Gentlemen, by Michael Northrop

I’m hearkening back to a bygone era with this post. I had a books blog for a while, but eventually dropped it when I got a book deal. Nowadays book blogs are a dime a dozen, but back when I did it they were a dime each. It never occurred to me until pretty late in that game that I could (or should) get free books in the deal, or that I could interview actual authors. It was more like a log of what I was reading, and it was easier to drop because tools like GoodReads came along and I could just track my reading there. I got a handful of free books, always offered by the writer out of the blue, and I did exactly two interviews which are still here somewhere… um, let me check this drawer… yeah, here.

Anyway, I’m resurrecting it for at least one post, since I like this book (which I did cop for free) and its author (who I interview below). Michael Northrop is a Bo Sox fan, former magazine editor, occasional ghost writer for famous athletes that would boggle your brain if you knew their names, and all around good egg. Gentlemen (Scholastic, 2009) is his debut novel, a young adult thriller about some high school kids who suspect their teacher had something to do with a missing classmate. In fact, they think he killed the kid, stuffed him into a barrel, and then rolled the barrel out in front of everyone to make a not-very-clear point about Crime and Punishment.

Here’s my review from GoodReads:

First, I’m a fan of what you might call “the poetic vernacular,” over prettified rhetoric, e.g., folks who write like ordinary folks talk but have a since of rhythm and lingo that make their writing memorable — the likes of Mark Twain and Ring Lardner who can write like uneducated rubes but do it really well. Northrop writes in that vein, too, and I enjoyed the book at linguistic level as Micheal (sic) slangs his way through the story talking exactly like American teenagers talk if they’re good at it.

Second, the characters are interesting. Not just the kid characters, but the grown-ups, who Northrop manages to flesh out even though Micheal (like I said, sic) barely notices them. For example, his mom is a tragic figure, hard working and self-sacraficing, but she’s a bit frayed at the edges and negligent… she surely doesn’t know all the things her kid is into. She’s real. The teachers are well-drawn, too, especially the enigmatic Mr. Haberman, who’s not exactly a hero but certainly not a villain but is more like a not-very-good teacher who wants to be a good teacher because he has big ideas he wants to share with kids, but it’s hard because the kids aren’t listening and they don’t care… so, like a lot of teachers, he experiments a bit but before long lapses back into his comfort zone of pedantry. He’s real.

Third, the story is a good one. It’s probably what actual teenagers are more likely to get into — an edgy, suspenseful thriller with missing persons and sex and drugs and maybe a murder and definitely an attempted murder and fights and myspace and secrets and mayhem. Oh, and Russian literature. You know how the kids love that. It’s a real page turner — I read it one sitting, and I can’t remember the last time I did that with a novel.

And now here’s the interview, which was done via email and thus lacks the usual banter and pun-sparring you would get in a live Scaletta/Northrop conversation.

The characters in your book are reading and discussing the novel Crime and Punishment throughout the story. Is that a favorite novel of yours? Did you consider other books they could be reading in class?

It’s a little difficult for me to untangle the slow, percolating process by which I came up with the idea for Gentlemen, but that book was one of the ingredients from very early on.

The first reason is the title and theme: crime and punishment. It’s an obvious fit for a book that is centered around the idea of crime, not so much in the legal sense, as the sense of transgression and secrecy. Crime and Consequences would have been a more exact fit, but exact fits make me nervous, they just don’t feel all that real. Plus, you know, there is no such book.

The second reason is the tone and feel of that book. I first read C&P as a teenager, and the sense of insular, feverish paranoia has always seemed like a great match for adolescence: that feeling of being trapped and scrutinized and persecuted, even if it’s just for your own dumb decisions. Raskolnikov is a very adolescent character in a lot of ways. He thinks it’s all about him; he has these grand, impractical ideas. I was like that as a teen. By which I mean that I wrote melodramatic poetry and felt that people just didn’t “get me,” not that I killed anyone. Because those records are sealed.

To dwell on C&P a bit longer, it’s important to note that Doestoevsky was deeply in debt when he wrote it, due to a gambling addiction, and it’s about the murder of an unsavory money lender. It kind of bolsters a personal theory of mine that whatever the big ideas in a book are, they’re autobiographical at heart, whether or not the author meant it to be.

So… what about Gentlemen is autobiographical? Is there anything you realize later was kinda autobiographical even though you didn’t mean it to be.

