Friday, 8 June 2012

Author Interview: Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller’s new book, The Year of the Gadfly, centres around Mariana Academy, an austere high school that sits in a cold and grey town a long way from the busy-ness of Boston, the sun of California or the ‘cool’ of New York City. The school’s gothic feel is added to by the deathly serious honour code: ‘Brotherhood, Truth, and Equality for All’.

Ostensibly, the school is run by its students but Prisom's Party, a secret society named after the school's founder, has been troubling these studious halls, declaiming the student community code as an empty motto - and exposing teachers, students, and the school for every indiscretion or dishonesty.

Weaving two periods of time and two central characters, Lily in 2000 and Iris in 2012, Jennifer Miller tells a mystery, both intriguing and lethal. Complete with Latin, biology, psychology, and a bit of cultural affairs, the book is a complex look at coming of age, biology and grief. 

I asked Jennifer, who lives in New York, a few questions via email, about her fascinating novel.

PN: The Year of the Gadfly centres around extremophiles and uses these precious, but little known, organisms as a motif throughout. When did you first come across extremophiles?

JM: One of the characters in the book is based on my high school boyfriend, Ben, who was killed in a car accident the summer before our senior year. That summer, Ben had an internship studying the early origins of life with a group of scientists in Washington, DC. The journal article the scientists published after Ben's death was all about extremophiles – mico-organisms that thrive in extreme environments. 

PN: Are you now, after writing the book, or have you always been, fascinated by extremophiles? What can microbiology teach us?

JM: I 'd never heard of extremophiles until a few years after Ben's death, when I read the article his research team published. I was reminded of how Ben himself seemed to thrive under intense academic pressure – just like many extremophiles thrive under intense pressure at the bottom of the ocean. That was how these micro-organisms became a metaphor for high school, which is a pretty extreme social environment. 

PN: Which character was the impetus for you to write the story? Or what was the seed of the idea that got you writing?

JM: I'd say that Lily and Justin were the seeds of this story. Lily's lack of confidence and reluctance to date Justin is very similar to my own situation with Ben. In fact, the first date between the two of them is almost an exact replication of my first date with Ben – straight down to the bacon cheeseburger and the extremely awkward first kiss.

PN: Which part of the story did you write first?

JM: There's a moment toward the end of the novel, where Justin and his twin brother Jonah get up early for an Academic League tournament. Jonah's room is so cold that he decides to pee out the window instead of walking to the bathroom. This scene was initially the opening one –and now it's near the end of the novel!

PN: Did you have a teacher like Jonah when you were at school? What was that like?

JM: I did have teachers who encouraged us to think critically about what we were learning and encouraged freedom of thought. I also had some teachers who seemed to enjoy being demanding (and even mean). I think Jonah takes his teaching style to extremes – and I'm happy I never encountered that. The scientific experiment that he makes his class participate in is kind of sadistic. 

PN: Because the nuance is so precise in regards to the relationships between the characters, I wondered if you were basing some of the fictional events in the book on real events?

JM: I talked about that a bit in the previous questions. Lily, Justin, and Jonah are definitely based on real people. (Jonah was inspired by my younger brother.) It's interesting question though, because the character of Iris, who's really the star of the book, isn't based on anyone in particular. 

PN: Ed Murrow, the famous and well-respected American journalist, appears as Iris’ imaginary friend, and I was curious whether there is something quite specific you are threading through the novel about the ethics of modern day news reporting?

JM: Absolutely. In the 24-hour news cycle, modern television reporting in particular is all about sound bites and surface-level analysis. In the 1950's, there wasn't that pressure to constantly be feeding viewers information, so Murrow could take the time to investigate his sources and topics deeply. I think it's wonderful that the internet has made journalism more democratic – anyone can start a blog, for example. But I also think that a lot of accuracy and accountability has been lost, because everyone is trying to get their information out there at lightening speed. 

PN: Some of the characters in the book are able to grow beyond their high school selves. Others are not. Do you think high school is something none of us can forget?

JM: I think we're all deeply affected by high school – either positively or negatively. That's the most formative time in our lives. We feel the most deeply as teenagers. We hunger the most. But we also have the least control over our own lives.

PN: And what is your next book?

JM: I'm writing about a young woman who flees her fiancé, when he returns from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She ends up traveling across the US on a motorcycle with her dad, who is a Vietnam vet.
The Year of the Gadfly is available in the shop now.

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