In just a few weeks, Brooklyn-based author Jennifer Miller will be traveling south to Nashville to set up one of her famed “Novelade” stands. There, she’ll give away free homemade cookies (made with Trader Joe’s sea salt!) and sell her first fiction novelThe Year of the Gadfly, a suspense-ridden novel about a high school journalist, Iris Dupont, and the twisting backstabbing reality of life at Marianna Academy.
But before Jennifer gets to Music City, and before you get a chance to buy a book straight from the author herself, I took it upon myself to do a little pre-reading. The Year of the Gadfly proved to be an entertaining page-turner full of journalistic humor, adult themes, and the ghost of Edward Murrow. Jennifer was nice enough to make a little time on Monday, just before Hurricane Sandy hit, to answer a few of my pressing questions.
Read on for our interview!
I know this isn’t your first book. As a writer, how was the fiction writing process different than writing your first non-fiction book, Inhereting the Holy Land?
Jennifer: So, the thing about writing non-fiction is that if you’ve done your reporting really well, essentially when you sit down to write, you have all the pieces, you just have to assemble them. Not that that’s easy, but it’s not like you have a blank page. Whereas with fiction, you not only have to assemble the pieces, but you have to come up with the pieces. The way I feel about this book is that it’s as though I set out to make one of those thousand piece puzzles, first I had to make the pieces, shuffle them all around, and then put them together!
In this book, there are only a handful of characters, but there are three narrators and a whole lot of double-crossing. How did you keep it all straight?
Jennifer: (laughs) That’s a really good question. I made a lot of lists, and I made a lot of charts. Nothing really fancy, but I mean I guess I was constantly making timelines on scratch paper. Plus I was really lucky to have two women, my agent and editor, whose perspective I really trusted, writing me notes and guiding me in some of the critical pieces. I couldn’t have done it without them.
You deal with some pretty heavy topics for a book about a high school student. There’s sex and masturbation, suicide, depression and teen bullying. The first time I read a passage that involved how Iris was feeling about her body, it really surprised me. What’s the response been to those elements of your book?
Jennifer: Well, I don’t really consider the book to be strictly a “Young Adult” novel. It definitely has a lot of appeal to older teens, but I think it really has crossover appeal to adults, too. But regardless of how you classify the book, I think that teens are reading novels about children killing each other—so I almost feel like once that is out in the world, there’s really nothing you could put in a book that could be really shocking.
As Iris navigates the waters of Marianna Academy, she has this interesting back and forth relationship with the ghost of the journalist Edward Murrow. She’d connect with him in tense situations, and at one point, she even thought What Would Edward Murrow Do? It reminded almost of a kid in prayer. Did that cross your mind as you were fleshing out that relationship?
Jennifer: You know, that is really interesting. When I came up with the whole ‘What Would Edward Murrow Do’ thing, I was kind of poking fun. But on a serious note, I think in a way you’re right. For Iris, in a sense, Murrow plays the role of her conscience. And as much as I was poking fun, there is a serious undercurrent there. People need some kind of guide outside of themselves that they can look up to and try to follow. I think that’s a human need.
I understand that you lost your high school boyfriend Ben, at a young age. How did that play into the story you wanted to tell, particularly about the characters Lily and Justin?
Jennifer: The story in the novel of Lily and Justin very closely parallels my relationship with Ben. Like the scene when they go out on their first date? There are moments in that chapter that were literally pulled right out of my life. When you experience a tragic event like that at a young age, it kind of changes who you are. So in thinking about that relationship as I got older, and what it meant for my life, I felt really strongly that it was something I wanted to write about. And Ben was a very complicated person, like Justin: very brilliant, really kind, but also very troubled in a lot of ways. I wanted to honor him in a way that was true to the complexity and nuance of his character. But I didn’t want the entire book just to be about that. I wasn’t setting out to write a memoir.
So, after seven years and multiple drafts later, The Year of the Gadfly is done and in the hands of lots of readers. When you read it now, are you happy with where it landed?
Jennifer: I’m really, really happy with where it landed. I didn’t want to write a typical coming of age story. I wanted something different. Now it’s out in the world, and I’ve spent so much time fleshing everything out, that I feel like the book stands on its own. It was a lot of work, but I’m really proud of it.
Keep an eye out for an article in The Tennessean about Jennifer’s plans for her upcoming stop in Nashville!