The Gatekeepers follows a group of teens struggling with academic pressures and classmates dying from suicide at an alarming rate. In celebration of its release, Jen Lancaster spoke with us about her powerful new book.
About ‘The Gatekeepers’ by Jen Lancaster
“How could we know that forever could end at seventeen?”
Anyone passing through North Shore, Illinois, would think it was the most picture-perfect place ever, with all the lakefront mansions and manicured hedges and iron gates. No one talks about the fact that the brilliant, talented kids in town have a terrible history of throwing themselves in front of commuter trains.
Meet Simone, the bohemian transfer student from London, who is thrust into the strange new reality of an American high school; Mallory, the hypercompetitive queen bee; and Stephen, the first-generation genius who struggles with crippling self-doubt. Each one is shocked when a popular classmate takes his own life…except not too shocked. It’s happened before. With so many students facing their own demons, can they find a way to save each other—as well as themselves?
‘The Gatekeepers’ author Jen Lancaster talks survivor’s guilt, social media, and more
1. The characters in the novel felt so real. Were any of them based off of people you knew in real life?
Thank you – I worked diligently to give every character his and her own distinct voices. I kept dossiers on each of my mains, including detailed notes on syntax. Everyone’s speech patterns are distinctly different by design because multi-character narratives can be super-confusing. The reader doesn’t want to have to turn back to the chapter heading to know who’s speaking; my goal was to make each voice obvious.
For example, Stephen’s thoughts trended more introspective. His paragraphs were longer and he didn’t use much profanity. On paper, he had so much in common with his friend Kent, so I had to make a clear distinction between them. That’s why Kent’s pages trended towards thoughts in quick, scattered bursts, with more humor and a shit-ton of profanity. And while none of the kids were people I’d known in real life, they were definitely inspired. More on that in a minute.
2. There are so many real places and high schools mentioned in ‘The Gatekeepers,’ but North Shore High School itself is fictional. What drove you to create your own high school rather than using one that exists?
There are a handful of towns that make up Chicago’s North Shore. While they have much in common, each town is nuanced, with its own personality. I wanted to be able to pull specific parts from all of them to assemble a whole. (Really, I’m following in my idol John Hughes’s lead of making all these places into my own version of Shermer, Illinois.)
The suicide cluster that happened in Lake Forest in 2012 was what started me thinking along the lines of the story. As I live here, I didn’t want this book to be about finger-pointing or specific incidents. Lake Foresters have worked very hard to bring awareness to the problems the kids here face. I wanted to amplify worst-case scenarios from each community so I had to create the fictional town of North Shore to do so.
3.You reference John Hughes a handful of times in the novel (including your author’s note) and mention that you chose to live in Lake Forest, the inspiration for the town of North Shore, because it was his hometown. Did he inspire any other aspects of ‘The Gatekeepers’?
Even though I never met John Hughes, his handprints are all over this book. To backtrack, I’m a member of Generation X and we didn’t have nearly the selection of YA books are available now. Growing up in a small town, I’d blown through every Paula Danzinger, Paul Zindel, and Judy Blume book at the library by the time I was thirteen, so I had to move onto adult books. Back then, very few people were writing novels about what it felt like to be sixteen. (Or, I was reading them faster than they were writing.)
That’s why my generation connected so much with his body of work. His films demonstrated how understood us. He gave us a voice. He told us that what we were going through was real and valid. So, my intention for The Gatekeepers was to take the archetypes from his most iconic film (The Breakfast Club) and put the athlete, the nerd, the beauty queen, etc. here in 2017 with contemporary problems.
4. One of the themes I picked up on in ‘The Gatekeepers’ is that those left behind will never really understand the ‘why’ behind a person’s suicide. Why was it important to you to keep the majority of the characters’ motivations for suicide vague?
First, the World Health Organization has specific rules for reporting on suicides, such as never publishing a suicide note because this would sensationalize the death. Although this is fiction, I didn’t want my words to glamorize anyone’s passing, as suicide is considered a contagion.
After a suicide, those left behind are saddled with survivor’s guilt. While this is a logical reaction, it’s also grossly unfair as suicide is a personal choice and in very few instances can or should the blame be pinned on others. Every suicide awareness website stresses this point again and again because it’s so important. You are not responsible for someone else’s choices. (Notable exception – the teen who was just convicted for encouraging her boyfriend to kill himself when he was vacillating. There’s a special place in hell for that kid.)
Suicide is the ultimate mic drop, the final final word. According to the CDC, approximately 14% of high school students seriously consider suicide each year, so suicidal ideation is not uncommon. The reasons why are not uncommon. My goal is for readers to be better able to spot the warning signs in friends and family and to understand how to intervene before someone decides to find a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
5. In your author’s note at the end, you mention that it’s so much harder to be a high schooler and college student today than it was when you were at that age because of all the pressure. What do you see as the most crucial course of action in trying to reverse this dangerous trend?
When I was growing up, everyone assumed you’d grow up/go to college and eventually figure out what it is you were meant to do for a living. Now there’s such an emphasis on knowing what you want to be at such a young age and activities and academics are singularly focused on reaching that goal. How does a fourteen-year-old know what he or she wants to accomplish as an adult? I’ve been an adult for decades, yet my hopes and dreams are ever-evolving.
Social media is the one of worst things to ever happen to our society. At first, this seemed like a great way to interact, but, really, it’s a façade. Everyone broadcasts their best selves and nothing is as it appears. When I was a kid, everyone (including me, maybe especially me) screwed up in one way or another. That was part and parcel of growing up. Now? Now these incidents can and will follow a person for the rest of his or her life; devastation and humiliation is just a search string away. That terrifies me. We’re all living a version of The Truman Show and it’s not healthy.
I think the best thing this next generation can do is try to form genuine connections. Turn off your phone and have a real conversation with your friends. Look them in the eye and talk to them. Sit down to eat dinner with your family. That way, if a random online interaction goes awry, you’re not shaken as you’ll understand your value IRL.
6. What is the most important thing you hope readers take away from reading ‘The Gatekeepers’?
Every novel needs a guiding principle and each chapter should support this thesis statement. Going into this project, I knew my message was that everyone is going through something, regardless of how shiny his or her life looks on the surface. The only way to get through this is together. Let down your guard. Be real. You are not alone.
7. Last question: Biggie or Tupac?
It’s time for us as a people to start making some changes/Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we life/And let’s change the way we treat each other/You see the old was wasn’t working/So it’s on us to do what we gotta do to survive
So… Tupac. But I love them both.
About the author
Jen Lancaster is a New York Times bestselling author who has sold well over a million books. From Bitter Is the New Black to The Tao of Martha, Lancaster has made a career out of documenting her attempts to shape up, grow up, and have it all — sometimes with disastrous results. Her New York Times bestselling novel Here I Go Again received three starred reviews (Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly). Her memoir I Regret Nothing was named an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and she’s regularly a finalist in the Goodreads Choice Awards. She has been a guest on Today, as well as CBS This Morning, Fox News, NPR All Things Considered, and many other shows. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and her many ill-behaved dogs and cats.
If you or someone you know are struggling and need to talk to someone, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You are not alone.