By Lynne Hendricks
---- — There’s a certain magic in stories about average guys and gals from working class neighborhoods who, with every card stacked against them, end up beating the odds.
It’s that kind of magic that guests of this weekend’s 8th annual Newburyport Literary Festival will find in the life story of visiting author Matthew Quick. Quick penned his first published novel, “The Silver Linings Playbook,” in the basement of his in-laws’ house and is still basking in the afterglow of its rise on the best-seller lists, and subsequently, eight Oscar nominations for the film adaptation of the book.
The Literary Festival is a celebration of literature and reading with events and programs being held around the city on Saturday. This year’s theme, “Imagination Soars!,” will highlight literature for young adults and children. Quick is among this year’s honorees, as is Jabberwocky Bookshop owner Sue Little, who recently marked her 40th year as owner of the store.
It’s also the kind of magic that readers and filmgoers embraced in the characters Quick brought together to tell the kind of story he always wanted to tell, even if it took all his courage and a great leap of faith to set “The Silver Linings Playbook” down on paper.
To hear the Holden writer tell it, success for him in writing was anything but certain when he put his now famous manuscript out to agents in 2006. He had given up a successful career as a teacher at a prestigious high school, sold his house and settled in with his in-laws at the urging of his wife, Alicia, in order to pursue his passion.
But after three years, there was still no money coming in and Quick was facing a completely depleted savings account.
“I was a high school teacher for eight years,” Quick said. “I was very well-respected, but it wasn’t who I wanted to be. I wanted to be a writer. But when you sell your house and write unpaid in your in-laws’ basement, people make you feel like you’re doing something criminal and you’re not well. I felt very alone during that period.”
Quick worked furiously to communicate compelling characters like Pat, a Philly native just released from a mental hospital and seeking to reinvent himself in a community where folks don’t forget, and through Tiffany, an explosive but vulnerable character intent on holding the mirror up to expose Pat’s flawed thinking.
Though he is quick to point out to fans of the book and movie that Pat and Tiffany are fictional and aren’t a manifestation of his own persona, Quick notes there are definitely correlations between him and his main character, played by Bradley Cooper in the movie adaptation.
“Pat was working out obsessively in the basement when I was writing obsessively in a basement,” Quick said.
Just as Pat had “stepped off” and away from his former life for an extended stay in a lockdown facility, Quick draws comparisons to his own drop from the life he had known.
“Pat comes home and says, ‘You know that old guy you knew — that’s not me. I’m this new guy and I want to reintroduce myself to you,’” Quick said. “He’s trying to become the best man he can be — a better friend, husband and son. That’s largely what I was trying to do.”
Looking back at what has transpired since then, Quick can hardly believe his good fortune. “I was unpublished,” he said of that time in his life. “I never dreamed I would have the success or attention I’ve had from this book.”
He doesn’t credit good fortune alone, however. Quick believes some failed attempts at fiction helped him work out who he was, and what kinds of stories he’s uniquely equipped to tell.
To date, Quick has published two acclaimed young adult novels, “Sorta Like a Rock Star” and “Boy 21.” Another young adult novel, “Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock,” is due out in August and has just been optioned by the Weinstein Company. Dreamworks has just picked up film options for his fifth, as yet unpublished novel, “The Good Luck of Right Now.”
“Some of the early stuff — it wasn’t good, it wasn’t publishable,” Quick said. “Since the Oscars my agents are always reminding me I’m a brand. That’s a corporate word for what I do, but I do think as you publish more books people come to know who you are and what you’re about. For me, it was about finding my voice, figuring out who I am, what I believe in and what stories I want to tell.”
Not lost on anyone who read or caught the film version of “Silver Linings Playbook” is Quick’s desire to tell stories that delicately portray characters who exhibit signs of mental illness or are in the midst of mental crisis.
Having worked at a mental lockdown facility after graduating from college, and having suffered bouts of depression and anxiety in his own life, Quick said he didn’t intentionally set out to dispel myths and create better understanding of these issues. But removing the stigma associated with labels like “bipolar” and “manic depressive” is important to him, so his portrayal usually resonates with people.
As he makes his way to Newburyport to participate in tomorrow night’s opening celebration for the festival, Quick fully expects audiences to inquire more about the mental health issues he touches upon in “The Silver Linings Playbook” than on his transition from unknown writer to Hollywood hit.
That’s how it’s been at virtually every press junket, film screening and book tour since “Silver Linings” went viral, he added.
Quick will host a discussion on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Old South Church on Federal Street called “The Writer’s Perspective: An Honest Conversation About Mental Health,” with poet Evan Roskos.
“I went around the country for six months promoting and talking to people about the book and movie, but 80 percent of what we talked about was mental health,” he said. “I found it very heartening when I would go to screenings, inevitably the questions I got were from people really hungry to talk about mental health.”
IF YOU GO What: Newburyport Literary Festival opening ceremony When: Tomorrow, 6:30 p.m. Where: Firehouse Center for the Arts More: Free to attend. Newburyport High School English Department chair Tom Abrams' creative writing students will participate in a panel discussion with Matthew Quick. Following the event, a dinner reception with the authors will be held at Nicholson Hall, $50. For a complete schedule of events for the festival, visit www.newburyportliteraryfestival.org.