Writer and Wading River native Diana Gallagher believes more can be done to help teenagers feel comfortable about seeking help with mental health issues before they become intolerable.
Ms. Gallagher, a 31-year-old Shoreham Wading River High School alumna, remembers hearing reports of suicides or attempted suicides during all four of her high school years. The SWR community is currently coping with two student suicides that took place in 2016.
She didn’t know anyone in school personally who struggled with suicidal thoughts, but teen suicide is nonetheless an important issue for Ms. Gallagher, who teaches writing and literature at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead.
She hopes her young adult novel, “Lessons in Falling,” published by Spencer Hill Press and scheduled for a Feb. 7 release, will help break the stigma surrounding the subject. The book recently landed on Barnes & Noble’s list of the Top 10 Most-Anticipated Indie YAs of 2017.
“I feel mental illness isn’t taken as seriously as physical illness,” Ms. Gallagher said. “The story is about two best friends grappling with the aftermath of the one friend’s suicide attempt. They begin to realize there have been rips in their relationship all along and they have to figure out how to cope with that — and if they can.
“That sounds pretty dark, which it is, but there were things I found really enjoyable to write,” she continued.
Among those aspects is the book’s main character, Savannah, a gymnast. The sport has played a large role in the author’s own life.
Ms. Gallagher began competing at age 10 and enjoyed the opportunity for self-expression gymnastics provided, along with the chance to flip and soar through the air.
“Writing those scenes was a lot of fun because I was able to use my own experiences,” she said, adding that she coaches at Flip-Flop Gymnastics in Westhampton and judges competitions across Long Island.
As a pre-teen, Ms. Gallagher began to dream of becoming a writer. She and her friends liked to write stories based on “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “Sweet Valley High” series. The moment she believed her dream could become reality occurred at SUNY/Cortland, where she studied professional writing and Spanish and competed in gymnastics.
As a freshman, Ms. Gallagher enrolled in a nonfiction course comprising mainly seniors. One day, her professor pulled her and another student aside to say they had written the best stories in the class.
“That’s when I realized, ‘I can hang with these people,’” she recalled.
Ms. Gallagher later worked as a paid intern for two summers at the former North Shore Sun newspaper, writing stories that also sometimes appeared in the News-Review.
Times Review Media Group executive editor Grant Parpan was among her editors during those years.
“Every now and then you get an intern who can cover stories with the same level of professionalism as a full-time staff reporter and Diana was definitely one of them,” Mr. Parpan said. “She wasn’t looking to be a reporter, but she did the job well. It’s a thrill now to see her find success on the creative writing path she was meant to follow.”
Ms. Gallagher is the first person in her family to become a professional writer and attributes her success to the support she’s received from her parents, Ed and Lucille.
“She’s a hard worker,” Mr. Gallagher said, recalling that his daughter has always juggled multiple jobs. “She came to my office when she was 9 for ‘Take Your Daughter to Work Day.’ As soon as we left, she said she never wanted to work in a business office and just wanted to write.”
“We always supported her to follow her dream,” her mother added.
Ms. Gallagher, who earned a master’s in fine arts from Stony Brook University in 2010, is currently developing two new YA novels. One is about a storm chaser; the other features a track and field athlete, a character she’ll flesh out using her experiences on the SWR team. A third book, a humorous adult novel, is also in the works.
Her fifth-grade teacher, Jerry McGrath, was so proud of her latest accomplishment that he recently posted a link to the Barnes & Noble article on his Facebook page — a gesture Ms. Gallagher described as heartfelt.
“Diana was a very ambitious writer,” Mr. McGrath recalled. “I had forgotten to what degree until I went through copies of our old class paper, ‘The 5th Word.’
“She was a co-editor for two editions and clearly a leader when it came to the literary department,” he added, referring to her numerous stories and poems.
Mr. McGrath described Ms. Gallagher as a “perfect student” who showed signs of being a natural-born leader. He believes her novel’s goal is honorable.
“It’s an uncomfortable topic to discuss for many, but if one discussion is able to stop at least one suicide, it’s worth it,” he said.
“Lessons in Falling” was years in the making and emerged from a summer 2009 YA writing course. Ms. Gallagher was required to complete at least one chapter before entering the class, so she wrote about how she kept failing her driver’s test. That story line is now part of the completed book’s first chapter.
A few years after completing the YA course, Ms. Gallagher secured a book deal — but the novel’s release date kept being delayed for reasons beyond her control.
“It’s been a long road,” she said. “If you love what you’re doing, then that’s what will keep you going. Even with rejection and criticism, if you can take that and improve your work, then all the better.”
Courtesy photo: Diana Gallagher’s book ‘Lessons in Falling’ recently landed on Barnes & Noble’s list of the Top 10 Most-Anticipated Indie YAs of 2017. (Credit: Carissa Siry)