When a great debut author writes a great novel, he makes a splash. When a great debut YA author writes a great YA novel, he makes a tidal-wave and rides it with a composure and sense of wonder unmatched. John Corey Whaley is the recipient of both a Morris and Printz award, and the first YA author be selected as one of The National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 for his novel “Where Things Come Back,” which is due out in paperback in few short weeks, on July 24. Yes, time to pre-order.
The premise is quite simple: Cullen Witter’s younger brother disappears as the reappearance of a previously believed extinct bird intoxicates the inhabitants of a small Arkansas town. However, the convergence of a few sub-plots (no spoilers!) with these events turns the entire novel into an experience that every reader needs to have.
YARN: What does your writing process consist of, from the idea to publication? Do you outline, draft, revise? What is your favorite part? Your least favorite?
JCW: I’m not much for outlining because I usually stray from my outlines so much that they become completely useless. I am a note-taker though, always writing down ideas, emailing myself bits of dialogue that I want to use, etc. As far as drafting and revising go, I usually write an entire book, chapter-by-chapter (I am OCD like that and it’s hard for me to sit down and not write an entire chapter at a time). Then, I leave the major revising for the editorial process—once my agent and editor have reviewed the manuscript and given me their respective notes.
My favorite part? I love starting a new book… I get so excited about new ideas and new characters and all the possibilities of where I can take them. And I love the anticipation that the story will always take directions that I never anticipated.
YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing? What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?
JCW: I’ve definitely felt stuck before…like there was NO way I’d ever be able to write again. But, I think once I let go of that feeling of “you must write every single day or you aren’t a real writer,” I sort of got unstuck. My best advice? Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. I’m a very moody writer—meaning, there are some days (a lot of days) that I just don’t feel like writing and I know, without a doubt, that if I try to make something happen on those days, then I won’t be totally happy with it. So, I’ve learned to be patient with myself and with writing as a whole…to wait it out sometimes and the ideas will return.
YARN: That’s interesting. What’s the longest you’ve ever been away from a piece that’s due? Would you ever give yourself a time limit where you say, “okay, I need to go back to the drawing board by XXX day”?
JCW: I usually work on one piece of writing pretty consistently, but I have a couple of projects that I work on here and there, and then let sit for a good while. I’m all about working on something when it feels right….I’m not much for time-crunch, word-count writing. It just doesn’t work for me.
With WTCB, I finished the first draft almost 4 years before going back in and editing it…because it took that long to find and agent/sell it to a publisher.
YARN: Many writers dream of quitting their day job to write. You have managed to make that dream come true. How has not teaching affected your life and writing? Do you miss teaching? Do you ever want a different kind of day job?
JCW: Not teaching public school every day has definitely affected my daily life. For one, I pretty much just live by my own schedule (unless I’m book touring) and I have to discipline myself to get things done sometimes (ie: this interview and many others, writing, social networking for promotion, etc.). I’m not sure I would be able to devote as much time to my writing as I am currently were I still a teacher, and I know that I’d neglect one of the two jobs, so I think this is what’s best for now. Do I miss teaching? Some days I do, yes. I don’t really miss grading papers or writing lesson plans, but I definitely find times when I miss the social interaction of it all—being around cool, smart kids and sharing with them what I love most—writing and reading. As far as a different kind of day job goes…I can see myself teaching on the college level within the next couple of years, once I get used to the author life and learn how to better juggle writing and touring with other things.
YARN: WTCB has a retrospective feel, with Cullen looking back on the way he felt “back then.” Can you shed any light on how old you imagined the narrator being at the time he tells this story? And also—this is an unusual choice for YA fiction, which is so often told in the immediate here-and-now of the teen’s life. Why did you choose this more distant and—dare we say—more adult form of narration?
JCW: Great question…and a tough one. I can’t say I set out to write from a specifically “adult” perspective, but that’s just sort of what happened. I guess I wanted to be able to include observations on life and details in the story that couldn’t have worked out if Cullen had been telling it in the present tense. As far as how old I imagined Cullen as he’s telling the story goes—I can’t really say. I want to say he’s at least out of high school, but I don’t really examine the character’s “life after the book” so much.
YARN: When Gabriel goes missing well into the book, the impact is so much greater because we’ve gotten to know him and his brother Cullen. Was this a premeditated choice or a more organic occurrence? (i.e. Had you planned to develop the story before introducing this twist, or had you originally planned to have him disappear earlier, but the novel moved this direction instead?)
JCW: I actually knew, early on, that I wanted to try my best to make the reader feel compassion and attachment for Gabriel and then take him away…so the reader would grieve and struggle alongside Cullen for the remainder of the story. I wanted the reader to, at times, be just as frustrated and hopeless as the characters in the story are.
