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I first came across the work of Teddy Wayne in his debut novel, Kapitoil, the story of a Qatari computer programmer living in Manhattan. Daring in subject matter yet impeccably relatable in its concerns — how does one live well? — Kapitoil marked the arrival of a new voice in fiction with something important to say about our relationship to not only the complex machinations of the stock exchange but to pop culture as well. Now, Wayne returns with his sophomore effort, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, a coming-of-age novel about a tween singer in the vein of Justin Bieber. Once again, Teddy Wayne examines the role pop culture plays in our lives. Who creates it? Who benefits from it? What is its effect on us? In January, I had the opportunity to read with Wayne in Manhattan, and almost immediately after, we set up this interview to discuss some of these questions.
The Millions: The lame cliché writing instructors often tell their students is to avoid dropping pop culture references in their work so that it’ll be more timeless. Yet both of your novels are steeped in their time and place. Kapitoil touches on fantasy baseball and samurai flicks, and the plot hinges on the paranoid run-up to Y2K. Your new novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, discusses Jonny’s music, his concerts, his Twitter feed, even his staged relationship with another teeny bopper. What is it about popular culture that interests you? Why do you think it keeps popping up in your work? And do you think the old advice about avoiding pop culture in fiction is old-fashioned or esoteric?
Teddy Wayne: David Foster Wallace got into arguments about this in graduate school, when he wanted to depict the heavily mediated space around him — subject matter his professors thought was inconsequential or un-literary. As he pointed out, he’d see hundreds of ads and commercials each day, and they constituted an integral part of his mental activity. Writing about this material gets pejoratively labeled “postmodern” or “experimental,” but what’s more “realist” than describing the physical world, even if billboards and 30-second spots replace trees and rivers?
Likewise, it misses the point to discard fiction simply because it’s about social media or the celebrity-gossip machine and not Iraq or divorce. By focusing on areas that seem marginal through a narrow aperture, you can sometimes render a much more expansive portrait of a country. I’m an advocate of critic Manny Farmer’s agile, industrious “termite art” (as opposed to bloated, self-important “white elephant art”):
The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.
Moreover, James Joyce and Jane Austen — and nearly all writers, ever — also wrote about the popular culture of their times; it just wasn’t called “pop culture” then. Disposable songs of the day frequently recur in Ulysses, for instance, including “What-Ho! She Bumps!,” which sounds like a Black Eyed Peas’ single.
Many Americans no longer have physical communities. We don’t know our neighbors or live in the same place for our whole lives; our kids don’t play together in the street; we don’t socialize in organized groups, whether in a house of worship or a bowling alley. What we do have is mass culture that binds us, so that two coworkers who have little in common can still discuss last night’s episode of American Idol around the water cooler. (And that ritual, too, is getting fragmented now that people watch television shows on their own time and the culture is further splintering into yet more tribes.) This has become our ersatz religion, and it’s important to document and analyze its effects on us.
TM: Even though The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is drenched in our tween-sensation, YouTube landscape, there are very few references to real life pop culture phenomena within the book. Jonny’s favorite video game sounds appropriately complex and plausible, yet it doesn’t exist. Jonny speaks about the artists that have influenced him, but they’re rarely, if ever, real-life singers. Even his hero, Michael Jackson, is only referred to as MJ throughout. What prompted you to go this route with the novel? Why create an entire alternate universe of pop culture for Jonny to exist in? And did you ever consider using real life singers and video games in the novel?
TW: I generally find it hacky when public figures show up fictionalized in books (or TV shows or movies) in cameos, because it lends itself to caricatures, unless the writer does something radically revisionist with the received persona (as Wallace, for example, does with Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak in the story “Little Expressionless Animals”). It feels like gratuitous name-dropping, in the same way that it annoys me when writers use a historical event, completely independent from the story, to ground us in time and place (the way Mad Men does far too much, for my taste).
So while Jonny and the novel refer to real musicians and songs throughout — from the aforementioned MJ and “Billie Jean” to The Clash and “Complete Control” — the two other musical performers who dominate the book are fictional: pop megastar Tyler Beats, whose career Jonny is trying to emulate, and Zack Ford, the front man for the Latchkeys, Jonny’s opening rock band. The late-night talk-show host who interviews him might strike some readers as similar to a real figure, but by naming him, it reduces the character to that sole possibility. I’d like the book to operate, as you suggest, as an alternate universe, both to preserve this potential and to invite in readers who have limited knowledge of contemporary music. Ideally, you should be able to enjoy this even if you stopped listening to new music after 1970.
