Teddy Wayne Interview by Rick Bleiweiss
RICK BLEIWEISS: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Rick Bleiweiss, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with author Teddy Wayne. Teddy is a Whiting Writers’ Award winner, recipient of an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, and a finalist for several writing prizes including the Young Lions Fiction Award. He is the author of the acclaimed Kapitoil, and his latest book, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, is an Indie Next List Selection, Oprah.com’s Book of the Week, BookPage’s Fiction Top Pick, and more. Teddy also writes for the New Yorker, New York Times, Vanity Fair, and other publications. Blackstone Audio published the audio version of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, narrated by Kirby Heyborne, simultaneously with the hardcover on February 5, 2013. Welcome, Teddy. Thanks for joining us today.
TEDDY WAYNE: Thanks for having me.
RB: Congratulations on the release of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. The story’s about an eleven-year-old megastar singer, and it delves into society’s obsession with fame and celebrity, and the effect that that can have on people. What motivated you to write this book?
TW: Well there are a few inspirational sources. I’d say the most direct one was that I was tutoring elementary school kids back in 2010 after school, and I saw a sixth-grade girl reading Miley Cyrus’ memoir, Miles to Go, which is mostly photographs, pictures, with a little bit of text. It must have lodged in my brain, because about a week later, a friend asked if I had an idea for a book we could work on together—a humor book—and I suggested parodying this sort of pop star autobiography. Then, about an hour later, I realized if I treated this more seriously, it could make for an interesting novel.
RB: So how did the main character, Jonny Valentine, develop from there, and as part of that, why did you decide to write it in the voice of a child’s perspective rather than an adult?
TW: Well, I’d say a secondary catalyst was that I had a freelance job writing a business column for the New York Times about media and marketing—a weekly column in which I would interview people in the fields of media advertising, marketing, and they all spoke in this very jargon-heavy, marketing-centric savvy lingo about third quarter revenues and branding themselves. I thought it’d be interesting to write a novel from the perspective of a character who would internalize this thought so deeply that he thought and spoke in it all the time, even in his personal life. Then, I wanted to juxtapose that with the innocent grammar of a preteen. So to have this collision of voices, a very cynical, savvy marketing voice combined with this very earnest, naïve child voice.
RB: What type of research did you do for this?
TW: Well, in addition to that work, which is sort of unintentional research, I looked at both Miles to Go by Miley Cyrus and other books like that, as well as biographies and autobiographies of former child stars, including some academic books on the subject. Then, I would also look at the celebrity media out there—US Weekly or Tiger Beat, things like that—that are very much part of this machine that I wanted to investigate.
RB: Having read these other books, I’m wondering if you saw that there was any kind of a difference between contemporary celebrities and those of times past and what signs there might be if the definition of celebrity is changing or not.
TW: Yeah, I mean, certainly some things would hold true. I went back as far as Jackie Coogan, the first real child star in America—a movie star in the 1920s, including roles in Charlie Chaplin movies—and things about him then would still hold true now. He was exploited by his parents, and, in fact, the law protecting child performers is now named the Coogan Law. So I would look over the decades, and there were certain things that would hold true, but I think now, in the past ten or so years especially, the Internet has rapidly accelerated the velocity of celebrity and made celebrities much more exposed. They are now in our faces in a way they weren’t before. There used to be many more walls between them and us. Now, via Twitter and YouTube, and people taking digital photos of them, you can see them directly in a way you couldn’t before. Also, some argue, that the screen has shrunk, that we’re all kind of celebrities now. If we see Justin Bieber on YouTube, we can see ourselves on YouTube as well. So we’re just as big as he is, whereas we were used to only seeing these people fifty feet high on our movie screens.
RB: I’ve noticed you’ve been getting a phenomenal response to The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. In fact, it was very recently the lead review on the cover of the New York Times Book Review on February 24 of this year. Jess Walter’s review called it “a moving, entertaining novel that is both poignant and pointed. A sweet, sad skewering of the celebrity industry.” I’m going to assume that made you feel pretty good.
TW: That was very nice to see. I’ve been fortunate. A lot of this stuff is luck, or your publisher paying attention and working hard—which they have. I would expect maybe some of it has to do with people having a craving to read about critical, in this case fictional, but a critical take on the world of celebrity around us, which is so prominent everywhere, but we spend less time thinking about it as opposed to just consuming it.
RB: The novel—aside from just the New York Times Book Review—has been featured in Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and was a “must” pick. It received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and I just think that’s fabulous, and I think this is going to be a huge book. When you were talking about reading the Miley Cyrus book, did the entertainment industry fascinate you, or was it more the child star part of it, or both?
