"The Next Great Paulie Fink" | A Conversation with Ali Benjamin

Benjamin’s sophomore novel is a heartwarming examination of megastars, goats, friendship, and finding your own best self.

When Caitlyn Breen walks into her rural Vermont school on the first day of seventh grade, she doesn’t know what to expect. She had—more or less—figured out how to navigate middle school before her mother accepted a job in Mitchell, VT, in “the middle of absolutely nowhere.” She’s angry about leaving her friends and angry about having to start over. Plus, it’s not even a real school: it’s housed in a dilapidated old mansion, and her 10 classmates are obsessed with finding out what happened to their legendary classmate Paulie Fink, who, it appears, won’t be returning to school. Ali Benjamin’s sophomore novel, The Next Great Paulie Fink (Little, Brown, Apr. 2019; Gr 5-8), is a heartwarming examination of megastars, goats, friendship, and finding your own best self.


There are many wonderful, relatable threads woven into this book, but particularly poignant in the opening scenes is that adolescent yearning, even desperation, to fit in.

Oh, that yearning! I still have my middle school diary, and that’s the primary thing that leaps out from those pages: my desperation to fit in, to belong…and my constant nagging fear that I don’t. Those things appear in entry after entry. It’s painful to read.


When Caitlyn shows up to the Mitchell School, that’s the place she’s in. She longs to fit in, and she’s terrified she won’t. To reassure herself that she’ll be okay, she even carries a list of “rules,” which will be her guide to fitting in. But the rules have nothing to do with who she is at her core, so her initial attempts find her place only backfire. 


What Caitlyn ultimately learns is the thing that most of us spend a lifetime figuring out: that the trick to finding your place in this world is to be yourself. It sounds so simple, almost pat, but it’s hard! It requires, first and foremost, knowing yourself—the person you are separate from all the noise that surrounds you. And that’s just where the work begins. You also have to like yourself, to forgive yourself your flaws, and to trust in the path that’s yours alone.


But Caitlyn also discovers something important: that by being herself, she leaves room for others to do the same. Everyone gets the space they need to just be. The whole community winds up being better off, in ways she hadn’t previously been able to imagine.

So much about Mitchell School throws Caitlyn off initially, but her classmates’ confidence and her inability to pigeonhole them into the social hierarchy she’s created, baffles her.
Yes, Cailtyn’s classmates—dubbed the Originals, because they’re the school’s inaugural class, but also because they’re so quirky—were my chance to explore the question, “what if it never even occurred to a child that they might not fit in?”


The Originals have known each other since they were tiny; by now, they’ve grown very, very comfortable with one another. They’ve always been the oldest at their school, which is so tiny that each grade has just a single class. Since they’ve never had to jockey for social status, it doesn’t occur to them to hide their goofiest selves. They’ve been able to stay un-self-conscious longer than most of us ever do.


Caitlyn, by contrast, has forgotten what it feels like to be uninhibited. Initially, she assumes that there’s something wrong with them, and she refuses to join in their antics. But over time, she begins to realize that the Originals are the ones having fun. She’s the only one who’s missing out. Bit by bit, she sets down her inhibitions. She takes some small risks, then she takes some bigger ones. Eventually, she stops clinging to that old sense of herself. I really, really loved creating this path for Caitlyn, and watching her start to let go of all her old insecurities. Honestly, I think I crafted for Caitlyn the experience I wish that I’d had at that age!

The ways in which you frame this story are fascinating, especially those around the lessons on ancient Greece, mythmaking, and the concept of arete, or honor and virtue, or, as the teacher explains, “being the bravest, fullest, version of you.” Can you talk about that?

Absolutely. This book gave me the chance to explore, in a lighthearted way, some deep questions. What fundamental truths link human beings across space and time? Where, exactly, is the line between past and present, truth and fiction, real and imagined? The boundaries aren’t so clear, and there were times during the writing process when I felt like the book was folding into itself, with different elements laying on top of one another like an MC Escher drawing. Suddenly seemingly disparate things looked like one in the same: modern celebrity and the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus; reality television and Herodotus, modern middle-school angst and ancient philosophy.


I love the concept of arete—not the way the Greeks defined it per se (which tended toward battle heroics), but rather the notion that we each have an ideal version of ourselves, a best self, toward which we can move. None of us ever fully reach it, not completely. But simply by defining it, by recognizing it, we can use it as our personal north star.  When times are dark, or uncertain, we can ask ourselves, “what would that version of me do right now?”


That’s the question that Caitlyn, and other characters, learn to ask. And simply asking the question opens up possibilities. By imitating their best selves, they get a little closer to becoming their best selves.


The mythmaking also speaks to other framing devises that you employ—the interviews, and the reality-show competition, both of which Caitlyn is charged with. They are where she and readers get to learn more about the infamous prankster Paulie Fink, when she tries to get to the bottom of his story through her classmates’ (selective) memories, and devise a set of challenges to determine who will be come to be the next mythical Mitchell School student.

