Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Twelve

A Novel

by Nick McDonell

“Nick McDonell’s Twelve is an astonishing rush of a first novel, all heat and ice and inexorable narrative drive—the kind of novel you finish and immediately read again, just to see how it works. And it does work—a pleasure to read, a horror to contemplate, a real achievement.” —Joan Didion

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date July 06, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4467-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date May 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4687-9
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Creating a sensation around the world, Twelve established its seventeen-year-old author as a powerful voice of the new millennium. The chilling novel follows prep school dropout White Mike through the week between Christmas and New Year’s 1999, as he takes a year off to deal an alluring new drug to his privileged peers on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The kids of Twelve have it all; Chris and Claude and Hunter and Laura have the best, and most, of everything, but are constantly looking for something more exotic, and more dangerous. But Twelve is not a coming-of-age story, because these kids never had a childhood—their parents are off on holiday in Bali or business in Brussels, leaving hired help to look the other way as the kids stay home alone in their multimillion-dollar town houses, partying with drugs and sex and, in the end, much worse.

From page one, the pace is set toward an apocalyptic climax. In the penultimate party scene, when we thought we couldn’t be surprised, we are shocked. And throughout the book, where there is an excess of everything but hope, we are filled with that very emotion as White Mike struggles for nothing less than his soul.

Tags Literary

Praise

“As fast as speed, as relentless as acid. . . . Mr. McDonell sketches in these characters with brisk authority, deftly cutting from one subplot to another in quick, cinematic takes. . . . He gives us a palpable sense of the privileged but spiritually desolate world that his characters inhabit.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Twelve . . . delivers a satirical, even playful portrait of a world that is perilous but essentially humane. . . . [McDonell] renders Manhattan’s cosseted Upper East Side with both the casual authority of an insider and the wry distance of an observer. . . . He maintains a teasing affection for the absurdities of adolescence—an impressive feat of synthesis.” —Jennifer Egan, The New York Times Book Review

“Like Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel, Less Than Zero, it is a report on the secret lives of certain privileged young Americans that is likely to shock some (if not all) of their oblivious parents. . . . It will command attention. . . .[McDonell] employs a prose style that affects pithiness and punch—a bit of Hemingway here, a bit of Hammett there, short paragraphs and terse dialogue—and that contains, beneath the tough-guy veneer, a soft inner core of sentimentality.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“Seventeen-year-old Nick McDonell, like the young Jim Carroll, displays a frightening accuity in his astonishing debut, . . . a plunge into the depraved realm of overprivileged, drug-gobbling preppies.” —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

“Nick McDonell’s Twelve is an astonishing rush of a first novel, all heat and ice and inexorable narrative drive–the kind of novel you finish and immediately read again, just to see how it works. And it does work—a pleasure to read, a horror to contemplate, a real achievement.” —Joan Didion

“Nick McDonell is the real thing, a powerful young writer with the look of a dangerous freak and very sharp teeth. The ratio of age to talent is horrifying. His trick is he writes the truth. I’m afraid he will do for his generation what I did for mine.” —Hunter S. Thompson

“In Twelve, Nick McDonell displays a remarkable arsenal of gifts—wit, near poetic concision, a terrific eye and ear—all of which add up to the Great Gift: the ability to tell a story, in such a way, that once engaged, the reader will find it near impossible to put the book down.” —Richard Price

Twelve has a mentorless feel, like something that percolated from his experiences and came out fresh.” —Los Angeles Times

“The artfulness of Twelve is undeniable. The story moves, dips into big issues of race and class, and has great writing that reveals what McDonell calls “the spiritual debilitation of a generation.” —Heidi Benson, San Francisco Chronicle

“An arresting debut. . . . [McDonell] knows how to make you keep turning pages. . . . He knows how to establish a mood (completely creepy) that he sustains to the bitter, blood-soaked end.” —Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

“The novel, both an indictment of excess and a cry of teenage loneliness, is briskly paced and snappy, name-checking both Camus and Eminem in its sketches of the nihilistic spawn of Manhattan’s big fish.” —Joe Heim, People

