David Levithan and John Green are two of the biggest names in teen fiction today; Levithan made a splash with his 2003 debut Boy Meets Boy and has seen 2006’s Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (co-written with Rachel Cohn) turned into a movie, while Green’s first two novels, Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines, won the 2006 Printz Award and a 2007 Printz Honor, respectively. Now they’ve co-written a new book: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, about two teenage boys named (you guessed it) Will Grayson, who meet quite unexpectedly one night in Chicago, and also about Tiny Cooper—writer, director and star of the world’s most fabulous high school musical.
BookPage asked Levithan and Green to shed a little light on the inspiration for Will Grayson, Will Grayson and the process of writing it together.
How did the idea for this project come about?
David: It came to me in a dream. A guy I didn’t know was singing “Alaska! Alaska!” and then, before I knew it, he was handing me a sheaf of pages saying, “Here is my half of our book. Where the hell are yours?”
John: David is lying. For one thing, it took a lot longer than that. (We started discussing this project more than five years ago.) David and I became friends after he read an advanced copy of Looking for Alaska; after a while, he told me about this idea for a book about two guys with the same name whose paths cross in the middle of the book. I loved the idea. Then it was just the small matter of writing it, which took a while.
Has either of you ever had a friend like Tiny Cooper? What would it be like to be Tiny’s friend in real life?
David: I have friends who are that gay, but none who are that large.
John: And I have friends who are that large, but none who are that gay. I did have friends in high school who were charismatic and overwhelming in the way Tiny is, and I wanted to write about how you forge a real friendship amid the performances inherent to being in high school.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson turns out to be a sort of love story, although the central romance is between friends rather than lovers. Did you know from the start that this would be a book about love? And how do you feel about the word “bromance”?
David: You can’t actually have a romance between friends. That sort of defeats the definition of the word “romance.” The word you’re looking for is “love.” It’s a love between friends, just as there’s also love between lovers, or possible lovers, or even ex-lovers. Same holds true for “bromance”—it’s just a clever word used to avoid the word love, for straight boys who don’t want that old-fashioned taint of gayness. Dudes, you love each other. Deal with it.
John: I think the relentless focus on the kind of love that involves French kissing has made us all pretty crazy, frankly, and I guess I maybe wanted to write against that, although not consciously. Consciously, I just wanted to write a story about best friends.
You’ve both collaborated with other authors on other projects in the past. What was it like for the two of you to work together? What are some of the challenges and rewards of working with a collaborator?
David: I love the fact that when I was writing this book, I knew exactly who my audience was—John and his wife Sarah. It made me raise my game and go places I never would have gone on my own.
John: The challenge is the same whether or not I’m collaborating: to empathize with your reader and to tell a story that will matter to him or her. But the mechanics of going about that challenge change when you’re collaborating, because you have someone to help refine your thinking and expand your vision of what might happen. I really enjoy it.
Were either of you ever surprised at how the other one wrote a particular scene or character? Were there any disagreements about where the story might go or how the characters should act?
David: There was dueling. There were fisticuffs. There was one very fateful game of rock-paper-scissor. And he wouldn’t let me use the talking Nordic lawn gnome because, and I quote, “Libba Bray already did that better than you ever could, David.”
John: If there had been any fisticuffs, they would have been very humorous fisticuffs, indeed.
Do you expect that readers will be able to figure out which of you wrote each Will Grayson?
David: I thought so, but I’ve been proven wrong many, many times in this regard. To the point that I don’t want our answers to give away who wrote who.
John: Ideally, it won’t cross their minds, because they’ll be inside the story as a story.
Music plays a big role in this and many of the other books that you’ve both written. Why do you think music is so important to teenagers? Do you try to stay informed about what’s popular with that age group?
John: I have no idea what kind of music teenagers like, but I also had no idea what they liked when I was a teenager. I listen very broadly (although not as broadly as David), and I assume that my readers do, too.
David: The music’s all over the map in this book. I mean, we have Neutral Milk Hotel and we have Broadway showstoppers. Which is what I love about music, and by extension, life.
David’s debut novel, Boy Meets Boy, has been credited with creating the “gaytopia” genre of teen literature, in which gay teen characters are fully accepted in their communities. Do you think Will Grayson, Will Grayson fits into that genre?
David: That’s a genre? Nobody told me! Is anyone else writing in it besides me? In that regard, I feel there isn’t anything utopic about the gay in Will Grayson, Will Grayson—it’s not a creation, but more of a reflection of where a lot of kids are now.
John: I think it will read more utopian to adults than it will to contemporary teenagers.
Will there ever be a soundtrack released for Tiny’s musical, Tiny Dancer/Hold Me Closer?
David: I want fans to make YouTube videos singing the songs. Lots of YouTube videos singing the songs.
John: Yeah, I’d rather the soundtrack come from them than from us.
What projects are you both working on now? Do you have any plans to work together again in the future?
David: I have a new book with Rachel Cohn, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, coming out in October. Then a book about adults, The Lover’s Dictionary, coming out next year. And, yes, I would work again with Mr. Green in a nanosecond.
John: I’m working on a new novel set on a desert island. As for reuniting with David: Our plan is to commence another five-year process in five years, so look for the follow-up in 2020.