More than a decade ago, before Matthew Quick made a name for himself as a bestselling novelist, he taught high school literature.
One of his finest moments in the classroom, if he does say so himself, was the outside-the-box first-day pop quiz he’d have in store for the very driven students in his accelerated American lit class.
Q, as he is known, instructed the kids to make paper airplanes, to decorate them with drawings and doodles and to send them sailing out the window. Pop quiz over.
“These were kids who were stressing about whether they’d be able to get into Ivy League schools,” Quick says. “They very much wanted to ace the SAT. They would come into my class thinking, ‘What do I have to do to get the best grades?’
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“That was the lesson I used to emphasize that grades weren’t the ultimate thing.”
Suffice it to say that the author, best known for his 2008 debut, Silver Linings Playbook, was an unconventional and motivational instructor, the kind that has a lasting impact on the lives of students.
So naturally when he writes about an inspiring teacher in his new novel, Love May Fail, he lets Mr. Vernon borrow the paper-airplane lesson. It’s one of many colorful Capra-esque moments within this engaging book.
We chatted with Quick about Love May Fail, which comes out Tuesday.
The book is a twisted variation on It’s a Wonderful Life. A mentor teacher is a broken man and his former student, Portia Kane, tries to build him back up again and show him the value of his work. Alas, her intervention doesn’t go as well as in the Frank Capra-James Stewart movie.
It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite films of all time. I’m a huge Capra fan. My wife and I watch that movie every Christmas Eve. It’s a ritual. I think we need those kinds of uplifting stories and I like to think that my stories do that ultimately.
On the other hand, I’m interested in where the story goes after the movie ends. I’ve often thought, What does George Bailey (the Stewart character) do the next week or the next month? How long can that one night of everyone celebrating him sustain him? How long can that brief hit of good will last?
The George Bailey character is somebody who puts everybody else first. But to be a George Bailey on a daily basis, like Mr. Vernon is, and to try to sustain it for 30, 40, 50 years is really hard without having setbacks and depressions and breakdowns.
Once in a while, as a teacher, you have your day. But what sustains you through all those other days when people don’t throw you a party? That’s a question I wanted to explore.
So you’re advocating that we give these everyday heroes like teachers a pat on the back and some “attaboy” praise on a more regular basis, just to keep them going?
It’s hard for the selfless George Bailey-Mr. Vernon types to say, “I need affirmation.” They show up and do the work, and we rely on them and take them for granted. But it does mean something to them.
“I received an email just last night from a former student. He’s a cardiologist who keeps in touch and he has a knack for sending an email at just the right time, like after I’ve gotten a bad review or when I’m just a little down in some way.
That’s when he writes and says, “I read one of your books and enjoyed it,” or “I remembered something you taught that proved quite valuable to me today,” and that’s all I’ll need to lift me back up.
Your book is filled with pop culture references, from ET to Mr. Miyagi to Lynda Carter, star of TV’s Wonder Woman. Was there any temptation to weave in an inside-joke reference to Bradley Cooper, whose Silver Linings Playbook performance netted him an Oscar nomination?
No. I can’t say that that crossed my mind. But I should point out that Bradley Cooper was amazing in terms of dropping my name into his interviews and referencing Silver Linings Playbook, the book, so I’m very grateful to Bradley.
I didn’t think of doing it. But maybe I’ll get a little meta in the next book.
The book is also practically a valentine to Mötley Crüe, the ’80s hair-metal rockers. Are you taking kickbacks from the band? Is that why you’ve woven it so prominently into your story?
No kickbacks. But I hope if they ever read the book, they will be amused. I actually went to see Mötley Crüe in concert when I was writing the book. I went with a notepad and took notes. So the concert experience in the book was very authentic.
I would love for the guys in the band to embrace the book. And I certainly hope they aren’t upset about being in it. I wouldn’t want Mötley Crüe coming after me!
Love May Fail
by Matthew Quick
Audiobook: HarperCollins and Blackstone Audio, $44.99; read by actors Cris Dukehart, Jim Meskimen, Lorna Raver, Tonya Campos and Tim Fannon