In Jennifer Miller’s debut novel The Year of the Gadfly, Jonah Kaplan teaches biology at Mariana Academy, the prestigious New England prep school that he once attended and now likens to one of the most hostile parts of the world. For students to succeed, they must emulate extremophiles, microscopic creatures that thrive in volcanoes and on the ocean floor because “embracing extremity will bring out the characteristics that make you unique and independent — that make you different from everybody else.”
Mariana is a mash-up of several prestigious prep schools and seems familiar even to those, like me, who have never set foot inside of one: the students are startlingly ambitious, to the point of obsession; scandal (or at least the rumor of scandal) seems to lurk in every hallway; the social structure is both complex and rigid.
Miller writes from the perspective of three characters, but Iris, who arrives at Mariana so obsessed with becoming a well-known journalist that she talks to the ghost of Edward R. Murrow, is the novel’s heart and engine. Gadfly follows Iris as she attempts to live like an extremophile at Mariana and investigate the mysterious Prisom’s Party, a supposed “secret society” pledged to protect the honor code (and humiliating — or worse — anyone who defies it or them).
I met Miller at a cafe in Brooklyn, where we talked about Edward R. Murrow, high school vs. prep school novels, the costs and benefits of the extremophile lifestyle, and different varieties of mean girls.
Why Edward R. Murrow’s ghost?
I’m not really sure where he came from. Iris started out just as a basic overachiever. I thought that was such a wasted opportunity, so I decided she should be a journalist who was obsessed with the Truth. Then I thought, who is she obsessed with? I thought she needed something to be obsessed with, outside the death of her friend.
I also think there’s more of a mystique around him, especially because of Goodnight and Good Luck. But reading about him you begin to understand that he’s actually a fascinating and complicated character.
When I was thinking about Iris’s confidante, I just wanted the biggest juxtaposition I could find. There’s something I really enjoyed about writing this teenage girl walking beside this chain-smoking 1950s newsman.
You’ve acknowledged that a lot of The Year of the Gadfly is directly inspired by your and your brother’s experiences in high school. Had you been thinking about writing a book involving those two experiences for a long time? And do you think of the book as a kind of mash-up of them?
Back in 2005, when I was trying to figure out what my next book would be, I initially had thought about writing a nonfiction book about three people in my life who I had been really close to, who had all passed away. One was my grandmother, who now becomes the grandmother in Gadfly. One was a friend of mine from Seeds of Peace who was actually killed by the Israeli Army, which was a totally different thing. And then Ben, who was my boyfriend in high school, was killed in a car accident.
When I was thinking about doing it as nonfiction I interviewed all of [Ben’s] close friends and his parents. That was actually how I came extremophiles — when he was killed he had been working at the Carnegie Institute, working with scientists who were studying the conditions from which early life originated. He was on his way home from that internship when he was killed. They had published a paper that came out after his death — he was included in the credits — and his mom pointed me to that article, which I read.
[When] I sat down with his parents it felt like it was when a guy asks a dad if he can take his daughter out for a date. I sit down and say, “So, I’m here to ask you if I can write about your son’s death,” which was pretty awkward. And they actually said they would much prefer it to be fiction, rather than nonfiction. It had become pretty clear that the book as I had conceived it — kind of as a triptych, with these three people — just didn’t work, but that kind of clinched it.
The character of Jonah is closely based on my brother Danny. I’d always been fascinated by his school because it was so different from my school.
What school did he go to?
He went to the Landon School. If you Google them it will lead you into a wormhole of really bad behavior: the lacrosse players at Duke, the guy at UVA who killed his girlfriend. It’s a very prestigious school; it’s a very good school — I don’t want to say that it produces these kids who go out and do these things — but there’s what my brother called the “iron triangle”: academics, athletics, and religion/school tradition. The three points of the school. And you don’t cross any of them. If you do, you get shit, and that’s what happened to him.
He exposed a cheating scandal at the school, but he said he didn’t do it out of any moral duty; he just didn’t want these other kids to screw up the curve when he had been working really hard. He was like, I don’t want these kids to screw up my chances of going to Princeton. It was a little tongue-in-cheek.
Self-awareness and complicated moral analysis are pretty rare in high school — reading the book, I was reminded of how difficult it can be to make high school kids seem likeable.
When you’re in high school you become obsessed with things, at least in my experience. You become obsessed with a person or an idea or a relationship. You become obsessed with things that consume your entire life — it’s really hard to see outside of that. As obsessive as I am about things now, I never obsess about anything the way I did when I was in high school.
I think that’s what motivates the various behavioral attitudes in all of these characters. That’s also part of prep school, which I think perhaps you don’t get as much in public school, when you’re surrounded by a more diverse group.
At least from my experience, people seem to have more disparate priorities in public school. Did you go to a school similar to your brother’s? Did aspects of the school you went to find its way into Mariana as well?
My school was the polar opposite of my brother’s. I went to a very progressive school — it still cost like $30,000 to go there — Georgetown Day School. It’s the rival to Sitwell, where the Obamas go. We call all of our teachers by their first names. There’s an open campus, so you don’t have to sign in or sign out or be accountable. There’s no cafeteria, so kids just sprawl on the carpet. We were the first integrated private school in the district, so diversity is really important.
I loved it there, but the school takes its progressiveness, and its PC-ness in particular, to a ridiculous degree. I wanted to put some of that in the book as well. I remember in the second grade we had a unit on Native Americans and by God, you would call them “Native Americans” because if you called them “Indians” you would be kicked out.
Of course, now I’ve done a lot of reporting on Indians, and they’re like, “I’m not a Native American. I’m not American, what are you talking about?” And in Gadfly, for instance, the newspaper is devoting all this time debating whether it’s okay to call the black students “black.”
