When the reality show For Art’s Sake comes to Selwyn Academy, Ethan and his friends are determined to save their school from the evils of reality TV. In the process, they discover a web of secrets and corruption involving the principal, vice principal, and their favorite teacher. “Kate Hattemer’s debut is funny (meet Baconaise, the gerbil who can perform circus tricks), original, and witty,” says Tess Riesmeyer of Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. “Smart and arty kids have found a new leader.”
What inspired you to write this book?
Kate Hattemer: Short answer: teenagers and Wikipedia.
When I started this book, I’d been teaching high school for a couple years, and I was spending a lot of time with my three teenage sisters. My students and siblings were all so funny, so hyperverbal and intelligent, so deeply concerned about the world and their place in it, that I wanted to write for and about them.
And I have always loved to wander the warren of Wikipedia, especially when I can justify it as “research.” I think I had some half-baked ambition of writing a Possession-style novel with a lot of verse and metafictional playfulness, which, I assure you, is far beyond my abilities. However, the idea behind Vigilante Poets was sparked by the Wikipedia articles on long poetry and Ezra Pound.
What advice would you give a young adult interested in Latin?
KH: Well-meaning bystanders, no doubt foreseeing the day you will move your bust of Caesar to your parents’ basement and set up a permanent residence there, will try to dissuade you from Latin. Don’t listen to them. Latin can be an end; it’s great fun to teach and to study. But it’s also a means. It teaches you how to think, how to analyze. It’s a springboard that can send you more places than just ancient Rome. If you like it, go for it.
That’s my advice for anyone interested in anything, actually.
Did a particular teacher foster your interest in writing?
KH: I’ve been fortunate enough to have so many good language and literature teachers that it’s hard to name just one. But my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Carlson, hosted a wonderful after-school writing club. We all got yellow legal pads and deliciously inky pens, and I wrote lots of terrible, long-winded, and borderline-plagiaristic stories. (Not so different from my present-day drafts, come to think of it.)
What is your earliest memory related to reading?
KH: When reading picture books to my brothers and me, my dad always insisted on reading aloud the copyright pages. Perhaps this practice fostered my interest in writing; it certainly fostered my lifelong fascination with the Library of Congress cataloguing system.
As a YA author, former teacher and part-time bookseller, why do you think Young Adult fiction is so important?
KH: I think YA is really important, so I’m going to be unable to restrain myself from going on at length about this.
Permit a small digression. Sunday doesn’t feel like Sunday without my adored New York Times Magazine. But I hate, I hate, the “Meh List,” a tiny box wherein they list things considered “not hot, not not, just meh.” “Gel pens.” “Ellen DeGeneres.” “The loss of institutional memory.” I hate the Meh List so much that I try to guess where it is so I can cover it up as I turn the page, lest I catch a glimpse and be compelled to read it, roadkill-style.
The Meh List is cutesy and jaded and blasé. So is the fiction that doesn’t interest me. When I read, I’m not looking for people who find things “meh.” I’m not interested in reading about people who’ve seen it all before. I want to read about intensity. I want to read about things that matter. And I think this is the greatest strength of YA. YA covers so many genres, hits so many topics, but because it’s about teenagers, because it’s about the extraordinary, universal experience of “coming of age,” YA fiction — good YA fiction —- is intense.
Most people are teenagers when they first fall in love. They’re teenagers when they first experience death and grief, when they first fathom the shocking fact that time only goes one way. Teenagers betray and are betrayed; they glory in who they are at the same time as they begin to resign themselves to who they are. Even when they’re bored, teenagers are interesting: they’re aggressively bored, they can’t believe that such a travesty as a 50-minute Latin class is being visited upon them…
All this turmoil makes for good fiction.
At root, I guess, I think YA is important in the same way all literature is important. To crib from E.M. Forster, only with text can you get inside someone’s head; the novel is the most intimate art form there is. YA literature is all about discovering what it’s like to be the particular human you were born to be, and that discovery, I think, is contingent upon imagining what it’s like to be someone else. Which, in a nutshell, is reading.
Are you working on anything now?
KH: I’m working on revisions for my next novel, The Land of Ten Thousand Madonnas, which is forthcoming from Knopf next year. It’s about a 17-year-old boy with a heart defect; a year after his death, his three cousins, best friend, and girlfriend are sent on an enigmatic trip to Europe. And I’ve started to work on a new novel. It’s tentatively called The Ne’er-Do-Wells, though if I were reviewing it, I’d probably be unable to resist the obvious joke: “The Ne’er-Do-Wells never does do well…”
If you were stranded on a deserted island, what three titles would you want to have with you?
KH: First, Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant, a book I never recommend or hand-sell because I hold such a deep, personal affection for it that I’d feel wounded if it wasn’t liked. Second, Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage, which is an endless source of fun. And no matter my wishes for the third, the Iliad would wash ashore. I confess, I kind of hate the Iliad. But I can’t escape it. In my first drafts, my characters are always casually going, “You know that part in the Iliad?” Even characters who do not, in fact, know that part in the Iliad.
As a bookseller, is there a book you would say YA readers just have to read?
KH: I can’t pick just one! I like to point readers toward YA books that are old enough to miss out on hype: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, L.M. Montgomery’s Emily series. Two recent books I love, and love to recommend, are Emily M. Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. And then there are the not-published-as-YA-but-sort-of-YA-regardless: David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. All favorites of mine!
If you could invite three authors (past or present) to a dinner party, who would they be? What do you think would be the topic of conversation?
KH: At the moment, I’d go with Richard Russo, Anne Tyler, and Jane Austen (who, I think, has far more hypothetical dinner invitations than Mr. Woodhouse would approve). They’re all brilliant writers with sly senses of humor. I’d sit mum and let them talk about whatever they wanted.
The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, by Kate Hattemer (Knopf Books for Young Readers, Hardcover, 9780385753784). Publication Date: April 8, 2014.
Learn more about Kate Hattemer at katehattemer.com.
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