Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Interview: Michael Northrop goes from standing up to sitting down


Pop quiz
Q: What do Michael Northrop and Mo Willems have in common?
A: They’ve both done stand-up comedy.

While Mo Willems went to the cute side with the Pigeon and Elephant and Piggie books, Michael Northrop has gone to the dark side. I like that.

If you haven’t read Trapped yet, I recommend adding it to your scary reads for Halloween. It will keep you up all night, but you may never feel the same way about snow storms again. (This doesn’t apply to my friends who still live in Southern California. We need another weather disaster book for you.)

So, you’ve done stand-up comedy, but you seem drawn to the dark side when it comes to your books. Is it the cookies that have drawn you there or is it something else?
Wait, there are cookies? That possibility is very distracting, but I’ll try to focus on the question. One is done standing up and the other is done sitting down, but comedy and writing aren’t as different as they might seem. I did stand-up for a lot of the same reasons I write: to entertain, express myself, and play around with words. My comedy was heavy on puns, based on presenting familiar things in unfamiliar or skewed ways, and often fairly dark. All of those things are true of my fiction, as well.

Basically, I feel like it’s the same general approach applied to a different medium. Now, about those cookies . . .
Describe your journey to publication. Gentlemen was your debut novel, but was it the first novel you wrote? How long did it take to find an agent? Is it hard to find agents willing to take on dark/realistic YA? Did you have a back-up plan if the realistic route failed? (For example, adding vampires to the books, e.g. Trapped becomes Trapped With Vampires. Okay, I’m kidding---sort of.) 
What I thought was my first novel turned out not to be a novel. It was humorous, semi-autobiographical and 29,000 words long. (I wrote it longhand!) But it was enough to get an agent to take a look at it. Her response: Um, you do know this is too short to be a novel, right? I did not. She also thought it was a little unfocused and recommended I write short stories to “find my voice.” So I went searching for my voice for several years. My first stories pretty much sucked but they got better and, eventually, they started to get published fairly regularly.

I decided I’d found my voice—hooray!—and was ready to write a novel. So I did, and that novel was long enough but a disaster. All of the main characters were completely unlikable. That was kind of intentional—I was making a point about, you know, human nature or something—but it made the book unpublishable. After six or seven agents/editors told me so, I realized they were right and started over. I was like: You want likable characters? I’ll show you likable characters! And I wrote a book about a Cub Scout who gets lost in the woods and the broken-down State Trooper in charge of finding him.

And those characters were in fact very likable, and that book was the one that got me my agent. It took me a while to figure out that shorter is better for query letters, and there was a long, fruitless “exclusive” with William Morris that amounted to several wasted months, but by the end, I think I had the full manuscript out to five agents. I went with Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger because she responded quickly and said all the right things. It was a great stroke of luck, because she is amazing.

But that was a book that agents (and my friends) loved, but editors had no idea what to do with. With just the kid, it would have been middle grade; with just the cop, it would’ve been crime. With both it was a vexing series of marketing challenges. I just hadn’t been thinking about that kind of thing at all. So then I had to write a book in a specific, publishable category. I chose young adult because my short stories were for adults and I was working as an editor at Sports Illustrated Kids so it seemed like a nice middle ground. Also, after so many years at SI Kids, I think I wanted to be able to swear in print. That book was Gentlemen, and Sara was able to sell it very quickly. So there you have it: The seven-year path to overnight success!

The paranormal thing was still kind of new at the time. The third Twilight book wasn’t even out when Gentlemen sold in 2007 (for publication in 2009). Interestingly, my shorts stories were almost all speculative, which is basically the short fiction version of paranormal. They were little ghost stories and things like that. But when I write books, the ideas that interest me are generally realistic. Writing a book is a big undertaking, promoting it is very demanding, and once it’s out there, there are no take-backs. Trends come and go, but there’s just no way I’d write something I wasn’t into.

Since freaky weather is all over the news (and the world), do you have more natural disaster stories in the works or are you giving us something new to be afraid of?
No, no, I’m going to generously let people return to their regularly scheduled fears this time. My next book is middle grade. It’s called Plunked and is about a young baseball player who gets hit in the head by a pitch and loses his nerve at the plate. Pretty much everyone who plays youth baseball is afraid of the ball at some point, but that’s a pretty specialized fear. It’s not like it’s going to start raining baseballs. What I wanted to do with this one was write a really psychological middle grade novel.
Conventional wisdom (or publishing wisdom, anyway) says you’re not supposed to do that, that YA can be internal but middle grade has to be external: action, action, action to keep readers interested. I think that’s ridiculous. That age is sooooo internal: day-dreamy and confusing and everything else. Which is not to say I didn’t pack Plunked full of baseball action, humor, and anything else I could think of to hook readers, because I did. (There may also be a rousing comeback involved...) I just wanted to do justice to the fact that, basically, 12-year-olds are people too, with brains and emotions just like teens (or adults).

Reading through other reviews of Trapped, I noticed that a few other readers seem to think the adults in the story are surprisingly nonchalant about leaving the students unsupervised. I thought your portrayal of high school administrators and teachers was spot-on, especially given the situation and that the story is from the kid’s perspective. What do you think of this reaction? Did you expect anyone to be concerned about the adults behaving irresponsibly?
That’s a great question! And now, I will answer it in what will seem like a nonsensical way, with a quote from the classic Clint Eastwood movie High Plains Drifter (a paranormal western!). In the movie, Clint’s character is preparing to leave the little frontier hotel where he’s staying, and the woman with whom he’s just spent the night tells him to be careful, because “you scare people.” Clint looks at her, squints, and says: “It’s what a man knows about himself inside that scares him.”

I think that a lot of the people who react to that particular aspect of the book do so less because they think it’s not true and more because, deep down, they suspect it is. The idea that people will sometimes look out for themselves first in a crisis is so basic that I honestly think anyone who’s old enough to read this book understands it. In fact, I was able to make those scenes very short and quick because it just didn’t seem like they required much explanation.

On the other hand, I hope the idea that people will sometimes risk their own lives to save others is equally obvious. The National Guard soldiers in the book are from Tennessee for a reason: volunteer soldiers from the Volunteer State, southerners flying through a distinctly northern natural disaster.

There was something else going on, too. In the beginning, when the adults were still around, everyone was still underestimating the storm. For adults, having more experience can actually make that worse because we frame storms in terms of the ones we’ve already experienced. I’m from a small town in New England and that’s almost an official winter sport, comparing one blizzard to another: “Think it’ll be as bad as ’78?” That creates a blind spot if a storm comes along bigger than anything we’ve seen before.

In any case, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about how people would respond to the adults in Trapped, partly because of the points above and partly because it’s a YA novel focused very tightly on those seven teens. I’ve had teachers and parents write me and ask: But what about the teachers and parents? I understand that reaction, but that’s a different book.