Bruce Holsinger’s The Gifted School (Riverhead, July) dramatizes the lengths parents will go to to get their children into an elite new school.
Your book seems to anticipate the recent college admission scandal. Absent a crystal ball, how do you account for your prescience?
The book is first and foremost about parenting, and may have been inspired initially by my own anxiety about developmental milestones after our first son was diagnosed with failure to thrive. He’s fine now, but it was scary at the time and led to a host of other anxieties. Many parents have these anxieties, and I was interested in exploring how they can affect friendships and families as children grow older and these sorts of implicit measuring sticks grow more visible and even painful.
You are the author of two historical mystery novels set in Geoffrey Chaucer’s England. What made you switch to a contemporary, nonmystery story?
The chronology is the reverse of this, in fact. I conceived of The Gifted School and wrote a few draft-y chapters almost 15 years ago, when my sons were in primary and elementary school in Boulder, Colo., and before I’d ever tried my hand at historical fiction. I had a scary mortgage, college loans, and no family in an obvious position to pay college tuition for my kids one day. I suppose I drew on that sense of affluence anxiety to observe others and myself navigating the world of child-raising in an era when the stakes of even what preschool your child attends feel so crazily high.
How do you approach writing a contemporary novel as opposed to a historical novel?
In both cases I enjoy creating less-than-sympathetic characters: characters who transgress the “flawed but lovable” model by making us uncomfortable. I want readers to laugh in recognition and self-recognition, but also to feel sympathy even for atrocious behavior, whether medieval or modern. And I probably did as much research for The Gifted School as for my historicals, spending time with a pediatric neurologist, finding experts in gifted education to consult, and so on.
Was there any equivalent to the college admission scandal in Chaucer’s day?
Admission to the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge involved a complex network of family connections, nepotism, patronage, examination, and so on. There was surely bribery involved in numerous cases, and the Don Juniors of the medieval world could often buy their way in. I don’t know of a specific instance of an admissions scandal per se, but you may have just given me the premise for another novel.