Friday, July 27, 2012

Author Interview: John Corey Whaley Talks to us About Writing Brothers, Quirks and Printz Winning Books!

We hope you've enjoyed our Where Things Come Back Week. To finish things off, we are so honored (and excited) to share our interview with John Corey Whaley!

First, would you mind giving our readers a quick synopsis of Where Things Come Back?

Sure.  Where Things Come Back is a story about seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter, who lives in Lily, Arkansas, a small middle-of-nowhere town that he hates. He stays sane by hanging out with his fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, and his best friend, Lucas Cader, and working at a local convenience store.  Summer begins with a possible sighting of a thought-to-be-extinct woodpecker in Lily, which sparks a national media frenzy and causes the town to be flooded with birdwatchers looking for the Lazarus bird and angering already cynical Cullen, who thinks it's all just giving his fellow citizens false hope. Then, Cullen gets a real reason to be sad and hopeless when Gabriel goes missing, disappears, vanishes without a trace.  Along with a second story about a young man searching for his faith and the surprising consequences of his actions, we follow Cullen and his family as they search for Gabriel in a world full of people looking for something else.

We want to say a big congratulations on winning the PrintzAward and the Morris! Can you tell us a little bit about how your year has been after the January awards?

Thanks!  It's been quite surreal and awesome. After the awards announcement, I got to extend my book tour and see several more places, which was a blast.  I recently accepted the Printz in Anaheim at ALA Annual Conference and I had so much fun with all of those amazing librarians.  It's all be so incredibly exciting!
There are a lot of brothers in Where Things Come Back. Gabriel and Cullen are blood brothers, but Lucas Calder is also as close as family to Cullen. Was it important for you to include all these different types of brotherhoods?

It was.  I've always been really fascinated with brothers, having had a strained relationship with my own older brother as a child, and I always wanted a younger brother to be protective of and to have as a confidant and all.  I wrote the character of Lucas originally as a comic relief, but soon realized that I was making him to be the best guy friend I never had as a teenager, one who becomes more and more like a real brother as times goes by.  I think that bond between friends and brothers is something I always wanted to write about because I never really understood it from a personal viewpoint.

Cullen and Lucas from our Book Trailer
Cullen collects book titles for books he hasn’t written yet and Gabriel has many, many neck ties and a collection of music to rival even the snobbiest of music nerds. I loved how you gave them a few quirks that fit and made them more faceted characters, rather than trying to shoe-horn a BUNCH of traits onto every person. Was it difficult to decide what your characters would be interested in?

This answer will probably seem really self-centered, but Cullen and Gabriel are essentially two version of myself (yes, I had a necktie collection, notebooks full of book titles, and a fairly odd musical taste as a teenager).  It was important to me that Cullen and Gabriel felt real--like real people with a few quirks, but also like just regular boys too.  I didn't really know how to do that without bringing in a lot of my own personality I guess.

 You have a playlist attached to your Amazon author page. Do you write to music? Do you choose different music to fit the book you’re working on- and if that’s the case, do you pick the music before you start?

I don't write music---that would be a bad idea for us all. HAHA.  I'm not musically inclined in any way (unless you count the bongos, which you shouldn't).  A listen to music all the time and sometimes, like with WTCB, songs just jump out to me as relevant to what I'm writing.  I don't listen to music while I write (I get very distracted and write in silence), but I listen to music for inspiration throughout the process and I usually compile a list of songs that fit the tone and mood of what I'm working on, however that works in my brain. It's an ongoing process and even some of the songs on the Amazon playlist came to me well after I'd finished the first draft of the novel. One, in fact, "I See a Darkness" was on my playlist when my editor emailed me to tell me she'd heard this song that reminded her of my book---it was that song.  She and I are literary soul-mates it seems. 

One of the especially intriguing parts of Where Things Come Back is the secondary storyline featuring two college-age young men and their struggles with religion. Did you know from the beginning that you’d have this alternate set of characters and plot intertwining with Cullen and his family’s?

I didn't, actually.  I set out, at first, to only tell Cullen's side of the story and to limit the narrative to Lily, AR, and the people there.  But, when I got about half way into the book, I realized that I wanted something more and that I wanted to challenge myself to try and make the story different than anything I'd ever read.  So, I threw in the second storyline (after learning about the Book of Enoch from a friend) and quickly realized that I could make it work.  It was fun and surprising and I had no idea what would end up happening or if I could pull it off.

Missionaries, psychics and religion majors all play a part in WTCB, giving it a some religious/spiritual themes. Can you comment about why you wanted to weave these into your work?

