Michael Northrop lives in New York City and has written short fiction for Weird Tales, the Notre Dame Review, and McSweeney’s. His first young adult novel, Gentlemen, earned a Publishers Weekly Flying Start citation; his second, Trapped, was an Indie Next List selection and has been translated into half a dozen languages; and his third, Rotten, was named one of the best children’s books of the year by the Bank Street College of Education. NPR selected his middle-grade novel Plunked for its Backseat Book Club. His newest book for kids and teens is Surrounded By Sharks. Prior to his writing career, he was the baseball editor at Sports Illustrated Kids.
LitVote: The Young Adult (YA) fiction book market is hot. How did you become interested in writing YA?
Michel: I was working at Sports Illustrated Kids magazine at the time, writing and editing short sports articles for kids during the week and writing short stories for literary journals on the weekends. Young adult fiction seemed like an ideal way to combine what I liked best about both: writing for engaged, imaginative young readers and writing about compelling fictional characters. This was around 2006, and the YA boom was still pretty new.
LitVote: Do you think it’s more difficult to write for the YA audience than for adults?
Michael: I think it’s difficult to write a good book for any audience. To me, writing YA largely means writing for and about teens in a way that is going to seem recognizable and immediate to them. For some writers, I think that comes fairly naturally, and for some it would be impossible. The rest of us just have to work at it.
I think it’s fair to say that writing for either age group poses some distinct challenges. The readers might have different expectations regarding plot and pacing; they might have longer or shorter memories; they might remember cassette tapes or the ’80s or whatever… But at the heart of it there’s not much difference. When I sit down to write, I am trying to tell the best story I can while remaining as true to the characters as possible. I think we all are. That’s true of writing for different age groups (I also write middle grade novels for younger readers) as well as writing in different genres. The best crime writers are dealing with some very specific genre expectations, but at the heart of it, they’re just trying to tell the best story they can. I reread Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga recently. I knew how it ended, but it was a treat just to sit back and watch him operate.
LitVote: What inspired you to write your latest book, Surrounded by Sharks?
Michael: This book began with my lifelong fascination with sharks. I wanted to write a book that portrayed them realistically and responsibly, not as monsters but as animals. Sharks aren’t voracious, human-seeking torpedoes. They don’t even immediately identify people as food. Still, they glide silently and powerfully through an environment where we are essentially helpless. That’s the dynamic I wanted to explore: a boy, out of his element and alone, and the sharks, in their element and en masse. The sharks are circling, curious… Their natural behavior drives the tension and drama of the book.
LitVote: What is the most common mistake first time authors make when writing YA?
Micheal: I only get a chance to read a few debut YA novels a year, and those are usually ones that come highly recommended. By that point, the authors have either figured out the big mistakes, or someone else has figured them out for them. I’d be interested to hear how a busy editor would answer this question, though.
LitVote: What advice do you have for writers who are interested in writing YA literature?
Micheal: It’s basically the same advice I have for any aspiring writer. First and foremost: write a lot and read a lot. I think it’s also important to read widely (i.e. not just YA) to see a range of styles and approaches. I advise them not to chase trends, which can be particularly tempting in YA. Publishing moves slowly, trends change quickly, and I think passion matters more anyway. All aspiring authors understand that they’re going to have to write a book, but a lot of them don’t realize that finishing the first draft is just the beginning of a much longer and often more grueling process.
On a more practical note, I advise them to finish the book they’re working on and not get too bogged down revising as they go. There will be plenty of time for that once they’re done. I’ve heard many authors say this, but it’s true: You learn much more by finishing a bad first draft than by giving up on a better one. My first published novel was the third one I’d written. I’m still thankful I wrote those other two—and more thankful they weren’t published!
LitVote: Do you use a teenager to help you edit?
Michael: Just an inner one. I do a certain number of school visits these days, though, and I consider them equal parts presentation and covert intelligence gathering.
LitVote: You are dyslexic. How does that affect your writing or does it?
Michael: It probably affects it in many ways. To some extent, my mind processes words differently. But how that affects my writing is fairly mysterious to me—so much of the process is subconscious, anyway. From a strictly mechanical perspective, though, it means I am a very slow typist. I generally think of what I want to write faster than I can type it. It’s great for maintaining momentum and staving off writer’s block, that sense of having more to say than you have time.
LitVote: What’s next?
Michael: I’m writing a five-book series for younger readers. It’s my first series and a little different from my other books in that there’s a magical element. I can’t say too much about it, because it hasn’t been announced yet, but this one does have monsters.
You can visit Michael online at www.michaelnorthrop.net
Author Mary Yuhas, has over 85,000 reads on Scribd of the first three chapters of her memoir, Quit and Be Quiet, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother.