“Dress to kill” for the 2016 Edgar Awards, says the Mystery Writers of America. This year’s ceremony (named after Edgar Allan Poe) on April 28 in New York boasts a shortlist of nearly 50 nominated novels, short stories, nonfiction books, and TV episodes for a grand total of 14 awards. One of the five books nominated in the Best Juvenile category is Matthew Baker’s If You Find This, his debut middle grade novel released last March.
Baker weaves a compelling treasure hunt story, complete with grumbling grandfathers, a haunted house, a deserted island, bullies and new friends. The novel’s main character, Nicholas, is a math and music genius whose quirky tendencies often leave him the odd kid out at school. Forced on a daring adventure, he must find his grandfather’s hidden family heirlooms before his family loses his childhood home—and with it, his younger brother’s grave (a skinny pine tree) in the backyard.
The treasure hunt genre wasn’t unfamiliar to Edgar Allan Poe himself, whose short story “The Gold-Bug” urges the reader to break a code, thereby popularizing the concept of “secret writing” in fiction when it was published in 1843. But Poe would probably be most fascinated by Baker’s unique use of music and math, an addition as innovative as the cryptograms Poe introduced more than 170 years ago. After all, it was Poe who wrote in his poem “Letter to Mr. B—”, “Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.” Surely he’d approve of the way Baker combines music and math with pleasurable, distinctive writing in If You Find This.
I recently spoke with Baker about his debut novel and its influences, his own quirky childhood interests, and some exciting mail he received recently (other than his Edgar nomination). He will be in attendance at the Edgar Awards ceremony, dressed to kill, as instructed.
This is probably a question you’re asked often, but it’s impossible to read this book without being curious. One of the (many!) unique aspects of If You Find This is the use of musical terms to describe sounds and dialogue. What inspired you to wed the literary and the musical in this way?
Music was my second language. I started taking piano lessons at a young age, and learning how to read music had a profound effect on me. It changed the way I experienced the world. Of course, if you grow up speaking English and Spanish, if you grow up speaking English and French, there are books out there that combine those languages. There are novels with narrators who speak in that certain type of hybrid tongue. But for English and music, there was nothing. If You Find This is the type of book I always wanted and never had.
Another interesting addition to your novel is the main character Nicholas’ fixation on mathematics and numbers. According to your website, you studied creative writing in college and graduate school. Not to be stereotypical, but artists and creatives are generally assumed to be right-brain dominant. What inspired this prominent math theme, and was it difficult, as an artist, for you to incorporate these analytical and systematic pieces into the book?
Along with music, math was my main focus in middle school and high school. I was in an advanced program at a local university. We did two subjects a year. Algebra in the fall, geometry in the spring. Trigonometry in the fall, pre-calculus in the spring. To keep up with the workload, I spent most weekends doing math homework. Four, five, six hours a day. When you spend that much time thinking about something, it eventually becomes part of the way that you think. And in college I actually took as many science courses as writing: a lot of biology, some chemistry, some psychology. So math and science are integral not just to who I am as a person but to who I am as a writer. That’s the case with many of my favorite artists, though. Pinar Yoldas, for instance, who’s as much a biologist as an artist—for her, as her Tumblr says, “science is more than an inspiration.” Another artist I admire is Katie Rose Pipkin, who makes drawings and poems in collaboration with algorithms and bots. And Randall Munroe of course once worked for NASA and explores math and physics and astronomy concepts in xkcd.
One of your other prominent characters, Jordan, is a bully. He has a habit of calling people by hurtful (albeit creative) nicknames and of only thinking of himself. In a time when middle-grade children experience incredible bullying and name-calling—both in-person and online—what were you hoping the reader might take away from this character?
Empathy. Bullies often get portrayed as villains. Not just in stories, but in reality—on blogs, on the news. But a bully of course is a complex human being with a complicated history and complicated motivations who usually themself is a victim of bullying. One of my heroes is the classicist Mary Beard. Beard is brilliant, outspoken, successful, and a woman, and so not surprisingly attracts a lot of trolls on Twitter. And she has a wit so sharp that she could strike any troll dead on the spot. But she doesn’t.
Instead she does something much harder. She befriends trolls. I don’t know how, but she does. She’s met some of them in person and had a very positive effect on their lives. She even wrote a letter of recommendation for one of her worst trolls, a student whose career prospects were effectively ruined after his identity was revealed online. Celeste Ng was recently ambushed by a mob of trolls on Twitter, and she responded in the same way—with a kindness and a generosity that no troll would deserve, if not for the fact that a troll is a human. I can’t tell you how much I admire Beard and Ng for that.
The grandparent/grandchild relationship is in an integral part of this story. In particular, aging and generational differences are an especially heartbreaking part of the outcome. How have you been affected by loved ones of a different generation, and why is the grandparent relationship so important to this story?
I have 11 grandparents. (You can have a maximum of 16, if both of your parents divorce and remarry and then all of their parents divorce and remarry too, so I’m five short of a full set.) So I’ve spent a lot of time around people that age, but I was always particularly close with my maternal grandfather, my Grandpa Rowe. Six-feet-plus with a gentle voice and thinning hair, he was a retired police captain, an avid traveler, and a film buff, and stepped in as a surrogate parent during the stretch of time that my mom was a single mother.
I decided to write the novel after he died, and in many ways the book is a memorial to him. Sometimes I think he would be horrified by everything I put in there—the book touches on euthanasia and abortion and miscarriage and murder—but then I remember that when I was seven he sat me down to watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And in that film there’s a scene where somebody gets their heart ripped out of their chest alive. Still beating. So I think he would appreciate that I didn’t shy away from those darker elements. He never told me to cover my eyes.
Via your Twitter account, you received your first piece of fan mail last month. In an interview with The Rumpus, you explained that writing children’s books has been your dream since fourth grade. What has that experience been like for you—to come full circle from being an aspiring author to a writer who has fourth graders writing you letters?
I can’t even describe the feeling. For me writing is about communication. I’m not very good at talking. In fact, for most of middle school and high school I was practically a mute. I’m somewhat better now, but still, whenever I speak with somebody in person, afterward I’m always left with a sense that I failed to express what I was trying to. That there was no connection. And that’s why I write. I have this very human urge to connect with other people, to communicate the things that I think and I feel, and so I write all of it down, and I send it out into the world, hoping that it will reach somebody. So to get some type of response from a reader—to make that connection with another person—there’s absolutely nothing better. (Especially, as was the case with that letter you mentioned, when the letter comes in a tie-dye envelope sealed with a holographic jellyfish sticker.)
This is your debut novel, but you’ve published many short stories for adults. Can you discuss what you are working on next?
I’m working on a short story collection, a novel about hacking, a novel about zoology, some internet projects, and a comics collaboration with the artist Nica Horvitz. I also recently launched a site called Early Work, which publishes childhood artwork by adult masters, as well as a site called Interview With An Artist, which is an ongoing series of conversations with artists from different mediums. I’m working on another project too, but that one is a secret, and I’m taking it to the grave.
FICTION – MIDDLE GRADE
If You Find This by Matthew Baker
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Published March 17, 2015