Sure.  I grew up in a pretty conservative and small southern town in North Louisiana where religion and church plays a huge role in the daily lives of most people. I grew up going to the United Methodist Church and was very religious as a child and teenager.  But, I also had parents who were fairly liberal and open-minded about faith and politics, and that always led me, from a young age, to question a lot of the things I saw around me concerning religion and people's interpretation of their faiths, etc.  As I've gotten older, I've realized even more so that the varying differences between how people express their beliefs causes a lot of pain and confusion in the world.  So, I think it was important for me to explore how different characters with different backgrounds and motives all interpret and explore their faiths.  I hoped to show characters who used faith both as a way to stay hopeful and enlightened, and ones whose misuse and misunderstanding causes problems beyond their control.

The setting of Lily, Arkansas is essential to the novel. I know you’re from the South, and it’s clear that you’re familiar with exactly the type of small town that Lily is because it definitely reads like a real place, one that is far from thriving, but stubbornly holding on anyway. Do you think you’ll revisit another Southern location in future books, or do you want to write about other places?

Great question.  For the time being, I want to explore stories that aren't so heavily dependent on setting, given that, as you said, WTCB's setting is so important.  I'd like to instead focus my next few books more on the actual characters telling the stories and how the worlds inside their heads inform their behavior, etc.  As far as visiting the South again in my work, I think it's probably inevitable that I'll do that again--mostly because I couldn't possibly say all I've got to say about it in one book. 

Your book has some of the best guy-dialogue we’ve read in a while. Obviously, you’re a dude, so that must help with this, but do you have any other tricks for writing such authentic sounding dialogue?

I'm so glad you liked it.  I am very, very careful when I write dialogue because I hate reading conversations in books that sound unrealistic or overly formal, etc.  My trick?  I read everything my characters say aloud to myself several times and if it sounds weird or unnatural, I change it.  It's very important to me that dialogue sounds like the actual way people speak, which is not "Hello, Mom.  How are you doing today?" 

When you're writing, do you talk with teens or show them your drafts?

Not all that much.  From time to time, I ask a teenager or two what this or that means to them or how they'd say whatever phrase and what not.  I've recently pitched the novel I'm working on now to a couple of teenagers just to get their opinion and that's helped a lot.

We have a teen book club at the library and our members are always VERY opinionated about The Catcher in the Rye. Some of them LOVE Holden and some of them feel exactly the opposite. I’ve read that you’re a big fan of Mr. Salinger’s book; can you tell our detractors what you love about it? Also, did it influence WTCB at all?

I'll be the first to admit that Holden Caulfield is not the most lovable guy in the world at first.  His cynical nature and negative outlook can be off-putting, but he grows on you because he's just a kid with some issues ( like all of us ) who is trying to figure out the world.  I love the story, the search for something that isn't really a search at all, just a days long wandering of a clueless kid.  I like how the setting effects the story--how you can feel New York City all around you when you read it.  And I like the hope that Holden sees in the innocence of his little sister--I think that's so beautiful and surprising. And, yes, it totally influences WTCB.  I'm not really sure I'd have written the book had I not been on a lifelong quest to create my own Holden Caulfield. 

You’ve been touring a lot with your book. Where was your favorite place that you visited?

Hmmm. I've been to some cool places.  I love NYC, which I've visited several times now, and Los Angeles is always a favorite.  But, I'd say my most surprisingly good time was in Kansas City, Missouri.  It is a cool city with really cool, artsy people and some great bookstores and museums.  I had a blast there and am already using some of my experiences in my writing.  

Have you had a chance to start on your next project? Is it too early for us to ask about it?

Hahaha.  I was waiting for this one.  I have had a chance to start book 2 and, sadly, it is a little too early to ask...I'm keeping the plot a close-guarded secret until I know it's the perfect time to reveal it. Dun Dun Dun. haha.

Do you read YA yourself? Do you have any favorite authors to recommend to our readers?

I do read YA!  I am a huge fan of A.S. King, whose new book Ask the Passengers (I think it comes out this Fall) is so beautiful.  I'm also in LOVE with I'll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan and I recently started and am loving Rotters by Daniel Kraus.

Do you have a favorite place to write? 

My favorite place to write is at a desk in a dimly lit, very quiet room.  Usually in the middle of the night.  Outside setting is unimportant, but coffee helps.  

Do you have any advice for teens who want to pursue writing as a career?

Read a lot.  Watch a lot of movies (good movies).  And become obsessed with telling a story you HAVE to tell.  Those are things that worked for me.  Plus, what's more fun that reading, watching movies, and obsessing over weird stuff?  Nothing.  Also, never give up.  You're going to write some really bad stories, but then you'll write some really awesome ones if that's what you're meant to do.  Don't be afraid to laugh off the sucky ones and be proud of the great ones.  

Corey, thank you so much for stopping by our blog! We know you're super busy. We'll definitely be looking to check out your next book!

Be sure to grab When Things Come Back from our shelves today!

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