“Written with an exquisite eye for detail and character development. . . . A worthy page turner.” —Deborah Schoeneman, New York Post

“There’s no denying this young author’s talent. . . . In cinematic style, McDonell cuts from one scene to another, one character to another. . . . Remarkable.” —Polly Paddock, Charlotte Observer

“McDonell, like the young Jim Carroll, displays a frightening acuity in his astonishing debut.” —Vanity Fair

“A dramatic debut. . . . An enthralling read about apathetic youth who have everything and nothing.” —Patty Lamberti, Playboy

“The idea of a teenage novelist instantly, and often justifiably, raises the hackles of skeptical critics: the author’s youth can seem no more than a promotional device. But McDonell is the real deal. Twelve, in many ways reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis’s famously nihilistic first novel Less Than Zero, is a compelling and classically plotted story of the interconnectedness of a group of sophisticated high-school kids in the days leading up to an apocalyptic New Year’s party.” —Esquire (UK)

“What distinguishes Twelve from the pack of red-eyed, runny-nosed Bret Easton Ellis wannabes isn’t just author Nick McDonell’s age . . . but his deft ability to lampoon Dave Matthews, party brats and upper-crust society with incisive wit and heart.” —Paper

“[A] hot-hot, smartly composed debut. . . . It is clear that the truth, if not necessarily the facts, is what McDonell hopes to convey through the bleak grittiness of Twelve.” —Margarita Fichtner, The Miami Herald

“An exceptional, assured debut by a formidably talented young writer. . . . [Twelve] captures the zeitgeist of confused adolescents and a sick culture post-Columbine.” —Deborah Hornblow, Hartford Courant

“McDonell uses evocative prose, peppered with teenage turns-of-phrase to describe characters who-for all their moneyed arrogance, look to be living lives of quiet desperation.” —Mike Milliard, The Boston Phoenix

“A beautifully tragic and unsettling story. . . . The beauty of Twelve is in McDonell’s instinctive style of writing. He knows when to pull back in the narrative, when to let the characters develop, and when to propel the story forward. He taps into the idea that seemingly small, unrelated events always have greater implications without losing sight of the story or character at hand. It’s a reminder of how engrossing a character-driven novel can, and should, be.” —Rebecca Swain Vadnie, Orlando Sentinel

“McDonell’s voice is fresh and alluring. . . . [Twelve] features intriguing characters, a rocket-fast plot and enough voyeuristic detail to keep the reader engaged. . . . Twelve‘s appeal comes from something deeper than just a depiction of drug-addled teens. McDonell takes us into the darkness where the only thing that matters is your barely controlled id.” —Sharyn Wizda Vane, Austin American-Statesman

“Frank, disturbing, and riveting in its no-holds-barred depiction of teenage nihilism. . . . [McDonell] writes of a world he clearly knows and writes of it very well, with the insight and honesty of someone looking from the inside out.” —Jon Land, Providence Journal

“Courage is required of any person who sits down to write a novel this focused and fierce—no matter their age—and with the publication of Twelve, McDonnel has proven that he has more courage than most.” —Christopher Frizzelle, Seattle Weekly

“Nick McDonell has been hailed as the voice of his generation. Gratifyingly, Twelve, a compulsive elegy to wasted, privileged youth, lives up to the hype.” —Elle (UK)

“McDonell is an authentic talent and, long after the storms of hype have died away, his novel will endure as a snapshot of his generation as surely as Less than Zero did of the eighties.” —Stephanie Merritt, The Observer (London)

“In Twelve, Mr. McDonell underscores the consequences of what happens to the individual when shallow and meaningless events unfold into real and deadly conclusions. He explores life, death, and the states of mind that are somewhere in between. Mr. McDonell adds insight into the troubles and tribulations of a group he intimately knows; it remains the duty of the reader to take note.” —Winter Casey, The Washington Times

“McDonell pulls together struggles of every kind and color to create a radiant and heartbreaking tapestry that illuminates the experience of adolescence.” —Annie Belz, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Impressive. . . . [McDonell] can write, and with style. . . . A good novel, period.” —Emiliana Sandoval, Detroit Free Press

