmarks and ad materials. We were doing a unit on advertising, so I contacted my publisher and asked them to critique the campaign the students put together," says Young. "As a student, who gets that opportunity, to have a professional critique of an ad campaign?"
Her students were also among the first to share in her success.
“I found out that The Treatment hit the bestseller list while I was at school,” she says.
“My students were in an assembly and I was eating lunch at my desk when my agent called with the news. I ran to the office sobbing and the principal made an announcement over the loudspeaker. My students came running and met me crying in the hallway.”
“We did it Miss Young, we did it!”
And those students will be out in force next week. On Tuesday, April 19, Young is hosting a release party at Changing Hands Tempe with California author Shannon Messenger, and on Thursday, April 21, she is signing at Barnes & Noble Desert Ridge with Scottsdale’s Alexandra Bracken, before heading out on tour to promote The Epidemic.
“For my signings I usually let my students do the talking,” she says. “They show up in costume, read poetry, put on little skits and performances, and talk about how the books affected them. It's always been a big part of my book signings. Unfortunately, with Shannon also at the release party, there won’t be as much opportunity, but I’ve still had several tell me they will be there. Some have gone off to college and are coming back from out of state, saying they’d never miss a launch party because they're a part of it now."
And despite a pending book tour and publishing commitments for her own series, as well as her work with former Blink-182 singer Tom Delonge on his Poet Anderson books, she’s still fostering a love of reading and writing in Valley students. She may not have the time to teach full time, but she still works as a substitute regularly at her old school.
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“Writing is something I do, but teaching is my passion,” she says. “Ultimately, that’s what I am.”
The Epidemic is available in hardcover for $17.99 on April 19. Suzanne Young is hosting a launch party at 7 p.m. , Tuesday, April 19, at Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe with Shannon Messenger. She is also signing at Barnes & Noble Desert Ridge at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 21 with Alexandra Bracken.