TW: I would say both. I work in media and I’m a writer so I’m connected to the entertainment industry even if tangentially. So I am interested in it and how it operates, but I also wanted to write about a child—a coming-of-age story set within this world. I think we’ve had a lot of behind-the-scenes celebrity narratives over the years, mostly in movies; it’s almost like a self-obsessed industry. So a lot of movies are about the act of moviemaking, for instance, or about celebrity itself. But I think we’ve seen the adult story many times. I hadn’t seen many instances about what it might be like for a child to operate in this world. And at the same time, to write about a child as if it were a regular coming-of-age story, divorced from this. So there’s still a celebrity-entertainment storyline, it’s also about a boy and his mother and their relationship, and his search for his long-lost father as well.
RB: But at the same time, Kapitoil and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, being set in the present time, reflect aspects of our culture, and I’m wondering is that a central, integral part of what you write about?
TW: So far that’s certainly so. I’m interested in the world around us and think if, for me at least, if I’m going to spend a few years writing a novel, I’d like that novel not just to be about the characters, but to justify why I’m writing it right now, to say something about the world around us. I’m also interested in the subject of work and capitalism, not to—I hope—a clinical, cold degree, in which it becomes something that could be written as easily in nonfiction, but to write about how work influences us and how capitalism influences us and how people caught up in that—how they can survive and how it affects them as humans.
RB: Playing into that, both of your novels have attracted comments for their use of humor, so I’m assuming that it’s an important element to you not only to reflect the culture, but to put a humorous slant on it.
TW: It is. I write a lot of humor as well, freelance, for magazines and newspapers. It’s something I’ve long enjoyed doing. Likewise, if I’m going to spend two or three years writing a novel, I’d like it to be fun for me to write and adding humor is a way to make it fun for me to write, as well as presumably fun for the audience to read. They always say write what you’d want to read yourself, and I do enjoy books that don’t have to be necessarily over-the-top comic novels—and I’d say I don’t always enjoy those—but to feel like humor is merging with the sensibility of the text otherwise. And one thing I always look for is the collision of humor and sadness. They’re usually viewed as opposite sides of the same coin, but occasionally you can find that intersection where a moment is actually both humorous and sad at the same time, which is what I ideally shoot for.
RB: How different is the writing process when you’re writing articles versus writing a full book?
TW: Very different. With articles—nonfiction articles, that is—the world is out there for you to explore and catalog and describe, and so much of the work is already done. For novels, for fiction, you have to create that world on your own. I find that much more difficult—to invent from whole cloth an entire universe and how it operates—let alone how you describe that universe. So for me, for fiction—at least, for my two books so far—I’ve tried to come up with idiosyncratic ways unique to the narrator to describe the world around them, whereas in nonfiction you can revert to your own natural voice and use that to process and filter everything. So I find fiction much more challenging, let alone the fact that it’s probably a few years of your life, as opposed to maybe a few weeks.
RB: What is your process in writing a novel? Do you outline it first? Do you have a general concept of the story from start to finish, or do you know how it starts and then as it goes along—what is your writing style?
TW: I think for both these novels I’ve started writing them with a germ of an idea and wrote them to discover the voice of the narrator each time. Once I get that going, then the story becomes a little bit more clear to me, or I start thinking about how could this be spun into a long-form narrative. Then I do outline it, I’d say a rough, skeletal outline where not every single moment or scene is described beforehand, but enough that I feel like I have checkpoints to hit. And I’ve found that as I go through it and keep writing it, I fill in more and more checkpoints in between the preexisting ones. I usually do have a sense of how it ends. Some people write blindly, just going along, and seeing where it takes them. I don’t think I could do that. That might well work for some people, but I think I’d be at a loss if I did that, whereas I do find that this gives me enough latitude to range freely, but I still have a sense of what the map is.
RB: So when did you discover that you loved writing and were good at it?
TW: Well, hopefully I’m still discovering that I’m good at it (laughs), but I think I wanted to become a writer when I was in about third grade. It was my first inkling that this was something I wanted to do—I was a big reader when I was a child—and continued having that thought really throughout childhood even if I wasn’t necessarily writing all that much. I was more of a reader than a writer up until my early, mid-twenties. I didn’t really take fiction seriously until I was about twenty-four. I was writing sitcoms and plays and screenplays at the end of high school and throughout college and after college, but always had in mind that I would someday write a novel, and just hadn’t gotten to it yet. I think in part it was a good decision because I think it’s very hard to write a novel before you have much to say. I did write a failed novel when I was about twenty-four, twenty-five that did not work out. In hindsight, I’m very grateful for that, but you don’t have much to say about life—or at least I didn’t in my case—when you’re twenty-four or twenty-five. You need a few more years to learn something.
RB: I’ve read that you’re a guitarist and a singer. I’m assuming that your musical background led to your writing the lyrics for the character’s songs in the book?