“[Twelve] will have even grumpy oldsters marveling at the boy’s command of the craft.” —The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“An absorbing ride through a weird version of counter-culture.” —Arizona Republic

“McDonell is mature beyond his years, demonstrating a remarkable eye for detail and real talent as a storyteller.” —Bill McGarvey, Time Out New York

“A page-turner. . . . [McDonell’s] just told a simple story so compellingly that it’s hard to do anything else until the characters and their chilling story are out of your system.” —Katie Haegele, Philadelphia Weekly

“Remarkably well-written. A quick read. . . . Wonderfully entertaining. . . . Twelve pulled me forward hypnotically. . . . It’s filmic, written in something akin to screenplay shorthand, but only in retrospect. It reads like what it is: great prose, great fiction. . . . As skilled as he is sketching his characters’ physical personae, he’s even better at nailing the way they speak. . . . McDonell has taken a rather large cue from Alfred Hitchcock, who always believed that instead of surprising you with an explosion, one should show the ticking bomb under the chair.” —Tony Buchsbaum, January Magazine

“A shockingly good read. . . . The violence, decadence and self-indulgence he portrays seem uncomfortably close to reality.” —Philadelphia City Paper

“McDonnell’s sparse prose captures the disassociation of this teen social set.” —Courtney Lewis, KLIATT

Twelve admirably compares to such lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-dissolute as Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, precursors whose minimalist style and dry tone McDonell readily salutes.” —Brett Sokol, Miami New Times

“Will make you gasp from the start, and keep you turning pages right up to the story’s climactic ending.” —Colorado Springs Independent

“McDonell writes with an icy exactness, capturing the loopy cadences of teen-speak in all its dialects, and the consumer fetishism by which his young subjects announce their tribal loyalties. His taut prose displays remarkable powers of observation, narrative and dialogue that many older writers would die for. . . . Seemingly on this own McDonell has mastered a style combining sharply observed third-person narrative and moments of ironic reflection. . . . A contemporary version of Catcher in the Rye-enrolls-at-Columbine-High where jaded snots and mercenary dealers dance their stoned pas de deux while murderous predators lurk in the shadows playing video games.” —Chris Bergeron, Metrowest Daily News

“An extraordinary book. It’s a very clever reworking, in miniature, of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. . . . Beautifully observed, the language, the slang they use, they’re not over-egged.” —Tom Paulin, Newsnight Review

Twelve is an exciting and interesting book, written concisely and with an uncanny feel for its subjects. . . . [McDonell has] an excellent ear for dialogue and just the right dose of references to fashion and pop culture, making it possible to have a character-driven book without any in-depth characterizations.” —Connor Ennis, AP Review

“McDonell casts a jaundiced eye on the materialism and spiritual emptiness of these teens reared by servants, whose parents seem largely MIA. . . . McDonell has the guts to take on the nihilism of today’s youth, a subject that’s been hyped post-Columbine but rarely explored. . . . Like some hard-ass chronic, this novel grips you: One toke and you can’t put it down.” —Sarah Ferguson, High Times

“Well written. . . . [Twelve] is splashy, flashy, and sharply observed.” —Jennifer Hubert, VOYA

“This surprisingly affective debut novel by eighteen-year-old Nick McDonell is a sort of East Coast Less Than Zero for the rage-rock generation.” —Black Book

“His prose darts from one scene and character to the next, much like a cab zipping down city streets, halting quickly at a red light and then accelerating madly as soon as the light turns green.” —Publishers Weekly

“McDonell’s characters come at the reader in a hallucinatory rush of contemporary culture. . . . Energetic and episodic, brimming with tension, the narrative is a searing portrait of the ultra-privileged—rich kids who have climbed so high, there’s nowhere to go but down. McDonell. . . writes with a worldliness and wisdom that exceeds his years.” —Bookpage

“Sparse, fiercely unsentimental prose. . . . [An] engrossing read.” —John Green, Booklist

