A life in words – Jennifer Miller on writing The Year of the Gadfly

Jennifer Miller’s novel, The Year of the Gadfly, is a hard to pin down. With a teenage protagonist who chats with the chain-smoking ghost of Edward R. Murrow, prep-school rules and secret societies, love stories and mysteries, and asides into extreme micro-biology and the personal and public ethics of journalism, it’s an unusual read.

And that was just how she intended when writing  it. “In my mind, the Year of the Gadfly goes across genres. It’s good for adults, mature teens, people who like coming of age stories, mysteries, campus novels. I hate how everything in publishing these days is relegated to particular genre or shelf – especially in the adult/YA world.”

In The Year of the Gadfly teenage reporter Iris Dupont and failed microbiologist-turned-biology-teacher Jonah Kaplan both embark on their own private investigation into a secret society operating in their prestigious private school. What they uncover challenges their school, their town and their own minds. Like most novels, not all of the events in the novel are purely fictional as several situations draw on events in Jennifer’s own life. “I was selective about which personal details I included. For example, while Justin Kaplan is closely based on my high school boyfriend Ben (he was killed in a car accident the summer before our senior year), I made Justin’s parents into unique characters. I wanted Gadfly to be a tribute and honor to Ben, but I also wanted to protect his parents’ feelings.”

Journalism and a decidication to uncovering the truth play a big part in the novel, with deceased American journalist Edward R. Murrow providing (disembodied) perspective. Jennifer found that mixing a real historical figure in with her characters wasn’t as difficult as you might imagine. “I did quite a lot of research to bring Murrow to life. I didn’t have any trouble inventing his dialogue, though I’m sure that would have been much more complicated, had he been a central character. I did want to stay true to his world view and personal history. For this reason, Iris learns some unsavory details about Murrow’s life–like his marital infidelities.”

This is Jennifer’s first published novel but she’s no stranger to seeing her words in print – she has a background as journalist and non-fiction writer. “Reporting allows me to meet people and visit places I never would have the chance to otherwise. It also lets me understand how different types of people think and feel and speak. All of these things help me create stronger, more well-rounded characters in my fiction.”

While journalism is a big part of her life, she has always wanted to write fiction. “I love the creativity involved in creating specific images and feeling simply by putting words on the page. I love language–particularly the sound of words. I also love creating a unique world out of thin air. I think writing fiction is a little bit like acting. As the author, you have to inhabit different characters and try to see the world through their eyes–and speak like them, which isn’t easy. But it’s so rewarding when you do it well. You’re tricking readers (and yourself) in believing that fictions exist. How much fun is that!”

In addition to her background as a journalist, Jennifer had her studies to draw on when she was writing the book; she completed Master in Fine Arts at Columbia while she was working on the drafts of Gadfly. She found it hugely useful, but not indispenasable, as she worked her way through the process of getting the book to a publishable story. “The MFA introduced me to amazing fellow writers, who are now some of my closest friends and supporters. I’d say those relationships are much more important than anything I got out of the program on a craft level. Not that the classes weren’t helpful, but I found it really difficult to workshop a novel (as opposed to short stories, which is the trend).”
Jennifer’s advice to other writers? Don’t give up. “Novel writing is a marathon, not a race. Gadfly took me seven years and countless drafts to write. There were a number of times when I almost gave up, because I was frustrated or felt daunted or was convinced the book would never sell. If you truly stick with your project, I think you much more likely to achieve success (or at least publication)!”

The Year of the Gadfly will be released on the 23rd of May.