Jonathan Galassi, SCHOOL DAYS

Jonathan Galassi, SCHOOL DAYS

Zibby is joined by publisher and poet Jonathan Galassi to talk about his latest novel, School Days, which follows students at an all-boys boarding school through graduation and into their lives as adults. The two discuss Jonathan’s use of sexuality as a common thread through the characters’ development, the importance of loyalty in this story and the real-life atmosphere it was inspired by, and why he believes very few people are naturally great writers. Jonathan also shares how he found his way into publishing and what he is reading right now.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jonathan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss School Days.

Jonathan Galassi: Thank you so much. I’m thrilled that you’re here to talk with me.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners what your book is about?

Jonathan: My book is about a boarding school, one of the old-fashioned historic boarding schools, and about the life of the students there back in sixties when it was still all boys. Then you see the school evolve over time. It’s about the teachers at the school, too, and the kind of sacrifices they made and, I would say, the issues that they face in their life there.

Zibby: I found it fascinating, not only getting to know the teachers, but hearing about all the different boys. You really developed so many different characters. Then watching as they develop over time, getting the flash-forward, if you will, when we get to revisit them again at the end, which was so interesting, I always love that kind of satisfaction that comes with, but wait, what happens after this part of the story?

Jonathan: I always love that ending of a book when it says, so-and-so got divorced. So-and-so married. Yes, it shows that the book has a life that continues after the pages.

Zibby: Same in the movies, when they say something in the type after. Seven years later, blah, blah, blah. Thank you for that. The book was really layered with almost a coming-of-age tale but also an awakening of sexuality and how a bunch of different boys handled their feelings for each other, for women versus men, what they could express, what they fell into, how the teachers played into it, and then what they did with that information. Everybody handled it a little bit differently. Tell me more about all of that and the way that sexuality is the backdrop, this umbrella that’s hanging over the whole thing.

Jonathan: It’s about adolescents. Adolescents are pretty much the same today as they always have been, but the circumstances of — in those days, boys and girls often were sent off to single-sex schools. They were often dropped there in September and picked up in June, not quite literally, but there was a lot less involvement from the point of view of the parents. There were no cell phones, no helicopter parents. It was a sort of world unto itself, this society of young boys who are having all sorts of sexual experiences, not necessarily with each other, but they’re growing into their sexuality. Around them, it’s basically an all-boys society. The story shows the different boys having different reactions to that. They have girlfriends at home. They have girlfriends in the town. They have crushes on each other. I think it’s a pretty accurate depiction of actually how kids at that age experience the need for closeness.

Zibby: Interesting. This has been in the news a lot lately from different boarding schools, one after the next coming out with — not just boarding schools, but mostly. The relationships between teachers and students, there’s always been some mystery around that. I feel like there’s a scandal in many schools related to those dynamics. What was the timing of your deciding to write a book about this in relation to — was it inspired by real events going on? As you were writing it, were you just like, oh, my gosh, again and again and again? How did it happen?

Jonathan: That was certainly a factor in that a lot of things came out in the news about some of these schools where teachers had taken advantage of students or had relationships with them. The schools in the old days had covered this up. There was a lot of people testifying. It’s a little bit related to what’s been going on in the church, of course, a very similar thing where cones of silence were breached. All of a sudden, there was a vision of what really went on. I actually think it’s about power. Teachers, they’re in the in loco parentis position. They’re looked up to by the kids. Some of them need the approbation and adoration of kids. Of course, that’s probably based on their own unhappy backgrounds or character defects. All these things play into how the teacher-student relationship is experienced in various different ways.

One of the paradoxes that I wanted to get into in the book is, how could someone be a great teacher and also have an inappropriate attachment to another kid? That’s one of the paradoxes of the teaching relationship that you see in the book. Just like you see the boys having different relations, you see teachers having different ways of relating to the students. Some of them are totally wonderful parental figures, very loving, trustworthy with a sense of boundaries. There are a few who have boundary issues. We see those different varieties. We even see teachers who might have homosexual feelings themselves but don’t let those interfere with their teaching functions. There are all sorts of varieties of people, just like in life. People have different needs, different moral codes, different ways of experiencing that pedagogical, quasi-parental relationship.

Zibby: I love the one field trip they went on to MOMA in New York City, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and how two of the boys — I always forget everybody’s names, but how two of the boys were so cultured and blasé about it and could rattle off the name of all the artists. It was Sam — right? — who was doe-eyed looking around like, this is the most amazing thing ever.

Jonathan: Sam, he’s sort of the ingénue. He’s less sophisticated than some of the other kids. Of course, he’s the one who ends up being a teacher himself. He’s kind of the consciousness around which the book is organized. He watches all these things happen. He watches teachers. He’s not really a doer himself. He’s a watcher.

Zibby: And the storyteller.

Jonathan: And the storyteller, right.

Zibby: Can you tell me more about your — just to get off the book for one second — about your storied career in publishing?

Jonathan: I went to one of these schools. I decided afterwards that I didn’t want to be an academic. I did love teaching. I’d done some teaching, but I didn’t go that direction. I decided to become an editor. In a way, an editor is like a teacher, counseling people, helping them to be the best they can be, etc. That turned out to be a very rewarding profession for me. I’ve done it for all my life, really. I’ve spent a lot of time with writers. Some of them are really great writers. It’s amazing to see what goes into making a great book.

Zibby: What do you think goes into making a great book?