“Beneath the deceptively icy surface of Nick McDonell’s brilliant satrical debut about wealth and wasted youth in uptown Manhattan lies a rich and devilishly productive layer of teenage spleen.” —Oliver Robinson, Time Out (London)

“A smart, sharply written fable of drugs and violence.” —Tim Adams, The Observer (London)

“McDonell’s writing is consistently brilliant. Every subtle, thought-provoking, poetic moment in this novel fits on top of the last, creating a narrative as precarious and complex as a tower of children’s building blocks. . . . Ranking alongside Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World as one of the most authentic and moving accounts of contemporary . . . American childhood in existence.” —Independent on Sunday (London)

“A fresh new talent whose clear love of writing comes through his sparkling prose.” —Metro North East

Awards

New York Times Notable Book for 2002
New York Times Book Review Notable Fiction 2002
New York Post Best Seller
Los Angeles Times Best Seller
Boston Globe Best Seller
San Francisco Chronicle Best Seller

Excerpt

1

White Mike is thin and pale like smoke.

White Mike wears jeans and a hooded sweatshirt and a dark blue Brooks Brothers overcoat that hangs long on him. His blond hair, nearly white, is cropped tight around his head. White Mike is clean. White Mike has never smoked a cigarette in his life. Never had a drink, never sucked down a doobie. But White Mike has become a very good drug dealer, even though it started out as a one-shot deal with his cousin Charlie.

White Mike was a good student, but he’s been out of school for six months, and though some people might wonder what he’s doing, no one seems to care very much that he’s taking a year off before college. Maybe more than a year. White Mike saw that movie American Beauty about a kid who is a drug dealer and buys expensive video equipment with the money he makes. The kid says that sometimes there is so much beauty in the world that sometimes you just can’t take it. Fuck that, thinks White Mike.

White Mike is not looking at beauty. He is looking at the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It is two days after Christmas and all the kids are home from boarding school and everyone has money to blow. So White Mike is busy with a pickup in Harlem and then ounces and fifties and dimes and loud music and packed open houses and more rounds and kids from Hotchkiss and Andover and St. Paul’s and Deerfield all looking to get high and tell stories about how it is to kids from Dalton and Collegiate and Chapin and Riverdale, who have stories, of their own. All the same stories, really.

The city is a mess this time of year, this year especially. Madison Avenue is all chewed up with construction, and there are more bums on Lexington than White Mike remembers. It is crowded on the sidewalks, and the more snow, the worse it gets, and there has been plenty of snow. On some streets when the snowdrifts pile up there is only a salted corridor of frozen dog shit and concrete. It’s been cold since Thanksgiving, very cold, coldest winter in decades says the TV, but White Mike doesn’t mind the cold.

When White Mike first started dealing, it was summer and hot, and he tried to go as long as he could without sleep as a kind of experiment. White Mike already looked pale and scary to the kids he sold to, and then by the third day his jeans and white T-shirt were grimed out and he looked like some refugee James Dean, and the last hours were just a blur and the cars on the street flew past so close to him that people who saw flinched, but he had the cadences of the city down so tight that he was fine.

At Lexington and Eighty-sixth, his friend Hunter saw him and said, Mike, are you feeling okay, and White Mike turned to him and there was a smear of dirt on his face and his eyes were glowing in the neon light from the Papaya King juice/hot dog place. White Mike smiled at him and said watch this and took off running, just running so fucking fast up the block toward Park Avenue. There were a bunch of private school kids walking the same direction, and when they saw White Mike running past them, one of them said, loud enough for White Mike to hear, Madman running. And White Mike turned and walked back to them saying, Madman, madman, madman, madman, and the kids got scared, and then White Mike ran full into them, and they scattered, and they didn’t think it was funny at all, and then White Mike started barking at them, howling, and they all ran. And White Mike ran after them, barking and howling, and Hunter ran after him, and White Mike let them get away after a couple blocks. Hunter put White Mike in a cab, but he had to convince the cabbie to take White Mike, and pay him in advance. The cabbie was jumpy and looked in the mirror at White Mike the whole ride. White Mike had his head out the window, staring at the pedestrians. When White Mike got home and collapsed in his bed with his shoes and clothes still on, his last thought before sleep was Why not? He had been awake for three days.

