On April 30th at the YALLWEST book festival in Santa Monica, California, I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with John Corey Whaley — author of the contemporary young adult novel Where Things Come Back (winner of the 2012 Printz and Morris awards) and the sci-fi/contemporary young adult novel Noggin. His newest novel, Highly Illogical Behavior, is about an agoraphobic teenager who has not left his house in three years, and it hits bookshelves May 10th.
Did you always know that you wanted to write? You were a teacher for five years.
I was, but you know, teaching wasn’t ever really my passion; it was writing. I started writing at age ten — just little stories and poems. When you grow up in a small town, being an author is a big dream. It seemed impossible that writing would ever be anything that anyone would pay me for or care that I did.
I kind of went into teaching because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I enjoyed my teaching years. I taught for five years in public school in Louisiana. The whole goal was: publish a book and put all my energy behind promoting it, so when Where Things Come Back came out, I just cashed in my retirement and lived off of it for a year and toured around with my book.
Writing was the first passion, for sure. I always felt that it would come back to writing some how. I thought it was journalism for a while. I wanted to do political journalism, and I started college with a journalism concentration and just really quickly realized it was hindering the sort of creative writing that I needed to be doing.
You’ve talked before about starting a lot of books and not finishing them, and that is where all of the book title names in Where Things Come Back come from. So what made you finish WTCB? Why that story?
It’s funny. I started so many books before WTCB, and it just felt cosmic in a way. I wrote the whole book in about two and a half months. I had sat on the idea for about a year and tried and tried again to write the first chapter during my first year as a teacher; and then, during that summer, I just said, “Finish your book, Corey. You want to be a writer. You clearly don’t want to be a teacher the rest of your life. It’s not your passion. All you can think about is writing.”
It just came to a point where it was like, if you are going to be a writer, you need to prove to yourself that you can finish a book, and this has to be the book because I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. All the other things I had ever started lasted maybe a few days or a few weeks, but a year after I came up with this idea, I couldn’t let it go. When I sat down to write, it often just felt effortless in a way that I have never experienced since. It was the right book for the right time in my life. It was the story I had been waiting to tell my whole life about growing up in a small town, and I just didn’t know.
Did you have a lot of rejections? How did you deal with that?
Yeah, I did, like 40 or 50 rejections. It took me four and a half years from the time I wrote my book to get it published. I just knew that it was supposed to be published. I just wasn’t going to stop trying. I wasn’t going to stop trying because I knew the way I felt when I told the story, and I knew that readers would feel something too. I knew that it wasn’t just for me. I’ve written plenty of stuff that was just for me, that I never want anyone else to read. All the puzzle pieces came together when I was writing it. and through a lot of those years it was just: “Of course people are going to get to read this because, why did it happen? Why did it all fit the way that it did? Why did the story work?”
The week before my first agent, Ken Wright, sent me an email and asked for my full manuscript, I had told my friend I thought I might give up. I don’t make that up because it’s a good story. She was a friend who had always read my stuff; she helped me copy edit the first draft of WTCB — it was called Good God Bird back then. I told her, “I can’t keep being a bad teacher because I am dreaming all day about being a writer if it’s not going to happen. It’s been four years.”
So there was a time when it turned sad, but right when I was ready to give up, the universe sort of sent me a sign not to. It was just crazy how it all worked. You can tell how I talk about it. It’s hard to explain. It just all worked. After waiting that long and then I had this guy, and he said, “Can you send me the whole manuscript? It might take me eight weeks though to get back to you.” Five days later he called me and said, “Can I be your agent? I read your whole book, and I couldn’t stop.” It’s been crazy since.
What is something you would tell your past self?
To be myself. I grew up in a really conservative small town. I probably knew I was gay when I was twelve. No one made me hide it. I hid it. Of course, being in a place like that, I didn’t want to be judged. What I realized as an adult, when I started being completely honest with everyone, was that that’s what happiness is: being true to exactly who you are no matter who you are and no matter what anyone tries to define that as. I remember being so afraid of making the wrong mannerism and looking gay or sounding like a girl. I want to go back and be a teenager without those stupid things that no kid should ever have to think about. So I would tell the high school Corey: Screw all of the stupidity that comes along with being in a society with people who don’t understand difference. Be exactly who you are. That is how you change people: by being yourself. You show them who you are, and you hopefully inspire them to be themselves. That is so much easier said than done. Being a teenager in Louisiana was not easy, even as a straight kid who was a little different. It took a long time to be myself, and when I was, I was/am so happy.
What books did you love in high school?
