A red brick school house with white trim may seem out of place in lower Manhattan’s urban landscape, but it’s been sitting on the corner of E 16th and Rutherford Place since 1860. The land-marked building is the Meetinghouse of the Friends Seminary, the New York City Quaker school where James Frankie Thomas, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, based his debut novel, “Idlewild.”
Thomas, who was a “a total ‘lifer’ for the whole 13 years” at the school, fictionalizes his alma mater through the story of Fay and Nell, two queer high school students at Idlewild who meet on the morning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nell is consumed with thoughts of Fay, and Fay is consumed with thoughts of gay men. They’re not a couple, but the mechanisms of their relationship are almost too intimate to be platonic.
“I’m really interested in these queer relationships that are not quite one thing and not quite the other thing,” said Thomas. “One of my motivations in writing ‘Idlewild’ was to explore those relationships that are just uncategorizable.”
Over the next school year, Fay and Nell become so close that they almost share the same consciousness.
When they’re together, they become the “F&N unit”— a dynamic but mischievous duo that occupies themselves by thinking up games like “Guess Who’s Gay” and writing fanfiction late into the night on LiveJournal.
“The LiveJournal fandom community was such an interesting corner of the internet,” Thomas said. “It’s a thing of the past now.”
In “Idlewild,” Thomas revives those online fandom communities by giving his readers a glimpse of Fay and Nell’s brainchild: a multi-part, sexually explicit fanfiction about their two friends, Theo and Christopher.
“It’s a little bit of an elegy to a bygone era of the internet that I think is really important,” said Thomas. “I have so much respect for fanfiction which I do think of as a form of folk art…the same as wonderful baskets that people weave.”
And what Fay and Nell do together at night is not dissimilar to basket weaving. Within those seemingly infinite hours of crafting fantasies together, they twist and tie the knots that weigh down their friendship in the long run.
“[The book] became, sort of by happy accident, this story of intimacy and lack of intimacy and merging and rupturing,” said Thomas. “What can seem from one angle to be an incredible, beautiful deep intimacy can actually from another angle be a kind of selfishness.”
“I am very interested in the ways that selfishness can be beautiful,” Thomas said. “That, to me, is so much of what adolescence is about.”
James Frankie Thomas will present at the 2023 Boston Book Festival during the Debut Novels: Coming of Age session on Oct. 14 at 2 p.m. bostonbookfest.org
Elena Giardina can be reached at email@example.com.