I had so much fun with those interviews, and with the competition that eventually emerges! Yes, Caitlyn decides to collect stories about Paulie Fink—a kid she’s never met—in an attempt to figure out who he is. She assumes that once she understands Paulie’s true “essence,” she’ll be able to design just-the-right challenges for the competition to find the next great Paulie Fink.


But instead of getting an full understanding of Paulie, Caitlyn ends up with a pastiche of partial truths, each shared by an earnest but unreliable narrator. The true Paulie remains elusive, shrouded by mystery.


The Next Great Paulie Fink is ultimately about the power and limitations of the stories we tell. Caitlyn discovers that even true stories—stories in which every element is factually correct—are inherently incomplete. Every story, after all, chooses a frame, a protagonist, a beginning, an ending. It sets some characters up as heroes, and others as scapegoats. It draws out certain details, sets others aside. At best, no story can be completely true: it can only be a version of the truth.


That’s a jarring thing to discover, but it gives Caitlyn the space to question some of her own guiding narratives. Are the stories she’s been telling herself serving her? Who might she get to be without them?


The Next Great Paulie Fink explores stories in so many different ways. There’s a moment, for example, where the kids move from oral storytelling to a written historic record, mirroring the history of storytelling. And there are so many different types of stories that exist within these pages: not just fiction and non-fiction, but also myth, tall tale, allegory, parable, oral history, memory, newspaper reports, as well as modern-day storytelling devices like reality television, emails, texts, and the ever-dreaded online comment sections.


It’s clear that the way in which these kids interact with their (two) teachers is reflected in the way in which they start to interact with each other…they don’t assume they have all the answers, but are willing to work to get there.

Growing up involves moving away from simple answers, toward a complexity and messiness that can be really confounding. The kids in The Next Great Paulie Fink face are discovering that world isn’t simple. Sometimes seemingly contradictory things are true at the same time. Often there aren’t satisfying answers, just hard choices. A happy endings is by no means guaranteed.


It takes strength of character to move through this uncertainty with integrity, to say, “I don’t know what to do now, but let’s try to figure it out together.” The adults in this book are able to model that. It’s exactly what Caitlyn—who keeps trying to cling to simplistic rules and pat answers—most needs.


I framed the book around Plato’s allegory of the cave, a thought experiment about walking into the unknown. In its most simplified, distilled form, Plato’s allegory is about embracing discomfort, discovering that we don’t have all the answers. That’s a hard thing to recognize at any age, but wow, is it an part of becoming a better version of yourself. It’s also an essential element of critical thinking. I definitely wanted Caitlyn—all of these kids, actually—to have models for experiencing vulnerability.


These teachers aren’t just high-minded, though; they’re also able to embrace spontaneity. Even as they discuss big ideas and wrestle with big unknowns, they make room for laughter, for frivolity, for spontaneous dance parties, for breaks from Serious Things. They delight in giving these kids space to just be kids.


In the end, I think the book is a love letter to childhood—not as it exists in this very flawed world, but rather childhood as it could be, if only the world were to really value it.


What is it that Caitlyn and her classmates ultimately learn about themselves and each other through their relationship to Paulie?

As Caitlyn walks into the Mitchell School, her driving narrative is that of hierarchy. She believes there are winners and losers, heroes and scapegoats. She’s determined to be the former, to gain as much power, as much social currency, as she can…no matter what that means for others. She’s not unlike a reality television star making a grand entrance, announcing dramatically, “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win.”  The Originals, too, construct their own form of hierarchy: the more they talk about Paulie Fink, the more they elevate him to legendary status. Eventually, their missing classmate becomes more of a myth than a real person.


There’s a moment in the book where all of that hierarchy comes crashing down. Old narratives shatter. While it’s confusing, this makes room for new possibilities. By the end of the book, each character understands their world, and each other, in a deeper, more nuanced way. Each has learned that rather than being “megastars,” they’re all ordinary people who—like all humans throughout all history—are at once flawed and filled with potential.


The final glimpse we have of the students felt really important to me. I wanted to show, in a physical way, this new understanding. The closing scene is their final rejection of hierarchy: together, they’ve become more than the sum of their parts.


You strike a perfect balance of humor and serious themes in this book, which leads me to my final question: How well do you know goats? More than once I wished I had been part of the Mitchell community, despite, or maybe because of, the requirement that seventh graders must tend those testy goats.
Those rascally goats! I don’t keep goats myself, but I live in a farming community, so I’ve spent plenty of time around goats. My daughters’ school even experimented (briefly!) with keeping goats, so I’ve seen more than a few kids get knocked down by these wily creatures! Goats are really terrific. They’re friendly, curious, playful, clever, and totally hilarious. They’re sometimes loud, and they’re sort of impish, and yes: they will trample for food! And I just love the way they appear throughout mythology, often as a harbinger of chaos!

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