Monday, January 9, 2012

John Corey Whaley: Morris Award Interview

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an
imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's
Publishing.  ISBN 978-0-4424-1333-7.
If you don't already follow Corey on Twitter, I'll just wait here while you tap into that...because, really, he's an author who is fun to follow. 
Ahem. So that's managed? Okey Dokey. Let's get started then...

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Lily, Arkansas, seems like a sleepy town where it would be unlikely for anything of note to the outside world to happen. But Cullen’s seventeenth summer is marked by the overdose death of a relative, his brother’s disappearance, and the discovery of a woodpecker thought to be extinct. These seemingly disconnected events collide in this novel which demonstrates that nothing is random.  Whaley’s story will absorb readers as they follow Cullen on his journey through an unforgettable summer. (Description from the YALSA 
William C. Morris YA Debut shortlist announcement.)
Corey is this year's Morris winner—and he earned the Printz as well... How cool is that? Very. Extra very. 

- - -
Where Things Come Back is your debut novel, but is it the first novel you wrote? How would you describe the experience of writing it? 

 Actually, WTCB is the first novel I ever finished.  For years, I started and stopped working on novel after novel, the closest I ever got to finishing one was a few years before WTCB…it was this horrendous story that I’ve completely repressed. Haha.

Writing WTCB was interesting and surprisingly fast for me.  I sat with the main idea for the story for a little over a year, while I was struggling through my first year as a public school English teacher.  As soon as I got out for my first summer break as a teacher, I sat down to finish (I had 14 pages or so after a year) WTCB and was done with it in about a month and a half.  I wrote most of it in a camper, on a camping trip with my parents, in the Arkansas woods. I always forget to tell people that.

This book, though, was supposed to happen.  Maybe that’s cheesy or what not, but it was in there somewhere, you know?  And it was ready to come out onto the page, so to speak, when I sat down and let it.  It felt so crazy to actually do the one thing I always wanted to do. 

If a story emerges from a struggle, what was the struggle that created Where Things Come Back?

I grew up in a small town in the very, very north of Louisiana called Springhill.  It literally sits on top of the Arkansas state line.  Growing up in Springhill was always a struggle to me…I just never felt quite right in the town, I felt as if I belonged in a big city somewhere.  I spent a lot of weekends alone because friends would be out partying, etc., and that just never was my sort of thing.  And I was a teen guy who didn’t like to hunt or drink beer or play or watch sports, so that pretty much limited me in a lot of ways on the social front.  I thought college would change that…give me a new city, open me up to a lot more people and more varying types, but it really didn’t.  I went to school about an hour from home and pretty much just let myself continue to be in my cynical little self-loathing shell.  I think WTCB is, in a way, about finding the hope in the littlest things and about how environment can and will change the way we look at how the world works.  I learned a lot about my views of people and the world while writing this book, and I’ll be forever grateful for that experience.

The Morris Award is for a “first time author writing for teens.” Did you intend WTCB to be a YA novel from the beginning?  How did you imagine your audience while you wrote?

When I wrote WTCB, I didn’t really have audience in mind at all.  I wanted, so badly, and had for years, to write a novel that I thought would be meaningful to anyone who read it.  I wanted to tell the story of someone growing up in an impossible world, and that is what fueled the story and the characters and their interactions.  In retrospect, it wasn’t surprising that I was subconsciously compelled to write a YA novel, given that I have always been so obsessed with books such as The Catcher in the Rye, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, King Dork, etc.  These books helped shape who I am as a writer, I think…and, more so than that, what I intend for my readers to take away from my stories.

As a reader, I enjoyed the Rube Goldberg-esque enchainment of events. How did that plot happen? Was there an outline? (If so, did it look like a three-dimensional chessboard from Star Trek?)

Rube Goldberg!  That may be my favorite description ever. The plot was accidental, I’m not afraid to admit.  The original story was intended to be Cullen’s unbroken, first-person narrative of his summer and little else was to happen.  Boy oh boy am I glad I decided to change that.  At a certain point, about nine or ten chapters into Cullen’s story, I asked a friend how I should try to explain Gabriel’s disappearance…and that I was considering the use of some sort of religious cult.  She, in turn, suggested I look into the Book of Enoch, something she had read in an article or seen on television, etc.  So, I read the Book of Enoch and BAM! I knew I had my other story….the one I didn’t even know I needed in the first place.  I immediately started a second narrative, one intended to be emotion-less as a opposed to Cullen’s emotion-filled narrative, and it all just went from there.
In the editing stage, I rearranged the chapters to be every-other-one, etc. As thrown off as readers are when, in Ch. 2, they are suddenly in Ethiopia….I was just as thrown off when I started writing about it and had no idea where I would take the story from there. 
Kismet, though, fate…it sort of helped me out and I figured out what needed to be done as far as tying in the religious symbols and the overlapping themes.  It all fit together in this eerie, magical way while I was writing it…many times I was struck with disbelief that some of the weird ideas I had actually worked. It was so awesome.
As far as an outline goes….I had one, several even...and they looked like the scribblings of a madman.  I had to edit them constantly…add things, draw lines, scratch things out. I wish I’d saved them for an accompanying photograph. Haha.

What happens next? Do you have another novel in the works? 

You should go to
 That Cover Girl's blog 
 to read about evolution of the two 
 magnificent covers for WTCB. 
I do!  I’m very excited about my second novel, which I’m currently revising and basically overhauling.  I can’t provide a release date, but I can say that the book concerns a mysterious death via defenestration, a creepy religious school in the middle of nowhere Louisiana, and a narrator who may or may not be telling us the entire truth.  It’s a bit darker and heavier than WTCB and I’m excited to see how readers will react to that.


Writing advice in five words or less...

Honest writers make good stories.

What are you reading?

How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu.

Three movies you think are worth watching, maybe more than once...

Super 8 (breath-taking), To Kill a Mockingbird (classic), and The Hours (best acting I’ve ever seen)

Last song you added to your music library...

"We Are Young" by fun.

Gospel or apocrypha?

Ah.  Both…very cautiously, critically, and open-mindedly. 

Bonus: Here's a trailer for Where Things Come Back...

WHERE THINGS COME BACK by JOHN COREY WHALEY Official Book Trailer from Corey Whaley on Vimeo.
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