White Mike gets out of a cab on Seventy-sixth Street and Park Avenue. He looks at the number of the cab: 1F17. He memorizes the number every time he gets out of a cab, in case he leaves anything behind. This has never happened.

Down Park Avenue there are Christmas lights wrapped around all the trees and bushes, and the wires give the snow better purchase, so the frost hangs low from the branches. When the lights turn on at night the trees almost disappear between the bulbs, and the disembodied points of light outline jagged constellations in the dark air. It is getting past dusk, and White Mike remembers one night, years ago, when his mother was still alive and she sat on the edge of his bed, tucking him in for the night, and told him about Chaos Theory. White Mike remembers exactly what she said. The story she told him was about how if a butterfly died over a field in Brazil and fell to the ground and made a mouse move or a tiny shoot of grass bend, then everything might be different here, thousands and thousands of miles away.

“How come?” he asked.

“Well, if one thing happens and changes something else, then that thing changes something else, right? And that change could come all the way around the world, right here to you in your bed.” She tweaked his nose. “Did a butterfly do that?”

“Did the butterfly die?” he asked her back.

The lights on Park Avenue suddenly turn on. White Mike can feel his beeper vibrating again.

Reading Group Guide

Twelve is a chilling chronicle of urban adolescence that already has created an international sensation. Set in Manhattan between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, it is the story of White Mike, a seventeen-year-old prep-school dropout turned drug dealer, and his privileged peers who celebrate the holiday in multimillion-dollar co-ops and town houses, partying with drugs, sex, and escalating violence. The generation depicted in Twelve has grown up before its time, with absentee parents who dispense cash in lieu of love, affection, and guidance. To fill in the emotional void, White Mike and his friends prowl for something more exotic, and more dangerous. Hence, a quest for the new designer drug, twelve, which takes this privileged group to the housing projects of Harlem and an encounter with an equally disenfranchised group of teens who set in motion a chain of violence that rapidly spins out of control. From page one, the seventeen-year-old author, whose clarity and skill far exceed his years, sets an icy pace toward an apocalyptic climax.

1. The book opens with a description of White Mike: “White Mike is thin and pale like smoke” (p. 3). White Mike is a drug dealer who doesn’t use drugs. How does this set up the book?

2. This novel is set on the Upper East Side of New York City. Do you think that the setting is inherent to the story? Could the events in this novel be translated to other parts of the country? Los Angeles? Atlanta? Kansas City?

3. One of the main themes of this book is the impact of drugs on youth culture. Is that message an anti-drug one? Or does the book, in a sense, glorify the youth drug culture and those who participate in it?

4. How does the youth culture described in Twelve differ from the youth culture that Jim Carroll described in The Basketball Diaries? Or that Bret Easton Ellis brought to life in Less Than Zero?

5. The novel offers a unique look at race relations among teenagers. This is most graphically depicted in the scene at the Rec (p. 8). How does the interaction between black and white kids differ from your preconceptions? Or is what happens between the two groups what you have been led to expect?

6. The socioeconomic variables among the different teens at the school are not played up. All the characters assume that everyone else is upper middle class to upper class with extremely wealthy parents—just like themselves. Is this a commentary on how money affects even the children? What is McDonell saying about those effects?

7. White Mike remembers that he was once told he was in an “existential crisis’ and that he should read Albert Camus’s The Plague (p. 92). How does the existential philosophy affect White Mike’s decisions later in the story? Or does he reject this judgment?

8. What do the actions Jessica goes through to procure the drug twelve say about the dehumanizing affects of drugs on youth (pp. 107, 224)?

9. If they felt that their parents would listen, what do you think these kids would tell them?

10. How is this generation alike and different from those that preceded it? Think here about the sixties. Are these the same issues, or are these more exacerbated?