A friend proposed I name the video-game system Jonny plays, but I declined to, for the same reason; if it’s a PlayStation, then it can be only that system, and the game Jonny plays incessantly has to accord to its real-life standards. Incidentally, the game, called The Secret Land of Zenon, is based off a real role-playing game series (does this make me sound incredibly cool or what?), Ultima, that I played for a few years when I was much younger. It’s always a catalyst for bonding — since I’m not in a bowling league — when I find out someone else has a nostalgic attachment to the same semi-obscure object from their youth. I got a lot of emails for a throwaway allusion to the “purple stuff” Sunny Delight commercial in Kapitoil.
TM: I also steep my work in the details of the era. My novel Last Call in the City of Bridges is set during the first Obama campaign, and the characters routinely voice their triumphs and failures on Facebook and Twitter. Even in four short years, the way people interact over social media is totally different. People don’t write things like “Teddy Wayne is answering questions for an interview” anymore, but they did back in 2008. So I’m wondering if you share my fear, that perhaps we’re dating our work by relying so much on the internet and pop culture. In Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, he worries that his book will one day be “as outdated as a 1983 book about Fantasy Island.” I teach Klosterman’s essay about Saved by the Bell, and it’s always astounding to see how and if undergraduates can interact with it if they have no knowledge of the show. Do you ever worry about prematurely dating your book, or do you think it’s almost impossible not to date your work?
TW: I really like that Klosterman essay, having parlayed my years of committing every episode to memory into a single humor piece years later. Efficient use of my youth. And I’ll resist the urge to make a bad joke about dating my book by taking it out to dinner and a movie and we’ll see where the night takes us. I’ll strongly resist it.
My aim for this book, and my first one, was to capture something about the era it portrays (and in the case of Kapitoil, set in 1999, also the era it was published in) while doing my best to write a story that transcends the time period. It’s true that, 50 years from now, we won’t be using Twitter as we currently do, but we don’t ride in stagecoaches or believe in the Olympian gods, either, and plenty of those narratives remain relevant. Investigating your contextual surroundings confines you to that spatial-temporal sphere only if that’s your one concern. I recall reading an interview with Bret Easton Ellis about Glamorama, in which he responded to concerns that its extensive cast of millennial celebrities might soon be outdated, as this list from the first chapter makes clear:
Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford, Sheryl Crow, David Charvet, Courteney Cox, Harry Connick, Jr., Francisco [sic] Clemente, Nick Constantine, Zoe Cassavetes, Nicolas Cage, Thomas Calabro, Cristi Conway [sic], Bob Collacello, Whitfield Crane, John Cusack, Dean Cain, Jim Courier, Roger Clemens, Russell Crowe, Tia Carrere and Helena Bonham Carter — but I’m not sure if she should be under B or C.
Ellis’s answer was that of course it would be outdated — that was exactly his point. (This seems like an easy point to make, but that’s another matter. When a novel’s major project is to expose the shallowness of the culture, it risks being equally shallow. Also, check out how outdated that New York Times page looks by now.) If your entire mission is to traffic in the there-and-gone minutiae of our culture, then, yes, I think you flirt with early obsolescence. If you marshal it as the trappings for a complete story, though, you have a chance to pinpoint exactly what it is about the epoch that is also universal.
It’s ironic, though, that we sometimes criticize contemporary work steeped in modern detail for its triviality, yet lavish praise on period fiction or entertainment with hyper-accurate attention to historical detail (again, Mad Men). To me, that sometimes also feels like the name-dropping of celebrities, or an occasion for the writer — or set and costume designers — to prove to the reader that he’s done his homework.
TM: This is a bit of a softball question, but it’s one I kept coming back to while reading Jonny Valentine. You seem like a very well-adjusted, adult man. What prompted you to write a book from the perspective of a prepubescent tween heartthrob? What is it that interests you about this world? What do you think it says about us as a society when Justin Bieber can go from a completely normal kid singing on YouTube to an overnight sensation recording tracks with Kanye West and the Rza? Does it say anything?
TW: You’d have to canvas my friends to gauge how well-adjusted and adult I really am. Though I’m not an 11-year-old, I certainly share many of Jonny’s anxieties, especially his professional ones. He gets nauseous before sold-out performances at corporate arenas; I get a few butterflies before reading in front of four people at a bookstore. He’s promoting his second album; this is my second book. He chronically masturbates in hopes of achieving his first ejaculation; I…never mind.
I’ve always been interested in child stars and prodigies. It’s a strange phenomenon, to have an adult mind or adult responsibilities but the restricted emotional comprehension of a child. We’ve had huge child stars in this country for a long time, ever since Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple in the 1920s and ’30s, and many more the last few decades, especially this most recent one. We’re fascinated by the contrast of outsized talent in somebody so small, and we impute qualities to them — usually angelic innocence — that may not necessarily reflect their private personae. And their histories are often profoundly tragic; I don’t need to list the examples.
