I was mightily impressed by Tim Tharp's debut young adult novel, Knights of the the Hill Country when I reviewed it this spring for Bookslut. Initially it appears to be a sports novel as it follows the trials and tribulations of a high school football team closing in on a its fifth straight undefeated season. Everyone in the town wants the Kennisaw Knights to win and for Hampton Green, a senior who suddenly finds himself as the team's star, the way in which his performance on the field is viewed by others seems to be a bit bewildering. Hampton's best friend Blaine has always been the star before, but he is struggling with an injury from the previous season and as Hampton gets better, Blaine is unable to keep up. This sets up all sorts of conflict between the friends and also allows Tharp to reveal just how other people treat high school athletes - and what happens to the teens when that reatment changes.
I read a lot of books about kids who are ignored and bullied and suffer because of the popular kids and cliqueness of high school but it is rare that I find a book that looks seriously at the pressures on jocks. It's hard to feel sorry for Blaine as the book begins but by the end you wonder just what the hell is going to happen to this kid - and if anyone has ever given any thought at all to the real life kids he is based on. You also fall hard for Hampton who has a host of personal issues he's trying to deal with (absent father, promiscuous mother) along with a fledgling romance with a surprising girl. As much as I liked Hampton though, every kid in the novel made me think and there was not one (including Blaine's girlfriend) who I was unable to identify with.
Knights of the Hill Country is my pick for the book everyone should know about but doesn't and most definitely should be required reading in high schools across the country. It lays bare an entire facet of high school life that is largely ignored by writers, teachers and parents. I was never an athlete, but I adore this book and I was quite pleased to be able to ask Tim some questions about it.
As a published adult novelist, what prompted you to write a YA novel?
TT: Really, it's the same thing that prompted me to write an adult novel. In fact, the ending of Knights of the Hill Country is taken from a short story I wrote while in graduate school at Brown University. I'm interested in how people get to be the way they are, and there is no better way to explore that question than to write about teenagers. My adult novel, Falling Dark, weaves a storyline involving teenagers into the adult's story, and as a result teens seem to really like it. At one point, a teacher at a local high school asked me to attend a book club meeting to discuss the novel with both teachers and students. The teens really impressed me with the immediacy of their connection to the book. They talked about the characters as if they were real people, even got mad at them. That combination of teenagers as subject matter and audience really fired my imagination, and after reading some great young adult books that friends recommended, I couldn't wait to get started on my own. The "football player storyâ€�, as I had come to think of it, seemed like the perfect topic for it.
You mention several great YA titles that were recommended to you - can you be title specific about one or two?
TT: The first one was Holes by Louis Sachar, followed by Lois Lowery's The Giver. A couple of other books I read early on that I admired for style and characterization were Sights by Susanna Vance and The Beet Fields by Gary Paulsen.
Did you have any difficult writing for a strictly teen audience? Clearly, as you explained, you had already written a crossover novel - did you just approach writing Hill County in the same way as Falling Dark or were you more aware of the age of your target readers?
TT: The ending of Knights of the Hill Country is actually taken from a short story that I wrote while a student in Brown University's MFA program, so it was not originally intended for the young adult market. But when I began to think about writing for teens, it seemed like the perfect seed to start with. In the original story, I didn't describe any football action and probably would have kept the focus more on off-the-field concerns if I had been expanding it into an adult-oriented novel. For a younger audience, the football scenes add excitement. Still, I made sure that those scenes not only provided action but also developed the emotional and psychological aspects of the characters at the same time.
It is not uncommon to find YA titles written from the perspective of disaffected teens or those who are the subject of bullying from popular athletes. By writing from Hampton 's perspective, and illuminating the struggle of his best friend Blaine, you really look at an often overlooked part of teen life. Were you prompted to write this sort of book by any particular event and why do you think that books about teens rarely address the experiences of former star athletes?
TT: Actually, I set out to write a story about the dangers of conformity and the importance of thinking for oneâ€™s self. The idea of exploring that theme with football players came quickly since it was important to have a character that went along with what was expected of him. And as a football fan from Oklahoma, I knew how much was expected of players at all levels. From there, I let the characters of Hampton and Blaine lead me to the other issues that the story deals with.
