Jennifer Miller, with her debut novel 'Gadfly,' adds the latest title to the prep-school novel genre, and draws on her own life to do so
2:15 pm May. 8, 2012
At 4 p.m. on a recent Friday afternoon, the Tazza coffee shop in Brooklyn Heights looked like it had been filled by central casting.
Toddlers gamboled at their patient, lovingly distracted mothers' feet; school kids, just set free for the weekend, gorged on pastries; law students seemed lost in their melodramatically oversized tomes; men with varying degrees of facial hair idled with their iPads. The cherry atop this Brooklyn-tableau sundae was a young writer—what's a Brooklyn coffee shop without one?—ordering a chai latte and a small cookie at the counter.
The writer was Jennifer Miller, author of The Year of the Gadfly, out today, a buzzy debut novel set in a posh private school beleaguered by secrets and scandals, with, in its author’s own words, “elements of mystery, elements of suspense,” and blurbed by Gary Shteyngart as “a Portnoy’s Complaint for girls.” (Asked about this particular descriptive bit, Miller conceded there might not be quite enough sex in Gadfly to justify the Portnoy comparison.)
“For genre, I’m supposed to say just that it’s ‘literary fiction,’” Miller said between sips of the chai. She had discussed the issue with her editor earlier that day, and “literary fiction” had been the consensus answer to the question of classification. But, prodded, Miller designated Gadfly part of the more “discrete genre of the prep-school novel.”
“I’m actually in the process of filling up a bookshelf just with prep-school novels,” she said. “So on my bookshelf, there’s [Marisha Pessl’s] Special Topics in Calamity Physics, [Curtis Sittenfeld’s] Prep, [Paul Murray’s] Skippy Dies, which I loved loved loved. I mean there’s a ton of them. And I have always loved them.”
Wearing a white sweatshirt, unzipped to reveal a T-shirt with rhinestone letters spelling 'Vegas,' her light brown hair casually down, fresh-faced and in glasses, Miller looked a bit like a recent prep-school graduate herself. Certainly The Year of the Gadfly fits well into a category of novels Miller described as using “the trope of kids pushing back against authority [or] being manipulated by it. And of intense intellectualism and the pressure to succeed and how that gets people in trouble.”
Gadfly tells the story of Iris Dupont, a 14-year-old aspiring journalist who finds that the only person she feels comfortable talking to is the ghost of Edward R. Murrow.
Packed up and moved from Boston to Nye by her concerned parents—her mother has recently discovered her “arguing emphatically with the wall,” though of course Iris was merely attempting to have a “conference with [her] spiritual mentor”—Iris enrolls in Mariana Academy, where she encounters Jonah Kaplan, a biology teacher with a mysterious grudge against the school.
Both Iris and Jonah, who narrate in first-person sections set in the very near future of the Fall 2012 academic semester, must contend against a secret society, known only as Prisom’s Party and committed to doling out vigilante justice for perceived breaches of the school’s honor code, all the while struggling to come to terms with their respectively painful pasts. The novel’s third strand is devoted to Lily Morgan, the albino daughter of the former Mariana headmaster and one-time girlfriend of Jonah’s twin brother Justin, who, we learn, has been killed in a mysterious car accident.
All of the novel’s characters are what Miller termed “extremophiles,” though unlike the titular organisms, who thrive in extreme conditions, they are forced to contend with the repercussions of their exaggerated physicality and emotions, their singularity at once a protective badge and a source of a terrible vulnerability.
“There were two original inspirations behind the book, and originally there were two narrators, and it was Jonah and Lily, and each one of them is based on an experience in my life,” Miller said when I asked her about the story’s origins. “So Jonah is based on my younger brother, who is like very much an iconoclast, but who went to this very strict, very straightforward boys’ school, and was always pushing against the culture of the school, and it kind of culminated in him exposing this huge cheating scandal his junior or senior year of high school. He would write all these articles in the student newspaper, kind of showing the hypocrisy of the school honor code, and a lot of kids were suspended, kids got expelled because of it. So that was kind of one motive ... and the whole school sort of grew from that.”
(Physically, however, Jonah has another source. When I asked Miller if she could see the book being adapted as a film, she replied, with much enthusiasm, “I want Jesse Eisenberg to play Jonah with, like, a little bit of a dye job [to evoke Jonah’s vivid red hair]. I can really see that. He has the neurotic element.”)