I don’t know what the overnight-sensation trend says about us other than that we’ve always been a country fixated on get-rich-quick schemes and the dream that someone with power will discover us at the drugstore soda fountain and turn us into a star. The difference, now, is that nearly everyone has the potential to make him or herself famous for fifteen seconds (perhaps not minutes) — especially if you don’t mind public humiliation.
TM: How deeply did you research this world? In the acknowledgments section, you bring up some influential nonfiction books, but I want to focus on the music here. Did you go out and buy a bunch of tween albums? Did you listen to them incessantly? Do you have favorites? Did you listen to any while writing?
TW: I listened to more tween pop than I cared to, to get a feel for the public images but also the lyrics, so that Jonny’s own songs sounded plausible and not like satirical send-ups. But I also read some child-star autobiographies, from the somewhat more serious (Tatum O’Neal’s A Paper Life) to the semi-trashy (Drew Barrymore’s Little Girl Lost) to the propagandistic-advertorial (Miley Cyrus’s Miles To Go). And I read a number of tween-celebrity websites and magazines, sometimes in public, which can be hard to explain to onlookers.
I’m partial to One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” I think that would be the way to be an adolescent pop star: in a quintet, so that you’re among friends, even if everyone knows that just one of you will make it out alive (Mark Wahlberg, Justin Timberlake).
TM: On the surface, Kapitoil and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine couldn’t be more different; however, they share some similarities. Both are told in very convincing first-person voices from characters with extremely different backgrounds from your own, and, reduced to their most basic levels, both involve young men finding their place in the world. Do you find it easier to write in first person than third? Did you ever attempt to write either of these books in third person? Is third person something you want to work toward in future novels, or do you not obsess about the divide between third and first as much as I do?
TW: I do find it easier to write in first person, when I’m able to stretch out the fullest possibilities of a character’s voice, which is the most pleasurable part of writing for me. I’m always drawn to ventriloquism, especially of characters with idiosyncratic speaking styles. This is not to say I won’t ever write in the third person, but reading first person typically inspires deeper empathy for me. It also feels like it best exploits the native advantages of fiction — interiority and subjective language — whereas film can sometimes surpass what third-person narration does. (Film can use voice-over, of course, but it’s usually clunky.)
Kapitoil didn’t sell in its first round of submissions, and several editors complained about Karim Issar’s voice, an English-as-a-second-language hybrid of technofinancial jargon and mathematically precise grammar. My agent thought I should see what it would look like in the third person, so I “translated” a page. It was lifeless, lacking everything that a reader might gravitate to in the book, so I stopped. (I did revise the last third of the book, among other things, which was a more necessary fix.)
TM: Kapitoil was released in April 2010, and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine will be published this February. That’s less than three years. How do you manage to produce so many pages? Do you write every day? Or are you someone who writes in quick bursts? Do you think your process informs the work you do? And finally, what’s next? Are you going to take some time off between books, or are you already imagining what your third novel will be?
TW: Before and after Kapitoil was published, I was slogging through another novel for about a year. I wasn’t having fun with it and the words were coming slowly; I think I produced about 100 pages. Then, one morning in October 2010, a friend emailed me asking if I had any ideas for a humorous book we could collaborate on. Without much premeditation, I suggested a parody of the pop-star autobiographies I would later go on to read for research. He liked the idea; an hour later, I realized it could make a good novel if I treated it with more gravity. I wrote 3,000 words that afternoon, a torrent for me. (I usually aim for 500 a day and am ecstatic if I get 1,000.)
Soon after, I signed up at Paragraph in New York, a writers’ room, and used an old computer with no Internet so that my only entertainment was writing the novel itself. I finished a first draft in six months, also speedy for me, and spent about a year revising until my agent tried to sell it (and then several more months of work with my diligent, brilliant editor, Millicent Bennett, after Free Press bought it). It was a lesson that if a project is proceeding torturously, maybe you should abandon it, and if something is coming (relatively) easily, it might be a good sign. I mix in a decent amount of freelance writing, too, so I try to write something most weekdays and sometimes on the weekends, though I don’t hold myself to a strict schedule. With fiction, I can concentrate for about four hours at a time; for nonfiction or humor writing, I can last much longer.
In the near future, I’ll be working on a screenplay with the writer Amber Dermont, author of The Starboard Sea and the forthcoming story collection Damage Control, and on a TV pilot with her and director/screenwriter Yaniv Raz. I have a vague idea for a new novel, but if the past is any indication, it will also be a bust (I finished a failed novel before Kapitoil, too). I look forward to referring back to this interview several years from now to tell an anecdote about the misguided novel I’d been struggling with before I righted my ship.