'Silver Linings' friend has his own tale to tell

South Jersey author Evan Roskos recently published a young-adult novel, "Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets."
South Jersey author Evan Roskos recently published a young-adult novel, "Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets." (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 09, 2013

Before the enormous success of Silver Linings Playbook, both the book and the film, there was a young-adult novel called MonkeyShark.

Don't expect a movie adaptation starring Bradley Cooper.

But the poignant backstory of MonkeyShark and its protagonists - a redemptive tango of overcoming mental illness and miscommunication, surrendering old dreams and realizing new ones - would be a familiar plot to anyone who saw last year's Hollywood blockbuster starring Academy Award-winner Jennifer Lawrence.

The book was a collaboration between Silver Linings' author, Matthew Quick, and his friend Evan Roskos. Just four years ago, they were two struggling South Jersey writers who met every Friday morning at a Collingswood coffee shop, working on their hoped-for bestseller.

MonkeyShark would not be it.

Quick, of course, went on to strike gold instead with his quirky novel about a die-hard Eagles fan - portrayed on the big screen by Cooper - struggling with mental illness and with love, old and new.

But for Roskos, MonkeyShark - which the friends never finished - provided the seed for a young-adult novel about a lonely teen who loves Walt Whitman and happens to talk to an imaginary pigeon.

"He knows the pigeon is not real," said Roskos, 35, whose resulting book, Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, was published last month by Houghton Mifflin. "It's a version of his own voice, but it comforts him."

The evolution of Dr. Bird is also the story of Roskos and Quick's friendship, as fraught with ups and downs, mistakes, and lessons learned as the plot of their books.

They met in 2009 through a former student of Quick's who knew Roskos and thought they would hit it off.

"It was serendipitous," Quick said from his new home in Massachusetts. "A very natural friendship developed. I used to really look forward to Friday mornings."

Over cups of steaming java at grooveground, they talked about writing, how to get published, what projects they were working on. Quick, 39, who had already sold manuscripts for Silver Linings and Sorta Like a Rock Star, was the mentor to Roskos, who was fresh out of a master's of fine arts program at Rutgers Newark and trying to sell a short-story collection.

"I found out no one wants to buy a short-story collection," said Roskos, an adjunct professor at Rowan and Rutgers-Camden.

The two had more in common than writing. Both are mile-a-minute talkers. And the somewhat frenetic Roskos and the lower-key, empathetic Quick both struggle with depression and anxiety.

"We are remarkably similar," said an upbeat Roskos at another local coffee joint, Jersey Java in Haddonfield.

Roskos said his down times arrive with the shorter days in October and last through January - but that's not the kind of thing he talked about with Quick. They spoke freely about writing, music, and art, but danced in circles around their personal struggles.

Encouraged by the popularity of young-adult novels - particularly those that address dark, soulful themes like The Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars, a New York Times bestseller about a teen coping with cancer - they decided to write a book together, with each creating a character. They would alternate chapters and eventually the two characters would meet up. They even had a title - MonkeyShark, an inside joke.

They wrote a total of five chapters in a few short weeks during the spring of 2010 before problems set in.

Quick's second book, Sorta Like a Rock Star, about a sunny teen whose optimism is tested when tragedy strikes, wasn't doing as well as he hoped and he was worried about money. He fell into a funk and told Roskos he couldn't continue.

"I had an energy going and then when he stopped, I said, 'I can't do it alone,' " recalled Roskos.

By then, Roskos' own depression was kicking in. "Both of us were suffering and not talking about it," he said.

Asked about that period, Quick said: "There were a lot of misread communication, misread cues."

By November 2010, by his own admission, Roskos started canceling even casual get-togethers with Quick. It was a down time when he was avoiding other people as well. But now their friendship was broken.

"The two of us were suffering and not talking about it," he said.

Though Roskos never planned to write young-adult fiction, he couldn't get the character he created for MonkeyShark - the Whitman-spouting teen - out of his head. "Whitman is the most optimistic writer I ever met," he said. "He's the perfect poet for depressed teens."

He wrote the book in three months. Sad, sweet, 16-year-old James Whitman has an abusive father who kicked his beloved older sister, Jorie, out of the house. His painful struggle with anxiety and depression, along with his quest to understand what led to his self-destructive sister's exile, make for a funny, poignant book.

Still, Roskos thought teen books weren't as prestigious as the literary works he aspired to write, even though young-adult fiction is outpacing other genres, up 17 percent from last year, due mainly to the success of The Hunger Games series, according to Jim Milliot, a spokesman for Publishers Weekly.

In a weird way, that was the problem.

"Popularity to me has always meant lack of artistic value," said Roskos, who is married and has a 3-year-old son.

So, while Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets sat in a drawer, Roskos wrote a satire of the Mayan end-of-the-world calendar and collected 200 agent rejections.

Then in the summer of 2011, he reread Dr. Bird and was struck by how good it was. "I felt like an idiot," he said.

He recalled what Quick had told him - that just because you publish a teen book doesn't mean you can't write adult books too. He easily found an agent and publisher. Then he sent an e-mail to Quick to let him know the good news. It was their first contact in months, he said, and "it was awkward."

But in December 2011, they met for breakfast at the Silver Diner in Cherry Hill and three hours later were buddies again. Over plates of eggs and toast, they realized they had made the same mistake as some of their characters - feeling no one understood what they were going through but not wanting to admit their vulnerability.

Reflecting later on that insight, Roskos marveled: "It's right there in my book, in all of his books."

Today, Quick says, he often talks publicly about mental-health issues, including his own, to raise awareness, "but back then it was not something that I talked about openly."

Since they have reconciled, the two friends stay in close contact. Quick said he is delighted with Roskos' success.

"Whenever anyone has a success I'm happy for them, especially Evan, who worked so hard," he said. "I was proud of him."

In the book, which has gotten positive reviews and a blurb from Quick, he recognized some of their early conversations, Quick said, "but it's Evan to the core. It's authentic. . . . He brought a great book into the world."

Roskos knows that Dr. Bird won't reach the red-carpet highs of Quick's Hollywood-fueled success, and that's OK. Getting his book published isn't a silver lining, but a victory.

"We went through something more important than writing a book together," Roskos said. "Our friendship came apart and came together stronger than it was. It's important to me that he and I got through that."

Contact Kathy Boccella

at 856-779-3812, kboccella@phillynews.com, or follow @kathyboccella on Twitter.

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