Interview with Michael Northrop

This week, Figment sat down with Michael Northrop, fellow New Yorker and author of Gentlemen (Junior Library Guild, ALA Best Books for Young Adults). His new book, Trapped, which is about 7 high schoolers trapped at school during a blizzard, was called “truly impossible to put down”  by RT Book Reviews Magazine.

You can enter a contest to win Trapped on Figment. We loved the idea of strangers trapped in a school together…oh the fictive possibilities!

1) Why must you write? What would you do if you weren’t a writer? (Or,
what was the best job you had before becoming an author?)

Well, first of all, I am an avid reader and I enjoy stories and storytelling. It seems kind of amazing to me that I can take that a step further and create those stories myself, and I find both the process and the final product of writing very satisfying and enjoyable.

If I wasn’t a writer, I’d be an editor. That’s a little like saying ‘If I wasn’t a chocolate donut, I’d be a jelly donut’: They’re very similar and it’s hard to say which is messier. I was a senior editor at Sports Illustrated Kids for eight years before becoming a novelist.

I was the baseball editor for the last five of those, and I’d probably still be doing that. Right about now, I’d probably be trying to talk my editor into sending me down to spring training this year.

2) What two books do you find indispensable? Who has given you the greatest experience of the essence of creativity, its depths and eternity?

The two books that had the greatest impact on me are Watership Down by Richard Adams and Crow, a collection of poetry by Ted Hughes. Interestingly, both are written from the perspective of animals (though the crow in Hughes’s collection is more like a mythological figure).

I am a slow, deliberate reader. I am technically dyslexic, and while it’s not an impediment at this point, I still read more or less letter to letter, word to word. Because of that, I rarely read more than one work by a particular author. (It’s also one of the reasons for my early love of poetry, which is shorter and rewards deliberate reading.) The authors I’ve read extensively have made a huge impression on me. I’ve read all of Faulkner’s work and most of Joyce’s, for example. But the writer who’s given me the greatest experience of the essence of creativity is Ted Hughes. I’ll explain that more in question 5.

3) Where is the place in which you most love to write?

Writing is a fairly immersive process for me, and I like a quiet, controlled environment. I’m definitely not the kind of person who can write (well) in a busy coffee shop. Usually, I just write in my apartment, but when I go up to my hometown, I write in the back of the library, where I used to do my homework and book reports as a kid. I guess that’s the place I love to write the most, but really, I like the process of writing more than the place.

4) If you could send a reader either of your books, which one would you recommend first?

It would really depend on the reader. They are very different books, and I guess I’d just ask them a few questions and try to figure out which one would be a better fit. Gentlemen has more of a mystery/crime feel to it, while Trapped in more adventure/survival. The body count is higher in Trapped, but Gentlemen is still much darker.

5) What book, story or poem brought you greatest comfort as a teen?

It was a poem called “Hawk Roosting” by Ted Hughes, who was England’s poet laureate. (He was also a tremendous villain to a lot of people because he was Sylvia Plath’s husband—by most accounts a very bad one—when she committed suicide. A writer’s personal/political/religious life is generally irrelevant to me, though.) Anyhoo, the poem is written from the point of view of a hawk, and that perspective is violent and utterly self-centered—and what else would you expect from an apex predator? It was a revelation to me. I was a sophomore in high school and still thought of literature as highly mannered and somewhat rarified. That poem completely opened up my conception of what literature could be. Nearly any perspective could be valid, as long as it seemed true.

6) Your writing has appeared in a variety of places: Sports Illustrated for Kids, McSweeney’s, The Morning News, People Online. How is writing a YA novel different from writing for magazines and other publications?

Well, writing a short story is different in that you really only need to explore one interesting idea. I published a story in Weird Tales in which vampires win a municipal election and institute a reverse curfew so that people can only go out at night. I had another story in Notre Dame review in which a jogger comes across his own dead body. That’s really all you need for a successful story: one interesting idea, one main character. Novels require multiple ideas, characters, plot lines, back-stories, and all that, all intertwined.

Writing articles is different in that you are assembling facts, rather than creating them, and facts can be inconvenient. Sometimes you’ll interview someone and they’ll say something that would be a fantastic quote if you could just change a few words—but you can’t! Or you might be covering a team, watching a great comeback story taking shape, and then they’ll frickin’ lose the last game. There goes a great angle, but you’ve still got to write the story. It’s actually great preparation for writing fiction, because it reminds you of just how unruly reality is, and of how many ways there are to tell a story.

7) Your first YA novel, Gentleman, is out in paperback now and your second YA novel, Trapped, is out now, has your writing process changed between the two books?

I don’t think so. I still try to do 1,000 words a day (give or take) on days when I write, with only a very general outline. And my basic philosophy was the same for both books: to be as true to the narrator as possible. They are very different books not so much because they are about different things—a missing boy in Gentlemen and a massive blizzard in Trapped—as because the narrators are very different people.

(8) Your book Gentleman has been noted by some to be particularly good for boy readers. Do you think it’s better for men than women? Is there a such thing as a “boy book”?

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a book that’s only for boys (or only for girls), but there are books that are, generally speaking, more likely to appeal to boys. When I worked at Sports Illustrated Kids, our readership was around 85 or 90 percent boys. We bent over backwards to include female athletes and things like that, but a monthly magazine entirely about sports just appealed more to boys than to girls. I do freelance copy editing for some dance magazines now, and the gender ratio is reversed.

Books are the same way. Gentlemen is a dark, somewhat violent book—one newspaper called it “a lean, muscular story”—and I think it appeals to a lot of boys for those reasons. Of course, there are also many girls who would find those qualities appealing. Similarly, Gentlemen is narrated by a boy and, at its core, is about the complex ways in which boys relate to each other at that age. Initially, I thought that would make it an obvious “boy book,” but it also turns out to be one of the things female readers like most about it.

This answer feels hedged, so I’ll try to be more direct. Leaving Central Park this summer, I saw a mom watch in horror as her son, who’d pretty clearly been denied toy guns, picked up a pistol-looking stick and pointed it at some passing cars. Gentlemen is the pistol-looking stick of YA.

9) Both Gentleman and Trapped are pretty dark, what with the murder and the abandonment and so on. What makes you want to tackle such dark subjects?

It’s more interesting to me. I think books should be about something more intense than everyday life, and dark is just my favorite flavor of intense. I think it’s a good fit for YA, as well, because a big part of being a teenager is exploring boundaries.

Another Central Park story: I went to the zoo there recently and saw the snow leopard exhibit. It’s a large enclosure with lots of interesting features: rock outcroppings, trees and bushes, and so on. But one of the snow leopards was just going back and forth, examining the fence. It was much more interested in where it couldn’t go than in where it could. To me, that’s the essence of dark YA.

10) In closing, what single best piece of advice would you give to a hopeful young writer, in a sentence?

Read a lot, write a lot, and repeat as necessary.

You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook and MySpace and can read more about him and his interests on his (very) interesting website.

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