“And then Lily’s relationship with Justin,” Miller went on, “is based on my experience dating this guy Ben, who’d had a crush on me for a very long time, since like the fourth grade, and we only started dating the summer before our senior year. But then he was killed in a car accident. And I felt like I really wanted to put a version of Ben on the page, a version of Ben’s story on the page. So those were really the two inspirations, that kind of got the novel going.”
Iris, who is, with her wise-beyond-her-years, damaged-beyond-her-years sensibility and her precocious yet nonprecious commitment to journalistic ideals, the novel’s pulse, was a late development.
“Iris did not exist until four or five years in,” Miller explained, as she continued describing the book’s genesis and development. “And she came, I guess, because I had recently been to journalism school.” (Miller confided that, “actually, before journalism school, I didn’t even know who Edward R. Murrow was.”)
Iris’ entrance into the book as a journalist-in-the-making propelled the plot: “When you have a journalist in your story, it’s a great narrative tool,” Miller said. “Aside from her being a great character, it’s also just a great way to push the narrative forward.”
"The idea of this young girl in conversation with the ghost of this journalist who’s been dead for years, walking beside this man smoking Camel cigarettes and wearing suspenders: the juxtaposition was just really intriguing to me.”
Although “Iris just kind of arrived,” getting her voice—the rhythms and cadences of a fourteen-year-old overachiever with tremendous journalistic ambition—took some doing. In part, at least, Iris is based on the fourteen-year-old Miller.
“Iris is obviously an exaggeration,” Miller told me. “But I was precocious in that way, my way of talking and my certainty about the ‘truth of things.’” The truth was that Iris, “the way she speaks, could be much older, so it’s a question of the kind of situations she gets herself into and how she deals with them.”
These became indicators of Iris’s age, an alchemic combination of sophistication and naiveté. Still, Miller acknowledged, “I had to keep reminding myself that she is young in spite of how she talks.”
The Year of the Gadfly is Miller’s first novel, but it is not her first book. When she was 23 she sold Inheriting the Holy Land: An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East, an exploration of the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the lives of young people caught in its relentless sweep. (Miller’s father, Aaron David Miller, had worked for the State Department as an expert on Middle East policy, and she was able to interview some of the major players—including Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak—for the book.)
Although Gadfly might seem a major departure from Inheriting the Holy Land, Miller noted what she called a “thematic continuity.”
The books share a concern with the ways in which people attempt to claim power, and Miller agreed that both works “are about kids who are outcast in their society, who are underdogs in some way, and who are attempting to speak truth to power.” But she cautioned against making “too much of a connection, because it’s really hard to compare what those kids [in the Middle East] are dealing with to kids at a New England prep school…. They live in completely separate universes.”
But it was perhaps the writing process itself that made for the most palpable difference: where Inheriting the Holy Land (which began as Miller’s senior thesis at Brown University) took about a year, with six months of reporting and another six of writing, Gadfly occupied seven years from start to publication.
“I think, in general, fiction is a lot harder for me than non-fiction,” Miller said. “Because with nonfiction, you have all the pieces, and you just have to figure out how to put them together, whereas with fiction, you have to create the pieces of the puzzle out of nothing.”
But ultimately, the two are related.
“I don’t think I could be a fiction writer if I wasn’t also a journalist,” Miller said.
Miller’s next project, its first draft nearly completed, is another novel. This one makes use of some reporting Miller did in 2005, when she “rode across the country with a group of Vietnam-veteran bikers.” (That experience, Miller said, “was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life.” With palpable animation, she described herself, at twenty-five, “a white, liberal, Jewish girl from Washington, D.C., with all of these middle-aged Vietnam veterans, evangelicals, Christian conservatives.”)
When she began the new novel, Miller said, her voice going up in excited imitation of her thought process, she had managed to convince herself she could do it:
"Okay, this new book, it’s going to be so straightforward, there’s going to be one narrator, it’s going to be in the third person, time’s going to go forward, nothing’s going to get crossed or mixed up.”
But she couldn't do it.
“I often have the experience, reading something, like, I’m loving a character, but I want to move on to something else,” she explained. “Weaving voices together pushes you forward, and you never get bogged down, because there is always a new voice.”
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