Bookshelf talks with Jordan Sonnenblick about his new novel, Notes from the Midnight Driver (Scholastic).
You're a middle school English teacher in New Jersey. Do you ever get ideas from your students?
I'm on leave this year in order to tour [for the book]. For the last four years, I've written a book each spring, plus I have a wife and kids. I thought it would be a good idea to concentrate on one thing. Yes, I get tons of ideas from my students. I was nervous about taking a year offbecause it's a lifeline to my ideas. Everyone says, "When can you quit teaching?" as if that's the goal. For me it's not about leaving the classroom. I love the classroom.
When I was writing [Notes from the Midnight Driver] and reading it aloud to my class, I threatened to name the bully [Bryan Gilson] after two of my students, just to have something over them.
Is that how you got the writing bug? Can you describe what it was like to get your debut novel, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, published?
I was one of those guys who said I was going to write a book, and I thought I'd write it for adults. I wrote half of one and hated it. Four years ago, I had a student whose younger brother had cancer, and I was trying to find a book for her to read because of how painful [the experience] was for her. When I couldn't find one, I decided to write one. I didn't get the idea for [Drums] from her, but I wrote it for her.
I finished writing Midnight while I was waiting for Drums to come out. So much of my fan mail asks about Jeffrey [the narrator's brother who has cancer in Drums]. I didn't want to revisit their family, because I would have had to do some other thing to the family, and I couldn't bear to put that family through more. So that's why I threw in a line in the second book about Jeffrey, that he's okay.
When I was first going to get Drums published, I was in a huge hurry, because I wanted it to be available for my student. A large publisher was interested (not Scholastic), but the editor wanted me to make changes that I was unwilling to make. Daybue Publishing was sincere and believed in the book the way it was. So I went with no advance and this tiny publisher because they saw the book the way I saw it. Three weeks after the book came out, Daybue went out of business; 1,000 copies of the 5,000-copy print run had been sold. With the other 4,000, I made a donation to Super Sibs [an organization that supports siblings of cancer patients]. I thought my career was over.
Literally a couple of days after we'd given away those books, I was notified that [Drums] had been nominated for BBYA, and I discovered it was a Book Sense Pick for the fall. This was July and the book wouldn't be available in the fall. I had plates and owned all the rights, [so I printed copies of the book myself] just to keep it in print.
Scholastic Scope [a classroom magazine aimed at middle-grade readers] wanted to run a feature about me and my writing. And I asked if [Scholastic] could publish the book instead. I was on vacation in Disney World with my family, I had just spoken with the head of a cancer treatment center in Orlando, and I was running to meet my family for dinner, and my cell phone rings, as I'm running after the bus, past these wilderness cabins, and it's Liz Szabla [formerly at Scholastic]. She had read my book and wanted to bring me to New York to meet me. My heart was pounding because my book was emerging phoenix-like from the ashes. Scholastic bought the copies I had printed myself [and published the book thereafter]. It was this really bizarre thing. I had spent the whole summer trying to self-publish, and then was rescued from it, winding up in the most perfect position.
Your novel Notes from the Midnight Driver begins with Alex's drunk-driving debacle, a sort of black humor episode in which he destroys a lawn gnome. The darker implications of his act come out later in the story. How did you strike that balance between humor and a sense of responsibility?
Reading Moby Dick made a big impression on me. I wanted the first chapter of the book to be like a Nantucket sleigh ride. A Nantucket sleigh ride is when the crew goes out in a rowboat and harpoons the whale, and the boat is riding along behind this enraged whale, sometimes for 10 miles at high speeds. I wanted the first chapter to read like you were being dragged by a fast horse.
It's hard to write a book about a 16-year-old having fun while drunk driving, but of course he would be having fun while he was doing it. It's almost like you suck the reader in with the Nantucket sleigh ride and then they're willing to go on the emotional ride with you.
Do you see adolescence as a time when friendships between boys and girls change?
Each of my first three novels has that sort of boy-girl friendship that could be more and might be more. That was me as a teen. I had these female friends where we were in this weird gray zone. The other thing is that, I say this jokingly, I was notably non-suave, so the comedy of errors that happens in both those books around the romance part, is true—I was the anti-Romeo.
In both Drums and MidnightDriver, music figures prominently. Are you a musician yourself?
Yes, absolutely. I played drums all through my preteen and teenage years. I also played the bass and the guitar. The formative experiences of my life always had music woven through them. I probably identify more with Steven on a musical level and with Alex on a personal level, because drums was the instrument I played at Steven's age, but my parents divorced when I was 16, so that's what's driving Alex.
How did you develop the character of Sol Lewis, the elderly gentleman to whom Alex is assigned as part of his community service?
Sol is completely my maternal grandfather. First of all, when my parents were getting divorced, my mom's father was the one who got me through it. It made sense to me that Sol would appear for Alex right when he needed him.
One Sunday, I took a long walk and when I came back, I told my wife the whole plot of this book except for one element. That evening, I get a call from Florida that my grandfather had pneumonia. It was too late to fly out that night, so I flew out at 6 a.m. the next morning. I walked into the room, and he's sitting up in bed, belting out some song in Yiddish for the nurses, at the top of his lungs. Intravenous drugs had worked miracles. He was there for days, and I stayed with him.
Do you believe, as Alex states, that "everyone deserves a second chance at happiness"?
Yes, completely. I basically think the world is a hard place, so people have to be good to each other. I've learned from Frank McCourt, partly because he was my high school writing teacher and also from Angela's Ashes, that the funniest parts of life are often wrapped around the saddest parts. It's the bonus that makes life livable.