YARN: We have our guesses as to whom Mr. Webb is (for instance, Kerri: therapist, a la Holden Caulfield, probably at college), but would you care to illuminate?
JCW: Ah. I get this a lot. My favorite guess as to the identification of Dr. Webb is from a school visit I did a few months back. A young man suggested that Cullen has just used “the web” to look up all of this information and, for his storytelling purposes, dubbed it “Dr. Webb.” Don’t you love that? I wish I’d come up with that, actually. But, in my mind, Dr. Webb is, in fact, a therapist or counselor that Cullen sees some time after the events of the story. And that’s all I know.
YARN: On your website bio you mention that you had “an unspoken motto” while writing WTCB: “How does one grow up in an impossible world?” Do you feel like you answered this question? Can it be answered?
JCW: You know, I don’t really think there is just ONE answer to the question, but many, depending on who you are and what you want out of life. At the end of the book, Cullen talks about (referencing Dr. Webb) life having no one meaning. And, for the most part, I think that’s true. I think Cullen, despite his insane and emotional summer, still progresses and “grows up” a bit, so to speak. So, I think his journey tells us that maybe, even in the most dire of circumstances, we can get through it.
On YA and Other Books/Stuff
YARN: There are some heady allusions throughout WTCB—from B(iblical) to Z(ombies). How do you see these sort of hybrid pop-historic references fitting in with YA fiction and YA readers, in your book and others out there?
JCW: Oh boy. What a heady question. I’ll be cliche here and say this: You write what you know and what you love…and also what you notice happening around you. I wrote about religion and faith because they played such a huge part in my upbringing and I was drawing on my own small, Southern town teenage years as inspiration for this story. As far as the zombies go–I realize they have been popping up everywhere these days, and I think that the zombie fantasies, heady or not, are a way to remind the reader that Cullen is, in fact, just a 17-year-old boy who is, despite his unique story, still existing in the realm of every day life…and still affected by pop culture and history just as much as we all are.
YARN: Why do you feel that your novel is considered more “adult” within the YA community? Is the definition of, “What is YA?” changing? Is this a good thing?
JCW: I get asked a lot about “YA” and “Adult” and what the difference is and where I want to be categorized and all. To be honest, I don’t really think about it all that much at the end of the day. I am very proud to be a part of the YA community and very, very proud to write for teenagers and adults alike, but I feel like obsessing over categories doesn’t serve me well when I’m writing. I just write the stories that I want to write and if they turn out YA or Adult or one or the other posing as the other, then so be it, I guess. I think WTCB is considered more “adult” because much of the narrative strays from a teenage-specific story, I suppose. It has as many adult characters as young adult, thought they aren’t as vocalized. This one is hard to answer. I give up. Haha.
YARN: Well, we’ll take it—nice answer J. Okay, two more: With the wild success of WTCB you must have met quite a number of writers. Were you star-struck by one (or more) in particular? Why?
JCW: Oh geez. I will say that I’ve handled a lot of my author meetings much more maturely and non-fanboyishly than I imagined. I think it’s because most other authors are so happy to have you join their club that they just immediately put you at ease when you meet them. I have had a few star-struck moments though. I actually recently met Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) by accident in a restaurant and that was probably, because I wasn’t prepared at all, the most dumbfounded I’ve been when meeting another writer.
YARN: You started a very fun YouTube channel called Awkward Author. What inspired you to do it? Why did you stop? Might you try anything like it again?
JCW: Very fun? Really? I kid. I started Awkward Author for two reasons: Boredom and Personal Entertainment. No—seriously though, I wanted to have a fun way of communicating with all of the wonderful people who’ve supported WTCB and me over the past year. I originally started the videos to answer fan questions, then I started book touring so much that I’ve been quite neglectful of them. Will I try it again? Possibly. I like being silly and I love making people laugh more than anything. So, if the mood strikes me, I may show up on YouTube again at some point.
YARN: We hope so. Let us know if you do! And thanks so much, Corey, for this interview and for those cool poems you sent our way a few months back! Good luck with the paperback release of “Where Things Come Back,” and have an awesome summer.
John “Corey” Whaley grew up in the small town of Springhill, Louisiana, where he learned to be sarcastic and to tell stories. He has a B.A. in English from Louisiana Tech University, as well as an M.A in Secondary English Education. He started writing stories about aliens and underwater civilizations when he was around ten or eleven, but now writes realistic YA fiction (which sometimes includes zombies…). He taught public school for five years and spent much of that time daydreaming about being a full-time writer…and dodging his students’ crafty projectiles. He is terrible at most sports, but is an avid kayaker and bongo player. He is obsessed with movies, music, and traveling to new places. He is an incredibly picky eater and has never been punched in the face, though he has come quite close. His favorite word is defenestration, which is the inspiration for his second book. “Where Things Come Back” is his first novel.