Being a self-proclaimed writer “with wanderlust”, a sense of place has always been a draw for me in both my reading and writing. So I was thrilled to hear how the setting of author Michelle Falkoff’s latest novel was conceived.
Confession: I am a sucker for campus novels. It doesn’t matter what kind of campus, how old or young the characters are, whether we’re dealing with realism or fantasy. I love books set in schools, and the weirder the school, the better.
This is not that surprising when I think about it—I was a nerdy bookworm growing up, then spent many years in grad school, and now I work at a university. I’ve made school the center my life in just about every possible way, and while for some people that would lead to escapist reading set anywhere but a campus, I’ve had the opposite response. If you tell me a book is set at a school, I’ll read it.
In years past, this love has served me very well. Lois Duncan’s DOWN A DARK HALL showed me how creepy boarding school can be when it exists to allow ghosts to possess the characters; JK Rowling forced me to accept my inner Slytherin if I wanted to imagine myself at Hogwarts. One of my all-time favorite books, Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY, showed me that going to college can involve murder; Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad was nearly bested by teenage girls in THE SECRET PLACE. And of course there’s Hogwarts for adults, otherwise known as Brakebills, from Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS series.
Being away from friends and family and whatever it is one calls normal life necessarily brings with it strangeness and complication, and those are some of the most important ingredients for compelling fiction.
In the past year alone I’ve discovered more additions to the weird/creepy/unusual boarding school/college genre. There’s Sarah Gailey’s MAGIC FOR LIARS, where a private investigator has to solve a murder at the magical boarding school where her sister works; Elisabeth Thomas’s CATHERINE HOUSE, set at a version of Yale with magic; and Leigh Bardugo’s THE NINTH HOUSE, also set at a version of Yale with magic but to very different effect. (What is it with Yale and magic?)
For my own foray into the world of unusual boarding schools, I stuck with realism, sort of. Gardner Academy is located in the real world, in a fictional Vermont town, and while the curriculum at the school is somewhat unusual, there’s no magic there. Instead, there are students who have legitimate and all-too-realistic fears about the end of the world, and they need to use real-world strategies to overcome them.
Writing my own campus novel did cause me to reflect on what it is I love at books set at these kinds of schools, and I found that even in realism, there’s something otherworldly about being apart from everyday life as most people understand it. Boarding schools in particular tend to have a rarefied air, if only because the expense of maintaining them means there will always be issues of class and prestige that both reflect the real world and feel separate from it. Being away from friends and family and whatever it is one calls normal life necessarily brings with it strangeness and complication, and those are some of the most important ingredients for compelling fiction.
The campus novel can be hard to write, especially when writing YA, where navigating the role of adults is difficult even under the best of circumstances, but I found writing a campus novel to be almost as much fun as reading one. I can’t promise I won’t try again. But maybe next time there will also be magic…
Some wonderful suggestions for campus-based books. What are some of your favorite stories set in schools?
For more details about Michelle Falkoff’s latest novel (and to enter for a chance to win a copy!), visit Book Review + Giveaway: How to Pack for the End of the World.