Author Interview: Michael Northrop
Now that we’re well into July, when the dog days of summer are settling in, why not pick up a page-turning novel about being trapped in a brutal winter snowstorm? That’s what you get in Michael Northrop’s TRAPPED. Recently on NPR.com, a reviewer wrote, “Michael Northrop’s tension in Trapped builds the way the snow does, accumulating in drifts, blocking windows, casting the story into darkness. The novel buries you.” Michael writes so well about the cold, about the snow, that you’ll soon forget that, outside, it’s blisteringly hot and humid. You might even reach for a heavy blanket to warm your chilled bones.
Michael is a pal, and he’s also in my YA Book Club, so he kindly agreed to answer some questions. Enjoy, and then go pick up his novel!
The details of the snow and the bitter cold described in TRAPPED are so visceral and realistic. Can I assume you grew up in a wintry environment?
I did! I grew up in a snowy, little no-stoplight-having town in New England. When I was a kid, we got around four feet of snow in one storm, and I wasn’t much more than four feet tall at the time. There is a scene in TRAPPED where a character has to walk through chest-deep snow, and I’ve definitely done that.
Have you ever experienced a blizzard like the one described in TRAPPED?
No, no, nothing up to the second floor, but I have spent hours staring out the window and wondering if the snow will ever stop. One of my favorite poems is Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”—the original 13 Reasons Why!—the part that goes:
It was evening all afternoon./It was snowing/And it was going to snow.
I know that feeling!
Did you need to do any research while writing the novel?
I did some research on big winter storms. I used to edit the meteorology section of The World Almanac (among many other sections), and I’m a huge Discovery Channel nerd, so I already knew a lot of that. I didn’t want to get too bogged down in details, though. The characters really don’t understand their environment all that well and encounter it by observation. They don’t know exactly why the heat shuts off, for example, but they can feel it slowly bleeding from the building.
Exploring this question further, did you have to do any kind of “field research”? For instance, did you create your own snowshoes (as Scotty does)? Have you ever tried to build a go-kart? I imagine fact-checking a lot of this stuff was a challenge! But everything rings completely true.
I basically stayed close to home on that stuff. I was a small-town kid. I’ve used snowshoes, taken shop class, gazed in ineffable, openmouthed envy at another kid’s go-kart. It’s stuff that most kids don’t do anymore, and maybe never did, so it seems sort of exotic or nostalgic or something, but it was comfortable terrain for me.
Early in the novel, the narrator, Scotty, foreshadows that things aren’t going to end well for all of the students. This, of course, creates an almost unbearable tension throughout the novel. Did you know from the outset the fates of each of the characters, or did this shift as you went along?
No, I didn’t know at all! It was actually kind of eerie, because I wrote that line in the opening section (about not everyone surviving) in my typical writing trance. I basically caffeinate, crack my knuckles, look down, and start typing. On a good day, which that was, when I look up again I’ve got a thousand words done and a sore back. I remember thinking: Well, that’s that. I’ve got to kill at least one of them now… Such a morbid thought!
The school building almost becomes a menacing character in the novel. Kind of like the claustrophobic spaceship in Alien, or perhaps a haunted house from a ghost story. Was this intentional?
Yeah, absolutely. I think almost every student feels trapped in school at some point anyway. It’s not like they have a choice about being there. So the most basic thing I was trying to do was just to literalize that: Yes, last period can feel like it’s dragging on for days. The way we encounter our environment is extremely subjective, even under normal conditions. But what if it really did drag on for days? And your life was in real danger? It’s the same basic idea. The spaceship in Alien didn’t seem especially claustrophobic until something started hunting them on it.
In writing TRAPPED, were you influenced at all by horror novels or movies? Are you a fan of horror novels and movies?
I am a fan, and I’m sure I was influenced, but it’s hard to say how or to what extent. I have been consuming that content almost my entire life, from those first ghost stories when I was a kid right up to this morning, when I saved Insidious to my Netflix queue. It is so deeply ingrained in me—in most of us, I’d imagine. I did read Poe in high school and college, though, and I’m sure some of that probably seeped in there. You know, a drop of “The Cask of Amontillado” here, a swipe of “The Pit and the Pendulum” there . . .
What character did you relate to most in the novel? Least?
I related to Scotty the most. Like him, I was a serious athlete in high school but not necessarily a total jock. He’s also the main character, so I probably gave him more little bits and pieces of myself than the others. I’m not sure about the least, though. I probably have a second-, third-, and fourth-place, and then everyone else is tied. They all had something important about them that I felt I understood, at least by the end.
If you were trapped in a snowstorm for a week, what book would you want to have with you?
Reading is hard work for me (I am dyslexic), so rereading has always seemed like a huge, vaguely unfair chore. I’d definitely want some big, immersive book that I’d never read before but would end up loving. Something like The Secret History or Moby-Dick.
Speaking of books, have you read any books recently that knocked your socks off?
Are you fishing for me to say Matterhorn here? Because that was last year, Martin. All right? Would you please give it a rest? (Haha!) Matterhorn—a big, enthralling, devastating novel about the Vietnam War for those who don’t work at the publisher—was definitely the best book I read in 2010. I haven’t quite found a match for it so far this year, either, but I have high hopes for a few recent acquisitions. I’ll let you know!