Brooklyn Bookbeat: Acclaimed author’s new novel features Justin Bieber-like idol
Whiting Writers’ Award winner TeddyWayne, who has been praised for his inventive humor, is about to release his latest novel. Already receiving widespread praise, “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine” is a witty and frighteningly reflective satire of America’s fixation on fame.
Wayne’s protagonist, Jonny Valentine, is an 11-year-old pop singer, managed by an L.A. label and his hard-partying mother. Idolized for his musical talent and looks, Jonny is successful in a superficial sense. But despite his popularity, he suffers from painful insecurities prompted by his absent father and his transition into adolescence.
Wayne’s novel is filled with apt humor, and his ability to write through the eyes of a child is uncanny. “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine” is at once a ridiculous and familiar exploration of modern American pop culture.
In celebration of the book’s Feb. 5 release, Teddy Wayne will appear at BookCourt for a launch party, reading, audience Q&A and signing on Thursday, Feb. 7 at 7pm.
BookCourt is located at 163 Court St. in Cobble Hill.
Read on for a Q&A with Teddy Wayne (originally published by Free Press/Simon & Schuster)
1. How did you come to write this novel? What inspired you?
I wrote a now-defunct weekly business column for the New York Times periodically over a span of two years. The focus was on marketing and media, and for nearly every article I would interview an expert in the field, who tended to overuse branding and marketing jargon unironically. Just as my experience editing MBA application essays filled with financial terminology informed the narrator’s voice in my first novel, Kapitoil, I found this a worthwhile source to plunder for Jonny’s vocabulary; it seemed like an apposite metaphor for our culture of entrepreneurial narcissism.
The other catalyst stems from my reaction to the publication of Kapitoil in 2010. I think most first-time authors can relate to the strange, at times discomfiting, experience—though, obviously, also gratifying—of seeing your writing go from a Word document to a bound book that the public can judge (or ignore). I wondered how people with, say, Justin Bieber’s level of celebrity can function under constant scrutiny and with much higher stakes. That, coupled with my lifelong fascination with both gifted children and child celebrities, inspired this novel.
2. Did you do any research for the novel? How did you create such an accurate representation of the music industry?
I read a number of child-celebrity autobiographies and biographies, as well as critical literature on the phenomenon. And I immersed myself in the shallower end of the pool, soaking up celebrity tabloids, concert documentaries and footage, and Internet fan sites. I knew a bit about the inner workings of the music industry from being a longtime fan and about the commercial side of media from my own experiences as a writer, but whenever possible read up on the behind-the-scenes music details, from recording to tour buses to song analysis.
3. Did you listen to pop music while writing? Any favorite artists or songs, now or from your teen years?
I expressly listened to more contemporary pop than I do normally to write this book; typically, I encounter it only through osmosis in public spaces. So while I recognize that such songs can occasionally be fun and energizing, my own tastes run (huge surprise) counter to Top-40 paradigms. When writing, I frequently listen to Bob Dylan, since I know the words well enough that they don’t distract me, and for help in exploring Jonny’s nascent rebellion, reconnected with my teenage musical love, the Clash.
4. The songs in the book are spot on—how did you come up with them? Was it fun?
I’m an intermediate guitarist and singer—I wish I were better, but I don’t have the chops. Over the years I’ve written my own, mostly jokey songs, often in the manner of Jonny’s idol, Zack Ford, improvising lyrics for the benefit of friends (mine are likely less appreciative). For this novel, though, I didn’t want to satirize pop lyrics; I wanted to write realistic embodiments of them. If the effect is comic, it should be because they sound like the real thing, which provides enough comedy without embellishment. They were very fun to write, and I have recorded my own version of “Guys vs. Girls” on acoustic guitar. Record labels, I await your call.
5. On the one hand, the novel can be read as a dark, ironic send-up of tween pop stars, but on the other hand it’s a very affecting coming-of-age story. How did you balance that duality?
Although I write a lot of short-form satire for magazines, I don’t enjoy writing or, really, reading caustically satirical novels; I need to feel there’s real heart and lives at stake. The key for any novel is crafting a voice, whether it’s the author’s or a character’s, which makes the reader believe what he or she is reading matters. Once you do that, a novel set on Mars in the year 2400 can seem more authentic than a depiction of a failing marriage in contemporary America.
