Michael Northrop may share his first name with the narrator of his debut novel, Gentlemen (Scholastic Press), but don’t think that character is a stand-in for the author. “That was a bit of a trick on my part," he says. “Everyone is always asking that question”--was this what high school was like for you?--“so I decided to turn the dial up on that, to increase that impulse,” he says.
Northrop insists the teenage boys at the center of his dark, dread-soaked mystery are “complete constructions,” though the smalltown setting and dynamics are drawn from his experiences growing up in Salisbury in northwest Connecticut. “It was very much a smalltown upbringing. It’s not even a three-hour trip [from New York City, Northrop’s current home], but there’s a tremendous world of difference.”
In Gentlemen, narrator Micheal (his parents misspelled his name) and his friends Mixer and Bones--all remedial students--begin to suspect that their English teacher might be involved with the disappearance of their friend Tommy. Things only get more grim and violent from there. “Obviously, this is a mystery, but I didn’t want them to be kid detectives,” Northrop says. “I wanted to take normal kids with normal problem-solving skills and give them an intractable problem.”
While this is Northrop’s first novel, he’s been writing for years. He has published several short stories in literary journals and quarterlies, and until leaving last year to focus on his writing, he had been a senior editor at Sports Illustrated Kids. “For a while, there was that divide--literary fiction for adults on my own time, sports articles for kids at work--and at some point I decided to write a YA book to sort of bring the two together.”
There were some false starts. Northrop calls his first novel a “plotless mess,” and started over when he got feedback from agents that it wasn’t working. His second attempt, The Dark Precincts, got him an agent--Sara Crowe at the Harvey Klinger Agency--but not a book deal. It featured dual narration (between a lost 11-year-old boy and the "broken-down, alcoholic state trooper" who is looking for him) and according to Northrop, “no one knew what to do with it.” When it was suggested that he either split it in half or write a new novel, he chose the latter. The result was Gentlemen, which Scholastic signed in July 2007.
Gentlemen has received two starred reviews (including one from PW), was a Junior Library Guild selection and ALAN pick, and Northrop was named a New Voice for 2009 by the Association of Booksellers for Children. He is currently working with his editor, Anamika Bhatnagar, on a new novel, Trapped, about a group of teenagers trying to survive in their high school during a freak blizzard, which is scheduled for late 2010. "It's probably not as dark as Gentlemen," Northrop says, "though that's despite myself."
Although Northrop initially prepared for the worst--eviscerating reviews, readerless bookstore appearances--the positive responses to his book have let him relax a bit. “I’ve come out of that shell a little bit and allowed myself to enjoy the process. You only have one first book.”
From the editor, Anamika Bhatnagar: "When I started reading Gentlemen, I was immediately struck by the raw, gritty voice he'd given the novel's narrator. That, and the fact that he was writing about characters not often seen in YA fiction--guys from the wrong side of the tracks who take remedial classes--drew me in, and I found that I couldn't put the manuscript down. Michael is such a talented writer, and he brings a wide knowledge of both high literature and popular fiction to his work. With Gentlemen, he explores the complexities of guys' friendships in the form of a fast-paced, suspenseful mystery."