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.