|Q: The characters in Gentlemen and Trapped are in high school, but they're already dealing with serious (even life-threatening) problems. What inspired you to write these stories?
A: Well, I mean, here is the real and entirely open secret about being that age: Even when the problems aren't life threatening, they often feel like they are. Serious is in the eye of the beholder. I once played a season of football with a stress fracture in my back. From an adult perspective, that was pretty dumb. I was turning a minor problem—the prospect of missing some high school football games—into a potentially major injury. But at the time, it made perfect sense to me. I feel like what I'm doing is just literalizing that mindset. The stakes are sky-high, regardless. It doesn't have to be about a missing student or a massive blizzard—it's just more fun if it is!
Q: Your characters are pretty in tune with their school's social groups: "hard cases," jocks, and everyone in between. Who did you sit with at lunch?
A: I was super-uncool as a freshman and began the year eating lunch with the other social refugees: We were nerds and geeks (and here I mean both at once), all misshapen in some way and badly wounded in the war against acne. I used to wear a down vest around all day—I liked it because it had a lot of pockets. But my best friend from junior high was much more together than me, and once he'd established himself enough in high school, he invited me to sit at the cool table.
When he asked me over, my answer could have been something like, "No, because that would mean tossing aside the only people who've accepted me for who I am!" Instead, I was like, "Sure!" Moments like that are not flattering, but they are true, and as a writer, you have to honor them. Anyway, I was a member of the in-crowd after that. At first, I think I was sort of a mascot, but I ditched the vest, got a nickname ("Law"), and grew into the role. We were honor students and athletes and listened to the cool alternative bands.
Q: Will we see any more of Tattawa Regional High School? If not, what's next for you?
A: You might see more of it. Tattawa is sort of like a character based loosely on a friend (that "friend" being my own school), but over the course of two books, it has really taken on a life of its own. I feel like I know it well, but, let's be honest, I also kind of beat the crap out of it in Trapped. I also mentioned that it helped me to set my first books in a school similar to my own, but I don't think I really need that kind of help anymore.
I recently wrote a baseball novel for younger readers called Plunked, and I am currently writing a (stupendously violent) thriller for adults. I have some ideas for my next YA project, but I am still pawing through them.
Q: Where did you go to high school? What was that like?
A: I think I have safely removed the drama from this answer. I went to Housatonic Valley Regional High School in the northwestern corner of Connecticut. It draws students from five small towns, and when I was there, the student body was around 400. I think there were 99 in my graduating class, and I like to say I was in the Top 100.
Q: You write teenage characters' voices very convincingly. Do you spend a lot of time with teens, or are you just young at heart?
A: My life up to age 19 was so different—and so vivid and intense—that it is still very real, immediate, and accessible to me. I moved from a very small town to New York City at age 19, to go to NYU, and I've pretty much been here ever since. It's not a coincidence that my books are set in small towns: For me, being young and living in a small town are almost synonymous. When I think about what it's like to wake up in a place like that, attend a school like that, or walk through the woods carrying a BB gun, I am also remembering what it's like to be that age.
Q: Musical references in your books range from Peter Gabriel to Lady Gaga. Who are some of your personal favorites?
A: In high school, I wore out T-shirts for The Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, and a few others. I still have a soft spot for that alternative stuff, but I have largely reverted to my natural state: listening to a wide range of completely disparate music. Some of it is fairly reputable. I've been listening to Band of Horses a lot lately. I also have an old-school country streak, and I mean, who doesn't like Johnny Cash? But some of the music I like is shockingly uncool. Most people now won't even touch the entire Phil Collins era, but I don't care. I mean, I used to wear a down vest to class!
Q: You've transitioned pretty recently from magazine editor to full-time writer. How did you decide to make that change, and what's different now that you have?
A: The change has affected my writing more than anything. I have much more time for it, of course. I also have more of a chance to think about the book I'm working on. I get ideas all the time—about plot points, lines of dialogue, whatever—whether I'm drifting off to sleep or walking to the store. In the past, those ideas were more likely to be about points to raise in the next editorial meeting or "Why am I here at work on a Sunday?"
Q: What's your writing process like?
A: Magical. I use an enchanted quill . . . It's actually pretty work-a-day: I write at least a thousand words a day when I am in a writing phase (as opposed to an editing phase, a freelancing phase, or a give-me-a-break-I-just-finished-the-last-one phase). Sometimes it only takes an hour or two, but I don't try to do much more than that. It's like how marathon runners don't sprint on mile three. I also like to stop for the day while I still know where I'm going next—and if I don't, well, I've got the rest of the day to think about it.
Q: What's the best advice you can think of for someone who wants to be a writer?
A: I would just advise them to read and write an enormous amount. It might seem obvious, but I think a lot of people think they can cut corners by taking classes or whatever. It's like basketball. Yes, you can go to a good summer camp and learn a lot, but if you don't keep playing once you get home, you're not going to go pro.
Q: Tell us something most people don't know about you.
A: I will have to go way back for this one: My first favorite book was a Little Golden Book called The Happy Little Whale. The opening lines were something like: "Everyone loved the Happy Little Whale, Nine feet long from nose to tail . . ." It's out of print now, because the world couldn't handle it.