Standard coming-of-age dilemmas—figuring out who your real friends are, having to see your parents as people, having to decide who you are—come with a twist when you're a world-famous pop star. We asked Teddy Wayne a few questions about these 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 you to write 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. Justin Bieber had been exploding the last few years, and 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 all his handlers). I was tutoring young kids after-school in the 826NYC program at the time I began writing this, 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.
Maybe it's just that I'm getting older, but pop stars seem to be getting younger and younger every year! (Maybe Jordy would have had a longer career if he were just starting out today.) Why do you think these young entertainers are so popular?
I’m glad you know of Jordy; I recall watching the video on MTV for his hit song in 1992 when he was four years old, “Dur dur d'être Bébé!” (It’s Tough to be a Baby) I do think 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; listening to a quintuplet of British teenage boys sing a paean to female self-esteem doesn’t prompt much sober reflection.
My generation (I was born in 1979) and those younger are deferring adulthood as long as possible, 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.
Fame is difficult to handle at any age. Is there something particularly difficult or damaging about dealing with it 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 now, micromanaging every aspect of their lives and treating them all as “gifted.” That can warp childhoods just as much as fame can.
Toward the end of the novel, Jonny meets a former child star who tells him "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 the people calling the shots from a corner office somewhere high up. They’re the ones who make the most money and don’t suffer the abuses of the gritty work.
If it's possible to answer without giving too much away, do you feel that this book has a happy ending?
I love endings in which it’s factually clear what happens, but emotionally it remains open-ended. I feel the ending of this novel can be read any number of ways, and I wouldn’t label it either happy or sad, but, as Jonny’s tutor Nadine would say, it’s “ambivalent.”
Jonny has such a memorable voice and really comes alive on the page. Did you have trouble saying goodbye? Any thoughts about how his career might be progressing?
It was fun to spend two years “working” with him, and as with finishing any book, there’s some postpartum depression. I don’t want to give away the ending by predicting what will come of his career, but I think he’ll eventually be fine and someday write his own harrowing child-star memoir.
If you were an ultra-famous 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.
What are you working on next?
I’m taking a little break from fiction right now to collaborate on a screenplay with a friend, Amber Dermont, author of the novel The Starboard Sea and the forthcoming story collection Damage Control. She and I are also working with screenwriter and director Yaniv Raz on a television pitch. And I’m gearing up for my book tour—it’s not as extensive as Jonny’s 30-city “Valentine Days” tour, but I’m looking forward to it.