In “Fitz,” Buffalo author Mick Cochrane’s new Young Adult novel, a 15-year-old boy wishing to connect with the father he has never known buys a Smith & Wesson .38 Special from a n’er-do-well acquaintance, skips school one day – and takes his father hostage.
As in “The Girl Who Threw Butterflies,” his first novel for young readers, Cochrane offers sympathetic characters, a vivid sense of place from his own life story and, most of all, a pitch-perfect ear for the voice of a hurting adolescent. “Fitz” is something a little different, though, with its breathless pacing and action taking place over the course of a single day.
Cochrane, a professor of English and Lowery writer-in-residence at Canisius College, said in a recent interview that he wanted to construct a story like John Cheever’s “The Five-Forty-Eight,” in which a handgun is used “not as an instrument of violence but rather as a device for precipitating a certain kind of memorable human event.”
“The Girl Who Threw Butterflies” was set in Buffalo and dealt with a 13-year-old girl who heals her grief over her father’s death through her gift for throwing a knuckleball pitch. “Fitz” (whose main character is named for F. Scott Fitzgerald) is set in Cochrane’s native St. Paul, Minn., and is filled with music references; Fitz plays in a band, Dr. Eckleburg’s Spectacles (a “Great Gatsby” reference), and Cochrane’s website (mickcochrane.com) features friends performing, as Fitz’s band, two songs,“Maybe Girl” and “No Safety.”
Here, Cochrane makes some observations about “Fitz”:
Q. This is a teenage boy’s search for his father. What inspired this novel? Why did you tackle this theme, in this particular way (a boy holding his father hostage)?
A. My books don’t seem to be so much the product of inspiration ... but rather the record of long bouts of ruminating and stewing. This book is about wanting a father and being a father; it’s about being present to another person, seeing and feeling their complicated and imperfect humanity. I wondered to what lengths a desperate, fatherless boy might go to get what he wanted.
Q. You’re a native of St. Paul. Do the specific places mentioned have personal significance to you?
A. Definitely. I used to visit the Como Zoo as a kid and loved feeding the sea lions, just like Fitz. The diner they visit is a kind of amalgam of a couple of my favorite places to eat. The undergraduate college I attended – St. Thomas – is located on Summit Avenue, near the Mississippi River, which also looms large in my imagination and plays a role in the book.
Q. Fitz plays in a band. Did you play in a band as a kid?
A. I’m not a musician: I wish I was – I would love to play in a band. It seems so much more fun than being a solitary novelist. A band, I imagine, just like a baseball team, offers the opportunity both to be an individual and to belong. It’s another kind of family.
Q. Why name a character after F. Scott Fitzgerald?
A. Fitz thinks his mother named him for the novelist because she admired his work. He studies her copy of “The Great Gatsby,” looking for clues as to who she was – who he is – and is intrigued and haunted by the phrases she underlined: “warm human magic,” “a decade of loneliness,” “his ghostly heart.” Fitz imagines parallels between their stories. He comes to think of his parents as Gatsby and Daisy and ends up pondering the great question of that book – whether or not you can repeat the past.
Q. Do you read other Young Adult fiction? Any favorite authors?
A. I do. Not much paranormal romance, more realistic fiction. I am especially interested in the work of literary writers who also write for young readers: Julia Alvarez, Nick Hornby, Julie Schumacher, Maile Meloy, Michael Chabon, Louise Erdrich, Joyce Carol Oates – all have written terrific YA novels. I’m also fond of the classics, great books that have captivated young readers before the marketing people invented the YA niche: “Huckleberry Finn,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Those are some pretty awesome YA books.
Q. Can you explain the dedication to Ron and Marlys Ousky?
A. They are dear and loyal friends from Minnesota who are early readers of my work. ... Ron is my best friend. We talk on the phone once a week and every summer we go to baseball games together in a different city and catch up on our lives and families. We’ve been doing that for more than 20 years. It’s how we go fishing. Ron is also a family law attorney: He’s explained to me how many men, like Fitz’s father, become estranged from their children, believing what they’re sometimes told – that their absence is somehow best for everyone.
Q. There’s an amusing and perceptive section where Fitz is classifying dads. Do you think most dads fall into one of these categories?
A. He’s sorting through stereotypes trying to understand something he has no firsthand knowledge of. Dads grill meat, he thinks, dads watch football. Popular culture doesn’t offer a lot of rich and subtle representations of fathers. When I read to my kids, I remember being annoyed that Papa in the Berenstain Bears – to cite just one example – was such a doofus. I’m friends with a lot of guys who are dads – all different. We’re a pretty varied lot. Some of us would rather get a book than a tool for Father’s Day. There’s not just one way to be a man.
Q. Fitz and his friend Caleb draw conclusions about people based on their music. How about you? What do you listen to?
A. I’m drawn to singer-songwriters, word people. Dylan is my god. I’m lucky enough to have young friends who keep my iPod refreshed with new voices. Lately I’ve been listening to the Tallest Man on Earth and Ron Sexsmith. But really, deep down, I’m a lot like Caleb, who reveres the great Delta bluesmen. While writing the book, I listened to a lot of Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters, people like that. I am blown away by the expressive power of their music – the sly humor, the longing – there’s so much feeling conveyed in such a direct, seemingly simple way: It’s magical, miraculous, in the way that all great art is miraculous.