Behind the music
Standard coming-of-age dilemmas—figuring out who your real friends are, realizing your parents are people, deciding who you are—come with a twist when you’re a world-famous pop star. We asked Teddy Wayne a few questions about the issues faced by the young hero of his compulsively readable second novel.
It’s impossible to read Jonny Valentine without thinking of Justin Bieber. Was there some particular musician or incident that inspired this book?
When my first novel, Kapitoil, came out in 2010, I experienced what most writers go through: a feeling of vulnerability that something you’d worked on in private for so many years was now out there for the public and critics to dissect. I started wondering how people who experience real fame handle it. It seemed even more mind-boggling that a teenager could manage the rigors of celebrity. Bieber seems very poised and capable; I imagined what it might be like for someone even younger and with a less hardy constitution to negotiate a global spotlight.
You really nail the voice of an 11-year-old boy here. How did you accomplish this?
Thank you; sadly for me, the question should be less about how I got into an 11-year-old boy’s voice for this novel, and more about how I escape it in my daily life. I knew from the start that I wanted a hybrid voice for Jonny: part kid, part savvy and cynical marketing executive (Jonny has internalized the branding lingo of his handlers). I was tutoring young kids in the 826NYC program when I began writing, but I think neither that nor my own memories influenced the voice so much as my attempt to develop a narrative style that didn’t feel too sentimental or rose-colored about childhood.
Why do you think these young entertainers are so popular?
We’re becoming more infantilized as a nation, escaping the frightening tenor of the times by sinking into the comforting rhythms and content of childhood. My generation (I was born in 1979) and those younger are deferring adulthood, in part because it’s difficult to begin a real adulthood when you’re mired in crushing debt and working an entry-level job, and also because the responsibilities no longer look as appealing or necessary as they once did.
Is there something particularly difficult or damaging about dealing with fame as a preteen?
It would be far harder, since you don’t know who you are yet and aren’t permitted to make the mistakes that we afford adolescence. A metaphor I hope readers draw from the book is that this isn’t simply about famous kids—that’s a small demographic—but about how, as a nation, we over-parent our children, micromanaging their lives and treating them all as “gifted.” That can warp childhoods just as much as fame can.
A former child star tells Jonny, “The people with real power are always behind the scenes. Talent gets chewed up and used. Better to be the one chewing.” Do you think this is good advice?
Well, it’s cynical advice, but for people in the entertainment industry—and most industries, for that matter—I’d say it’s accurate. The workers in the trenches, whether they’re flipping burgers or singing on national TV, are still getting exploited by people calling the shots from a corner office.
If you were an 11-year-old megastar, what’s the first thing you’d want to do?
At that age, I probably would have leveraged my fame for as much interaction as possible with the New York Mets, though that’s becoming a less appealing option as they continue racking up losses.