A Conversation with Danny Tobey, Author of The Faculty Club
Q. Like Jeremy, you grew up in Texas and went to an Ivy League law school; surely this story couldn’t have mirrored your personal experiences too much, right? How much of your experiences as an undergrad and law student did you draw from for this novel and how much of it is infused with imagination?
A. Hmm, some of both! A lot of the lore is very real. There really is a statue with three lies at Harvard. There really are four tasks you’re supposed to do before graduating. And there really is a rumor that one secret society at Harvard promises its initiates a million dollars by the time they turn thirty. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in it! I think a lot of Jeremy’s emotions are very real, too. I was coming from a public school in Texas, and I spent the whole first semester at Harvard in awe. On the first day, they asked us to raise our hands if we’d been the valedictorian or salutatorian of our high school. It seemed like the entire room raised its hand! That was one of those “I’m not in Kansas anymore moments.” And there are steam tunnels of course, but I never did find a good entrance . . .
Q. The law school where the story takes place is, seemingly intentionally, never named. Was this due to torn loyalties between your two alma maters, Harvard and Yale, or were there other motivations for this?
A That’s a great question—I really did feel torn about which school to pick. And, at the end of the day, I thought it might be scarier not to name the school . . . as if Jeremy is okay with telling the story, but it’s best not to say too much. There’s definitely some of both schools in the book: Harvard’s red bricks and Yale’s gray towers. And the big hydroelectric power plant that sends giant clouds of vapor into their air was out my dorm room window at Yale. It was a strange thing to look at every day.
Q. You were the winner of the prestigious Edgar Eager prize at Harvard, awarded for the best creative writing. As a result, did you feel a lot of pressure to become a successful novelist? How did you feel when Jodi Reamer, the agent for the famous Twilight Sagaagreed to represent you?
A. I’ve been writing my whole life, and I always feel pressure! I love it, so I have to do it. But writing a novel is a crazy experience, because it’s so solitary. You write four hundred pages with no feedback and then think: what on earth did I just do? Winning that award was helpful, in terms of gaining a little confidence. But hearing back from Jodi and getting to work with her was a much bigger moment. I mean, she picked Twilight out of the blue! That was the moment I thought, hmm, maybe I can do this.
Q. How were you able to find time to write a novel while also holding down your day job as an associate attorney at a law firm? Do you try to write every day, or do you thrive on fits of inspiration?
A. Actually, I wrote The Faculty Club in school. Practicing law is fascinating, and I have great clients and co-workers. They’ve been incredibly supportive of The Faculty Club. These days I write in my spare time, mainly on slow weekends, so it takes much longer than when I was in school. . . . I’m too old for all-nighters!
Q. Did you make up some of the puzzles that Jeremy and his crew were forced to solve while you were writing, or were they dug up in your research for the novel?
A. I made them up, but they’re based on real ideas that I researched. The homunculus really is a funny little cartoon from neuroscience. And, there are also “homunculi” in alchemy lore. So I thought, that’s a great coincidence. I need to play with that, because the book really is “neurology meets alchemy.” The Ship of Theseus is a real philosophy riddle that I learned at Harvard. But I made up the idea of having an actual boat and river with a deadly booby trap attached. My thought was: forget the late night dorm room bull sessions—what if you had seconds to turn a philosophical debate into a life-saving plan of action?
Q. While there is little doubt that The Faculty Club is a top-notch thriller for adults, the subject matter may cause it to resonate with college and prospective college students even more. Do you see this work as a having a specific target audience, or did you set out to make it accessible to as wide a range of readers as possible?
A. It sounds corny, but my only rule when writing is “have fun.” I figure, if I’m having fun, the reader will too. Or at least I’m sure the opposite is true: if I’m not having fun with a scene, I really doubt anyone else will! So, I don’t think in terms of target audience or anything like that. But I gave an early copy of The Faculty Club to my brother-in-law, who’s in college, and he devoured it in one day and passed it to all his friends. That meant a ton to me, because the book is set at a university, and if college kids like it, that means I passed the b.s. test! Honestly, nothing would make me happier than appealing across age groups. I mean, from Huck Finn to Harry Potter, that’s what the best books do. There are just some emotions that speak to every age group. And if you’re lucky enough to tap into those, that’s when a book really connects with people.
