October 1, 2002
"Deft Whodunit Gracefully Handles Teen Suicide Topic"
By Karen MacPherson
Author Mary Beth Miller firmly believes that a "writer comes from a reader."
Miller, author of the new young-adult novel Aimee (Dutton, $16.99), is living proof. As a child, she loved to read, and stuffed books under the front seat of the car when her family went camping "so I would be well-stocked."
She read everything she could, "moving through library sections like courses of a meal." Then, in the fifth grade, Miller discovered she could write, and she's been writing ever since.
Miller, 38, has written a number of things, from picture books to teen novels. Until Aimee, however, she hadn't been published. She laughsruefully about her collection of rejection slips, but added: "I always got enough personal rejections (instead of stock responses) to keep me going."
Aimee may be Miller's breakthrough. Already, it has gotten more attention from critics than many debut books. That's partly due to its gut-wrenching subject matter - teen suicide - and partly due to the book's provocative cover, which shows a teenager lying on her side, face turned away and her back only partly covered by a sheet.
In addition, it's a great time to publish a book for teens because the young-adult book market is hot and getting hotter as the teen population continues to increase.
But Aimee also has attracted attention because of Miller's sure hand at telling a complex and compelling story. Aimed at high school students and young adults, the book tells the tale of a rebellious teen named Zoe who is accused of helping her best friend Aimee commit suicide.
Written in the first person, the book moves effortlessly from past to present and back again as Zoe attempts to come to grips with her friend's suicide and its aftermath. Part mystery, part confessional, Aimee tackles a tough topic with grace, honesty and even a bit of humor.
Many teen readers will identify with the realistically drawn Zoe. By turns sullen, sensitive, obnoxious and caring, Zoe epitomizes the emotional chaos that colors the teen years. Certainly, Zoe isn't always likable. Yet at her core, Zoe is a person with spirit, spunk and real heart.
Miller masterfully controls the book's narrative so that the reader isn't quite certain until the very end of the book exactly what happened the night Aimee died. But it is only when Zoe can finally tell the whole story that she begins to find some peace with herself, her past and her difficult family life.
Despite the emotional intensity of Aimee, Miller says she didn't have a particularly difficult time in her own teen years. And she didn't deliberately set out to write about such a difficult topic.
"It's not like I sat down and thought, 'I want to write a book about a girl who helps her friend commit suicide,' " Miller says. "But Zoe kept showing up in my mind, nagging at me to write about her. The first line came to me, and then I kept going. And I'd get these ideas for other scenes at different times, and I'd say to Zoe, 'Shut up - I'm not at my computer!' "
But Miller did deliberately write her story in a type of spiral, bringing the reader closer and closer to the truth about Aimee's death until the total story is revealed at the book's conclusion.
"Whenever I had a feeling that I was getting too close to telling all, I'd pull back," Miller said.
Writing the book as a type of whodunit seemed to fit the topic of suicide, Miller added. "With suicide, even if the person leaves a very detailed note, those left behind still really don't know why. You really can never know, so you can't blame yourself."
It took Miller 2 1/2 years to write Aimee, sandwiching writing in during busy days as the mother of four children, ages 13, 11, 8 and 6.
Miller, who graduated from Fairfield University as an English major, worked as an editor for a medical-book publishing house before quitting to stay home full-time with her children.
Miller is comfortable writing for teenagers. Unlike many adults, she doesn't see teens as a different, unknowable species. "Sure, things are different than when I grew up, and teens today pierce body parts that we didn't. But they're still dealing with many of the same issues," Miller says.