For most of his childhood, Jonathan Friesen endured undiagnosed Tourette syndrome. Without a name for his condition, the now-40-year-old Mora, Minn., author lived under pressure to stop his twitches and jerks, on his own, from age 6 until diagnosis at age 20.
Despite Friesen's family history of physical tics, his pediatrician would not diagnose the inherited neuropsychiatric disorder, which shows itself during childhood in the form of occasional physical or vocal tics. So he became a "great liar and hider" of his condition, and underwent alternative treatments such as relaxation therapy. He dodged hypnosis.
"The message to my parents was, 'He can stop.' They passed the message on to me," Friesen said. "Every time I did something, which would be 200 times a day when I would jerk my arm or a fast eye blink or whatever, there was a message: 'You can't stop.' After a while of that, the pain is pretty excruciating."
Diagnosis helped Friesen explain his reality to friends -- and eventually to the fifth-graders he taught for 15 years in Robbinsdale and Anoka school districts.
Now Friesen awaits the Sept. 4 debut of his first novel, "Jerk, California" (Puffin Books, $10), whose angst-ridden protagonist struggles against the syndrome Friesen knows so well. The young adult novel is not autobiographical, but Friesen channeled emotions from his "lost years" to build the character of Sam, a 17-year-old who embarks on a revelatory road trip that helps him find out about himself and his deceased father.
On a recent stop in the Twin Cities, Friesen discussed Tourette syndrome and his writing process.
Q Describe your move from teaching into writing.
A I found I was scribbling more notes for stories than I was correcting papers. ... I took a big leap and quit teaching totally. Those were the lean years. [Friesen has a wife and three children.] I didn't have an agent, and had no hope of publishing at the time. It was my 9-to-9 job. The first time I ever tried to write anything it got published ... and they paid me $500 and I thought, 'This is just a breeze.' And then I had 102 rejections after that.
Finally, I don't know why, it struck me that I have a story, and that I was maybe making this a little more difficult than it needs to be.
Q Tell me about your struggle with Tourette syndrome.
A My whole life, Tourette syndrome had defined me. It had been part and parcel of who Jonathan Friesen is. As Sam in this book discovered, he thought Tourette syndrome was his biggest issue ... but learning to love out of his own skin and the process of forgive ness became a bigger issue. ... I had a hard time in high school. I kept looking at people and everyone looked so OK, except for me.
Q How did your personal struggle find its way into the novel?
A This guy [Sam] is not me, but the emotions behind him are everything I experienced as a kid. None of the actual events blur into autobiography, but what I would often do is take an emotion that I remember feeling strongly during that time and see how that would play out in [Sam's] life.
It was a real healing thing for me. I had a real difficult time accepting Tourette syndrome in my life in high school. Writing this, one of the big jerks I have is in my hand ... as I'm writing, my hands and my symptoms were getting worse and worse and worse. It was like I was reliving having it as I was writing it. But I came out on the far end a much more peaceful person. It was like it purged something. It's almost like you push down on a beach ball under the water and pop -- it comes out. I'd been pushing this down for so long, and this book was kind of like letting it go.
Q What was your writing process for the story?
A I have the main character write me a letter -- a three- or four-page letter. That's how I get his voice. Then I'll write a paragraph synopsis: What is this book in five sentences? Beyond that, I don't have a set path.
Q What prompted you to write young adult fiction?
A I'm 40. I don't feel old enough to say anything to an adult yet. This book came out of my lost years. I felt like I missed high school. I was so busy hiding, so this book also helped me relive that part of my life.
Q What is your routine these days, and what do you think of "Jerk, California" when you read it now?
A I'll write from about 9 to 4. I have a 10-year-old, a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old, and they need Daddy. So at 4 o'clock Daddy's home. I open the door and come out. Sometimes I get a paragraph done, but if it's a paragraph that feels real -- that's my test, does this feel emotionally real -- it might just be a paragraph a day, but I'm a happy camper at 4 o'clock. ...
I wanted to show a young man's heart -- the heart of a rather tormented young man, at the beginning -- and show that there is hope in the areas of love, self-acceptance, forgiveness. And I wanted people to close it and feel hope.
Tony Gonzalez • 612-673-7415