There is a lot that is autobiographical in Gentlemen, but I was very aware of that as I was writing it. First of all, Soudley is a lightly fictionalized version of Salisbury, CT, the small, rural town where I grew up. And Micheal’s situation is a lot like mine, as well. I was raised by a single mom, (sort of) poor in a (sort of) rich town. It makes you very aware of who has what, from a full family to a new video game system. Of course, I had a brother, and an aunt who we lived with, and I still saw my dad every month. (My dad, by the way, is in no way the model for the dad in the book.)

Anyway, all of that is to say that I am not Micheal, I am not that character. But in a lot of ways, I think I could have been. I was diagnosed as dyslexic very early. I spent a second year in second grade, receiving individual attention in a small special ed class, and by the time I moved on, I was ready to succeed academically. If I hadn’t gone to such a kick-ass public school, that probably wouldn’t have happened. At a lot of schools, with larger classes and fewer resources, I would have been tracked into remedial classes and moved along. No one would have expected much from me academically, and it would have been easy to internalize that. That’s how you get bright kids underachieving, and that’s what Micheal is.

I thought your development of the teacher character and some of the minor teacher characters was well done. They aren’t caricatures like they are to high school kids and they aren’t “Stand and Deliver” style heroes, they’re just guys trading ideas on how to reach students, experimenting a bit with instructional strategies, then lapsing back into their comfort zone of lecturing. It’s a side of teachers kids usually don’t see or think about. Have you been a teacher? Did you have a teacher in mind as the model for Haberman?

I’ve never been a teacher, and I didn’t really have one in mind. I was always kind of a teacher’s pet, actually. I think that one of the reasons my teachers and I got along is that I would argue with them. I just did it because I was young and full of myself—again, I had those big, melodramatic ideas—but at some point, I realized that the teachers appreciated it. They liked being challenged and actually talking about the ideas and subjects in dynamic, unscripted ways. And that makes sense. They didn’t get into teaching to drone on with the same lectures each year, and yet, it’s a job and some of that is inevitable.

And so I just upped the ante, like I did with my characters. If my excellent, conscientious teachers at Housatonic Valley Regional High School, with students who mostly wanted to learn, could fall into the occasional rut, what would it be like in a rougher environment, with students who mostly didn’t?

You mentioned to me that you liked poetry in high school “because it was shorter.” Maybe you were kidding, but if you weren’t — who were your favorite poets? Did you try your own hand at versification? Are you brave enough to share a line or two?

Oh, yeah, I was serious. Poetry was my first big love. I am a slow, deliberate reader (again, dyslexic), so poetry was perfect for me. I won a few school-wide competitions in elementary school with ridiculous rhyming stuff:

. . . And on his horse rides the knight,
He’s off to the war, the scrimmage, the fight.

I might be a few words off on that first line, but I remember the second clearly. I thought it was so great at the time. As I got older, I got a little more sophisticated about it. I liked the Romantics—Shelley and Keats but not Byron—and then, in sophomore English, Mr. Michels included a poem or two by Ted Hughes. That changed me as a writer: It was so dark and cool and true. I’d always thought of writing as somewhat fanciful before that. My favorite book was Watership Down, but I replaced those rabbits with Hughes’s Crow, a sort of demigod trickster inhabiting a world that ranged from indifferent to cruel.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but do we really know what was in the barrel? I mean, we’re told what’s in it eventually, but that’s just an “idea,” right? Why, it’s like an author telling you the theme of their own book. They ought to know, but on the other hand, it’s just one more theory.

Or is it? We use ideas to frame reality, but at some point those ideas run into the actual truth of the matter, the thing in itself, as Kant would say with a humorous German accent. Haberman’s worldview is academic. To him, ideas are top of the foodchain, but you could certainly look at that as putting the cart before the horse.

What’s the Northrop pet situation. Dogs? Cats? Ferrets? (Editorial note: this was or would have been my usual last question, since I think it’s important to know what kind of critters crawl, flap, or slither around an author while he or she is trying to work.)

I have a horse for my cart. Actually, I have no pets, but I grew up surrounded by them. At any given time, we would have six or seven pets, split between cats and dogs. We lost one cat to the road and one to coyotes, but mostly it was old age, and they would be replaced right away. My mom loved animals and adopted from animal shelters. And we lived in a small town with a backyard that was a total minefield.

Now, I live in the city. I’m much more of a dog person than a cat person, and much more of a big dog person than a small dog person. The logistics are too tough. Stuffing a big dog into a small apartment and then leaving him alone for long stretches of time just doesn’t seem fair. If I move to the country, though—an idea I toy with from time to time—I’m getting a dog.

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