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Interview: March 2011

March 2011

A self-proclaimed sports fanatic and a distant relative of Jonathan Swift (of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS fame), Michael Northrop is the author of TRAPPED, a harrowing tale about three boys who get stranded at their high school during an unexpected blizzard, and soon find themselves locked in an epic struggle for survival that culminates in a devastating decision.

In this interview with Teenreads.com's Usha Rao, Northrop talks about the historical event that helped inspire his latest novel, elaborating on its setting and the qualities of his main characters. He also reveals which of the boys is most like his teenage self, explains why he decided to leave his readers hanging, and reflects on how he became a critically acclaimed writer in spite of the incredible odds against him. 

Teenreads.com: When one thinks of being trapped in a blizzard, Jack London immediately comes to mind. But there's something infinitely menacing about being trapped, not somewhere out in the wild, but in a mundane location like one's own school. What was your inspiration for TRAPPED? And why did you choose this particular setting for your story?

Michael Northrop: I was watching a documentary about the whale ship Essex, which was sunk by a whale (and was the inspiration for MOBY DICK). The sailors were adrift in small whale boats for months, and something about that --- the vastness of the ocean, the desperation of the men --- led me to start thinking about other places where people could end up getting stranded. When I came up with a high school, it seemed sort of perfect. I mean, at some time, most students do feel trapped in their high school --- it's not like they really have a choice about being there.

As for what could trap them there, snow was an obvious choice for me, because I grew up in a very snowy part of New England. Nature is sometimes called cruel or angry or vicious, but really it's just indifferent, and snow conveys that perfectly because it's blank and cold.

TRC: When I first started reading this book, I expected it to be similar to LORD OF THE FLIES, except in a high school setting. But as I read more, I found that The Breakfast Club was a more fitting analogy. What made you decide that the interactions among group members would be --- with one exception --- primarily cooperative?

MN: It's funny: When I first started writing it, I expected it to evoke LORD OF THE FLIES, but in a high school setting. But once I started fleshing out the characters and as I got to know them a little better, it became clear to me that this particular group would at least try to find some common ground. The plot really evolved along with the characters, which is one of the good things about not outlining much (and not paying much attention to the outlining that I do).

TRC: The surprising thing about this book is not that the students find themselves trapped in school during a major storm, but rather that they face the situation with relative equanimity. What makes them so stoic? Is it the fact that, in modern life, we believe that we will be rescued sooner or later from all sorts of natural hazards? Or is it just the makeup of this particular group?

MN: Yeah, I think that sort of faith is definitely a big part of it. Modern life comes with the expectation that things like snowstorms will be taken care of: The plows will clear the streets, the lights will come back on, and so forth. It will all be done for us, and our main job is to just wait (and complain). And I think that sense is amplified in a school setting, where students are used to being told what to do and where to go, and the heat, light, food, transportation and everything else are always just there.

That said, I think the makeup of the group is a contributing factor. Jason copes by staying busy, for example, and it takes Pete forever to realize just how bad the situation really is.

TRC: Which of the characters in the book came to you first? Did you build the story around the central character, Scotty, and if so, what interests you most about him?

MN: Yep, it definitely started with Scotty. In my first book, GENTLEMEN, the main characters are really on the margins, and I knew that I wanted the narrator in this one to be more or less right in the middle. I started putting that together: A sophomore, who's pretty good at sports, is a decent student, and has a few good friends…then the name, Scotty Weems, just sort of popped into my head.

TRC: The girls play a big role in terms of heightening the sexual tension and changing the group dynamic among these teenage boys. Their mere presence triggers romantic competition --- even under these strained conditions --- and eventually that plays a big role in the story. When you started writing this book, did you foresee the effects of having a group that included pretty teenage girls?

MN: I definitely knew that including two girls would change the dynamics dramatically, but I didn't know exactly how at first. I anticipated the competition, but they also had sort of a calming influence. Part of it was that they didn't act like idiots to the same extent that boys sometimes do (that I certainly did in high school), especially around girls. And part of it was that the boys tried to act cooler around them, and in practice, cooler is a lot like calmer.

TRC: Which of these students is most like you? Which one would you want to get to know better?