11. Was it possible for this story to have ended another way? Or was the violent path written right from the beginning?

12. It is possible to arrest this kind of behavior in future generations? What needs to be done to make this happen?

13. Is there anything enviable about White Mike and his world? Reading this, do you feel you would want to live in his world?

14. The climax of the story—with White Mike confronting Lionel, Lionel pulling Charlie’s gun, and Claude pulling the trigger of the Uzi—all comes in the short span of two pages (pp. 237-239). Why do you think McDonell punches such an emotional whallop into such a short space?

15. Has White Mike changed over the course of the story? Is he a different character from when he appeared “thin and pale like smoke” to when he decides “it was okay” to smoke in Paris (p. 244)? What changes can you perceive in him?

Suggested Further Reading:

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger; City of Night by John Rechy; Pure by Rebbecca Ray; Bongwater by Michael Hornburg; Black Snow by Liu Heng; Jack Frusciante Has Left the Band by Enrico Brizzi; By the Shore by Galaxy Craze; Downers Grove by Michael Hornburg; Fat Bald Jeff by Leslie Stella; Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs; Prague by Arthur Phillips; Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis; The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold; The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis; Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson; Scar Vegas and Other Stories by Tom Paine; Sarah by J. T. Leroy; Try by Dennis Cooper; Brave New Girl by Louisa Luna; The Fuck-Up by Arthur Nersesian; The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Author Q&A

An interview between Morgan Entrekin, Publisher of Grove/Atlantic, and Nick McDonell, author of Twelve. Morgan is Nick’s editor.

Morgan Entrekin: So Nick, I’ve known you all of your life, and you’ve grown up around a lot of us that were in publishing and writing and journalism. When did you start reading seriously and what were some of the books or authors that affected you?

Nick McDonell: Before I was even cogent, my parents read to me and so I have really early memories of hearing things like Huckleberry Finn and the King Arthur stories. I didn’t start reading especially early, but I remember Huckleberry Finn was an enormous one for me. . . I didn’t understand half of it, but I remember getting really hooked up in it.

ME: What about your friends? Do your friends read? Because you hear so much that this is a non-literate generation, and about how the computer, the audio-visual, and the electronic medium replaced literature… Are you unusual among your friends in that way?

NM: Yes, sadly. A lot of my friends listen to music all the time, voraciously. They watch television or movies. But a lot of them just don’t read, and they don’t make any excuses for not reading either. I have one friend who I trade books back and forth with constantly, but the vast majority of people I go to school with read what they have to do for school, if that. They don’t because they’re conditioned in school that “contemporary American literature is no good.” And that is just ridiculous.” I love all the stuff I read.

ME: Well, it’s just not being taught yet.

NM: Yes, exactly.

ME: When did you start writing and why?

NM: I think I’ve been writing as long as I’ve been reading. I wrote the requisite, really bad high school short stories like everyone else.

ME: But now you wrote a really good high school novel.

NM: When I wanted to write something besides essays, I wrote fiction.” And I enjoyed that.

ME: So was it encouraged in school for you to write?

NM: Yes.

ME: You did this magazine, Prophet, that I was aware of and very impressed with, and it was part of the reason I was so eager to see your novel. Tell me about Prophet.

NM: Prophet existed for only two issues, and the second issue was exponentially better than the first. Prophet was a way for my friends to get free concert tickets and also just an excuse to run around the city and do interesting things, because part of growing up in New York and part of Twelve is that these kids can’t think of anything to do, so they sit around and mess themselves up. . . . And part of what we were doing was finding interesting things to do.

ME: Prophet used contributing editors from different private schools up and down the East Coast, right?

NM: Right. The smartest kids we knew. The idea was to get the best writing that we could about whatever it was.

ME: And you were the editor?

NM: Yes.

ME: And you wrote for it as well?