So, in a way, I fused these two very different school environments into a hybrid.
How specific do you think the action in Gadfly is to prep school? Do you think of it as a “prep school novel” or do you think it fits better under the broader title of “high school novel”?
I think that in large part it’s a prep school novel over a high school novel simply because it’s generally a prep school environment where kids come from families with that much money and with that insane ambition. If you’re talking about a big public high school, you’re obviously going to have a lot of socioeconomic diversity and you’re not going to have the same kind of stratified social structure. I think it’s more that people are in their groups.
In my prep school, the virtue was to be different and you were kind of looked down on if you weren’t trying to be different, but I think in a certain type of prep school, like my brother’s, it’s the iron triangle. You conform. You study hard, or at least get the grades. You follow the school traditions. And you better be a good athlete, because if not, nobody cares about you.
Like most kids who go to elite prep schools, the characters in your novel are explicitly privileged in a way that most people aren’t. Were you worried about that affecting the way people would read your book?
I didn’t really think about that. To me, the concern was about not being taken seriously because I’m writing another debut novel that’s autobiographical.
. . . I don’t really know if that’s a fair question. I think that [the kids’ problems in Gadfly] are universal. There are people who aren’t going to be interested in a book with this setting, but it’s one that I find fascinating and I think a lot of other people find fascinating, and I think that the problems these kids are dealing with are really universal problems in terms of just being an adolescent. It’s about fitting and going through extremes to fit in. That’s something that kids in all social classes can understand.
It’s funny though, because in Seeds of Peace, for instance, social cliques are not an issue there.
It’s funny to think of social cliques as a post-materialist value.
Right! Though of course that’s a very rarified social situation in its own way.
But in Gadfly you have kids that don’t feel good about themselves, who are struggling to fit in and feel like they have to overcome social obstacles. They’re in love with people who don’t love them back, which is something that we all experience in high school. I guess the overarching statement I’d like to make about this subject is this: the trick for any writer is to create three-dimensional characters whose problems seem real. I want my readers to connect with my characters, to love them or hate them or both. You can create those characters in any setting.
You mentioned extremophiles, creatures that have adapted to live in extremely hostile and inhospitable environments, earlier. Jonah thinks that high school is a hostile environment and that the kids need to learn from the example of extremophiles in it, a metaphor that seems to extend to your vision of the high school experience as well. Why? How did it evolve? I’m always interested in how people think about high school because I have such a difficult time remembering how I actually felt about it when I was there.
My bad years were actually pre-high school, they were junior high. But watching my brother, who was brilliant and had a couple close friends but was generally confrontational and provocative — he was good at certain sports but didn’t have the physique to play football or lacrosse, which were the two sports that were really privileged at his school. In terms of the hostility of that environment, a lot of that came from his experience, but also my boyfriend Ben’s. A lot of the pressure is self-exerted, but, for instance, his mother was the Dean of Georgetown Law School and his dad has argued in front of the Supreme Court — and you’re in a school where everybody’s parents are some version of that. Just because your parents have positions of power doesn’t mean that they exert pressure on you, but some of it is implicit. I definitely grew up in a “do your best” household. When you see your parents succeed and succeed and succeed, you want to follow suit.
I’m actually really grateful I grew up there because I grew up in a very diplomatic environment, around people from all over the world, around journalists who I think are inherently much more open-minded.
What do you mean?
This gets a little bit to the journalist theme in the book. I think in order to be a good journalist you have to be willing to step outside whatever your comfort zone is and put yourself around environments and people who you don’t know anything about or fit with in any way. You have to be willing to hear their stories and express them without bias. I grew up around a lot of people like that. It’s not just a question of “oh, I’m open-minded because I’m liberal.” I think I’m open-minded because I actually will consider conservative views. My husband and I fight about this all the time because I have a much more generous attitude towards conservative Christians, for example, because I’ve interviewed a lot of them.
In a way, I think that’s what enables Iris to see outside her narrow world. She doesn’t want to be trapped by that.
All of the villains in the book are misfits and underdogs, which inverts the usual Mean Girls structure we usually imagine when we think about good and evil power struggles in high schools.
I didn’t want to present these stereotypical mean girls, [even when characters like Veronica are being quite cruel to Lily]. Veronica, in my mind, doesn’t have it out for Lily; she just doesn’t care. Her art is more important. In [mean girl] situations, I feel like it’s usually more direct — “I don’t like this girl and I’m taking her down” — but I just thought indifference was more interesting.
The “extremophile” metaphor seems to be an indictment of high school. Do you think that being forced to adapt to that kind of an environment negatively affects the characters in your novel?
I think it’s a negative thing, a neutral thing, and a positive thing. The negative thing is obvious: it’s why all of this scandalous stuff is happening in the first place. The neutral thing is that it’s just what adolescence is. I was very conscious, when I was writing the book, of the fact that I was having my scientist [character] anthropomorphize, but doing it in the opposite way. I’m having him ascribe microbial characteristics to humans, which I still feel a little weird about doing — if any scientist reads this, I feel like they’ll say, “What were you thinking?” But the fact is, when you’re talking about extremophile life, it’s all relative: normal to them is not normal to us. Everything is relative.
There’s another theme in the book, which I think is the positive thing. Hazel’s problem in the book is that she feels like she’s unique because of the pain she’s gone through. That’s not a good thing to base your life around. But I do think there’s something to be said for it: our experiences shape us, and if we’ve been through difficult experiences, that’s kind of what makes us who we are. I think there’s something kind of noble in embracing the pain that you’ve experienced, but also, in terms of Justin, the constant pushing ahead. He knows that he’ll never reach the success that he wants, but he’ll never stop fighting for it. He’s extreme in that way.