Q. It is difficult to read this novel without thinking what a great film it would make. Are there any plans to turn this into a movie in the future, and if so, would you want to play a role in adapting it? Who would you cast?
A. Definitely! We are so lucky to have the film agent Kassie Evashevski handling our movie rights. She’s the one who turned the Twilight saga into three huge movies. And she’s also working on the American film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, another stunning novel. I can’t wait to see Jeremy being chased by the Puppet Man through the steam tunnels! Hmm, what actors? There are too many great ones to choose from. In the Harry Potter movies, Gary Oldman was so good as Sirius Black! Wouldn’t he make an incredible Arthur Peabody? And I’d cut Ms. Silver’s age in half just to see Cate Blanchette chew up the scene in the Manhatten penthouse. Would I like to be personally involved? Sure, but only as much as I’m wanted—I do think movies and books work their magic in different ways, and not being a slave to the book is key for making the movie work on its own terms. But I’m okay with that, because I love good movies.
Q. Did you have an interest in voodoo before writing and researching the novel, or did it simply come in handy as a great way to manipulate the twists and turns of the plot? If you didn’t have an interest, did you develop one while writing this?
A. Honestly, I didn’t know a single thing about voodoo before I started writing—just the stuff you see in movies, which is pretty removed from the real culture. Voodoo came into the story because I put myself in the villains’ shoes and said: okay, we’ve got this nefarious goal . . . how do we make it happen? But once I decided on their plan, I tried to read up on the history of voodoo. It’s a rich culture that spans thousands of years, the transatlantic slave trade, and the American melting pot. That’s a fascinating story, and while The Faculty Club is a fun book and not a serious piece of anthropology, I still wanted to do justice to the culture and make it clear that what the faculty was up to was their own crazy perversion of this tradition. That’s a key line when Miles jokes about assembly-line voodoo. This really was, in a tongue-in-cheek way, a play on the idea of Western civilization appropriating other cultures for their own designs. Sort of Avatar meets Dead Poets Society. :)
Q. Honestly, do you think you would have been more like Jeremy or Miles when it came to going back to look for Sarah at the end of the novel?
A. Oh, tough question! Who knows? I’d like to believe I’d do the right thing—and a lot faster than Jeremy did. But it’s so easy to say that, which is why I didn’t let Jeremy go after Sarah right away. He had to build up to that leap of faith. He had to see the alternative in Miles—what he’d become if he didn’t at least try to save Sarah. I love plenty of books where the hero is just unnaturally brave. But I wanted Jeremy to be like most people, myself included, full of conflict but trying to live up to his higher self.
Q. Who are your favorite authors to read? Do you prefer reading other thriller writers like Brad Thor and John Grisham, or do you go in an entirely different direction when reading for pleasure?
A. I read all kinds of books. Thrillers are great—when life is crazy, that’s where I turn. It’s funny you mention those two authors. I love John Grisham. For me, he’s the quintessential example of that special feeling you get when a book pulls you in instantly and you just feel comfortable living in its world for a while. If people come close to feeling that way about The Faculty Club, I’d be ecstatic. And I’m reading Brad Thor right now, which is bad for my sleep patterns! He really keeps you hooked. My favorite non-thriller books recently are Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. And I love really good science fiction, like Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco and just about anything by Kurt Vonnegut. One of my all-time weirdest life experiences was meeting Vonnegut in college. He asked me to get him a drink, which I had no idea how to make, but I was too embarrassed to say so. So I mixed a bunch of random things together, discovered there were no stirrers, then stirred his drink with my finger in a guilty moment. He drank the whole thing and never said anything unkind. That’s really a terrible story, but my heart was in the right place. The man wrote Cat’s Cradle. I just wanted to get him his drink.
Q. What projects are you currently working on? Do you have any plans for Jeremy Davis?
A. Absolutely. We haven’t seen the last of Jeremy. I think the next time we find him, he’ll be back in rural Texas, with a small law practice. But it’s hard to leave the past behind, and a new case will take a very unexpected turn. In the meantime, I just finished writing my second book, which takes place in a totally new setting with new characters, including a psychiatrist named Charlie West. But around page 350 there’s a surprise cameo, involving someone else from The Faculty Club. I don’t want to say too much more, but a few big questions get answered.