Since I havenâ€™t discussed the issue of former athletes with other authors, Iâ€™m not sure why few have taken on this topic. I suspect itâ€™s because the characters are so young that thereâ€™s not much time for them to have become former athletes, and then, of course, there is much more action to write about with current athletes. Itâ€™s certainly a worthwhile topic to explore, though.
A a lot of Hampton's reconsideration of his life seems to come from watching what happens to Blaine. This is new territory for a YA sports novel (or YA coming-of-age novel) - at what point did you realize you were writing about the crash and burn of a star athlete and how it affected his best friend? Did you have any of the concerns you mentioned, that perhaps Blaine would not ring true as he was too young to be a "former athlete"?
TT: The way I see it, the most attractive part of conformity is the false sense of identity that comes along with it, so it was important to have a reason for that identity to start unraveling. Blaine is not yet a former athlete, but the fear of that is there. Not only does he risk losing his identity as a Knight but as a part of his own family (which has already happened to his brother Billy). This lends a real desperation to his anger and violence. It also serves as the catalyst for Hampton to begin questioning his own identity as a Knight and as Blaineâ€™s friend.
I thought it was interesting how you showed that the adults were just as much to blame for the pressure on the kids as they themselves were. It is clear from the beginning that Blaine must succeed at football because that is what the town expects - and it is the town that turns away from him and over to Hampton as Blaine can no longer play at the highest level due to his injury. Do you think adults realize the pressure they put on teen athletes or that this sort of pressure is addressed enough in YA literature?
TT: Iâ€™m sure adults realize it since this issue is often covered in the media, and most likely a great many think itâ€™s a good thing, that pressure is necessary to become a winner. We seem to be losing the notion of the true amateur athlete for whom fitness of mind and body, as well as personal honor and integrity, are the top priorities. This isnâ€™t just something that happens with athletes, of course. Kids are pressured to be winners at spelling bees, science fairs, debates, all kinds of subjects. And, apparently, personal honor and integrity are often sacrificed in these areas too, just as they are in the working world of the adults.
Why did you decide to include the backstory about the former championship team? What do you want the truth about their winning streak to show readers?
TT: This story reflects a certain superficial brand of patriotism that can be found in American society. Iâ€™m talking about the jingoistic â€œlove-it-or-leave-itâ€� brand that turns a blind eye to the dark side of our heritage and refuses to admit problems with policies as long as they are the policies of their â€œteamâ€�. This attitude stands in the way of rooting out and fixing serious problems. When Hampton hears this story, he realizes that there are more sides to the Knights legend than the town generally acknowledges and that he doesnâ€™t condone everything they did. This frees him to begin forging his own values rather than following the legend, or Blaine, unquestioningly.
Do you think enough options are given to students like Hampton and Blaine? And here's an even trickier question: Do you think real life kids like them would read a book like Hill Country?
TT: If teachers stereotype kidsâ€”whether as jocks, delinquents, or science â€œbrainsâ€�â€”they arenâ€™t likely to make the kids aware of the wide variety of options that do exist. On the other hand, parents, like Blaineâ€™s dad, may be so busy trying to relive their lives through their children that they donâ€™t see who the kids really are. Or, as in Hamptonâ€™s case, the parent might be too involved with his or her own life to pay much attention to the childâ€™s. Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s important for kids to be curious and questioning about the world around them, even if it means questioning the authority figures in their lives.
Iâ€™m sure that kids like Hampton would enjoy this book very much, as would many boys, and even men, who think they donâ€™t like reading. Blaine would probably get somebody else to read it for him.
I have found many books out there that help girls navigate the path to adulthood but comparatively few for boys trying to figure out how to be men. What lessons about becoming men were you hoping (if at all) to convey with Hill Country and do you think this is a subject that should be addressed more for teen boys?
TT: As I mentioned earlier, I set out to explore the core themes of conformity vs. thinking for oneself, so I hope that readers will do that with this book. If I did a proper job with creating the characters, then readers should be able to ask all sorts of questions about their choices and actions. And each reader can take something personal away from the story. Then, if they know someone else who read the book, they can debate away!