US blogger, journalist and writer Jennifer Miller tells us the story behind her debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly.
Photo credit: Diana Levine
My debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, features a teenage journalist investigating a secret society at her remote New England prep school. The secret society has been wreaking havoc on the school by releasing an underground newspaper called ‘The Devil’s Advocate’, which exposes the bad behavior of students and teachers. They reveal cheating, hazing, even teachers watching porn on school computers. They claim to be upholding the school’s honour code, but whether their motives are entirely moral is far from clear.
The inspiration for this underground newspaper – not to mention all the scandal it dredges up – came directly from a cheating scandal that my younger brother exposed at his own prep school. My brother learned that a group of students had stolen a math exam. He didn’t want to be a snitch, so he went to his grade’s student council representative and asked him to stop the cheating before it happened.
It turns out that the student rep was in on the scam. The cheating went ahead.
My brother found out and reluctantly went to the administration. He asked that his name be withheld. But someone snitched on him. And before Danny knew it, he was ostracised, bullied, pushed against lockers. Somebody keyed his car. My brother could have gone into hiding; instead he began writing letters in the school newspaper, decrying the backlash against him. He revelled in his status as an outcast, using it to take on the school’s hypocritical culture. Years later, I was looking through old boxes in my parents’ house and found copies of these newspapers. ‘Cheating, lying, and stealing pervert character, weaken moral resolve, and undermine the capacity of an individual to make tough decisions,’ my brother wrote.
But here’s the strange thing. When I told my brother that I’d found the old newspapers, he said he had no recollection of having written the articles. Moreover, he claimed that morals had nothing to do with his decision to turn in the cheaters. ‘There are no absolute rights and wrongs,’ he told me. ‘I didn’t turn in the cheaters because they’d done something wrong; I did it because they were dumb enough to get caught. And because I didn’t want them to mess up the curve. It was a utilitarian decision.’
To this day, I don’t understand why my brother so adamantly refused to admit that he acted out of a sense of moral justice. Because he did. It’s right there in print, in his own words. But his complicated take on the event – and the way he distorted his own memory of the scandal – taught me that in a way my brother is right: there are no absolute rights and wrongs, no absolute truths. This lesson, more than anything else, is what I grappled with on every page of Gadfly.
The Year of the Gadfly is out now in paperback ($29.95)