Gary Schmidt, whose acclaimed novels for middle graders and young adults include Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, which garnered Newbery and Printz Honors, Okay for Now, a National Book Award finalist, and Newbery Honor-winning The Wednesday Wars, will soon have a new novel on bookstore and library shelves: Pay Attention, Carter Jones. As the story opens on the morning of Carter’s first day of middle school, chaos reigns in the Jones household: his younger sisters are fussy, his mother’s car won’t start, there’s no milk for breakfast, and the doorbell is ringing. Carter opens the door to find a bowler-hatted British butler, Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, who has unexpectedly arrived to sort things out—and he does a splendid job of it. PW caught up by phone with the author, a professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., to discuss his newest work.
What sparked the premise of Pay Attention, Carter Jones?
I know that Katherine Paterson has talked about how her plots have come from images that suddenly appear in her head. Well, that had never happened to me before—but it did with this novel. An image came to me of a formal butler standing on the stoop of a boy’s chaos-filled house on the first day of his sixth-grade year. I knew right away that this was a fertile image that had a lot of potential.
The obvious comparison to the butler is Mary Poppins, but I wanted my novel to have a somewhat different mix of elements. I didn’t want to write magical realism or flat-out realism, though the magical is lovely and always tempting. But in the end, I knew that the story, and the butler, should be more real than not.
As in your earlier novels, this story fuses humor and pathos, as the butler lets Carter drive his purple Bentley and assuages the boy’s grief over his beloved brother’s sudden death and his deployed father’s decision to remain in Germany with his new family. Is it a challenge to find a way to balance the light and the dark in your fiction?
There is certainly a deep sadness in the Jones household, with the loss of a brother and father, and I did want to show that tension flowing beneath the humor—but I didn’t want the sadness to come out too soon. I wanted the sadness to play a more important role little by little, but I really liked the comedy of the novel’s opening days. And the part about Carter driving the butler’s Bentley actually has a real-life connection. When I was about Carter’s age, I had a Sunday school teacher who owned a garage, and one day he offered to let me and the other boys in the class take turns driving his tow truck around the block, which was unbelievable! I remember how wonderful it was to realize that there was this adult who trusted us, and I wanted Carter to have that experience with the butler.
And balancing humor and sadness is also true to life. None of us lives in just one place—in the heights of hilarity or the depths of despair. As humans we are always juggling many different emotions and can handle being in different places at one time. The perfect example is going to a funeral, where we go from weeping to telling stories about the person we’ve lost, with people we may not have seen for a long time, and we suddenly realize that we’re having a good time—when we are supposed to be sad. In life, both elements flow together, and I want my stories to catch that sense that we all live with so many emotions at once—and that is normal.
The insightful butler introduces Carter and his schoolmates to cricket as a way of assuaging the boy’s sadness and giving him a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and you weave the rules and terms of the sport into your narrative. Why cricket?
If Carter played baseball, it would have been easier for him, and I didn’t want it to be easy for him. I thought it would be a lot funnier if I introduced him to a game that was completely unknown to him and to most Americans, one with an arcane set of rules. And funnier yet to show a different side of this formal butler, who insists on proper manners and precise language yet is passionate about cricket—and thinks he’s a far better athlete than he actually is! I also love to see, in real life, adults sharing their passion for something with young people, and building a lovely relationship that reaches across generations.
Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick rarely takes leave of Carter and his sisters without reciting his mantra, “Make good decisions and remember who you are.” What inspired those words?
For some reason this is a mantra that is in the air at Calvin College, where I teach, and in this part of Michigan. I think it is linked to the area’s cultural ethnicity. When I first came to the college 34 years ago, the student population was 85% Dutch-American, though now that percentage is 30 or 35. But when I say those words at the end of my classes, students laugh in recognition. I love the language of this saying—it has a nostalgia to it. I think its meaning is open to interpretation, but it implies you must define who you are. In this country, we don’t have any rite or formality to define our movement into adulthood, and kids must figure out a lot on their own. Middle school is at the crux of that movement—at any given moment, a 12- or 13-year-old can act like a five-year-old or a 22-year-old.
I think all my books are about that motion from childhood to adulthood. In this novel, Carter has to define what he’s going through and grow into something new. He has to face the reality that his father is deliberately choosing not to come home, and he’s learning that people you love can betray you. And yet there is the goodness that comes into his life with the arrival of the butler, who’s also looking for his next step. At the end, he tells Carter, “you are my home.” For me, that is the heart of the story. It’s that next step that is always most interesting to me.
Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion, $16.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-544-79085-8