Jonathan: It starts out with the character of the writer and their gift for expression. It’s a mixing of talent and character. That’s sort of what you see in the book too. How do people blend their character with their personality and their morals? I think that’s how everything works in life. It’s a mixture of self-restraint and also being able to access what you think and feel. That’s what writers really — they have the gift of access. You know that as a writer.

Zibby: I haven’t heard it said like that before. That’s interesting.

Jonathan: You have access to your deep feelings, your convictions. That’s what drives you to try to put it down on paper.

Zibby: I said this recently. My husband was asking me if I was going to write another memoir. I was like, “Not a sweeping, about-my-life thing, but maybe on a particular topic or something. I could probably write one about our dog, Nya.” This is the day before I adopted a puppy. I was like, “I could probably write it about Nya.” He’s like, “That’s what’s so crazy. You could write a whole book about Nya. If somebody asked me, how’s everything going with Nya? I’d be like, pretty good.”

Jonathan: That’s why you’re the writer and he’s not.

Zibby: He’s wonderful. He’s super sensitive and awesome, but he’s not a writer. It’s funny.

Jonathan: It’s just, not everyone is. You could probably tell us about experiences you had that led you to be a writer, things that happened maybe when you were a kid. Somehow, you were rewarded by expression. That’s what’s led you to do what you’re doing. Don’t you think?

Zibby: Yeah, I do. In fact, so many of the authors I interview credit someone early on for recognizing talent. Often, a teacher. There’s somebody who says, wow, you’ve really got something here. That can change their entire life.

Jonathan: Also, you see that in the book where the teacher knows what to say to the kid to encourage them to move ahead. There’s one thing in the book that actually came out of my own life. The teacher says, you’re not going to be a lawyer. You’ve got other things to do in life. That did happen to me. It was very liberating. Instead of doing what my father wanted me to do, I got to decide what I wanted to do. The teacher was the one who gave me permission. I think that’s often true with writing too. They identify a gift or a direction. That’s the teacher’s job, in a way.

Zibby: You’re the teacher and the student in the equation.

Jonathan: Yeah. Well, students become teachers. Certain students become teachers because they were inspired by the teachers to emulate them. That’s part of the story too. It’s something that’s handed on from one generation to another.

Zibby: It’s true. Your book also, it touched a lot on loyalty, I feel like, loyalty even in Sam and Anne’s — I think her name is Anne — marriage, loyalty with some of the friendships, to the teachers, between people who worked at the school, and keeping secrets. Loyalty plays such a big role. That was kind of a tangent, but it does.

Jonathan: Yeah, because loyalty is a representation of mutual understanding.

Zibby: Interesting. I love it. You must get asked this all the time. For writers who are starting out, going back to what we were saying about talent and mentorship and all of this, sometimes people — I am no expert at all, but I do say it might be useful to find out if you are good at it. So many people love doing it, but get some impartial opinion of something. You just need someone to vet it before you dedicate endless time. Do you agree with that?

Jonathan: Yes, I do, but the fact is very few people are born great writers. There’s a lot of ninety-nine percent perspiration to the one percent inspiration. It’s not really that proportion. I think a really great writer has something from the very beginning, but you can turn out to be a very good writer by just applying yourself and keeping going. Yes, at a certain point, you need some sort of feedback about whether this is a good way of spending your time or not. You have to be honest with yourself too. You have to not be too hard on yourself. If you’re a writer, one thing you should be doing a lot of is reading, reading other people and see, does that sound like something that could’ve come out of me? Is there some correlation between what you love to read and what you’re trying to write?

Zibby: Very true. What are you reading now?

Jonathan: What am I reading right now? I’m reading Victory by Joseph Conrad, which I’ve never read before. One thing in the book, you see Sam, the teacher, reading poems with a student sort of indoctrinating the student on how to think about writing through reading these short texts. I think that’s what it’s all about, really, is just getting them to really read. If you really read closely, if you really see what’s going on, that can liberate you in your own writing.

Zibby: Do you have another book in you, another book coming, or anything?

Jonathan: I am working on something. It’s a poetry thing. I would like to write another novel or a memoir. I like what you’ve done. I just don’t know. I will definitely write something else. I’ve written two novels now. There’s something you can do in prose that you can’t do in poetry. I found it very, very fascinating to do the work.

Zibby: It is interesting, this working-in-words world.

Jonathan: You obviously enjoy it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love it. I love to read. I love to write, but I love to read.

Jonathan: What are you reading right now?

Zibby: I just finished, aside from your book, Tom Perrotta’s Tracy Flick Can’t Win because I had him on earlier today. What am I going to read for tomorrow? I have to look in my calendar. I’ve structured it so that my calendar is my reading list. I don’t have to ever debate.

Jonathan: How many of these do you do in a day?

Zibby: In a day? I do between eight to twelve a week.

Jonathan: Really? Wow.

Zibby: But I take some weeks off, or I try to. Then I have to double up other weeks. On average, I usually do about two to three a day.

Jonathan: Wow. That’s incredible. That must be great fun.

Zibby: I love it. Oh, my gosh, I learn so much. I’m constantly learning. It’s like being in the best English class forever.

Jonathan: You’re lucky that you found that as a way of pursuing your interests in such a deep way.

Zibby: It’s been great. It’s been such a gift. I get to meet people like you, which is very interesting.

Jonathan: It’s really fun. Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you for coming on.

Jonathan: again, I hope.

Zibby: You too. Take care.

Jonathan: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Jonathan Galassi, SCHOOL DAYS

SCHOOL DAYS by Jonathan Galassi

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