NM: Yes, and this was part of the beginning of Twelve. The headline for the second issue was “Bang. You’re Sixteen.” It was right after all the Columbine stuff and everyone who read it was like, “Whoa.” And on the back it said, “There is nothing in nature that is not in us.” And so that’s the quote above it. And then there are these anecdotes, these vignettes, about violence, and one of them is actually in Twelve. They’re all about the most violent stories we’ve heard or witnessed up and down Manhattan. One of them was about a fight that happened outside this bar. We didn’t believe that bar fights existed until we saw one, and so we had a short paragraph about it.

ME: How did you come to write Twelve? When did you get the idea to do it, and then when did you write it?

NM: One night last spring I had an idea. I didn’t have a notion of a novel but I had an idea for a story and it happened all at once. . . . I took a piece of paper, I still have it, and I wrote down all the different things that happened in Twelve and I circled them and I drew lines and numbers one through twelve. And it never changed. . . . I didn’t know it was a novel. I figured it would be a story. So I just started flushing it out, and before I had even showed it to my father I had eighty pages. So it didn’t seem so hard to keep going because I was just writing it and I had done this stuff with violence in Prophet. Seventeen years of growing up was my research.

ME: So you wrote this, pretty much, in about six or nine months.

NM: I really wrote it in about nine weeks. The idea was a couple months before that, and the final edit was a couple months after that, but it was really during the summer. I wrote one thousand words each day.

ME: Well, there are a couple different questions that I have to ask. One is, how did you learn the crafts and techniques of fiction so well. I mean, were you conscious of what you were doing?

NM: I think it has a lot to do with reading. I could list authors who have had an influence on me.

ME: Tell me some of them.

NM: A lot of them are probably too close to home. Joan Didion for one. That made me so happy to get a quote from her for Twelve. Play It As It Lays is an exercise in pacing, in those short sentences. Hemingway also.

ME: Yes. He’s influenced a lot of writers.

NM: It’s highfalutin language combined with slang. I’ve always liked that and I’ve seen it in other contemporary writers. Nabokov is a fantastic example of that, and I had just read Lolita before doing this.

ME: What is so impressive to me is how you can shape scenes and create characters so quickly and deftly, and the authority of the voice. Did that come naturally?

NM: The reason I think this book works for me is because White Mike is a really important character. The book rises and falls as White Mike works.

ME: And he just came to you right away?

NM: White Mike is partly me and partly all of these things I’ve seen, but I feel really sure about who White Mike is.

ME: The book is inevitably going to be compared to books like Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries and Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. But this book seems to me to be more technically proficient as a piece of fiction and that’s what is so impressive about it.

NM: One of the things that I set up from the very beginning is that I did not want to have a first-person narrator. I wanted third person. There is thinking, but it infiltrates the story. White Mike is trying to not make judgments as he tells his story. I’m a big proponent of a story for the sake of the story, and I don’t like a lot of description and I think that comes through in this book. And I think one of the reasons people think that this book is technically advanced is because I don’t spend a lot of time describing things. I have an idea and I say it.

ME: It’s very mature work and that’s one of the exciting things. And I think it’s one of the reasons that there was this big wave of interest. But let’s talk a little bit more about what’s in the book, because a lot of people who hear this interview probably won’t have read the book yet. The media is going to focus on the sensational aspects of the book—the sex, the drugs, and the violence. What do you think about those issues in your generation?

NM: I am clearly not qualified to speak for my generation. You know I dodge that question all the time. People say that this book is about a generation. I hope it is because all good books are timely books, and all good books reflect the times from whence they came. That would be a fantastic compliment. But I, as a person, can’t speak for my generation. People say it will get a lot of attention because of the sex, violence, and drugs. It didn’t occur to me to put those things in. It’s just that those are the most interesting things that are going on in my life. They’re the vast things. . . . They’re the crazy things. Twelve is more about violence than drugs.

ME: That’s true. Except the title is a drug.

NM: Many of the things that have defined our generation have been movies and visuals. I think the movie The Matrix, with its black leather and flying bullets, was an intensely violent movie that really struck home. And then Fight Club was a really big deal for everyone who was my age, especially when you are a fifteen-year-old boy. Fight clubs cropped up all around New York.

ME: Even among private-school kids?

