Cornell’s Suicide Problem Spotlighted in Oculus

Michael Offutt

Michael Offutt

Today, I’m delighted to welcome one of my favourite bloggers, Michael Offutt, to guest post. Michael has been a fantastic supporter of my blog and my writing, and he also happens to be a very talented author. Today, he talks to us about a touchy subject that forms part of his recently released novel, Oculus, which is the sequel to his first novel Slipstream.

Take it away, Michael!

Oculus Button 300 x 225

Michael: Suicide is a topic that I never really encountered when I went to college at the University of Idaho. Maybe my school was just too small or too unimportant, or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. But when I started reading newspaper articles, blogs, and internet forums written about Cornell to better understand this Ivy League school that would be the setting for “Oculus”, I came across an astounding statistic. CU has a lot of student suicides.

I kind of struggled on how I wanted to portray this in my book. A lot of people blame the easy access that people have to Ithaca’s gorges. And there’s no point on campus that you can wander where you cannot hear the rush of water moving through one of these miniature canyons. In fact, in many a Carl Sagan address (he taught at Cornell before he died in 1996) you can hear the roar of a waterfall in the background. As a side note…Carl Sagan is my hero and there’s a few references to him peppered through the narrative. So if you’re a fellow Carl Sagan fan, you might enjoy these “Easter eggs.”

What I finally decided upon was the idea that once Jordan realized what was going on, he would be torn up about it, because he actually has the power to see what happened at the very moment someone plunged to their death. Additionally, Jordan is a really nice guy and he’s going to be moved emotionally by just thinking that someone would choose to end their life this way. He has a “hero complex” and that means if he can do something about a problem, he will. Finally, I wanted to draw into question that at least one of the suicides might not be what it seems.  This of course leads to further questions, investigations, and an overall mystery that unfolds for the secondary characters in Oculus who have a task to complete while Jordan does his best to locate the Black Tower on Earth (a place that holds a miraculous box running a program that applies all of the laws of physics to the entire universe as long as it continues to operate).

I think the task that the secondary characters do is as riveting as the one that Jordan is tasked to do, and overall, keeps the book from having the dreaded “saggy middle.” However, I still question as to whether using Cornell’s problem with suicides as a plot device in my book is crossing some kind of line. I hope it isn’t.

If you would like to read a sample of my writing or know more, visit the books page on my blog.

More about Oculus 

Autumn has arrived in New York, and Jordan Pendragon attends his first classes as a freshman at Cornell. Born with a brilliant mathematical mind, he balances life as a research assistant with that of a student athlete.

But Jordan also has a quest. He must find the Black Tower, a monolithic edifice housing a thing that defines the very structure of the universe. Jordan believes it is buried somewhere in Antarctica under miles of prehistoric ice.

October finds Jordan earning a starting position with the Cornell hockey team. But a dark cloud gathers over his rookie season. Unexplained deaths, whispers of a cannibal cult, a prophecy, and a stone known only as the Oculus, cast a shadow over his athletic ambitions. It is the start of a terrifying journey down a path of mystery, murder, and to a confrontation with an Evil more ancient than the stars.

Read a free short story that’s a lead-in to the book series.

Cally: I’m interested in your thoughts about Michael’s question – do you think it’s okay for authors to use real societal issues as plot devices for our novels? A lot of successful authors do it (Jodi Picoult comes to mind, though I know her genre is very different to Michael’s), but does that make it a good idea?  Keen to hear your thoughts!

Also, as part of Michael’s blog tour, he’s giving away six signed copies of Oculus – just enter your name into his competition rafflecopter to win. AND I get to give away an Oculus bookmark (pictured); all you have to do is comment on this post! So what are you waiting for? Get commenting! 🙂

Oculus bookmark

Oculus bookmark

If you’d like to hear more from Michael, you’re in luck! You can find him on Twitter, Facebook or his blog. You can also find his books on Amazon and Goodreads (and a host of other places – check for his work at your preferred e-distributor), and you can check out the artwork he’s produced relating to the Slipstream series.

P.S. Did you miss the post about my Goodreads review competition, where anyone who writes an honest review of my novel The Big Smoke can go into the draw to win a $50 book voucher? If you missed it, never fear. You can find more info over at the Goodreads competition page!



Filed under Writing

21 responses to “Cornell’s Suicide Problem Spotlighted in Oculus

  1. If there really are a lot of suicides, then it was realistic to include them in your book.

  2. That’s a pretty tragic statistic to have associated with your university. Yikes. I think it’s fine to mention that sort of fact in your novel, though I’d be curious if anyone “high up” at Cornell would have anything to say about it.

    • Cornell responded with a huge campaign. They had counselors go door-to-door for EVERY SINGLE STUDENT on their campus. They put up barriers on all the bridges, etc. So yeah…they responded. That’s what caught my attention to the issue was their huge response which made news.

  3. Elise Fallson

    I agree with Alex and Trisha, plus, CU is not the only school with high suicide rates. I think you did a great job integrating this issue into your book and I don’t think you crossed any lines.

  4. I just came to see the cool spiders.

    I think it all depends on how you handle it. If you take something tragic and make fun of it, then no. But if you work it into the plot respectfully, then it contributes to the story’s realism and relevance.

    Best wishes on your new release, Michael. 🙂

  5. Thanks everyone. CU has an inordinately high suicide rate among Ivy League schools. It got to epidemic proportions I think in 2010 when they installed barriers on the bridges.

  6. I think bringing into light issues so that they can be talked about is a good thing.
    Exploiting an issue just to gain attention wouldn’t be good, though.
    It all depends upon what the author is doing with the issue.

    Personally, I think we need a lot more attention on suicide and suicide prevention, but that may be kind of apparent in light of my recent blog posts.

  7. Tragic as the statistics are, I believe it’s not crossing any lines using them in writing. It gets the conversation going and talking is important.

  8. Callie do you want me to choose the winner of the bookmark? Probably be easier with a sometime tomorrow and then just writing them for their address.

  9. For me, using important phenomena or events that are going on in our society can add depth and meaning to a novel, so I’m glad you did this in your story. And it’s heartening to know that Cornell had such a strong and responsible reaction to these tragedies.

    And Michael – I already have Oculus and I’m really looking forward to reading it!

  10. I didn’t know that about CU, and keeping that in mind after reading the book, I think you did a very tasteful job.

  11. Thanks everyone for all the support. chose Elise for the free bookmark. I already mailed her.

  12. That’s awesome, Michael, incorporating such an important subject in your story. 🙂

  13. I just popped onto Smashwords and downloaded the short story. I am looking forward to reading it later.

    I appreciate your support.

  14. congrats to michael and thanks to cally for helping him, you’re a great friend! if anyone can tastefully address a touchy subject like suicide, then kudos! have a happy new year, too!

  15. Ray Bradbury said choose something important and write that, looks like you’ve hit the nail on the head with this novel. Suicide is a big problem with young people in Australia as well.

  16. I think it is absolutely ok to use social issues as plot devices. That’s how writer’s touch the emotions of their readers. As Tammy said ‘tastefully’ is the key. I worried when I decided to use the issue of rape in my book. I researched, talked to people… Most people were ok with it. A few, not so much. Issues like suicide and rape touch more lives than most of us realize. The statistics are out there and so are the broken hearts. Writers can use their gift to show people a part of the world they may not be aware of, and motivate people to action.

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