You're a middle-school English teacher in New Jersey. Do you ever get ideas from your students?
I get tons of ideas from my students. I'm on leave this year in order to tour [for my book]. I was nervous about taking a year off because 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.
Is that how you got the writing bug?
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, Girls & Dangerous Pie] from her, but I wrote it for her.
Your second 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?
I wanted the first chapter of the book to be like a Nantucket sleigh ride. Reading Moby Dick made a big impression on me. 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. It's hard to write about a 16-year-old having fun while drunk driving, but of course he would be having fun while he was doing it.
In both Drums and Midnight Driver, 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 had music woven through them.
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. 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.
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. The other thing, [which I] learned from Frank McCourt, partly because he was my high-school writing teacher and also from Angela's Ashes, is that the funniest parts of life are often wrapped around the saddest parts. It's the bonus that makes life livable.