The Slam: The Slam Master's Rant

The Slam Master's Personal Soapbox made from ones, zeroes, and a home-grown proclivity for pontification.

Slam Jeopardy!

August 31, 2012

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek may be "the man with all the answers," as Andrew Ladd puts it. But novelist, fiction writer, and blogger Ladd has a few answers of his own, as we learned when CICADA's assistant editor Anna Neher challenged him to a speed round of Slam-style Jeopardy!

Hello and welcome to Slam Jeopardy! Playing for the grand prize of two issues of CICADA and an interview in the Slam Master's Rant is our inaugural contestant, Andrew Ladd. Andrew, are you ready?

I sure am!

Our first question is in the Sports category. This two-time Stanley Cup winner and captain of the Winnipeg Jets shares a name with a Scottish novelist, fiction writer, essayist, and blogger.

Who is Andrew Ladd?

Next, in Literature: In 2012, this novel was both a semifinalist for Amazon.com's Breakthrough Novel award and won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series in the Novel. It will be published by New Issues in 2014.

What is What Ends by Andrew Ladd?

Finally, in the History category: On this date, teen literary journal CICADA published "What Is...?" by Andrew Ladd, a hilarious and thoughtful account of a teen's investigation into the identity of his high school algebra teacher.

What is September 2012?

Andrew Ladd, you've won the Slam Jeopardy! jackpot! Your issues of CICADA are in the mail; are you ready for your interview?

Lay it on me.

So Andrew, first, congratulations on winning the AWP award. I understand that What Ends started out as your MFA thesis project. What can you tell us about the novel?

The novel is set in the Hebrides, a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland. Although a lot of the Hebrides used to have pretty sizable communities on them, nowadays many have been deserted -- some almost entirely. The book follows one particular family, the McClouds, on one of these islands, and explores some of the reasons why each of the family members decides to leave or stay.

You've written a novel called What Ends and a short story called "What Is...?" Any other titles starting with "what" in the works? Or will you be branching out into other interrogatives?

Ha! I'd never noticed that before. What Ends is actually the third or fourth title the book has had, so I don't know that the pattern means much other than that I really, really hate coming up with titles!

Let's talk about "What Is...?" In this story, Jonah, a fairly ordinary high schooler whose mother has recently left him and his father without a word, becomes convinced that his algebra teacher, Mr. Jennings, is Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. What is it that Jeopardy! brings to this story?

It was really more Alex Trebek that I was drawn to, rather than Jeopardy! At first it was because he just seemed the right kind of "celebrity" for Jonah to fixate on -- not a huge name like Tom Cruise or someone always getting chased by the paparazzi, but a kind of everyday guy who also happens to host a quiz show. Trebek seems normal enough that I can kind of believe he could be a high school teacher, you know? He has that air about him.

But as the story went through a couple of different drafts, I also began to see the potential in Trebek being literally "the man with all the answers." That's where the storyline about Jonah's mother disappearing -- and Jonah's father being unwilling to talk about it -- grew from. Jonah wants answers about why his mother left, so he starts to believe that he might be able to get them from "Trebek."

Both Jonah and his father seem to be dealing with the world via a model that doesn't quite fit the data. In Jonah's case, it's the belief that Jennings is Trebek. His father, a structural engineer, is filtering life through his own highly specialized professional lens. Both characters are willing to work really hard to make the circumstances fit the model. What are you exploring here?

I guess it's actually a similar sort of thing to what I'm exploring in What Ends -- the idea that everyone has their own ways of seeing the world, and that these have a big effect on how we deal with change and with loss. I think if we can be more cognizant of the frames of reference that people around us use, we can better deal with any problems or disagreements that arise.

Jonah's investigation escalates rapidly -- at one point, he's staking out Trebek's house with a pair of binoculars. From here, I can imagine the story spinning out of control into absurdity and farce. Instead, Jonah's obsession gently fades away. Could this story have gone another way?

Well, the whole premise is a bit absurd, really, and certainly I could have gone more slapstick with it. (The first few drafts were definitely sillier.) But there's also a sad story in here, and I was afraid it would get lost if I went too far into farce. Besides, I think there's a point beyond which readers won't suspend their disbelief -- it's vaguely plausible that this kid might think his teacher is Alex Trebek for a while, but I think if his obsession had kept on escalating, the story would have been less interesting for being so completely unrealistic.

In the final scene, we witness a poignant, but also understated, moment between Jonah and Jennings. How did this ending come about?

Honestly, I don't remember. It's been in there in pretty much its current form since the very first draft, which I wrote four years ago. I think I realized early on that, for the story to work, something would need to happen that would humanize Mr. Jennings for Jonah. And the graveyard sections -- which are based on a driving lesson my aunt actually took me on once! -- provided a pretty natural opening for the parallel with Mr. Jennings also having "lost" a parent. After that it kind of wrote itself.

Did you set out to write a YA story here? Is there anything in particular about high school as a moment in time or YA as a genre that interests you?

No, I didn't explicitly set out to write a YA story -- I just think high school is an endlessly fascinating setting. It's not just that people and personalities are changing in high school all the time -- which is a great platform for a short story anyway -- but that high schools themselves are also changing all the time. I think these days we have a very different idea than we did even ten years ago about what high school is for and what kids should be learning there.

I actually think it's a shame that stories about high school so often get labelled YA, not because there's anything wrong with YA, but because I think adults could get a lot from thinking about the issues that these stories bring up.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Andrew!

It was my pleasure!

 

Andrew Ladd is book reviews editor at Ploughshares, where his column Blurbese comments on the foible-ridden lingo of the book review genre. He is also editor-at-large at The Good Men Project and blogs at Plethoric Pundigrions