6. Is there any of your preadolescent experience in Jonny?
Were you not a fan of my 1990 smash hit, “Teddy Time (featuring Tone Lōc)”? Most of the novel draws from my and Mr. Lōc’s now-legendary North American tour as the short-lived T+T Music Factory. Otherwise, Jonny’s preoccupations and anxieties are closer to my current state of mind than to my more unfettered preteen self. Ultimately, the question shouldn’t be how I got into the head of an eleven-year-old boy for this novel, but how do I get out of it in my daily life? Every day is a struggle.
7. What inspired the video game The Secret Land of Zenon? Why is it so integral to Jonny’s story?
Confessing to this childhood hobby will make me sound very cool: When I was around Jonny’s age, I was a fan of Ultima, a role-playing computer-game series. What appealed to me was its completist rendering of an autonomous world. If you chose, you could simply live—one could bake bread, sell it for money, buy food, sleep, ad infinitum—as opposed to trying to win the game. Other characters went about their daily lives, too, as if your presence were irrelevant. It was the first time I saw a gaming world constructed in this profoundly nonlinear fashion. I modeled The Secret Land of Zenon off Ultima, as it makes sense why the career-focused, gaffe-fearing Jonny would want to escape into another world in which he can merely exist as a relatively anonymous character, and where he gains “experience points” by exploring different actions, though he doesn’t know what their consequences will be. It’s a metaphor for the kind of childhood which expects little of its participants other than that they should figure out who they are and learn from their experiences, for better or worse—precisely what Jonny’s own upbringing prohibits (and, perhaps, the upbringings of many other children in modern-day America).
8. Both your first novel and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine are written in the first person. What draws you to first-person narratives? What are the particular challenges or pleasures of creating a character’s voice?
Although third-person novels afford a more epic scale, I have found that first-person novels speak most intimately to me and sustain the strongest illusion that I am inside someone else’s head. As a writer, it is similarly pleasurable to escape my own self through another narrator’s—and, in the process, end up ventriloquizing what is most important to me. I also prefer novels that take big ideas and settings (9/11 and Wall Street, pop-stardom and the gilded cages of a corporate music tour) and funnel them down, quietly, to a highly specific character and viewpoint, as opposed to rendering them in equally sprawling terms (or aiming for a completely hushed story). The challenge is in justifying the first-person voice. If it is a voice that could easily be transposed to third person, then it doesn’t necessarily warrant the more limited perspective. Both Kapitoil and this novel employ idiosyncratic voices that draw heavily from professional idioms while cutting them against mathematical and preteen grammars, respectively. It’s difficult to maintain consistency in the writing at first—but then it becomes addictive.
9. Literary novelists don’t command the sort of fame that pop stars do, but being a writer does involve publicity, marketing, and interacting with audiences. How do you balance writing and promoting?
Compared to my experiences promoting even the pre-Internet-age “Teddy Time (featuring Tone Lōc),” this is, indeed, a lot easier. But unless you’re a globally celebrated writer, the publicity demands aren’t that taxing, and to complain about them is a first-world problem among first-world problems. The real complaint should be when no one wants to hear from you, a condition that has afflicted me for lengthy intervals (such as last week). So I’m grateful when the public shows any interest in me, and though I’m on various social media platforms, I don’t do it so much that it takes over my life, both out of principle and sloth.
10. Do you see any similarities between the publishing industry and the music industry, though the scale may be different?
I imagine the literary-publishing industry is similar to the indie-music world, perhaps not the pop-music machine, in that it privileges intelligence and originality over image and derivative appeal and sometimes makes knowingly unprofitable decisions. Nonetheless, it is a business, and functions the way any business must, even one dealing with ostensibly high art: trafficking in promotion and marketing and hype and packaging and positioning. Just as the majority of music hits are fulfilling expectations from their labels, most “big” books are preordained as such, their fates nearly sealed before publication (although there is always room for sleepers, and, of course, many of these fated bestsellers flop). Had I self-published this novel, there is little chance you would be reading it now, and even less chance it would be reviewed anywhere, though it would be the same text, minus my supremely talented editor’s ministrations. It helps to have a polished presentation and a team of dedicated professionals whose job is to disseminate your book to the public. Nevertheless, everyone I’ve encountered in the field of publishing, to a person, believes deeply in what he or she is doing and could probably be making more money elsewhere. While Valentine Days is Jonny’s second album and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is my second novel, I’m happy to have a less cynical relationship with my own industry, though it is still fair to use the word industry.
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