I had read The Catcher in the Rye, which just changed my life as far as someone out there has my thoughts or that this character thinks a little in the way that I think, or that I am not alone in my weird thought processes. I worked in the library, and I got to unpack some of the new books that showed up, and one day I unpacked this really quirky looking green book. It was called The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I read it in one night, and then I reread it and probably four times that year. It was the first time I ever read about a gay character and about the level of mental illness that Charlie experiences in that book. It’s probably the first time I ever read a novel that was written in letters. That book really impacted me. A few years ago I got to meet Stephen Chbosky, who wrote it, and I could not. I am not someone to fanboy over people, but I certainly was like, “Oh, how are you? Thank you for changing my life!” That book meant a lot to me, and the movie is also fantastic.
Do you have another book recommendation?
I have a friend, Jeff Zentner, who has this book out, The Serpent King. It deals with strange religion in the South and these teenagers really trying to find themselves, together. It really tapped into the Southern boy that still sort of exists somewhere inside my heart. It is a great book. I highly recommend it. Right now I am starting George by Alex Gino, which is a middle grade book, but I hope everyone reads it because literature teaches empathy. Books that are open and honest about who we all are can change people.
Highly Illogical Behavior comes out May 10th, and it’s about a sixteen-year-old agoraphobic. Do you have any experience with that?
I have a pretty bad anxiety disorder that I take medication and do therapy for, but I don’t have much social anxiety. Mine is more really unpredictable, irrational panic attacks. I was dealing with a really bad bout of it around the time that I was touring with Noggin, and I actually had to cancel some events, which is something I have never done. Everything in my life was so great. I had met my boyfriend, who I have lived with now for two and a half years and am completely head over heals in love with, I lived in California, I got to write books, and I had a life that was so great. And then this mental illness was just making me have these awful panic attacks and these irrational thoughts.
I realized that I knew I had anxiety for about ten years, but I had never really needed to address it or think about it on that level. It never debilitated my life in that way. I wasn’t agoraphobic, but to treat my anxiety I definitely hid away. I found it to really be affecting my life and my relationships, so I knew I needed to write about it. I haven’t figured out a better way to understand myself or people than writing. I need to write it for me first because I usually write from a place that is personal. I think that always teaches me something about my perspective.
I did not really care that people didn’t talk about mental illness when it didn’t affect my life so much. Then I realized that if I could add something to that conversation, then I almost had an obligation to because of my experience. I don’t think I am an expert on it. I think mental illness is so nuanced and complicated. That is really what the book is about: misunderstanding mental illness. It’s about how outsiders view it and also how insiders view it. It is about how it is different from person to person and how it is something we should be talking about more because it’s an epidemic. I felt like I needed to figure out who I was in terms of my relationship with my mental illness through these characters.
It turned into a story I didn’t really expect. I got to tap into my middle school love for Star Trek: The Next Generation and geek out on that. When Clark came into the fold, I really got to explore that platonic love between two guys and the thin line between what one feels and what one doesn’t. Then with Lisa, I’ve never devoted half a novel to a female character before. So I was nervous because the last thing I want to do is write a character that people don’t believe or that I have done some disservice. She popped into my head, and I was like, “Yes. She’s going to be in this book.” She was probably my favorite part to write just because she represents that sort of misunderstanding that there is something that can be fixed or that it is something that you can easily observe.
Did it ever have a different title?
I first called it The Land of All because he mentions that in the book as his backyard. In the original draft, he went into that backyard. He just isolated himself to his home and backyard. So in the first draft, he sort of used his backyard as his one place that he could connect with the outdoors, but I wanted his anxiety to be a little more severe. I liked the idea that he would have this conflict of wanting to just step into the backyard and not being able to and the pressure of that.
This is actually the first book I didn’t title myself. My editor’s assistant did. We were shooting titles back and forth, and then my editor’s assistant gave me Highly Illogical Behavior, and I was like, that’s the one. As much as my ego doesn’t want to let someone else title my book, I have to because, it’s perfect. It perfectly winks at what the whole book is about, and then it is a Spock reference from Star Trek. I am so excited about it!
What are your Bright Places?
This! I love this. I get to spend my life talking about my favorite thing to do, and I get to do it in a way that I get to meet readers, who for whatever reason in this weird, big universe can connect personally to these people I make up in my living room on my laptop. It’s so overwhelming sometimes that you have to step out of it a little and realize how blessed and lucky you are to do such an incredible thing. Being a writer is my brightest place. I am blessed enough to have an amazing boyfriend who supports me. He is an artist as well. He’s a musician. He sang me a song on our first date and broke my heart and repaired it–I mean in a good way broke my heart. So those are my bright places.