Friday, December 7, 2012

Author Michael Northrop Talks Snow, The Red Sox and Waterskiing Squirrels

We are so happy that not only did Michael Northrop take the time to visit with our TAB middle school students, but he also agreed to do an interview so we could share some behind-the-scenes secrets about him and his books with all our readers! Welcome to the blog Mr. Northrop!

First, would you mind giving us a quick synopsis of Trapped?

I wouldn’t mind a bit! Trapped is about seven teens stranded in their high school during a week-long blizzard. They’re the last ones waiting for rides, and the roads shut down before anyone can get there. Then things start going wrong. The power goes out at the school, taking the heat with it. The pipes freeze, and the roof begins to shudder. Meanwhile, it just keeps snowing. The group is under a tremendous amount of pressure and, well, sometimes people do dangerous things under pressure.

We selected Trapped as our top book to freeze your face off with because it totally rang true for those of us from snowy places. Did you grow up somewhere where there was a lot of snowfall? Do you have any real life snowed-in stories?

Yeah, I’m from a tiny town in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, and I had some epically snowy winters growing up. We had one huge blizzard in particular that dumped something like four feet of snow on us. I was around four feet tall at the time, and I still remember sitting inside and watching the snow climb the first-floor windows. It seemed amazing to me that if someone dropped me in the snow, I would completely disappear. (After dealing with two housebound boys for a few days, I’m sure my mom was tempted!)

One of my favorite things about Trapped is the sense of claustrophobia that starts to build the longer the characters are stuck in the school. Was it difficult to build that sense of the walls relentlessly closing in?

Thanks! That was something I kept in mind every day I worked on the book: keep building the pressure. The basic process was to put the characters in a cold, dark place and ask myself over and over again: What would/could go wrong next? By the end, I started to get freaked out myself. I would look up after writing for an hour or two and be surprised not to see snow outside the window.

When you set out to write, did you know from the beginning which students would be trapped? Was it always the same seven kids or did some get replaced?

I put some thought into the narrator, Scotty, in advance, but I actually created the others in the order we meet them. Then I fleshed them out as I went along and in revisions. It might seem kind of random, but that was the point: I wanted a somewhat random group.

Did writing Trapped cause you to consider what you’d do in a similar situation? Is there any place you’d particularly enjoy being snowed-in in? What snacks and tunes would you stock up on if a blizzard was approaching? 

Funny you should ask… I was in Brooklyn when Superstorm Sandy hit, and you can bet I was stocked up. After writing the book, I knew just what to get: a battery-powered radio, candles, water—and something to eat other than canned pudding and peaches! I think I did a good job of shopping—cheese, bread, peanut butter, fruit, chips—but since the storm hit right before Halloween, I wound up mostly eating about five pounds of mini York peppermint patties. Fortunately, my area wasn’t hit too badly, but there were people in other parts of New York and New Jersey who were trapped inside their homes for a week or more.

The house I grew up in was actually a great place to get snowed in. We knew the deal up there, so the cupboards were stocked and we had a wood stove, a kerosene heater, and a small zoo’s worth of dogs and cats.

We are also big fans of your novel, Plunked, which is about little league. You’re also a former writer for Sports Illustrated; clearly sports have been a big part of your life. Is there one that you are more passionate about than others?

Well, I’ll watch practically any sport. You could put competitive squirrel waterskiing on TV, and I’d be glued to it. Actually, that’s a bad example: Who wouldn’t be glued to a bunch of highly trained squirrel waterskiers? But perhaps I digress. The sport I’m most passionate about is football. I love baseball, but I honestly wasn’t that good at it. (It’s at least semi-tragic that most of the bad plays and bloopers in Plunked come from personal experience, while most of the good ones are pure fiction.) Plus, there’s only so many times the frickin’ Red Sox can break your heart before you start developing a protective layer of skepticism. The Patriots might lose the occasional Super Bowl (curse you, Giants!), but I can deal with that. When I was a little kid, I would walk into my bedroom in my tres chic Patriots footed pajamas and gaze in contentment at my Pats nightlight, blanket, lamp, and poster—and they weren’t even good back then! Plus, I was an all-conference football player three years running in high school. (Well, an all-conference placekicker, anyway.)

Is there a team that you’d consider painting your face in support of?

I almost got a Red Sox tattoo when they won the World Series in 2004 (their first championship in 86 years). I definitely planned too, but somehow I woke up with a hangover for the ages and a shaved head instead.

I’d never really noticed the rituals that baseball players often do before going up to bat before reading Plunked, but this season, it was all I could see. Do you have any lucky superstitions?