MN: Scotty is definitely the most like me when I was that age. He is probably a better athlete, and I was probably a better student, but overall, we're similar in a lot of ways. As for which one I'd want to get to know better, I'd say Jason. He's probably the most complex and the most interesting.

TRC: The snow in TRAPPED has the power of a relentless and unpredictable beast, something that most of us can visualize more easily after the effects that this year's winter had on many parts of the US. What is your view of nature? Is it fundamentally benign, dangerous, unpredictable, or something else entirely?

MN: Well, I touched on this a little earlier: I think it just doesn't care about people, one way or the other. And I think that this is incredibly hard for people to accept. We're taught that we're each special in our own way, that every voice counts, and so on. And that may be, but not to a snowstorm, and not to a drought or a mudslide or a heat wave. If an avalanche is heading down a mountain, it's not going to bend around some people and bury others based on their SAT scores or their charitable contributions.

TRC: You leave your readers hanging at the end of the book. Although we learn from the very first pages that the protagonist has survived, we never learn what happens to some of the characters. What made you decide to go that route in telling this particular story?

MN: I have a few reasons for that. First of all, it goes back to those sailors in those little boats: It is the story of a small group of isolated people. In particular, it is a YA novel about a group of teens, and the focus is extremely tight --- almost like a play. To me, once the outside world comes in, that story is over. (It's sort of like the moment the sailors are spotted by a ship.) I feel like the ending is hopeful, and the next step is pretty clear. But at that point, the adults would become the protagonists, and the scope would expand tremendously.

I also feel like we've been through enough big disasters to know that they don't wrap up neatly in the amount of time that they're supposed to. In very real ways, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is still going on. And the same thing goes for 9/11, obviously. The consequences of these things are complicated, interconnected and ongoing, and basically, I thought it would be a disservice to reality to wrap it all up with a bow on top.

Plus, I like to leave readers with something to think about, even if it's just what a jerk I am.

TRC: A snow cart, along with various other tools built in the school machine shop, play a pivotal role in the story. This begs the question: Are you handy? Did your high school offer machine shop class?

MN: I took woodshop in high school, and there is a picture of me somewhere playing air guitar on a carpenter's angle. Sadly, I am not handy at all. When it comes to home repairs, I am almost more harm than good. I'm from a small town, though, and a lot of my relatives are or were carpenters. I've always been impressed by people who are good at that sort of thing, but I've had bad luck with sharp things in my life, so it seems like I should steer clear of power tools. 

TRC: This seems like the perfect book for a reluctant reader, especially a teenage boy. Were you ever a reluctant reader yourself, or have you always been interested in books?

MN: Yeah, I am dyslexic, so I was a reluctant reader on an almost clinical level. I repeated second grade and they spent the whole time trying to cram my square-peg brain through the round hole of reading by making me read the same Dick and Jane books over and over again. It actually worked well --- take that, advances in educational methodology! --- but I had a fairly adversarial relationship with reading for years. The first thing that really got me reading voluntarily was Dungeons & Dragons, because knowledge is (magic) power in that game.

TRC: Have you ever experienced intense weather phenomena firsthand? Have you lived through any blizzards yourself?

MN: This one is another emphatic yes. I grew up in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. The clouds coming off the Atlantic would hit those and be like, "We are waaaaay too heavy to clear these mountains. Better drop all our snow on this little town here." I remember one blizzard where we got close to three feet of snow --- and I was like four feet tall at the time! I actually remember what it was like to try to walk through chest-deep snow.

TRC: Did you enjoy winter as a kid, and do you look forward to it as an adult? 

MN: I loved winter as a kid. My brother and I would stay outside until we had practically turned blue. I still like the first snowfall of the season and things like that, but it's like that line from the song "Jack & Diane:" "Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone." That's how I feel about winter now: Oh yeah, winter goes on, long after the thrill of winter is gone.

TRC: What's next on the horizon for you?

MN: I'm writing a couple of middle-grade sports novels for Scholastic. The first one is called PLUNKED, and it's about a Little Leaguer who gets hit in the head by a pitch and loses his nerve at the plate. His whole world is sort of centered around baseball, so he really has to dig deep to try to overcome his fear and get back in there. That comes out in the spring of 2012, and I've just started working on my next YA novel.