NM: Yes. They like to fight. This book is about the myths of this place. This story didn’t make it in, but I know a kid who took a padlock and wrecked some kid. It was all a mess.

ME: These incidents happen at private schools?

NM: Nothing in the book really occurred, but things like that do happen.

ME: Why?

NM: Twelve is about the spiritual debilitation of a generation. Nobody knows what the problem is. We know that our generation is more violent than the rest of them. I don’t know why. And then September 11 happened and it really changed it. Drop September 11 and we’re the generation that produced Columbine. Violence is the hallmark of my generation.

ME: Are these kids in private schools, like the character Claude? Are they playing with guns?

NM: No, he’s a bit of a caricature of himself. I’ve heard stories about people who have bought guns. . . I know where I could buy a gun if I had to. But yes, it’s Manhattan. . . It’s New York. You can get a gun if you want to and if you’re bored enough and you have enough money you can do whatever you want.

ME: What about the question of the adults? They’re strangely absent in this book. Was that intentional?

NM: Yes, absolutely. For one thing, the story can’t exist if there are adults looking over the shoulder of teenagers, and largely there are no adults in my world, and teenagers live in their own head. Adults don’t impinge too hard or heavily in a teenager’s world.

ME: What do you mean there are no adults in your world?

NM: “Kids grow up too fast,” as the cliché goes. I don’t know if that’s true, but New York affords a level of autonomy that is not available, I think, in most other parts of the world, because you can get on a subway and you can go do your thing really fast. And, I think New York is romanticized but also it also an integral part of the book in that it affords all those things. And why are there no parents? Because these are rich kids and their parents are off getting rich and being rich.

ME: I think it’s sad but true. You know two of my favorite characters are Mark Rothko and Timmy. Where did they come from?

NM: They really are caricatures. I imagined all the jokes that I had ever made about wiggers, white kids who are trying to be black. . . I imagined them as dumb as I could, but still with heart. They’re not malicious. They didn’t do anything bad, which is why it’s sad what happens to them at the end. They’re just confused. . .

ME: They’re very amusing characters.

NM: Twelve is a dark book, but I grew up in this place and my life wasn’t terrible and dark, and a lot of the kids who grow up here aren’t in a terrible and dark place.” You grow up around beauty in this city as well as all this weird darkness.

ME: We touched on that a bit, but this sort of excessive wealth and consumerism forms the background of these kids’ lives. Do you feel that, growing up in the world that you’ve grown up in?

NM: Yes, absolutely. I think that is one of the problems. Violence grows out of this obsession with materialism, and there is a flaw in the values of the people who bring it up. That is especially strange because some of the people who brought up these kids in New York, the people who send these kids to these private schools, were very important in the counterculture. They grew up in that counterculture and made their money out of that counterculture, and now they’re these “greed heads.”

ME: What does your generation think about it? What do you think is going to motivate them?

NM: The bad news is they want their cash and their portable DVD player, and nobody is making any excuses for it. They’re just saying they want it. And to some extent that’s justified by the media and the culture in which they’ve grow up in. Nobody’s saying that’s bad on national television. In literature, people are saying it, but nobody reads.

ME: This sort of follows into my next question. What do you think about your generation? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

NM: I don’t know. Every generation has it heroes and villains. It’s hard to say. I don’t think there’s any way to answer that question. I don’t even know what that question means.

ME: So what are you going to do? Are you going to write more?

NM: Yes. My father said to me, “You could still be a doctor. You can do whatever you want. You can go to college and become a doctor.” And I am going to go to college and I’m looking forward to doing that. The reason I wrote this book in the beginning was because I felt uncomfortable if I wasn’t writing it. It made me feel better to write it. When I write, I write with two fingers and I like to pound the keys and I hop around. Everyone says writers hate to write, but I really enjoy writing.” Maybe I won’t next time, but I did this time. I don’t think I’m going to stop. No, what I want to do is to get out and see the world. What I like best is traveling around the world and seeing what’s out and about, which is why journalism appeals to me. Yes, I’m absolutely going to keep writing.