Teddy Wayne on tween-speak and the titular child star of his novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.
While Teddy Wayne’s impressive vocabulary is always on display in his pieces for McSweeney’s, The New York Times, Esquire, and the myriad other publications he has written for, both of his novels have employed protagonists that prevent him from showing off his extensive verbal talent. Instead Wayne shows himself to be adept at narrating from outside his own experience. In Kapitoil, Karim Issar, brand new to the United States, is still learning the difficult idioms and cultural references necessary to fit into the cutthroat business he has chosen. In Wayne’s second novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, the protagonist is an eleven-year-old pop star whose meteoric rise has produced a boy whose premature vocabulary is not only riddled with the colloquialisms of video games and tween culture but also the business-speak of the corporate board room. Jonny’s world is an odd and saddening combination of normal boy things, an exposed celebrity life, and the high pressures of business and marketing in pop music. Despite choosing a narrator with a limited, unique vocabulary, Wayne forces readers to examine their own roles in a culture that creates pop stars and millionaires while providing vulnerable, lovable, relatable, though imperfect characters, all with a good dose of humor.
Alexis Boehmler Can you tell us what the experience of publishing your first book was like as compared with that of your second?
Teddy Wayne For a first book, you have no clue how the world will react and the stakes feel impossibly high. For a second book, you still have no clue how the world will react and the stakes somehow feel even higher. The main advantage to the second one is that you have a better understanding of how the process operates and you’ve built up a readership and reputation that, ideally, can make people take you more seriously.
AB The cover for The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is, as you described it, “shiny, iridescent” and “useful if stranded on an island,” making it quite different from the more staid cover of Kapitoil. Am I sensing mild discomfort with the final cover for The Love Song of Jonny Valentine? It seems perfect as a representation of Jonny himself, his genre and his market but perhaps not something you want to have to look at every moment for months while promoting it. Or do you like it a lot but have some other covers you can tell us about that you also liked? Finally, were there moments when you felt a bit like Jonny in a one of his record label meetings during the editorial or cover process?
TW I love it, actually—any references to its shininess were in jest. It does feel like an excellent visual metaphor for the book’s subject matter and themes about glitzy packaging; it’s a perfect autocritique. Free Press didn’t show me any of the early covers, but called me into the office so I could first see it, since its full reflectivity is apparent only in person. I was blown away and signed off immediately. At the eleventh hour, they did show some alternate covers that used holographic foil only for the title, and I’m sure if I’d seen it first I would’ve liked it equally, but I was already sold on the original.
AB I was surprised when I started The Love Song of Jonny Valentine and discovered your subject matter. I’m assuming it’s not just that you’re a huge Justin Bieber fan—what inspired you to choose a tween-idol as the protagonist for your second novel?
TW The child star occupies a strange role in America, one that’s growing each year as our culture becomes more infantilized and youth-obsessed. The adolescent celebrity is neither quite a child, nor quite an adult, but occupies some nether region. The same could be said for a number of putative adults in the country, particularly those under 40, who are staving off adulthood as long as possible.
More than that, though, I was interested in how celebrity, as embodied by a seemingly social-media-savvy 11-year-old (whose manager-mother actually prohibits him from going on the Internet and does all his marketing for him), reflects the entrepreneurial narcissism of our times. People who grew up with the Internet have, generally speaking, a less ambivalent relationship with digital exhibitionism, something you can see ratcheted up to a frightening degree with young (and sometimes old) celebrities. And there are people of any age and measure of fame who un-self-consciously talk about building their “personal brands.” These two strands, entrepreneurialism and narcissism, converge most directly in people whose public persona is the very thing they’re selling—that is, celebrities, even celebrities with talent. Making the celebrity in question a child underscores how toxic this can be to seller’s identity.
AB So there wasn’t a single moment when you conceived of Jonny Valentine? Or a trigger that got you interested? It was more of a conceit that you developed over time?