TW: Well, I’m a very poor guitarist and singer, so I don’t want to get people carried away. I played some instruments when I was younger and I learned guitar when I was about twenty, but I’ve never taken a formal lesson so I’ve never progressed beyond a certain level. Sometimes when I write I’ll keep a guitar by me, strum a little bit or play a song to get the creative juices flowing or something. So it did help, I think, to have that access to write the lyrics to Jonny’s songs, which are intended to sound like real lyrics. They’re not supposed to be, at least in my perspective, satirical send ups of tween pop. They should be replacements for what could actually exist out there.
RB: I’m wondering, with the success of the Castle books that were launched after the success of the Castle TV show, if there might be anything in the works to do a Jonny Valentine CD with the songs that are in the book?
TW: If I did it, it would be a “leastseller.” But I did enlist a well-known singer-songwriter named Alina Simone to record her own version of Jonny’s song. I recorded my version too. It’s called “Guys versus Girls,” and the Morning News website has our versions for people to listen to. So readers can listen on their own, and if there’s demand for a CD, we’ll see.
RB: Comedy, humor: it came to you naturally? You obviously examine society with a satirical eye.
TW: I’d say irony is my default mode for both in the world at large and in writing. So it’s probably my first instinct. Whereas some writers might have a lyrical, sensual reaction to the world around them, mine tends to be ironic or some satirical viewpoint. So whether I’d say it comes naturally, it’s not necessarily easy, but it’s my reflex, at least.
RB: Who or what have been the greatest influences on you and your writing?
TW: Various literary influences. For this book, I can think of J. D. Salinger. Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone was an influence to get Jonny’s voice—the sort of run-on style he has. Then I’d say there are various other media that were influences. Even as far removed from literature as a computer game I played when I was younger—called the Ultima series—was influential in discovering and writing about the videogame that Jonny plays. So I think I have something of a magpie sensibility in that I pluck from various sources and they’re not necessarily just books I read.
RB: Do you have any idea that you could share with us about what your next project might be?
TW: I’ve got the vaguest of ideas. I’m pretty superstitious about saying it because if history’s any indication, I’ll abandon it after six months.
RB: (laughs) OK. I was wondering have you had a chance to hear Kirby Heyborne’s narration of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine?
TW: I heard a brief sample and loved it. They sent me the CDs, but I was out of town, so I wasn’t able to receive it. But I look forward to listening to the whole thing very soon.
RB: Do you listen to audiobooks in general or are you more of a reader?
TW: I’m more of a reader. I find it difficult for me personally to pick up on things orally and remember them. I’m much more inclined to visually remember things than orally.
RB: Is there any incident, any anecdote, anything in the writing of this book that you would like to share with us?
TW: I wrote it really in a six-month burst while working at a writer’s office, and I used a very old computer that didn’t have Internet access and had really nothing else on the computer but a word processing program. I think that was very useful for me to be cut off from the world like that and not be distracted at all. I do think it’s tougher when you have the Internet going, or a smartphone or what have you, to write sustained fiction. You know as I said, with nonfiction you have the world out there in front of you, you need to be connected. Fiction, since you have to invent it on your own—it’s helpful to be cut off from the world around you and look only into your imagination for the source.
RB: You probably don’t know this about me but my background is in the music industry for my entire career and I worked with acts like New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys and N*Sync and acts like that, and I just want to complement you on getting it right.
TW: Thank you. That is great to hear from an insider. I’d be curious to know if, say New Kids on the Block, if it was pretty much the same as it would be now for a Bieber character or Bieber figure, or if there is a huge difference because there are things like social media?
RB: My gut is that the concepts are the same. It’s the media they get delivered on that’s different.
TW: Yeah, I think so. The fact that Bieber himself can tweet and reach directly out to people, he doesn’t have to go through teams of publicists and so on.
RB: Well, I would really like to thank you for joining us today. We’re very excited about the audiobook of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, and I really appreciate your time and your comments.
TW: Thank you so much, Rick.
RB: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Teddy Wayne. You can find The Love Song of Jonny Valentine and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in February 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine
For fans of A Visit from the Goon Squad and Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, here is a scathing and enthralling new novel about America’s monstrous obsession with fame from the winner of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award.
Megastar Jonny Valentine, eleven-year-old icon of bubblegum pop, knows that the fans don’t love him for who he is. His image, his voice, and even his hairdo have been packaged—by his LA label and by his hard-partying manager-mother—into bite-size pieces for easy digestion, sliding down the gullet of mass culture, the biggest appeal to the widest demographic. But somewhere inside the relentless marketing machine is still a little boy, devoted to his mother and determined to find his absent father among the countless, faceless fans—isn’t there?
A twisted, brilliant, and viciously funny coming-of-age story set inside corporate arenas and luxury hotel suites, Teddy Wayne’s The Love Song of Jonny Valentine explores with devastating clarity the underbelly of fame in twenty-first-century America’s celebrity culture, told through the eyes of one of the most unforgettable child narrators since Holden Caulfield. This novel is a literary masterpiece from the award-winning and critically acclaimed author of Kapitoil—one of the standout writers of his generation.