Oh yeah, I have a bunch of them. My mom was very superstitious, and I definitely got that gene. In addition to the normal ones—tossing coins in fountains, knocking on wood, picking up pennies, human sacrifice—I usually have at least one of my own going on. I went to Europe this summer and picked up two stones in Copenhagen. One says “Lykke” (Danish for happiness or good fortune) and the other says “Tak” (thanks). I pick the former up when I need some luck—like before sending a book proposal—and I pick the latter up if I actually get it.

I saw that a cover recently was released for your next book, Rotten; is it too early to ask you to tell us a little about it?

Not at all. And I just happen to have the official synopsis right here—quel coincidence!
Jimmer “JD” Dobbs is back in town after spending the summer “upstate.” No one believes his story about visiting his aunt, and it’s pretty clear that he has something to hide. It’s also pretty clear that his mom made a new friend while he was away — a rescued Rottweiler that JD immediately renames Johnny Rotten. Both tough but damaged, JD and Johnny slowly learn to trust each other, but their newfound bond is threatened by a treacherous friend and one snap of Johnny’s powerful jaws. As the secrets JD has tried so hard to keep under wraps start to unravel, he suddenly has something much bigger to worry about: saving his dog.

Basically, it’s about a troubled teen and a damaged dog. I’ve wanted to write a book with a dog as a main character for a long time. (I think I was sort of testing the waters with Nax in Plunked.) This one is about a rescue dog, a (so-called) bully breed, and it really felt like the right time for a story like that.

When you're writing, do you talk with teens or show them your drafts?

Well, I might talk with teens, but not about the book I’m writing, and I definitely don’t show them my drafts. They shouldn’t take it personally, though. I don’t show my drafts to anyone. I work on a book until I think it’s done, and then I show it to my agent. Then I’ll make revisions based on her comments, send it to my editor, and make revisions based on her comments. That’s partly because those two are awesome and I have a huge amount of trust in them, and partly because I just don’t see literature as a collaborative process to the same extent most people seem to. I never took a writing workshop class—I was an English major and then a journalist—and other arts generally don’t work that way. Sculptors don’t bring in a bunch of people and say, “What do you think of the nose on this statue? Too beaky? Would you hit it once with this chisel for me?” I’m a big believer in writing as an expression of a single distinct vision. Like they say, a camel is a horse designed by committee (or maybe only I say that).

I definitely pay attention to how teens talk and interact, though, and I am immersed in the same pop culture as they are and active on social media and all that. Sometimes I’ll hear or see something new or interesting and will make a note of it, maybe even slip it into a book verbatim, but those are mostly just little flourishes, the accessory rather than the outfit. (I have no idea why that metaphor occurred to me. Who am I, Tim Gunn? I dress horribly!) In any case, I remember what it was like to be 15 years old and simultaneously utterly immersed in high school and aching to be done with it. Those core experiences don’t really change that much.

 Do you read YA yourself? Do you have any favorite authors to recommend to our readers?

I only read nonfiction when I’m writing, because I don’t like to have more than one narrative in my head at a time (it’s already so crowded in there, what with all the voices). But I read a lot of fiction when I’m not actively writing, and most of it is YA.

Two recent YAs novels that I loved are Endangered by Eliot Schrefer and Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch. I read an advance review copy of Endangered and not long after that it was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Coincidence? (Yes.) Between that and the huge, glowing review it just got in the New York Times, it is basically made of accolades at this point. Unless my name is Nobel Prize, I don’t know what else I can add. Magisterium is a super cool hybrid of science fiction and fantasy. It’s tremendously imaginative but also very fast-paced. Both books are from my publisher, Scholastic. (Go, team!) I guess that’s a potential conflict of interest, but I mean, it’s not like I own stock.

Do you have a favorite place to write? 

I write at home, in my little home office. I have a desk, one of those office chairs with little wheels, a National Parks calendar on the wall, and all the Post-it notes I will ever need. I’m not one of those people who can write (well) in loud coffee shops. I need quiet and no major distractions, apart from the ones my weird brain will provide for itself.

Do you have any advice for teens who want to pursue writing as a career?

Go for it! It’s obviously not the most practical decision, but really, what is anymore? And then just this: Read a ton (and not just in the genre you plan to write) and write a ton (the first book I published was the third one I wrote, and that was after dozens of short stories and hundreds of magazine articles). Both will make you better, and there’s no such thing as too good.  

Thanks for stopping by our blog Michael, we are already excited to read Rotten!

 To learn more about Mr. Northrop's books, check out the rest of the posts from this week: It's been Michael Northrop Week all week!

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