TW There was, in fact, a specific trigger and moment, on Oct. 8, 2010, at 10:41 a.m. (not a joke). My friend and sometimes comedy-writing collaborator Mike Sacks emailed asking if I had any ideas for a humorous book we could write together. I’d been tutoring elementary-school kids at 826NYC, and had seen one that week reading Miley Cyrus’s “memoir,” Miles To Go (I would later read it for research—also not a joke). Without really thinking it through, I suggested we write a parody of this sort of book. He liked the idea. At 11:27 a.m., I replied: “this sounds crazy, but i just got excited at the idea of writing something like that as a serious novel. i’ve just started.” I ended up writing about 3,000 words that day, which is a lot for me. I’d been working on a novel the previous year that was going nowhere slowly. Had Mike not emailed me, I’m not sure I would’ve come up with the idea for this book.
AB Is any of what you wrote that first day part of the final novel? At what point did you decide to open the book in a way the concealed the age of the narrator? Did you toy with prolonging this suspense beyond the first few pages?
TW While I had the basics down for Jonny’s voice—a hybrid of an authentic-sounding (I hope) 11-year-old’s inflections and a marketing guru’s cutthroat lingo—in the early stages, it veered too far to kid-speak, as well as to exposition of his celebrity universe. Still, some of the language was preserved or made its way to later sections of the book. Once I toned it down, his age was less apparent, the revelation of which I tried to forestall for just a page or two. Writing in the voice of a child for an adult novel is tricky. If you make it too mimetic, no one over eighteen will want to read it. Hence, the plethora of novels about child geniuses who conveniently speak like creative-writing professors—a trope I wanted to avoid.
AB The novel sprang from an idea for a humor piece yet Jonny is a complex, lovable character that we come to know well over the course of almost 300 pages. What was your reaction to Justin Bieber news items before writing this book and what is your reaction now? Do you feel protective of him? Do you find yourself following his career, even worrying about him?
TW I have much more empathy for him and other (young) celebrities now. While it’s true that when you try to become famous, you ask for the public to respond to you in ways out of your control, you certainly don’t ask for two men to allegedly plot to kidnap, castrate, and murder you. I get a lot of emails now from friends about Bieber stories. Strangely, after I finished the book, a number of events in his life have recently somewhat paralleled those in Jonny’s: in addition to the terrifying aforementioned plot, which has a correspondence in the book, his vomiting onstage and the photo someone took of him allegedly smoking pot have their own equivalences. I imagine I’ll follow the rest of his career closely.
AB What I was truly impressed by in both The Love Song of Jonny Valentine and in Kapitoil is your ability to write the words of someone so different from yourself. You are obviously neither an eleven year old nor a recent emigrant of Qatar. How much time do you spend doing research? At some point do you have to cut yourself off? Do you ever become afraid that you wont be able to write your narrators convincingly? That you will make some egregious, obvious error that will poke a hole in your credibility? I spent much of the first half of Kapitoil squirming at your audacity to take on writing Karim; I was able to relax and revel in the novel when I realized you weren’t making mistakes. But that leads me to believe that you must invest an enormous amount of time in research and painstakingly, lovingly even, construct their lingo and inflections, to use your terms.
TW Thank you; my aim is always to make people squirm, whether they’re reading my writing or are seated next to me on the subway. Research, at least traditional research, didn’t have much impact on the vernaculars of Jonny Valentine and Karim Issar, because theirs are invented idioms that no one in the world, Qatari or child pop star, actually uses. I’ve explained Jonny’s; Karim’s is a technofinancial, grammatically perfect English-as-a-Second-Language voice. Both derived from jobs I had. In my early twenties, I edited MBA applicants’ essays over the Internet for a couple of years. Many of the aspiring business-school students were foreigners who had learned English through the language of finance; I adopted a cleaned-up, composite voice of theirs for the novel.
Before this last book, I wrote, on and off for two years, a short media and marketing column for the New York Times. Each week, I’d interview someone in the advertising or marketing world. More often than not, he or she threw around marketing phraseology—”third-quarter forecasts,” “assets in the digital space,” “developing platform awareness”—as if it were a native tongue. So, those two jobs were, essentially, my “vocal” research. After that, both books did require more classic research: learning about the stock market, Islam, and computer programming for Kapitoil, and about music and its industry for The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. You don’t want to do too much research, though, or it will look like you’re just putting in information to prove you’ve done your homework. I had experts in the related fields vet each book before publication; among every other aspect of the book you can worry about, factual inaccuracies are obviously embarrassing.
