Sunday, August 18

Alum uses past experience to write sci-fi novel addressing bullying

Inspired by his previous experience being bullied, UCLA alumnus Michael Burnam wrote “The Last Stop,” which tells the story of a group of bullied teenagers. (Courtesy of Jessica Burnam)

Inspired by his previous experience being bullied, UCLA alumnus Michael Burnam wrote “The Last Stop,” which tells the story of a group of bullied teenagers. (Courtesy of Jessica Burnam)

A UFO, flashing brilliant lights of blue and gold, hovers 100 meters above an ambulance. The flying saucer shoots a golden ray of light at the vehicle, and in a flash, the ambulance disappears, along with the nuclear device within it.

Michael Burnam, a cardiologist and UCLA alumnus, crafted the climax for his science fiction story sitting on the steps of Royce Hall, eventually concluding a piece that would soon become his first novel.

“The Last Stop,” Burnam’s book, tells the story of a group of bullied teenagers who have to make the difficult decision of whether or not to punish their tormentors. The book also has heavy sci-fi elements – superpowers, distant moons and immortal aliens. Burnam said all of his royalties from the book’s sales are going toward organizations that fight bullying and teen suicide.

Most of the novel’s proceeds are going to Teen Line, an outreach organization based in Los Angeles that Burnam first discovered while working as a doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Teen Line operates a helpline where trained teen volunteers talk to fellow teenagers dealing with issues like bullying, depression and thoughts of suicide.

When Burnam was in elementary school, he skipped a grade because of his academic performance, which he said caused significant personal anxiety and conflict. He was harassed by his peers, many of whom were more physically developed than he was.

Being bullied both physically and emotionally left Burnam feeling helpless and degraded, he said, which left deep psychological scars that still remain with him to this day.

“You become introverted, socially inept, and you begin to fall behind. That’s the way it was for me,” Burnam said.

Nowadays, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, and according to the American College Health Association, the rate of suicide has tripled since the 1950s in young adults from ages 15 to 24.

Burnam said he was inspired by his negative experiences of being harassed at school to write a book and take a stand against the issue of bullying, which he hopes will make a lasting impact for both his children and, as of recently, both his grandchildren.

“The Last Stop” was Burnam’s effort to raise awareness and open a dialogue about young adult suicide, a topic he said he believes to be too taboo in the media and isn’t openly discussed as often as it should be.

Burnam and David Bronow, a close friend and publicist, have toured schools across Southern California to promote the novel and raise awareness about bullying.

“He’s a pay-it-forward kind of guy,” Bronow said of Burnam. “He’s incredibly kind. But his experiences with bullies have definitely informed his book writing.”

Burnam said the novel was meant to be a lighthearted deviation from the increasingly popular genre of dark, dystopian young adult fiction. He wrote “The Last Stop” at UCLA as a screenplay five years ago. Burnam was shocked when it was rejected from several movie studios because studios told him it wasn’t edgy enough if nobody had died by the end of the story.

He then adapted his screenplay as a novel instead, sent his manuscript to John Hunt Publishing in London and signed a publishing contract for his novel in 2015.

Harold Rabinowitz, a writer with a Pulitzer citation for translation and more than 30 years in the publishing industry, is collaborating with Burnam on two more novels and said he was immediately drawn by both the human and science fiction elements of “The Last Stop.” Moreover, he said he believes that Burnam’s cause is a worthwhile one.

“Educating young people is critical. They’re our future,” Rabinowitz said. “I’m very supportive and amazed that there are people (like him) so devoted to it.”

Burnam hopes for his book to become successful, but he said he’s not interested in money or fame.

“If I can prevent one kid from going through what I had to go through, or from jumping off a building or a dorm, then it would all be worth it,” Burnam said.

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