By the time Micah Nathan had finished his junior year at Buffalo State College, he was desperate to savor private-school life.
So desperate, in fact, that he would drive to Cornell University for a week at a time, slip into lecture halls and attend class. After sleeping in his car, he would embark on another day of higher learning -- but not before sneaking into a dorm, lathering up with an unsuspecting coed's bar of soap and drying himself off with toilet paper.
"That's how badly I wanted it," he admits, adding that he went so far as to chat with professors after class and buy the required textbooks. "I had dated a girl who went to Cornell, but my love affair eventually switched from her to the school."
As it turns out, Nathan's Ivy League infiltration paid off in a way that any loan-saddled preppy would find enviable. At 31, the Boston, Mass., resident -- by way of Boston, N.Y. -- has just had his first novel published by Simon & Schuster.
Fittingly, "Gods of Aberdeen" takes place at an elite, picturesque college. The narrator, a scholarship student named Eric Dunne, becomes embroiled in extracurricular mayhem when he's accepted into a clique of precocious students experimenting with medieval alchemy.
Knowing Nathan's history, a reader could construe the novel as the author's personal exorcism of the private-school fantasies he once harbored. In the beginning, Aberdeen College appears as the ultimate sanctuary for Eric, an orphan who escapes tenement life with uncaring relatives for Aberdeen's stately campus and intellectual camaraderie. Over the course of 370 pages, the cloistered college reveals unsavory secrets, providing the young Latin scholar with an education he didn't bargain for.
"When I was in college, many of my friends had gone to these truly mythical places, like Yale and Harvard, and they would tell me these stories about them that sounded great," Nathan recalls. "And here I was, still in my hometown. I think for me, the germ of the book started with my desire to leave.
"But as you read it, you realize that the idealized college doesn't exist. And that being smart doesn't solve everything. Sometimes, it makes everything worse."
Although the story's wilder elements have clearly been mined from Nathan's imagination -- including a campus librarian who may be 150 years old -- the author points out that even the mundane details are fictional.
"It's entirely non-autobiographical. I wasn't friends with anybody like those people at all. I was not a snob. I didn't drink or do drugs. And I didn't have a girl with big breasts who was after me," he says, referring to the narrator's romantic conquest.
Indeed, several of Nathan's own college experiences seem stranger than fiction, right from the first chapter. Not exactly an auspicious undergraduate debut -- for a future novelist, anyway -- he was recommended for an "almost remedial" freshman English class at Buffalo State College based on his answer to the essay question, "If you could be any color, what would you be?"
"I was pretty freaked out by that, because I'd done very well in writing since I was a kid," says Nathan, who read his first H.P. Lovecraft story in third grade and continued to nourish his youthful imagination with a steady diet of Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe.
Ultimately, Nathan didn't take the English 99 class, or any other English course the college offered. Before transferring to the University at Buffalo for his senior year, he declared an anthropology major, a choice he credits to his parents, who frequently hosted international visitors at the house through their membership in a hospitality program.
"This was my folks' way of bringing the world home," says Nathan. "I got that whole worldview, which, as a writer, is very important. We had guests at our house every few months. The ministry of engineering from China stayed with us. And I remember a guest from Nigeria."
"Growing up in Boston Hills, you don't normally see anyone from Nigeria," he points out, remembering that even bagels were hard to come by in his otherwise idyllic hometown.
It was in the Boston Hills where Nathan first discovered his passion for church spires, the crusades and all things Gothic. In college, he successfully petitioned for admission into an upper-class medieval history course as a freshman. There he was introduced to alchemy, the pseudoscientific forerunner to chemistry, which was chiefly concerned with unlocking the key to immortality.
It's this quest that lies at the heart of "Gods of Aberdeen."
"I thought about this formula that seemed just out of grasp, and about how dangerous knowledge can be if it's not held back with morals," Nathan says. "It seemed like it would make a good book."
Motivation to write
During his junior year, Nathan started writing the novel that would take him eight years to complete. When he wasn't hammering out his first draft, he had several other projects to distract him. On-campus he was a radio talk-show host. Off-campus, he was kickboxing.
Influenced by the martial arts tours his father (David Nathan) and grandfather (Jerry Nathan) booked through their concert promotion business, Nathan had studied kickboxing as a boy. By college, he was proficient enough to teach it out of his basement. Yet, he says it took only one losing bout for him to recognize that he didn't possess the requisite killer instinct.
"I learned very quickly that I don't like hitting people, and I don't like being hit. I thought, 'What if I hurt myself? What if this guy gets hurt?' "
Still, being bruised and bloodied in an Ithaca boxing ring seemed merciful compared with being dumped by his girlfriend. On one of the many sleepless nights Nathan endured through his heartbreak, he turned on the TV and became transfixed by self-help guru Anthony Robbins.
"I'm a big Ralph Waldo Emerson fan, so I was definitely open to the idea of self-change. But rather than do the easy thing, which would have been to just buy (Robbins') tapes, I said, 'I'm gonna do what he does, because he looks so happy.' "
Once he had boned up on the writings of Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie, Nathan called on the events coordinator at Barnes & Noble. Declaring himself "America's Youngest Motivational Speaker," he launched into a speech from the Bruce Lee film "Enter the Dragon" before offering to speak at the store on the first stop of his East Coast tour.
She booked him on the spot. "I didn't even want to do this as a joke, to see if I could con people," he says. "I think it was more of a personal challenge."
His first talk, titled "Mental Self Defense," was attended largely by family and friends. Nonetheless, the experience so emboldened him that he secured a second engagement, not coincidentally at his ex-girlfriend's college. When only the audiovisual crew arrived for the seminar, America's Youngest Motivational Speaker took his own best advice and called it quits. A decade later, Nathan has returned to the speaking circuit, this time in support of "Gods of Aberdeen."
Although he's not on Barnes & Noble's calendar, he has several engagements lined up in Western New York. He'll be reading from and signing the novel at 5:30 p.m. June 28 in Chef's Restaurant; 7 p.m. June 29 in the Hamburg Public Library; and noon June 30 at the Garden Restaurant in Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Then it's back to his second novel, whose contents he's contractually forbidden from revealing.
"This has been a blast," he says of writing professionally, adding that he's grateful for the inspiration and practical guidance of his second cousin, mystery writer Lawrence Block. "Being able to make a living off your art and doing what you love doing? I can't complain about that."
Writing novels isn't Nathan's only art. He dabbles in oil painting, and he's sold six of them. Three years ago he wrote and directed "The Big Kill," a 45-minute horror flick shot in the Boston Hills.
"It's about a team of Navy Seals who go up against zombies," he says. "I have to qualify that it was done just for the fun of it. I wasn't trying to make the next 'Kramer vs. Kramer.' "
Although "The Big Kill" is only available at an independent video store in Boston -- Boston, Mass., that is -- Nathan has high hopes for the sequel. He's filming it at summer's end in Boston -- Boston, N.Y., that is.
For anyone with aspirations of being cast as an extra, a word of advice is in order. First, read "Gods of Aberdeen." After all, if Nathan can create coeds capable of such dark mischief, one can only imagine how he expects his zombies to behave.