In Boy21, two teenage boys come together because of tragedy and stay together out of necessity. As friends, Finley and Russ, both basketball players, have a better chance of overcoming the odds against them in their rough town.
Matthew Quick discusses the relationship between his two characters and the importance of all the different teams on which we find ourselves.
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Why do you think books about friendships among teenage boys are important?
One of things I noticed when I was teaching high school is that teenage boys find that they really rely on their guy friends. I coach high school basketball, and I notice that a lot of the teenage boys I work with have a very difficult time navigating those friendships in terms of expressing themselves. They love their guy friends but have trouble talking about that. I remember staying up all night talking about religion, about where we were going after high school, just trying to figure out life. I remember how important those conversations were.
When you're in your teens, you're trying to establish your way in the world, free and clear of your family—the first thing you turn to is your guy friends. A lot of writers cover male/female relationships in literature, but I do think we need to write more about guy friendships.
Sometimes Finley refers to Russ as Russ and sometimes he calls him Boy21. Why does he go back and forth?
I think Finley realizes the duality of people's existence. He recognizes it right away with Russ. I think he sees it the first time when they celebrate Russ' birthday and have cupcakes on the roof. He realizes this is a different side, this isn't the mask, I'm seeing the real Russ. Finley is a very intuitive young man, he's very emotional, but because of the fact that he played sports, he's a guy, he lives in a rough neighborhood, those aren't necessarily the traits that get recognized, never mind celebrated.
Belmont is more like a terrifying character than the setting of the novel—did you grow up someplace like it?
I grew up in a blue-collar town, but it wasn't at all like Belmont, I didn't have to face the problems Finley faced. That being said, there were some blue-collar problems. I had a friend whose dad was a bookie, there were guns in the house. I had a couple friends whose dads were in and out of jail. I felt a little bit of that, but my family was not like that at all. You know, growing up in the south Jersey area you're so close to Philadelphia, and Camden had the highest murder rate in country when I was growing up—we were always on the border of that, we knew that was close by: guns and people getting hurt and awful things happening.
I was always fascinated by that idea of location, how you can be one town over and be in the midst of this bad situation, or you can rise up and move away.
You emphasize the concept of a team, but Finley's team doesn't support him when he needs it most.
As a coach, I do a lot of talking about the good qualities of being on a team. I think sports are great for kids, but you need to sacrifice a lot of your identity when you're on a team. I watch young kids struggle. We put so much emphasis on being part of a team for three, four months, to the point where kids won't hang out with other friends, they drop their girlfriends—in some ways that's great, but as an artist and writer, I know my journey has always been one of leaving the herd, just like Finley. In my life that has been the most important part of battle: To be a writer I had to be my own team, not my family's team, not my friends' team, but “Team Q.”
Andi Diehn lives in a house full of books in Enfield, N.H. Visit her shared blog at www.letusgothen.net.