Author J.M. Varner Sets High School Novels in Squirrel Hill
By Meg Cummings
In the very first scene of Digital Me, the first novel in J.M. Varner’s Squirrel Hill High series, one character stands at the epicenter of Squirrel Hill, the corner of Forbes and Murray. At this concrete heart of the neighborhood, she gazes up at the imposing structure of the Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library and she feels an awe that is often inspired in even the oldest residents of Squirrel Hill.
Born in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, Varner attended Geneva College in Beaver Falls. During his time as a student there, he traveled to Taiwan off and on for about a year. Varner used his travels to inform his descriptions in Mister Teacher Person, the second novel in the series, which takes place partly in Taiwan. Varner found himself in Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh during his time as a graduate student at University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne. After receiving his teaching license at Slippery Rock University, Varner now lives in northern Virginia, where he teaches seventh grade at a public middle school in addition to writing.
In his Squirrel Hill High series, Varner tells two overlapping tales set at the fictional Squirrel Hill High. If one were to place the school in the real Squirrel Hill, Varner imagines it located in northeastern Squirrel Hill, in the place of the Children’s Institute. Digital Me is the story of two friends navigating the murky new world of a Facebook-like social media website and an insidious presence on the other side of the world destined to complicate it. Mister Teacher Person, follows the journey of Stacy King, a local broadcast reporter completing a profile on a teacher at Squirrel Hill High, who has recently gone missing. During her investigation, King faces her own past at Squirrel Hill High.
“High school, for me, is kind of a microcosm of society,” says Varner, describing why he chose the setting of his stories. It provided the perfect opportunity to explore the different roles, responsibilities, people, and interactions and how the use of technology affects those therein. Varner was cautious about preaching in his novels about the dangers of technology, ostensibly the theme of the works. “You have to ask yourself, do I want to tell a lesson? And how explicitly do I want to tell it?” Varner intended his stories to hold a mirror up to society and allow the reader to experience connections between the fictional world and the real world. “You’re reading fiction, but you’re aware that there are connections between the fictional story you’re reading and your own life,” Varner says, “when you close a book…you’re left with some lingering thoughts and reflections about how what you’ve read about in the story reflects on your own life.”
There is a plethora of imagery that would be familiar to Pittsburgh residents in Varner’s novels. Besides describing the corner of Forbes and Murray, the descriptions in the Squirrel Hill High series illustrate Murray Avenue, the commute to and from Oakland and Squirrel Hill, and several businesses located on Forbes and Murray. Varner chose to set his novels in Squirrel Hill to aide in the arduous process of world-building for fiction writing. By basing his setting and story on a real location, Varner was able to visualize the locations and integrate them with more ease into the story. Squirrel Hill’s busy urban environment was also easier to work with. The thriving setting allowed Varner more freedom in images to choose and off which to build. Though he no longer lived in the area when he wrote the novels, the vividness of the images in his memory and his own photography of Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh offered Varner the depiction of striking, picturesque views such as looking up at the glass panes of the library or the slope of Murray Avenue. By building his story in the real and thriving location of Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh, Varner could focus on creating and cultivating the characters and themes of his novels.