AB The veracity in the relationship between Jonny and Nadine (or in a different way Jonny and Walter) fascinated me and made me think that either you had had a tutor yourself at a young age or had somehow gained unheard of access to a young star’s school trailer. The friction inherent in Nadine’s role, inherent in the role of any paid caregiver, is so fraught and yet her role in Jonny’s life as one of the few adults without a motive who truly has his best interests at heart, well, that seems like something that would be hard to research or read about in a ghost-written teen-idol’s memoir let alone capture in words. Are you just that good or is there an element from your own youth that aided you in your understanding and depiction of Jonny’s complicated relationships with Nadine, Walter and a few other adults in the novel?
TW I’m not that good. Hanging out with schoolchildren at 826NYC probably helped somewhat, but the students there were quite unlike Jonny Valentine in socioeconomic background. Again, though, I didn’t want to reproduce with absolute fidelity the mind of a completely realistic 11-year-old, but to create the mind of a possible 11-year-old, one that would hold an adult reader’s attention. Jonny is distinctly adult in some of his reactions and observations, which weren’t hard to summon up. When he reveals his youth—as when he’s unsure what to do with an older groupie and wonders if he should “kiss her again or squeeze her breasts or something”—I tried to think less about how a child might truly respond and more about how this one kid, warped by his fame and family, could react. It helps that a majority of my daily thoughts are probably no more advanced than those of an average prepubescent.
And, no, I didn’t have any tutors myself when I was younger, but I have been tutoring and teaching students since my freshman year of college, from first graders to middle and high schoolers to college students. Sometimes it’s been for pay, sometimes it’s volunteer work, as with 826NYC, which helped plant the seed of inspiration for the book. Perhaps it influenced me; I certainly dealt with my share of parents who were understandably concerned about their children, and sometimes you end up being as much a therapist, to both the child and the parent, as a teacher.
AB Can you tell me what topics, if any, you considered for Jonny’s history studies’ focus and final exam? Were his studies of slavery with Nadine an idea early on or something that developed later?
TW It was an early idea. While the idea of Jonny-as-slave may be more obvious, he comes to appreciate the way consumers are enslaved by their corporate masters, as well. We like to think we’re in charge of our choices, but very often they’re dictated to us by others, whether you watch “American Idol” or read The New Yorker. Jonny slowly recognizes that, despite appearances, neither he nor his audience pulls the strings; it’s always someone in an office, far removed from the fray, who determines how our culture is shaped.
AB Do you catch yourself thinking of and saving lyrics and ideas for songs for Jonny still?
TW Not any further songs for Jonny, but I did record a version of his hit Guys vs. Girls, and asked singer-songwriter Alina Simone to do a much better version of it. Ever since I heard her rendition, it’s been stuck in my head.
AB What new writers are you excited about at the moment? Please interpret new to be either young/emerging or previously unread by you.
TW Call it cronyism, but I wouldn’t be touting these two friends’ forthcoming debut novels if I didn’t believe so strongly in them. First up is Sarah Bruni’s The Night Gwen Stacy Died, out July 2nd. It’s a sharp, funny, and sensitive book about a teenage Iowa girl who goes on the lam in Chicago with a man who calls himself Peter Parker and her Gwen Stacy (Peter Parker’s girlfriend). Bruni writes like a younger Lorrie Moore—wittily observant and language-fixated. Then, in September, is Eric Lundgren’s The Facades, about a man in a fictional Midwestern town called Trude whose opera-singer wife goes missing. Lundgren writes like a younger Don DeLillo; the book is brilliantly lyrical and philosophical while never losing its comic footing.
For more on Teddy Wayne, visit his website.
An avid reader of contemporary American fiction, Alexis Boehmler is the Managing Director, Circulation and Distribution at BOMB.