Debut novel by Vail author inspired by two teens lost to suicide
If you go …
What: Book release party with Heather Sappenfield, author of newly released novel “The View From Who I Was.”
Where: The Bookworm of Edwards.
When: 6 p.m. Thursday.
Cost: $10, includes appetizers.
More information: Visit www.bookwormofedwards.com or call 970-926-READ.
During the five years Heather Sappenfield taught at Battle Mountain High School, two students committed suicide.
“It was awful,” she said. “I was confused and sad and angry. I couldn’t stop wondering what their lives must have been like behind the veil of their daily routine. My heart went out to their friends and families. It must have been exponentially worse for them.”
Along with profound sadness, Sappenfield was angry, too.
“I thought darn it, I’m going to write a book where you guys stick around and see how much it hurts the people they love, because if they understood that, they might not have done it,” she said.
And so she did. Sappenfield’s first novel, “The View From Who I Was,” was published last week. The book is in the literary young adult genre and has a “magical realism twist,” Sappenfield said, though she’s finding it’s also a book that “adults want to read and discuss with teens.”
“For me, it was working through that sense of loss and walking through having these characters witness the pain they caused and to help them see beyond their despair to healing and hope, no matter how ragged it might be,” said Sappenfield, who has lived in Eagle County for 25 years. She lives in West Vail with her 16-year-old daughter and husband, Ross.
Though inspired by her experiences, Sappenfield wants to be clear the main character in her novel, Oona Antunes, isn’t modeled after any particular person.
“This is fiction; purely a creation of my mind,” she said.
‘CIRCUMSTANCES TRUE TO OUR PLACE’
A book release party will take place at The Bookworm of Edwards Thursday night. Sappenfield will read from the novel, answer questions during a Q&A session and sign copies of the book.
Nicole Magistro, the owner of The Bookworm, read an advance copy of the book.
“The novel is close to home, set in a fictional valley that looks a lot like ours, with circumstances true to our place,” Magistro said. “The characters draw you in from the first page, and the disassociated narrator haunts both reader and protagonist. I am so glad Heather wrote this book, both as a creative triumph and as an exploration in what it means to stay connected to the things that hurt us the most. This is a great book for teens, but it also crosses over to adult readers who love stories about the everyday drama and hope of the human experience.”
A Booklist review of the book written by Summer Hayes has this to say:
“Approaching teen suicide directly and honestly, this debut novel packs a walloping emotional punch. Alternating Oona’s first- and third-person narratives is a brutally effective device illustrating just how detached teens can feel from their own lives. Raw but with insight and tenderness, this story deftly explores life’s varied riches that come from the connections we build with others.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for teenagers in Colorado.
“We’re worried about drunk driving and sending our kids out in cars and no one really talks about this and it’s a really important thing to put on the table,” said Sappenfield, who is talking to Vail Mountain School about possibly having students read the book as part of the curriculum and then having someone from the local suicide prevention coalition Speak Up Reach Out come in and talk openly with the students about suicide.
“That said, this isn’t so much a book about suicide, as much as it is a book about teens learning to get through the things that are so hard about being a teenager,” Sappenfield said. “It’s a tough time.”
‘CULTURE WHERE WE LIVE’
Sappenfield left teaching in 2000 to pursue being a novelist, she said. She started “The View From Who I Was” a decade ago.
“I drafted this novel, and it was terrible,” she said.
And so Sappenfield went to Pacific University to get her MFA degree in writing with a focus in fiction.
“That changed my life,” she said.
She focused on short stories for a time, some of which won awards, including the Danahy Fiction Prize, the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction and a Pushcart Prize nomination.
“The nomination itself is really an honor,” said Sappenfield, who also was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for a collection of her stories.
“At that point, I stepped back from short stories and I felt like I was ready to return to novels,” she said. “I’m really a novelist. This book called to me because I wasn’t finished with it. The story was still there, waiting to be told. I returned to it, resharpened it and rewrote it.”
While the book was based loosely on her time teaching at Battle Mountain High School, she said it’s “a composite of all the schools in the valley.”
“One of the things I loved about teaching here is diversity and complexity of the student body in our valley,” she said. “Many people from all over the world visit Vail and Beaver Creek, and I don’t know that many people visiting here realize that Battle Mountain is over 50 percent Hispanic; some are longtime Mexican American residents and some are immigrants. And that’s one thing that’s really fascinating to me: the intersection of culture where we live.”
Sappenfield just sold her second novel, which is also based in a fictionalized Vail Valley but has different teenage characters. The working title is “The Quanta of My Bones,” and it is a time travel book; it will be published winter of 2016. She’s halfway through her third novel.
“It’s all rolling along,” she said.
The Eagle Valley Land Trust and Eagle River Watershed Council program adds 1% to purchases to fund preservation and conservation.